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by Bill Gibron

18 Jan 2009

2008 was an interesting year for fans of the comedy classic Mystery Science Theater 3000. Not only did Mike Nelson and his creative collective - Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett - keep their take on the type - Rifftrax - alive and thriving, but original series creator Joel Hodgson jumped back into the in-theater commentary biz with his latest enterprise, Cinematic Titanic. Bringing along former cast mates Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein, he set up a vague, very familiar premise utilizing silhouetted figures making fun of really bad films. Unlike his previous cable TV hit, there were no robots or outer space set-ups to be found.

Over the last 12 months, this new enterprise has self-released five hilarious installments - The Oozing Skull, The Doomsday Machine, The Wasp Woman, Legacy of Blood, and a revamp of the MST masterwork Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. They’ve also toured around the country offering a “live” version of their experiments. Now 2009 starts off right where the group began. Its latest offering, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, is yet another rotten attempt at entertainment exposed and upended by our loveable band of comics. The narrative centers around the current Count Frankenstein (a thoroughly embarrassed Rossano Brazzi), his staff of bumbling bit players (including Wild Wild West‘s Michael Dunn as the requisite dwarf) and a countryside inhabited by not one, but two ancient cavemen (Loren Ewing, and the oddly named “Boris Lugosi”). 

When the Count’s fetching daughter Maria and her best buddy Valda show up at the castle, they are just in time to indulge in the madman’s latest act of playing God. When the villagers discovered the primitive people, they did what every rational backwater burg would do - they bludgeoned one of them to death with a rock. Using his lightning collection device, the Count has transplanted a girl’s brain into his ‘Goliath’s’ head, and has brought ‘it’ back to life. When Valda learns of the evil experiments she immediately throws herself at the aging scientist. In the meantime, the servants play hide the superstition behind each others back, our little person is banished to a nearby cave, and remaining Neanderthal Ook gets his revenge on all who sought to make his species extinct.

As an example of mid ‘70s ersatz exploitation, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is rather anemic. While there is some minor nudity (Maria and Valda swim topless in one scene) and a tiny bit of grue thanks to implied brain surgery, this is clearly a last gasp attempt at getting wayward teens to take a trip to the local drive-in. The sensationalized title, along with the promise of something even more promiscuous (the trailer apparently emphasized the bare bodkins on display) must have been pretty potent back in the day. Even with its lackluster thrills and total lack of chills, there are still those who think kindly on this poorly dubbed import from Italy. The presence of Dick Randall (Pieces) behind the scenes as producer and director probably helps.

Yet this is clearly a hunk of hackneyed horse apple, a laborious attempt at creating macabre out of a moldy, middling molehill. Period authenticity goes immediately out the window when the villagers are shown. Some are dressed like extras from any number of Hammer horror efforts. Others apparently walked onset in jeans and t-shirts. There are lapses in logic, incomplete subplots, a total lack of suspense, and a weird sort of halting homoeroticism between Dunn’s dwarf and Lugosi’s incomprehensible Ook - which means, of course, it’s the perfect fodder for Hodgson and his co-workers in wit. Like the best episodes of MST (and now CT), we are treated to laugh out loud moments of sublime cinematic slamming.

Before things get going, we are warned about a new piece of technology about to be employed. Alternatively known as the “Boob” or “Breast Blimp”, this zeppelin shaped shadow is used whenever our lead actresses decide to get randy and drop blou. Immediately upon being utilized, several male members of the cast dismiss its necessity outright. While it only appears twice, it is a refreshing and funny device. Elsewhere, the by now familiar ‘frame stop’ skit sequence is attempted, this time giving Trace an opportunity to complain about the treatment of the Frankenstein name in the film. Unfortunately, everyone else seems to think he’s picking on Frank Conniff, and a big misunderstanding begins.

All throughout the running time of this spastic spooky vision, the collective tears into the film, finding fault with just about everything. They especially hate the rather short loin clothes worn by Ook, the completely ineffectual work of the village police, the very creepy May/December dalliance between the Count and Valda, and anything to do with Dunn, Lugosi, and Ewing’s Goliath. Oddly enough, a couple of four letter words litter some of the later comments. While nothing as pronounced as the F-bomb, it’s unusual for a self-marketed series to censor one type of material - female nudity - and yet allow the cast to use a more blue style of satire. As with many installments in the Cinematic Titanic series, there is definitely a more adult tone toward the funny business. But apparently, the mammary is verboten.

Still, as a starter for the year to come, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks proves that 2008 was no fluke. As Nelson, Murphy and Corbett continue to make fun of every current blockbuster that hits the Cineplex (Rifftrax are audio only, remember), Hodgson and the rest of the ex-Mystery Science staff keep plugging away at a true performance paradigm. Sure, both efforts are exceptional, providing the kind of well-placed ridicule that gives film purists palpitations. But even the most die hard lover of cinema can’t truly defend this erratic Euro-trash. Pondering, plodding, and preposterous, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is truly terrible. But when placed in the talented hands of the geniuses at Cinematic Titanic, it turns into a cracking comedy gem.

by Nikki Tranter

18 Jan 2009

Oh, it’s going to be a wonderful week. This 19 January marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most influential figures in modern fiction. Here at Re:Print, we will be marking the occasion with a full week of Poe-related goodness. Today, we will run through a few of the biggest and best Poe events around the place. Tomorrow and throughout the rest of the week, we’ll be scouring the Internet for the best Poe celebrations, and bringing you some exclusive interviews with some major Poe fans in the literary world including Laura Lippman, Charles Todd, and Hallie Ephron. We will also present a short guide to building your contemporary Poe library—not a difficult task as, it would appear, Poe’s hold over readers and writers has yet to wane. Featured throughout our tribute, will be original photography by Stacy Lenore Reed, a photographer, writer, and Poe fan in Richmond, Virginia.

Poe Museum, by Stacy Lenore Reed

Poe Museum, by Stacy Lenore Reed

The best place to go for news and information about Poe celebrations for the entire year is the phenomenal A Year of Events in Poe’s Virginia. The site offers both a blog and a calendar keeping visitors well up to date with news of key going on in and around the Richmond area, where Poe spent a significant amount of creative time. Happening in Richmond just this week are candlelight walks, a 24-hour Poe brithday bash, a portrait exhibit, and a musical tribute. And as the year goes on, you can visit Poe-realted symposiums, talks, lectures, more exhibits, and even a cemetery tour. Clearly, for the Poe fan, Richmond is the place to be this bicentennial year.

Baltimore has its own Poe party going on tonight with screening at the Westminster Hall of the 1961 film, The Pit and the Pendulum and a performance of “The Black Cat”. The free event starts at 7pm.

Read all about Poe influence on some top writers and entertainers at the Edgar Allan Poe 200 Project. Michael Connelly is among the interviewees, as is Alan Parsons and movie producr Gale Anne Hurd. Upcoming interviews are scheduled with actress Evangeline Lilly and others.

Baltimore’s Westminster Hall will play host, too, to a Poe tribute by John Astin of The Addams Family, who will spend a dark hour reading from Poe’s most recognized works, as well as discussing the writer’s life and times. That’s going to be huge. It takes place 31 January.

“Poe in his Times” with scholar David Reynolds at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia.

If you go here, you can listen to a podcast of “The Great Poe Debate”, featuring Philadelphia’s Poe scholar Ed Pettit, Jeff Jerome, curator of Baltimore’s Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, and Paul Lewis, Professor at Boston College, who seek to once and for all end the argument of which state can lay claim to Poe and his genius. The fascinating discussion was recorded on 13 January.

And the celebrations don’t end there. Right up until the end of the year, you’ll find something Poe-related to do up and down the East Coast of America. In between, check back here tomorrow for our exclusive interview with Hallie Ephron about just how Poe has influenced her best-selling works.

by Rob Horning

17 Jan 2009

This may be a pointless either/or question since it can be trumped with the response of “both and” (which is a useful trick, by the way, kind of like switching causes and effects to derive theoretical “insight”). But it interested me anyway as a sort of thought experiment. Which is preferable: (1) discussing a professionally produced song or a film or whatever with a friend or (2) sharing with one another songs or films or mashups or whatever that you’ve made yourselves. I think I prefer the former but often preach the latter. Sharing stuff you’ve made too often closes off the possibility of critical discussion or interpretational analysis, devolving instead into what my high-school friends used to call ballwashing. “Oh that’s so cool! It’s so great that you’re doing that…” Often artistic professionalism is the cue to audiences that they are allowed to engage seriously with a work, to have an opinion regarding what it was about, to devote the resources to analyzing it, or even to allow themselves to enter into it vicariously. Often with homemade productions, I feel myself holding back, because I have this dread that I won’t be able to share the (frequently critical) insights that I would thereby derive. Often, I have the suspicion that the desired and appropriate response is “That’s great that you are doing that. Yay, you!” (Maybe I’m just a jerk.)

This question occurred to me because I was in Michael’s, the chain craft store, earlier today, and it struck me as a great big repository of sadness. I’m sure scrapbooking and collecting rubber stamps brings great joy to many people, but all I could imagine was failure of creativity inherent in purchasing a decorate-your-own-mug kit or any of those kits where the manufacturers try to package the creativity inside, an effort to assuage purchasers of the fear that they won’t be able to rise to the occasion and think of their own mug slogans. “We’ve thought of the project for you, all you have to do is follow directions.” These kits are basically the home-consumer version of deskilling. Rather than sell the raw materials of soapmaking, Michael’s sells you a soapmaking kit which pre-empts your learning how to make soap for real. The same is true for dumbed-down computer applications: Most of the people who have GarageBand on their iMacs will never record a song, let alone become musicians (though it presence does allow for some pleasing flights of fantasy about what you could do.) All that tends to happen when an artistic process is simplified to make it accessible to casual, semi-invested would-be creators is the production of substandard products that no one can possibly take seriously. No one who was serious about making something would stock up at Michael’s for supplies, right? The chain stands as testimony to the collective crippling of our imagination.

Generally, information has never been easier to come by, yet it’s never been harder to turn information into knowledge. Instead the volume of information is an incentive to dabble in things rather than delve into them in pursuit of some sort of mastery, no matter how slight. Is it better to know how to make really good pesto from scratch but nothing else, or to have ready access to many different kinds of passable microwavable meals but know how to make nothing well. (Or is that a particularly nefarious both-and situation?)

I feel a little guilty in bashing Michael’s, because my intent isn’t to dump on the people who shop there, reject them in favor of some superior set or artistic professionals. But some sort of process of professionalization seems necessary to bringing about a meaningful exchange between maker and user—a social relation must be brought into being in which the exchange itself matters more than the personal relation. Of course, in capitalist society, professionalization is a matter of getting paid. Making money is the mark of professionalism—transforming a production into a commodity for sale and finding success in vending it. Get to that point and you show that you’re not just dabbling; you are trying to make customers of others and live up to their expectations. That discipline elevates the product beyond hobby and craft—you’re not just dilettanting around.

But professionalism needn’t automatically be defined by money—by selling out to the Man. It could instead be seen as a matter of creating something that isn’t merely an extension of one’s ego, a matter of wanting to give a social life to some idea or thing that will can then circulate independently from us. Amateur culture often fails to achieve that separation, doesn’t rise to level where it can be seriously criticized because it seems that its primary purpose is to secure recognition for the maker. A noncapitalist understanding of professionalization might resemble flow, losing oneself in a process, wherein the end product is secondary to the creative experience itself but not a matter of total indifference. Instead it could have a ready path to manifesting its social usefulness, to finding an appreciative audience without having to be explicitly marketed—and having its meaning permanently altered by that discourse.

Utopian internet folk probably have this in mind, that the internet becomes a low-barrier-of-entry distribution channel that permits our work to become socially useful without having to be channeled through capitalist means of production first. Unfortunately, capitalist media companies and various internet startups (often under the guise of enhancing the read-write web and so on) have by this time managed to embed themselves online between most home producers and would-be consumers, and in much in the same way as Michael’s kits, the use of these intermediaries’ services tend to taint our productions automatically with amateurism. Thanks to the corporate-owned easy-to-use services, the space that had been opened on the internet for a different kind of professionalism is now being flooded with look-at-me productions. If we are all narcissists, we’ll all remain amateurs, which offers an interesting, albeit functionalist, way to look at the modern efflorescence of narcissism—it seems as though there is an incentive to try to make us that way, insecure in who we are and preoccupied with gaining recognition. But sadly, a MySpace page will never make us web designers any more than a paint-by-numbers kit will make us artists.

by Michael Edler

16 Jan 2009

Kathleen Edwards’ career has been established with hard hitting lyrical work and a simple, but biting sarcastic tone. She was immediately thrown in the pile with other country-rock legends, and without a doubt; Edwards’ lyrical work is on the evolutionary chain from Emmylou, Dolly, and Patsy, but I always felt this distinction was a bit disjointed. Why does Edwards’ need to be thrown in with the “Women who Rock” category?

Edwards’ characters struck me as those who were at last fed up with the ass holes that plagued their lives. Without a doubt, track one from her first album Failure “Six O’Clock News” is an absolute gem. When Kathleen screams at the end that “I can’t feel my broken heart.” I do think of Emmylou and Dolly and Patsy because I know her character is absolutely destroyed by the narrative of her boyfriend (and father of her child) lying dead on the avenue from the piercing wound of a cop’s bullet, I also wonder if it’s sometimes because it’s the end of something that should have ended long ago. Edwards’ characters are filled with this deep sadness, but there is always a subtle hint of brutal irony and sarcasm in her characters. Although Patsy, Dolly, and Emmylou share this irony; theirs is a hidden, almost a wink. Kathleen is tired of the wink. Edwards can work a bunch of angles at once and she’s developed this presence throughout her career.

Edwards’ newest album, Asking for Flowers demonstrates this lyrical complexity. She’s a storywriter and a pretty damn good one. Her ability to turn dialogue and demonstrate symbolism all the while holding universality in her lyrical work demonstrates a songwriter who understands songwriting is a shared experience between author and listener. This is a universal sign of good songwriting. Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Petty, Earle, and Tweedy get this. However, Edwards’ does this while balancing the complexities of telling the same sort of stories from the woman’s point of view. It’s the trick that makes her one of today’s finest songwriters.

by Matthew Sorrento

16 Jan 2009

Arden Theatre Company presents
James and the Giant Peach
By David Wood from the novel by Roald Dahl
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
10 December 2008 – 8 February 2009
F. Otto Haas Stage

Readers hold Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach—itself a standout from the author’s body of classics—as personal as Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix Potter, and countless others children’s tales.  Peach also proves to be an “interactive” as any other.  After the premiere of David Wood’s new Philadelphia stage adaptation at the Arden in Philadelphia, adult audience members shared their favorite character from childhood.  “I always likes the spider,” one woman said.  A man returned: “I love that centipede, with all his shoes.”  Nostalgia was in the air, while their kids found a new delight.  Some recognized the bright-lit and -spirited performance from a book their parents recently read to them.  With questions and enthusiastic comments, others were obviously newcomers.

As for my favorite characters, I have always loved those wicked aunts, Sponge and Spiker.  They offer the darkest dimension to Dahl’s text.  As recognizable family members, they are at once associated with the familiar, but nonetheless are distant, strange.  When James comes to live with them—after Dahl’s whimsically placed rhino kills the boy’s parents—they set little James to endless chores, thus serving as the wicked stepmother motif of classic fairy tales.  Meanwhile, we have two aunts living together who are not clearly marked as sisters—two lesbians that society (and cultural history) has locked away, perhaps?  If so, then their wickedness is no fault of their own, in that they are trapped in the cultural “closet” for the story’s purpose. 

Mean-spirited or no, the aunts serve as an accidental jest to modern audiences, and it certainly isn’t lost on Whit MacLaughlin.  This stage director has cast Harum Ulmer (Driving Miss Daisy at the Hedgerow Theater) as Aunt Spiker in David Wood’s Philadelphia stage adaptation at the Arden (running through February 8), next to Stephanie English’s Sponge.  Ulmer makes for an outright tranny-ish Spiker, lovably villainous to the kids as the parents wink along.  The gangly actor grates his lines and hams them up like Tyler Perry’s Madea, shrunken thin to fit the current proceedings.  English’s pillowy Sponge – complete with butt pads the size of basketballs – serves as a sidekick. 

Their victim, the unlikely named James Ijames, plays the title character with wide eyes, a sure friend for the young audience.  Wandering into a nightmarish life, he is a noble savage that finds a better family in those bugs that have grown along with the peach, the boys wish-fulfillment escape realized as a fantasy device.  (While never forgetting his young audience, Ijames’s appearance in a schoolboy uniform with cap cannot escape the image of Angus young of AC/DC.  Later in the show, the phrase “Hell’s Bells!” pops into the dialog, in case anyone’s missed the connection.)  The title’s other main attraction comes in three forms: as a 12-foot-high prop emerging from the backstage, a floating version the size of a softball, and as a centered platform on the jutting stage, on which the bugs and James travel from the aunts’ grounds to a new home. 

Of ripe color that’s almost florescent, the giant peach(es) is framed by a multi-panel digital screen friendly to the eyes of our digital youth.  On screen appears backgrounds, and a cute introduction to the bugs, who are soon to be James’ friends.  The digital projection adds much landscape to the jutting stage, even if it is outdone by the analog elements before it, more tactile to the intimate audience. 

And, naturally, the other dark subtexts of Dahl are jettisoned in this very child-friendly adaptation, such as the sperm-like jewels that squirm into the ground to impregnate the waiting peach pit.  Ijames’ mimed immersion into the peach—after it has grown large but is only imagined on the stage, at this point—sure feels like a birth-in-reverse, but that’s as close as this telling comes to Freudianism.  Wood and MacLaughlin use the layout of the thrust stage in the F. Otto Haas theater to draw the kids into a (mostly) classical approach to children’s theater.  It may play like Dahl on Cliffnotes to the adults, but the brief running time and exaggerated set pieces fall right into the little ones’ hands.

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