Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Good Knight!

Ever the contrarian, Armond White finds Heath Ledger's Joker far inferior to Jack Nicholson's.

Man’s struggle to be good isn’t news. The difficulty only scares children—which was the original, sophisticated point of Jack Nicholson’s ’89 Joker. Nicholson’s disfigurement abstracted psychosis, being sufficiently hideous without confusing our sympathy. Ledger’s Joker (sweaty clown’s make-up to cover his Black Dahlia–style facial scar) descends from the serial killer clich├ęs of Hannibal Lecter and Anton Chigurh—fashionable icons of modern irrational fear. The Joker’s escalation of urban chaos and destruction is accompanied by booming sound effects and sirens—to spook excitable kids. Ledger’s already-overrated performance consists of a Ratso Rizzo voice and lots of lip-licking. But how great of an actor was Ledger to accept this trite material in the first place?

Unlike Nicholson’s multileveled characterization, Ledger reduces The Joker to one-note ham-acting and trite symbolism. If you fell for the evil-versus-evil antagonism of There Will Be Blood, then The Dark Knight should be the movie of your wretched dreams. Nolan’s unvaried direction drives home the depressing similarities between Batman and his nemeses. Nolan’s single trick is to torment viewers with relentless action montages; distracting ellipses that create narrative frustration and paranoia. Delayed resolution. Fake tension. Such effects used to be called cheap. Cheap like The Joker’s psychobabble: “Madness, as you know, is like gravity—all it takes is a little push.” The Dark Knight is the sentinel of our cultural abyss. All it takes is a push.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Banality

July 28, 2008
The Coming Re-Becoming

Everywhere you turn in this nation, you see a society primed for implosion. We seem unaware how extraordinary the American experience has been, especially in the last hundred years. By this, I don't mean that we are a better people than any other society--these days, ordinary people in the USA make an effort to appear thuggish and act surly, as though we were a nation of convicts -- but for decade-upon-decade, we were very fortunate. Even the Great Depression of the 1930s may seem like a relatively peaceful and gentle "time out" from a frantic era of hypertrophic growth, compared to the storm we're sailing into now.

We were fortunate to inhabit a New World filled with productive land, lots of minerals, and plenty of coal, oil, and gas; and the land itself was insulated physically from the great theaters of 20th century conflict, though we fought in wars "over there." That experience itself, especially our victory over manifest evil in the Second World War, left us with a dangerous mentality of triumphal exceptionalism. Even now, we think we are immune to the epochal hazards of history. The notion that nothing really bad can happen to us is reflected in the blind cluelessness of our current news media and their simple failure to report what is now happening.

I drove up along an obscure stretch of the upper Hudson river on Sunday, starting in the old factory town of Cohoes, north of Albany, where the Mohawk River runs into the Hudson. There is a powerful waterfall there, and along the high bank the massive old red-brick Harmony Mill still stands with its Victorian towers and mansard roofs, like a vision from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Behind them are streets of red-brick, three-story worker row-housing from the same period. Today they are inhabited by a different kind of poor people, not necessarily working, and probably suffering from a sheer lack of structure in their lives as well as plain poverty of means. These are people who probably don't follow the Bloomberg financial bulletins, and their experience of a cratering economy may only be the rising cost of cigarettes and beer.

The tattoo quotient among both men and women there is impressive. In the days when the Harmony Mill was built, only South Seas cannibals and sailors wore tattoos. You wonder: are tattoos now the only way left for this class of Americans to assert their selfhood? And what exactly are they proclaiming? I am a warrior. Or is it: I am a television (I display pictures, too) !? The expanding class of the poor-and-idle has been remarkably passive in the face of their dwindling prospects. Perhaps they passed the point years ago (a generation or two ago!) when there was any sense of sequential improvement for the family's station-in-life. The destiny of their everyday lives must seem totally beyond their control. They are subject to the fate of distant corporations who sell the staple corn-syrup byproducts and gasoline on which daily life is based. Where government is concerned, they are all potential victims of Katrina-ism, awaiting their own personal disaster.

North of the junction of the Mohawk and Hudson was the old town of Waterford, where the Erie Canal began its journey west -- bypassing those powerful waterfalls. The locks are still there and still in operation for the infrequent tanker ships and ore barges that come and go to the Great Lakes. But the operation of the canal system is automated to the extent that it requires only a handful of people to run the locks now, and the town around them has deteriorated into slum and semi-slum garnished with a few convenience stores and pizza shops. There is no other commerce there. No matter how poor, the denizens are required to drive a car to a giant chain store for groceries or hardware or clothing.

As you leave Waterford, the river road becomes a suburban corridor of 1960s-vintage ranch houses and stand-alone small retail business buildings which, if used at all now, are mostly hair salons, chiropractic studios, and other services not generally rendered by the chain stores. All this stuff was deployed along the road with the expectation that Americans would be driving cars cheaply forever. Now that this is distinctly no longer the case, corridors like this are entering their death throes. The awfulness of the design and construction of these buildings is now especially vivid as the plywood de-laminates, and the vinyl soffits fall off, and the dinge of neglect forms a patina over it all. Hopelessness infects this landscape like a miasma. Whatever young adults remain in these places are not thinking about a plausible future, only looking to complete their full array of tattoos and lose themselves in raptures of sex, methedrine, and video aggression.

Eventually, after running through the disintegrating towns of Mechanicville (once a place of earnest labor, just like it sounds, now a morass of sinking car dealerships and Quik-stops), and Stillwater (smaller version of the same), the road turned completely rural and few other cars ventured up there. The decisive Revolutionary battle of Saratoga was fought near there on the bluffs and hills overlooking the Hudson in 1777. You wonder what the heroes of that battle would think of what we have become. What would they make of the word "consumer" that we use to describe our relation to the world? What would they think of excellent river bottom-land that is now barely used for farming -- or, where it is still farmed (dairying if anything), of farmers who will not even put in a kitchen garden for themselves because it might detract from their hours of TV viewing?

The sclerosis of American life is shocking. If you go further north up the Hudson River, to Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, you'll see a nation that seems ready to crawl off and die. There, it appears too far gone to even put up a proxy fight on a video screen. Frankly, I don't want that version of America to survive -- the America of chain stores, and muscle cars, and grown men obsessed with video games, drugs, and pornography, and women decorated like cannibals, and the vast, crushing purposelessness of it all. I have no doubt we're heading into a convulsion that will wring much of this junk and dross into the backwaters of history. We're capable of being something better than this, of putting our time on earth to better use, including a more respectful treatment of the land we inhabit. This year and the next will be the years of letting go, and out of that we'll commence a re-becoming.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Big Red

I was watching 20/20: Sex in America last night. John Stossel periodically interviewed someone from the Family Research Council aptly named Peter Sprigg. Does he resemble the actor Matt Ross (according to IMDb.com, he "is most frequently cast as spineless corporate-types")? You make the call.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Buildings Under Construction



Thursday, July 17, 2008

Anson Chong

Keliipio extends congratulations (as do I) to Hunter Bishop on the second anniversary of his blog. From her comment I learned this:

Mahalo Hunter for keeping Puna connected through your blog. Even my friend and former State Senator Anson Chong contributed a few posts before his illness and his passing yesterday. July 16, 2008 | KELIIPIO

Anson Chong's blog.

R.I.P., Anson Chong.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Wasted Food


Thursday, July 10, 2008

What Now? Part Five

29 July Update: I just found out about Coconut Girl and her take on what she calls "the sad state of Big Island newspapers."
Hunter Bishop reports on his blog that the Hawaii Island Journal might come back, probably in August or September.

By chance on Monday or Tuesday night I saw part of the televised testimony before the County Council. Peter Serafin spoke, followed by a woman from the ad department (I think). She said that the three main departments of the paper often operated as three independent entities, and thus were out of sync. Senior writer Alan McNarie opened with a remark that Serafin's and the woman's testimony were both true but that the paper's demise was more "complex" than that. The bulk of his testimony blamed Honolulu Weekly's 2005 acquisition for making the paper "not local." He also said bloggers are "inherently biased," as if papers aren't.

I'm curious about the Island Sun, whose inaugural run of 5,000 copies might mean it'll be hard to find an issue. No website that I can see either. And will people read the Big Island Weekly, Hawaii Free Press (the black sheep of the Big Island alternative media), Island Sun, and a resurgent Hawaii Island Journal? I'd like to think so. The only thing is that BIW, IS, and HIJ might be clones of one another. Each may be a liberal-left paper with lots of arts, some politics, etc., but each should develop its own personality. Book, movie, music, and art reviews, obviously. Sports coverage (see the Village Voice's Jockbeat for inspiration). Cartoons. Big Island Weekly's publication of Berido's cartoons are a good step in the right direction.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Cleaning Out Magazine Cabinet

Yesterday I took the plunge and spent five hours sorting out hundreds of magazines, accumulated over many years, in the garage. I'm still not finished but I made a large dent, such that most of the magazines fit nicely on two and one-half shelves, rather than three shelves and two bins stuffed full.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Content, Not the Frequency.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

What Now? Part Four

From HunterBishop.com

Serafin's testimony on HIJ's demise

What follows is former Hawaii Island Journal Editor Peter Serafin's testimony to the Hawaii County Planning Commttee on Tuesday:

1 July 08

Peter's Council Testimony:

Members of the council, ladies and gentlemen, good morning. My name is Peter Serafin; for the past 2 1/2 years it's been my great pleasure and privilege to have served as editor of Hawai'i Island Journal. I'd like to start off by thanking Chairman Naole for providing me this opportunity to discuss the recent closure of the Journal, a locally owned newspaper which many on this island and elsewhere consider a valuable local resource.

In certain lines of work, the rewards are not exclusively, nor even primarily, financial. Firefighters. School teachers. Police officers. Health care workers. They certainly earn enough to support their families, but nobody gets rich doing these jobs. However, for a certain kind of person the additional reward provided is much more valuable than money: the opportunity for some type of community or public service.

So it is with journalists. Our function is to provide the most complete information we can, so citizens can make the best decisions they can. This is essential to a functional democracy. In fact, the Founding Fathers of the United States considered an independent press so important that it is the only profession protected, by name, in the Constitution.

For the past nine years, HIJ has served the community as a small, locally-owned newspaper. Then, as now, most local news coverage was provided by Stephens Media Group, a conglomerate of approximately 65 newspapers nationwide that is ultimately controlled from the company's headquarters in Las Vegas. On this island they owned both daily papers and a few smaller ones.

When the Journal started, the two Stephens dailies – West Hawaii Today and Hawaii Tribune-Herald — seldom ventured far from either Kailua-Kona or Hilo, respectively. The activities and concerns of people in Ka'u, Hamakua, Puna and other areas were ignored or, at best, underreported. To an extent, that has changed. We believe that the fact that the dailies are doing a bit better in covering these previously forgotten districts is a direct result of the Journal's example.

We morphed from Ka'u Landing into the Journal in 1998, and by 2005 were publishing biweekly, ultimately distributing 24,000 copies of each issue island wide. Over the years we'd built a reputation of looking deeper into local issues than the dailies did. We took the time to investigate without the pressure of daily deadlines, nor the requirement that a reporter write one story per day.

The Journal grew steadily, and eventually began getting attention beyond this island. Last summer in Honolulu we received top honors from the Hawaii Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for Best Community Reporting and Best Feature Writing. We won two of the four statewide categories we were eligible for. During the year no other Hawai'i Island paper was considered the best in any category. We were batting .500 -- not bad in any league. Then just last month, on our third attempt, we were accepted into the highly selective national organization the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

Despite these journalistic successes, we faced challenges on the business side. To print a paper like ours requires a Web press, which can cost over $1 million. Through the country, daily newspapers are the ones that an afford this expensive equipment. But their presses are busy only a few hours a day printing the paper. To maximize revenue from this expensive asset, virtually every newspaper company in the country takes on additional contract printing jobs in their off hours. For example, the New York Times press always printed the New York City phone book, and dozens of other outside jobs. It's standard in the industry.

Stephens Media owns the only two Web presses on this island, where they print the Trib-Herald and West Hawaii Today. Lane Wick, HIJ's previous owner, approached Stephens with a contract job to print the Journal. Their response: We'll only print the Journal if you sell us a controlling interest. As a believer in independent journalism, Wick turned them down. With the new publisher, it was the same story – we won't print you unless we own you. The Journal continued to be printed in Honolulu at the Star-Bulletin press.

Although they couldn't buy us, Stephens still wanted a monopoly. A year and a half ago they launched Big Island Weekly, a copycat paper specifically created to drive the Journal out of business. They pursued a strategy similar to the one go! airlines used against Aloha Air. Sell the product – be it advertising space or airline tickets – below cost, and make up the shortfall with cash infusions from the parent company on the mainland. Since the local company has to actually earn the money it costs to operate, keep it up and you'll eventually drive them out of business.

I'd like to make it perfectly clear that the local staffers of Big Island Weekly have nothing to do with this strategy of their bosses. Like the local go! Airlines workers, they're happy to have a job here doing something they enjoy. But make no mistake: just because the local BIW employees didn't know what their bosses on the mainland were up to doesn't mean it wasn't happening. It most certainly was. And a news monopoly serves no one – except, of course, the one holding the monopoly.

This isn't the only place independent newspapers are being attacked like this. In San Francisco, the Bay Guardian newspaper has been publishing every week for almost 40 years. A few years ago a media conglomerate came in from out of town. They launched the competing San Francisco Weekly and sold extremely cheap advertising. The Bay Guardian sued, charging the Weekly was using predatory pricing and cash infusions from the parent corporation intended to unfairly damage their paper. A court agreed and awarded the Bay Guardian $15 million in damages. The ruling stood on appeal.

Besides being targeted by Stephens, the Journal also faced industry-wide challenges. Like all other newspapers – free or paid – the bulk of our revenue came from advertising. Industry wide, newspaper classified ad revenues dropped 5% last year – a continuing trend over the past decade. Print ads were similarly affected nationally.

So what now? Do the people of this island want and deserve multiple news sources? We think they do. Are they content to get all their local news from one off-island company that owns both our dailies, the only commercial TV station and most of the other papers? We think not. I believe people here are smarter than that and want more than that.

Despite their best efforts, corporate media hasn't managed to control everything yet. Blogging is still in its infancy, but locally Hunter Bishop, Aaron Stene and others are giving us online alternatives to the monopoly, as does the new Island Sun.

As for the Journal, it may not be completely dead after all. I was off-island at the beginning of a long-planned vacation when the publisher called and said she was suspending publication. Since then I've been overwhelmed with calls and emails of support – strongly urging us to carry on. A number of investors are in discussion to buy the paper and relaunch publication. Anyone interested in participating in this effort, or anyone with any questions is welcome to contact me at SaveTheJournal@mac.com. As I've always said, I love hearing from readers.

Mahalo for your attention and for this opportunity to speak here.

Peter Serafin


Hawai'i Island Journal


Posted on Wednesday, July 2, 2008 at 07:38AM by Hunter Bishop | Post a Comment
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