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by PC Muñoz

9 Nov 2009

On his 2008 DIY solo album Obligatory Get Down, San Francisco Bay Area songwriter/indie artist Luke Franks strums guitars, gets squirrelly with the synth bass, rhymes “faded or jaded” with “love it or hate it”, contemplates the Almighty, shows big love for his beloved East Bay Area, makes like Prince at 1:44 into the track “Then Than”, and closes by tearing down the “fourth wall” and spitting some spoken-word which directly addresses the listener, over a busy electro-fried beat.

It’s an interesting alternative glimpse of Franks, who for the last four years has been buzzing in the Bay Area and beyond not as a maverick beat-heavy bedroom DIY artist, but as the leader and golden-voiced singer-songwriter of the Federalists, an indie/alt.country/classic-rock flavored outfit. Since 2005, the Federalists has been a powerful showcase for Franks’ staggering song smarts and spellbinding vocal style, which manages to be both completely original and warmly familiar at the same time.

The group’s newest release, The Way We Ran (Talking House) is their first album released in association with a label, and their first release under their new, semiotically-charged moniker Luke Franks Or the Federalists, or LFOTF for short. The new name came about as a result of the inevitable growing pains the group experienced while transitioning into a national-scene, road-ready project, and it fits. It is a koan of a name, a puzzle of sorts—a kind of linguistic doppelganger for the diverse, unexpected, and ever-evolving gifts Luke Franks possesses and coheres into a compelling, unified whole throughout all his projects.

by Rob Horning

9 Nov 2009

The narratives of subjectivity are supplied by the institutions that one encounters in society; these take the inchoate and infinitely generative biological, neurological, genetic stuff that is the raw material of identity and bound the set, permit it to take coherent, knowable shape. The institutional framework provides means to think identity out of the raw material. It reduces the infinite possibilities to a select finite set that suits the existing social order. It supplies a grammar, a syntax to the genetic stuff that makes it speak something comprehensible to the individual and his society. (Lacan’s and Althusser’s version of subjectivity—we route the inchoate stuff of self through social institutions so that they mirror/speak it back to us, and we obtain self-knowledge, the selfhood that society makes out of us.) This self then reproduces the institutions that made it, doing the work that sustains their power to shape subsequent generations. That is, until technological disruptions change the reproductive circuit.

In consumer society, marketing is the main discourse for impoverishing the narratives of self. It provides idealized prefabricated social imagos around which any given individual’s self can crystallize. But Web 2.0 platforms are taking over for marketing, or at least marketing is evolving through these platforms into something more integrated with the discourse of friendship. Marketing and friendship have become inextricably intertwined, so that having a friend is an inherently commercial operation. Worse, the same came be said of having a self—it will need to be grounded in commercialized, corporatized discourse before we apprehend it—our self-knowledge comes to us preloaded with the prerogatives of corporate consumerism, which has at that point transcended the need for overt marketing, as the marketing is interwoven with the ways, the language, the terms, the categories in which we know ourselves.

Social networks externalize those ways, integrate them as a seamless, coherent platform. The narratives of subjectivity are even more impoverished by the restricted classifications of digital data possible within these platforms, though it remains generative to the subject himself—it seems to solve the (false) mystery of self more completely than any technology heretofore offered—but the sad irony is that the technologies produce the mystery and the ersatz solution. The self we are compelled to produce online is winnowed, smaller, with less potential for growth and less curiosity, the more we produce it and add to the archive that will dictate our future choices.

Its permanently insecure subject and its economy of identity are geared toward reproducing not the capitalist system necessarily but its own peculiar consumerist modalities. The hyperpersonalization that emerged from capitalist individuation combined with a return of communal needs in the new form of the digital network. If you go to the most recent issue of Fibreculture, you can read all about that.

by Bill Gibron

8 Nov 2009

In the ‘80s it was called the high concept film. The basic premise was that studios, desperate for guaranteed, easily marketed moneymakers, would come up with outlandish, can’t-miss ideas, fuse them together with high profile talent, and pray that audiences would respond favorably to the predetermined package. Sometimes they did, but more times than not, the results were neither abstractly or cinematically significant. When indie films came in and swept the system clean during the ‘90s, it looked like the days of the high concept were all but over. Indeed, superstar power and go-to genres now rule the day - except in the case of Fox’s stilted Summer flop, Aliens in the Attack. Like the worst of the hair band decade, this movie is a single specious idea dragged out for 86 agonizing minutes.

When the Pearson Family head off to their vacation home for a little requisite R&R, several elements conspire to try and spoil their quality time together. Moody teenager Carter can’t get along with his seemingly perfect sister Bethany, or his doting, demanding parents. Even worse, his sibling’s smarmy boyfriend invites himself to the remote Michigan shindig, and then makes up excuses why he must stay…overnight. Uncle Nathan then shows up with his goofball clan, including geeked out twins Art and Lee, as well as irritating adolescent Jake, and grizzled grandma Nana Rose. The icing on the uncomfortable cake, however, is a squadron of miniature extraterrestrials, beings from the planet Zirkonia bent on enslaving Earth. Naturally, it is up to the young Pearsons to save the day (in this kind of movie, adults need not apply).

So indicative of decades past that it should come with a speech from Gordon Gecko and a mandatory bottle of New Coke, Aliens in the Attic suffers from several of the current artistic afflictions that make today’s family films seem like nothing more than glorified digital babysitters. Parents needn’t worry that their children will be adversely affected by the drivel on display here since it’s clear that any thinking person wouldn’t subject their offspring to such an IQ squandering effort. Clichés abound, as do questions of pure logic and reason. In order to keep the focus on the underage set, the film even makes up some unlikely sci-fi strictures, the better to keep anyone with the power to actually affect the outcome of things completely removed from the action. This is post-millennial slapstick at its worst - all pain, no attempt at wit or cleverness.

We’ve come to expect crap from director John Schultz. With a resume that reads like a criminals rap sheet, he’s the hack responsible for one of the worst excuses for cinema of all time - the African Americanized update of the Jackie Gleason classic The Honeymooners (oh…the pain…the pain…). True, the script is just as shoddy - Mark Burton (a UK TV talent) and Adam F. Goldberg (nothing of note) concocting a crude reassembly of Gremlins, batteries not included*, and Small Soldiers. In fact, if we didn’t know better, we’d swear that Joe Dante had gotten drunk, fallen repeatedly on his head, wandered onto a soundstage, and dreamed up this cornball cavalcade during one of his less than lucid moments. This is the kind of effort that makes direct to video cheapies like Ghoulies, Hobgoblins, and Munchies look like works of Ingmar Bergman…well, maybe NOT Hobgoblins.

It might have helped had the humans not been so outrageously ignorant. They stare at a rotary phone in dumbfounded disbelief, and even with their wealth of videogame oriented technological know-how, they barely find ways to thwart their three foot tall adversaries. The ETs themselves look like rotted reanimated bread dough, voices given over to tired archetypes and personalities. It is some of the lousiest CG this side of an independent Shrek knockoff. About the only interesting element comes late in the game, when Nana Rose is turned into a kung-fu fighting drone, obviously aided by lots of special optical effects. With an ending that’s neither inventive nor exciting and a bevy of simpleton laughs aimed at anyone too young to know better, Aliens in the Attic is an unbelievably bad film. It’s not incompetent, just inane.

All of which makes the tricked out Blu-ray disc currently available from Fox seem all the more surreal. Does a movie this limited in entertainment value really mandate an alternate ending, deleted scenes, gag reel, a behind the scenes Making-of, a series of star featurettes for Ashley Tinsdale (High School Musical) and Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond), and a new animated short focusing on the Zirkonians themselves? Heck, there’s even a music video, a Fox Channel Presents episode, and a digital copy of the film on a separate disc. One can easily name Best Picture Oscar winners that don’t get this kind of fancy home video packaging. While the company has every right to treat the title the way it wants (for the record, the sound and image are excellent in the 1080p HD qualities), it seems pointless to pile on this much content for a film few will care about.

Indeed, the main failing of Aliens in the Attic is within its intended demographic. When kids, easily wooed by even the lamest attempts at amusement, can’t cotton to what you’re offering, the results should be exiled, not available for purchase. Adults should probably care more, but in a social dynamic which sees DVDs as a means of keeping Junior and the gang occupied for a few seemingly stress-free minutes, anything is better than a blank big screen. Two decades ago, when Tinseltown excelled at ideas like this, Aliens in the Attic would be a fondly remembered bit of geek nation nostalgia. While clearly trying for the same sense of Reagan-era action and adventure, John Schultz again shows he has no business being behind a camera. This is one outer space spectacle that’s light years away from finding anything remotely engaging or interesting. 

by Bill Gibron

8 Nov 2009

Holiday films earn their place as categorical ‘classics’ in a couple of significant ways. The first is in the standard language of film itself. They’re funny or sweet, dramatic or creatively compelling, outside of the need to express a certain seasonal sentiment. Naturally, the next element in play is the found festive value. Either a movie encompasses what you feel about Easter, or Halloween, or Christmas, or it misses the emotional benchmark by miles. And then there are those titles that transcend both, to combine solid (if now sketchy) cinematic value with precise focused celebratory fellowship to make all other offerings pale in comparison. Just in time for Noel 2009, Paramount it putting out a pair of these timeless attempts - White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Like Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Story, both of these old fashioned merriment masterworks celebrate the best of December 25th - peace on Earth, goodwill towards men, harmony, unity, friendship, and humble appreciation. They also touch on darker, perhaps disturbing themes for holiday fare. White Christmas, while most of the time a sunny Irving Berlin musical, has a down on his luck WWII vet as part of the plotline. It’s a Wonderful Life is even more austere, using the attempted suicide of a main character as a way of showing him the value in hearth and home. While they me be right out of the Saturday Evening Post with their Norman Rockwell-esque moralizing and message, one cannot deny how thoroughly entertaining and iconic they both are.

Of course, the 1954 Technicolor epic starring Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen has the advantage of Berlin’s unbelievable score. Though the title song was originally introduced in 1942’s Holiday Inn (also starring Crosby), it resonates here with a yuletide magic all its own. The narrative revolves around Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, a pair of army buddies who become a major post-war nightclub and Broadway sensation. As they tour around the country, they are asked to audition Betty and Judy Haynes, a sister act. Happenstance puts them all at the failing lodge of ex-General Tom “The Old Man” Waverly. Having sunk all his savings and pension into the business, the performers decide to put on a show, in hopes it will save his sagging fortunes. Filled with amazing musical numbers and old fashioned Hollywood hokum, this sublimed styled extravaganza is a genuine expression of pure holiday cheer.

On the other hand, while Christmas’ Michael Curtiz is no slouch (he did direct Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy after all), It’s a Wonderful Life has the undeniable immigrant genius of Frank Capra behind the lens. Responsible for such memorable masterpieces as It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and A Hole in the Head, this black and white wonder sees Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed star as George and Mary Bailey. He is a sentimental old dreamer who has sacrificed his dreams of being a builder to run his family’s savings and loan. Years later, scheming slumlord Henry Potter uses a mistake by one of George’s employees to place the bank in jeopardy. When he asks the crooked old coot for help, he is soundly turned down. Wanting to kill himself, George is stopped by an angel who offers him a chance to see what life would be like if he were never born. The results help George face the challenges ahead.

It’s amazing to think that both of these films are so well-loved and embraced, especially when you consider how different they are. As with many off-the-cuff showcases, Berlin’s music is shoehorned into a standard rags-to-riches-to-reciprocity plotline, Kaye and Crosby wanted to do good for an old friend and fellow war veteran. With Clooney and Ellen as enviable arm candy and a collection of superbly craft numbers (including “Sisters” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”) White Christmas works despite itself. Indeed, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house after a rousing finale that shows allegiance and camaraderie never go out of style. It’s a Wonderful Life is a much more complicated film. In fact, when it was initially released, it was considered a flop. The material is very dense, dealing with failed ambitions, unexpected consequences, and the frequent disappointments and disasters that befall everyday life.

For George Bailey, everything is a matter of corollary - his father’s failed health, his marriage to Mary, his decision to create an affordable housing project in town, the evil manipulation of Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore is a revelation in the villainous role). Everything links together, making his wish to be dead even more significant. By seeing what he means to the rest of the town, to people as important as his own family and as fleeting as his customers, George realizes there is more to living than getting what you want. Appreciating what you have is equally important. While Capra has often been accused of being a grand manipulator, working his scripts into specific servings of cinematic schmaltz, It’s a Wonderful Life suffers little from such saccharine conceits. It is frequently hard, often uncompromising, and rarely lets its characters off the hook. While White Christmas breezes along like a shimmering, singular snowflake, Capra post-war commentary is the blizzard that usually follows.

While they’ve been released and re-released any number of times, Paramount’s attention to added content details and final visual polish makes either title a must-own. It’s a Wonderful Life comes in a dimensional box featuring a commemorative tree ornament, as well as a chance at eight free holiday MP3 downloads. Inside, you will get both the bold monochrome and the unnecessary colorized version of the film, as well as a documentary on its making and a tribute to Capra by his son. White Christmas, on the other hand, is overloaded with bonus features. There is a commentary from the late great Ms. Clooney, a collection of backstage recollections, an overview on each of the main actors involved, and a chance to see the new theatrical version of the film come to life onstage (the live version is currently in previews around the country). As a means of remembering that special someone this gift giving season, either digital package is just perfect.

Of course, cinema scholars will hem and haw at the praise given to either film. For many, White Christmas is all tinsel and not real lasting impact, a bright and sparkly vehicle for seasoned performers to do what they do best. It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, is often dismissed as too idealistic (the FBI at the time even branded it “Communist” for making a banker the bad guy) and naïve. In fact, it is often pointed out that the movie was never considered a yuletide treat until it slipped into the public domain in the ‘70s, and then repeated ad infinitum on numerous TV stations ever year. Still, those sound like the grumblings of Grinchs who find anything merry and mistletoed to be worthy of contempt. Before it became a crass commercialized excuse for going broke, the holidays used to be a commemoration of existence. Films like White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life remind us of that, no matter how hokey, wholesome, or homespun, there’s a reason for the season. 

by tjmHolden

8 Nov 2009

Brown Eyed Girls

 

If you don’t believe me, watch this.

 


 

 

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