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by Rob Horning

24 Feb 2007

A while ago in a thrift store in Vancouver (sad how vividly I remember the provenance of these things) I bought a beat-up paperback copy of Journey into Russia by Laurens Van der Post. It’s an account of his tour of the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, and it’s well worth the penny it’s selling for if you are at all touched with Russophilia or have any interest in what image the Soviet Union tried to project of itself. The book is suffused with a sense of the Soviet regime’s permanence, which inspires now a sort of awe at how history overtakes us. I haven’t read the book straight through; I pick it up now and then and read paragraphs at random—a conversation at an airport, a description of mosque minarets at Tashkent, train travel across Siberia, his admiration for scientists at Lake Baikal, drinking out of politeness with Georgians in Tbilisi, an account of a May Day parade. Van der Post records all his encounters with ordinary citizens, trying to feel out how deep state propaganda has sunk into their consciousness, and you come away with the impression that every Russian is an able and complex critical thinker, having been forced by the absurdity of totalitarianism to develop multiple levels of ironic expression as well as a thorough understanding of a wide range of perverse incentives. The socialist state seems to have made people’s thinking more dialectical, though by a method no one preferred: the state was so awful and intrusive that Soviet citizens were required to be in a perpetual condition of private opposition and interior doubleness—the lived a continual critique of everyday life by necessity. We bourgeois in America have the luxury of far less cognitive dissonance and hence an underdeveloped critical apparatus.

Growing up in the 1980s I always thought it was bizarre to consider the Soviets as enemies; it seemed like we should feel sorry for them since so much of our indoctrination involved demonstrating to us how good we had it in America, how much freedom we could take for granted. As a 14-year-old I didn’t find their state tools of oppression very intimidating, as was exemplified by a skit about the KGB I wrote and performed with my friend John as a World Cultures class project—we made KGB spies out to be bumbling Keystone cops with an Abbott and Costelloesque interrogation style. And I wasn’t upset by Marxist ideology, which actually seemed pretty appealing as I understood it then—a welcome respite from any need to be ambitious. Ignorance was bliss for me, I guess. The Chevy Chase film Spies Like Us pretty well captures the attitude I had toward the cold war—basically that it was not a tenuous balance of world power in the face of the threat of nuclear apocalypse but a sloppily constructed comedy. To have to wonder whether the Russians loved their children too seemed really ridiculous.

But that many Americans took the threat very seriously indeed is made painfully obvious by reading the essays in Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics—Hofstatder has an unusually strong stomach for right-wing demagoguery, and he illustrates the role the communist threat played in allowing for the development of what he calls “pseudo-conservatism”, a ultrareactionary pose that regards the chosen enemy as all-powerful and insidious, capable of infiltration and threatening the homeland from within and thus calling for the systematic rooting out of all sorts of internal enemies and the rigorous enforcement of conformity. (Essentially it is the mirror image of Stalinism.) Of course, Islamic terrorism has replaced communism as the all-powerful threat, and this is an even more dangerous form of pseudo-conservatism: no longer must we fight to preserve American values so much as the Christian supremacy that right-wing ideologues believe to be synonymous with America. (This makes it easy to imagine Jews and atheists eventually being classified as internal enemies, along with every variety of brown-skinned people.) Hofstadter attributes this intolerant tendency in a small segment of Americans to a perverted form of status seeking in a society where social aspirations outstrip the actual rags-to-riches possibilities. He also provides the appropriate Tocqueville quote: “Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy.” Perhaps it’s a universal human tendency to conflate the people we specifically envy with a widely accepted set of enemies, always a way to interpret our jealousy as their elitism or immorality. Reactionary politics become another one of the hidden injuries of class in America—is that too patronizing to say? Communists, terrorists: they become inexact proxies for a shadowy power elite who are making value systems intolerably pluralistic.

Passing through the offices of the magazine I work for was a DVD set called Animated Soviet Propaganda. It’s a conflicted package; despite campy design drawing on 1930s Russian poster style, it wants to dignify its subject and escape accusations of kitsch, so it features an essay by Igor Kokorev, a Russian sociologist, on how the films played into the Soviet oppression. Kokarev likens Soviet society to a religious cult (as does Van der Post on a few occasions) and enumerates how the people were kept down: “We were kept apart”; “We were forced to conform”; “We were ruled by fear”; “We were hemmed in by secrecy and censorship” etc. It sounded a little like a rundown of conditions in suburbanized War on Terror America. Kokarev describes how “language was stilted” in the Soviet Union, perverted by Leninist ideological discourse. Americans are no less immune to stilted language, though, it’s only ours takes the form of capitalist dogma: the marketing rhetoric and trendy neologisms that n+1 was complaining about taking over the blogosphere. We don’t always recognize that as propaganda or take it very seriously or attribute much efficacy to it; it seems more like nuisance, probably how state propaganda struck Soviets, even as they began to talk like Ninotchka.

But this passage from Kokarev’s essay struck me:

Personal modesty was a prized virtue in Soviet society as was a lack of pretentiousness in one’s home and a certain disdain for comfort and fanciness. The natural human desire for better conditions, more consumer goods, and a higher standard of living was delayed, put off until the future. Monotonous gray clothing ... was the normal conditions of life for everyone. Young people who tried to dress stylishly were derisively nicknamed “stilyagi” and were publicly insulted in the street.

This is the vision of the USSR I tend to romanticize—a world without fashion. But I should count my blessings: fashionability probably meant much more in a society that regarded it as a threat to stability rather than wasteful diversion. My suspicion of fashion would have no meaning in a Soviet culture; here I can construe it into a political position (one that requires nothing more from me but to dress badly). Maybe I need to adopt the attitude of Gavin McInnes, editor of Vice magazine: “I hate looking at metrosexuals wearing flip-flops with a suit but I usually get over it when they walk out of view. It’s only annoying for a very short time. The truth is fashion is boring and only stupid people genuinely care about it.” Sometimes I worry that my preoccupation with criticizing “style” consumerism makes me into one of those stupid people.

by Jason Gross

24 Feb 2007

Even though I trashed two articles related to the publication in my rockcritics.com round-up of 2006 and recently published an article in my zine lambasting the freak-folk scene that’s based around it, I take no pleasure in saying that Arthur Magazine is probably going to disappear.  I did like a lot of the content in Arthur otherwise and always thought it was a great model for indie publishing, even though from the L.A. Times article it’s obvious that they had problems keeping themselves alive financially.  I just hope that it can somehow continue it online (which is something I pushed for when they started out).

by Rob Horning

23 Feb 2007

Building off the finding that low-income workers work fewer hours than higher-income workers, this post at The Economist‘s Free Exchange blog floats the idea that the problem with the poor is not that they’re lazy but that their entertainment has become too affordable:

In America since the 1970’s, the relative returns to low-skilled labour have markedly declined.  At the same time, the value of leisure has skyrocketed, thanks to improved entertainment opportunities.  Even a poor family can afford a television, a cheap DVD player, and a subscription to Netflix; they are also highly likely to have cable.  Thanks to cheap airfare, they may also be able to fly somewhere better than their backyard for vacation.
A 1970’s high-school educated worker looking at the tradeoff between work and leisure might be thinking:  “the price of a steak, versus an hour watching the grass grow and arguing with my wife.”  These days, the calculation is more like:  “the price of some terrible fast food, against an hour of watching scantily clad women bouncing around on cable.”  Small surprise that they are choosing to consume more free time.

This strikes me as a variation on that favorite refutation of the problem posed by income inequality, what Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber has dubbed the Playstation proof: that measures of income don’t necessarily account for all the quality-of-life improvements now taken for granted and how much more purchasing power there is in even a small income relative to horse-and-buggy days. And it can skew ideologically in opposite directions, as a criticism of the deeply unfulfilling work the poor reject in favor of entertainment or as a conjecture that the poor are not merely lazy but are perhaps too easily entertained—their modicum of ambition is too easily subsumed by diverting distractions. The observation doesn’t seem to lead to any useful policy prescriptions: “We need to make poverty more unpleasant. The poor are enjoying themselves far too much.” Or “Poverty is not really a problem: see, they have Netflix.” And that’s not even considering potential problems with the initial premise that the fewer hours the poor are working is a matter of choice: what about the “reserve army of the poor”? What about the unpaid hours logged in transportation and what not? Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed does a pretty good job demonstrating how everything in lower-class life has elements of logistical hassle to it, even before one considers the psychological burdens of relative deprivation, the lack of any form of safety net and the forced improvisations of life at society’s margins.

by Bill Gibron

22 Feb 2007

It’s bandwagon jumping time, and since Hollywood is about ready to hand out its own brand of bewildering backslapping, the seven month old SE&L figures it too can champion its own choices for award winners. Oscar might have the hoopla, the designer duds, and all that staggering star power, but what the newly christened SEALS have is something the Academy can never boast – artistic integrity. Granted, the gray hairs in the group sometimes get it right – can’t argue with all their choices, Shakespeare in Love aside – and it’s possible that these new prizes will clash with conventional thinking. But when it comes right down to it, if Blockbuster Video, MTV and The National Rolling (Down a Hill) Association can declare their preferences for the year’s trophy-deserving best, why can’t we?

That being said, we have to set up some guidelines. First and foremost, as joking Johnny-Come-Latelys, we will avoid the already nominated Academy entries. If it has already been pointed out by Oscar, we will let the Gold One have his glory and simply move on. After all, nothing smacks more of Tinsel Town tonsils to tushy than agreeing on who they feel deserves Best of Year recognition. Secondly, we will try to mine the ENTIRE previous 12 months in film. We won’t skip over efforts from January or March just because most of the cachet pictures wind up playing between November and December. And finally, this isn’t a competition. Other choices may be mentioned, but the SEALS don’t play the nomination game. Either you’re a winner, or you’re not.

So, without further ado, lame jokes from a PC host, or an interpretive dance number based around the choices for Best Song, here are the 2007 SEALS:

Best Film – The Prestige
This one is easy – it was SE&L’s favorite film of 2006 and remains, even with last minute entries like Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth, the greatest artistic triumph of the cinematic calendar year. Christopher Nolan may not have a lot of mantle candy to ogle when this awards season is over, and there are still those who dismiss this movie as an overcomplicated lament configuration, but here’s one filmmaker who can rest assured that, decades from now, his magician film will be a heralded motion picture masterpiece. Can any of Oscar’s current candidates claim that?

Best Director – Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men)
Here’s a head scratcher. In a medium that frequently loves to reward visionary filmmakers with aesthetics larger than their commercial counterparts, why was Cuarón’s work in Children of Men more or less marginalized? Perhaps it has something to do with the stigma of serious science fiction thrust upon this stunningly apocalyptic film. As an illustration of society in biological freefall, and a wounded allegory to the pointlessness of armed conflict/resistance, Cuarón does what all directors dealing with war typically avoid – he shows why life is more important.

Best Actor – Toby Jones (Infamous)
If Oscar had any brains, and being a small metal statue its fairly obvious that he doesn’t, it would have dropped any one of the five nominated non-entities selected and given British thespian Jones a toss. As Truman Capote – yes AGAIN, you have a problem with that??? -  dealing with his mixed motives of career vs. comfort, this version of the famed writer gets to hobnob with the spoiled and snotty while finding the sympathetic heart inside a Cold Blood-ed killer. Capote may be more serious, but Infamous and Jones are more insightful…and iconic. 

Best Actress – Jenna Fischer (Lollilove)
It’s the best film that no one has seen, and it features some of the best, most self-effacing acting in a mock documentary ever. Fisher, now famous for her role on NBC’s The Office, and her Hollywood screenwriter hubby James Gunn, brainstormed this under appreciated take on confused celebrity and their equally inept charitable causes. While the film’s format can allow for shameless mugging (right James?) it also gave Fisher a chance to play both serious and spoiled, clueless and cunning. She’s likeable and loathsome at the same time. Now that’s acting.

Best Supporting Actor – David Bowie (The Prestige)
He’s barely on screen long enough to register real potency, but there is something about Ziggy Stardust as the inventor of alternating current that seems so cosmically correct. Bowie, never one for spectacular acting turns, here seems like the grand old man of electricity, reduced to hiding from the monopoly minded Thomas Edison and his incandescent thugs. For his gorgeous accent alone, so clipped it cuts through conversations like a delicate little knife, the performance deserves rewarding.

Best Supporting Actress – Rosario Dawson (Clerks II)
How is this for an acting mission impossible? You are called in by Kevin Smith, creator of the glorified geek View Askew universe, asked to play the part of a fast food manager in love with a lumpy loser and – oh yeah – the project will be a sequel to the filmmaker’s first cinematic touchstone. That’s the requirements foisted upon this fascinating performer, and Ms. Dawson stands firm, outright stealing the movie from her wisecracking cast mates. She’s smart, funny and oh so sexy.

Best Script – Mike Judge and Etan Cohen (Idiocracy)
It takes balls the size of Branson to bite the hand that’s been signing your meal ticket for the last 15 years, but that’s exactly what Beavis and Butthead creator Judge did with this amazing social satire. One of the wickedest, most mean-spirited comedies every created – in a very good way – this story of an America dumbed down plays like an inverted 1984. Big Brother may be watching, but he doesn’t understand what he’s seeing.

Best Documentary – This Film is Not Yet Rated
Talk about your ironclad cajones! Kirby Dick more or less committed career suicide for taking on the MPAA and outing the ridiculous ratings board for the self-serving studio censorship committee they really are. Using anecdotal and empirical evidence (including a mindboggling montage of indie vs. mainstream movie edits) as well as the hiring of a private investigator to get the goods on these goons, Dick did something no other filmmaker dared. He not only challenged the board’s inferred integrity. He questioned its very reason for being.

Best Animated Film – A Scanner Darkly
Believe it or not, there was a time when animated films were geared mostly toward adults. It seems only director Richard Linklater remembers that commercial corollary. With this inventive version of the Philip K. Dick novel, and his previous computer penned pastiche, Waking Life, the man behind such stellar outsider efforts as Slacker and Dazed and Confused finds the proper balance between science fiction and technological fact, creating an alternative reality worthy of the genre’s most compelling author. Forget anthropomorphized creatures. Humans remain the most compelling cartoons.

Best Foreign Film – District B13
Leave it to the French to reinvent the action film. With the free running sport Parkour as the basis for the stunt work, and a futuristic flavor that mixes equal parts Escape from New York and the Mad Max films, first time director Pierre Morel delivers a stunning high octane treat. Certainly the acting can be a bit problematic, considering most in the cast were hired for their athleticism first and their performance chops second. But the amount of invention involved is hard to top. Apparently, it takes foreign eyes to rediscover the inherent motion picture magic in human physicality.

Best Guilty Pleasure – Crank
…and leave it to the Americans to take the genre back to its veiled post-modern video game roots. In a year that saw more than its fair share of big screen crap, no filmic feces was more ludicrously enjoyable than this cinematically steroided Grand Theft Auto attempt. With King of Tripwire Testosterone Jeremy Statham in the lead – no one does pumped up punkness better than this cauliflowered character actor from the UK – and a warts and all approach to straightforward storytelling, directing pair Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have created the first geek epic. Consider this schlock nerd more than satisfied.

by tjmHolden

22 Feb 2007

Why must we dream in metaphors? Try to hold on to something we couldn’t understand. Couldn’t understand.

Seal sings that provocative line in a haunting song that otherwise—lyrically, at least—is pedestrian, if not wholly unintelligible.

But there is in that one statement, a kernel of something; a thought worth considering. Although, for me it isn’t Seal’s dreams of sleep—the peripatetic ventures of the mind locked in slumber—rather, it is or collective, yet dissimilar dreams accompanying daily travail—the constant associative ramblings of our brains that can’t sit still—that this peripatetic pauses to ponder.

Not really sure (if you care to learn) what I’m talking about? Well, try this . . .

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St. Vincent, Beck, and More Heat Up Boston Calling on Memorial Day Weekend

// Notes from the Road

"With vibrant performances by artists including St. Vincent and TV on the Radio, the first half of the bi-annual Boston Calling Festival brought additional excitement to Memorial Day weekend.

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