Friday, March 28, 2008

The Calacanis Effect is in Effect

I can't believe how many people must be following my boss, the incomperable Jason McCabe Calacanis, on Twitter. He linked to my Andrew Keen post a few hours ago, and I have as of now received several hundred pageviews from that single tweet! Jason Nation...I salute you...

I Am A (Fictional) Consumer Whore! And How!

I'm particularly proud of this Mahalo guide to Best Fictional Brands. It took quite a while to assemble, and though obviously no list like this could ever be 100% complete...I think we did pretty well overall. Let me know what you think.

I was especially happy to include GloboChem from "Mr. Show." Here's the scene that was too raw for me to embed on the Mahalo page:

Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Lunch With Andrew

Cult of the Amateur author Andrew Keen joined us for lunch today at Mahalo andgave a little talk, followed by the most hostile Q&A session I have, personally, ever attended. Usually, Q&A sessions are fawning and ridiculous, which is why I try to avoid them. But not today. Today, my fellow Mahooligans and spectators who joined us through the magic of Ustream really let Keen have it, and held nothing back.

The full archived video (Fast-Forward to about 45 minutes in to get to the good stuff):

Here's the thing with Keen...It's almost impossible to take his arguments seriously on their face because they are poorly researched, frequently illogical and, in many cases, contradictory.

Here's but one example: Keen argues that the market, in many ways, determine whether or not items are culturally valuable. YouTube videos may be popular, but if no one is willing to pay for them, they cannot be considered truly merited pieces of art with any cultural significance.

That would seem to be an entirely Capitalist stance - the market determines all things, including aesthetics. Yet Keen is no capitalist; most of the time, he sounds more like a Socialist, arguing that the BBC represents something of an ideal news-gathering organization because it serves a public good without worrying purely about ratings and profits.

Is it possible to hold both of these notions in your head at once? I suppose...but it strikes me as a case of not following through your ideas to their logical conclusions.

Take anonymity. Keen's major case against blogs as journalism is the fact that some people blog anonymously, and therefore are not transparent or accountable. (Never mind the fact that the vast vast majority of notable, widely-read bloggers, at this point, use their own names, or at least don't go to great lengths to hide their true identities.) But how many articles in his beloved New York Times base their stories entirely on anonymous sources? It happens all the time.

Whenever someone would ask Keen about this sort of thing, he's squirm out of it by reverting to vague generalities. Well, he didn't mean all newspapers are good and all blogs are bad. Some blogs are great and some newspaper articles, like those written by Judy Miller in the lead-up to the Iraq War, are bunk, he'll say. I just mean that we need gatekeepers. Listening to him speak is like chasing your own tail - most of the time, I found myself agreeing with what he was saying, because it was impossible not to. Yes, sometimes Wikipedia is full of shit. Yes, a Harvard professor is smarter than a 14 year old. So what? The Internet still r00lz!

Then I had what Keen would probably call "an epiphany." (He's had several.)

I realized that he wasn't really taking his own argument particularly seriously.

It wasn't just his flip, tongue-in-cheek tone. Mahooligan Nicole really called Keen out on some factual errors in the book, and he essentially conceded the point, laughed it off and continued with the same argument he'd already been making. But that could just be a strategy for deflecting criticism.

No, I became convinced by his constant double-backs, his rhetorical dodges, his lack of any kind of real consistency. He's just lobbing bombs, being a contrarian for its own sake. He calls the book a "polemic," but that's really just a stand-in for "a bunch of Devil's Advocate arguments with which I don't necessarily agree."

A full 50% of the book, I'd say, is made up of moral arguments - the Internet is bad because it allows people to steal music and movies. And then you meet this guy and you realize, "this cocky British atheist doesn't give two shits about the ethics of people downloading the new Danity Kane single for free."

So the question becomes why he's making the argument in the first place.

I can think of three distinct possibilities, ranging from most to least cynical:

Intensely Cynical:

Keen thought this would be a good way to move some units. A book about how Web 2.0 sucks would have no competition amidst the glut of books about how Web 2.0 will revolutionize your brain. He'd maybe even get on "Colbert"!

I don't know...Maybe I'm naive, but this seems improbable to me somehow, the pure greedy thesis. First off, the book can't really have made him all that much money. If you really want to make some green in publishing, you don't write books for nerds about how all their nerdy websites aren't as awesome as they thought. You write spy or legal thrillers and romance novels in which bored, lonely housewives are swept off their feet by troubled, hunky strangers.

Also, if you just wrote a book to get rich, and then people criticized you and called your ideas dumb everywhere you went, you'd be pissed off. Keen's clearly having fun. Which leads me to Point #2:

Somewhat Cynical:

Keen's just kind of being funny, and only half-heartedly meant any of this stuff, and it has now been blown way out of proportion. In essence, after today, I totally think it's possible that Cult of the Amateur is tongue in cheek, that this whole dismissal of what's clearly the future of communication and media is a put-on.

Consider this portion of the presentation: Keen conceded his own status as an amateur. Then he told us he "would like" to be one of his precious elite gatekeepers deciding what is true and good and what is not anyway. Then, he told us there's no such thing as "Absolute Truth" in the first place. I mean...come can't tell me that's all meant seriously.

Not Particularly Cynical:

The final possibility: Keen doesn't really believe all the arguments he's making here, but he feels like someone has to make them, to dampen some of the reckless, utopian enthusiasm of the Internet community. Like the Web 2.0 William F. Buckley, he'll stand astride the Intert00bz yelling "Stop!"

I'm not sure which of these three I really believe...but it's got to be one of them. Because I can't imagine such a funny, seemingly intelligent guy would really present this case as the sum total of years of investigation and thought about the Web.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

R.I.P. Richard Widmark

One of my all-time favorite actors, the great Richard Widmark, passed today at the ripe old age of 93. Here's probably the best-remembered, most iconic sequence of his career, the infamous wheelchair scene from 1947's classic Kiss of Death:

Oh, Tommy Udo, you charmer...

The obits I read today frequently referred to his "tough guy" image, probably because of this scene, but if you go back and watch the movies, he tended to play heroes. Or, at the very least, remorseful killers. But playa kill-crazy maniac in just one a landmark movie...

I think my favorite Widmark performance is Skip McCoy in Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street (though Ari's not wrong to go with the amazing Night and the City). McCoy's an incredibly modern hero - he's cool, but not impossible Bogart cool. The kind of cool to which regular schmoes could aspire. He outwits his pursuers...but just barely. And there's a very real vulnerability to McCoy, who lives alone on a dock and keeps his valuables in a sealed bag underwater. Fuller and Widmark aren't afraid to make him afraid, and that makes him relatable.

Other classic Widmark films to watch: Westerns Broken Lance and the deeply weird Warlock (co-starring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn!); Judgment at Nuremberg; Fuller's WWII film Hell and High Water

Side note: Though it's awesome that Widmark made a Hammer film with Christopher Lee, 1976's To The Devil a Daughter, I can't in good conscience recommend the movie. It's pretty boring, even by late-Hammer standards.

Where You At, Dawg?

Here I am at LA's Hot Import Nights. If you're trying to spot me, I'm the heavy-set bearded guy with the microphone who doesn't know anything about cars.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In Which My CPU Becomes a Neural Net Processor...A Learning Computer...

UPDATE: Can't get enough possibly villainous robots? Then take a look at our guide to the Best Evil Robots of Ever! I was particularly proud of get Mega Man adversary "Cut Man" on there.

I went to a robot competition and filmed this Mahalo Daily. Now that I've hosted a few of these, I'm really starting to notice my fallback phrases and gestures. I've starred in a grand total of three Internet videos and my schtick's already getting old.

It took Eddie Murphy at least twice that long to run out of A material.

You've got to love a fat guy in a Dinosaur Jr. shirt and safety goggles talking seriously about robots. If that doesn't just scream "10 million views," I don't know what does, frankly. Give me a shower curtain rod and it's like "Star Wars Kid 2: The Quickening."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Funny Games

    Okay, before I discuss Michael Haneke's shot-for-shot remake of his own Funny Games, I have to talk briefly about this trailer we saw before the film, for a movie called Extra Ordinary Barry. This looks like the worst comedy ever made. I watched a full-length trailer and still have no clue what the movie's about, except intensely hacky sex n' fart jokes. Even reading the website and the IMDb page are no help.

    All I know is, it's about a guy named Barry Berry (har!) who loses his job and hanging around with quirky idiots. That's as far as you get with the trailer, which does somehow find time to include an extended sequence in which a dog farts, prompting star Jay Convente to convulse and heave in a way that I refuse to believe could have ever seemed funny to anyone.

    There's no embeddable version of the trailer, but you can take a look at it on the film's official site here. But, you know...don't if your time has any value whatsoever. Otherwise, enjoy.

    Okay, on to Funny Games, which could not really be less like Extra Ordinary Barry while still being technically classifiable as a "film."

    Essentially, even though I was walking into this movie fresh, it was a second viewing, because I have seen the original, and the two versions are identical in most ways. (I was not certain that all the sound cues were the same, and obviously they feature different casts and languages, but the two films provide, overall, very similar experiences.).

    This would seem like a complete waste of time for 99% of films. Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot redo of Psycho was part of this 99%. It makes a bit more sense in the case of Funny Games, which in many ways is a film about mocking the standard assumptions and axioms of film, one of which is that you only make a film once. (Additionally, the story, such as it is, ends exactly as it begins, making the narrative itself cyclical. So, if you were to watch these characters in 1997, and then check in on them again in 2008, they very well might be engaging in an entirely similar situation with an identical outcome.) Still, I'm not ready to entirely defend Haneke's decision to exactly remake a previous effort, if only because it's this effort, which has a lot of interesting ideas and well-executed moments, but rarely probes ideas meaty enough to sustain two films.

    It's also peculiar and, I'll admit, kind of fascinating that a director would chose to work with such difficult and not-particularly-entertaining material twice. I'd think most directors would have to spend ten years doing animated musicals, Bond movies and Scary Movie sequels to recover from the soul-crushing intensity of making this movie. Haneke's done it twice in a bit more than a decade...

    The story: Two strange young men intrude on a family of three in their vacation home, destroy the phone and then spend a night torment their captives. At first, the strangers who introduce themselves as Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet) are simply irritating - they borrow eggs and drop them on the floor, they ask awkward or inappropriate questions, they hesitate to leave and generally ignore body language and social norms. But the situation quickly escalates and soon enough, they have broken Dad's (Tim Roth) leg, thrown a bag over Junior's (Devon Gearhart) head and forced Mom (Naomi Watts) to take off her clothes so they can look for "jelly rolls." A wager is made and thus begins a deeply unsettling evening of the titular "games," in which the boys taunt their victims, threaten their lives, strip them of their dignity and generally try to drive them insane.

    Like Cache, I'm fairly certain Funny Games is a fake-out, a funny game itself, in which the director has directly assumed a role in the film. In Cache, a family received videotapes revealing personal secrets, tapes that could only have been made by a supernatural being, or the film's director, with complete control over its self-contained universe. In Funny Games,
    Paul at times speaks directly into the camera or refers openly to his "audience."

    Cache honestly feels like a refinement of this technique. Rather than brazenly calling attention to his presence in his own story, as he does when Paul asks the audience a question or violates space-time, Haneke allows the viewer of Cache to slowly unlock the film's central mystery. He does so with a specific purpose, making a point about French history and the need to look honestly at the mistakes of the past.

    Funny Games is more blunt and more gimmicky, and though Haneke has a point to make, he does so in a sometimes cruel and always adolescent fashion. In essence, we are being implicated in Peter and Paul's crimes, by buying a ticket (or renting a DVD) and watching them. We're first directly confronted by Paul when he's forcing one of his captives, mother Ann, to play a mean-spirited version of the schoolyard favorite "Hot and Cold." As Ann stumbles around, trying to contain her hysterical fear, in the background, Paul turns his head and makes eye contact with us, almost like Daffy Duck when he's indicating that Elmer Fudd is a "screwball." "Can you believe I'm getting away with this?" he's asking us. "Aren't you having a good time?"

    Even more shrewdly, Haneke's discreetly hinting to us that the poor, violated family might actually deserve what they get. (The American poster features the delicious tagline "You Must Admit, You Brought This On Yourself," a quote said by Peter to the family during the film.) If they did not live in tightly-secured home behind a massive iron gate, using their wealth to buy a luxurious vacation home removed from the rest of society, it would be easier to evade their capturers. If they fought back with more tenacity from the get-go, if they were quicker on their feet, if they were just a bit more clever, then none of this would have happened.

    Paul implies at one point that we in the theater obviously side with the family over him, but it's hard to do so completely. It's that little space in your brain that kind of wants to see Peter and Paul abuse these people, or at least doesn't mind so much, that Haneke wishes to explore.

    So the movie is successful, in that it wants to confront the viewer with his or her own bloodlust, and then does so. I'd also call it a technical success, with eerily still cinematography from Darius Khondji and Haneke himself displaying considerable skill at building tension, then cutting that tension with grim humor. (Yes, horrifying though it may be, Funny Games is also slyly hilarious at times, and self-aware enough to make the ensuing laughter feel appropriate). This is not really a movie about performances - the whole notion of violating the reality of the movie kind of works against the actors, who are desperately trying to make their emotions seem real - but Watts and Pitt are still very good. Somehow.

    Still, I can't really recommend it to you. It's clever, but also kind of obvious and not terribly fun. Considerably wrenching, really. Though I appreciated more about the story a second time than the first, I doubt it would ever occur to me to watch the movie again.

          Sunday, March 23, 2008

          Nice Beaver!

            I find Erica Jong's latest Huffington Post contribution hilarious to such an extreme, it may not be healthy. It's normal for ones stomach to contract a bit after a fit of laughter, but should ones entire duodenum actually ache? I always thought "side-splitting" was just a metaphor.

            We have two great candidates--one a hard working, never give up eager beaver, and one an inspiring, heart-leapingly brilliant stallion. Both have their merits.

            Okay, this is the beginning of the metaphor, and though it's kind of weird, it's not altogether inappropriate just yet. The phrase "eager beaver" does, in fact, exist in the American argot, and I suppose it could be used to describe Hillary Clinton. Though, for personal reasons, I tend to avoid thinking about Hillary Clinton and beavers at the same time.

            Then Jong sort of blathers for a while in a somewhat meaningless fashion, mentioning some of the GOP's most infamous crimes of the past few years. A sample:

            It's a rule of history that when an empire gorges on guns and forgets butter, that empire winds up on the scrap heap of history. Dubya could have learned this at Yale had he not been drunk or stoned all the time and figuring out ways to avoid going to 'Nam.

            Oooooh, snap! If this was 1999, that would totally have been in Bush's face!

            Back to beavers and stallions:

            The stallion makes heart-stopping speeches. And the beaver just beavers along. remembering how she won over upstate New York when everyone called that impossible. And called her a carpetbagger. And the stallion is drunk on his own rhetoric. Why not? It's great rhetoric.

            Okay, so...let's ignore the rather baseless charge made by this metahpor...That Obama (our stallion) is "drunk on his own rhetoric." Rather than slinging around an accusation like that, I think Jong should have to spell out what exactly this statement means. She's falling back on trite cliches (eager beavers, orators "drunk on their own rhetoric") to avoid specifics. It's poor writing and, to my mind, signals a mushy, shallow, inconsequential and largely uninformed opinion on the entire presidential campaign.

            But let's put that aside. How can a novelist not be able to discern the growing creepiness (and mounting absurdity) of her central metaphor? Metaphors are her m├ętier! Who ever heard of a drunk stallion? Can the word "beaver" be used as a verb to describe the activity of beavers? (Apparently it can, but I still say it sounds stupid.)

            We need beavers and we need stallions. Beavers get the work done. Stallions inspire us. And they both have limitations. Stallions have fragile legs (think Barbaro). And beavers are nothing without their teeth.

            What the fuck is she talking about? This metaphor no longer makes any sense at all. At first, it seems like she's abandoned all pretense of actually talking about animals, just using the terms "Beavers" and "Stallions" to stand in for "Clinton" and "Obama," and then she goes and makes a fucking obscure Barbaro reference. And what does the "beavers are nothing without their teeth" thing mean? That it's okay for Clinton to be ruthless because it's her nature, and that Obama is required to fold under pressure because it's his nature?

            It's not a matter of choosing between inspiration and hard work. We need both. We need to be inspired and then we need those who will never give up till they execute the inspiration. Any fool knows that. The Democratic Party ought to know it too. And the sooner they bring the beaver and the stallion together, the better off we'll all be.

            Again, what the fuck is she talking about? She seems to be demanding that Clinton and Obama run for president together (because Erica Jong, our spokeswoman, said so!) She doesn't deign to say who would be president in such a scenario, but based on the whole problem-solving industriousness vs. alcoholic frailty metahpor, it's not too difficult to guess.

            Americans are neither black nor white. We are all as mixed as Brazilians. We are a honey-colored race--with Africans, Europeans, Asians and Native Americans intermingled in our DNA. That's the glory of America...So let's stop talking about race and gender and let the beaver and the stallion both serve our country--in their own inimitable ways.


            Regardless of any intermingled DNA, race is still a very important, divisive and consuming issue in America. To dismiss it with a wave of the hand like this - "oh, we're all the same race anyway these days" - is offensive. And is it just me, or is it strange that the author of Fear of Flying is now telling us to "stop talking about gender"?

            [Hat tip: Walcott]

                              Royal Flush

                                Go to Nah Right and download this song. Big Boi, Andre 3000 (going by the name "3 Stacks") and Raekwon. Really excellent. Although I think someone should tell Mr. Stacks that the star of both Revolver and Idlewild shouldn't really be bragging about how Hollywood calls him back. Maybe next time they call, he should ask them to mail him the script for once.