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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