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by Bill Gibron

13 Apr 2009

There’s a concerning discussion going on at one of the websites I write for (not this one, another), which has me thinking about the role of the writer in post-millennial media. Not the fiction scribe who is locked in some literary retreat somewhere, desperately trying to fashion a third act out of the personal memories of his time in boarding school and the girl that got away. Nor are we discussing the still viable journalist, the newspaper (or site) scribe whose job it is to get the facts straight and the story right - though part of what he or she does will apply. No, what needs to be differentiated in today’s messageboard morass is what readers want, what purists expect, and how someone who doesn’t really care about either can survive within such weak geek conceits.

The issue at hand seems to center on what information needs to be included in a DVD review. If you look at such pieces within PopMatters, you will see very little technical discussion and a lot of critical thinking. There’s no kibitzing over aspect ratio, additional content, or picture quality. For us (and I speak more for myself than the rest of the staff), the purpose behind a DVD review is to give the film/TV show/band/music/material in question another, more in-depth look. We are not out to guide consumers on when and how they should spend their limited cash. Now, let’s look at a site like DVD Beaver. Almost exclusively, their reviews run under 200 words - and most of the time, it’s nothing more than a plot overview followed by a “good/bad” certification. Where Beaver earns its bacon, however, is in the audio/video bottom line. They post images, list scientific breakdowns, and try to do as many compare/contrasts of differing versions as possible.

So on the one hand you have a readership that clearly could care less if the latest release of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is nothing more than the 20th Anniversary Edition spiffed up with a plastic Lament Configuration collector’s box. Then there are those who want such an assessment to go beyond the movie and discuss each and every item that makes up the disc content proper. I call this the difference between being a “reporter” and being a “critic”. Again, I am not necessarily referring to the correspondent who sits on the sidelines of world events and attempts to make sense of it all. In this case, ‘report’ should perhaps be followed by the word “book”. It seems like, more and more, 21st century audiences want a basic, barebones, by the…you know, breakdown of everything, including the most minor or unimportant minutia.

And they have a point. With discs running between $10 and $30, and their Blu-ray counterparts costing even more, informed decisions are necessary before heading over to the nearest brick and mortar. This is especially true with genre titles. Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead have been released (and rereleased) so many times, in so many different ways, that it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all without a website devoted to the various format permutations. But how much is too much, meaning, how far does someone who writes for a living have to go to appease this particular arena. In my case, Fox sent a Screener DVD of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and I always mention in my reviews that I do not have final product, and therefore cannot accurately comment on final tech specs. In most cases that’s enough. But apparently, such a sentiment is confusing for those outside the craft.

The main comment coming from readers has been “So what is on the various versions of the title? All the extras you mention? Some? None?”, and I am forced to write back with the simple sentiment - I don’t know. True, Fox released single, two disc and three disc versions of the title, but all I have is a screener. After that, if the questioner wishes to pursue the exchange, I usually get a response with something like “Well, a Google search will clear things up.” Oh really. Let’s dissect this suggestion for a moment, shall we. In essence, what the reader is requiring is this - that I, the person with nothing more than a prerelease copy of a film in my hand, should head out onto the World Wide Web, find someone else’s review or overview of the movie, and then copy/rely on/steal from them. For the audience, this may seem practical. For myself and other writers, it’s called plagiarism.

Now I’m not suggesting that the reader wants me to literally repeat the text I find while digging around the ‘Net, but he or she certainly wants me to use the work of others for my own benefit. Instead of offering up my own experiences and takes, I am to draw consensus from the rest of the community and then call it my own. Again, remember the suggestion - don’t rely on what you have in your own hand. Hit Google, get more information, and then report that. In actuality, it’s nothing novel to individuals in traditional media. News organizations frequently lift content from elsewhere, except in their case, they ascribe all attributes and footnote the fudge out of their sources. It’s standard operating procedure. But with the online writer more or less lost in a Wild West wilderness of rights and wrongs, what constitutes “research” and what constitutes theft.

It’s not surprising that within a realm of file sharing, bit torrents, and other forms of information misappropriation that this would be the suggestion. Bloggers frequently post content that they did not “originate” and yet call it their own, while some websites keep on critics who literally rob their reviews from other writers, merely changing the names Dragnet style to protect the less than innocent. In some ways, this is all connected to the ever-changing face of letters. On the one hand, there are reporters, people who simply regurgitate the most elemental of information and leave it at that. Then there are the critics, individuals who try to put such data into a kind of analytical perspective. They may not mention every fact, but they do try for a balance between both. And then there is the writer, someone who can be a bit of both, none of either, or a surreal smash-up of truth teller, sage, and spoiled sport.

I consider myself to be part of the last category. I am not in this to give you the A/V breakdown on the latest format releases. I do offer such insights, but I will not go out of my way to make sure that every single DVD I tackle gets the suggested Google once over. Have I ever used the online source as a means of solidifying a position on a disc? Yes. Have I ever borrowed or “believed” anything another writer has said to bolster my own opinions? Never! I consider myself a writer first and foremost. If I can’t get my point across creatively, maybe it doesn’t need to be made. That won’t make the people who pester me relentlessly about my lack of “completeness” happy, but frankly, that’s not the point. Differing approaches does not lessen the value of each and it also doesn’t make any one more “valid” than another. The next time you’re unhappy with the tech specs someone offers you in a DVD review, practice what you preach - do a Google search. That should solve your problem, right? Right.

by Rob Horning

13 Apr 2009

I found this NYT article about the alleged resurgence of thriftiness as an ethic strangely depressing. Isn’t this what I had been hoping for in writing all these screeds against consumerism, that there would be a return to some more sensible set of values once the waste and frivolity of status consumption was revealed to all? I don’t know, maybe; but it’s hard for me to overlook the inanity of this:

The gleefully frugal happily seek new ways to economize and take pride in outsaving the Joneses. The mantra is cut, cut, cut — magazine and cable subscriptions, credit cards, fancy coffee drinks and your own hair.

In San Francisco, Cooper Marcus, 36, has started choosing recipes based on the ingredients on sale at the market. Mr. Marcus canceled the family’s subscription to Netflix, his premium cable package and a wine club membership. He uses a program on his iPhone to find the cheapest gas and drives out of his way to save 50 cents per gallon.

“It seems a little crazy,” he laughs, then adds: “I’m frugal and loving it.”

by Rob Horning

13 Apr 2009

I went to n+1‘s “What Was the Hipster?” panel discussion at the New School on Saturday, but went away a bit unfulfilled. There was little evidence presented that hipsterism is over, that it was a concrete product of specific historic moment, and no coherent theories for what might supplant hipsters. The participants never really made much of an effort to establish a stable definition of what a hipster is, despite n+1 editor Mark Greif’s valiant effort in his opening remarks. He wondered if the white-trash-worshipping 1999 model of the hispter (the one that wore trucker hats, listened to redneck music, and oozed an aesthetic derived from a largely hypothetical and imaginatively reconstructed 1970s rec-room amateur porn) was the hipster qua hipster, the only one deserving of the title, the way those from the late 1950s and early 1960s who fit the Maynard G. Krebs caricature were the only actual beatniks, and the San Francisco arrivistes in the 1967 were the only true hippies.

by Lara Killian

13 Apr 2009


Recently I finished reading the young reader’s edition of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea (2009). The original, ‘adult’ version of the book still tops the NYT bestseller list. Since the book is ultimately about the education of children in poor villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it’s wonderful that this text has been adapted (by Sarah Thomson) for younger readers.

by Bill Gibron

13 Apr 2009

It’s become the most contentious scene in a film loaded with controversial content. It’s more argued over than the sequence where doped up mall cops beat several defiant teenage skate rats with their own boards, or when our hero shoots up, or when his mother passes out in a drunken stupor, or when an overweight deviant runs full frontal and completely buck naked through a suburban store outlet. Still, when all is said and done, the single most scandalous moment in Jody Hill’s mean-spirited masterwork Observe and Report has to be the date (and eventual rape?) between Anna Faris’ ditzy make-up counter clerk Brandi and Seth Rogen’s bi-polar mall security guard, Ronnie Barnhardt.

The set-up is as follows: after months of literally stalking the poor cosmetics gal, Ronnie finally gets Brandi to agree to a date. It’s a haphazard arrangement, one the little lady clearly forgets. After spending several hours on her front lawn, Ronnie finally sees a completely drunk and rather rumpled Brandi exit an SUV filled with men. As she waves them off, she’s shocked that he is waiting for her. Still, a date’s a date, and the two head off to a wild night of shots, shots, and more shots. In between, Ronnie tries his best to woo the scatterbrained little Miss, but she’s not even interested. When he pulls out a pill bottle filled with mood-altering prescriptions, Brandi immediately demands some. A few more slugs of tequila and a couple dozen tablets, and she’s semi-comatose.

Cut to the next sequence, and both are stumbling out into the night. Brandi vomits a little, and Ronnie picks her up and eventually takes her into her house. Another cut, and our hero is humping the holy Hell out of his seemingly unconscious date. Brandi is indeed unresponsive - that is, until Ronnie stops, clearly having second thoughts about screwing someone who’s so non-responsive. Immediately, Brandi screams out, demanding that her partner continue with what he was doing. Punchline complete, we move onto the next sequence. Brandi and Ronnie eventually talk to each other, but the subject of a supposed sexual assault never comes up.

Now there are two ways to look at this seminal scene. The first is rather perfunctory. Ronnie, seeing an opportunity, took advantage of the situation and literally raped Brandi. She was so out of it that she didn’t know what she was doing - curse-laden response or not. On the other hand, there is a sentiment circulating among moviegoers and film critics that this young woman represents something other than your typical comedy chanteuse. She’s clearly loose in both her virtues and morals, taking any opportunity to lure males into her web of wanton needs (as we see later on with a certain police detective). It’s part of her identity, something she flaunts over and over again in the film.

So on the one side is the argument, complete valid and wholly defendable, that Faris’s character is so inebriated, so overloaded with drugs and alcohol, that there is no way she could have ever given consent. Even the moment when she wakes up in mid-coitus and screams “who said stop mother*cker” is not meant to be a kind of tacit agreement. Nothing she did before, during, or after the incident excuses Ronnie’s behavior, and when the deed is done, it is a crime and reprehensible in its nature. Nothing in the film, not the tone or the style of humor should excuse such behavior. Even in a narrative which turns perversion into a literal “running” gag, the abuse of women is never, ever acceptable, funny, or fodder for cinematic satire.

On the other side of the fence is the feeling that, within the context of the movie as a whole, as part of Hill’s insular universe of full on fetid freaks and disturbing geeks, Ronnie’s actions are simply par for the course. He is seizing on an opportunity that he clearly feels he’s entitled to, and would not be banging away on Brandi unless she somehow indicated it was all right. Ronnie is not really a bad guy. Instead, he’s psychotic within a standard medical definition and while reduced to delusions, he rarely if ever acts on them. Until he goes on an all out drug binge with buddy Dennis he doesn’t indulge in his many make-believe daydreams. So why would the situation with Brandi be any different - especially when we see that there is some manner of remorse or reassessment on his part. 

So which is it? Rape, or the reality of dating circa 2009? As with anything Hill has to say, the meaning is not clear. Feminists have the right to be angry, especially when a mainstream Hollywood movie offers such a backward vision of male/female fornication. But is Observe and Report really saying anything new? In this Girls Gone Wild dynamic of brazen openness and complete lack of shame, should a drunken slut bear any of the blame? It’s not a question of that horrid old excuse “she had it coming.” It’s more of a mirror on where society has sunk since women were empowered to ‘take back the night.’ Clearly, had Hill meant the scene to be something akin to pure sexual assault, Brandi would have been treated like a piece of dead meat. Ronnie would have ridden her relentlessly and relished in the act without a single moment of regret. The next day, our chunky hero would have walked into the department store, smirk on his face, and winked at the woman as she cluelessly stared back.

Of course, arguing over Brandi’s semi-consciousness and automated permission may not mitigate the truth. But one has to deal with those illustrations as well. Is the fact that the character is seen carousing with several men prior to the date important? Is her desire to get liquored and doped up indicative of anything other than wanting to have a good time? Should we care that she let’s Ronnie take her home and into her house? And does the interruption and shouted sentiment really mean anything? Remember, the “it’s only a movie” defense does not apply with people poised to push their agenda. Heck, PETA is even asking the two decades old Pet Shop Boys to change their name to something less offensive to animals. Feminists clearly want this to be an example of Tinsel Town going way too far for something supposedly funny - and they may have a point.

Yet it’s not fair to make Brandi out to be completely innocent. Hers is a troubling public persona that should be condemned as well. Granted, one should never vilify the victim for the sake of the criminal, but what about everything else that makes up this girl’s personality? Her less than virginal approach to life? Her uncontrolled binge drinking? Her slutty skanky whore-ness? Again, just because you’ve slept with hundreds of men doesn’t mean you have the right to be raped. But does it also excuse a complete and utter lack of basic morality and human civility? Audiences are happy when Ronnie ends up with shy coffee girl Nell, someone who he’s built up a narrative-long relationship of openness and trust. When Brandi tries to get back in his good graces, Ronnie gives her a public kiss-off that centers on her sleeping around. 

It’s all so complicated, and yet so crystal clear. Neither character is a saint, since that’s the way Hill creates his comedy. Both are equally flawed and have issues that should concern anyone on the outside looking in. Of course, via penetration, Ronnie becomes the aggressor and therefore the wrongdoer, while poor innocent Brandi can imbibe and indulge all she wants, and because she doesn’t shout “fuck me” before the smash cut, we assume she is being raped. Looking at the scene objectively, it’s clear we have a problem. But through the subjective eyes of both the world within Observe and Report and the society we exist in today, it’s hard to cement such hard and fast facts. Maybe this was Jody Hill’s intention after all. At least people are talking about his film, and in these days of mass marketing hoopla, any discussion is good for business. Or is it?

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