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Friday, Aug 4, 2006

What do Secret deodorant, Greased Lightning household cleaner, and Game Show Network have in common? All three are eager to sponsor your private and personal secrets online on their websites. BusinessWeek has an item (behind a subscription wall) about this strange trend whereby brands hope to bolster their online communities by inviting people to use their sites as a place to both confess secrets and play voyeur. This nicely collapses the “publicity is personality” movement of MySpace with advertisers growing need to induce audiences into doing measurable activities online in order to get paid. Apparently people are actually doing this—4,500 people at Secret’s site, 10,000 at Greased Lightning. How desperate are these people for attention, even of the anonymous and personally embarrassing variety? Seems this is further proof that people are coming to the conclusion that the only valid form of social recognition available is in tha spotlight of some pseudo-mass-media spectacle—even if your online confession might be seen by no one, the fact that it might be seen by everyone makes it more valid than whispering it to your friend. Elizabeth Woyte, who write the item for BusinessWeek, wonders whether the sponsored confession phenomenon has something to do with the study that revealed that more Americans now report having no close friends. Perhaps it is because of the changing nature of friendship.

Ad-audience measurement is becoming more stringent at precisely the same time that friendship is becoming more open to measurement itself. Coincidence? My thesis is that ad ratings measure influence, and friendship for some has become largely a matter of measuring one’s own impact on others. The two concepts are converging. Friendship is nothing more than a medium for word-of-mouth advertising.

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Thursday, Aug 3, 2006

Ever since the mid-‘80s, pay movie channels like Home Box Office, Cinemax and Showtime have offered Saturday Night premieres of first run Hollywood films—or, at the very least, what THEY consider to be first run Hollywood films. Anyway, as part of the Short Ends and Leader Blog. PopMatters will look at these upcoming debuts, as well as point out other notes of cinematic interest available on the network schedule. For the week of 4 August, here is what’s arriving:

HBOMr. & Mrs. Smith

Okay, okay, everyone is just plain sick and tired of Angelina and Brad by now. They’re really hot. They’ve had a baby. Blah, blah, blah. While deciphering why the public is so fascinated by this couple, you can experience the film that started their fairy tale freefall into tabloid tenancy. Call it a hyperactive War of the Roses, or an overdone screwball comedy, but this he and she hitman saga is a less than perfect offering that still crackles with enough glittering superstar spark that it almost overcomes many of its missteps.  (Premieres Saturday 5 August, 8:00pm EST).

PopMatters review: Click HERE

Cinemax The Island

Gee, another pair of famous faces, another high concept action movie that didn’t really live up to expectations. Godfather of the gauche epic, Michael Bay, may have thought he could fool film fans with his high tech retread of Parts: The Clonus Horror, but by casting the frequently flat Ewen McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, this sterile sci-fi film was guaranteed never to quite take off. Heck, there are worse ways to spend a Saturday night than with a superficial serving of speculative silliness. Besides, no one knows action better than Bay. (Premieres Saturday 5 August, 10:00pm EST).

PopMatters review: Click HERE

STARZThe Fog (2005)

Signaling the exact moment when the ‘70s/’80s horror remake revival hit the wall, this rotten retread of John Carpenter’s already nominal scary sea shanty offered proof positive that there is nothing frightening about a murky PG-13 macabre. Directorial lightweight Rupert Wainwright can’t match the level of dread contained in the original, and frequently substitutes shoddy CGI for anything remotely terrifying. Investigate this murky mess at your own risk. (Premieres Saturday 5 August, 9:00pm EST).

PopMatters review: Click HERE

Showtime TooCrash

Six months out and people are still clamoring over this surprise Oscar victor. Did it really deserve the Best Picture trophy? Was there something political (or anti-agenda based) in its victory over a certain cowboy drama? Who actually produced this thing, and will they ever see a residual check for the efforts? If you are unfamiliar with Paul Haggis’s interlocking take on racism in America and its seemingly universal effects, perhaps it’s time to pay it a visit and consider its value – not just as an award winner, but as an overall social statement as well. (Saturday 5 August, 7pm EST)

PopMatters review: Click HERE

Turner Classic Movies: August: Summer Under the Stars Month

Leave it to the classic film channel to find novel ways of constantly recycling its catalog of amazing Tinsel Town artifacts. In August, the station will salute several celebrated names from Hollywood’s Golden Age upward, using each day long promotion as an excuse to screen several offerings from the specific star’s catalog. A few of the highlights for the week of 4 August to 11 August are:

5 August – Humphrey Bogart

One of the few true icons of the studio system silver screen, Bogie gets his well deserving due when TCM airs the following films (all times EST):
6:00am: The Racket Busters (1938)
7:15am: The Petrified Forest (1936)
8:45am: Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
10:30am: Action in the North Atlantic (1943)
12:45am: High Sierra (1941)
2:30pm: The Maltese Falcon (1941)
4:15pm: To Have and Have Not (1944)
6:00pm: The Big Sleep (1946)
8:00pm: Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
10:15pm: Across the Pacific (1942)
12:00am: Knock on Any Door (1949)
2:00am: They Drive By Night (1940)
4:00pm: All Through the Night (1942)

6 August– Robert Duvall

Moving up to the post-modern Method generation of actors, the quiet intensity of Duvall’s onscreen counterparts is on full display in this set of career-defining films (all times EST):
6:00am: Tomorrow (1972)
8:00am: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
10:15am:Captain Newman, .M.D. (1964)
12:30pm: Tender Mercies (1983)
2:15pm: Countdown (1968)
4:00pm: The Outfit (1973)
6:00pm: The Conversation (1974)
8:00pm: The Godfather (1972)
11:00pm: The Godfather Part II (1974)
2:30am: THX 1138 (1971)
4:15am: Lawman (1971)

11 August – Katherine Hepburn

Another one of those rare Hollywood symbols, this stubborn individualist left behind a oeuvre overflowing with amazing work, many of which TCM will air as a tribute to her talent, and tenacity (all times EST):
6:00am: Katherine Hepburn: All About Me (1993)
7:15am: Little Women (1933)
9:15am: Quality Street (1937)
10:45pm: Stage Door (1937)
12:30pm: Bringing Up Baby (1938)
2:15pm: The Philadelphia Story (1940)
4:15pm: Woman of the Year (1942)
6:15pm: Adam’s Rib (1949)
8:00pm: The African Queen (1951)
10:00pm: Rooster Cogburn (1975)
12:00am: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)
3:00am: Spitfire (1934)
4:30am: Christopher Strong (1933)

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Thursday, Aug 3, 2006

What makes Clerks II one of the best movies of the summer? Is it the focus on interspecies erotica? The discussions centering on body parts that aren’t necessarily supposed to be combined? Maybe it’s the mindless debate over which is better—Star Wars or Lord of the Rings—or the pop culture poetry of hearing the Go-Bots referred to as the “K-Mart of Transformers”. Whatever the rationale, writer/director Kevin Smith has done the impossible: he stayed true to his original black and white opus from 1991, while successfully arguing for the value of sequels. It turns what could have been bothersome into pure cinematic bliss.

You don’t have to be a member of the filmmaker’s fanboy View Askew universe to appreciate the many insular intricacies present. Smith has always been known for his clever, cutting scripts, but elements like emotion and context occasionally escape his grasp. With this return to Randall and Dante’s slacker domain, replete with familiar faces (Jay and Silent Bob) and wonderful new additions (Trevor Fehrman’s fantastic Elias, Rosario Dawson’s dynamic Becky) Smith discovers new layers to explore. He acknowledges the passing of time, allowing what seemed like a reasonable lifestyle choice a decade ago to now come across as lazy and aimless. By using throwback musical moments (the Jackson Five’s “ABC”, The Smashing Pumpkins “1979”) to underscore his viewpoint, he even manages to move us.

Some may say that every Kevin Smith movie is the same. Take a few dozen of his obsessions, mix them with a heaping helping of foul language, and stir in some scatological silliness just to spice things up, and there you have it. Unfortunately, such a simplistic description doesn’t even begin to address Clerks II’s many significant joys. Before it gets bumped out of theaters, treat yourself to one of the best collections of dirty diatribes you’ll even overhear. The art of conversation may indeed be dying, but with Kevin Smith around, there’s hope for the verbal life skill yet.

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Thursday, Aug 3, 2006

Recently Wal-Mart announced it was retreating from the German market and would sell all its stores there to a German competitor, the Metro Group (proprietors of European hypermarkets Real and Extra). This could be celebrated as a proof of the resilience of global diversity, as Reason editor Kerry Howley suggests. And for those in America who would like to see Wal-Mart’s influence recede in their own country, perhaps there are lessons to be drawn from this, though Wal-Mart’s scale and its already established discount-dictating power over producers for the American market make American defeat unlikely—in fact WSJ online’s “MarketBeat” cites financial analysts who think Wal-Mart didn’t aim high enough: “However, its ventures in China and Japan haven’t been as successful. Fast-growing India is another option, if restrictions on foreign investment there are eased. A.G. Edwards analyst Robert Buchanan said Wal-Mart will fare best if it focuses on markets where it has the potential to open at least 100 stores. “Just as the legendary Moby Dick had no business swallowing minnows, we believe Wal-Mart has no business operating 16 stores in South Korea and 85 money-losing stores in Germany,’’ he wrote in a note, adding that Wal-Mart should also get rid of its 11 stores in Argentina.”

Defenders of Wal-Mart like to point out that its succesful not because of some nefarious conspiracy but because Americans like to shop there, and the company’s experience in Germany may lend some credence to this idea. The story usually told about Wal-Mart is that it succeeded in America by appealing to lower-class customers’ wallets, offering deep discounts on virtually everything. If this were so, you might expect the company to succeed in Germany, which, as this NY Times piece mentions, is home to consumers who are “one of the most parsimonious and price-conscious in Europe.” But Wal-Mart failed in Germany in part because they could not discount enough to compete with the so-called hard discounters, epitomized by Aldi, which has recently begun to appear in America. For Americans, Aldi can be extremely disconcerting for three reasons—its stock is restricted to far fewer items than you’d expect in such a store, customer service is virtually non-existent, and virtually all of its products are unbranded. Germans were thrown by the inverse of these qualities at Wal-Mart: According to the NY Times article, “The company initially installed American managers, who made some well-intentioned cultural gaffes, like offering to bag groceries for customers (Germans prefer to bag their own groceries) or instructing clerks to smile at customers (Germans, used to brusque service, were put off).” But how “well-intentioned” are these gaffes? Even if you put aside the cultural insensitivity, you still have to wonder. The intention is to make money, a neutral intention at best. (If you see profit seeking as the baseline definition of rationality, than it is simply beyond evaluation.) German customers likely see these service wrinkles for what they are, extra expenses eventually passed through to them that also connote a fundamental distrust of the consumer, a belief that the conusmer won’t know what he wants without salesperson intrusion. As I’ve argued before customer service demeans both clerk and customer, it’s a disguised form of petty surveillence.

Germans also reject the convenience of one-stop shopping, thereby nullifying the loss-leader strategy typical of American grocery retailers. The Wall Street Journal reports that Germans “are willing to buy laundry detergent at one store and then go to another to get a better price on paper towels. That behavior is called basket splitting.” You can quibble over whether this is an efficient use of time, going from store to store to round up necessaries, but one thing such a default shopping mentality may ensure is that you don’t waste time buying things that aren’t necessary. Deliberately hewing to an approach that makes bargain hunting to be so ruthless as to be inconvenient is that it keeps you from buying on impulse—the whimsical purchase being one of the most illusory pleasures promoted in America (an escapist thrill with no lasting satisfaction supplied and lasting consequences potentially for one’s credit).

But what I found most interesting is Germans’ relative lack of interest in branded goods: The Wall Street Journal notes that “Metro’s acquisition of Wal-Mart’s German stores has some retail analysts questioning Mr. Körber’s logic. “It is in no way guaranteed that this will result in a vibrant hypermarket chain,” says James Bacos, director of the retail and consumer-goods practice at Mercer Management Consulting in Munich, Germany. Mr. Bacos and others say Real must define a pricing strategy against Germany’s so-called hard discount chains, stores that sell mostly private-label goods that cost less than brands and account for roughly 40% of the country’s food sales. Like other hypermarkets, Real has had to lower prices of many basic goods to match those of hard discounters like Aldi Einkaufs GmbH or Lidl GmbH. But Real, like Wal-Mart, had higher operating costs than those no-frills chains. So Real partly offset its lost margins with higher prices on branded products, a strategy that backfired because it led many shoppers to think of Real as expensive. Real also cut prices more aggressively at some times than at other times, which further blurred its image in the minds of its shoppers.” So in other words, retailers that rely on the mark-ups on branded goods struggle in Germany, where the consumers care more about price and trust their own judgment as to a product’s quality.

All of these things probably boil down to convenience—branded goods, one-stop shopping and customer service all involve a trade-off where the customer trusts in the retailer in exchange for the ability to be more lazy. Wal-Mart has managed to capitalize on these trends toward convenience the most, accelerating them with the momentum of its own success and increasing monopsonistic reach. American consumers would need to suddenly turn away from brands and convenience if they wanted to stop the big-boxification of society, a prospect which, with youth allegedly embracing branding as synonymous with personal style, seems increasingly unlikely. I’ll venture a gross overgeneralization in hopes that it might make a point with a kernal of truth in it: German consumer behavior manifests one ideology of dignity, rooted in self-reliance; American consumer behavior exemplifies another, rooted in belonging to logo-laden cliques. Which side are you on?


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Thursday, Aug 3, 2006

According to the First Church of Godz website (which honors the ‘60s psychedelic band and not the ‘70s metal band), the former members of the Godz are suing ESP Disk to block a box set that the label is planning.  The band is also looking to reissue its own albums.  Here’s hoping that they resolve this soon.

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