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by Rob Horning

30 Jan 2009

In my post about volunteer criticism yesterday, I complained about writing online degenerating into self-branding via vectors like Facebook. At the Big Money, the Slate business site, Jill Priluck makes a related argument about the book-publishing business:

Paradoxically, the proliferation of digital media that is arguably the biggest threat to traditional publishing also offers authors more opportunities than ever to distribute and promote their work. The catch: In order to do that effectively, authors increasingly must transcend their words and become brands.

Without support from publishing houses and their marketing budgets, Priluck suggests, authors can become preoccupied with brand building rather than writing. Self-conceived writing professionals of course have incentive to turn themselves into a brand and their writing into “branded content”—they want to make a living. But noncommercial writers online face the same dilemma; the Web offers the possibility of a measurable audience, and the temptation is always there to write what increases the numbers (Gawker style) rather than write what one thinks. If as Priluck says, authors “trade depth for instant gratification, visibility, and higher advances,” then so do nonprofessionals who are just writing for attention. Just as Facebook and Twitter seem to suggest that the purpose of friendship is to have the most friends or followers, the purpose of writing becomes maximizing readership, the content itself is merely a means to that end, which is always the content’s ultimate meaning.

Is it possible to have “online presence” without it becoming a brand. Probably because of the centrality of marketing discourse in our culture, branding has become the all-purpose paradigm for all sorts of social behavior, a phenomenon whose recent explosion seems directly traceable to the way the internet lets us quantify the extent of our influence while dramatically expanding our reach. But brands are like distillations of our essence that discard the better part of our spontaneous personality—we simplify who we are to something that is consistent and capable of being instantly communicated—like an epitaph. And we consent to let the nature of our identity be openly traded and renogitated in an open market. As Priluck puts it, “When authors are beholden to a brand, they ally themselves, almost like actors and athletes, with agendas and meanings that are well beyond their control.”

We heedlessly commit ourselves to thinking of ways to improve our brand without worrying about the fact that it means we are always for sale.

by Bill Gibron

29 Jan 2009

Poppy is what you would call “self-contained”. She exists within her own unique little universe, content to be a free thinking, free spirited 30 year old independent. She doesn’t balk at the thought of home and family, but finds the liberated looseness of her current life far more fulfilling. She adores her flatmate Zoe, defends her sister Suzy, dotes on the students in her elementary school class, and engulfs life with a kind of zeal matched only by her desire to do the same for others. Unfortunately, Poppy lives in post-millennial London, a city of dark secrets and even darker people. Still, as the star of Mike Leigh’s magnificent Happy-Go-Lucky, she’s always going to try and connect. It’s the reaction from those she’s reaching out to that’s far more telling.

As with many films by the UK maverick, there’s not much of a linear narrative. Actors are assigned character, motivation, and arcs. Improvisation provides the dialogue - long days of doing same offers up the episodic plot. As it stands, we start off with Poppy having her bicycle stolen. This inspires her to take driving lessons. This then puts her in direct conflict with her personal polar opposite - an angry and depressed instructor named Scott. Over the course of several lessons, she learns of the lonely man’s desperate feelings and random, racially inspired, conspiracy theories.

Later on, when a sullen student starts bullying another at school, Poppy investigates. This leads to the arrival of social worker Tim. Taken with his sexual allure and good natured demeanor, they begin to date. In between, Poppy attends some flamenco lessons with a coworker, spends time with her pal Zoe, visits her pregnant baby sister by the seaside, and even tries to talk with a clearly deranged homeless man. All they while, her personality is peppered with the kind of optimism that would seem silly on anyone else. Instead, it’s like the benediction from the world’s sweetest sage.

Indeed, this is the first major accomplishment of Happy-Go-Lucky. Leigh and his amazing actress Sally Hawkins (truly unforgettable here) never let Poppy become precocious. Sure, she’s perky and a little off putting, randomly cracking wise when all those around her want is seriousness and sensibility. But because we’ve been eased into the characters loopy visions, because her bounce is constantly countermanded by those dreaded post-modern ideals of cynicism and cheek, Poppy becomes a hero. Soon, we long to hear her harp on subjects she thinks demand brightening. Clearly, her roommate Zoe appreciates it. Even when taking the piss out of her pal, she appears drawn into her sunny sphere of influence. It’s the same with morose lost sibling Suzy. Mousy, mouthy, and a little unkempt, all it takes is a word from Poppy and all is suddenly sane.

The main conflict arrives with the outsiders our heroine has to relate to - the most difficult being sour driving instructor Scott. Played with a real sense of pain by Eddie Marsan, this hate-spewing example of male dominance disorder lives by suspicion and fear. He uses said emotions as a means of mocking everything around him, usually in offensive or demeaning ways. When Poppy tries to lighten the mood, he turns even more unbalanced. By the end, we no longer know if he’s truly infatuated with her, or just looking for someone to rage at. During their final scene together, Hawkins and Marsan deliver a magnificent example of humanity on the verge of an acknowledged nervous breakdown. For Scott, it’s his last chance at glimpsing his “student’s” eternal optimism. For Poppy, it’s coming face to face with the horrors of existence that she’s long put out of her head.

Early own, Leigh takes a calculated risk. Poppy enters into a bookshop and sees a title referring to a “trip into reality”. “We’re not going there,” she grins, before trying to chat up the clerk. There is indeed a part of Happy-Go-Lucky which could be read as delusional. Poppy acts up constantly, taking on the emotional face of her fiery dance instructor, bopping with an abandon that suggests insanity. There’s even a tell-all scene where she spends several minutes trying to decipher a homeless man’s rant. All the while, as he asks “you understand?”, she whispers back “Of course I do.” And she means it. But Poppy isn’t crazy. She’s committed. She believes in her way of life and won’t let anyone else convince her otherwise.

Leigh helps by peppering the film with details that suggest Poppy isn’t some naïve neophyte. She tells an intriguing tale about traveling the world, teaching everywhere from Australia to Thailand. In the classroom, she’s proficient and polished, capable of capturing the children’s attention with her wealth of imagination and compassion. Even when her pregnant sister suggests that she isn’t playing by the rules, Poppy argues the validity of such stigmas. All throughout Happy-Go-Lucky, our heroine is not seen as a halfwit or hair brain. Instead Leigh lets us know that this is a conscious choice on the part of her personality. She just doesn’t want to live in a world of suffering and the acceptance of same.

Like anyone given over to giggling more than griping, Poppy - and as an indirect result, Happy-Go-Lucky - slowly becomes addictive. We want more scenes showing our heroine handling her bubbly business with wit and amicable aplomb. We want more moments of Scott’s slow self-destruction, and Poppy’s quite, reflective reaction to same. We want to see Zoe and her closest confident as friends, be it sheltering each other in the quiet of their flat, or rowing across a lake on a sunny London day. But mostly, we need more of this character’s comforting openness. She doesn’t need, she only wants to be needed. It brings out the best in her. Even when communication is next to impossible, Poppy is still willing to try. Such earnestness is hard to hate, and when provided by an artist as solid as Leigh, the results are ridiculously good.

In the end, however, there’s very little resolution. Poppy probably doesn’t believe in closure. Instead, for her, life is an endless buffet of possibilities - and she’ll eventually get around to sampling each and every one. Her compassion is matched only by her honesty, and to that extent, she is a rare member of the human race indeed. There are times when Happy-Go-Lucky appears larger than life, when someone like Poppy looks like a loon. Perhaps it’s because we’re not used to such a simplistic approach to things. In our world, existence is a complicated and undeniable thankless chore. But not for Poppy. She’s glad to be so blithe in soul and spirit. It’s a lesson we can learn from this sly, sensible teacher - and the amazing artists who brought her to life.

by Bill Gibron

29 Jan 2009

The Holocaust remains, for all intents and purposes, the ultimate expression of evil in our lifetime. Outside the obvious elements of genocide and the organized political support for same, the inherent concept that human beings could actually do something like this to each other resonates as the most shocking sentiment of all. So naturally, any story about the struggle against such unfathomable wickedness immediately gets out attention. We don’t really care about the details or the factual fallacies. We just want vengeance, and it better be more than a mere ‘eye for an eye’. When he stumbled upon the story of the Bielski Brothers, Jewish rebels that saved thousand of their fellow persecuted peoples in 1940s Belarus, filmmaker Edward Zwick must have realized he had the makings of one of the most important World War II films ever. Unfortunately, Defiance misses its major opportunities, focusing instead on ancillary issues unimportant to the final cause.

It’s 1941, and in Eastern Europe, German forces are moving toward Russia and its surrounding territories. Upon returning home, the four Bielski Brothers - Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron - discover that their parents (and most of the surrounding townsfolk) have been slaughtered by local police working under direct Nazi orders. Fearing for their lives, they head to the local woods to hide out and make plans. There, they run into other refugees, Jews also driven out of their houses by the current purge. Together, they join forces and begin forging a life in the wilderness.

Conflict erupts between the oldest, Tuvia, and his brash and more brazen younger brother Zus. The former wants to find a way to simply survive. The latter seeks justice for what has happened to his people. When he can’t find what he’s looking for among the exiles, he joins up to fight with the Russians. This leaves Tuvia and Asael to hold the fragile balance within the camp together, even as winter approaches and the constant threat of attack looms over them.

Defiance wants to be an epic. It certainly has a larger than life storyline (albeit one based on the true story of the Bielski brothers and their exploits during the war) and pushes all the right buttons for maximizing cinematic manipulation. Director Edward Zwick is famous for such fancy pantsing, having made his mark with such examples of celluloid showboating as Glory, Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire, and The Last Samurai. Here, he wisely keeps the narrative locked into the struggles of the Belarus Jews and their freedom fighter watchdogs. We don’t get unnecessary Nazi shenanigans, no Swastika symbolism meant to mean more than just an inherent cloud of evil. Instead, there’s a moment when some survivors leave a local ghetto and toss off their yellow patchwork Stars of David, as if Zwick is purposefully arguing that this is a movie about people, not emblematic punditry.

And at first, we buy the ruse. Daniel Craig (Tuvia) and Liev Schreiber (Zus) are mesmerizing as two sides of the same scattered coin, a pair of bickering partisans looking to merge their misspent youth with a chance to play hero. They are joined by Jamie Bell (Asael) who, while given little to do, maximizing his moments as the sometimes skylarking brother. By placing this trio into the middle of 20th Century’s greatest heart of darkness - ie, the Final Solution and its victims - their own nationalism is reduced to a remembrance. Even when they meet up with a Russian company desperate for supplies, their agreement to help doesn’t overcome an intrinsic anti-Semitism bubbling under the surface. As such, Zwick tends to hedge his bets, adding unnecessary tangents to remind us that the Children of Israel are at risk.

It’s at this point where Defiance bogs down. We spend way too much time in the middle of the handmade housing development, concentrating on sequences that have nothing to do with how this group managed to survive for so long. In their place, we get an overly long build up toward the creation of a roguish, crude villain, one too many dialectic debates, and romance where realism would work better. There are hints at something called a “forest wife”, but Bell’s Asael has to take his intended bride in full blown celebratory fashion, complete with dancing and jubilation. It’s clear that Zwick caters to this material in an obvious attempt to argue that, even in the face of almost certain death, life - or something remotely similar to same - endures.

But that’s not what we want from a movie where Jews kill Nazis and their lunk-headed sympathizers with action sequence like satisfaction. We want Craig, Schreiber and Bell to pack heat and take names. We want more scenes like the one where a random German solider is brought into the camp and literally beaten to death by an angry mob. We’ve had enough nobility and non-violence. We’ve already seen the films where, in the name of what’s fair and what’s right, the Jews are given over to the implication of “God’s Will”. If the Bielskis managed to find a way to keep things in control for nearly four years, wouldn’t that story be much more satisfying than occasional character touches. The legacy suggests something a bit more bravura.

Still, in the moments where Tuvia and Zus take charge, in the montages when the rampant disease of a horrid Eastern European winter dissipates into a far more fiery and desperate spring, in the suspense-filled sequence where German planes bomb the refugee camp back to the Stone Age, Defiance finds its voice. It’s clear that Zwick is more adept at handling fire and brimstone than interpersonal problems. We never buy the relationships present, never feel that people this hopeless would de-evolve into the standard Moon/June love lines. Still, there’s enough power and emotion within the primary narrative to carry us across the weaker bits. Defiance is without a doubt the best of the Holocaust themed films from 2008. Unfortunately, that may be faint praise indeed.

by Bill Gibron

29 Jan 2009

It’s an exercise in memory, an attempt to recall the unfathomable and unimaginable. It’s animation taking the place of atrocity, the literal spoils of war witnessed in stylized, striking visuals. It’s the story of men who would rather forget, of a time two decades before when the Middle East was measured by chest-pumping challenges and baffling back and forth advances. It’s a documentary and a denouncement, an explanation and an exaggeration - and in the end, it’s one of 2008’s best films, a wildly inventive and shockingly effective cartoon trance that takes us deep into the heart of human darkness and then delves even deeper.

But there is more to Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir than the story of middle aged men confused by their turn in the Israeli army circa the early ‘80s. This is not just some explanation of how war is insane, allies are untrustworthy, and if one event can change an entire human being’s perspective on life. But Folman does fashion the kind of collective grieving process that puts us smack dab in the middle of an incongruous catharsis. On the one hand, our main character (the director himself), wants to uncover the meaning behind his frequent daydreams and half-hallucinations - the main one centering on a 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. But this is not just an investigative journey into truth. Thanks to the artistic approach Folman decides to take, the true nature of conflict is unmasked.

The narrative is fairly straightforward given the almost 3D nature of the animation. This is a talking head experience taken to indescribably new levels. Folman decides to question everyone he can about the Israeli invasion, concentrating on those who, like him, were scared, wide-eyed teenagers at the time. His travels take him to Belgium, where one former friend immediately shoots down his version of events. Another colleague describes the initial invasion, including an argument over a gun that gives the movie its unusual name. Finally, Folman finds a kind of consensus, and moves on to interview those people - officials, officers, reporters - who had first hand knowledge of the horrific events at Sabra and Shatila. In combination, Waltz with Bashir becomes the best of all possible documentaries - wildly entertaining, keenly informative, and wholly unforgettable.

Folman’s choice of mediums is part of the film’s inherent magic. The use of stylized images helps amplify the horrors these young men had to face. An opening dream involving ravenous, rabid dogs leads to a highly disturbing admission, while a later sequence involving an orchard, a division on alert, and a small boy carrying an RPG is particularly memorable. All throughout Waltz with Bashir, the use of animation takes the filmmaking to a whole new level, one that not even the most meticulous, visionary director could have achieved with an unlimited budget and a studio with the patience of Job. Certainly there are risks here. The concept of a cartoon taking on the terrible events in Lebanon during the early ‘80s may reek of blasphemy, but Folman makes it all work almost effortlessly. In fact, within minutes, we couldn’t imagine the movie any other way.

The results are so powerful that it’s hard to argue with anything done here. In fact, it all gives Waltz with Bashir a unique brand of tension, one that juxtaposes a kind of implied innocence with the true, terrifying vision of death and destruction. The work here is stellar, existing somewhere between the old rotoscoping process of the past and the deranged digital enhancement of films like Waking Life. Yet Folman doesn’t try to make the movements fluid. Instead, it’s as if every action in Waltz is accented with a deliberate, almost direct sense of static purpose. The backdrops, on the other hand, are just breathtaking. There is an intricacy and detail behind the design that recalls the best of anime in conjunction with an attempted neo-realism. The combination is cutting edge and very effective.

Indeed, all of Waltz with Bashir plays in such potent forms. We accept the animation element as novelty, initially, only to again learn it’s the only way this story could be told. We see the searching of our main character as an indirect symbol of the scars left by all conflict. The dreams definitely anchor the dichotomy between fact and fiction, and the final shots, coming at us suddenly and without warning, bring the horrors home in a way that no other format could fathom. Indeed, it’s safe to say that the success of Ari Folman’s artistic decisions here have as much to do with the inherent enchantment of the approach he takes with the intense and often unpleasant imagery he forces us to endure.

This duality is the final thematic statement made by Waltz with Bashir. It argues that all boys go into war innocent and come out corrupted. It points to the fact that both sides, heroes and enemy, leave with loses and a sense of purposeless destruction that can never be absolved. It suggests that all armed conflict derives from unclear policies with no predetermined end game or exit strategy, and that when push comes to shove, aggression is not about sovereignty. Sometimes, it’s merely a matter of blood justice - and the stains from said vengeance can linger long after the satisfaction has passed. And just like in animation, such righteousness is painting in radiant, rotting primary colors.

by Sarah Zupko

29 Jan 2009

Staff Benda Bilili croon beautiful harmonies accompanied by spare but perfectly suited instrumentation. This Congolese group of street musicians is comprised four elderly singer/guitarists and a young rhythm section, highlighted by a 17-year-old player of the one-string electric lute that he constructed himself from a tin can. These are musicians of extremely humble means who create startling warm and vital music from the barest of resources. Making their story even more poignant is that these artists are paraplegics and polio victims. It’s a compelling story for sure, but the music is superb enough to speak for itself. Crammed Discs will release Staff Benda Bilili’s debut in the US on April 7th. In the meantime, check out the first video, “Polio”, and a short documentary about the group.

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