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Monday, Jul 7, 2008

I came across some notes I had made probably years ago about what struck me as the antisocial essence of computers. I think the notes were prompted by the first time I saw people in an office who were sitting 15 feet from one another communicating by instant message instead of talking. I thought then that putting computers on every worker’s desk reduces solidarity and encourages each person to seek their own distractions, their own entertainment. People become absorbed with their screens even when they aren’t working, and it becomes more difficult to distract them with the mere pleasantries that nurture social connections, that allow acquaintanceship to flourish. The personal computer reinforces a kind of extreme individualism by promoting the sense that you are the ruler of a virtual world and that every aspect of that world can and should be customized and personalized for your convenience. It is a realm that negates the need for cooperation, patience, conciliation, consideration—anything that requires a moment’s reflection or a temporary suspension of desire.

Social networking, despite its apparent goal of bringing people together, fortifies that private kingdom. It places friendship under the value system encouraged by computing, becoming a practice to indulge in only on one’s own term. It becomes measurable, and it is expected to dole out blasts of immediate gratification that may seem reciprocal on its face (I send a message, and then receive one back) but is better described as instrumental exchange—one clicks the right buttons to get the desired response, like solving a kind of puzzle, while the complexity of the human beings on the other side of these exchanges becomes muted if not nullified altogether. It certainly becomes irrelevant to the way a platform like Facebook mediates and manages social contact. There is a preordained shape for social contact to assume—a series of commands to make a game of Scrabble happen, an algorithm that suggests who you should try to befriend, a log to remind you of what significant things have happened so that you don’t have to bother to remember to ask or to share.

One of the most unsettling aspects of Facebook is those suggested friends; it’s as if the site aspires to replace the spontaneous accidents that foster friendship in real life with something mechanical and logical (and simultaneously contributing to the relegation and diminishing of social skills necessary for making friends offline). But there is not always a coherent logic to why we are friends with who we are friends with. Sometimes the sheer pointlessness of carrying on certain friendships is what makes them so salient—it is like art for art’s sake. These friendships feel the most authentic and perhaps bring out what we would recognize as our most authentic selves. But in providing tools to manage our sociability, social networks seem to aspire to control the concept, redefine it in such a way that it may be more thoroughly exploited commercially. (It may be axiomatic that anytime an activity becomes virtual—moved online—it becomes more commercialized.) The online tools supplant the social skills that were once part of our human heritage; it seems like a dangerous evolution in a world that requires some level of cooperation for our species to survive. Can online mass participation, each on their own terms, replace actual directed cooperation to accomplish tasks and negotiate necessary compromises? Or will we become disaggregated atoms, longing for a connection to a society but capable only of the ersatz online alternative, which requires too little commitment and demands none of the reciprocity that makes ties bind?

Social encounters are often awkward and vaguely dangerous; on Facebook, I’d imagine that they are rarely so. So it would probably be easier to handle a friend request from someone in your office than a face-to-face encounter with them by the microwave at lunchtime. So one of social networking’s boons is removing some of the uncertainty that comes with social contact and thereby mitigating social anxiety. But it does this by making that contact more or less antisocial—it makes it an on-demand phenomenon that is essentially one-sided for the friendship consumer. You log on when you feel like it, take in as much friendship as you feel like taking in, and log off when it no longer amuses you. You can ignore the contacts that aren’t important to you, or mollify them with cursory or perfunctory attentions that the site more or less automates. As a byproduct of all this convenience, actual friendship begins to feel more onerous, which accelerates the trend toward moving all of our friend maintenance online, where it is more easily managed. Better to send an email than talk on the phone; better to update a website than communicate to all the firends individually. Better to “poke” a friend than share anything substantive, etc. Sociality becomes akin to snacking. The moments upon which deeper friendships are built are not given the occasion to occur—soon nothing will be able to happen in a friendship that wouldn’t fit into a Twitter post.

But in some ways it’s unfair to pick on social networks; they are just highlighting tendencies inherent to the internet as a whole; the services are just the most obvious vectors for making human interaction obey the logic that manages computer networks. (Facebook is like a router for human relationships that have devolved into networks.) I think Jason Kottke is right about Facebook: it’s the new AOL—that is, it attempts to present its users with a scaled down, simplified, seemingly more mangaeable version of what the internet itself provides. Kottke writes: “As it happens, we already have a platform on which anyone can communicate and collaborate with anyone else, individuals and companies can develop applications which can interoperate with one another through open and freely available tools, protocols, and interfaces. It’s called the internet and it’s more compelling than AOL was in 1994 and Facebook in 2007. Eventually, someone will come along and turn Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.”

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Monday, Jul 7, 2008
Yiddish or otherwise: What summer vacation reads are you itching to start?

One of my favorite things about traveling (now that the novelty of flying itself is a thing of the past) is peeking around at my fellow wanderers to see what they’re reading. Checking out airport bookstores is also pretty interesting, in terms of keeping up to date on what’s new and what’s bestselling – and what is marked down because it just isn’t selling as well as expected.

Planning to bring enough good reads for a week-long beach vacation is an acquired skill. Haruki Murakami’s After Dark got me through the four hour delay at my departure airport, as well as the last couple of hours of daylight at the coastal destination. Stephenie Meyer’s new adult novel The Host provided the bulk of my entertainment, packing a whopping 624 pages, but moving along at a pace one would expect from the author of the enthralling young adult Twilight series. Which is to say, it was tough to put down, even for a quick dip in the pool as the temperature soared. Finally, I brought a book I absolutely loved the first time around, having intended for ages to reread it: Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. What with other sand-and-surf related distractions I didn’t manage to get all the way through that one, but the beginning is every bit as delicious as I remembered.


As for looking around at the airport and on the plane, I noticed many people reading ratty paperback romances and well-thumbed mystery novels. One eye-catching new book, in the hands of a traveler across the aisle, was Michael Chabon’s new novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I read a review of recently in the New York Times Book Review, and decided to put it on my list. Vanity Fair and The New Yorker were popular magazine picks in the hands of the gate-side waiting area population.As for the airport bookstore, well, there were too many pretty new books for me to talk about in the here and now, but you can be sure they’re on my reading list. What summer vacation reads are you looking forward to?

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Monday, Jul 7, 2008
by Robin Cook

Louisville-by-way-of-NYC indie rockers Antietam flew to Austin to play four—yes, four—sets. Guitarist/singer Tara Key has branched out into solo albums, but as she explains, Antietam never broke up, even during a 10-year gap between albums. Their new album, Opus Mixtum, is now out on Carrot Top. Here, Tara provides a history of the band and her own musical influences.—Robin Cook

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Sunday, Jul 6, 2008
In the case of The Ruins, the advertising took a decidedly odd approach.

Sometimes, you have to wonder what goes on in a marketer’s head. Let’s say you have a good movie - granted, a niche genre effort, but a good film none the less. Now, you know that most critics are going to crucify it, demeaning what it stands for merely because of the type it represents (in this case, horror). And from past experience, you are aware that this kind of narrative appeals to a certain sort of audience, one that needs to be ballyhooed right up front in order to earn the maximum opening weekend returns. These movies don’t have legs, and you understand that. So it’s now or never; pile on the hype and hope for the best.

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Sunday, Jul 6, 2008

In the annals of exploitation, Bob Cresse remains more myth than man. While other kings of the grindhouse see their names celebrated as part of cinema’s history, the University of Miami educated ex-carny with a penchant for weaponry and Nazi paraphernalia stands as a singular, unexplainable enigma. A pure hustler, Cresse worked his way through the traditional Tinsel Town channels (messenger, low level executive) until he decided to go independent. Yet so little has been written about him personally that he’s become an afterthought in the conversation, a figure whose reputation suggests respect, but whose actions and accomplishments indicate something far more reprehensible.

Genre scholars have often referred to the fireplug producer as a man who never met an actress he didn’t want to whip, and his filmic fetishes - bondage, discipline, sadism, and degradation - remain the trickiest of proclivities (for Cresse, both personal and professional) to defend. Yet there is much more to his oeuvre than motion picture masochism and a flare for the extreme.

Many fail to realize that Cresse helped fuel the growing Mondo craze with his 1963 production Hollywood’s World of Flesh. Later, together with his longtime cohort and collaborator Lee Frost (together they ran the notorious Olympic International Films - motto: “Art for the Sake of Money”) they would expand on the style with Mondo Bizzaro and Mondo Freudo (both 1966). His famous feud with David F. Friedman, Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation film, led to a glorious battle of softcore wits. When the mind behind The Defilers and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood trilogy made a bawdy Western (Brand of Shame), Cresse rushed his own smut-laced oater into release (Hot Spur - 1968).

Always looking for a way to make a buck, the maverick also copied industry trends and other’s successful schemes. Back when censorship was constantly challenging the validity of sex and violence onscreen, the grindhouse guides tried everything they could to avoid persecution (and legal prosecution). One semi-successful ruse was bringing foreign films over from Sweden and France to the United States, redubbing them into English, and positioning them as high brow, arthouse fare. The air of sophistication and international distinction made the rampant nudity and adult content more palatable to those looking for prurient interests and illustrations.

Thus Little Girls entered Cresse’s life. In retrospect, it seemed like an oddly perfect fit. The mannered morality tale about wealthy young ladies losing their inhibitions away from the prying eyes of their distance, disinterested parents had a seedy subtext (the gals would end up blackmailed by a desperate club owner and her hired stud), a recognizable underpinning of perversion (we get beatings, teen lust, and some not so subtle incest), and lots of nubile, naked bodies. It was everything the raincoat crowd mandated. It also mimicked the ongoing sexual revolution expertly while offering cold hearted members of the coat and tie Establishment enough finger waving precaution to make it appear conscientious. 

The story centers on four school girls. Their kittenish curiosity in the ways of wantonness ends up backfiring when their supposed friend Bismuth sells them out to club owner Dani and her hunky employee Mike. As scenes of debauchery and degradation play out, we get innuendo and insinuation, the black and white image giving everything a definitive, monochrome morality. As with any tale of innocence defiled and principles perverted, Mike has a moment of clarity, and decides to end the extortion. Of course, it helps that he’s fallen for Elena, one of the trampy targets. In the end, it’s Dani, not her ‘students’, who pays for their crimes.

Unlike their American counterparts, Europeans frequently used sensuality and lust as reminders of social responsibility and political unrest. Little Girls reflects this by having all the parents indirectly approve of their daughters’ dirty deeds. In fact, the plans of the conniving Dani backfire when no one cares about the scandalous photos they are sent. One stepfather even decides the situation excuses his attempted rape of his own child. With Cresse supplying the voice over narration (as well as an inserted S&M sequence - more on this in a moment), we get that slightly smug, holier than thou feeling about the entire premise. While a movie like Little Girls wants to celebrate the hedonistic horniness of its heroines, it also does a dandy job of putting them right back in their supposedly underage place.

Since he merely picked up this production for distribution, Cresse had no input in how the movie was actually made. But it’s clear he used his newfound ownership interest to exercise a little editorial control. His creation of the narration aside, the movie feels overly simplified, reduced to basic plot points and lots of scenes of faux fornication. Unlike the Mondo movies he imported, elements here appear truncated, reconfigured, and purposely repositioned. When two characters retire to a movie theater for some private time, the onscreen action features a well hidden Cresse (his back and balding head give him away) giving former pin-up and Whisky a Go-Go dancer Michelle Angelo the once over. Breasts tied up in restraining ropes, there are endless shots of this model being abused, beaten, and objectified.

Many of the movie’s more scandalous moments were also right up Cresse’s alley. One of the first trysts takes place in a cemetery, half-naked heroine and her pick-up crawling out of a freshly dug grave in post-coital satisfaction. Another customer demands his paramours strip, and then slap each other silly. Perhaps the most repugnant moment occurs when a blond bimbette, described as “just over 14”, slinks up to a deviant sitting at the top of a ladder, his grinning mug and filthy slicker opened suggestively. After a few more minutes of seduction, the girl’s head disappears into the coat’s hemline. 

One aspect of Little Girls that Cresse clearly had no control over is the performances. Most of the actresses are very good, coming across like naughty versions of their new wave counterparts. At other instances, the talent takes on the air of a sketch comedy parody, overwrought emotions ruining the film’s more subtle sophisticated atmosphere. The script does take chances, hinting at pedophilia, suicide, and a last act brawl that pits our remaining victims against the callous bitch who would sell their soul (and skin) to save her business. In classic exploitation style, matters between vixen and villain are handled with brazenness and a brutal sense of comeuppance.

Had their not been the connection to Cresse, had the movie simply arrived on American shores as yet another example of international envelope pushing, Little Girls would have had little impact. But what made men like this as infamous as they were ingenious (and waving guns in the faces of deadbeat distributors doesn’t count) is the way they turned the formulaic and familiar into something filthy. Even without the added scene, this movie would have been sleazy. Cresse’s contribution strips away the veneer of propriety to show the effort for what it really is - 66 minutes of breasts, butts, and balling.

It still doesn’t explain the man, however. Maybe nothing truly can. He viewed himself as a rebel, a hard nosed ball buster of a businessman who treated his friends like fools and his competitors like casualties. Harry Novak, famed producer of such movies as Kiss Me Quick and Wham, Bam, Thank You Space Man once referred to him as a “criminal” claiming his volatile temperament frequently failed him. This was especially true one fateful day. While walking his dog, Cresse saw two men beating up a woman. Stepping in to stop the situation, he proceed to threaten them with his trusty handgun. Turns out it was a pair of policeman roughing up a local prostitute. Provoked, they shot Cresse, and then killed his canine companion for good measure. The resulting seven-month stay in the hospital depleted all of his money (he was uninsured). He would eventually die of a heart attack in 1998.

Little Girls may now appear like a blip on Bob Cresse’s professional radar, and he will probably always been known as the miscreant German commandant in Love Camp 7, or the Jonathan Winters channeling Granny Goode from House on Bare Mountain. Indeed, many of his acting turns (The Erotic Adventures of Zorro - 1972, The Pick-Up - 1968) were more memorable than his movies. As a screenwriter he was routine and as a humanitarian he was humiliating. But Cresse will always be one of exploitation’s more intriguing characters, and his participation in Little Girls is proof of his position as the genre’s unsung agent provocateur. He should be better known. Sadly, it seems like he’s destined to remain an elusive, contradictory legend. 

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