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by Bill Gibron

6 Sep 2009

His is a world few have or will ever know: a realm of high fashion, even higher expectations, and the royal treatment for achieving both. For over 45 years, he has remained steadfast in his haute couture designs, never once straying from his desire to make beautiful clothes for beautiful people. In a business that chews up even established names and spits them out with impunity, he’s endured. In fact, for the 75-year-old Valentino Garavani (whose brand remains his internationally known first name), he is literally the last man standing, a regal, refined presence within a playground that often embraces fad, commercial cultural shifts, and whatever’s hot in any given season.

And for the most part, he has lifetime business (and personal) partner Giancarlo Giammetti to thank for it. Meeting up with the future fashion icon when the two were young men in Rome, he provided the support, the common sense, and the behind the scene acumen that helped a failing designer (his first “house” ended in bankruptcy) become a nearly five decade old institution. Now, in the mid part of the 21st century, the tide is turning. Valentino faces pressure from the creepy corporate ownership shills who only pray to the bottom, not the hem, line while Giammetti wonders if his companion can survive the continuing commercial pressures presented by the label’s new investment-minded suits.

Thus we have the set up for Matt Tyrnauer marvelous, maddening documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor. Culled from nearly 250 hours of footage and extraordinary access into the inner sanctum of the designer’s domain, what we get is part retrospective, part stark realities of the fashion world circa 2006. Valentino is preparing his Spring collection for a Paris debut. On the horizon, an all encompassing three-day celebration of his entire 45 year career. In the middle is Giammetti - sounding board, cynic, critical eye, creative force, understanding friend, endearing lover, and all around rock to Valentino’s often stubborn, strident misgivings. As a team, they work well together. The king gets to rant and rave about the important of style and substance. His long suffering significant other manages and mops up.

It’s a startling study in contrasts: the man whose eye for form and feminine aesthetic has lead to some of the most startling outfits in the history of couture vs. the former architecture student who’s built the brand into a multimillion dollar enterprise. For Valentino, it’s all heart and soul. For Giammetti, it’s all head and strategizing. What they’ve created together has managed to survive the pop art penchant of the ‘60s, the disco drone of the ‘70s, the money mandates of the ‘90s, and the media inspired hyperbole of the ‘90s. When Giammetti finally sold the company in 1998, it was the start of a trend toward cash over creativity. Less than a decade later (and even more boardroom wrangling), Valentino is basically a ghost wandering his own haunted realm.

There are really two films at work here, one very personal, one that’s all professional. We see the devotion of the workers who’ve stayed with the designer for several years, capable of translating his often ambiguous ideas into sheer fabric fabulousness. Valentino beams early on, stating with pride that everything in his collection is hand sewn. “We bought a machine once,” he laughs, “and no one ever used it.” Watching these women work their nimble if frazzled fingers over layer after layer of sheer linen, you’ll understand why. For them, and their brooding boss, it’s about craftsmanship and art, not ready-to-wear or off-the-rack. It’s the same for Giammetti, really. He wants to please his partner while making sure that the Valentino name remains vibrant and vital.



Such a dedication and devotion has lead to extraordinary wealth, almost aristocratic in its old world ways, and an insularity that buffers the legend from the rest of his mainstream mythos. Many have complained that in this failing world economy where businesses are shuttering and people are suffering, such outward opulence is a crime. No man should have a private jet, a personal pet groomer (for his six spoiled pugs), a chalet in Switzerland and a massive chateau in France (among many, many locations). Somehow, his extravagance is an indictment of the cold, commercial criminality that led to the fiscal downfall in the first place. Of course, such arguments are very shortsighted indeed. Valentino didn’t look at the failing stock markets and plummeting property values of the last 18 months and decide “Hey! I’ll live like a Lord!” He’s been flaunting his fashion iconography for longer than some of these so-called critics have been alive.

The corporate story steps in when Giammetti prepares for the 45th anniversary show. Suddenly, smiling faces turn sour as price and scope are discussed, and several are quite frank in their position about Valentino’s possible importance to the overall business model. While he remains a name, and a known quantity, the profit margin is no longer served by his hand crafted works of wonder. Instead, it’s all about licensing and logos, something that their namesake no longer cares about. As the entire fashion community turns out for his massive celebration, as his entire productive lifetime is given a literal museum-like overview, we come to understand the shallowness of the executives’ position. Without his nearly five decades of hard work and inspiration, they’d have nothing to bank on. As with most dollar and cents decisions, what you’ve accomplished is less important than what you’ve accomplished lately.

Though the issue of his “retirement” is questioned throughout, Valentino: The Last Emperor makes it very clear that our subject is ready to walk off into the faked runaway sunset. He still has the flair and the showmanship, but he looks tired and takes out his obvious frustration on anyone around him - usually Giammetti. The best thing about this fascinating film is the unspoken love the two have for each other. When Valentino is given France’s highest award, the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, his smooth demeanor cracks when mentioning the contributions of his partner, and in a rare moment of emotion, Giammetti breaks down as well. With the connection established and illustrated, there is really no reason for more behind the bedroom door reveals.

Sure, he still lives in a sinfully excessive manner. Yes, he can be childish or even cruel in his condemnations. Perhaps he has outlived his usefulness, his dedication to couture no longer warranted in a slick high tech society. But Valentino will always remain an enduring figure of fascinating appeal. While it’s light on history, this stunning documentary is heavy on insight. It offers a window onto a world that will probably never pass this way again. Indeed, there will never be another Valentino. And there will definitely never be another partner like Giammetti. Together, they made magic. This fascination film explains how. 

by Bill Gibron

5 Sep 2009

A funny thing happened to Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks on the way to its 1971 general theatrical release. Clocking in at over two hours and thirty minutes, the roadshow version of the title (offered for special engagements) was considered too long. Company executives, concerned that the film’s target audience - children - would find some of the slower, more somber material boring, demanded it be cut. So out went three songs, an extended dance sequence, and a few minor subplots. As a result, the film many of us grew up with (and loved) is not the work director Robert Stevenson intended. The man behind Mary Poppins, as well as many other House of Mouse classics, saw his vision undermined for the sake of business concerns.

Thankfully, DVD reintroduced the original cut - or as close to it as possible - in 2001 (it had turned up on laserdisc in 1997). As part of a 30th Anniversary package, Disney included as much of the found footage as possible, though the sequence “A Step in the Right Direction” remained lost. Fans quibbled a bit, unhappy with the dubbing of some sequences, noting that some of the replacement voices did not match the original actors very well. But overall, they were ecstatic to see the film restored. Now, eight years later, Disney is releasing what they call an “enchanted musical edition” of the film, boasting a new “Wizards of Special Effects” featurette. However, aside from this minor bit of added content, nothing else is new. It doesn’t mean the movie’s not worth your attention. It’s a gem. The double dip, however, is another question.

Set during the earlier days of World War II, Bedknobs and Broomsticks centers on three London orphans - Charlie, Carrie, and Paul - who are sent to the UK countryside to avoid the ongoing bombing in the city. There, they meet up with Miss Eglantine Price, a spinster who dabbles in witchcraft. When her secret life is discovered, she gives the children a magical bedknob that allows the piece of furniture to travel anywhere they want. As part of her apprenticeship, Miss Price wants a spell for “substitutiary locomotion” (the ability for inanimate objects to move on their own). She and the children take the bed and head to Portobello Road where they look up Professor Emelius Browne. He informs them that the information they need is on the magical island of Naboombu.

Taking the bed to the strange locale, the group meets up with the animated animals who live there, including the egomaniacal King Leonidas. Wearing the Star of Astoroth, which holds the secret to substitutiary locomotion, His Majesty demands Mr. Browne referee the annual football game. Using the match as a ploy, our heroes steal the talisman and head home. Sadly, the Germans have landed and have set up shop in Miss Price’s small town. Desperate to battle the enemy, the spell is invoked. Suddenly, all the old armor in the museum comes to life, taking up positions along the coast to give the invading Nazis a run for their money.

As part of their desire to match Mary Poppins success both critically and commercially, Disney hit pay dirt with Bedknobs and Broomsticks. It is just as good as it’s 1964 predecessor, and contains some of the best work - visually and musically - of any of their films. Far better than Pete’s Dragon and more in tune with the company’s cine-magical approach, this beautifully rendered fairy tale has aged magnificently. In fact, the wartime setting gives the narrative a bit of gravitas that other House of Mouse efforts lack, and no one could top stars Angela Landsbury and David Tomlinson in selling a song. Together with some fantastic animated sequences and Oscar winning special effects, this is perhaps the last great live action movie ever to come from the dream factory built by Uncle Walt.

Part of the reason Bedknobs and Broomsticks works so well is the return of composers Richard and Robert Sherman to the fold. Having left the company in the mid ‘60s, the talented songwriting brothers would return from time to time to freelance. But this effort was different. In the bonus features, we learn that Poppins wasn’t always a “go”. Author P.L. Travers held back on the rights to her classic character up until the very last minute, unconvinced that Disney could do her character justice. As part of a backup plan, Walt asked the Shermans to tackle a treatment he had of The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires and Broomsticks, both by Mary Norton. When Travers eventually acquiesced, work on the new material was halted. As a result, we get some of the boys’ best work, a musical score that, like Poppins and their work outside Disney, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, truly stands the test of time.

The F/X also deserve a mention, since Bedknobs represents the House of Mouse as the early ‘70s standard bearer in that regard. The Island of Naboombu scenes, including the introductory number in the lagoon, surpass Poppins in the combination of live action and animation. The sodium light/optical printer set-up developed by Ub Iwerks works flawlessly, marrying the actors to the cartoon backdrops effortlessly. Even better, the last act attack, complete with animated chainmail and other armaments of battle, is expertly realized. Sure, some of the tricks look obvious by more modern standards, but the truth remains that the Disney artists outdid themselves here. Everything they had learned on Poppins, as well as other past attempts to marry the fantastical with the factual, is evident.

Last but certainly not least, the acting has to be mentioned. The House of Mouse had a very keen sense of child star potential, and Ian Weighill, Cindy O’Callaghan, and Roy Snart are flawless in their roles as displaced casualties of the Blitz. Not too worldly wise, but surely smart enough, they give polished performers Landsbury and Tomlinson a run for their money. As our main leads, one couldn’t ask for a more perfectly matched pair. As Miss Price, Landsbury provides just the right amount of youthful naiveté to match her aging façade, while Tomlinson gets a lot of laughs from his stiff upper lip vs. slapstick situation. With a script that never talks down to the audience and Stevenson’s steady direction (he remains an unfairly underrated filmmaker), Bedknobs stands as a testament to the effectiveness of Disney’s designs in the years after Walt’s death. It deserves to be considered a classic.

And for the most part, it is. Granted, it doesn’t have the instant recognizability of Poppins, or the prolonged classicism of the company’s animated features, but it definitely remains a stellar entertainment and artistic achievement. Whether or not you need this new DVD will all depend on your love of The Wizards of Waverly Place (a young actress from the series, Jennifer Stone, introduces the new seven minute-plus piece) and if you missed out on the previous 30th anniversary release. Just remember - this is not the Bedknobs and Broomsticks you grew up with. It’s not the version you saw in theaters, in the 1979 reissue, or numerous broadcast television or cable premieres. In many ways, it’s a lot, lot better. More importantly, however, it’s still one of Disney all time greats.

by Nick Dinicola

4 Sep 2009

It seems that whenever the subjects of games and social values crossover, it’s always in a negative way. Earlier this year, Resident Evil 5 faced accusations of racism for its portrayal of African natives. There’s no doubt that the game did contain some loaded imagery, but the game itself didn’t have anything to say about racism. Just a couple weeks ago Shadow Complex was caught up in a controversy over its association with Orson Scott Card. Some gamers were reluctant to purchase the game, giving money to Card, an outspoken opponent of gay rights. Yet once again, the game itself didn’t have anything to say on the subject. But that’s not an argument in defense of these games, it’s more of a criticism of the industry. There seems to be a lack of social commentary in games.

This game wasn't supposed to be real and that was OK.

This game wasn’t supposed to be real and that was OK.

In fact, it seems that most games go out of their way to avoid it. As more effort and thought is put into video game narratives, there’s also more effort put into avoiding any social commentary. The games that do have something to say only tackle vague, general themes. Far Cry 2 explores man’s inhumanity to man. Shadow of the Colossus explores love and loneliness. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a powerful war story when certain aspects of its gameplay are taken into account, but it’s also set in a fictional Middle Eastern country. It may say something about war, but it doesn’t say anything about a war. It stays within the safe boundaries of ambiguity. What does it say about the industry when Resident Evil 5 is the closest any game has come to commenting on racism, or that, despite its title, no Call of Duty has actually explored a citizen’s duty to serve in war?

But there is social commentary in games, it’s just hidden in the fiction. Fallout 3 is filled with examples of this: the mission, Oasis, is all about euthanasia, but instead of killing a senior citizen, which would probably have generated controversy, we’re asked to kill a tree mutant. Tenpenny Tower is all about prejudice, but Fallout 3 makes mutant ghouls the discriminated minority instead of a specific race or gender. Then you have the Grand Theft Auto games that take on immigration, gang life, and the pursuit of the American Dream, but they are set in fictional cities. They may be imitations of real cities, but they are still fake. Nothing is really real. 

This game was supposed to be real and that wasn't OK.

This game was supposed to be real and that wasn’t OK.

It makes sense that games would avoid directly addressing such topics immediately after seeing the public reaction to previous games that have tried to do so. Six Days in Fallujah was a war game set during the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, and would have followed a squad of Marines over the course of six days as they fought in the city. The game was widely criticized by gamers and non-gamers alike. Non-gamers criticized the entire medium as inappropriate for such a subject, and gamers criticized certain mechanics in the game as inappropriate. Then there’s the case of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a game that gave players a unique perspective of the events at Columbine (without condoning them) while inviting discussion about them. It was naturally met with hostility by the mainstream press and many gaming outlets, and even after being selected as a finalist for the Slamdance festival’s Guerilla Gamemaker Competition, it was quickly removed from the competition by the event’s organizer. But unlike Six Days in Fallujah, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was a finished product that anyone could play and judge for themselves, and as such, it had many supporters within the gaming industry who appreciated its attempt at social commentary.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Considering people’s reactions to these games, it seems that games are free to comment on societal issues as long as the commentary remains allegorical. When games try to portray something real, an actual war or actual violence, there’s a backlash from non-gamers who see this as insulting to the source and from certain gamers who wish to keep games “fun.”

But there’s another angle in all this to consider as well: the impact of player choice. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was a direct commentary; it was saying something about the events and wasn’t leaving much room for interpretation or at least leaving no more room for interpretation than any other standard narrative, whereas Fallout 3, took on all sides of an issue at once. The latter game didn’t directly comment on euthanasia, whether it’s good or bad, it just gave the player a choice, and through the consequences of that choice, the player was able to form his own opinions. Did you feel bad killing Harold, or did you feel it was noble? Did you feel bad forcing him to live, or did you feel it was for the best despite his wishes?

If you did feel bad about your decision, you could always reload a save and do something different. In this way, games have the innate ability to show both sides of an issue. Of course, this does dilute the significance of our actions since we can always rewind time and make a different decision, but this issue of permanence is another discussion entirely. As it stands now, some gamers are guaranteed to play though a choice-driven game multiple times, and that’s when games can take advantage of their branching paths by imbuing each path with a different message.

Games should not be limited to this kind of diplomatic social commentary. They should be able to offer a direct opinion without being stigmatized for it, but I think the former approach is better for the medium as it takes advantage of the interactivity of games. After all, any medium can preach a message to its audience, but only games can let us experience and analyze both sides of an issue without preaching a single thing.

by Tommy Marx

4 Sep 2009

Looking at Billboard’s Hot R&B chart for July 19, 1986, brings back a flood of memories for me.

I remember dancing to Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On but the Rent”, Jermaine Jackson’s “Do You Remember Me?” and Klymaxx’s “Man Size Love” (one of my all-time favorites). It was the summer Janet first got “Nasty”, El DeBarge asked who Johnny was, and Anita Baker praised the rapture of “Sweet Love”. Some of the best broken-hearted love songs ever recorded are ranked, from Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald’s “On My Own” and Atlantic Starr’s “If Your Heart Isn’t In It” to the epic “All Cried Out” by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Full Force.

And the number one song on the chart for the first of two weeks was “Rumors” by Timex Social Club. Sung by the impossibly cute Mike Marshall, “Rumors” had an irresistible dance beat and a rawness to its funk that made it sound different from anything else out there. The song, written by Marcus Thompson, Alex Hill, and Marshall, became a mainstream hit too, spending five months on Billboard’s Hot 100 and peaking at #8.

Granted, the lyrics seem somewhat hypocritical. The singer complains about rumors while spreading them at the same time. The song specifically name checks Tina Jackson, a student that went to Berkley High School with Thompson (“some say she’s much too loose”), Michael Jackson (“some say he must be gay”), and Susan Moonsie from Vanity 6 (“some say she’s just a tease”). Then again, it makes sense to provide examples to back up your argument.

Timex Social Club would have two more hits on the R&B chart, “Thinkin’ About Ya” and “Mixed Up World”, both of which peaked at #15, but they would never again appear on the Hot 100, making them a one-hit wonder. Still, “Rumors” holds up surprisingly well more than 20 years later, and Timex Social Club still performs regularly (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)).

by Sean Murphy

4 Sep 2009

Look at that guy.

They don’t make them like that anymore. The thing is, they didn’t make them like that then, either. Col. Percy Fawcett was sui generis, supersized. And if he was the first of his kind, he was the last of a kind: the great old-world explorers. By the time Fawcett died (disappearing in the jungles of the Amazon), the world had become a much smaller place.

New Yorker writer David Grann knew he had an ideal subject when he began researching the Fawcett story; he could not have known he was going to become part of the story. The Lost City of Z is the end product of inestimable research and in-the-field reportage, literally.

Like (literally) hundreds before him, Grann inexorably cultivated a compulsion that could only be satisfied by experiencing the action himself. Unlike many other reporters, explorers and thrill-seekers who set off to find Fawcett’s trail (and, inevitably, subsequent fame and fortune for telling their tale), Grann actually made it out alive. And he also found things even he neither expected nor anticipated: no spoilers here, you’ll have to read it to get the scoop.

What Grann came to understand, before ever setting foot in the jungle, was something that no number of books, movies or documentaries could successfully convey. That is, Percy Fawcett was, in every sense of the cliche, very much a man apart. The mere triumph of entering and exiting the Amazon alive was, as many hearty fellows found out by paying the ultimate price, not an inconsiderable achievement. At a time when the North and South Poles were all the rage, one could be forgiven for assuming that the warmer weather, bustling foliage and diverse plant and animal life all afforded a preferable venue for discovery. On the contrary, the ostensibly bountiful tropical haven was in actuality a death trap. Grann quotes Candice Millard from The River Of Doubt, her study of Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing Amazonian adventure:

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