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by Karen Zarker

28 Dec 2009

If Jason Wilson’s foreword and Simon Winchester’s introduction to this fine collection of essays don’t hook you, well, you’re probably more inclined toward reality TV than reality travel literature, anyway.

Wilson takes the premise that the narratives found in travel writing are comparable to the simplistic narratives found in video games, a premise sparked from an unexpected conversation with a friend. At first, he’s perplexed by her assertion that players’ experiences of various locales in gaming are really just backdrop for their own, personal stories. This is how many travelers experience the world outside of their own: as mere backdrop to the stories of their own lives.

Later, he finds himself playing Endless Ocean on Wii with his two sons, and enjoying the pseudo ‘experience’ of ‘adventure’ the game aims to invoke. Comparably, we already know that Japan, for example, creates pseudo ‘other countries’ within its own, so that Japanese ‘travelers’ can experience a recreated Holland, for example, without leaving their homeland. Whole communities, complete with hefty home prices revolve around this concept of living in another country without leaving Japan.

So, too, the experience of reading travel literature is, for many, substitute for actual travel. Do such pseudo-experiences—gaming, reading, never leaving the resort—render the meaning of travel ... meaningless?  To varying degrees, I’d say yes. But give me an informed essay on Sundarvans (“Tigerland” by Caroline Alexander) long before I set foot in the jungle, and I’m inclined to see much more than just a canvass of green, which is all the uninformed mind will see—I will, at least, sense the presence of the man eating tiger.

by Rob Horning

28 Dec 2009

I make fun of awkward academic writing as much as anyone, but this crack by Christopher Shea in the Boston Globe Ideas blog about something Matt Yglesias wrote about Avatar annoyed me nonetheless. The post is titled “Someone Remembers His Theory Classes!” and gently mocks Yglesias for this sentence: “The Avatar narrative starts with a form of reactionary anti-capitalism and thus ends [up] re-inscribing the logic of colonialism inside an ostensibly anti-imperialist story.”

In keeping with the blog’s mission, Shea probably wants to call attention to the idea behind that Yglesias’s sentence and maybe even champion it. But he still feels obliged to write as though the main thing the sentence connotes is “I’ve read political theory.” This reduces ideas to the level of a personality game, to a matter of peacocking cultural capital. Ideas, from that point of view, are merely counters that all signify the same thing, ultimately: status.

This is what media and mediatization has become. It’s no longer about information dissemination so much as it about systemizing information, reducing its significance to a single dimension. Everything is reduced to a play of identity signifiers, making everything a posture, rendering all ideas into gestures of identity creation, attempts at ego projection and nothing more. That’s what I argue in this essay, at any rate, drawing from Baudrillard’s “Requiem for the Media” (pdf).

It’s not as though Yglesias’s point is obscure or difficult to grasp as he phrases it. “Inscribe” is critical-theory jargon, but even so the word has not been twisted or distorted from its ordinary meaning. Avatar pretends to be against capitalism and environmental destruction and for indigenous claims and thus against “evil empires”, but in the end the film is so patronizing to the natives it invents for its plot that it retells the same old imperialist “White Man’s Burden” tale. (More on that to come in my next post.) But Shea acts as though he has made that point simultaneously obscure and flashy. I think this is a bias that is endemic in journalism. Journalists seem unable to resist the impulse to feign ignorance or impatience with certain semi-erudite expressions in order to curry favor with an audience they presume is equally impatient and ignorant. But it is not theoretical language that’s obtuse. If journalists assume readers don’t want to hear about “imperialism,” readers never will, and journalists will accordingly be open to the accusation that they are that empire’s most effective flunkies: they hide the fact that the empire even exists.


by Bill Gibron

28 Dec 2009

We say it every year, but it remains true. DVD has been a godsend for filmmakers desperate for distribution. Thanks to the advances in technology, the accessibility of an available audience (otherwise known as the Internet) and a definitive DIY stance, more movies are available than ever before. Finding them is another issue all together. Most of your noted B&M retail and rental outlets don’t touch ‘unknown’ quantities helmed by unproven talent with a tendency to believe their own hype. Instead, they fill their shelves with standard operating hackwork, the latest (and usually lamest) efforts from Tinsel Town’s crap factory - and its varying direct to digital run-offs. In order to find the truly obscure titles, one must do a lot of research and think outside the Netflix envelope, so to speak. As part of our blog prerogative, that’s exactly what Short Ends and Leader tries to do.

by Bill Gibron

27 Dec 2009

There is nothing wrong with flaunting convention, especially when the subject (or in this case, cinematic genre) definitely deserves the revisionist tweaking. For decades now, the thriller has gone through several seemingly important permutations - erotic, political, domestic, international, personal, psychological, horrific, humorous - while maintaining the same basic bland motion picture formulas. Thanks to fright film configurations like the slice and dice slasher category, or the overworked (and thoroughly predictable) police procedural, edge of your seat entertainment definitely needs a reimagining boost. About the closest it’s come to an overhaul is Paul Greengrass’s hand-held hedonism of the Bourne Franchise.

So when David Twohy of Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick fame announced that he was taking on the type in a completely unconventional manner, audiences had a right to be excited. If anyone could instill some new life in the old cat and mouse, it had to be the man who made Vin Diesel palatable. Sadly, what the filmmaker delivered was less of A Perfect Getaway and more of a soulless slog through whodunit boredom. The overly simple story centers on a couple - Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich) - who travel to Hawaii on their honeymoon. There, they run into another couple - Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Gina (Kiele Sanchez) - and the news that there is a pair of serial killers on the island. Of course, everyone suspects everyone else, and it’s not long before tempers flare…and truths are finally revealed.

As you can tell by the set-up, A Perfect Getaway (new to DVD and Blu-ray) is not a complicated movie. In fact, it’s so simplistic it’s fetal. This is a film that believes it is pushing the boundaries of the creative category, and yet accomplishes said reinvention in the most mindless way possible. For instance, Twohy clearly decides that the best way to handle the concept of suspense is to have none at all. That’s right - for the first hour and ten minutes of the overlong film, nothing remotely dreadful or fearful happens. There is a lot of innuendo and a great deal of mindless chatter, but with the audience lacking any information that would inspire horror, A Perfect Getaway takes the notion of being lifeless literarily.

The twist - the lifeblood of any attempted crackerjack chiller - is also telegraphed far in advance. Once we learn who the killers are, we then wait for the deadly denouement to play out. Again, Twohy holds back. Instead, we are treated to a wacked out flashback/hallucination where motives are drawn like stick figures in a child’s kindergarten class and psychological complexities are tackled with dialogue so mannered that even Shakespeare would consider it convoluted. In fact, there’s a moment when Twohy stops the action dead, trying to illustrate the cockeyed perspective of his murderer. Instead, we laugh at the directorial flourish, convinced that nothing good can come out of the otherwise hilarious attempt at middle school mind games.

It doesn’t help that there are only six characters in the story - and two have to be the killers. By the time we get to the 80 minute mark, two of the sextet are MIA. That means we are left with a dumbfounding 50/50 shot at who indeed are the nutjobs. And since Twohy hasn’t take much time to develop the characters beyond a superficial sketchbook snapshot, the psychological clues are almost non-existent. Again, this could all be part of the filmmaker’s attempt to flummox expectations. While we don’t necessarily like having a second act suspect show up and draw suspicion away from the mains, it would have helped. Without a commentary track or other way of understanding what Twohy was up to, A Perfect Getaway plays like a screenwriting manual’s example of how NOT to create a nailbiter.

And then there is the ending. Without giving much away, our couples come under the judgmental jurisdiction of the police, warned (per standard screenwriting convention) by a cellphone that now somehow works. As the stand-off between victim and villainy transpires, as Twohy tries to make us guess where the SWAT team’s bullet will find its mark, the plot punks out. It offers up a lame “gotcha” that doesn’t even deliver the sense of satisfaction that one should get when getting rid of the bad guy. Instead, there’s a head wound, a kiss off last line, and a lot of unfulfilled promises. A Perfect Getaway, by trying to be different, simply ends up being tiresome. Instead of reinventing the genre wheel, Twohy flattens it without a spare in sight.

Of course, the new Blu-ray release offers a “director’s cut” that does little to expand its theatrical likeability. In fact, unless you are the kind of celluloid detective who uses their photographic memory to recall every intricate narrative detail, you’ll be hard pressed to see the differences between the two versions. And since the disc doesn’t offer any interviews or cast and crew discussions, intent and effect are impossible to infer. No that the actors would have much to add, one assumes. Of the four main players, Olyphant seems to be having the most fun, taking lines without much meat on them and fleshing them out to the best of his muscled suntanned ability. Zahn is zoned out most of the time, while Jovovich gives what could best be described as a tarted-up zombie performance. That just leaves Kiele Sanchez to bring something compelling to the mix. She can’t.

Indeed, instead of trying to do something different with the Cineplex warhorse, Twohy should have taken his skill at action and adventure and turned A Perfect Getaway into the best illustration of the genre mandates ever. After all, Hitchcock constantly relied on filmmaking stereotypes and shortcuts to get his otherwise masterful suspense efforts across, and he remains a certifiable genius. Unless you really have something new, novel, inventive, or unprecedented to bring to the motion picture mix, leave your desire to “shake things up” for the occasional writer’s block daydream. If you ever need a reminder of why, just take a look at A Perfect Getaway. After a major box office bomb, David Twohy clearly was looking to defy expectations. What he ended up defying was logic, entertainment - and a prosperous career in the industry.

by Bill Gibron

27 Dec 2009

Love hurts. Love stinks. It’s all you need and often the answer. So a love story should be complicated, not pat and perfunctory. A romance should run the gamut from happiness to heartbreak, the thrill of initial lust to the hard times of settling in for the long haul. Unfortunately, Hollywood only sees the Meet-Cute, the obvious actor/actress age difference, and the notion that with plot contrivances and clichés come true emotional epiphanies. To them, love is less like oxygen and more like syrupy sweet penny candy. That’s why the recent indie offering (500) Days of Summer stands as something so original and refreshing. While a tad too twee for most stick in the mud cinephiles, it remains a stellar example of a daring genre tweak that works, and works marvelously.

Taking the unusual approach of realizing its title figuratively (we don’t literally see all 500 days of this relationship, but we do cover quite a few), music video auteur turned first time director Marc Webb casts Zooey Deschanel as the bubbly and quirky “It” girl without the necessary defining qualities that make her a classic beauty or a smart-alecky snark artist. Instead, Summer is the girl next door as elusive albatross, a symbol of everything love has to be for failed architect turned greeting card writer Tom (a terrific Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Using a quick cut vignette-oriented style, and bouncing back and forth between the good times and the painful tribulations, the awkward beginnings and the agonizing incongruities, screenwriters Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter take their own experiences and redefine the RomCom. The movie even admits it is not a love story. Instead, it is a story about love - literally.

As the commentary track on the new Blu-ray release of (500) Days of Summer confirms, this is a tale born out of truth. There is a real life ‘Summer’ running around out there, a gal who adored the Smiths, zoned in on one man’s veiled vulnerability and then dropped the “F” bomb - ‘friends’ - when things went from satiric dates at Ikea to declarations of devotion. The movie is meant to be a combination of conflicted sentiments - part kiss-off and part celebration, part personal comedy with some stingy human tragedy folded in for good measure. Sure, Webb has never met a music montage he couldn’t restage several times (though the Hall and Oates bit is brilliant) and we do grow a wee bit irritated by the obvious indie irony, but that doesn’t really distract us. (500) Days of Summer is so engaging and so honest that we are instantly swept up in the story and experience the psychological and social rollercoaster of both of our leads.

In fact, Weber and Neustadter make it very clear that they wanted no villains here - no heartless “bitches” or worthless macho “losers” that the audience could hiss at or easily dismiss. Indeed, (500) Days of Summer is one of those rare experiences where we see truly three dimensional people - warts, wants, needs, desires, misconceptions, and misguided beliefs and all. Summer may seem like the natural baddie - she does have the film’s biggest plot twist turn of events - but she’s also struggling to find herself in a world that wants to merely pigeonhole her for prettiness’ sake. Tom is also incomplete - a man more talented than he lets on with aspirations that may never match his options. Think back on all the couples you’ve seen in lame Tinseltown takes on this material and you’ll be hard pressed to find a pair as deep and varied as these two.

Better yet, there’s no third party or meddling conspiracy of acquaintances to taint the conversational constructs. Most RomComs use the supporting players as a voice of reason/ridiculousness/raunch, a glorified Greek chorus that does little except explain the already obvious. If not then, then the flagrant ‘fifth wheel’ is the already in place paramour, the boyfriend/fiancé/husband/ex that just can’t seem to take the hint (or the hike the goes along with it). In their place, (500) Days of Summer offers understanding younger sisters, equally unfocused friends, cagey co-workers and a standard assembly of amiable authenticities. Certainly there are times when the movie presses the boundaries of believability, but all fictions do. By staying away from the stereotypical, Webb and company create a near-classic.

You can sense the desire to remain original all throughout the Blu-ray bonus features. From the wonderful viral video riff on Sid and Nancy (inspired by dialogue from the film) to the telling conversations with Zooey and Joseph, (500) Days of Summer is consistently seen as an opportunity, a chance to voice another part of the love dynamic rarely discussed. The aforementioned commentary offers equal insights, struggling to explain why typical Hollywood hokum does relationships a massive disservice. Indeed, what we get out of most of this material is a dedication to truth. Webb and his cast aren’t out to wander the stereotypical boy/girl path. Instead, (500) Days of Summer is meant as an antidote to all those hyper-unrealistic insults to one’s intelligence.

That’s why this movie is destined to become a generational giant, a work that speaks to a certain contemporary if ill-defined demographic that’s too cynical to believe in magic but not completely incapable of embracing something significant. For them, (500) Days of Summer will sink in like The Graduate did in the ‘60s, American Graffiti did in the ‘70s, and the films of John Hughes did in the ‘80s. In a world where people are often angrier and more depressed than ditzy and daydreamy, where personal connections seem based on sex, sleaze, and social mandates, a movie like (500) Days of Summer soars. It strides to its own unique beat. It’s one of the rare efforts that truly tells us what love is - its pluses and minuses, ups and downs, valuables and wasteful excesses. Thanks to Marc Webb, Michael Weber, Scott Neustadter, Zooey Deschanel, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the RomCom finally gets a heady dose of reality - and it’s an entertaining and moving sight to behold.

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