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May 10, 2010 / GKelly

Retro Rants

Thanks to various administrative dramas over the years, the Internet ate most of my undergraduate writing. Given how dreadful most it was, that’s probably a good thing. But I was proud of a few of these rants, and so I will be reproducing them here, especially when work gets too busy for regular blogging. Brought to you by the Wayback machine! Note: Articles have sometimes been edited for vitriol/youthful idiocy.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Captain America is dead; world must go on.

Original Air Date: March 15, 2007

A week ago, in a mind-blowing, reality-blurring moment of media synchronicity, as Scooter Libby was proclaimed guilty and the New York Times got curious about a bunch of pink-slipped attorneys, Captain America was shot dead by an assassin’s bullet for his opposition to government violations of civil liberties, triggering a flood of obituaries and outrage on the Internet. You’d think Alberto Gonzales had strangled Cap with his bare hands. The Times published an actual obituary — in the arts section, but it was still an obituary. Everyone freaked out just a little bit at Marvel offing a character so blatantly patriotic, so tied up in the mythos of World War II, so closely associated with the stoic Greatest Generation mentality. Look, we know the Baby Boomers have screwed up royally in comparison, but did you have to kill the Cap?

Meanwhile, everyone’s in an uproar over the degree to which 24 encourages the use of torture by US military personnel. It’s not Michael Moore or Al Franken fussing, either: the dean of West Point is concerned about what his students are picking up from the hit TV show. The list of offenses by the federal government grows daily, and it’s gotten to the point where we expect the administration to lie to us; they practically admit they are going to lie to us; and what’s more, they expect us to accept that they are going to lie to us and that it’s for our own good, for the purposes of National Security.

Jean Baudrillard — who died the day before Captain America’s demise in print — would have gotten a big kick out of the whole affair. My understanding of his work is sketchy at best, gleaned as it is from years of getting my ass kicked by postmodern “kritiks” in high school policy debate. But from what I remember, and from the crib sheets provided by the writers of his obituaries, his main point seems to be that what we accept as reality, the day-to-day world in which you and me live, is bullshit. We live in a world of hyper reality, built out of advertisements and moving pictures and consumer-oriented junk. Exhibit A: Captain America and Jack Bauer seem to have slid into the popular consciousness alongside Dick Cheney and Britney Spears — and, really, what are Dick Cheney and Britney Spears, outside of their media existences? If television cameras and talking heads aren’t there to observe them (or at least observing their absences, à la “undisclosed location”), do they really exist? Maybe Britney’s onto it all, light-years ahead of the rest of us — hence the series of picture-perfect media stunts.

Unlike the scenario posited by The Matrix, though, you don’t get to swallow a pill and wake up. You can’t unplug yourself. This is it, boys and girls: this is the world we get. There’s no trap door to escape; you don’t get to close the book and put it back on the shelf. We’re all characters on a TV show.

The really bad news is that this particular program seems to be running on the sci-fi channel. There’s no sunny Star Trek–style optimism, where we pile onto a hotel in space and cruise around the galaxy’s uncharted edges. You can see our bleak future in the political ads of a presidential hopeful, John McCain, an action-adventure movie soundtrack, accompanied by recordings of earlier speeches piped in over black-and-white images from his military career. The Wonkette writers were too close for comfort when they wrote: “John McCain Running for President of Death Star.” I would argue it’s a little more Babylon 5 than Star Wars, but the point is well taken. In fact, as I watched the clip (available on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzxUnjI082c), I realized why the cranky, alcoholic Colonel Tigh of Battlestar Galactica seems so familiar: he looks just like the esteemed Senator from Arizona.

February 23, 2010 / GKelly

HELL YES

Just learned from Maud Newton’s Twitter Scarlett Thomas has a new novel is out May 6th! And yes, I do plan to cough up for shipping from the UK.

The blurb:

If Kelsey Newman’s theory about the end of time is true, we are all going to live forever. But for Meg – locked in a dead-end relationship and with a deadline long-gone for a book that she can’t write – this thought fills her with dread. Meg is lost in a labyrinth of her own devising. But could there be an important connection between a wild beast living on Dartmoor, a ship in a bottle, the science of time, a knitting pattern for the shape of the universe and the Cottingley Fairies? Or is her life just one long chain of coincidences?

God, spring just cannot come fast enough.

February 22, 2010 / GKelly

On Southerners and the Devil

So I was catching up on my LOST recaps, after catching up on my LOST episodes last night. And my favorite bit was this from Doc Jensen:

In other words, Sawyer is doing what Sawyer does best: he’s pulling a long con, the riskiest con he’s ever pulled: fooling the devil into thinking he has an ally — and then stabbing him in the back with his own pitchfork.

Now, it’s no great secret that, of the castaways, Sawyer is and always has been my favorite. Yes, it is my absurd regionalism emerging. (You can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the fondness for violent, self-destructive rednecks out of the girl.) But I love that Josh Holloway and the writers have taken a character what could have been a simplistic villain or even lovable rogue and turned him into a serious, emotionally complex show-stealer.

But the notion that Sawyer will be going toe-to-toe with the Devil himself? Fucking brilliant.

Let me elaborate.

I hesitate to mention “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” because it’s basically a total fucking cliché. But it’s also a handy means of illustrating the role the Devil has always played in the Southern consciousness. In a region so saturated with religion, Satan is serious business. Slip up and he’ll get you. He roams the back roads, tempting musicians to sell their souls for talent. Stories about Old Nick serve as a way of discussing what it means to stray from the path. Has a Baptist preacher ever told you about Hell? It’s fucking terrifying. No matter how tempted you might be, you see the Devil coming, you turn around and run the other direction. Immediately. It’s best to avoid straying into a folktale, as a rule.

But once you make eye contact, once he catches up to you, the encounter has just got to play itself out. And it’s likely going to take some quick thinking on your to escape, because the Devil wants your soul and he is almost certainly wilier than you.

Redemption and self-destruction have always been big themes on Lost, and this season is the castaways’ last shot at doing right by themselves and by each other. So it’s no surprise the Devil would eventually show up to wreak some havoc. Mocke’s up to no good and possibly staging a breakout of apocalyptic proportions—perhaps from Hell itself. And it’s going to be up to the Oceanic survivors to stop him. Who better to pull one over on the great antagonist than the smooth-talking Southern con man? Jack doesn’t believe in anything he can’t see; Kate’s too busy running away. But Sawyer fits perfectly into the grand folkloric tradition of tricking the trickster, and I’m excited to see how he pulls it off.

February 3, 2010 / GKelly

Retro Rants

Thanks to various administrative dramas over the years, the Internet ate most of my undergraduate writing. Given how dreadful most it was, that’s probably a good thing. But I was proud of a few of these rants, and so I will be reproducing them here, especially when work gets too busy for regular blogging. Brought to you by the Wayback machine! Note: Articles have sometimes been edited for vitriol/youthful idiocy.

Florida: Home of the Apocalypse

Beach Party is well within the threshold of awesome.

Original Air Date: November 8, 2007

America, when you come right down to it, is a strange, strange place, not that you’d know it to look at the movies our entertainment industry churns out on a weekly basis. Hollywood conforms to a certain set of expectations. Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell, on the other hand, doesn’t conform to much of anything. It barely conforms to the dictates of narrative and of sense. It’s also the next great cult classic and the single coolest thing I’ve seen since Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter.

I saw Beach Party at a midnight showing at the Brattle. There may have been two other people watching. The ultimate independent movie, it has been criminally under-promoted and will probably reach most of its viewers on video through word-of-mouth and casual Blockbuster browsing. Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim (the program that rescued Family Guy from obscurity) would be the movie’s ideal venue, sandwiched between Squidbillies and Trigun.

I’m at a complete loss for how to briefly describe this movie, but here it goes: it’s a futuristic historical documentary and a post-apocalyptic comedy that tells the story of the founding fathers of New America. Streamlining the plot significantly, two decades after the “liquidation of Old America” by nuclear destruction (in 2074), a new generation emerges from their underground bunkers to establish New America. Of course, several groups are competing for power in this brave new world.

Our protagonist, Tex Kennedy, leads one of these factions, accompanied by two robot bodyguards and his girlfriend, Cannibal Sue. He travels to “The Threshold of Hell” — formerly known as Pensacola, Florida, and the future capital of New America — to find the anointed successor to the King of America, Benjamin Remington, and broadcast his ascendancy from a super-sized gamma-ray radio transmitter that reaches from sea to irradiated sea. Hijinks ensue.

On paper, the premise looks far too wacky to ever pull off. It’s true that there’s very little about this movie that’s calm, restrained, or subtle. If you want weighty Oscar-fare prestige pictures, go see one of the many mediocre progressive features competing for the little gold man’s favors. The only thing Beach Party takes seriously about itself is its nonconformity and unrestrained creativity.

That wild creativity, wholly unaffected by studio control, means that film does not get any more independent than Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell. The co-director and originator of this whole project, Kevin Wheatley, plays Tex Kennedy. The producer, Jamie Bullock, plays Cannibal Sue. Most of the participants are film school students. The movie was completed without a distributor. The whole affair has the party atmosphere of a study hall where the teacher forgot to show up.

The events of the movie are an odd mix of comedy and gore. Tex Kennedy spends the whole movie getting his ass kicked. A frat boy rips out people’s spinal cords. A sad-faced mystery man from the “Republic of Arizona” rips out various internal organs. The Son of Lucifer makes an appearance. The main character’s love interest eats people. Quentin Tarantino wishes he had made this movie.

It should be obvious by now that Beach Party follows no known template for success. Instead, it has a very organic feel, much like Animal House. It’s easy to see why National Lampoon picked up Beach Party for distribution. The last big movie with “National Lampoon” in the title, Van Wilder, was nothing more than a calculated Animal House rip-off, with none of the charm of the original. By contrast, Beach Party has the same loose, faintly silly feel, as if the actors are making it all up on the fly — and without bald attempts at copycatting.

Because they made the movie in Pensacola in July under one hundred-degree heat with with actors largely from the North Carolina School of the Arts and with a director hailing from Gulf Breeze, Florida, the whole movie has, on top of everything else, a strangely Southern vibe. Accents abound, and the soundtrack goes heavy on the Dixieland jazz and old-timey banjo.

In fact, the premise of the nation-wide radio broadcast is oddly reminiscent of the first family of country music and original Southern media superstars, the Carter family, whose Depression-era show came to America’s radios from Mexico, which, thanks to the absence of the FCC, had much stronger signals than we do today.

Even visually the movie has a very Gulf Coast cast to it; as they spend most of the movie on the beach, the actors are very rarely out of the hot, nuclear glare of the Florida sun, and just the sight of Tex trudging over the sun in his battered suit is hilarious. He looks like a cross between a pre-air conditioning Southern politician and a seventies country-rock star in the mold of Waylon Jennings. Stick him with the last name Kennedy, and the character is so incongruous that he’s perfectly absurd.

I could go on and on about how funny and brilliant this movie is. I haven’t even mentioned the colony of immortal, sadistic spring-breakers, or Daniel Baldwin’s turn as used-car-salesman-turned-King-of-America, or Jane Seymour as the last President of the United States. Instead, I’ll just urge you to watch this movie as soon as it comes to a theater anywhere near you or you see the DVD lying around. To paraphrase Tex Kennedy, your world’s about to get a whole shitload funnier.


February 1, 2010 / GKelly

Amazon v. Publishers: Game On

I was out Friday night (consuming an unwise number of margaritas at Gonzales y Gonzales, an amazing/amazingly tacky Mexican joint in Soho), so I wasn’t in front of my computer for the Fort Sumter of the ebook pricing wars. When I got home and went to browse the day’s Twitter stream (which, I might add, has started to remind me of a ticker-tape machine in the way it streams up-to-the-minute information), I found several tweets from Dear Author’s Jane Litte about something going on with Amazon. Too tired/tipsy to parse the matter, I went to bed.

By the time I got to work at 9:30 Saturday morning, the Internet was in an uproar (more of an uproar than usual, at least). Come to find out, when Macmillan demanded Amazon increase the price it charges for the publisher’s ebooks from $9.99 to $14.99, Amazon demurred. To underscore the point, the website yanked the “buy now” button from the pages of all Macmillan’s books. The New York Times’ Bits blog has a pretty good run-down:

Macmillan, like other publishers, has asked Amazon to raise the price of electronic books from $9.99 to around $15. Amazon is expressing its strong disagreement by temporarily removing Macmillan books, said this person, who did not want to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The announcement of the iPad set all this off. Apple will be more flexible on pricing with publishers, allowing them to charge $14.99. The Business Insider had already noted this exchange between Jobs and Walt Mossberg before the Amazon kerfluffle:

Walt asks Steve, “Why should she buy a book for $14.99 on your device when she can buy one for $9.99 from Amazon or Barnes & Noble?”

Steve responds somewhat knowingly, “That won’t be the case.”

Walt says, “You won’t be $14.99 or they won’t be $9.99?”

Steve says knowingly, “The prices will be the same.”

Jobs looks confident that Apple’s entrance into the market will force Amazon’s hand, and the weekend’s events seem to bear his convictions out. Late Sunday, the Kindle team announced they will accept Macmillan’s demands to sell their books for $14.99. But the post makes it clear they aren’t happy about it, and implies that consumers aren’t going to pony up that much:

We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it’s reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book.

Amazon is right about one thing: At the moment, customers are ultimately calling the shots.  In the last 20 years, the Internet has upended existing systems of media distribution. It’s chaotic out there, and what matters right now for providers is grabbing as many customers as possible before order reasserts itself. It’s a billion-dollar game of musical chairs, except all the chairs have vanished into thin air and everyone playing has to ransack other rooms in the house for seats, all to the tune of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Oh, and the next door neighbors have randomly joined the game, too, and they’ve brought flimsy camp chairs but at least they’ve got somewhere to park their butts.  As anyone who ever played a similar game without adult supervision will recognize, this type of thing usually degenerates into a blood sport, complete with pushing and shoving and shirt-grabbing and scratching and tears. Lots and lots of tears.

Problem is, these shenanigans aren’t endearing anyone to readers.  Romance reviewers Jane Litte and Sarah Wendell are a nice window on reader reaction. At 9:30 Saturday morning, Litte tweeted, “What I see is two big corps fucking around with their customers.” At 9:47, Wendell weighed in comparing the whole situation to her child’s dirty diapers: “Baba O’Riley just pointed @ me to change poop diaper. He’s Amazon/Macmillan, I’m consumer. #stinkyanalogy.” And by Saturday afternoon, Wendell had posted a 50 percent off discount code for her readers at AllRomanceBooks and OmniLit.com, two romance ebookstores. Elsewhere in the twitterverse, the #Amazonfail hashtag made a triumphant return. It’s an industry truism, but romance readers are some of the biggest book buyers out there, and any decision that confuses and alienates them is  a bad move.

At the moment, my decision to go with the nook looks downright prescient. I probably should have waited for the iPad, though.

January 28, 2010 / GKelly

Amazing.

(via)

January 26, 2010 / GKelly

Some thoughts on “Smart” vs “Stupid”

I despise these ads.

Smart is rational and cold and rigid; stupid is emotional and creative and full of heart. Are we really still replicating the mind-body dichotomy at this point in Western history? I guess so. Only now, instead of elevating reason at the expense of the physical, the campaign tears down “smart” and holds up emotion in its place. But it’s a false distinction and one that only insults what it purports to value by labeling it “stupid.”

Anyway, I’m not a fan.