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Thursday, Sep 7, 2006

Heaven help the person looking for a little above board entertainment via their pay TV provider this weekend. The movies the big four premium channels are providing appear so bereft of clear pleasure principles that its hard to imagine anyone getting anything other than frustrated from such flummoxing choices. Sure, the Jet Li movie is a nice riff on the routine fight film, and Starz’s sullen entry does try to create another variation on the ‘adultery is killer’ thriller. But when Jessica Simpson and her whole-assed awfulness is the highlight of the schedule, perhaps its time to consider reading a book. Heck, even Showtime has split the scene, at least temporarily, showing a marathon of its suburban pot drama Weeds instead. So, if you enjoy slightly average action, below average acting and even more mediocre moviemaking acumen, you’ll feel right at home with at least two of the movies premiering on Saturday. Specifically, one will be suffering through the following filmic flotsam:


Why does Hollywood have such a hard time figuring out what to do with Jet Li. He’s charismatic, graceful, athletic and charming. He always comes across as considered and commanding. Just because English is his subsidiary language doesn’t mean he can’t have a meaningful mainstream movie career. Yet Tinsel Town is torn as to how best to utilize his sizeable skills. In the meantime, he returns to his homeland to churn out classics like Hero and this fall’s Fearless. Here, paired with the Transporter duo of Luc Besson (script), and Louis Leterrier (director), we have a far more effective actioner than previous Li efforts. Combining fabulous fight scenes with just the slightest twists on its melodramatic conventions, we end up with something more satisfying than stagnant. (Premieres Saturday 9 September, 8:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

CinemaxThe Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

Ouch! Here’s a film so painfully pathetic that SE&L has a hard time even THINKING about it, let alone discussing it. Marketed to make money by trading on Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass fanbase, as well as Jessica Simpson’s dumbass personality, the end result was a one note novelty that proved the potential of the adolescent male demographic to show up for almost anything. Following this formula, it won’t be long before someone supes up Nanny and the Professor with the Pussycat Dolls as a determined group of barely dressed babysitters, and Bam Margera as the lonely widower teacher desperate for help raising his wee ones. Now just add Li’l Jon as the nutty next-door neighbor and you’ve got another hap-Hazzard style payday. (Premieres Saturday 9 September, 10:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review


What’s worse than a movie starring Jennifer Aniston? How about a film matching her with the enormously talented Clive Owen. Since showing some decent performance chops in 2002’s The Good Girl, the artist formerly known as a Friends haircut has had an incredibly difficult time translating her ‘talent’ to the big screen. This Fatal Attraction styled thriller is no different. While many critics praised the narrative’s no frills attempt at showing relationships in decline, and affairs as a kind of interpersonal poultice, the minute blackmailer Vincent Cassel enters the fray as the tripwire terror, the plot follows the film’s title. Not even a last minute twist (totally telegraphed along the way) can save this sloppy, ineffective flop. (Premieres Saturday 9 September, 9:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

Showtime ShowcaseJules et Jim*

Why not avoid all the Tinsel Town tripe being forwarded this weekend and settle in with something REALLY special. Critic turned filmmaker François Truffaut used the growing French New Wave mandate (break all the rules of cinema) to create a masterful celebration of the medium’s many possibilities. At the center is an unconventional love story between two friends and the flighty femme that would control them both. Everything about this film defies expectation, taunts tradition and redefines the motion picture language. Like all great experiments, it has its flaws. Like all tests of talent, it’s astounding. As much of a challenge to an audience as an entertainment, there are very few films like this post-modern masterpiece. (Saturday 9 September, 8:00pm EST)

PopMatters Review


Indie Film Focus: September 2006

Last month, Turner Classic Movies was kind enough to supply us with 30 days of star driven righteousness to keep the small screen film finds freely flowing. With the network back to it’s rather hit or miss programming, SE&L has decided to focus on another facet of the cinematic canon – the Independent film. Thanks to IFC, otherwise known as The Independent Film Channel, and The Sundance Channel, there is currently a 24 hour a day supply of outsider excellence. Some of the movie suggestions here will seem obvious. Others will reflect the divergent nature of the art form’s overall approach. Whatever the case, these are the highlights for the week of 9 September through 15 September:


Magnolia (1999)
Paul Thomas Anderson delivers his ultimate ode to Robert Altman with this evocative Short Cuts like look at lives in apocalyptic disarray
(Saturday 9 September, 7:15pm EST)

Black Sunday (1960)
It’s the title that marked Italy’s ascension to movie macabre prominence. Mario Bava directs the ethereal Barbara Steele in a story of witches, possession and blood! 
(Tuesday 12 September, 6:25pm EST)

Human Nature (2001)
The last time director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charles Kaufman got together, they delivered Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This film’s ALMOST as good.
(Wednesday 13 September, 9:00pm EST)

Ed Wood (1994)
Tim Burton’s love letter to the oddball icon behind Plan 9 from Outer Space, this smart little film is still looking for the respect it deserved 12 year ago.
(Thursday 14 September, 5:45pm EST)

Sundance Channel

Decline of Western Civilization: Part 2 – The Metal Years (1988)
Wanna see something really scary? Director Penelope Spheeris delivers the shocks in this documentary on ‘80s hair metal, with all its decadent, self-deluded dimensions.
(Sunday, 10 September, 10:00pm EST)

11’09"01 - September 11 (2002)
A group of foreign filmmakers try to find cinematic answers to the events that happened in lower Manhattan that fateful fall day, and illustrate its affect on the world.
(Monday, 11 September, 11:00pm EST)

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Martin Scorsese takes on Catholicism and the Bible in this remarkable adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel. A true misunderstood masterpiece
(Thursday, 14 September, 10:00pm EST)

Monster in a Box
The late, great Spaulding Gray discusses his mother’s insanity, and the creation of his novel, the “monster” known as Impossible Vacation, in this amazing monologue.
(Friday, 15 September, 4:15pm EST)

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Thursday, Sep 7, 2006

Wal-Mart’s move into organic food would seem to inevitably undermine the whole principle of going organic in the first place—after all the ideology of “organic” involves natural growth, human-scale farming, and diminished stress on the environment—not behemoth stores devoted to the proliferation of cheap, synthetic consumer goods, manufacturing needs with lower price points.  When “organic” is used in criticism (it was especially popular with literary New Criticism of the 1950s, from whence it trickled down into pop criticism) it is to suggest something unforced and unified by its conditions of origin, naturally evolved from the bottom up, not the product of elaborate calclulation or top-down schemetization. When applied to food the word is meant to evoke spontaneously generated relations among people in a farming village, not the most recent ruthless iteration of massive, heretofore inconcievable economies of scale. It seems like titanic irony just to put the words organic and Wal-Mart next to each other. After all, the cliched gripe about the company is that it comes to a small town and obliterates whatever businesses had sprung up organically in response to local demand. Moreover Wal-Mart leverages the efficiencies of globalization against small businesses, undoing the fabric of commerce that once wove a community together.

But that’s all ideology, you might say. Surely we can overlook that for the benefits Wal-Mart will provide in making organic food accessible to the masses—the company will make better quality food, made in more enivronmentally friendly ways, available to more people for cheaper. The people who eat organic as a means of conspicuous consumption might not like it, but is this not a good thing for the quintessential lower-middle class Wal-Mart shopper? Writing in The Nation Liza Featherstone sets up her article with a similar ruse, evoking the promise and the PR supporting the notion of a greenified Wal-Mart:

an “organic Wal-Mart” represents the democratization of healthier—and better-tasting—food. Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farming Research Foundation argues, too, that environmentalists should cheer Wal-Mart’s move, which will “turn hundreds of thousands of acres” now being farmed conventionally to organic. “Think of the tonnage of toxins and carcinogens which will disappear from the earth,” he says.

Then Featherstone undermines this sunny notion with the underlying economic consequences: small producers bullied out, wasteful transportation from large farms to various distribution points, top-down imposition of standards, quality sacrificed to price, etc. Brad Plumer adds the likelihood of Wal-Mart using its lobbying clout to change the USDA’s definition of organic to suit its purposes. He also sums up the whole conundrum of large-scale organicism nicely: “Wal-Mart’s whole strategy is to slash prices by outsourcing many of its costs onto other entities—the environment, say, or its workers. The idea behind organic farming, by contrast, is to make the consumer pay all of those costs, since cheap products aren’t cheap when others are shouldering the cost. Expecting that these philosophies can happily coexist seems improbable, to say the least.” The conflicting rationales stem from different priorities—Wal-Mart assumes price (and behind that rational maximization of utility at the margin) is the overriding priority in all cases, the only conceivable definition of value (which is why they are so noticeably indifferent to externalities). Your typical fervent organic food lover prioritizes the externalities—the suffering of animals, the stewardship of the land, the distance food travels to their table, etc, and is willing to have them priced back in so as to be avoided. This concern is often depicted as moral vanity, futile and burdened with the ulterior motives of self-promotion and self-satisfaction, mainly because such critics have bought into the idea that purchasing power is all important—the critical metric of personal freedom—and anything that can be done to extend the poor’s purchasing power (even if it comes at the expense of the planet or the poor’s own ability to make a fair wage) is justified.

Ultimately I suspect this mainstreaming of “organic” will make the concept meaningless, and a new word to mean what organic did a few years ago will have to be coined and standardized.  Perhaps this will mean the world has been edged a little bit further in the direction progressives want it to go, but it may end up being a case study in how a progressive notion is neutralized by its being reduced to something fashionable to be disseminated on a mass scale—or rather why consumerist programs don’t make for very good means for conducting progressive politics.

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Thursday, Sep 7, 2006

For anyone in or near Gotham- a memorial service for writer Paul Nelson will be today at 6pm to 8pm at St Mark’s Church, Parish Hall, 131 E. 10th Street, at 2nd Avenue, NYC.  Some heavy-hitting scribes will be there to pay tribute to him.

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Wednesday, Sep 6, 2006

Fresh off a bracing debate over whether politics dictates income inequality economics bloggers now are taking on the nature of relative wealth—as the “mysterious, vowelless” knzn notes, “We have the usual dramatis personae, with Brad DeLong and Greg Mankiw in the leading roles, Jane Galt as the female lead, a cameo appearance by Chris Dillow, and Mark Thoma in the role of messenger (and let’s not forget Tyler Cowen…and now Gabriel Mihalache...and…and…and…”

As was the case with the previous debate, Paul Krugman seems to have started things with NY Times column arguing that politics is the reason why wages have stagnated and benefits decreased as productivity has increased:  “What we see today is the result of a quarter-century of policies that have systematically reduced workers’ bargaining power. The important question now, however, is whether we’re finally going to try to do something about the big disconnect. Wages may be difficult to raise, but we won’t know until we try. And as for declining benefits—well, every other advanced country manages to provide everyone with health insurance, while spending less on health care than we do.” Having previously argued that conservative politicans have worsened the gap between rich and poor, he calls for “smart, bold populist” politicians to come along and remedy the problem.

Economist Brad DeLong responded with skepticism that we could find politicians capable of effecting such change, but in the midst of that he made these comments, clarifying the problem Krugman was laying out in his column: “I’m enough of a believer in CPI bias to want to say ‘real compensation for male nonsupervisory workers has stagnated since 1973’—I think it has grown, but only very slowly, and much less rapidly than productivity.
On the other hand, I’m enough of a touchy-feey sociology-lover to believe that a good chunk of the utility the rich derive from their conspicuous consumption is transferred to them from the poor: the happiness America’s working poor and middle class derive from the compensation distribution—given their compensation, the compensation of the rich, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous—seems to me to be certainly less than that of their counterparts back in 1973.” In other words, even if wages aren’t really stagnating (because the CPI is a flawed measurement tool) middle class and lower class people feel as though they are because they are falling behind relative to the rich and superrich. In the zero-sum game of social comparison, relative wealth matters more for happiness than absolute wealth—we don’t compare ourselves to the starving poor when we evaluate how well we are doing; we compare ourselves to our neighbors or, unfortunately, the unrealistic idealized versions of people (stars—they’re just like us!) we see in the mass media. Such comparisons keep us striving and keep the consumer economy growing, but it also keeps us unsatisfied with whatever wage we get; and if our compensation increases can’t keep pace with those above us (as has been true under recent Republican administrations), these feelings of dissatisfaction are likely to worsen. DeLong sees this as a transfer of utility (in the form of self-satisfaction) to the rich from the poor.

Greg Mankiw finds this unacceptable. “I am uncomfortable making envy a basis for public policy.” In other words, mind your own business and don’t worry about what other people have and we’ll all be happy with whatever benefits a growing economy parcels out to us. In other words, the only negative externalities gross inequality has is what we let it have by being bugged by it. (DeLong in a followup, argues that if it’s “envy” for the poor to be upset by inequality, than we must recognize it as spite that drives the rich to conspicuous displays of consumption—Knzn points out that the emotionalism of both terms is not helpful.) According to Mankiw, larger minds overlook such things as relative wealth, congratulate the superrich on their superrichness, and put their own nose back to their own grindstone. (In a followup post, Mankiw suspects his attitude might derive from his more magnanimous view of human nature.) If we are bothered by, say, our boss’s salary doubling while we get a 3% increase, it’s because we are envious, sinful wretches. If we’re troubled that there can be no minimum wage increase without a massively disproportionate cut of the estate tax for the megawealthy, ditto. At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok takes this perspective to its logical conclusion. Not only is it your fault for feeling envious, but you should be taxed for it to discourage you from such a mentality, that unfairly inconveniences the rich for their incidentally having more stuff than anyone else.

Jane Galt concurs, arguing that we shouldn’t make everyone poor so that no one feels left out. She makes the somewhat ludicrous (possibly only half-serious) comparison of wealth to beauty: “Beauty, like wealth, is relative—it benefits its possessor only insofar as they are lovelier than the women, or handsomer than the men, around them. Presumably, if we disfigured all the good looking actors in Hollywood, and the models in New York, and . . . well, heck, let’s slash the faces of everyone who’s better looking than I am.” But wealth, unlike beauty, can be seen as amassed at the expense of others via exploitative practices. Beauty is more likely to be regarded as a gift that comes at no one else’s expense (unless you see a cabal of interested parties manipulating society to change its definitions of beuaty to suit certain elites and to be responsive to alterations money can buy). So relative differences in beauty may not inspire feelings of injustice the way unequal distributions of the fruits of increased productivity do (except perhaps when the beautiful qualities in question are a proxy for money, as they often are). As Chris Dillow explains, the problem is not envy but injustice. Knzn explains this in stately economic terms: “The creation of conspicuous wealth, by its very nature, uses up resources that could be used for other purposes. Indeed, wealth might be defined as the ability to command resources, and therefore, the more resources that are used to produce conspicuous wealth, the more effective it is. By contrast, the process of flaunting one’s pulchritude, etc., while it may use up some resources, is not inherently resource-intensive. And certainly, such endowments, to the extent that they are truly endowments, don’t require resources to create.”

Galt sees wealth redistribution policies as a way of “making people suffer” rather than a way of making other poorer people happy, as if the CEO who makes $10 million rather than $15 million can be said to be suffering (or that his or her earnings are a matter of “honesty…hard work and delayed gratification” for that matter). Right or wrong, those in favor of redistributive policies don’t accept the Horatio Alger version of why the rich get richer and they don’t see wealthy people as suffering if some of their wealth is redistributed for the benefit of society—to reduce the overall need for a gated-community–approach to life that stems from extreme gaps between rich and poor. This is a way of escaping Galt’s zero-sum-game view of the economy that regards inequality as inevitable—the futility argument, from Albert Hirschman’s taxonomy of reactionary rhetoric—and redistribution as the politics of envy and nothing more. (Galt also tries changing the subject by saying, Sure, the rich enjoy the benefits of invidious comparison, but that’s nothing compared to the status games academics play—which is true, but beside the point.)

Mankiw relates disputes over relative wealth to envious anti-Americanism:

From a global perspective, Americans are the rich guys on the block. Some foreigners may think we Americans live the expensive and ostentatious lifestyles we do (rather than spending much more money on foreign aid) as “a way of making other people feel small and unhappy.” But few Americans perceive our own motivations this way. Instead, we view ourselves as lucky to be in an economic system that promotes economic prosperity, and we enjoy our higher consumption not because it is conspicuous but because ipods, flat screen TVs, and high speed internet connections give us utility. Most Americans would probably be delighted for other countries to achieve higher standards of living. I know I would.

But Americans haven’t achieved their economic superiority by accident—we may have earned it through better planning, hard work, and ingenuity, but at some point we also used leverage to accrue more of the benefits of global growth to ourselves at the expense of the contributions other nations have made to global productivity. It isn’t envy, but the perception of unfairness that matters here; that the injustice manifests in trivial arbitrary tokens of conspicuous consumption like fancy cars and whatnot shouldn’t fool us into thinking the issue, the perceived unfairness itself, is trivial. It is in fact what makes Americans increasingly take a gated-community view of the world, calling for impractical and borderline racist anti-immigration policies. One way of mitigating the unfairness is for the rich to be less ostentatious—this seems unlikely, if Galt is right and status competition is evolutionarily hard-wired into our behavior. But perhaps the other way is for policy to not be biased in the rich’s favor, as Krugman suspects it is. Even if the policies don’t correct all species of income inequality, the perception that we as a society are trying to helps mitigate the sense of injustice and blunts the envy and spite of inequality and its various displays.

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Wednesday, Sep 6, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Kenn Starr
Starr Status
Halftooth Records LLC
Download “U Will” (MP3, 192kbps)
“Guest appearances by Talib Kweli, Supastition, Asheru, Median & more. Production by Khrysis, Illmind, Oddisee, Kev Brown & more. The highly anticipated, critically acclaimed debut solo album from Kenn Starr showcases Starr’s extraordinary mic skills, witty charm and down-to-earth personality and features guest appearances by Talib Kweli, Supastition, Asheru, Darien Brockington, Median, Oddisee, Kev Brown & more, as well as outstanding production from Illmind, Khrysis, Oddisee, Kev Brown & more.”—Halftooth Records
Buy at iTunes Music Store

The Hidden Cameras
AwooOutside Music
Download “AWOO” (MP3, 192kbps)
“A loose collective comprised of singer Joel Gibb and more than a dozen members, Toronto’s Hidden Cameras blend glistening Afropop guitar work with joyful, anthemic hymns. Their third studio album, AWOO, is their most extraordinary statement yet.”—Evil Evil
Buy at iTunes Music Store

The Blaxploitation Sessions
Scienz of Life
The Blaxploitation SessionsShaman Work
Download “Hood Stock (My People)” (MP3, 192kbps)
“Scienz of Life, the veteran, world-renown underground crew, and Shaman Work Recordings presents The Blaxploitation Sessions; 15 original and exclusive tracks inspired by the timeless era of mid-‘70s New York funk/soul, and delivered by hip-hop’s favorite young scientists. Playing off the original roots of Blaxploitation, spawned by a burgeoning demand for music and entertainment outside of the mainstream, Scienz of Life’s, Lil’ Sci and I.D. 4 Windz tap into their bi-costal experience and present a level of musical finesse that’s right-on time. Lil’ Sci and I.D. Windz continue to perpetuate the scientific genius of the underground crew founded by New York’s own Bobbito Garcia, and previously featured everywhere from The Lyricist Lounge to the legendary Fondle’em Records.”—Shaman Work Recordings
Buy at iTunes Music Store

Place To Be - Single
Surreal & The Sound Providers
Place to Be - SingleQuarternote/ABB Records
Download “Just Getting Started (Vocal)” (MP3, 192kbps)
“From the forthcoming Surreal & The Sound Providers LP True Indeed in stores October 17th!”—Quarternote Records
Buy at iTunes Music Store

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