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

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, May 18, 2008

I’m a sailor peg
And I lost my leg
I climbed up the topsails
I lost my leg
I’m shipping up to boston
(whoa oh oh)


The Dropkick Murpheys, Shipping Up To Boston

The great thing about Internet Society is that one can pursue a peripatetic lifestyle and not really have to have left home. Well, at least figuratively. Sure, maybe for simple things, like locating “Almond Joy” candy bars, you actually have to get up and out—go to a specific place—but for many of the most important things in life, nowadays, no matter where you hang your flight bag for a few hours, you can arrange it so that it appears as if you haven’t really escaped the coop. Perhaps some of you are tempted to wonder: “but doesn’t this defeat the whole purpose?” To which I can only utter two words: NBA playoffs. Two words sufficient to conclude any arguments with any locally-sympathetic argumenteurs. For others, it might be major cultural productions such as World Cup soccer or even the latest installment of American Idol. Productions, we once used to believe were confined to one particular geographic place (probably because we once actually experienced them as such—and probably only yesterday), but now no longer are. Because of our increasing spread-out-edness, the need for more of “what is over there”, away from where I currently am, now exists. And, thanks to the web (and a network of enterprising wonks who share similar passions) there is a solution: many geo-specific mediated productions are now part of the simultaneous global cultural stream. For peripatetics, our globally-organized cultural stream. Which explains why, although I am currently beyond US borders, I can still watch my very own Lakers on their inexorable path toward the finals (woo-hoo) in real time. Every trey in transition, double-team splitting pick and roll, and flyswat out of bounds. Every Kobe Bryant pirouette, Pau Gasol jersey pop, Phil Jackson scowl, and Lamar Odom left-handed jam. The reason I can perform this metaphysical magic is due to a website which apparently originates in Spain called “Zapateirodot-com; thanks to links they have posted in their “televisiones gratis en directo” page (and thank goodness for two years of high school espanol!), I can log in from—wherever in the world I might be—and catch Stateside hoops mysteriously lifted from feeds to American viewers via TNT, ESPN and ABC. I’m sure that this isn’t precisely how the three and four-letter acronyms above wish their universes to be, but I am enough of an addict to admit that, when it comes to getting my roundball fix, I don’t really care. If you are still reading, then perhaps you are the same way.

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, May 18, 2008

It’s DVD week here at SE&L. Each day from now until Sunday, we will be looking at some of the latest releases on the format, as well as some unusual or independent off-titles that you may have missed. Reviews will be updated sporadically, so check back often to see what we have to offer.

Previously:
George Romero invents the zombie film with his 1968 epic


We’ve truly become Marshall McLuhan’s worst nightmare. For us, reality television and the media is everything - nurturer, educator, entertainer, opinion former, purveyor of history and definer of myth. We no longer think for ourselves. Instead, we ‘blog’ to let the world in on our thought processes, falsely believing that the audience is doing anything more than laughing under their laptop. The news is no longer the truth - YouTube processes the raw footage editorial control and journalistic ethics censor. Of course, there’s a legitimate reason for such strictures, but in the outlaw lands of the Internet, it’s unimportant. In the World Wild Web West, it’s vigilante justice with a MySpace page.


As he has done with each of his previous Dead installments, horror maestro George Romero has used the current political and/or social clime (and his views on same) as a subtext to his zombie terrors. In Night of the Living Dead, it was the unraveling revolution of the ‘60s. Dawn of the Dead commented on the rampant consumerism of the Me Decade. The ‘80s got Day of the Dead, as a conservative militarized nation trying to take back Morning in America. Land of the Dead gave the ‘90s boom and ‘00s bust a heinous “haves vs. have nots” sheen. Now comes his latest masterpiece, a self-proclaimed reboot aimed squarely at the nu-tech age, and it’s just as brilliant. 


Diary of the Dead follows the adventures of Jason Creed, his girlfriend Beth, their film class professor, and a group of their college buddies during the shooting of an independent fright flick. As they set up sequences in a deserted wood, they get word that the world as they know it is slowly disintegrating. The dead are returning to life…and feasting on the living. As the standard order breaks down and collapses, they hop into their rundown production RV and head out on the highway. As the others try to make sense of their situation, Jason keeps his camera rolling - the better to document, as he puts it, “The Death of Death”.


Leave it to Romero to reinvent himself in such a sharp, sarcastic manner. Clearly concerned about the plugged-in yet clue-less nature of the supposedly media-savvy, his latest effort ravages the ‘www’ terrain while reminding viewers that no one gives up the gruesome gore gags better. Diary of the Dead (new to DVD from Genius Products, the Weinstein Company, and their Dimension Extreme Division) is an old timer’s take on the way communication has cannibalized itself, how as one character puts it, “nothing is real until you see it onscreen”. By utilizing the soon to be tired first person POV that drove both The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, he channels the inherent anxiety of such a limited scope. But unlike those other films, he finds a way to add something salient to the scares.


Romero is clearly a master of allegorical macabre. Sometimes, his riffs are obvious (zombies stumbling through a shopping mall). At other instances, like throughout most of Diary, he’s devious with his metaphors. There are nods to every other living dead movie he’s made, from the newscast as narrative drive of the action (like Night) to the supposed safe fortress of unimaginable wealth and material leisure (as in Dawn). We get bastard military men (ala Day) and a true sense of the disenfranchised and downtrodden being blamed and corded off from the rest of scared suburbia (like Land). In fact, Romero appears to be coalescing all that came before, suggesting that this is the real horror tale he wanted to tell.


There’s another level here that’s equally effective. As a director, Romero keeps his cast off kilter, making them appear amateurish or brash because…well, that’s what these kids really would be, given the circumstances. Turning them into well-honed thespians with a sharp handle on exactly what to do would ruin the ‘you are there’ dynamic. Sure, this is scripted, avoiding the expletive filled pointlessness of Witch‘s weak kneed trio. But Romero expertly captures the aimlessness of young people wittingly out of touch with true reality. Everything they know, everything they do, is filtered through the instant gratification of cell phones, PDAs, laptops, Wi-Fi, satellite television, and endless hours surfing the ‘Net. They practically speak in text messages. Even worse, our hero never helps the people he films. Even as they are threatened, he uses the detachment of the camera to keep from getting directly involved.


There is an additional caustic undercurrent championed here, a personal one Romero refers to constantly in the DVD extras. As part of his commentary track, he leans into the problems with progress, how it renders individuals unable to solve their own problems. Similarly, his interview segments as part of the making-of material come off as thoughtful and quite insightful. This is clearly a film about thinking for oneself, about avoiding the inevitable terror clichés to survive in a world gone wicked. Naturally, characters do the kind of things that end up causing them concern. They’ve been programmed, brainwashed by a social setup of zero accountability to believe in such slop psychology.


That this all happens within the context of a ripping creepshow cements why Romero remains a god. Between the clever kills, the ample arterial spray, and the relentless suspense (the single lens viewpoint makes us feel like part of the refugees), we are treated to a corrosive combination of blood and bleakness. Fans have long felt that Day of the Dead was the director’s darkest vision. Diary will more than likely usurp that underground angst fest. The effects work here by Greg Nicotero and KNB (along with additional help from SPIN VFX) is amazing. Heads are split open, melted with acid, and parted at the jawline. The images are startling, reminding us of how powerful onscreen violence can be when handled with artistry and appreciation.


Considering his age (he’ll be 68 this year) and the number of years he’s been making films (2008 marks the 40th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead), it’s fascinating how George Romero can continue to bring fresh, invigorating ideas to the genre he inadvertently created four decades ago.  Even better, he keeps pushing the envelope of expression, incorporating as many current controversies and concerns into his plot points as possible. It will be interesting to see if Romero again returns to this material, especially within the context of the ongoing War in Iraq and the contemporary climate of fear we now live in (there are some minor hints of same in Diary). Like any great virtuoso, the Godfather of the zombie film has more to offer than a series of flesh-feasting set pieces. Diary of the Dead is a sparkling reflection of our troubled times - and the images in the everpresent viewfinder are not pretty.



FILM:



DVD:



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, May 17, 2008

It’s DVD week here at SE&L. Each day from now until Sunday, we will be looking at some of the latest releases on the format, as well as some unusual or independent off-titles that you may have missed. Reviews will be updated sporadically, so check back often to see what we have to offer.

Today:
George Romero invents the zombie film with his 1968 epic Night of the Living Dead.


It used to be a movie. Now, it’s a myth. Where once it represented the concerted efforts of some Pittsburgh admen and their desire to enter into the realm of commercial filmmaking, now it’s the granddaddy of all zombie flicks. But beyond all the legends, the factual falsehoods and made up mysteries, lies one of the supreme experiments in horror ever conceived - and to believe those involved, it was more an accident than intentional. Between proposed narratives about invading aliens to the decision to cast a black man in the lead, Night of the Living Dead was as much happenstance as pure intention. Yet the results speak for themselves - and for generations - even 40 years later.


So much has been written about this now classic creepfest that it’s impossible to imagine any new product providing additional insight. From the proposed political subtext to the proto-documentary cinema vérité camerawork, director George Romero and his post-modern macabre remains the proverbial overbeaten movie mare. Everyone, from the casual fan to the detail-oriented obsessive has a take on this material, a way of making a weekend effort by some bored professionals into a universal statement on the story of man. Of course, as the years have passed, those involved have begun to believe their own fable. It remains one of the more intriguing aspects of the film’s heritage.


For those unfamiliar with the basic storyline, it all begins when adult siblings Barbara and Johnny travel to a distant cemetery to lay a wreath on their father’s grave. During their visit to the site, Johnny is accosted by a strange man and is mortally wounded. Barbara runs for her life and, after wrecking the car, seeks shelter in an abandoned farmhouse. There she finds a rotting corpse in the upstairs hall. Before she can gather her thoughts, a black man named Ben barges through the door and starts sealing up the house. He has also had some “run-ins” with angry individuals, and has witnessed the senseless brutality of the mob.


As he secures the doors and windows, a group of people appears from the basement. They are Helen and Harry Cooper, a married couple with a sick child in the cellar. Local boy Tom and his girlfriend Judy are also present. They escaped to the house after being accosted. A radio reports the awful truth: the dead have risen, and have started to kill…and eat the living. Tempers flare and plans are hatched. There is a gas pump on the property. If they could refuel Ben’s truck, they could escape. But as more and more zombies encircle the house, these survivors come to a horrible realization: they may not survive this ‘Night of the Living Dead’.


In conjunction with their release of Romero’s latest take on the genre, 2008’s divisive Diary of the Dead, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company are putting out an anniversary DVD of Night, complete with some new bonus features. In many instances, the reverence almost ruins what is an inherently fascinating tale of ambition and realization. It goes without saying that everyone more or less knows Night, and if they think that they don’t, they just haven’t realized it yet. Romero and a group of local Pittsburgh day players more or less invented the undead Bible, laying the foundation for the meat-eating mythos in all of its bullet-in-the-head, shuffling corpse glory. Influencing more films than the works of Fellini, Kubrick, and Cassavetes combined, this black-and-white marvel of minimalism packed a powerful wallop in its decidedly low-budget heyday.



A look around the current pop culture landscape produces more bows to the living dead dynamic than anyone should have to endure. There are remakes of other Romero classics (Dawn of the Dead and some unnecessary offal called Day of the Dead) just waiting to sully our memories of the originals. The omnipresent videogame industry (creators of such software shockers as Silent Hill and Resident Evil) has taken the foul flesh eater and turned it into Level Three’s big bad “boss” (not to mention creating their own motion picture spin-offs). Honestly, it seems that society is fixated on the ornery undead in a very big spending way. Even rock and roll has embraced the creepy cadavers - surely Rob Zombie isn’t celebrating a certain rum-based drink with his horror handle.


That being said, Night of the Living Dead has not really aged all that well. Sure, it’s still a masterpiece, but one that’s been lessened by its status as the standard-bearer for the entire walking corpse conundrum. The movie is still a fascinating, fatalistic work. But it is very talky in its middle act, a lot of the more horrible elements of the story needing exposition to envision them, since the production couldn’t afford to create the necessary visuals. Action and bloodshed comes in spurts and many modern horror fans, more adjusted to a ratio of down time to killing spree will consider this scattershot approach too much to tolerate.


Also, Night has been basically remade a million times in both direct (John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13) and inspired (Aliens has a lot of the same “us vs. them” vibe) ways, so much so that it’s almost an experience in rote entertainment. You don’t respond to what’s happening onscreen as much as the realization that you understand the plotting implicitly and realize automatically what will occur next. While it is still dark, foreboding and cruelly heartless, Night of the Living Dead has left a lot of its cinematic effectiveness in the past, where people appreciated its attention to authenticity. Today, it almost plays like a parody of itself, overworking all the formulas and clichés it helped create.


That’s why this newest DVD is so intriguing. Aside from delivering a devastatingly crisp and clean image (the new 1.33:1 transfer looks amazing), the added content continues to further redefine the film’s formative fairytale. Between commentaries and interviews, we learn of the role mannequins played in the production and that Dwayne Jones was not hired for his skin color, but his availability and ability as an actor. Distributors were also disturbed by the amount of dialogue and actually demanded six minutes of contextual conversations be edited. Their stipulation for more zombie footage also fell on deaf ears, since Romero and crew had limited amounts of that material. Perhaps most compelling of all, a terrible flood destroyed most of the artifacts associated with the film, including the actual work print.


Granted, some of these stories have been offered up before, and when it comes to staying firmly within the boundaries of their illustrious reputation, Romero, producer John Russo, and other members of the Night committee aren’t about to stray too far. The new documentary created for the 40th anniversary, entitled One for the Fire, uses a stagy recreationist approach to get some valuable information across. While it’s great to see the remaining cast look back at their foolhardy novice naiveté with a wistful veneration, it’s hard to argue that they do much more than repeat what fright fans have already committed to memory. Indeed, the main stumbling block Night of the Living Dead faces is its own well-earned scary movie status. Objectivity is no longer possible, or perhaps necessary.


And like any great hero, the movie moves on, forever heading toward the sincere sunset of cinematic classicism. It is an amazing achievement considering the dozens of like minded efforts that crammed their way into drive-ins and dives during the same period. Because of what Romero created, because of his desire to treat the schlocky subject seriously and with an unflinching eye, the results speak for themselves. Night of the Living Dead, the movie, may indeed render Night of the Living Dead, the 40th Anniversary DVD edition meaningless, but the journey into the past is still a captivating one. While one may never be able to experience this seminal film the way audiences did four decades ago, at least we have such scholarship to keep its cause contemporary. In that regard, this newest packaging is a success. 


FILM:



DVD:



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, May 16, 2008

Though Diplo has reigned supreme as the underground ying to Timbaland’s overground yang, for my buck, one of the best beat magicians slicing and dicing today is Montreal’s Ghislain Poirer.  His non-instrumental work with MC’s, such as the collaboration with Abdominal (“City Walking”) brim with alleyway menace and threatening intricacy.  For Poirer, it’s not a matter of just finding the groove and then just striking over and over again in that same sweet spot.  Poirer’s beats are knotty, itchy and architectural.  “Don’t Smile, It’s Post Modern” sounds like a particularly fast and difficult Tetris game where patterns are assembled and dissolved at a furiously glitched pace. 


The video is little more than a one-joke stretch, but as Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” proved, you can create an infinitely entertaining video out of the rapt fascination people have with dance moves.  (the quality seems to be a secondary issue) Even the Ipod silhouette commercials recognize the magnetic currency of raw movement, proving wildly popular despite the fact that they are little more than outlines pulsing to an upbeat song.  I think this video similarly succeeds in part by playing on all the hilarious tensions of the situation coupled with the freedom and joy of just watching some fool, in this case, possessed by the need to dance.


First off, it seems to be shot with a club-drug lens, a fact emphasized by the superimposition of the germy spots which glide across the toilet surfaces.  For anyone whose ever abused/used these drugs, the effect is a familiar one as is the almost painfully fluoresced tile and uncomfortable urinal silences.  I’m sure someone has analyzed the weird tensions involved in the men’s restroom where sexual panic, fear of inadequacy and free floating erotic tension mix.  It’s probably somewhere in Camille Paglia’s footnotes.  Perhaps the best part of the video is that it makes a dance routine out of post-micturition convulsion syndrome, a shiver/tremor sensation that a large percentage of men have after or during urination.  For me, that’s funny enough to make the video one that bears repeated viewing.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, May 16, 2008
Look Me in the Eyeby John Elder RobisonCrown, 2007

Look Me in the Eye
by John Elder Robison
Crown, 2007


I enjoyed this article today from Northwestern University’s Medill Reports about the joyful moments of a life in online journalism. Dianna Heitz describes the rush of approaching and interviewing one of her writing idols, John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.

I emailed the author’s publicist on a whim, thinking I’d have to wait weeks to get a response. About an hour after I sent the email, the author called me on my cell phone. And once again, I bounced around like a kid who had a bit too much sugar.


Dianna also has a great piece up on the Examiner today about the effect Cafe Press merchandise sales are having on the 2008 election. Here’s a sample:


Embracing the interactivity of modern media, CafePress lets customers submit designs for everything from shirts to hats to underwear. It has received more than 1.2 million designs for Obama products, while those for Clinton and John McCain combined barely break 1 million.


Dianna Heitz is profiled on the Loyola University website here.


 


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.