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by Bill Gibron

28 Feb 2009

The secret that has torn apart a once close knit family. A room in the brooding clan’s farmhouse that no one ever goes in. The seedy side of Smalltown USA. The distant father who’s unable to communicate with his angry and confused son. The former fling that’s now the voice of law and order in our hero’s humble hometown. If all of these elements sound familiar, it’s because they are staples of the iconic indie thriller. Ever since David Lynch explored the dark underbelly of a little burg called Lumberton, directors have tried to imitate his mix of the common place and the corrupt. Lake City is just the latest example of such In the Bedroom tactics. In the sleepy, sometimes inert suspense saga, we get many of the archetypes that reinvented the genre - and that have more or less stunted it ever since.

Billy is in trouble. Seems a mysterious woman named Hope showed up with a knapsack full of drugs and a kid she claims is his, and then just disappeared. Now local drug thug Red is angry, and he wants either his dope or the $100,00 its worth. Naturally, he thinks Billy is in on the con. Escaping to his mother’s house in Lake City, our hero and his underage charge pray they have managed to stay far outside of Red’s reach. Billy even tries to rekindle an old flame friendship with the town’s female sheriff. But when Hope makes another hasty appearance, things go from bad to deadly. It’s not long before the drug dealers are chasing Billy across his ancestral home - and his mother is doing everything she can to keep him safe.

Lake City lacks the one thing that makes all edge of your seat experiences viable - a reason to care. No matter the level of excellent acting skill proffered by Oscar winner Sissy Spacek (as the mother), Troy Garity (as Billy), Rebecca Romjin (as the recovering alcoholic sheriff), or child actor Colin Ford, this is a story we can’t become involved in. The entire history of this situation is shrouded in ambiguity, and first time feature filmmakers Hunter Hill and Perry Moore decide that the best way to handle such vagueness is to keep things even cloudier until the very last minute. We can infer a lot of spoiler-like things from our view within the circumstance, and because of such flagrant foreshadowing, many of the reveals are anti-climatic. As a result, nothing about Lake City appears new…or novel…or interesting. 

Granted, Hill and Moore do paint some absolutely gorgeous pictures. The camera captures the lush Virginia countryside in picture postcard perfection. Scenes of isolated contemplation, a character considering their plight against a sun-dappled backdrop should create all the mood and atmosphere a film needs. But Lake City keeps sliding into predictability, that is, when it isn’t shielding audiences from necessary interpersonal information. We have to guess at relationships. The connection between Billy and Hope is a good example. They have an eight year old child together that our hero JUST found out about. He’s supposedly a musician. Did he meet her at a gig? Is she a groupie who showed up subsequently to preach paternity? We don’t know.

Similarly, the secret between Billy and his Mom is reduced to nothing more than a red herring. The loss of any loved one is impossible to bear, but this situation seems like a literal accident blown way out of proportion. It’s the kind of incident the Lifetime Channel gets far too much mileage out of day in and day out. Spacek and Garity do have the mandatory heart to heart, and tears do flow as the flashbacks finally fill us in. But instead of handling this material in such a stereotypical way, Hill and Moore should have tried to impose something original or unique onto the memory. Why make it the fulcrum that destroys everything? Besides, Spacek’s character seems to have lost a lot lately. What makes this incident more devastating than any of those?

Questions are never good for a thriller. They circumvent any sizzle or suspense you might build up. Even with iconic rocker Dave Matthews as a sleazeball criminal, there’s no juice here. When Momma handles the problematic drug deal, we get a gratuitous false ending that feels so final that the sudden switcheroo throws the entire experience off balance. Nothing like asking a viewer to reconfigure their entire perspective 10 minutes before the movie ends. Similarly, the subplot involving Keith Carradine as a garage mechanic with a thing for Spacek goes absolutely nowhere. Yet every time he shows up, we’re supposed to be prepared for his hopeless romanticism to pay off. It doesn’t.

Perhaps Lake City‘s final fatal flaw is the indie ideal to go low key instead of high energy. Such shoe-gazing may give us some beautiful landscapes to ponder, but we want pulses racing from intrigue, not the verdant splendor of a mid-Fall valley. Hill and Moore do find a few sequences of truth (though NOTHING in the relationship between Billy and his newly discovered young son works AT ALL) and you can’t help but feel the internal strife Spacek is suffering from. But Lake City can’t compete on the same level as similarly styled movies it clearly copies from. Two decades ago, looking at the horrific truths buried within an idyllic setting seemed original and revisionist. Today, it’s a typical episode of Dateline. Hunter Hill and Perry Moore clearly have something to offer the motion picture artform. Next time, they should try for something a little less derivative.

by Jason Gross

28 Feb 2009

Sorry but it has to be said. This was something I was talking about last year around this time but the situation hasn’t improved much.  If you go through the list of bands playing at SXSW, you keep seeing the same thing happening: terrible websites where it’s hard to find anything, especially music (which is the point, right?).  To be fair, some of them are pretty good but I gotta say that most of them just stink up their virtual real estate.

Instead of picking on any particular band and their site, I’d like to offer up some tips about making a good website for your band.

* Make the music easy to find!
It’s sad that this ain’t more obvious.  If a user comes to your site and has to fumble around for a few minutes just to find one of your tunes, you’ve failed.  They don’t have the patience to dig around for it and they have plenty of other sites to visit online.  Make it ridiculously obvious to them- have a nice big button or graphic that says MUSIC right up front or a music player embedded on the home page, ready to pump out your tunes.  Also horrible- a link to ‘music’ that says ‘coming soon’- no one’s coming back to see when you get your act together.

* Make everything else easy to find
Just common sense, right?  You can use all kinds of fancy language to say ‘pictures’ or ‘tour dates’ or bio’ but why make people have to guess where that is on your site?  They want info so give it to ‘em right up front with links on your homepage to all of these things. Going along with that, have links at the top and/or bottom of all of your pages that let users easily get to all the sections of your site.  If you make your site user friendly for your web audience, you’ll get rewarded with more interest and web traffic (assuming that you have some good music…).

* Leverage MySpace wisely
If you can’t get any music on your site for some reason (space, bandwidth, lack of knowledge), you have to let peeps hear your music somehow.  Have a link to MySpace at least.  You’ll want a presence there anyway so the bottom line is that you need a MySpace page along with your own website.  But… it’s better to keep people at your website ‘cause you have a lot more flexibility about how you can set it up with some nice graphics, photos, links to merchandise, etc.. Nothing wrong with having a presence on the web in more than one place (it helps get your name out) but ideally, you should have your site as a home-base for fans and potential fans.

* Ditch the splash page
Your techie friend talked you into have a cool graphic pop up that takes forever to load, just so someone can enter your site.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  It’s annoying as hell and again, your online audience won’t sit through it.  Just have a homepage that’s actually a homepage with all the info about your band easily accessible with obvious links to everything.

* Even with high-speed access, don’t pig out on pics
Now that modems are almost a thing of the past, you’d figure that you can load up as many pictures, songs, videos and media on your site as you want, right?  Nope.  Even on high-speed connections, some web pages are still so bloated with huge pics and media files that they take a while to load.  Again, your audience ain’t gonna like that.  The ol’ rule of thumb was that if it took more than 15-20 seconds to load your page, your user was gone.  That still seems about right and why would you wanna piss ‘em off anyway?  If you have a lot of media stuff to show off, break it out into different pages with links to everything instead of loading it down all in one place.

* Mailing lists are good to gather fans but don’t get carried away
Have a link on your homepage and everywhere else on your site for anyone to sign up for your mailing list.  If you can’t get one going on your own, you can start one up for free at a place like Yahoo Groups without being a techie.  Tell ‘em about upcoming shows, your album coming out, other appearances, etc.. But don’t get carried away and flood ‘em with mail- once or twice a week’s good enough if you’ve got lots of news about the band.  Even in down times where nothing’s really happening, maybe send them some holiday greetings or such, just to keep them in the loop.


Sad to say, I can’t help you with advice about licensing, contracts, etc. but hopefully this’ll give you food for thought about your site.  So please clean up your act, OK?

by Bill Gibron

27 Feb 2009

He remains a symbol of defiance and revolution in a world that’s (supposedly) moved on from his type of gung-ho, guerilla tactics. He’s a hero to some, a demagogue to others, and a thorn in the side of every US administration since Eisenhower. For filmmaker Saul Landau, however, Fidel Castro is a man of many nuances. He’s a powerbroker connected to the people, a liberator looking beyond the basics of Communism to a larger, utopian ideal. After dropping out of graduate school to experience the Cuban revolution first hand, Landau was let back into the country to chronicle the event’s 15 year anniversary. With unprecedented access to his subject and sources, he’s managed to make one of the most intriguing films ever about a would-be world leader.

Part portrait, part propaganda, Fidel! is filled with memorable images: Castro relaxing with pick-up game of baseball; the leader eating in a communal tent with his many military-styled advisers; a group of star struck villagers demanding the man come in for a cup of coffee; a group of school teachers swarming their beloved Fidel, proclaiming his vision for their underdeveloped nation. With newsreel footage of the factual basis for Castro’s rise to power, and the opportunity to witness the country in all its growing pains glory, Landau’s film is a remarkable achievement. It will also definitely chafe those who feel that Castro is a cancer in Latin America, a man who’s mangled Marxism has led an entire people to poverty and almost virtual international isolation.

But this is Landau’s story and he’s sticking with it. As part of the delightful DVD package presented by Provocateur Pictures and Microcinema International, the director is on hand to give a thorough and quite rousing commentary track, and in it, he more or less sets up Castro as one of the key figures of the 20th Century. He points out that, as an idealist, he is one of the few revolutionaries who completely and totally fulfilled the promise of his take-over. Castro wanted Cuba to be its own sovereign nation, unfettered by influence from America (and its corporate clout) and the historical harness of Spain. Landau makes it abundantly clear that Castro did indeed achieve his goals. And since the film finds the country prospering after the entire Bay of Pigs/Missile Crisis debacles of the earlier part of the decade, it appears that victory is sweet indeed.

Taken as a simple statement of Castro circa 1969, Fidel! is a fine effort. It applies a cinema verite approach to the narrative, listening in on the leader and his inner circle as they discuss administrative philosophy, the order of power, and the current goals for the Cuba people. Education (and some would say, indoctrination) are the mandates of the day, with Landau visiting schools to show how the new regime guarantees the ability to learn for all. A great deal of Fidel! focuses on the citizenry and its reaction to their enigmatic chief. Castro never panders. Instead, there is a genuineness about his promises that seem sincere, especially in light of today’s “say anything” political ploys.

But one can’t help feel that a really rosy set of lens were used to manufacture this movie. Political prisoners are shown in a kind of photo-op phoniness that, while possibly true, seems unusually lenient for actual enemies of the state. They even sound sorry for being opposed to Castro. Then we see some dissidents waiting to leave the country. They too seem less angry and more apologetic than we expect. Perhaps times have indeed changed. Maybe the rising tensions in South Florida over US policy toward Cuba and sour memories of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 taint our opinion of the man and his manner. Whatever it is, there are indeed times when Fidel! feels forced, like jingoism instead of honest social sentiment.

Still, Landau deserves more than credit for compiling such an intimate look. Castro comes off as smart, savvy, creative, undaunted, and very, very passionate. His speeches combine the best kind of conversational persuasion, and his advisors stands as a loyal group of actual thinkers. Some time is spent on absent Friend of the Revolution Ché Guevara and it is clear that Castro still has uncomfortable feelings over the radical’s death (he died a year before this movie was made). Large landscape portraits of Ché are seen all around Cuba, and his name brings the kind of hushed reverence reserved for saints. Yet this section feels incomplete, as if Landau didn’t want to stray too far from the subject at hand (besides, Guevara is a massive subject to undertake).

As part of this exceptional DVD package, we do get the aforementioned director’s commentary, and it may be hard for some Conservative, anti-Communist Republican types to hear. Landau is virtually in love with Fidel Castro, both as a man and as a symbol of American hubris. He points out the sordid CIA attempts to assassinate the leader, and mocks the presumption that Cuba wanted warmer relations with the Soviets. He sets the record straight about some of the scenes, and even offers us a chance to see a short film he made in 1974 - Fidel + Cuba. It’s an eye opener as well. Along with an old interview that repeats some of the concepts from his commentary, and a look at his production diary, Landau is just as important a part of Fidel! as the iconic ideologue himself.

In 2008, it seems almost silly that the US maintains a staunch and sometimes confusing embargo on an island a mere 90 miles from its shores. Certainly there are reasons both politically and morally for such a stand (at least in the eyes of those harboring hatred for the man who dismantled the Batista regime) and history is never helped by only knowing one side of the story. In Fidel! , Saul Landau does us the honorable service of seeing things from the everyday Cuban’s point of view. This is not the story of the upper class or the rich. This is not the tale of the empowered or the embittered. It’s just a look at one man, his sense of national duty, and the foundation for holding onto his newfound power. Five decades later, it remains a remarkable achievement - albeit a controversial and incomplete one.

by Rob Horning

27 Feb 2009

It may turn out to be a question of semantics, but the idea of “purchasing experiences,” as this PsyBlog item discusses, has always grated on me. It seems to conform the pleasures of living to the calculus of shopping, as if they were essentially the same, and the consumerist paradigm can be applied to all pleasures and desires. Everything is for sale, and everything has its price, if you only think of it in the right way. (Just ask Gary Becker.) Is this in fact true, that rational calculation underlies even our most spontaneous-seeming choices and we just choose to block it out of our consciousness from ideological convenience, or is hyper-rational-choice analysis of human behavior itself the ideological proposition? The PsyBlog post confirms what most research into the subject has found: that buying experiences is better than buying stuff, because the stuff sticks around and becomes lame and/or embarrassing, while the experiences become warm and fuzzy memories.

Experiences also beat possessions because they seem to:
  * Improve with time as we forget about all the boring moments and just recall the highlights.
  * Take on symbolic meanings, whereas those shoes are still just shoes.
  * Be very resistant to unfavourable comparisons: a wonderful moment in a restaurant is personally yours and difficult to compare, but all too soon your shoes are likely to look dated in comparison with the new fashions.

That makes a lot of intuitive sense to me, but I just wish it weren’t represented as a matter of what to buy. Can we simply have experiences rather than arranging to purchase them ahead of time?

I had a similar feeling about another consumer-choice related post. Jonah Lehrer, who has just written a book called How We Choose, recently posted about a consumer-research study built on the premise that we all operate with two distinct decisionmaking systems: “the slow rational, deliberate approach (System 1) or the fast, emotional, instinctive approach (System 2).” The study set out to determine which yielded better decisions, using the metric of “consumer consistency.” I have read the rationale for this several times, and have failed to understand it as anything other than an inexplicable plug for Nikon cameras.

When faced with a choice task, consumers need to evaluate the overall utility of each of the alternatives they are facing and compare these utilities in order to make their final choice. Such a utility computation process is likely to vary from case to case based on the exact information consumers consider, the particular facts they retrieve from their memories, as well as the particular computations that they carry out; any of these process components is a potential source for decision inconsistency. For example, when shopping for a new Nikon digital camera, it is possible that consumers might change the aspects of the camera they focus on, the particular information they retrieve from memory, the relative importance weights they assign to the attributes, or the process of integrating these weights.
As researchers, we often treat such inconsistencies as ―noise‖ and use statistical inference tools that allow us to examine the data while mostly ignoring these fluctuations. Yet, such noise can convey important information about the ability of the decision maker to perform good decisions, and, in particular, it can reflect their ability to conceptualize their own preferences. In the current work we focus on such inconsistencies / noise in decision making as indicators of the ease in which consumers can formulate their preferences: we focus on the question of whether the cognitive or emotional decisions are more prone to this kind of error.

I’m not sure why inconsistency iis defined as “error” (Am I reading this right?) or why they assume that beneath the “noise” evoked in a given decisionmaking moment is a preference that is true and consistent over time for a particular individual. People’s desires aren’t that static. And the “noise” in the decisionmaking process is what makes us more than automatons; it makes us strange to ourselves, potentially, but that also means we discover new possibilities for who we are that we wouldn’t otherwise reason our way into. I tend to think that our identity is not so continuous as the researchers’ assumptions imply; that instead our identity tends to be conjured up by the demands of a given context—to put it in lit-crit jargon, subjectivity is intertextual. It’s relational. It’s not a given, transcendent thing that then responds to situations and decisionmaking opportunities. The “noise” is everything.

If we are start making consistent decisions when forced to rely on our “emotional” decisionmaking system, as the study found, that suggests to me a failure of imagination, a retreat into safe choices in response to being overstimulated. The emotional brain is boring in its consistency, not “rational” as Lehrer suggests. Again, this could be semantics, could be a matter of how you define “rational,” but it seems irrational to me to continue to choose the same thing over and over again. That seems sort of regressive, tending toward an infantile repetition compulsion. As much as I complain about gratuitous novelty-seeking, the idea that only consistent choices are rational seems even more absurd. (I am missing something about this study? I must be.) I sometimes feel as though I am coming around to a totally indefensible and irrational position that we shouldn’t bother to study how we choose at all, since it can hardly be anything but a weapon in the hands of marketers to control what we choose, to force out the noise that makes us unique to ourselves and replace it with an official, monologic hum.

by Vijith Assar

27 Feb 2009

Economopocalypse got you down?  Banish the gloomies by slurping up a Chipwich® or a Bomb Pop™—American obesity has already pressed on beyond epidemic levels into pure comic Nutty Professor territory, after all, so why hold back in your time of need?  If you’re among the few still watching your girlish figure, however, you can instead dip into Virginia composer Michael Hearst‘s adorable little Songs for Ice Cream Trucks project, which pays homage to the beloved nuggets of dairy delight and the remarkable mobile delivery infrastructure that carries them throughout suburbia with nostalgia-riddled melodic pointillism delivered via wobbly bells and xylophones.  It’s also a remarkable study in self-restraint: these songs had to work with only the technical underpinnings of what is essentially just a giant music box on wheels. And even though ice cream is always awesome, the songs aren’t always upbeat, sometimes opting instead for creepy minor keys that remind you that at least a few of the truck drivers from your childhood were probably borderline pedophiles and Mister Softee kinda looks like a bow-tied turd.  But you can grab these songs for free, so if you ultimately decide that rainbow sprinkles aren’t a suitable substitute for your 401k (imagine that!) and still need a pick-me-up at the other end, you’ll have plenty of money left over for the Jim Beam.

Michael Hearst
“Where Do Ice Cream Trucks Go in the Winter? [MP3]
     

“Chocolate, Vanilla, or Swirl?” [MP3]
     

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