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by Terry Sawyer

9 Apr 2008

I still can’t believe Roisin Murphy’s 2007 LP, Overpowered didn’t have the impact of other dance acts like Lilly Allen or M.I.A., but I suspect that’s due largely in part to the slow rehabilitation of disco as an genre of influence. For some, the image of thousands of people destroying disco LPs at radio personality, Steve Dahl’s, disco demolition still holds enough cultural power to keep disco in its place as some sort of decadent symbol of “establishment” pop. I hold out hope that artists like Murphy will erode the critical blindness involved in that kind of blanket gesture. Besides, old categories of the countercultural simply don’t map that easily onto what’s being done in the world of music today.

Murphy’s image has a certain retro-futurism, like a classic Hollywood starlet stumbling out of Bjork’s closet. Part of my fascination with this video stems from its naked self-deprecation. While many videos involve the realization of explosively egotistical fantasies of the artist as a supernatural being, Murphy sings the song to herself in a dingy diner. Sure, it’s a diner that happens to convert into a low rent mock-up of a Saturday Night Fever club, but does so only in her head. The patrons ignore her coquettish posturing on the furniture and continue on about their business. The video is a tongue-in-cheek contrast between reality and fantasy: eating alone versus starring in your own crisply choreographed “fuck off” song. Murphy excels in strangely compatible moods, like the four-to-floor dance single that’s full of melancholic loss and solitude. “Know Me Better” is essentially a daydream of how we all wish we handled painful break-ups: with unflappable independence, style, stride and humor. Walter Mitty meet Giorgio Moroder.

by Nikki Tranter

9 Apr 2008

My obsession with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels kicked into high-gear in 2004 when considering a topic for my Masters thesis. I’d been wrestling with an idea about literary osmosis, that what you read influences what you write. Writers I knew almost always wrote stories similar to those they read. My best friend is a fantasy fan, with her Raymond E. Feist’s in pristine order on her shelves beside rows of Sara Douglass’. She writes beautiful stories of human courage, all based in fantastical worlds. My husband reads Lenny Bruce, Dashiell Hammett, and zombie books and his fictional writing draws from each in the most exquisite ways.

As for me? When I read Alice Bloom, I write short stories. Erik Larson gets me in the mood to seek out ancient crimes and write about them. When I read celebrity bios, I write pretend memoirs of ‘80s sitcom stars like Jodie Sweetin. Reading Judy Blume? Writing about my teen years. Reading Toni Morrison? Writing about womanhood. Stephen King: personal demons. Steven Martin Cohen? You probably don’t want to know.

Discovering these links prompted me to experiment: What if I read only Pulitzer Prize-winning novels while writing the creative component of my thesis? Surely, I’d come up with the greatest creative work a student has ever produced.

In short, I found out that quality is what you make it. But plot-wise, utterly without even realizing, I stole from every book I read. And very specifically. This was more than thematic borrowing—this was osmotic plagiarism. And I didn’t even notice.

Key elements of a range of novels all ended up in my piece: Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, William Kennedy’s Ironweed, Ernest Poole’s His Family, Millhauser’s Martin Dressler, The Magnificent Ambersons, Willa Cather’s One of Ours, even The Age of Innocence, which I stopped reading half way through because it bored me to tears. (I’ll go back one day.)

The experiment, for all intents and purposes, was a resounding success: yes, I took in what I read and sent it out again. But I found something way more interesting than that. Writing is of course going to share similarities because of the universality of experience. The similarities between His Family and Breathing Lessons are greater than you might ever suspect, but they’re there. It’s true that the Pulitzer Prize winning novels will be thematically similar because of the award’s specific criteria, but I found, simply, that reading Pulitzer Prize winners from each decade revealed the history of America.

Since this discovery, I’ve become more intent on finding all the winning books. I’ve managed to collect 53 of 82. Those left on my list appear to be the most difficult to find: Scarlet Sister Mary, Dragon’s Teeth, Years of Grace, So Big!, and others. The best source is, of course, eBay, or the Franklin Mint. But the budget can only stretch so far.

I’m enjoying, far more than scouring the Internet, stumbling across the books, like the copy of Shirley Anne Grau’s The Keepers of the House I found early in my search in the bottom of a donations bin outside my public library. It was squished in between some huge World Book encyclopedias, all beaten and bruised. I found Arrowsmith for a dollar a matter of weeks after I had elected to steal it from the library’s branch room, where books go to die.

I even found some of the books—The Yearling, The Old Man and the Sea—long forgotten in the back of my very own bookshelves.

The later books have been easy to acquire—Philip Roth, Updike, Anne Tyler. But the old ones prove more difficult. And I probably haven’t added a book to the collection in over a year. The well, it would seem, has run dry. It might be time to go back to eBay.

My biggest eBay score was courtesy of a generous woman selling her collection of Pulitzer books, fiction and non-fiction. For about a hundred bucks, I got a box full of novels, plays, travel and science texts. My favourite eBay purchase, though, is a 1923 paperback of The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson. I picked up for about seven dollars. It came in a sandwich bag, and has a little pen squiggle on the inside cover. It’s beautiful, and, man, has it been read. Which, for this collector, only adds value.

I wonder who read it. And why. I wonder what they thought of it, if they wrote stories, too. I wonder how much we share.

by Mike Schiller

9 Apr 2008

One of the nice byproducts of having a gaming-centric blog here at PopMatters is that we are now able to preview games, rather than just review them.  As such, there’s actually some incentive for PR to send us stuff before it actually comes out.

Today, I got some stuff.

Granted, when you get a giant box at your doorstep from Rockstar three weeks before Grand Theft Auto IV comes out, you hope there’s going to be a little, DVD-size box inside, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.  Instead, we get:

This is the stuff.  Please ignore the berber.

This is the stuff.  Please ignore the berber.

- A giant, black and white foam hand, emblazoned with the GTAIV logo, doing the “shocker
- A crayola yellow Burgershot T-shirt
- A GTAIV sticker

You can tell a lot about a game by the swag that gets sent with it.  Hudson sent a bright green and yellow headband to promote the upcoming Deca Sports, Sony sent a funky little black necklace with an Omega charm with God of War: Chains of Olympus (which also came with some copies of the Chains of Olympus demo disc back when that was a big deal).  Both of those were subtle little touches, trinkets whose primary purpose is to evoke a mindset rather than to serve any actual tangible purpose.

There’s nothing subtle about the GTAIV promotional items, yet another sign that Rockstar is looking to hit like an 18-wheeler come April 29th.

The funny thing is, I’m a father of three.  I own a minivan.  What am I going to do with a giant foam shocker?  Give it to my kid to bring to school?

What Rockstar seems to be saying here is that GTAIV is not for people like me.  It’s not for grandmas.  It’s not for girls.  It’s for a certain audience that will appreciate the GTA brand of humor: macho, college-age boys, preferably ones that pound beers and incessantly quote raunchy comedies.

The problem, then, is that the appeal of Grand Theft Auto goes beyond that crowd, important as it may be to Rockstar’s numbers.  Grand Theft Auto III first appeared nearly seven years ago, meaning that even if everyone who played that game is in Rockstar’s apparent target demographic, those are the folks who have now moved on to SUVs and jobs and changing diapers.  Granted, that’s an awfully broad generality, but there are plenty of people with fond memories of GTAIII who could well be turned off by a giant foam shocker.  This isn’t by any means a complaint, but I hope for their sake that Rockstar’s marketing scheme stretches beyond the demographic indicated by this particular round of stuff.

by Bill Gibron

8 Apr 2008

Nothing makes you feel like less of a professional than being purposefully “uninvited” from a potential press screening. Baby Mama, the new Tina Fey comedy coming out later this month, will have a 7:30pm showing today (Wednesday 8 April) and only “legitimate” members of the Fourth Estate are being allowed to attend. Now, such a delineation is perhaps a complete fabrication of my competitive brain. My studio rep, who typically hounds me on all other preview opportunities, politely failed to mention this event to me. When asked, she listed potential PUBLIC screening dates sometime closer to the film’s release.

Yet I know the score. I’m in the know. I have a friend who works for a print publication, and he told me that the studio mandates were crystal and clear - no online critics, period. Why Fey’s latest would require such an extreme limiting of pre-release exposure will have to wait until sometime later in the month. But the fact that studios still see the journalistic community as divided into print and pariah is very disheartening, especially when you view the statistics.

A writer who creates content for a standard newspaper may see a circulation in the hundreds of thousands. His or her content is usually guided by an editorial staff determining the most newsworthy item or the “hot” commodity. Translate that into reality, and you’ll find that a typical daily publication fails to offer continuous coverage of film. They will reserve reviews to Friday, sometimes even placing them in a special circular or section. Anyone failing to subscribe, or who doesn’t buy that day’s paper, misses the chance to catch up on the latest releases. Sometimes, blurbs and grades are give in Weekend editions, but for the most part, print criticism is a once a week, 24 hour and over experience. 

Online, on the other hand, is forever. For the non-professional, a preview screening is an invitation to a quick turnaround and a release date defying scoop. For those outside the blogsphere however, it’s a chance to have their voice heard by more than just a handful of the local population. When PopMatters reviews a film, there is the potential for anyone to see it at any time. Anyone. In the entire world. As long as they have access to the Internet. That means that, if this site gathers two MILLION hits a month, with an equally impressive number of unique views, that’s a reach far beyond any hometown tabloid. When a look at Leatherheads or a subverting of Shine a Light appears on the web, its possible audience is almost incalculable.

As with any Johnny Come Lately - and Technically - to the party, it’s easy to see why print takes it personally. Many major newspapers are dropping their full time critics, buying out contracts, offering early retirement, and turning over their fading Friday fortunes to syndicated news services and the occasional freelance deal. Many have even resorted to using actual audience members, plied with free tickets and a chance to have their opinion published, as a means of updating their approach. Of course, none of this addresses the backlash against the online community, which has been its own worst enemy at times. But is does question the logic of limiting exposure to an already marginalized medium. Print is apparently dying…or destined to be reborn in another manner. Online is the future now.

It goes without saying that the web has wasted as many opportunities as it has belittled or just plain blown. With an unlimited access to information, a community that’s passionate about its viewpoint, the ability to achieve rapid (if also restrictive) consensus, and an outright capacity to leave the traditional media in the dust, it should be the bell weather for a new wave of criticism. Unfortunately, the fanboy tends to take over, allowing unrealistic expectations and a blinkered devotion to one’s own insights to win out. Now, some might say the same about Pauline Kael, or Roger Ebert. After all, film reviewing is founded in personal judgment more than any other factor. But the online critic often fails to take into consideration two other important elements - context and perspective.

It’s all part of the home theater explosion, the notion that all film is available to all people, and therefore, capable of being comprehended and compartmentalized by every and anyone. Naturally, that’s not true. In fact, the founding of such a format has not brought out the best in the medium. Indeed, film has become more mainstreamed and marginalized since VCRs opened Grandma’s gates of perception. Granted, more availability has given otherwise forgotten gems a second chance, and there is a dedicated few who take the job of analyzing film seriously. But for the most part, the web is best known for championing ‘80s items like The Monster Squad over in-depth overviews of Godard.

In some ways, the Internet is like the pop art explosion of the early ‘60s. It consistently crumbles the ivory tower and takes on age old truisms by staking out claims to competitive beliefs. It’s a fount of fabulous variety. It’s also a din that delivers so little of its potential and promise that it’s like listening to your local weatherman as he predicts rain while it remains sunny and warm outside. Organizations such as the Online Film Critics Society try to champion those who work within this ethereal environ, but there’s also a mercenary element of “I, Me, Mine” to the structure. Most critics do their job for the love of it. But there is a core who couldn’t fathom filling column space without a few free perks - and that includes a screening.

It’s worse in the realm of DVD. No one takes on the latest digital release over the joy of words. Instead, it’s the lure of product, the possibility of getting that special feature laden box set or special edition that drives many to pursue a gig as an online reviewer. It’s the kind of professional whoring that would have Harlan Ellison headed for another quadruple bypass. Sites who specialize in catering to the studios survive on this kind of sell out snuggling. It’s the nature of the beast - at least, for now. One day, once website’s wise up and realize the publicity power they really carry, the PR people will be supplicating themselves in an attempt to cater to their needs. For now, no one wants to bite the hand that keeps them from a weekly trip to Best Buy.

Clearly, it’s the combination of personal prostitution and off the cuff contemplation that demeans the reputation of the online critic. But there is another, less obvious element at play. Call it wanton wishful thinking, or out of sight, out of danger, but many in the print community would like to believe that writers working on the web will one day be put back in their electronic cells and simply forgotten. They stand under the outdated idea that the news hungry will always go to them for their daily dose of information. It doesn’t matter that the current post-post-modern mind wants their data updated hourly. Nor do they consider the rapidly changing demographic for their product. As the so-called Baby Boomers age, a new science savvy generation will replace them, a group that would rather have their film facts broadcast over their IPhone. How does a piece of fish wrap serve their short attention span needs?

One day, it will all work out. The decision makers will stop treating the Internet as a sore spot, and instead, will embrace its ability to be a harbinger of choice and opposing options. It will stop trying to turn reviewing into an old boy’s club, complete with arcane membership and rituals, and instead open the doors to all comers. Mark Cuban learned this the hard way when he banned bloggers from the Dallas Mavericks locker room, claiming that it was difficult to draw a line between the actual media and the online community. Huh? Is such a distinction even possible, especially when the ultimate goal seems to be the distribution of ideas? We use the ‘Net for so many things - medical diagnosis, legal advice, bar bet answers - that to say it can’t be a source of a new cinematic renaissance is ridiculous. The weaker elements will eventually fall by the wayside, but to discount everyone outside of a certain status quo will only make the transition that much harder.

Of course, none of this addresses my inability to see Baby Mama - at least, not today. I will have to wait with the rest of the rabble, sitting in the press area and absorbing the dirty looks from those longing for my spot. It won’t affect my take on the film, especially with my aesthetic expectations already set so low. But the studios better wise up to one thing - many in the online community aren’t as bonafide as I am. They want to make enemies, and will do so in spite of such boycotts and embargos. And when the war is over, there will only be one winner - and it won’t be the last remaining print personnel. Progress can’t be stopped. The sooner the major movie companies learn that, the better off it will be for the entire critical community. Until then, let the selective processing (and pandering) continue.

by Rob Horning

8 Apr 2008

Yes, I know, enough with the housing market already. Once upon a time, this blog was about criticizing consumer culture, and how it had become, for all intents and purposes, popular culture. But in my defense, housing is a consumer good, is the consumer good in the American economy right now, and the most important thing going on, consumerism wise, is how we have propped up various irrational ways to go about securing shelter (owning rather than renting, as I went on about in this column last week) with ideology and fantasy and predatory opportunities. The recent “innovative” use of housing to anchor massive borrowing (via home equity lines of credit, etc.) is a prominent manifestation of the shifts in attitude that have led to consumer spending enlarging so dramatically (while saving has plummeted to less than zero). Without easy credit, there is no spending revolution, perhaps there is no cultural move toward compulsive shopping and there is more space for other aspects of life, or other approaches to coping with life’s flux than buying things.

Anyway, Yves Smith links to this interview with Joshua Rosner, a financial risk analyst. (If you don’t read this sort of thing often, you might be surprised by the skepticism, verging on contempt, both the interviewer and interviewee have for the mainstream media and politicians and credulous ordinary folk in general. This haute banker tone of arrogant cynicism can be a selling point for me, depending on my mood.) What ensues is a discussion of further trouble on the credit-market front, with the housing-market problems front and center. They agree that the housing market has to a large degree become nationalized, and the justification for this is less practical than ideological:

Rosner: ... I continue to believe that we are going to see further downward pressure on home prices—regardless of what the Congress believes or intends or manipulates. Unless we actually nationalize the housing industry, there is not much we can do to avoid the downward correction in home values.
The IRA: But haven’t we already largely nationalized the home market already? ... During the Joint Economic Committee hearing last week, when Chairman Bernanke appeared prior to the BSC session, Senator John Sununu (R-NH) talked about the various federal government programs already in place for housing. It took him almost five minutes of soliloquy to go through them all.
Rosner: That’s right. We have a universe of government programs to encourage home ownership, but we need to reconsider the benefits of getting people into homes and how to craft government policies to make these markets more rather than less stable. Historically home ownership was seen as a way to make better neighbors and stronger communities. We need to go back and look at what aspects of home ownership were responsible for conferring these benefits. Since the late 1930, home owners generally took out 30-year fixed rate mortgages which were illiquid instruments tied to illiquid assets, namely the home, which required the borrower to make monthly payments of principal and interest into what was effectively a forced savings plan.
The IRA: You’re talking about our grandparents. And they basically could not modify the mortgage or even move easily.
Rosner: Correct. Other than moving, they could not extract equity. And when they purchased the house, they could not do so without having a substantial amount of equity going into the transaction. I would argue that it was those features that benefit society and support, from a Washington policy perspective, the social importance of home ownership.

Back in the old days, this was the plan: A family makes a longterm investment in a house, builds up equity in it over a lifetime and uses that as the bedrock of their retirement nest egg. The government fostered this vision as a companion to Social Security. Buying a house, committing to a long slog of mortgage payments, was a way of forcing yourself to save in the face of all the blandishments and temptations of a consumer society. But this wouldn’t do, especially after the stock market bubble popped. Hence, a policy of low interest rates and easy credit in the aftermath, leading to a speculative bubble in home prices—the rapid rise of which made a house anot a lifetime investment but something to flip, or at the very least refinance.

Rosner: There is an aspect of this that nobody in Washington is talking about. Let’s go back to the prior model of home ownership. Typically a family bought a home around the time of family formation. So you got married and then you and your wife bought a house. You had your kids in that house. And you had a 30-year fixed rate mortgage and every month you made a payment of principal and interest. That process usually began in the late-twenties to early thirties of a person’s life. That meant that at about the age of 60, the home owner was able to have a mortgage burning party. So as they retired, their expenses fell and the value of their unencumbered assets had risen. They had a real asset to supplement their pension, pay for grandchildren’s college, etc. Because we have allowed this model to change, the U.S. faces a huge burden in the future that we have not yet even begun to talk about in Washington.

But the political proposals to aid the housing crisis are not focused on restoring this kind of sobriety to the market. (The Institutional Risk Analyst calls the political discussion “idiotic rhetoric coming from political candidates from both parties about ‘restoring the American Dream.’ “) Instead, they are efforts to protect prices from falling, which does preserve the forced savings of traditional homeowners but also vindicates the speculators, all at the expense of taxpayers, either directly or indirectly. The underlying issue is that home prices are way out of line with economic growth generally, and that fictitious growth has already been consumed. Now, home prices must fall back in line with growth (with economic pain distributed in proportion to that earlier overconsumption) or the government will have to continue to prop up the illusion (by nationalizing the lending industry, for example) and divert funds to sustain it. That pain will be felt nationwide—whether through a worthless dollar, rampant inflation, tax increases, or pared social services.

Update: At Slate, Daniel Gross also hates the tax-benefit proposals to help the housing industry.

The proposal to give new tax breaks to homebuilders and banks is yet another example of the pernicious trend of privatizing profit and socializing losses, which is gnawing away at faith in the system.

Amen to that. Gross really deplores the tax-loss carryback extension, which lets now-failing homebuilders backdate their losses to recoup tax payments they made when the business was booming. It’s the same story over again; those who were prudent during the bubble are shafted while speculators are protected:

The proposed tax break is hard to justify for several reasons. It does nothing for slow and steady companies that keep their heads and simply rack up profits year after year—and pay their taxes accordingly. Rather, it rewards the most reckless participants in the bubble.

The lesson our government is trying to teach us? Be as reckless as possible lest you miss out. Recklessness is what keeps America on the economic cutting edge, after all.

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