Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Change The Channel

A dozen time-zones away from Washington, DC, I happened to wake up in time to catch both the State of the Union and the Republican response this morning over breakfast. Yeah, over breakfast, what kind of a ludicrous glutton for punishment am I. At least it was all pathetically predictable, with Mitch Daniels painting modern America as some litter-and-body-strewn hellscape that the Republicans will somehow miraculously cure through the alchemy of deregulation & cracking down on gayness, while Obama laid out his platform for re-election thusly:
  1. I killed Bin Laden, yo!
  2. Support the troops!
  3. Jobs 'n' schools 'n' shit!
  4. Iran, we will fuck you up.

By the end of it, I felt mildly drunk as I was physiologically incapable of determining what possessed me more, anger or boredom. Boredom won out in the end, as I realized I could've skipped both Obama and Daniels' speeches and simply watched the keystone speech from Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion on loop for two hours. In fact, I recommend you doing precisely that instead of watching the SOTU every year from now until the bloody erosion of the American empire is complete.

Of course, the fundamental difference between the SOTU and Investigation is that Gian Maria Volonté's police inspector, loathsome fascist that he is, has more integrity than any American politician in office today.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Threshold of the Lift Hill

The presumptive, lumpen fantasm of the internet - typically referred to as "we" - did it, folks: SOPA and PIPA are D.O.A. Following the massive online blackout that terrorized digital natives and the late majority alike, the legislative tide has swung overwhelmingly against the inoperable & draconian bills. Let the celebratory fist-pumping & occasionally smug self-congratulation begin!

But hang on a moment. For such a media-savvy throng, the triumphal netizens appear to be totally ignorant of the classic horror movie narrative dynamic. Want to know what happens next? The moment that the protagonist relaxes, having apparently dispatched the villain, said incarnation of evil is hideously resurrected, more powerful than ever before, and attacks anew!

Thus it was that the FBI shut down Megaupload yesterday and has arrested four of seven people (including the site's founder) indicted for copyright infringement and conspiracy. Almost immediately, Anonymous went beserk with retaliatory shut-downs of just about any website operated by an acronym: the DOJ, the FBI, the MPAA, RIAA, UMG, EMI, WMG, and both the American & French copyright authorities. It appears to have been Anonymous' largest online attack ever.

But believe it or not, Anonymous are late to the party. The Megaupload raid is actually the second major development regarding a copyright-related international incursion by an American agency within the past week. Last Friday, a British court decided that British undergrad Richard O'Dwyer may be extradited to the U.S. where he faces a potential 10-year prison sentence:
US customs agents are seeking his prosecution over a website O'Dwyer set up when he was 19 called TVShack, and ran until his arrest last year. This provided links to other sites hosting pirated versions of TV shows and film. It was so popular that the student earned £15,000 per month in advertising revenue, US prosecutors claim.

O'Dwyer's lawyers said the site was little different from a search engine like Google and was thus most likely not illegal under UK law.

However, Purdy noted that visitors to the site had to register, and could post their own links. He ruled that the case met the test of so-called dual liability, also dismissing arguments that extradition would be a breach of O'Dwyer's human rights.
The real story, however, comes at the tail end of the article:
Separately, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has faced criticism for perceived over-reach, targeting websites which, like TVShack – which had servers in the Netherlands – have no direct link to America.

In July the agency's assistant deputy director told the Guardian that ICE would now actively pursue websites similar to TVShack even if their only connection to the US was a website address ending in .com or .net. Such suffixes are routed through Verisign, an internet infrastructure company based in Virginia, which the agency believes is sufficient to seek a US prosecution.
Read that last paragraph again: any website registered as either .com or .net is subject to the full extent of American copyright law because those suffixes are routed through Virginia. A website's administrators, staff, servers, even users & advertisers can all be outside of America and it doesn't matter because the suffix alone is sufficient ground for prosecution. Hell, compared to the O'Dwyer case, shutting down Megaupload must have been a slam-dunk since Megaupload actually maintains servers on American soil.

By the above legal logic, the government has the authority to shutter any file host, any private web host, any website to which material can be uploaded of which users claim ownership - in other words, everything from YouTube to Flickr, from Facebook to 4chan, from Wordpress to BoingBoing to Blogger to Twitter. This is strictly according to current law regarding copyright & intellectual property. It doesn't matter that neither SOPA nor PIPA will pass, because clearly the government doesn't need them.

Also noteworthy is that, on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had the authority to remove works from the public domain. The real shocker of the 6-2 decision is that the dissenting justices, who felt the ruling was against the public interest as it discouraged the spread of knowledge, were Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito. Yeah, Alito - appointed by Bush, condemned by the ACLU, guardian of Guantanamo and concurrent of Citizens United. Since when does Alito make decisions that would prohibit further bloating of corporate power & profit?

Anyway, the Golan V. Holder ruling allows U.S. policy to comport with the Berne Convention, a European copyright treaty first introduced way back in 1886. It can hardly be argued that the Berne Convention has been legal strangulation depriving the French, Germans, Italians, or Swedes of easy access to each other's cultural wealth. This has much to do with how liberal the Convention's language is, especially within Article 2.3:
Translations, adaptations, arrangements of music and other alterations of a literary or artistic work shall be protected as original works without prejudice to the copyright in the original work.
However, the main factor at work is the massive discrepancy between how Europe and America value the arts. Despite how fundamental art is to cultural identity, America has evermore lost sight of art's symbolic value and assigns it exchange value accordingly only to its sign value. This means that all art is subject to the whims of the market: the only art that deserves to survive is that which excites the market. This cultural Darwinism blends with a libertarian phobia of propaganda ("You know who else favoured public funding for the arts?") to ensure that the government does little, if anything, to support the arts.

This is why public-domain material is indispensable to the livelihood of orchestras, performers, publishers, and repertoire cinemas in America. Over half of the average nonprofit arts organization's income is contributed - 13% publicly and a whopping 43% privately. Art, therefore, is less a common good than a private investment, and its investors obviously want a handsome return. This means artists have to make a hit to reward their investors' faith; but creating something new is dangerous & uncharted territory, and few artists have the cash to license performances of established favourites. Therefore, it's back to scavenging the public domain for tried-and-true yet free-to-use materials. The public domain is what gives permission for orchestras to perform Stravinsky's Petruschka, for arthouse cinemas to screen Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and for publishers to print new editions of Dracula, Ulysses, or Pride and Prejudice.

So how can European artists continue to perform, screen, and publish if all the material is still protected under the Berne Convention? Public funding. European governments understand the immaterial worth of art in daily life, and so there are subsidies and grants to ensure the public's easy access & steady engagement with their and others' culture. Were similar funding available in America, then orchestras could afford to license Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf if its copyright were renewed. But as it stands, the social dimension of art is a communist conspiracy and art is only worth something if it's for sale.

Finally, on a more prosaic note, now that Megaupload's been deep-six'd, all the various MP3 mixes I've uploaded over that past few years have been likewise erased. Would anyone like them back up? Are there any special requests for a particular mix that's missing? Does anyone give a toss?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Paper Napkin Chicken Scratch

Errant observations and imprecise opinions hastily scribbled over the course of three weeks bouncing between several countries...

It takes most directors and screenwriters three-ish films to arrive at either their apogee or the plateau along which they'll comfortably cruise for the rest of their careers. Taxi Driver was Scorsese's fourth film and Paul Schrader's second script. Blue Velvet was David Lynch's fourth effort as writer/director. By the release of The Royal Tenenbaums, you knew a Wes Anderson film would be wealthy eccentrics shot in diorama-style mise-en-scène over an old Kinks song. It didn't even take until Eternal Sunshine to realize that all of Charlie Kaufman's films are basically Annie Hall if Woody Allen had grown up reading French post-structuralists instead of German psychoanalysts.

J.J. Abrams' films follow a reliable formula: one part Spielberg, one part lens flare, and one part daddy issues. (Some would argue, therefore, the proper formulation is two parts Spielberg to one part lens flare.)

Drive is a terrible goddamned movie - the kind of faux-arthouse poppycock that portends to work that style-into-substance alchemy when it's merely a spitwad of smug artifice transubstantiating up its own ass. The pacing would put Jim Jarmusch to sleep, there's as much teal-and-orange colour correction as a Michael Bay movie, and the characters are so stock they're listed on the NASDAQ. (It takes all of two lines before Albert Brooks' jowly Italian mobster says "Wuzzamattawichoo?") Man of the Moment Ryan Gosling spends about 15 seconds of the film acting, and the other hour-forty-minutes-and-twenty-five-seconds playing a mannequin with a fake Brooklyn accent whose "principled" refusal to carry a gun is kind of undercut by the drownings, stabbings, and beatings he delivers unflinchingly throughout the film.

My wife and I are utterly baffled by Ryan Gosling's apparently universal appeal. His much-heralded sexiness eludes us ("He just looks like he's from rural Ontario!" says my wife) and we've yet to see any acting chops above the standard of, say, a guest appearance in an HBO series. Also, his phony Noo Yawk accent just pisses me off. I addressed this specific complaint in two separate conversations with two friends, each a young, cosmopolitan French woman. Both immediately cited Gosling's tenure on the Mickey Mouse Club as the possible source of his aberrant accent. Ah, but that was shot in Florida! If Gosling had effortlessly sponged up the local dialect, he'd sound more like Hank Hill or (if he was really overachieving) Tony Montana. But no, he sounds like a truck driver on the BQE, so how can his accent be anything but fake? To this, both of my friends - separated by three days and 380 miles, totally unaware of each other's reaction - quietly shrugged and said, "Well, he might just be quite stupid."

Do they think Gosling is an idiot because he's a blond pretty-boy Disney alum? Because he's an actor? Or, indeed, because he sounds like a grease-monkey from Gowanus? Whatever the reason, let it be known: sophisticated, worldly French women think Ryan Gosling is a dumb-ass!

Overinflated New Yorker also happens to be Jon Stewart's go-to accent for impersonating morons, con artists, and garden-variety assholes. A canny choice on his part: tough & streetwise though it may be, the New York accent doesn't particularly appeal to many people outside of New York. Still, it isn't as ugly as the native Baltimorean accent, which sounds like a hillbilly crack-baby. Come to think of it, almost every accent is saddled with negative stereotypes. Received Pronunciation is the accent of the learned, the elite, but also the cosmically evil. In the UK, Brummies are idiots and Scousers are thieves. In the States, southerners are gregarious racists, Bostonians are either moneyed pricks or thuggish drunks, and mid-westerners (and by extension Canadians) are benevolent folks so simple they border on Autistic.

As much as I've love to tour its splendid whiskey distilleries, I don't think I'll ever get back to Scotland. My wife says the accent - despite being intermittently incomprehensible - poses a very real threat to our marriage.

Lots of people have a pet accent, one they find ineffably sexy & sensual. Not me: I might find a woman of another mother tongue alluring, but that has more to do with the woman than how she blends her vowels. At least that's what I thought until I saw Marion Cotillard in Les Petits Mouchoirs, swearing a blue streak like she was Linda Blair in waterwings. I can't begin to explain why, but woo lawd was that hot. Of course, I find French women generally fascinating: their faces are like fountain-pen caricatures and their hair is like choreography. The Golden Ratio - thought to be integral to our perception of beauty - seems to elude French features more often than not, which has the unfortunate effect of making many French men look like big-nosed, unshaven pimps. But it also makes the women so much more interesting to look at than their geometrically-regular, Teutonic neighbours.

Of course, it's inaccurate & unfair to suggest that Germans meet some mathematical ideal of physical perfection; that's only half of 'em. The other half look like the mustard algae staining the bottom of the gene pool.

There was a billboard in the Munich train station for a large commercial bank - I think it was Sparkasse - that posed the question, "Which bank is doing what's right for Germany?" in a friendly, white, sans-serif font. Next to the text was the image of a platinum-blonde, blue-eyed young girl, hands planted firmly on hips, eyes fixed sportively on the middle distance. Now then... I understand that as EU leaders (especially German chancellor Angela Merkel) attempt to balance the wildly discrepant economic health of its constituent countries, mutual mistrust and resurgent nationalism is rampant across the continent. But I wouldn't have guessed that a commercial bank in King-of-the-Hill Deutschland would appeal so baldly to some latent Aryan arrogance.

However, if you're intent on discussing Nazi architecture, then only do it after a minimum two mugs of mulled wine so your vocal chords are warmed up and your inhibitions have been properly shellacked. After all, buildings so bellicose & humourless that they look like clenched fists deserve to be discussed only in equally belligerent terms.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Singularity, European Stereotypes Edition

I believe I've found the point at which total self-consciousness and zero self-awareness fold back upon each other Moebius-like. At least as far as the French and Germans are concerned.

A brief translation of that last bit:
Reporter: When are the regional elections?

Kindly old lady: I've nothing to say to that. I'm an anarchist and I want to fucking destroy all of capitalist society.
I swear, that is what she actually says. As for translating this next item...

None required. Or perhaps none possible.