Archives for July 2012

Spider-Man, Batman, & Summer Blockbusters; More Opium for The Masses. Yawn.

One of the ideas Nietzsche kept returning to was decadence. In contrast to all those around him, he insisted that not only was man not getting progressively better, he and society had patently degenerated.

You only had to look at the dearth of great thinkers in his day and compare that to the abundance of brilliance in ancient Greece to see that. Clearly, man and society had sunk into a state of moral, spiritual and intellectual decay.

Amusingly of course, that was exactly what 5th century Athenians thought about their day. And, in a further layer of irony, it is how we regard ourselves when we look back in wonder at the intellectual and creative giants who lit up the 19th century Germany that Nietzsche lived in.

Well forget the obscene bonuses that bankers earn for failing to do their jobs, or the Olympian quantity of drugs required to succeed in the world of sport. The clearest evidence that the West has sunk irretrievably into intellectual and spiritual decline is the sight of hordes of people heading into the cinema every summer to dutifully sit through that month’s summer blockbuster.

Naturally we none of us want to spend our every waking hour watching, say, Mikhalkov’s tragic masterpiece Burnt By The Sun (reviewed earlier here), or reading Greg Whitlock’s indispensable translation of Nietzsche’s The Pre-Platonic Philosophers.

(Those by the way are the lectures he prepared just before the more famous ones he gave on Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks in 1873. And both Nietzsche’s notes, and Whitlock’s notes on the notes are brilliantly illuminating (see here).)

Much of the time, we just want to veg in front of our screens or televisions and watch re-runs of old sitcoms. Or skim the headlines in the tabloids as we hop on and off the city centre bus and trains.

But going to the cinema takes effort, and time, and money. It’s a tenner a head, and there are invariably at least two of you. Then there’s the transport, and parking, and babysitters, and the novelty-sized snacks you’re encouraged to increase your cholesterol with. That’s a minimum of 30 quid a pop, and an entire evening of your justly precious time.

Putting all that time, effort and money into going to the cinema has to result in a memorable experience. And yet every summer, millions of people use the cinema to veg out in front of films designed by committees and built by robots more interested in fuelling franchises than they are in producing anything approximating an actual story.

Digitally enhanced vehicles do U turns at 120 mph in the centre of the city, and thousands of CGI figures do battle with thousands of others. Nothing is ever at stake. You’re asked to spend three hours watching somebody else playing their video game.

Last month it was Spider-Man, this month it’s Batman, and next up it’s The Hobbit, which is Lord of the Rings by another name. But it could just as easily have been Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, Thor, Iron Man or any one of the endless Avengers spin-offs (see earlier review here), Transformers, Men In Black, Mission Impossible, 007 etc etc etc.

You know the plots, you’ve heard what passes for their best lines in the trailers you’ve already seen, repeatedly. By the time they arrive, you’ll have seen, read and heard all about every aspect of them. Because they’re designed not to surprise, but to placate.

They don’t even bother to make actual sequels to any of them. They simply remake them. All that changes is the name and colour of the evil antagonist, and the cast needed to accompany all that CGI and the visual pyrotechnics that they’re all so loudly drowned in.

Forget the economy, stupid. If you want to see the evidence for the decline and fall of the West into decay and decadence, it’s there at a multiplex near you. Not in the title above the door, but in the queues of people beneath.

Well if I’m going to spend 30 quid on escaping into a mind-numbing. soporific stupor, I want to use it to wash down my Class A drugs with a nice bottle of Puligny-Montrachet. But when I go to the cinema, I demand to be surprised. 

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Kenneth Lonergan’s new film “Margaret” a rare gem.

Kenneth Lonergan moved from the theatre into the cinema in 2000 with You Can Count On Me. One of the memorable films of the decade, it seemed to hark back to a bygone era when some of the most thought-provoking and challenging drama came from independent films produced in the U.S.

But by then, all the interesting people working in cinema had begun moving into television. Everyone it seems except Lonergan. But as brilliant a drama as You Can Count On Me is – and it really is – it isn’t actually cinema. It’s essentially filmed drama.

The good news is that Lonergan has learnt, and learnt substantially from that first effort. What we have in Margaret (see the trailer here) is a big bold and glorious piece designed for the silver screen. The bad news is that it was shot it in 2005 and it’s only now that it’s finally seeing the light.

You Can Count On Me.

You Can Count On Me.

Nine times out of ten, when a film is held up like that in post it’s almost always because it reeks to high heaven. This happily is one of those rare exceptions. You can read all about what happened here in Joel Lovell’s excellent piece in the NY Times. But what it seems to boil down to is, Lonergan couldn’t bring himself to edit it down to a conventional length, and the whole thing ended up in court.

Which is hugely disappointing, because for its first two hours Margaret is flawless. And though it does begin to sag somewhat in its third and final hour, it’s still one of the best and most memorable films for many a moon.

Lisa is the precocious, pretty Jewish 17 year old ensconced in her privileged enclave in New York, convinced that the world revolves around her – which, of course, in real life it would. Anna Paquin is brilliant as the intellectually vibrant but confused and inchoate lead in a world we’re all familiar with from Woody Allen at his prime.

A Separation.

A Separation.

Very few of the story’s ironies though are played for laughs here. There’s even a scene in which a theatre actress complains about how pretentious people who go to the opera are, which isn’t meant to be funny. So we find ourselves peering into the lives of legitimately articulate, introspective people prone to existential angst, trying to come to terms with the world they live in against the backdrop of a skyline devastated by events beyond their control.

The film only loses it way ever so slightly when we leave her classmates in the final hour to focus on the legal battle that she becomes embroiled in. It’s reasonably obvious where that was all going to end up, and some of those later scenes could comfortably have been pruned. If you want to see how that much story is handled much more frugally, you only have to have a look at the wonderful A Separation (reviewed earlier here)

Anna Paquin and Bennn

Anna Paquin and Matt Damon in Margaret.

But this is but a minor quibble. This is a serious film and major work from one of the most exciting individuals working in the medium. If he can marry the discipline of his writing from You Can Count On Me (see the trailer here), which he can and does for most of Margaret, with the visual panache and sonic invention of the latter, that will be a sight to behold.

Have a look at the interview he gave with Richard Brody in the New Yorker here.

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New Sigur Rós Album “Valtari” Goes Back To Basics

Valtari, the new album from Sigur Rós is something of a back to basics affair. Their last two, Takk in 2005 and With A Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly in 2008 were clearly an attempt by them to move in a slightly more conventional direction by producing collections of what were more recognizably songs.

Valtari, their sixth in the studio, sees them return to the territory mapped out by 2002’s ‘( )’ and the work they’d been producing beforehand.

For some, this has proved to be something of an ever so gentle let down. The boys from Pravda at Pitchfork gave it a sulky 6.1 here, bemoaning what some see as a regression.

But Sigur Rós were never about songs. Like Brian and Roger Eno or The Penguin Café Orchestra before them, their focus has always been on conjuring up atmospheres and evoking landscapes through the tactile texturing of sounds.

Hence Jonsi’s use of Hopelandic, the hotchpotch of vowels he uses to lace so many of their “songs” with. The meaning isn’t to be found in any combination of words or thoughts, but in the feelings aroused as the sounds of the “words” combine with the layers laid down in the music.

And neither is it really fair to accuse them of failing to evolve. Yes a lot of the ambient sounds produced here are reminiscent of those earlier albums. But there’s much more of a post-punk feel to a lot of what’s gong on in the background now.

The melodies, though as ethereal as ever when they do rise, are more likely now to be offset by waves of dissonance, albethey of the gentle variety.

They’ve made a number of videos to accompany the album. This one, for track 3 “Varuo” here is a little bit underwhelming video wise. But curiously it somehow grows on you. And it’s the nearest thing on the album to the sort of conventional song from their more recent period.

The other for Fjogur Piano here, the 8th and final track is much more representative of the album musically speaking, even if video wise, it’s just a little bit busy. There’s so much going on, that nothing much happens. But you do get to see Shia Lebeouf’s impressive torso.

Though not personally responsible, he was part of the gang indicted for so brutally raping poor old Indie in the lamentable fourth outing of Indiana Jones. You can catch a glimpse of the culprits caught here on camera by the good people from South Park. And if you haven’t seen the full episode 8 from series 12, do so now. It’ll bring tears to your eyes.

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Apple, Amazon, the Big 6 and the Future of Publishing.

In May, Apple and three of the Big Six lost the first round in what looks likely to be a long and costly fight (two of the other three had reluctantly settled and one, Random House isn’t involved). What’s at stake is, not to put too fine a point on it, the future of publishing. So here, very briefly, is the story so far.

When Amazon began selling ebooks through their Kindle in 2007, the price they charged for them was a lot less than for actual physical books. For one thing they didn’t cost as much to produce. But much more importantly, ebooks were a completely new idea, and people had to be encouraged into trying them out. So frequently, Amazon would sell their ebooks at a loss, for even less than they had purchased them from the publisher in the first place.

Culturally then, this discount selling was both welcome and necessary. Economically however, it meant that Amazon quickly established a stranglehold on a rapidly expanding market. Not only that, but the rise of ebooks threatened to render the traditional bookstore and indeed the conventional publishing world redundant.

Nobody wanted to let what had happened in music take place in publishing. So when Apple entered the ebook market with the iPad two years later (followed by Barnes & Nobles and their Nook), a new pricing system was put in place; the agency model.

Instead of publishers selling at a discount to retailers, who would then take their cut from the price they sold it on to the public for, publishers would set the price that the public would pay for a book, and the retailer (whether Amazon, Apple or whoever) would get a flat 30%. This is what Apple did in music.

But Apple would only agree to enter the market in the first place if a minimum of four of the big six (see image below) agreed to implement their new agency model. In the end, five of them did, and the sixth Random House joined in a year later.

So Amazon had no choice but to play along. But they were as the Americans say pissed. They made more money from the books that they sold now, but their share of the still growing ebook market had gone down from 90 to 60%. And culturally, they were being forced to sell books for more than they might have liked. Or to put in another way, they were being prevented from so dramatically undercutting their rivals.

So they went to the courts, and in May the US Department of Justice found in their favour. After all, as Ken Auletta says in his much more in-depth piece in the New Yorker here, the letter of the anti-trust legislation is crystal clear. Didn’t Apple say that they would only go ahead if they got agreement from at least four of the big six? And hadn’t the cost of books to the public gone up once their agency model had been put in place?

But wait a minute. The cost had gone up, but the publishers were now receiving less. So how can it be a cartel, if the people organizing it end up making less money? What’s more, Amazon was now getting more. And wasn’t the whole spirit of the anti-trust legislation designed to curb the likes of Amazon, and prevent them from putting the much smaller publishing companies out of business?

Of course Amazon could afford to sell its books at a loss. Books make up just a tiny fraction of what Amazon sells. But books is all the big six do.

All of this has been brilliantly charted by publishing (and now digital publishing) guru Mike Shatzkin, whose blog (here) is a must for anyone interested in the world of publishing. But what it all seems to boil down to is this:

The publishing world allows for a wide variety of books to be published by using the money it makes from the few books that sell hugely, to fund a plethora of books that might, but almost certainly won’t do anything like as well.

And the physical bookstore is the best and only place for some of those smaller titles to get noticed. And who knows, maybe even take off.

By siding with Amazon against them, the DoJ is seriously putting that whole eco system in grave danger. And there is a very real possibility that the only thing that will result is a significantly narrower choice of books to read from, with significantly fewer writers making a living from it.

And the question then is, if Amazon is the only player left standing once bookstores and the world of publishing have been dismantled, will they have any interest in trying to do anything about that? Or will they just be far too preoccupied in having to compete with rival monoliths Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook for an ever-narrowing choice of profitable content?

Oh, and for all of you who still think that e-readers are a fad, have a look at this one year old trying to operate a magazine, here.

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