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by Jason Gross

27 Jun 2008

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by PopMatters Staff

27 Jun 2008

(all songs from Clusterbombs on Gravel Records)
Nine Digit Number [MP3]

Blindfolded [MP3]

The Birds & The Bees [MP3]

Nine Digit Number [Video]

Alabama 3
Hello… I’m Johnny Cash [MP3] (from the new greatest hits collection, Hits & Exit Wounds)

Shugo Tokumaru
Parachute [MP3] (from Exit releasing 2 September on Almost Gold)

The Dutchess & the Duke
Reservoir Park [MP3] (from She’s the Dutchess, He’s the Duke releasing 8 July)

Duchess Says
Ccut Up [MP3] (from Anthologie des 3 Perchoirs releasing 2 September)

Silver Summit
The Door [MP3] (from Silver Summit, released 17 June on Language of Stone)

42 [Video]

Lost! [Video]

Oxford Collapse
The Birthday Wars [MP3]

by Bill Gibron

26 Jun 2008

Feel that heat? Summer just continues to sizzle. For 24 June, here are the films in focus:

Wanted [rating: 9]

...if they’re not careful, those Marvel superheroes better watch out. Wanted could usurp their position as 2008’s best popcorn escape.

Hollywood is notorious for repeating ideas. When something is successful, you can guarantee studio suits are desperate to find a way of copying it. With this Friday’s release of Wanted, something even more unusual takes place. While it’s clear that this movie borrows liberally from the Wachowski’s action packed bullet time virtual reality revisionism, it also incorporates much of Fight Club‘s insignificant rebel in a crass corporate pond philosophizing. Together, the combination adds up to a strangely unique experience. On the one hand, you easily recognize the various references. On the other, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov uses the homage as a means of manufacturing his own incredible full review…

Wall*E [rating: 10]

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.

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.  read full review…

Standard Operating Procedure [rating: 8]

In some ways, Standard Operating Procedure is too appalling to appreciate. It’s like watching the Nuremberg Trials, Nazis purposefully passing the buck higher and higher up, fully aware that no one above a certain rank is around to take the blame.

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of the horrifying images witnessed by the world as part of the investigation of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, very little of said commentary centered on context. The acts inferred by the photos were shocking, even more so when placed alongside the Bush Administration rhetoric that the United States was functioning as “liberators” and “peacekeepers” in a nation already haunted by a ruthless, tyrannical dictator. Yet there were photos of American soldiers, seemingly torturing, humiliating, and endangering the lives of so-called ‘enemy combatants’, all in the name of the War on Terror. read full review…

The Counterfeiters [rating: 8]

What’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era are reduced to a filmic footnote.

By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered. read full review…

Married Life [rating: 4]

There will definitely be an audience for this kind of slow burn situational potboiler, but for many, there will be too much stagnancy and not enough sizzle

Marriage might just be the perfect cinematic allegory. You can infer so many differing metaphoric elements in the dissection of why men and women marry - and sometimes separate - that the permutations appear endless. There’s the emotional facet, the sexual supposition, the commitment and loyalty facets, and of course, the scandal ridden and adulterous angles. Together with an equal array of stylistic approaches, we wind up with a veritable cornucopia of combinations, a wealth of possibilities linked invariably to the age old notion of vows taken and knots tied. So why is it that Ira Sachs period piece drama, Married Life, is so downright flat? Could it be that this filmmaker has finally found the one cinematic category - the noir-tinged whodunit - that defies matrimony’s easy explanations and illustrations? read full review…

The Legend of God’s Gun [rating: 9]

...a shot on video fever dream filtered through the latest high tech post-production optical candy factories to produce one of the most original and unforgettable films of the newly crowned “noughts”.

It’s an interesting time for the once dead film genre known as the Western. Ever since Clint Eastwood snagged an Oscar for his “revisionist” revival of the spiraling cinematic favorite, post-modern moviemakers have embraced a more deconstructed version of the oater. In their mind, the standard element of black hat/white hat, good vs evil no longer holds sway in a society far more ambiguous and ethically unsure. While recent horse operas have tried to trade on those wholesome, old fashioned values (the recently released 3:10 to Yuma), others have actually tried to dig deeper into that dilemma. The 2006 Australian hit The Proposition was one such example, as is the upcoming Brad Pitt ‘epic’ The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both movies see the stereotypical symbolism inherent in the category as a means of making larger, more metaphysical points.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

26 Jun 2008

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of the horrifying images witnessed by the world as part of the investigation of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, very little of said commentary centered on context. The acts inferred by the photos were shocking, even more so when placed alongside the Bush Administration rhetoric that the United States was functioning as “liberators” and “peacekeepers” in a nation already haunted by a ruthless, tyrannical dictator. Yet there were photos of American soldiers, seemingly torturing, humiliating, and endangering the lives of so-called ‘enemy combatants’, all in the name of the War on Terror.

Now, Errol Morris, acclaimed director of such fascinating documentaries as The Thin Blue Line, Gates of Heaven, and The Fog of War, wants to uncover the background of this unapologetic policy stain. Via interviews with those involved, those supervising or overseeing the American-occupied Iraq prison system, those charged with prosecuting and/or court marshalling the participants, and those who really were in the country to conduct covert coercion of detainees, a slightly bigger picture develops. What we learn is that some of the rumored atrocities were nothing more than SOP - military slang for ‘standard operating procedure’. While they looked unconscionable, what was depicted was part of a typical war time work method.

That many of these images are excusable is Morris’ first major revelation. The press is branded as premeditated in its automatic denouncement, especially when we learn that some of the stills were staged in order to show brass that action was being taken to retrieve the mandated intelligence. Certainly, not every excuse is plausible, and the frequently featured face of Lynndie England, gaze fixed with a beaming grin and fist constantly poised with a congratulatory “thumbs up” gesture, seems inappropriate for what is happening in the foreground. Yet the ex-soldier, present and accounted for, tries to convince us that her involvement was a matter of juvenile puppy love and personal inexperience.

More times than not, Morris lets his interviewees tap into that ever-popular ‘just following orders’ mantra that means nothing within the concept of human morality and individual ethos. Some literally choke on the words, working them out of their obviously guilty mouths like the bad taste of some long digested disease. At other instances, there is an honesty that ripples across the screen, keeping us from instantly condemning the individual speaking. Sabrina Harman, constantly referenced as the main person responsible for taking the photos, seems stunned that she was even present, her coy on-camera demeanor and telling letters to home (excerpted for voice over narration) suggesting she objected, but also couldn’t contradict a chain of command that ordered prisoners be “softened up” for later interrogation.

Explanation does help here. The sexual nature of the images was a direct response to what the Brass saw as an “Islamic machismo” among the population. As a patently paternalistic society, the emasculating means of mistreated the prisoners had a clear overtone of religious ridicule. Similarly we hear stories of how the detainees threw human waste at their captors and caused violent diversions in hope of escaping. While Standard Operating Procedure barely touches on this, it’s clear that Abu Ghraib had a simultaneous set of problems - those of a typical penitentiary and the addition of a calculated, controlled system of US approved questioning and information extraction. Shockingly, torture is never denied - it’s just argued against within the backdrop of many of the photos.

In some ways, Standard Operating Procedure is too appalling to appreciate. It’s like watching the Nuremberg Trials, Nazis purposefully passing the buck higher and higher up, fully aware that no one above a certain rank is around to take the blame. Equally unsettling is the lack of that one element that President George W. Bush and his Texas troubadours always seem to avoid - accountability. Colonel Janis Karpinski, demoted from Brigadier General, sees the tag placed upon her as political retribution for outing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his role in approving such treatment. In the end, we feel shocked and saddened that our nation could fall so far from the tenets of humane treatment simply to strike fear into the hearts of men who may or may not have played a part in any pre or post 9/11 attacks on Americans, both at home and abroad.

While disturbing and quite fascinating, the film itself is not without controversy. In trying to illustrate the various points brought out in the testimony, Morris goes back to his tried and true habit of reenacting the atrocities. While never very graphic in nature, these well-executed scenes seem to be spitting in the face of those who argue that the media, and its manipulation of this material, failed to tell the entire story. And no matter how much truth there is, a lens languishing on a pool of blood or the naked body of a dead prisoner, dramatic lighting and music accenting the horror, does little to support or sidestep their statements.

Morris is also been lambasted for paying the participants of Standard Operating Procedure, a notion that again, seems to defy the aesthetic accepted by documentarians around the world. Of course, the filmmaker’s response is matter of fact - if he didn’t pay them, they wouldn’t participate. Still, there is something unseemly about people desperate to clear their name only doing so if there’s a paycheck involved. Sure, many in the Abu Ghraib case seem to have been scapegoated to save a sagging foreign policy that polarizes everything about the Iraq situation, but true innocence is usually argued openly, and for free. A check at the end feels like truth being bought - or even worse - created for the sake of some coin.

No one is questioning Morris’ motives, and he has been quite vocal in dismissing allegations that he’s avoiding certain elements. In the end, Standard Operating Procedure is about the preparation of a set of charges, and an eventual legal defense, against actions that appear to have way too much of the former and very little of the latter. The labeling of certain images - men posed next to each other in the nude, staged suggestions of fictional torture - as simply part of the process may bring about an uncomfortable chuckle as the classification is explained. But there is little to laugh about in this clear military calamity…and while many were jailed, it will be the American people who pay the price for this blunder. It’s a sentence that will last must longer than any time served, or any contextualized illustration.

by Rob Horning

26 Jun 2008

I’ve been on a kick where I’m reading works by outdated Frankfurt School thinkers—first, Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse, then Escape From Freedom by Erich Fromm. (Maybe I’ll move on The Authoritarian Personality next.) Marcuse argues that economic productivity has moved us beyond scarcity as a motive, and therefore civilization should be capable of transcending Freud’s reality principle, which asserts (as Marcuse interprets it) that we need to repress libidinal urges and channel them into alienated labor, into work conceived as a necessary evil. This transcendence, Marcuse argues, would be a matter of ceasing to repressive erotic impulses, a position that is easy to lampoon as a call to free love and orgies and pansexual abandon. (Because he is working in the hypersexualized Freudian context, he practically invites this interpretation.) But if one puts aside the polymorphous perversity, one can see a more useful ideal that Marcuse is sketching out, basically a utopian version of the grail of meaningful work for all: “The free development of transformed libido within transformed institutions, while eroticizing previously tabooed zones, time, and relations, would minimize the manifestations of mere sexuality by integrating them into a far larger order, including the order of work.” If I’m understanding this correctly (the 1960s context of this book tempts me to use the word grok), he’s saying that non-repressed society—a culture that moved beyond capitalism’s repressive reason and no longer mandated the “performance principle”—would not be fixated on genital sex, but would instead suffuse social relations with the positive vibes of love. “The organism in its entirety becomes the substratum of sexuality, while at the same time the instinct’s objective is no longer absorbed by a specialized function—namely, that of bringing ‘one’s own genitals into contact with those of someone of the opposite sex.’ ” That fixation, he suggests, is the product of the repressive culture; in the utopian culture the joy limited to sexual intimacy would be accessible in basically any social activity (and bourgeois fictions like the nuclear family and “falling in love” would fall away). Then we would finally be free, without institutions working to make us repress our libidinous instincts and sacrifice the primal pleasures of sensuousness and free play.

Now, it would be easier to buy into this if it conjured up in me the vision of idealized Fourierist phlanastèries instead of the Manson family. But I get stuck on the dirty-hippie attempt to realize these ideals, shed their hang-ups and unleash free love, an effort doomed by the way it was embedded in a hostile culture and easily coopted and enticed by that culture. The lesson to seems to have been that one can’t will oneself into the post-repressed state, the institutions that shape us—the society in which who we are has meaning—need to be changed before we can change. Efforts to set up alternative, independent societies are useful to the degree that their ideas are absorbed and shift the nature of the hegemonic culture, but in and of themselves, they are doomed to eventual failure.

Why? As Marcuse points out,

Civilization has to defend itself against the specter of a world which could be free. If society cannot use its growing productivity for reducing repression (because such usage would upset the status quo), productivity must be turned against the individuals; it becomes itself an instrument of universal control. Totalitarianism spreads over late industrial civilization wherever the interests of domination prevail upon productivity, arresting and diverting its potentialities.

The methods for doing this? Marcuse lays them out in a passage that seems to draw heavily from Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment:  The “coordination of the private and public existence of spontaneous and required reactions. The promotion of thoughtless leisure activities, the triumph of anti-intellectual ideologies, exemplify the trend…. The individuals who relax in this uniformly controlled reality recall not the dream but the day, not the fairy tale but its denunciation. In their erotic relations, they ‘keep their appointments’—with charm, with romance, with their favorite commercials.” Technology is not helping. In a passage that would please Nicholas Carr, he writes, “With the control of information, with the absorption of individual into mass communication, knowledge is administered and confined. The individual does not really know what is going on; the overpowering machine of education and entertainment unites him with all the others in a state of anesthesia from which all detrimental ideas tend to be excluded.” Think of the internet in this light, and there might be reason to fear Google, which is nothing if not an administrator of knowledge, perhaps the most efficient the world has ever seen.

Marcuse says that the non-repressive utopia will be based on “purposiveness without purpose” and “lawfulness without law”—an ethos of aestheticism. Fromm, too, dreams of human liberation into “an active and spontaneous realization of the individual self.”  But in Escape From Freedom he argues that we often see individuality as a burden, as a state of insecurity and purposelessness that is not pleasurable but intolerable.

Capitalism not only freed man from traditional bonds, but it also contributed tremendously to the increasing of positive freedom, to the growth of an active, critical, responsible self. However, while this was one effect capitalism had on the process of growing freedom, at the same time it made the individual more alone and isolated and imbued him with a feeling of insignificance and powerlessness.

  Capitalism destroys the traditional ways our identity would be anchored, in the class or religion to which we were born, in the duties assigned to us, in our our overall lack of social or geographical mobility. The powerlessness and unrootedness is exacerbated by the rationalization of life in a capitalist society, with all relations between people reified, instrumentalized and marked with alienation and mutual manipulation. People have no value in and of themselves, but only in what they can contribute and sell. So in isolation, they learn that they are worthless, with no innate qualities.

Fromm figured this left them vulnerable to totalitarian movements like Nazism, that promised to supply individuals a purpose in supplication to an authority figure who alleviates one’s feelings of inferiority and insignificance but taking away the burden of individuality. It’s obvious he has Hitler and Mussolini in mind, but Fromm also points to anonymous authority, which reigns while leaving its subjects seemingly free.

It is disguised as common sense, science, psychic health, normality, public opinion. It does not demand anything except the self-evident. It seems to use no pressure but only mild persuasion…. In anonymous authority, both command and commander have become invisible. It is like being fired at by an invisible enemy. There is nobody and nothing to fight back against.

  This analysis presages Althusser’s definition of ideology, in which such dispersed, institutional authority is actually constituitive of the individual rather than a response to developing individualism. In Decoding Advertisements Judith Williamson looks at how that authority manifests specifically in advertisements, which present themselves as common sense and help us call into a being a sharpened sense of identity that we then become reliant on—as though it were the source of our integrity. Ads seem always to be reminding us of what we already know; that is the velvet way they exercise their insidious authority.

Fromm characterizes the seductiveness of ads, as anonymous authority, in a similar way.

It does not appeal to reason but to emotion…. by attracting the customer and at the same time weakening his critical abilities by the sex appeal of a pretty girl; by terrorizing him with the threat of b.o. or halitosis, or yet again by stimulating daydreams about a sudden change in one’s whole course of life brought about by buying a certain shirt or soap. All these methods are essentially irrational; they have nothing to do with the qualities of the merchandise, and they smother and kill the critical capacities of the customer like an opiate or outright hypnosis. They give him a certain satisfaction by their daydreaming qualities just as movies do, but at the same time they increase his feeling of smallness and powerlessness.

That passage touches on a few of my favorite themes—(a) ads and entertainment are indistinguishable, (b) ads turn our insecurity into a feeling of certainty and a possibility for productive action—a purchase, (c) ads work by stimulating fantasies not about the product but about ourselves; they encourage us to consume our sense of ourselves vicariously; to enjoy ourselves through the product the way we would enjoy the details of the lives of any other celebrity—it puts us on their level, particularly when ads feature celebrity endorsements, and most significant, I think, (d) the point of ads collectively is to reduce our objections to non-logic and experience it as liberation.

Of course, Marcuse sees the undermining of reason—of constricting, repressing rationality—as liberation. But ad discourse evokes a fantasia that merely teases us with the kind of non-repression Marcuse sees as being just around the corner in his dialectic of civilization. We “keep our appiontments” with commercials, just like Marcuse noted, but what we experience there is enough of the utopian promise to defuse the possibility of our ever fighting to bring that utopia into being. Ads de-repress us as they exert their authority; they solve our problems with individuality while seeming to reinforce our freedom (our freedom from hang-ups). It seems that capitalism’s systems for entertaining/controlling us can absorb even the rationality-smashing protocol and make it too serve the status quo.

//Mixed media

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

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

READ the article