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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Candy colored dreams descend down physically impossible angles, shapes shifting across plains of apparent non-reality while simultaneously simulating real life. Cartoon icons come to life, reduced to clichéd contradictions in a classic tale of good vs. very, very evil. Family is the focus, but not to the detriment of all that effervescent eye candy, and modern technology never trumps the skills inherent in masterful moviemaking. This is what the Wachowski Brothers have created with their homage to the classic ‘60s anime series. Speed Racer is that kind of a thesaurus level triumph. One needs an extended vocabulary to work out the descriptions necessary to explain this amazing movie.

Ever since he was a small boy, young Speed Racer idolized his brother Rex. When tragedy takes him away, the lad is determined to follow in his footsteps. Speed has always had driving in his blood, and as he matures, he becomes one of the sport’s best. Unfortunately, racing is controlled by corrupt corporate conglomerates with connections to mobsters and other shady characters. When Speed wins an important contest, he is approached by the owner of Royalton Industries, who makes him a sizable offer to join his team. Naturally, family comes first, and Speed would never leave his home crew - Mom, Pops, mechanic Sparky, little brother Spritle, or pet monkey Chim-Chim. He also has a thing for gal pal Trixie. Naturally, rejecting Royalton causes a rift which threatens to bring down the entire Racer team.

Forget all the curmudgeonly criticism that argues for this movie’s optical overload capacity - Speed Racer is a modern masterpiece, no two ways about it. Andy and Larry Wachowski have succeeded in creating a living, breathing comic book, complete with nods to psychedelic pen and ink designs, four panel editing, and overflowing visual pizzazz. Anyone who can’t see the brilliant blockbuster fun the brothers are having with this material has spent one too many hours staring at gloomy independent dramas about siblings struggling to deal with their dysfunctionality. This is filmmaking as fireworks, directorial innovation that, while not as media morphing as The Matrix, stands as the highest level of celluloid creativity. From races that routinely flaunt the rules of realism to a story that stresses the noble over the nasty, Speed Racer soars to the highest levels of movie magic.

It all begins with the actors, and the Wachowskis once again choose wisely. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon make an excellent Mom and Pops Racer, their wholesome genuineness beaming from every homespun word of wisdom they proffer. Equally endearing are Speed’s baby brother and his pet chimp. Spritle and Chim-Chim are characters clearly aimed at the PG-oriented audience this movie is geared toward, but unlike other examples of obvious demographic pandering, they play perfectly - and hilariously - to all ages. Christina Ricci’s raucous Trixie is like a hooker with a heart of gold, except here she’s selling self-esteem and girl power. Supporting players are well padded with sensational turns by Matthew Fox (as Racer X), Roger Allam (as main villain Mr. Royalton) and Benno Fürmann as the iconic Inspector Detector.

That just leaves Speed himself, and Emile Hirsch successfully sells what has to be the hardest role in a summer 2008 popcorn romp. Instead of being ironic and self-effacing, our hero is just that - a carbon copy cutout of what Joseph Campbell proudly proclaims. Hirsch has to balance determination with humility, never crossing over to the dark side to circumvent his friends and family. We also have to believe in Speed’s ability, and this is one actor who understands the greenscreen dynamic instinctually. The concentration and determination we read in Speed’s eyes is part of what made the cartoon so enduring, and it really rewards this movie as well.

Of course, the Wachowskis step up and deliver on the promise they provided throughout several trips through a virtual reality revolution. The races are ridiculous, giddy examples of vehicles as veiled gladiators. Drivers don’t merely careen around a course. Instead, they jump, dive, clash and crash, using secret gizmos and good old fashioned strategy to better their rivals. Some of the sequences are so jaw droppingly deranged that we wonder how the filmmakers made them viable. Imagine The Phantom Menace‘s pod race amped up by several thousand (and sans Lucas’ sloppy prequel predictability) and you’ve got a tiny inkling of what Speed Racer accomplishes, action-wise.

But the smaller moments here work equally well. When Racer X, determined to help Speed uncover the corruption in the sport, removes his mask to answer a movie long query, there is real emotion behind the reveal. Similarly, when the Racer family is inundated with calamity following Speed’s rejection of Royalton, we sense the heartache and pain. For all its whirlwind flash and CG stuntpulling, Speed Racer is really a movie about relationships and the ties that bind. Even as the Wachowskis pull another physics defying mindblower out of their fevered brains, we connect with the Racer clan and want to see them succeed at all costs.

Anyone predisposed to hate what the brothers are attempting clearly won’t cotton to the sugar spun splendor offered here (must be hard to hold all that Matrix sequel hate inside you, huh?). And there will be so called professionals who balk at all the primary color hoopla and prove just how sour their cultural disposition has become. Sometimes, a movie needs to be nothing more than a throwback to a simpler, more entertaining time. Speed Racer is that, and then some. It’s the added emotional element that turns it into something close to timeless. 


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Thursday, May 8, 2008

For a long time, I have wanted to read Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place, a notoriously lascivious book about the seamy secrets of a small town in New England. This grand ambition of mine was fueled not only by my academic interest in “commercial novels” (i.e., novels interesting primarily for their commercial success) and my fascination with Twin Peaks, which seems deeply influenced by Peyton Place‘s core idea, but by the line on the cover of the edition I bought at an Astoria junk store: “The best-selling paperback novel of all time.” Surely something so popular would yield some sort of insight into the American reading public and the nature of the mass market of the Eisenhower era. A 2006 Vanity Fair article about Metalious’s own sordid life offered this about the novel:

Fifty years ago, Peyton Place helped create the contemporary notion of “buzz,” indicted 1950s morality, and recast the concept of the soap opera, all in one big, purple-prosed book. It would spawn a sequel, a smash film nominated for nine Academy Awards, and television’s first prime-time serial. A week before it hit bookstores, on September 24, 1956, it was already on the best-seller list, where it would remain for half a year. In its first month, it sold more than 100,000 copies, at a time when the average first novel sold 3,000, total. It would go on to sell 12 million more, becoming one of the most widely read novels ever published. During its heyday, it was estimated that one in 29 Americans had bought it—legions of them hiding it in drawers and closets due to its salacious content.

Clearly it was widely bought, but whether it was widely read can’t really be known. Having just slogged through it, I figure most readers skimmed it, looking for plot points and dirty parts.

On the whole, the book is shoddily constructed, veering from one “shocking” event to another with apparently only a sense of how outraged people would be guiding Metalious as she proceeded. This leads her to be radically frank for her era about the reality of familial sexual abuse, but it also leads her to create such ludicrous scenes as the one where a minor character loses an arm in a carnival-ride catastrophe. Though it seems now to be populated with Main Street caricatures, Peyton Place was heralded at the time as an expose of small-town hypocrisy and breakthrough for freedom of expression about the kinds of problems that were probably pretty endemic in town life, and probably still are. And some scholars regard it as a feminist work, probably for its handling of female sexuality (though like most romances, the only woman who has a positive sexual experience has to basically be forced into it, have her animal nature awakened by a brute show of force by her mate) and its efforts to call into question domestic pieties. Mostly, though, the book seems animated by the spiteful sullenness that marks the main character, wanna-be writer Allison McKenzie, who, interestingly enough, in the novel mines small town life for material for her own frank stories. It’s like the novel depicts its own creation within itself, so maybe it’s a self-mythologizing postmodern classic. It is certainly chaotic enough to be postmodern, shifting registers and genres and eschewing careful development of characters in favor of lurching from mini-plot to mini-plot haphazardly like the soap operas that would come in its wake. No effort is made to explain events; they happen simply because of an evil destiny settling on the land. Unlike Twin Peaks, which with its Lodges and feints at mysticism, tried to cook up a cosmogony to explain why events unfolded and where the submerged small town evil came from, Peyton Place revels in the unexplained evil, takes superstitions as given, and offers by way of spiritual subplots an unintegrated story about a Congregationalist minister who decides to become a Catholic basically because he is Irish.

If anything unifies the hodge-podge of the novel’s incidents other than their calculated potential to outrage, offend, and titillate, it’s the development of Allison as writer, with her ethical quandaries worked out by the novel’s form as it unfolds: basically the novel’s structure seems to be in dialogue with Allison, showing her that the way to get a novel written is simply build every chapter around some secret someone wouldn’t want told, whether it’s secret drinking parties, oral sex, or a mother’s getting off on enemas and breast feeding. Secrecy becomes the essence of what makes for plot, all other possibilities for development are foreclosed—so there is no bildungsroman organized around Allison, or Selena Cross, the working-class girl “from the shacks.” Instead, the novel just jumps in forward in time at arbitrary intervals and makes no effort to develop themes linking the two characters’ development at any but the superficial ways their lives intersect. We can do the work on the novel’s behalf and come up with ingenious comparisions, but that is not what was expected of the original audience for this book. That audience, as the marketing campaign detailed in the Vanity Fair article suggests, was meant to be salaciously enticed and afforded a delicious chance to wax righteously indignant while thrilling at the sexual perversity.

So the whole novel feels very cynical, mainly because it is prurient but also because none of the characters are very sympathetic from a contemporary perspective. When they are not mouthing some hypocritical idea about not wanting to be talked about, they seem like puppets contrived to act out preconceived sensationalistic tidbits. Because Metalious seems to have decided from the outset that readers would only be interested in juicy scenes full of the seemingly unsayable, she makes little attempt to supply anything else, aside from the odd awkward poetic passage.

The book pretends to reveal the secrets of small-town life as if these reflect some core truth, as if these would dispel hypocrisy, but instead it partakes of that same hypocritical spirit, the refusal to grant people their private lives, and it comes across as a gossip dump, with the effect of making the story feel unverified and exaggerated despite purporting to be fiction (and despite the fact that much of it was drawn from Metalious’s life and her home town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, apparently). And though the characters are obsessed with being talked about, as if this were their worst fear, it reads more as though its what give them an identity—the fear of being watched seems more like a secret wish to be noticed. The idea that you become an indvidual when you are noticed, hailed by your society in the way it has settled on offering recognition—à la Althusser’s argument in the “Ideological State Apparatuses” essay: “Ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’ “) It’s not the police who do the interpellating in Peyton Place, it’s the town’s network of gossip, occasionally dramatized by the chattering in the diner or on the street by various yokel characters, or by Metalious simply attributing certain views to the town, as if it were a character itself. It’s out there, giving each person it notices some internal coherence in its eyes.

One can construct noble reasons for Peyton Place to have existed and become popular after the fact; one can argue for a liberating effect it may have had on its female readership and so on, but that requires a blinkered reading of the text. In the novel itself, the most palpable motive for what it exposes about small-town life is that it will boost the book’s sales, the lesson Allison seems to learn in the book and a lesson proven by the novel’s marketing campaign and its subsequent success across several media platforms. For though Peyton Place seems like a critique of small-town gossip’s regulatory function of enforcing a moral and traditional code of conduct—and it certainly indulges the juvenile fantasy of being the herald who broadcasts all the secrets that structure the repressive code and thus brings down the walls of Jericho—the novel is just that gossip served up for consumption by strangers with nothing invested in the code. It doesn’t destroy the code’s power, it just amplifies the code so it has power on a bigger stage, transforming it at the same time so that its prohibitions become provocations. On the small town level, gossip is like a confession carried out by townsfolk that serves to solidify the individuality of its subjects, but on the level that Peyton Place as media phenomenon promises, being talked about just makes one famous and interesting, to those who have no reason to want to see you disciplined according to the local mores.

Thus the novel supports an ideological framework that has become omnipresent now: that you want to be gossiped about, as that is what makes you exist in a way that transcends friends and family. Being the subject of gossip is the pathway to fame, and media creations like Peyton Place will spread your notoriety. The novel can be seen as a guide to what sorts of behavior counts as exciting scandal, thus updating for the mid-20th century the information supplied by scandal novels since the invention of the genre. Peyton Place is a bourgeois version of Delarivière Manley‘s romans à clef from the early 18th century that tracked and popularized aristocratic scandals of the time, helping forge the very definition of what was to be considered scandalous. (Incidentally, her books—The New Atalantis is the most notable—are as unreadable as Metalious’s.) Being talked about no longer individuates one simply to impose disciplinary control, instead it calls one into being for a mass audience, on a level where personality traits are irrelevant compared with the sensations one can transmit vicariously for captivated observers. In other words, one goes from being a shameful internal exile in a small town to becoming a celebrity who is beyond moral judgment.

The lesson of Peyton Place as a phenomenon is that on the level of mass popularity, being interesting trumps being moral. And a new set of values is born that applies not to communities (and is unenforceable by communities) but instead applied to individuals participating in a mass culture that isolates them from community with a promise of larger-than-life notoriety. Thus “being a slut” is bad when it is restricted to the eyes of your neighbors; on The Real World though, it is awesome. What makes you scandalous locally makes you fabulous nationally. Hence the impulse to disclose all sorts of embarrassing personal incidents are on TV that one would other wise keep private. And when they are disclosed, they are shared in the manner that Peyton Place exposes them, with a ruthless bluntness that presumes that secrets are always best exposed, for everyone’s sake—that anything less than full disclosure an exposure is some form of prudish hypocrisy. The shallowness of the novel’s characters is now the shallowness we aspire to, for it seems to promise the most widespread recognition we can hope for. We can spread ourselves thin across all the media available for us to disseminate our image and maybe if we are lucky disappear into a sublime ubiquity.

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

At least once a week in the video store, a high school kid will ask me this question:

“Have you got The Accidental Tourist?”

It’s gotten so that I sigh as I tell them we don’t. “But I can get it for you,” I say. “It’ll take a week.”

“No,” they say, sprightly and carefree. “I need it for an exam tomorrow.”

Ooh. I wonder if they can actually hear my soul snapping in two?

And then they ask for phone credit.

If it’s not The Accidental Tourist, it’s Of Mice and Men or To Kill a Mockingbird or I’m Not Scared. And it’s not all high school kids—a university student asked me for Tom and Viv a few weeks back and outright admitted she “couldn’t be bothered reading it”. That’s the same excuse I got from one of my own employees who wanted a copy of The 39 Steps. He didn’t want to read the screenplay, which was required at his school prior to viewing an updated version of the stage show.

It happens all the time. So, I was moved ever so slightly today when I saw this article. According to a study, kids somewhere in the world do actually enjoy reading. Dr. Seuss, it would seem, is the most popular choice among young readers. 

I guess that means I don’t have to fear a first-grader coming up to me and asking for the DVD of Horton Hears a Who!, because he just can’t be bothered ... well, you know.

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Thursday, May 8, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Robyn’s new Blip video series from the masters of the format The Blip Boutique (Radiohead, White Stripes).

Handle Me:


Bum Like You:

Konichiwa Bitches:


Curriculum Vitae:

Fleet Foxes
White Water Hymnal [MP3]

Danielia Cotton
Bang My Drum [Streaming]

The Lexie Mountain Boys
Sweet Potato Sugar Tot [MP3]

I’m a Machine [MP3]

Kardinall Offishall feat. Akon
Dangerous [Video]

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Film may be a kind of international language, but sometimes, the true meaning of a movie definitely gets lost in the translation. Let’s face it - not every country gets its neighbor’s artistic temperament, and visa versa. The most constantly referenced and clichéd example of course is the French critical community’s abject adoration of Jerry Lewis. While Americans find him a goofy, often grating comic persona, Parisians palpitate over his high strung histrionics. Similarly, certain foreign film types fail to generate the same kind of response once they hit Western shores. The recent rash of J-Horror genre efforts proved Americans will only cotton to so much dark haired ghost girl gimmickry before turning back to blood and guts. 

Yet leave it to the Turkish to take the piss out of the entire interpretative back and forth. Instead of embracing movies from around the world, they simply rip them off and remake them, sometimes shot for shot. From ‘60s TV series like Star Trek to modern spectacles like Spider-Man, the Turks can take any franchise or film and mirror it. A perfect example of this copycat creativity comes in the form of 1974’s demon possession do-over, Seytan. Yes, one year after William Friedkin set cinema on edge with The Exorcist, his ode to familial dysfunction, the generation gap, and extracurricular cruci-fixation, the Eurasian madmen of the far off country’s movie business concocted their own frightmare facsimile.

That’s right - the same story, the same narrative structure. Now, the first thing you have to remember upon visiting something like Seytan is that it definitely comes from a different spiritual realm. Friedkin and his film were labeled blasphemous by Church leaders who felt the film’s demonic possession storyline went too far. Turkey is a nation made up of 99.8% Muslim, so messing with Jesus or any other Christian symbol just doesn’t impress. So in Seytan, priests are now professionals, the sacred vs. the profane is set aside with religious imagery kept to a minimum. Islam is never really mentioned by name, nor is the Koran.

Other changes derive from the sovereign setting as well. Gone are the moments of icon defilement and movie business schmoozing. In their place are endless interior shots and hardbound copies of Satanic How-To manuals. And our little heroine no longer abuses herself with a cross. Instead, a strange curved amulet is the defiler of choice. Similarly, the last act exorcism is not really a battle between God and Devil. Instead, it plays more like a snotty little girl giving a group of poorly trained specialists a relatively hard time.

Yet in all other facets, Seytan seems to follow Friedkin’s original subtext to a fault. Many have marveled at The Exorcist‘s staying power, commenting on how unusual it is for a film with less than state of the art special effects (they were impressive in the ‘70s) and an overdeveloped philosophical foundation can still scare viewers some 35 years later. Of course, what many fail to see is the movie’s subtle cultural context. The Exorcist came out just as the War in Vietnam was reaching a crisis point. Young people all over America were taking to the streets to protest (it’s a situation that’s referenced in the film itself) while the conservative Establishment sat bewildered, wondering what had become of their children. The Exorcist provided an obvious answer - they must be under the influence of the mangoat himself.

Indeed, the entire underpinning of Friedkin’s film rests on actress Chris MacNeil (played brilliantly by Ellen Burstyn) and the sudden, shocking change in the behavior of her teenage daughter Regan (Linda Blair). One minute, the adolescent is painting ceramics and giggling about her birthday. The next she’s channeling Beelzebub, peeing on the floor, and expectorating demonic bisque. It’s not a very subtle analogy, but then again, 1973 was not a very subtle time. But for audiences expecting a standard thriller, the notion of innocence violated, ambiguous metaphysical answers, unsure science, and a literal deus ex machina via a final leap of faith resonated like a Walter Cronkite commentary on the trusted CBS Evening News. While much of that makes little sense today, it was a shocker several decades ago.

Seytan sticks with the little girl unhinged ideal. Here, our pert adolescent Gül is Regan redux. She’s bright, chipper, inquisitive, and just a little precocious. Her doting mother (stripped of any career ambitions and left nameless throughout most of the movie) is not so much hapless as hindered by her gender. Many of the men she deals with - doctors, scientists, social workers - ignore her pleas and tend to take her insistences with a substantial grain of chauvinistic salt. Since special effects are less than plentiful in such foreign locales, heavy doses of green make-up supply the necessary Hellspawn glow, and when things really need to get dicey, straightforward camera tricks and old school sleight of hand is employed.

Director Metin Eriksan remains a leading light in the Turkish movie industry, He was an early agent provocateur who was required to go commercial when his country’s stern censorship started banning his more controversial works. Turning to horror and genre themes, he used the marginalized movie macabre to address themes of human frailty and loneliness. Seytan stands in sharp contrast with the rest of this filmmaker’s creative canon.

Indeed, one notes a definite sense of going through the motions here, specific blocking and compositions cribbed directly from Friedkin’s frightmare. Even worse, there are instances where Eriksan could have worked some subversive magic with this movie, adding some of the confrontational components of his previous efforts. Instead, we have moment by moment mimicry, complete with what appears to be actual lines of dialogue from the American original (apparently, screenwriter Yilmaz Tümtürk failed to fully understand the meaning of ‘adaptation’).

Since most bootleg versions of this film arrive sans subtitles, a lot of what Seytan has to say has to be inferred from what’s happening onscreen. Since it follows the original Exorcist fairly closely, recognizability helps with our comprehension. Gül goes through the same barrage of scientific tests, she gets the perfunctory psychological evaluation, both sides of the medical issue appear dumbfounded and clueless, and the last act arrival of our demon expert seems rather anticlimactic. When Max Von Sydow finally appears in The Exorcist, it’s like a date with destiny. In Seytan, the lack of a solid sacred subtext really puts the kibosh on the impact.

Something sinister can be read into the Turkish version of the film, a gender-mandated foundation that may be hard for Westerners to swallow. It is clear, when watching this adaptation, that women and their role within society are substantially downplayed. Gül is treated very badly, given little of the sympathy shown to Regan. Equally unsettling is how readily the entire situation is chalked up to female hysteria. While one has to read this into the onscreen actions, it’s clear that the men just don’t want to tolerate these emotionally high strung women. The bloated paternalism is present in every single frame.

This is one of the reasons why the chance to see a statement like Seytan is so enlightening - both culturally and entertainment wise. Most of the foreign films offered for US consumption tend to follow preconceived guidelines of subject acceptability. We like political drama, interpersonal intrigue, and the occasional bout of slapstick comedy. When you add in the genre efforts from Asia and the martial artistry of Hong Kong, the motion picture parameters are pretty well set. But because Seytan steps in and re-imagines one of our own classic contemporary films, it digs deeper beneath the social surface. In turn, it gives us a glimpse into a world (at least circa 1974) that we never would have seen otherwise.

From the opening archeological dig and bad papier mache demon statue to the dying mother subplot complete with a trip to the loony bin, Seytan is still all “Tubular Bells” and projectile vomiting. Some may see it as nothing more than a retarded rip-off and laugh at all the amateurish missteps. Others will look beneath the male-cenntric surface and see a sort of cinematic hate crime. But the truth remains that Seytan is nothing more than one country’s attempt to cash in on another culture’s social phenomenon. It’s clear that, in many cases, imitation remains the sincerest form of international filmmaking flattery. Sometimes, as in the case of Seytan, it can be a sure sign of creative cluelessness as well. 

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