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by Rob Horning

28 Jun 2008

Tom Slee, the author of No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart (highly recommended), complains about The Long Tail in this post, noting all the effort wasted in debunking an idea that was, in his opinion, never much more than a hypothesis.

Face it. Chris Anderson now has people at Harvard Business School of all places spending their valuable time following up his idle speculations. He comes up with a half-baked idea, has basically no data to support it, and yet here are academics - smart people, with tenure, real jobs and things to do - actually spending their time following up these idle daydreams; acting as his research assistants. What a waste.

Slee links to this Harvard Business Review essay by Anita Elberse that examines Anderson’s notions and finds that serving the long tail won’t make much money for any businesses, and that the economics of superstars still reigns supreme. No one is going to start a winning business selling obscure goods to the handful of people who are interested in them. More likely, I would think, those interested people will find a way get the obscure goods free from one another, if they are digitally distributable—especially since difficulties in securing rights clearances can inhibit many of these goods’ distribution for sale.

But despite the data, it’s hard for me to give up on the long-tail idea. It has a certain romantic appeal, as Elberse notes:

How much enjoyment is derived from obscure versus blockbuster products? We can all easily imagine the extreme delight that comes from discovering a rare gem, perfectly tailored to our interests and ours to bestow on likeminded friends. This is perhaps the most romanticized aspect of long-tail thinking. Many of us have experienced just such moments; they are what give Chris Anderson’s claims such resonance. The problem is that for every industrial designer who blissfully stumbles across the films of Charles and Ray Eames, untold numbers of families are subjecting themselves to the likes of Sherlock: Undercover Dog. Ratings posted by Quickflix customers show that obscure titles, on average, are appreciated less than popular titles.

It may be that we’re allured by the notion that deeply individual tastes will be nurtured by the entertainment economy of the future, that the dream of having perfectly idiosyncratic taste will be fulfilled for everyone. And there will be a perfect marketing plan individually tailored for us all that will be so suited to us that it won’t even seem like advertising. It will just seem like our wants being anticipated, the desired goods brought to us right on time. Such is the fantasy of individualism for its own sake, in the field of consumerism. With our identity riding on what we consume, we come to believe that there’s something valuable about having unique tastes, but we don’t actually pursue such a course in practice. When it comes to pop culture, for better or worse, its popularity alone is part of what makes it enjoyable, consumable. When the obscure good is consumed, it is usually an equally shallow effort to enjoy obscurity for its own sake, to use it as a badge, rather than because there is something compelling about the obscure thing itself. (This explains probably 75 percent of my record collection. That Terry Knight and the Pack record is not something I enjoy for the music.) Most of the time, what we want to consume in pop culture is the potentiality of participation in a public sphere that consists to a large degree in recognizing the same set of entertainment touchstones.

The niche products that retailers can stock (but rarely sell) may have nothing but an alibi function—they make us feel bnetter about consuming mainstream junk because we also know that we could buy something weird and idiosyncratic. As Elberse notes, “the tail is likely to be extremely flat and populated by titles that are mostly a diversion for consumers whose appetite for true blockbusters continues to grow.” Consuming niche goods every once and a while serves as a palate cleanser for the popular stuff we have truly integrated into our social lives. A Godard of Fassbinder film now and then licenses a lot of Indiana Jones and Lost episodes.

by Chris Barsanti

28 Jun 2008

Filmed back in 2004 but for some reason only trickling out into indie release now, Take Out is a video verite snapshot of a day in the life of a hapless Chinese delivery man trying to come up with hundreds of dollars to pay off a rapacious loan shark. While never trying to overdraw on the meager funds of this simple premise, the film contains a rich wealth of acutely observed sociological detail layered behind the pay-up-or-else storyline. There is no music, very little in the way of a script, and not much hope for a big payoff. Nevertheless, Take Out still stands as more of the more exciting indie releases of the year, inexplicably delayed though it may have been.

Co-written and -directed by Sean Baker, a former writer for Greg the Bunny, Take Out is cast entirely by nonprofessionals and was shot in surprisingly crisp video at a real Manhattan takeout joint up on 103rd and Amsterdam that the filmmakers rigged with microphones. The rhythms of the day are well observed, the opening and closing of the heavy iron shutters, the lunch and dinner rushes, and the endless haggling with customers trying to chisel just a little bit more (“I thought you said it was $3.25, not $4.25;” “Can I get more duck sauce?”).

Having been woken up earlier by the loan shark’s goons who left a warning in the form of a bruising hammer blow to his back, Ming Ding (a moon-faced Charles Jang) borrows over $600 in a couple frantic hours, but is left with a day’s work to make the final $150. After a friendly co-worker lets him take all the deliveries in order to maximize tips, Ming spends the day biking through rain and traffic, delivering to businesses, the projects, luxury apartments, and tiny walk-ups. After a half-hour or so of this, the average viewer will be reduced to Ming’s tunnel vision, eagerly watching every dollar that the customers give out, grimacing at the constant slights (“No speakee English?!”) and overwhelmingly thankful for the tiniest glimpses of human warmth.

For Ming, life in America is all about the looking in, usually just a glimpse of another crowded New York apartment (some elegant, many not so). Amidst the squalling traffic and relentless rain, even the claustrophobic restaurant—the kind of place where the faded photos of all the dishes are on display, and they also serve fries and chicken wings—with its tight-knit band of workers seems like a harbor in the storm. Having put his parents in debt to get to America, leaving behind a wife and a son born after he left, Ming has nobody but these fellow immigrants (most of whom seem to be illegal) to look out for him and no real connection to this raging, squalling, honking city but the money.

At some point Ming may become like the assured pair of cooks who spend the film expertly flinging food in and out of their woks—the filmmakers keep a journalist’s eye on the workings of the restaurant, particularly the voluble Big Sister (effortlessly scene-stealing Wang-Thye Lee) who runs the counter and phone like a master conductor —or he may easily fall the other way, into destitution or deportation. The lack of any safety apparatus or backup plan whatsoever is never spelled out but looms there nonetheless.

There are some who will say that they will never think the same way about ordering Chinese takeout after seeing this film. These, of course, are probably just people who have never had to take minimum-wage (or less) service industry positions in life, and so need to be prodded by something like this film to even consider the lives of those who serve them. But carping about class issues aside, there is something to the idea that Take Out does a service by taking its viewpoint from the outside. Here, the aliens are those strange people who open up their doors for the deliveryman and sigh impatiently as he counts out their change, griping out getting chicken instead of beef or how long the delivery took. Some will at least think twice about welshing on a tip after seeing Take Out, which is more effect than many films with one thousand times the budget have on society.

by Terry Sawyer

28 Jun 2008

I’m a pretty begrudging late adopter of the music blogosphere;  someone deeply skeptical about its grandiose claims of revolutionary potential. At this point, it appears little more than an en masse, passive, bitchy decimation of one particular group’s intellectual property rights. The technological ease of the theft has made the debate all the more quaint, because technology often demands moral imperatives where there clearly is none. The disembodiment of the internet makes the debate all that much more surreal. If I could find the technical means to steal a bunch of Cindy Sherman’s original photographs, few people would hail me as somehow changing the paradigm of a consumerist society, robbing all those evil corporate, um, artists. Just as the internet gives all fat people “swimmer’s builds” (i.e. floats in water), it also provides a home to philosophical fantasy and ugly displays of id. No insult is too impolitic, no opinion to stupid to utter, no thoughtlessness too thoughtless. The MP3 is not an actual CD in your hand and the person you’re calling an asshole is not sitting in front of you bearing your brunt.

Which is why I find the morphology of Perez Hilton to be a fetching snapshot of the music stealing revolution. On the one hand, I can totally appreciate a good scam. I love televangelists and Ryan Phillippe. And, if I’d thought of Hilton’s signature photoshopped jizz on celebrity photographs first, I would have done him one better and used the real deal and scored an NEA grant with heralded works like “Money Shot Hasselback”. But if all these prominent bloggers really want is better paying jobs in the industries they’re economically undermining, what revolutionary content is left in the act of releasing an album early or parlaying your cum stain photography into a Hot Topic line of John Hughes casual wear? Worse still, is Hilton’s idea for his own record label. Don’t we remember how evil those people are? They never gave artists enough money anyway, which is why it’s so much better to give them absolutely nothing by stealing. Hilton’s project is itself designed on the most regressive corporatist model. His unpaid minions send him music, he does the hard work of clicking through the stuff he didn’t find and then gets to brand himself a tastemaker. That makes sharecropping look like Whole Foods.

And what of his discoveries? Mika? He forgets that the excesses of the blogosphere have created an environment where the consumption cycle is accelerated to the point of instant incineration. How exactly will he be able to shepherd these dubious “discoveries” through the old label system and make them profitable before they are irrelevant?  Perhaps I’m picking low hanging fruit in knocking Perez. He has never seemed more than a nakedly honest opportunist trying his hand at the celebrity alchemy of making something from nothing. But his example makes me doubt much of the talk about the unprecedented and new world created by online file sharing and its curiously concurrent revival of vinyl sales. As Tricky once said, “Brand new, you’re retro.” And all of this talk of revolution makes me think that there are a lot of dislocated liberal arts majors like myself looking for an angle in a movement with no collective, a revolution in resume padding.

by Nikki Tranter

27 Jun 2008

Jesse Gilmour’s journey through late adolescence may have been an ass-over-teakettle tumble toward the gaping maw of teenage oblivion, but at least he wasn’t a nerd. In our postmodern age of (slowly) growing tolerance for all races, ethnicities, religions, and various orientations, nerds—our catch-all term for the cerebrally gifted but socially awkward, with their furtive cliquishness and retreats into realms of various forms of fantasy—remain a heavily marginalized subset of society, even as we’ve evolved into a global technocracy largely through their efforts. As author Benjamin Nugent puts it, Bill Gates is the wealthiest man on Earth and he’s still considered a loser.

Nugent attempts a hard critical look at nerd culture, its evolution and various permutations, in his new book American Nerd: The Story of My People (Simon & Schuster, 2008). Describing himself as a former nerd who grew out of it, but asserting that his view is non-judgmental, Nugent offers up several examples of the nerd as a character in classic literature—Victor Frankenstein, Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice—the objects of derision because of their willful separation from healthier human passions. He then traces the archetypal chasm between nerds and jocks that occurred with the growth of “Muscular Christianity,” the Teddy Roosevelt-era doctrine that God’s men are athletes and adventurers and empire-builders, not bookish intellectuals with a disdain for direct sunlight.

The rest of the book is a seemingly random series of glimpses into various nerd subcultures. Here is a chapter on the activities of the Society for Creative Anachronism, whose members recreate the structures and artisanship of medieval feudalism (but not the plagues and infant mortality rates). Here is a look at the Church of All Worlds, a philosophical mashup of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein that espouses polyamory. Here is a videogaming convention that demonstrates a stark difference between the communal bonds of Halo 2 players and those who play Super Smash Bros. Melee. Here is a meeting of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, divided between aging old-school sci-fi readers and young otakus too busy gaming to read.

Interspersed with these chapters are Nugent’s sociological observations that parallel nerd culture—with its emphases on bookishness and machinelike behavior—with similar traits in Jewish and Asian cultures, and that posit an overlap between the seeming dysfunctionalism of nerds with that of people with Asperger’s Syndrome (note: as the parent of an autistic-spectrum child I emphasize the word “seeming”). In still another chapter, Nugent examines the assimilation of typical nerd traits (disaffectedness, an obsession with cultural minutiae) into the hipster profile (who bought all those “Vote for Pedro” ringer tees?). And he brings it home with autobiographical peeks into his own childhood and the extremely unhappy homes that drove him and his friends into the relatively safe world of Dungeons & Dragons.

With his scattershot approach Nugent tries to take what is, in fact, an incredibly complex topic (I can think of at least five major nerd subcultures he neglects here) and boil it down to a Unified Field Theory of Geekdom. In this he is largely unsuccessful, but what he does manage is a sort of apologia, an attempt at least to open up this traditionally airtight social ghetto. He may claim to have rejected nerd culture but he clearly still has sympathy and affection for it, and if anyone could use sympathy and affection, it’s nerds.

Originally published at Flagpole.

by Bill Gibron

27 Jun 2008

By its very definition, imagination is limitless. The only true restrictions to the notion exist in the connection to actual human thought. Clearly, whoever is hiring (or perhaps, cloning) the creative forces at Pixar have found a way to circumvent said biological boundary. In an artistic endeavor where there are no sure things, this astounding animation studio has that most unprecedented of reputations - they never make a mistake. Not only are their films fantastic examples of motion picture craftsmanship, but they keep getting better with each and every new offering. Take their latest, the special sci-fi allegory WALL*E. It a stunning achievement in computer generated imagery, and once again expands the company’s range in dealing with subject matter both speculative and wonderfully sly.

It’s been 700 years since humans inhabited Earth. Leaving it in an environmentally decimated state, waste removal robots are the only thing left behind. Their job - to compact and eliminate the mess. Centuries later, all that’s left is one surviving unit. WALL*E is a determined little droid that has developed a sort of consciousness. Picking through the rubble while listening to songs from Hello Dolly on his internal recording unit, the small service entity spends his days building skyscrapers out of trash. At night, however, he appears lonely, pining for someone, or perhaps something, besides his cockroach companion to share his dump-derived treasure trove. His prayers are answered one day in the form of EVE. She’s a automated sentry looking for any signs of life returning to the planet. Though she seems to have little time for our tin hero, he is instantly smitten. And when she has to leave, he’s not letting her go away.

While the aforementioned synopsis only addresses the first 25 minutes or so of WALL*E, to go any further would ruin this brilliant film’s many discernible delights. There is also a need for a narrative caveat - don’t believe the hype that Disney is dishing out over this latest supposed kiddie fare. This is not Pixar’s version of Robots, or a cutesy combination of silent comedy and Silent Running. Instead, this is complex, comparative evaluation of a planet and a people out of control, a coolly cynical (and often quite touching) swipe at junk culture, ‘Superstore’ suburban society, and all those who require comfort as their waistlines expand to match the malaise. If those statements fail to make sense, don’t be too distressed. After watching this fascinating film, you’ll completely understand what writer/director Andrew Stanton is after.

As the mind behind many of Pixar’s biggest hits - Toy Story, Monster’s Inc., Finding Nemo - Stanton is clearly reaching for a more mature theme here, one that centers on clear cause and effect, reality and revisionism, and an unspoken need for ecological concern. The first third of the film, taking place within a sadly scorched environment, hints at consumerism gone chaotic. All around are remnants of shopping centers, mega-marts, and harsh hard sell advertising. At times, WALL*E closely resembles John Carpenter’s cautionary satire They Live, only in this future shock society, the mandates to ‘buy or die’ are not subliminal…and definitely not of invading alien design. When EVE arrives, WALL*E stretches the subtext even further, her scanning ray rendering everything she explores “red”, or “inhabitable” - including the cityscapes which once defined civilization. 

How some small fry raised on a routine diet of previous Pixar anthropomorphized animals will react to this material is intriguing, since it stands in sharp contrast to the stunt casting standards usually found within the genre. WALL*E speaks in a strange electronic whine, occasional blips enunciating actual words. EVE is more coherent, singular statements like “Directive” and “Plant” easily understood. But Stanton is much more interested in character development than any internal game of name that celebrity. This is the least fame driven collection of any Pixar company, many behind the scenes staying more or less unrecognizable. And while the visual antics are intriguing and downright clever, most of the jokes take place in locales that will test a wee one’s personal patience.

Once the story moves interstellar, so to speak, things get even dicier. WALL*E works best when you’re in on the razz, and no one under the age of 12 will get the insightful inferences. They will see the circumstances, the disconnect between people and place, the blob like behavior of a populace that no longer cares, and scratch their pointed little heads. Sure, the malfunctioning robot gang that becomes our heroes’ protectors, and some of the mesmerizing anarchic action sequences, will clearly keep younger audiences tuned in, but what’s self evident within WALL*E‘s world is that, for once, Pixar has purposefully inserted a far more complicated and multi-layered concept of story inside its flawlessly rendered designs.

And what a gorgeous set of images they are. WALL*E announces yet another massive leap in technological talent for the fabled filmmakers, a textural, tactile quality that continues to push CG 3D into uncharted artistic arenas. The visual element really helps sell much of what Stanton and crew are commenting on, the vast vistas with their epic scope and suggestive details filling the screen with more eye candy than even the most seasoned cinematic sugar junky can handle. If there is one minor flaw here, a pet peeve for those of us who enjoy good science fiction, it’s that WALL*E doesn’t spend more time in and around the dead planet. A mind could free associate for hours on the prophetic pictures that Pixar chooses to paint. Along with the tale told, we have quality of an unmatched caliber.

Of course, the animation giant has once again set itself up for one of the mightiest of (potential) falls. As each film opens, as Oscars continue to poor in, as accolades build and revisionist criticism starts to bubble, it’s hard to see where the company can go next. And you just know there are dozens of A/V villains out there waiting for Pixar to tank, to provide a problematic flop that fails to live up to Ratatouille‘s tenderness, Nemo‘s naturalism, Monsters’ amazing sense of invention, or The Incredibles aced super heroism. Hopefully, it never happens, but if it does, Stanton and his gang can probably point to WALL*E as the beginning of the end. When you raise the bar as high as this, down seems the only logical next step. If anyone can buck such motion picture providence, it’s this unflappable filmmaking co-op. A masterpiece like WALL*E proves that perfectly.

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

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