Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jun 3, 2008

I’ve pushed aside all scheduled content today to post what I think is the funniest book-related story I’ve read in ages. It involves distinguished author Ian McEwan coming up slightly rosy-cheeked upon finding out his new, unfinished novel actually lifts a scene from the works of Douglas Adams.


Does anyone else think that is just the most perfect thing?


The story goes that at a reading at Hay Literary Festival in Wales, a member of the audience remarked that a scene McEwan recounted was very familiar. The scene involved a man on a train eating a bag of chips. The man is shocked to see another passenger eating from the same bag, and making no effort to disguise the fact. A confrontation occurs, and when the man leaves the train, he finds his unopened chip packet in his pocket.


After some investigation, McEwan discovered the scene appears in Douglas Adams’s 1984 book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. The story is apparently a famous urban legend, only instead of chips, most tellers (like Adams) give the traveller a packet of biscuits.


The Australian points readers here to a short film, called Cookies, based on Adams’s scene.


McEwan’s new book is not due for publication for another two years and is reported to feature climate change as its central theme.


 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jun 3, 2008

I’m reflexively skeptical of elaborate menu copy—the lush descriptions of the novel combinations of ingredients (often hyperspecified—not just cucumber but compressed English cucumber) and unfamiliar modes of preparation for which loan words from French are required. Part of this is because this sort of language betokens expensiveness. I start to suspect I am paying for the sumptuous prose, which has set itself as mediating screen for the food, rather than for the food itself. Eating is inherently a democratic activity—everyone has equal claim to being right about what they like—but these menus are trying desperately to obscure that fact, make dining into a region of insecurity, identity formation, and class distinction.


But a larger part of my problem is that these menus make me feel stupid. I don’t have the vocabulary necessary to understand them, and autodidact that I am, I hate to ask for explanations. Confronted with the incomprehensible descriptions that I can’t really ignore, I often feel like a provincial rube, and I feel like this is by design—I’m the sort of person the restaurant wants to feel excluded so that the target audience can enjoy their distinction a little bit more. I don’t aspire to be sort of person who seeks that form of distinction, so I end up feeling completely alienated, annoyed at the existence of people who are impressed with ostentatious gastronomy; and my mouth refuses to taste what’s there in the food as a way of expressing my very pointless protest.


I know that is mostly irrational paranoia, and that this is the sort of situation in which I should be applying Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s dictum to reserve skepticism for the big questions—not for the ulterior motives of small-time restaurateurs. They have the benign motive of wanting to make dining into an aesthetic experience and sharing the chef’s artistry, but I don’t want to eat aesthetically, so I get flustered by attempts to encourage me to do so. I don’t want the chef to be an artist; I don’t want to be able to discuss dining as I might talk about a movie or a well-written poem. Not only do I lack the discernment to recognize the chef’s effort, but I almost feel negated by the chef’s assertion of ego into my attempt to meet my fundamental need for nourishment.


Aestheticization of eating turns something primal into something that other people can judge you for—if they can deem your ability to eat, to sustain your life, flawed, it is almost like they can reject your right to have any private sensations whatsoever. Shouldn’t some aspects of life be beyond stylization? Shouldn’t there be reserves of experience that remain direct, beyond the reach of self-consciousness, because they are so basic to our needs as humans? Do I have this backward? Are our fundamental needs the first to become complexly intertwined with society’s need to fabricate and perpetuate hierarchies? (Maybe I need to read some Levi-Strauss or something on this point.)


One’s tastes in food are extremely personal; they are perhaps the primary way to assert one’s individuality. When one surrenders fussiness and learns to trust in the sophisticated concoctions of other self-appointed culinary artists, as expressed in menu copy, one cedes a huge territory on which one can establish identity. When you buy into the complicated menu, no substitutions, no longer can you say to yourself, “I choose what I will eat, for me and me only; my force of will alone will decide what’s appropriate to stick in my body approvingly.” You are trusting instead that someone else knows better than you about those extremely intimate and ultimately inexpressible and unsharable sensory experiences you will have in your mouth and your stomach.


I have a hard time making the leap, which in many ways feels like the leap to maturity. Instead I have this narcissistic view of food (it’s all must be made personally for me, how I want it, because only MY ideas are valid about what I will eat), which requires those who make it to be anonymous, and that their methods be straightforward, transparent, and easily replicable. I want the food’s deliciousness to be a reflection of my own ingenuity for choosing to eat it, not the special genius of the cooks who prepared it.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jun 3, 2008

Don’t let anyone tell you differently - cinema is cyclical. Ever since the initial barrage of old school Hollywood studio glitter, films (and their maverick makers) have been finding a way to rebel, and then revolt against said aesthetic uprising over and over again. Fantasy like fiction gave way to neo-realism, while the old techniques of static shots and journeymen direction mandated a whole ‘New Wave’ of experimentation. All throughout the ‘70s, French filmmaking was going through its own post-modern movement. Movies focused on the problems of real people, presented in a manner that accurately - and often uncomfortably - mimicked life.


In 1981, first time filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix decided to radicalize his approach to the medium. Drawing on deliberate artificiality - and a novel by Daniel Odier (under the pseudonym Delacorta - Diva was the result. It gained instant worldwide acclaim, and even managed to become a certified cult hit in America. It announced a new approach in French cinema, labeled Cinema du look, and introduced the talents of Beineix, Luc Besson, and Leos Carax. While some saw a thread of political relevance inside the style - the subject matter usually centered on the disillusioned youth of the era - many felt this new form was more flash than finesse.


Oddly enough, it was a similar argument used against the burgeoning US independents of the mid ‘90s. Wunderkind directors like Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, and Darren Aronofsky were considered brilliant visionaries whose efforts carried a gloss of uneasy emotional detachment - again, all technique and no import. Yet their influence guided cinema for the next decade, swaying many who felt that film needed a swift kick in the creativity to remain vital. After getting his start in the art video circuit, Canadian filmmaker Francois Girard applied his passion for classical music toward an intriguing biography of a legendary pianist. His 1993 opus 32 Short Films About Glen Gould brought instant notoriety, its unusual conceit reflecting this newfound desire to reinvent the form of cinema. Five year later, critics would complain about his vignette heavy time trip, The Red Violin.


Thanks to Lionsgate, who is introducing a new line of important DVDs under the “Meridian Collection” tag, we get a chance to revisit both films to see if their particular era-oriented vision still holds up over the decades. In the case of Beineix, Diva still derives a great deal of its pizzazz out of elements that now seem sort of dated. When one thinks about camera trickery and directorial flare, a film like this instantly comes to mind. On the other hand, The Red Violin is like a lush lesson in ephemeral emptiness. There are times when the movie seems so lightweight and puffy that you wait for it to simply vanish into the ether and disappear from the screen. This does not mean they are bad films - far from it. But in a format friendly dynamic that gives even the most unsung work a chance to shine, both Diva and The Red Violin have been bypassed by other, more daring deconstructions.


As a starting point for all this filmic flare, Diva has one of the more straightforward stories. A young mail courier named Jules (Frédéric Andréi) enjoys his pseudo-slacker life on the fringes. He particularly loves opera, and the vocal work of American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). So taken is he with the ‘diva’, that he makes an illegal recording of a recent recital. Somehow, his tape gets mixed up with that of a recent police sting, and the mobsters at the center want all evidence eliminated - including Jules. Thus begins an extended chase with both police and criminals after our hapless hero.


The Red Violin, on the other hand, takes the Glenn Gould approach to narrative, using the title instrument as a thread linking several divergent storylines. When a rare example of a ‘Bussotti’ is auctioned off, flashbacks fill in the gaps in the item’s history. We see the creator perfecting his creation, watch as it finds its way into the hands of a child prodigy, and witness its part in China’s Cultural Revolution. In between, there are stop offs with noblemen, nonentities, and a particularly intense historian (Samuel L. Jackson). Not surprisingly, the delicate object has one final secret to reveal.


One of the great things about the digital format remains the ability for filmmakers to defend their work. Sometimes, the most difficult offerings have the easiest of explanations. That is clearly the case with both Diva and The Red Violin. On the Lionsgate DVDs, both Jean-Jacques Beineix (in a scene specific overview) and Francois Girard (a full length discussion with co-writer Don McKellar) are present to contextualize their craft. Of the two, the latter is far more informative. Beineix is all shot selection and memories, not so much a defense of his highly ostentatious outing as it is a primer of possibilities. Girard is more forgiving. He underscores his motives, making sure listeners understand the allusions and mythos he was employing.


Even better, we get added material that makes both films feel less calculated and more manageable. Beineix’s baby draws on a wonderful documentary revisit entitled “Searching for Diva”. In it, cast and crew expand our knowledge of the movie while making clear how much of the style was purposefully premeditated. Violin relies on more indirect guidance. One short piece outlines the auction of a rare “Red Mendelssohn” Stradivari (clearly an inspiration for the film), while another allows the Oscar winning composer of the sensational score - John Corigliano - to discuss the movie’s main theme. Certainly, obsessives will wonder why there isn’t more material here. Yet Lionsgate gives each disc just enough heft to warrant a reissue. Besides, the newly remastered transfers look terrific.


This doesn’t address each movie from a critical standpoint, however, and this is where both Diva and The Red Violin suffer, if ever so slightly. For the earlier effort, the passage of almost three decades has been almost deadly. What was fresh and reinvigorating then is now harshly kitschy and borderline camp. This doesn’t take away from Beineix’s way with an action scene - the motorcycle chase through the Paris streets is still exciting, it’s jump cut skill reinvigorating the then dying action element. Yet some of the moments where characters mope about in pre-Goth gloom, or worse, run around like refugees from a camp revival of A Clockwork Orange, come across as cheesy as an Adam Ant video. Diva still delivers a great deal of pleasure within its now noticeable knottiness, and the performances are excellent and quite accomplished. Yet this is the kind of experience that makes one wonder how current cinematic turning points (CGI, the ‘found footage’ first person POV genre jolts) will play 30 years from now. 


If The Red Violin is any indication, style doesn’t always need substance to succeed. In fact, sumptuousness can trump depth with a carefully constructed composition. The broad scope of Girard’s canvas - he moves through the centuries as effortlessly as a virtuoso’s fingers along the frets - definitely allows for a more hit or miss approach, but here the director delivers more times than he fails. The material centering on the child prodigy is highly engaging, as are the moments in Communist China. Jackson’s story may seem the weakest, but watching the actor outside his element (we keep waiting for him to break out into a string of venomous epithets) and underplaying his part is highly entertaining. There are those who’ve complained that Violin violates the whole ‘image over import’ ideal. Sadly, they seem to be missing many of the movie’s more noticeable attributes.


Indeed, it’s easy to dismiss either film for what it offers visually vs. how it plays as a thriller or a detailed drama. Diva can never shake its Cinema du look logistics, but ignoring the calculated bells and whistles, it is still a satisfying experience. So what if The Red Violin appears deeper, and less deliberate. There is still enough visual privilege to make those inclined to criticize apoplectic. Just remember that this is all part of film’s recurring reboot and all your concerns will be calmed. Diva and The Red Violin definitely deserve continued recognition, and Lionsgate Meridian Collection is a perfect way of preserving them for future debate/consideration. And there will be a great deal of both.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 2, 2008
In a new feature here on SE&L, every Tuesday we will be bringing you breaking news from the world of film. From the newest trailers to the biggest deals, we'll breakdown the weekend box office and guide you toward some interesting titles new to DVD.

Coens Get the Red Band Treatment
The trailer for Burn After Reading, the latest film from the Academy Award winning duo of Joel and Ethan Coen, got the restrictive “Red Band” treatment this week. This means that the preview is not appropriate for all audiences, as the standard MPAA “Green Band” adverts allow. You can find it on Apple’s main page, or by following this link




Hamlet 2 Also Gets the Crimson Call
The comedy smash of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival (set for release this August), centering on a failed actor-turned-worse-high-school-drama teacher (Steve Coogan) as he rallies his Tucson, AZ students and stages a politically incorrect musical sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, also gets the R-rated distinction. Click on over to the official site to see it.




Gore Goes Opera - from the AP
With Summer here and global warming on everyone’s mind (especially in those areas prone to hurricanes) we learn that Al Gore’s Oscar (and Nobel) winning, An Inconvenient Truth is going to be made into a opera. You can read about the aria-based revamp here
 


Brooks Closes (and the Reopens His) Production Company - from New York Post
Similar to those old jokes about the rumors of someone’s death being greatly exaggerated comes word that the story last week about Mel Brooks closing his long running BrooksFilms Production Company appears to be false. The New York Post‘s Page Six ran this story indicating that the cinematic shingle responsible for David Lynch’s Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly, among others, was shutting down. Now Brooks is setting the record straight via The Hollywood Reporter.




Dawn Goes Back to Where It All Happened - Literally
As part of their ever popular Rolling Roadshow, Austin, Texas’ Alamo Drafthouse will be offering a screening of George A. Romero’s 1978 horror masterpiece - Dawn of the Dead - in the Monroeville Mall. That’s right, after the facility closes on 21 June, 500 lucky fans can now actually see the classic creepshow in the actual suburban Pittsburgh location where it was filmed. All proceeds will be donated to the Make-a-Wish Foundation! Toe Tag Pictures will be doing zombie make-up on guests all day leading up to the screening to help make this evening all the more memorable, as over ten Dawn alumni will be on-hand during the screening to ensure the night’s authenticity. More information can be found at this link


Porno Gets a Teaser
Kevin Smith’s latest, the quick sale comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno, got its own kind of teaser this week at the director’s Quick Stop Entertainment site - check the “not appropriate for work” sneak here.
 





House of Mouse Branches Into Comics
From the official press release:
The Walt Disney Studios has signed a multi-year deal with Ahmet Zappa, Harris Katleman and Christian Beranek to oversee the newly christened Kingdom Comics, an innovative new venture of developing graphic novels to create new film projects for the Studio as well as re-imagining and rejuvenating motion pictures from the Disney live-action Vault, it was announced today by Oren Aviv, president, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Production.


Kingdom Comics will soon announce some of the top graphic novelists and artists in the genre who will collaborate on upcoming projects.  Disney Publishing Worldwide, the largest distributor of comic books in the world, will have the first opportunity to distribute publications created by Kingdom Comics.


Obituaries:

Sydney Pollack (1934 - 2008): Read the SE&L Obit Here


Harvey Korman (1927 - 2008): Read the SE&L Obit Here
 

DVD releases of Note for 3 June

Heroes of the East: Read the SE&L Review Here
Come Drink with Me: Read the SE&L Review Here
Control: Read the SE&L Review Here
The Red Violin: Read the SE&L Review Here
Diva: Read the SE&L Review Here
Semi-Pro: Read the SE&L Theatrical Review Here
The Eye
Meet the Spartans


Box Office Figures for Weekend of 30 May

#1 - Sex and the City: $56.1 million
#2 - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: $45.8 million
#3 - The Strangers: $20.6 million
#4 - Iron Man: $13.9 million
#5 - The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian: $13.1 million
#6 - What Happens in Vegas: $6.9 million
#7 - Baby Mama: $2.2 million
#8 - Speed Racer: $2.1 million
#9 - Made of Honor: $2.0 million
#10 - Forgetting Sarah Marshall: $1.0 million


Films Opening This Week:

General Release:
Kung Fu Panda - Jack Black stars as a bumbling bear that dreams of being a martial arts master. Rated PG
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan - Adam Sandler is an Israeli Anti-Terrorist Agent who fakes his death to move to the US and become… a hairdresser. Rated R


Limited
Mongol - Oscar nominated story of Genghis Khan, as told through the eyes of his wife. Rated R
The Promotion - two managers vie for a coveted position at their job. Rated R
When Did You Last See Your Father? - with his parent dying, a distant son tries to resolve his conflicting emotions. Rated PG-13


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 2, 2008
L.B. Jeffries notes some of the classic mistakes and problems that face criticism today in the next to last post in the ZA series.


The outcry for a critical language in video games is something that is now necessary for video games to continue progressing as a medium. As Clint over at Click Nothing points out, a critical language doesn’t just give us more to talk about. It gives developers feedback, real insights into their game, so they can go back and improve their work. There simply isn’t a way for people to properly explain criticism in the current culture of “I’m not having fun” reviews. Nor is there a way to reward innovation or successful elements of games beyond gushing “I’m having fun” praise. It’s one thing to say you like a game, but figuring out a way to go beyond that gives developers a better understanding of their audiences reaction. As that audience gets older and starts demanding more complex experiences from their games, it’s essential that developers get a more advanced form of feedback to create those experiences. To figure out how to tackle these issues, we’ll begin with what current video game criticism is having trouble with.


 


The biggest issue with game criticism at the moment gets pointed out by Greg Costikyan in his blog: critical pieces are still just reviews. Telling someone they should pay to see a movie is not the same thing as explaining why a movie is important culturally, or even what it adds to cinema. Yet the problem is mostly conceptual; video game critics need to recognize that they are not talking to consumers. Literary critics circumvent this dilemma because they usually have the privilege of assuming you’ve already read the book they’re discussing. There also isn’t much to discuss in terms of whether the reader actually liked the text or not. If you’re reading a thirty page essay on masculinity and feminine authority in Macbeth, it’s a pretty safe bet you already like the play. The same goes for a reader going over repressed homoeroticism in R-Type. You probably liked the game, or at least video games themselves, if you’re reading that blog. The problem with game criticism, then, is that many of us are still subconsciously selling the game to people. It’s what we read all day and it’s what our mind instinctively does to fit in with other video game essays. We all devote a paragraph or two to how great this part of a game is or how superbly this part works. And as fun as those sections are to write…they tend to be about as informative as “teh game suxorz”. Why given parts of games work is still the question of the day.


 


One of the most prolific critics in video games right now is Yahtzee, and he is rapidly becoming video games’ Lester Bangs. The ranting style of Bangs gets mixed with a Charlie Brooker wit that makes for really fun viewing and a lot of insights into the games he covers. The problem is that the people imitating Yahtzee seem to be pulling an Alan Moore. When Moore published The Watchmen, the idea was to make a comic that told a much more powerful story by tempering the superhero fantasy with reality. A superhero is actually a sociopath if you think about it, their childhoods were really disturbing, etc. The problem that arose was after The Watchmen experienced such success and popularity, comic books mimicked it by featuring lots of their own gritty, dark realities. Which wasn’t the point. The point was to use a comic book to tell a really new and interesting idea about social dynamics, not to have every comic feature pedophiles and torture as motivation. The same thing is slowly happening with Yahtzee: People are imitating the jokes but not understanding that the joke still needs to make a point. Yahtzee uses humor to pad out interesting and insightful critiques that would otherwise be fairly dull. Just like mindless praise or negativity, most of the time a joke is still a means in an essay, not an end.


 


Beyond reviewer mindsets and jokes, however, is forgetting that the purpose of criticism is to ensure that there is a home for new games. We’re trying to advance the medium by stripping it of boundaries, not by imposing them. Saying that a good game doesn’t have to be replayable or even fun is pretty weird, but all those beliefs really do is inhibit growth when applied broadly. If a game still works but violates those tenets, why should it be an issue? A prime example would be The 7 Commandments All Video Games Should Obey by David Wong. It’s all very good advice: get rid of repetition, forget save points, and that graphics don’t make games better, etc. But beyond the constant nagging question of why these things are bad, is the equally poignant why are they not? Orson Scott Card, in his book Ender’s Game, wrote about a video game that tested the player’s capacity to accept defeat. Ender was subjugated to the same impossible level over and over again, with the game testing to see when Ender would give up. It was an exercise in learning to not be suicidal to win. It’s a very interesting challenge in a game, but one that won’t have a home if critics continue to close the doors on what a game can do. Case in point, Wong lists off one of the criminal offenses of an FPS is to have jumping puzzles. It’s something I’m inclined to agree with, except then you have some like this come along. Are we going to denounce it before we even play it because of some critical rule set?


 


It can be difficult to get people to think beyond what they like or don’t like. It can be even harder to get them to accept something they don’t like as a viable approach. And there is certainly still plenty of room for those kinds of discussions, but they aren’t the goal of a serious critical analysis of a video game. It’s got to get into the actual experience of the game itself. Because here’s the thing: the people who used to be kids playing video games are adults now. The people who never played games at all are starting to pick them up as well. And if this momentum is going to last, we’re going to have to change the way we think. We’re going to have to change the way we talk. We’re going to have to take all these values that established video games and break them down. Kenneth Tynan, a theatre critic, once said, “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.” We have to make sure that we don’t give bad directions to the women and men pushing video games forward.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.