Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Aug 7, 2008

There is is a big difference between legitimate cool and faked cool. The real thing is hard to define and rather ephemeral. It exudes off the subject - film, album, individual - in ways that literally defy description. The counterfeit version is easy to spot. It announces itself like an overly tan lounge lizard in tacky gold chains, and demands that you respect its forced bravado. The latest attempt at recapturing the exploitation vibe from three decades ago, Hell Ride, has a decent pedigree. Executive produced by Quentin Tarantino and created by old school drive-in vet Larry Bishop (Wild in the Streets, The Savage Seven), this is yet another contemporary tap into the original post-modern movie ideal. Unfortunately, the few things this grindhouse wannabe gets right can’t compensate for a distinct aura of unnatural swagger.


Back in ‘76, biker Pistolero promised the soon-to-be-murdered Cherokee Kisum that he would protect a key to a safety deposit box. The contents - supposedly untold amounts of drug money - were for her son, Comanche. Now, over four decades later, an older Pistoler leads the vagabond gang known as the Victors, along with his right hand man The Gent. When member St. Louie is killed by the rogue renegade 666’ers, led by the notoriously unsane Billy Wings and The Deuce, he vows vengeance. He also hopes to locate the last two keys so that Comanche (now part of his crew) can earn his birthright and satisfy the age old vendetta. Of course, any action against the 666’ers will upset the status quo, and that means an end to beer and babes and the beginning of an all out motorcycle holocaust.


Right from the very first image, Hell Ride comes off as a Devil’s Rejects reject. Unfortunately, you quickly realize that Rob Zombie was much more in tune with the exploitation ethic than wannabe Mahon Larry Bishop. Soon, the Tarantino nods start pouring in, staid amalgamations of spaghetti westerns, Asian crime dramas, and overworked schlock motifs. About 40 minutes in you’ve had enough. You can’t stand the back and forth posing, the hopscotching homages, the lack of anything remotely looking like a linear narrative or dimensional character. It’s at this moment when cast and crew make their stand, demanding that you accept them, or simply ignore their over-earnest motion picture pastiche outright and move along. If you can handle such a head on aesthetic collision, you just might enjoy the last act.


But if you don’t, Hell Ride will seem like a literal journey into Satan’s gaping maw. It will test your bare breasting faculties and push the very limits of your need for unnecessary posturing. There is no acting here, just useless channeling of personas past, and when he can’t think of anything clever to convey, writer/director Bishop simply tosses out a few Leone riffs and calls it a day. There are so many mock meaningful close-ups, uses of zoom and soft focus falderal that you swear Guy Madden had discovered the ‘60s and was updating his canon of D.W. Griffith-inspired artiness. Processed to purgatory and back in post-production, the movie tries to super saturate some depth into what is, in essence, a nostalgia borne out of boredom. This is about as ‘grindhouse’ as the similarly styled (and named) films released by QT and his buddy Robert Rodriguez early last year.


Still, if you can stomach Bishop’s bravado, if you can get behind his cut and paste imagination, you may cotton to this Ride. There are definitely scenes that spark with untapped potential. Michael Madsen’s Gent takes on Eric Balfour’s Comanche in a one on one bar fight that discovers some heretofore untapped humor. There is another hilarious moment when a sheepish Dennis Hopper asks a biker babe for a joint (his face is classic). Sure, for every segment that gets you smiling, there’s one like Bishop’s “fire” based stand-off with his ‘old lady’, the lovely Cassandra Hepburn. The duo tosses so many conflagration entendres at each other that you can actually count the ones that ‘burn’, and the many that merely irritate. Some of this film feels like it would read better on the page. Besides, trying to mimic the crudity of the past is no longer clever.   


Indeed, this is Hell Ride‘s biggest problem. Very few filmmakers can accurately recreate the look and feel of ancient b-grade drive-in fare. Zombie is one. The Manson Family‘s Jim Van Bebber is another. Not only do they capture the visuals, they understand the off the cuff, on the run nature of how many of these movies were shot. To suggest that this can be done in some geek’s laptop is ludicrous. Besides, Bishop should know better. He was around when this kind of cinema ruled the subculture, and even acted in a few famous examples. Here, he seems to be looking through digital rose colored glasses. Everything plays like a flashback - albeit one told in a terrific, flashy style that tries desperately to hide how cornball the motoring and machismo really are.


All one can do is submit to Hell Ride‘s ridiculousness and simply allow the movie to make up its own creative logic. You might actually find that you like Bishop’s Birdman of Razzmatazz personality (he’s all grumbles and Van Dykes). If you don’t mind wallowing in excess that never achieves the T&A bounty the narrative suggests (here’s hoping the Unrated DVD solves this problem, pronto), you could find yourself fooled. Had he simply made a standard biker flick, a post-modern update of an old fashioned raincoat crowder, Larry Bishop’s ambition might be more acceptable. But combining 2008 with 1968 (or ‘78) just won’t work, and by the time you’ve surrendered to Hell Ride‘s chopper chic surrealism, you’ll realize what a true waste of time it’s been.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Aug 7, 2008

Anne Elizabeth’s Moore’s Unmarketable takes an anecdotal look at advertising’s tenacious ability to co-opt any position within a consumer society and use it to its own advantage. Movements that begin as explicitly anti-consumerist end up providing tropes and techniques for ads promoting brands. Part of the problem, as Moore points out, is that “marketing has become so diffuse as to be a social activity” and “friends and acquaintances in the struggle to condemn the bad and support the good have simply gone into advertising.” Advertisers, in apparent good faith, deliberately cultivate ties to underground or subversive art movements in order to spread and popularize their aesthetic (while at the same time selling Toyotas or what have you). These movements succumb to the marketer’s blandishments because the alternative is to languish in obscurity or to end up promoting the same consumerist culture anyway, inadvertently through having their artistic methods appropriated by advertisers without their participation. “Adbusting, subvertising, and many other activities employed by culture jammers and copyfighters alike, whether parodic or satiric, fundamentally reproduce and reinforce brands and the aims of branding,” Moore writes. “They not only reassert the icons they half-heartedly attempt to dismantle, they encourage their continued survival…. The impervious logic of branding means criticism is becoming almost impossible to voice or hear.”


The ubiquity of advertising helps establish that appearance of imperviousness. Moore concludes that it has become impossible to express integrity in the public sphere, because the symbols and the means don’t exist. Advertising destroys them in its need to continually reinvent itself to remain relevant, to continue to surprise audiences and reach them: “marketing strategies are constantly evolving in new directions, any directions, all directions. It is a business dependent upon both expansion and innovation to survive.” Moore quotes a marketing group that boasts its ability to achieve “maximum intrusion” by using guerrilla methods once used by underground artists out of necessity (in a desperate attempt to reach an audience) or as an attempt to shock people out of complacency. As a result, any attempts to present ideas to the public all take on commercial overtones. If they are not directly sponsored, their presentation mirrors forms familiar as advertising. Branding leaves no interstitial space in the culture for alternative conceptions of public communication, for non-commercial expressions of social meanings. All such attempts are quickly assimilated to the mode of branding. Habits become lifestyles, which become reified into branded products. We conceive of ourselves as brands, we brand our work, we present ourselves in quasi-logo form on internet social networks, while twittering slogans for ourselves throughout the day. With more and more of our social existence taking place in a fully quantifiable space online, all forms of social recognition are collapsed into the metrics appropriate to monitoring business. This undermines the possibility of integrity, which may perhaps be defined precisely as that which can’t be measured but only practiced.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner.

A balmy Tuesday night in New York’s Central Park was the near perfect setting to take in the sonorous melodies and counterculture nostalgia of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Playing in their 40th year together, the trio (this time sans the erratic Neil Young) serenaded the crowd with the more equanimous side of their repertoire during the first set. Breezy and reminiscent, “Marrakesh Express” instantly entranced the audience with patchouli-laden thoughts of seminal rock festivals. David Crosby gingerly sang backup–appearing either stoic or stoned–while Graham Nash paced Persian rugs barefooted and Stephen Stills basked in the glow of his sunburst Gibson at sunset. Other classics like “Southern Cross” and “Long Time Gone” quickly followed.


The second set, opening with the earnest a cappella ballad “You Don’t Have to Cry”, showcased their trademark harmonies and more Stills-led electric rock. Equally known for their infamous anti-establishment and political commentary, “This is My Country” (written by Joel Rafael with backing vocals by Nash and Crosby) was the most biting socially conscious song of the night. Nash then thanked the crowd for listening to his solo performance—apparently the tune fell on less receptive ears at the D.C. show.


Though ostensibly political, the iconic Buffalo Springfield tune “For What It’s Worth” has instead evolved into a go-to group sing-along. It didn’t disappoint as the first encore. Rounding out their two and a half hour show, “Teach Your Children” was as fitting a bestowal to the younger concertgoers as it was a reprise for the older. And in plugging their appearance on The Colbert Report the next day, CSN united the generations too.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008
Elbow, MGMT, and Alanis Morissette...

Live from Abbey Road‘s eighth show (Sundance Channel, Thursday, August 7th at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) begins with a segment on Elbow, the members of which, believe it or not, have been together for nearly two decades now.  The performances in this episode are taken exclusively from 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid, the band’s highest charting album so far, and it’s obvious why. The three songs here are all equally strong, striking compositions. “Grounds for Divorce” is just a really good rock song. “The Bones of You” is particularly affecting in my opinion, with its hypnotic rhythms and Guy Garvey’s stirring voice coupled with a gorgeously haunting lyrical refrain. But “One Day Like This”, featuring an anthemic, sing-along chorus of “Throw those curtains wide / One day like this’d see me right”, is the one that will have you buying the record after you’ve watched this.


MGMT, from Brooklyn, also performs songs exclusively from its 2008 album. Although that probably has a lot to do with the fact that Oracular Spectacular is the band’s debut. The interview bits in this segment are focused on boys being boys on the bus, rather than studio talk. It’s fun to see young musicians more interested in goofing around and then just playing music (rather than steeping themselves in the Abbey Road aura), but it does seem a little incongruous with the style of music MGMT favors.


Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser say they each only listen to older stuff and have no real knowledge of current popular culture, and it seems to be working for them. “Electric Feel” has an authentic ‘70s groove, yet it manages to avoid a seeming dated and actually sounds somehow totally new. “Time to Pretend” also has a sense of newness to it, and yet it wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the ‘60s. It’s a musically dreamy, lyrical send-up of the fantastical lives of rock stars, and an amusing and beautiful song. Pay attention to these guys.


Alanis Morissette rounds out this episode, with performances of tracks from a couple of her earlier records. “Hands Clean” from 2002’s Under Rug Swept is a stripped down version of the original, as are all the songs here, reminding us that not only does she possess stunning vocal abilities, but she’s an truly gifted songwriter as well. Morissette speaks of this when she mentions the disillusionment with the idea of fame, saying she now writes music for herself and then shares it so others can make it their own, instead of doing it to be in the public eye.  Then she gives a rendition of “Perfect” that is, for lack of better term, perfect.


The episode ends with an acoustic “Hand in my Pocket” that Morissette seems truly pleased to be singing. If there was some sort of unifying theme to this episode (and perhaps to the series as a whole), that might be it. Everyone is really happy to be doing what it is that they are doing, and that comes through in the music, which is as it should be.


Upcoming Line-ups:


Episode 9 - August 14
The Kills, Sara Bareilles, The Fratellis


Episode 10 - August 21
The Subways, Gnarls Barkley, Herbie Hancock w/Sonya Kitchell


Episode 11 - August 28
Bryan Adams, Ben Harper, Justin Currie


Episode 12 - September 4
Teddy Thompson, Martha Wainwright, Brian Wilson


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008

It sounds beautifully naïve - the notion that if one man could get everyone in the world to sing together, there’d be a lot less war and animosity among the citizens. Even more foolhardy is the belief that anyone would be willing to try it. But Pete Seeger is not just ‘anyone’. As the founding father of the modern folk movement, as instrumental as Woody Guthrie in bringing the muse of the people to the supposedly sophisticated city streets, he suffered for both his art and his politics. In his time he was both pop star and pariah, a Billboard chart topper who saw his early fascination with Communism cost him dearly. Still, he never apologizes for the roads he’s taken. To Pete Seeger, they’re all paths to one thing - getting people to sing.


From the time he was very young, Seeger was influenced by his musically inclined parents. During a tour of rural regions (where the family tried to bring classical composers to the “masses”), elder Seeger was introduced to traditional folk music. It would soon become a passion he would share with his gifted son. Over the years, Pete grew into a student of sound, working with famed archivists and attending Harvard. But his true calling was performance, and when he began celebrating and recording the pro-union tunes of the Depression era, he instantly found his calling. Over the next 50 years, he would change the way the world looked at folk, arguing for the value in local artists and sound social principles. Of course, his conviction would cost him. No one can stand on their morals for long without being knocked down. But the great thing about Pete Seeger is that he kept getting back up, and at almost 90, he’s still fighting for the inherent force in music. 


In a category that is growing in greatness exponentially, the stunning documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company and their Miriam Collection label) brilliantly immortalizes an already living legend. For many decades removed from the fascinating folk movement of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, this activist artist is perhaps a Dylan-descended footnote, a name they recognize but fail to fully understand the import of. But thanks to director Jim Brown, who previously captured Seeger as part of the equally amazing The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time, allows the man his proper place in history. One cannot walk away from this spellbinding narrative and not feel both proud to live in a country that offers such talents and freedoms and sad for the government policies and blinkered politicians who twisted those tenets into something sordid and evil.


One of the most striking elements of Seeger’s story is his 17 year banishment from the commercial airwaves. Accused of being a Communist by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (and he had been a card carrying member in the past), the “red” stain resulted in an equally shocking color - black (as in ‘list’). While still a viable concert draw, Seeger also added to his troubles by being an outspoken supporter of civil rights. His hatred of segregation and the South’s disgusting Jim Crow laws led to appearances and protests, as well as confrontations with agitators and threats against his life. Yet all the while, Seeger still believed in the command of music. He was certain that if people heard the message and understood the tradition, they’d give up on outdated notions of hate and prejudice.


Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is definitely a summarization of the man’s amazing career. Before we know it, he’s working for the Library of Congress, serving in World War II, and turning “We Shall Overcome” into an anthem for Dr. Martin Luther King. As to the latter claim, the now nearly 90 year old is rather sheepish. It’s how he’s been most of his life. Seeger has been at the forefront of many significant changes in our culture, and yet when it seems like time to canonize the participants, his beatification is left for another, not so contentious day. There are moments in Power of Song that show us such late in life reverence. President Bill Clinton (who awarded Seeger the Kennedy Center honor in 1994) speaks of him in sacred terms, while the musician is approached by an older woman in Washington Square Park, her praise of his influence on her life and children almost overwhelming in its sincerity.


With its talking head approach and archival nostalgia, Power of Song paints a authoritative portrait. Everyone from Dylan to Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary to Bruce Springsteen step up to put the man in perspective, and ever the hero, Seeger takes it all in humble stride. We only seem him worked up when discussing his infamous return to TV in 1967. Scheduled to sing his latest anti-war anthem “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, it marked a major return for him. After performing the song (among several), he was shocked to see it edited out of the final airing. Turns out CBS, bowing to White House pressure, removed the segment, the lyrical phrase “and the big fool says push on” viewed as a slam against then President Johnson.


During this material, Seeger seems tense, mortified at a media that, even today, will succumb to censorship for the sake of some ambiguous political goals. He’s saddened to see that his beloved country is still making the same mistakes, and takes small pleasures in providing the impetus to support the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the clean up of the Hudson River Valley. Because of its inability to be totally in-depth, it would have been nice for this DVD to include more contextual bonuses. Seeger’s story is that important. Instead, we get three somewhat preachy ‘deleted’ scenes, and five short films his family made focusing on skill like how to play the banjo and how to make a steel drum. It’s not that these extras have no value, it’s just that with a life as compelling as his, Power of Song could have added several hours of intriguing supplements.


We’ll just have to be satisfied with the film at hand, and in a category that’s seen lots of amazing artist biographies, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is simply one of the best. It takes it subject and his importance seriously while never sugarcoating the complications that brought on many of his misfortunes. Watching him perform “Guatanamera” with his grandson and Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall, voice wispy and faded after 80+ years of singing, we’re reminded of how important and influential he really was/is. Without Pete Seeger, modern music would be missing many of its most important components. And as long as he’s around, there’s hope for a brighter tomorrow. That’s the power of Pete Seeger. That’s the power of Power of Song


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.