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by Bill Gibron

5 Jul 2009

Consider the short film. Actually, consider the concept of the short film first. When people hear the label, they automatically think of a couple of completely different and competing conceits. The main one is the surreal student project where creative dreams and aesthetic leaps are captured on celluloid for all the insular intelligentsia to see - and for the most part, they’re right. Gone are the days when mini-movies actually attempted things like narrative, character, or theme (the other ideal, by the way). Instead, they tend to represent the very fringes of filmic art - visual collages that challenge and chuckle at the very mandates of the medium. That is not to say that such approaches are wrong. Indeed, some of our greatest auteurs (David Lynch, Martin Scorsese) got their start fashioning big, brassy ideas into tiny formats.

But if the recent compilation from Cinemad is any indication, very little has changed in the land of the self-indulgent (and deluded) cinematic short. In 1998, the Xeroxed ‘zine by Mike Plante was dedicated to discovering new and unusual talents in the world of outsider filmmaking. Published intermittently and now found almost exclusively online, this waystation for the experimental and the avant-garde has championed some of the most earnest and unusual talents in the entire field of underground art. Now, with the help of DVD distributor Microcinema, Cinemad celebrates its recent 10th anniversary with an “almanac” - an anthology of titles chosen to represent the best, the brightest, and the most mindboggling of the many filmmakers featured - and it truly is an odd bunch.

Along with an accompanying 60 page booklet covering the individuals represented, Cinemad starts out with the amiable Edge-TV with Animal Charm by Animal Charm. It then moves on to Above Below by Cam Archer, Letters, Notes by Stephanie Barber, Valse Triste by Bruce Conner, Pictures from Dorothy by Kevin Jerome Everson, and The Sun by James Fotopoulos. One of the longest pieces in the collection, the startling Lot 63, Grave C by Sam Green is next, with three efforts by Jake Mahaffy - War (trailer), Wellness (trailer) and Motion Studies #3: Gravity - putting in an appearance. We are then treated to Light is Calling by Bill Morrison, Viscera by Leighton Pierce, and The Time We Killed by Jennifer Reeves before a final triptych from Deborah Stratman - How Among the Frozen Words, It Will Die Out in the Mind and The Magician’s House.

As stated before, the term “film” should be used loosely - or perhaps only literally - when dealing with these often frustrating fragments. Granted, they are all the product of some very powerful and strong-willed individuals, creators with clear visions of what they think they are doing and how it comes across visually. Sadly, only a few offerings here make a real lasting impression. Letters, Notes offers nothing more than a series of sentences animated over the top of some iconic images. But Stephanie Barber’s approach provides the kind of depth and determination that other entries here lack. Similarly, Jake Mahaffy gets three chances to shine, but only War manages to maintain our interest. In fact, Motion Studies #3 is an example of gallows’ humor so obvious it seems almost juvenile. The same could be said for the shock value silliness of Edge-TV.

In fact, almost every wannabe cineaste here could take a lesson from Sam Green. His memorable and moving Lot 63, Grave C takes a well known subject (the death of Meredith Hunter at the Rolling Stone’s Altamonte Free Concert in 1969) and mixes in some investigative journalism and filmed flashback perspective (from the seminal documentary Gimme Shelter) to try and locate where the man is now buried. Though it skips over much of the behind the scenes seriousness of what happened that fateful December night - Hunter did brandish a gun before being stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels - there is a poignancy to following the fate of one of history’s many cultural footnotes. This makes Lot hard to shake. Indeed, by the end of the 10 minute exposé, we are convinced that the Maysles should contact Green about companion piece status to their own amazing movie.

It’s just too bad then that few of the remaining films leave a similar impact. Many, like The Time We Killed are thwarted by a simple creative choice (a nearly whispered voice-over narration) or a failed concept (Bill Morrison’s failed Decasia redux Light is Calling). Others, like Viscera, struggle to get their message across due to an oblique, almost insular perspective. The overlapping of images and editing styles may seem like a solid way of illustrating your optical ideas, but not every cut and paste production yields some manner of universal truth. More times than not, art is like beauty - totally in the eye of the beholder and wholly reliant on some decent lighting.  No one is questioning the talent of the individuals celebrated by Cinemad. Perhaps this is a case where the ability can’t find its way into reality, or visa versa.

Frankly, the enclosed booklet is far more fascinating. Given an opportunity to speak, these filmmakers find ways of coalescing their thoughts in intelligent and insightful ways. They don’t doddle over shot selections or budgetary constraints. They frequently uncover ways of working out the issues seemingly lost in their films. Of course, there are the occasional glimpses of outright arrogance, examples of ambition far outweighing a sense of skill set proportion. Yet even in the most annoying cases, some clear information comes across. For everyone involved in Cinemad - both behind the scenes and in the actual pages of the publication - movies are a labor of love. They represent dreams deferred and sometimes realized, an entire lifetime filtered into a single roll of film stock.

As a result, Microcinema should be praised for picking such an obscure and profoundly idiosyncratic subject to commemorate. There are literally dozens of short film compilations floating around the DVD format and this one contains some of the most difficult and dense material of the lot - and maybe that’s the point. After all, all art is not freely recognized in its era. Sometimes, it takes preservation, and a latter reconsideration, before someone’s work manifests into an iconic tableau of talent. Anyone looking for material far outside the mainstream knows that Cinemad is a tag to trust. Others will need to come at this compendium with the requisite amount of skepticism. Being alternative and underground doesn’t automatically make you cool. For all its ambitions, this Almanac is rather inconsistent - just like most so-called examples of art.

by Rob Horning

4 Jul 2009

I’m all in favor of championing meaningful work over bureaucratic paper-pushing or assembly-line tedium, but nonetheless, I was a little skeptical of Matthew Crawford’s thesis in this New York Times magazine essay, adapted from his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft. (A more philosophical version of the essay’s ideas is here.) He certainly has a point in detailing how mechanics are presumed to be less intelligent than office workers and information workers, but he tends to err on the other side of the equation, painting those who don’t work with their hands as deracinated half men. In championing “real” work as tinkering with tools and fixing engines and rewiring houses and that sort of thing, Crawford seems to have in the back of his mind the supposed threat of boys being neutered and pussified by modern education techniques—namely they are being medicated so that they won’t be aggressive and so that their rambunctious curiosity is stifled:

There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.”

That sounds very reminiscent of this sort of thing: “Consider, for example, the fact that we still expect our six- to-eleven-year-old sons to sit for hours at a stretch, reading and writing, at a time in their lives when adventure calls.” Of course, girls can be expected to sit around a school; after all they need to get used to sitting around at home waiting for their men. But boys are special. Crawford tries to be a bit more gender neutral than that, but you can’t help but feel that he’s motivated by a sense that masculinity is bound up with a certain sort of tactile manipulation of the world. Those without handymen skills are hardly men at all; they are at the mercy of the social order and economic division of labor instead of being rugged individualists.

Crawford is a motorcycle mechanic, so you can throw in the gratuitous machismo of revving engines and indulging dangerous pursuits in search of kicks. His economic exchanges then, instead of being suspect and shamefully interlocking him into the system, are saturated with manliness, trading in a testosterone currency:

Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day. Peering into the portal of his helmet, I think I can make out the edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn’t ridden his bike in a while. I give him a wave. With one of his hands on the throttle and the other on the clutch, I know he can’t wave back. But I can hear his salute in the exuberant “bwaaAAAAP!” of a crisp throttle, gratuitously revved. That sound pleases me, as I know it does him. It’s a ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it is “Yeah!”

Fuck yeah! Woo-hoo. One bro helping another bro out, just how the world should be. None of that impersonal faceless corporate world or the cash nexus for him.

As is the case with many independent mechanics, my business is based entirely on word of mouth. I sometimes barter services with machinists and metal fabricators. This has a very different feel than transactions with money; it situates me in a community.

That repairmen and such are undercompensated compared with bankers goes without saying, but in many respects this is because of what Crawford points out—those jobs can’t be outsourced, so they are paid in security; and those jobs are absorbing and immediately rewarding (you get to see what your work has wrought), so they are paid in satisfaction and integrity. They are motivated to work for reasons other than money, and thus by the inexorable logic of capitalism, they are underpaid.

Crawford rhapsodizes how the real men who do real work draw not on institutional information but informal networks of semi-arcane lore, sometimes resorted to brute trial and error or a mystified sort of intuition that comes from long practice.

The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.

Yes, it is thinking, but must he call it real thinking? Real thinking takes place outside of machine shops too. But he tends to be suspicious of any job where knowledge production or dissemination is the purpose, and regards jobs that require coordination as inherently stultifying. Crawford declares, “There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well”—hoping to put a rhetorical stake in the heart of middle managers everywhere. If only everyone would stop being so insistent on the rules and started generating ad hoc procedures as they went along, then everyone would feel so much more creative and fulfilled. We all would be allowed to reinvent the wheel.

But Crawford’s point about the middle manager’s moral maze is right on:

A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.

That’s a good explanation of weasly corporate-speak, which is not the product of ignorance but instead of the need for plausible deniability. But that also means that they are thinking on their feet, albeit verbally. Crawford assumes there can be no satisfaction in this, that it is automatically born of desperation and squirming. That is the same mistake as assuming that the dirty work of mechanics is stupid.

by Bill Gibron

4 Jul 2009

What, exactly, happened to Renny Harlin? How did he go from hotshot newbie with an entire career before him to a cinematic afterthought left to helm horrid hackjobs like The Covenant and Cleaner? After three films in Finland, the foreign visionary landed on our shores and immediately made his mark with the excellent convict creepshow Prison. In quick succession, he then delivered one of the best Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and the definitive Die Hard installment. But then came the craptacular Ford Fairlane, the attempted comeback of Cliffhanger, and one of the biggest of all box office bombs, the pale pirate movie Cutthroat Island. Such a cruel career rollercoaster is not unusual in Tinsel Town, but with solid follow-up features like The Long Kiss Goodnight and the silly shark romp Deep Blue Sea, one assumes a little artistic amnesty is long overdue.

Yet now here we sit, in 2009, with Harlin helming the latest Vince McMahon tax dodge, 12 Rounds. With star wrestler John Cena in the lead, a capable cast surrounding him, and a script by first timer Daniel Kunka, it would seem like the former A-lister is still doing time for some manner of motion picture crime. And that’s too bad - because this is actually a perfectly acceptable, quite accomplished action film. Sure, Harlin’s $1.50 budget shows through now and again, and the entire clockwork plot tends to implode around the 90 minute mark, but what remains is a perfect example of a rehabilitative resume builder. Still, the star vehicle stink for a less than noted athlete and the additional b-movie vibe will leave many thinking that, in terms of slumming, it’s the rest of the company that’s catering to Harlin’s dwindling reputation.

During an FBI sting of an Irish arms dealer named Miles Jackson, police officer Danny Fisher steps in and saves the day. Sadly, he also causes the accidental death of the criminal’s beloved gal pal. One year later, Jackson escapes from prison and kidnaps Fisher’s girlfriend. He intends to play a game, engaging the recently promoted detective to 12 rounds of cat and mouse comeuppance. Our hero must do everything the villain says or lose the chance of ever seeing his woman alive again. Luckily, Fisher has best friend Hank Carver and two nosy government agents, Aiken and Santiago along for the ride. All he has to do is complete Jackson’s tasks and he will avoid the vengeance the talented terrorist seeks. Of course, payback may not be the only thing Jackson is interested in. A big payday might be another.

With its wonderful post-Katrina NOLA setting and the standard stunt spectacle as only Harlin can deliver, 12 Rounds is actually quite good. It’s no masterpiece, but then again, few post-millennial adrenaline rushes have been. Instead, when viewed inside its maker’s inconsistent canon, it falls somewhere between Stallone’s rock climbing cheesiness and Bruce Willis’ airport bad-assery. Sure, there is a superficial quality to what it going on, a “don’t go over budget” border that Harlin never crosses, and the quality of talent both in front of and behind the lens leads to sequences that don’t really pay off like they should (the trolley chase, the helicopter finale). Yet with what he had to work with, and how he managed to maneuver and manipulate same, Harlin is clearly doing some definite work. It may not be enough to bolster him back into the big time, but it’s clearly a motion picture means of rebuilding his sodden celluloid character.

As for Cena, he doesn’t have to be good. He just has to show up, and he does so admirably. He lacks a certain magnetism that makes his obviously pumped up responses feel a little less than intimidating, and his devil may care attitude toward danger (one he clearly picked up in the ring) undermines the basic needs of an edge of your seat thriller. Still, he’s a lot better than many athletes turned ‘actors’ and along with The Marine, he shows real promise as a part-time steely man of action. As for his support, The Wire‘s Aiden Gillen is good, if not very menacing, as Jackson. He’s more of a ‘toy with his target’ kind of criminal than an outright horror. And Tyler Perry regulars Steve Harris and Brian J. White are amiable as African American lawmen with different agendas regarding the situation.

Granted, at 108 minutes (closer to 110 in the “extreme” Blu-ray cut), it’s overlong and under-stuffed. There’s not enough set-up with Cena and his babe before things go kinetic, and when we do see some attempt at flashback feeling, the movie steps in and dispenses with it pronto. There are times when we wish Harlin would pull out all the stops, when he would offer up the inventive, in your face sequences that characterized Die Hard 2 and The Long Kiss Goodnight. There’s also the lack of a truly memorable presence, someone like Samuel L. Jackson who can carry a set of sequences through on the strength of his star power personality only. Still, you can’t deny that this is an above-average effort from a man who, until now, has been chided as existing somewhere far below the favored Tinsel Town talent.

Perhaps this new Blu-ray release from Fox will help. The amazing image and sensational sound surely can’t hurt. This is one of the best looking and best sounding home video releases - especially when you consider the source. The movie is mastered in a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer the captures the theatrical feel of this film flawlessly. There is an incredible amount of detail and a real scope to some of the sequences. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also stellar, delivering the kind of sonic panache a picture like this requires. This is especially true of the numerous chase scenes. The speakers spark into overdrive as the vehicular mayhem travels around from channel to channel.

As for added content, Fox really delivers. Aside from the now mandatory digital copy of the film (on a separate disc), there are two excellent audio commentaries (one from Harlin, one from Kunka and Cena), a pair of alternate endings (minor, not mandatory), a trio of featurettes, including a Making-of and a look at the various stunt work involved, and a Cena gag reel. Toss in the two versions of the film (original and slightly longer edit), a pair of viral videos, and a look at the musical score (with composer Trevor Rabin), and you’ve got a solid, must own title - at least from a technical point of view.

And believe it or not, the movie’s not bad either. While it won’t win any awards (Oscar or Razzie) it certainly is a step up from the so-called thrillers making the direct-to-digital rounds nowadays. Maybe Harlin will finally get the reevaluation and respect he so richly deserves - all Jolly Roger ridiculousness aside. What’s clear is that, in a business which often rewards outright mediocrity as long as it doesn’t diddle with the bottom line, a movie like 12 Rounds will be a likely non-issue. It was not a big hit when it played in theaters and even those who usually champion anything the WWE does put this squarely in See No Evil territory. Actually, both commercial and critical evaluations are rather harsh. Just like its maker, 12 Rounds deserves reconsideration. Ignore the flaws and you’ll find a rather entertaining film - and filmmaker. 

by John Bohannon

4 Jul 2009

John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice has paid a decade of dues writing infectious, subtle pop grooves for the masses. His latest record, Romanian Names, is one of the most solid efforts from start to finish in his career, full of vigor and life. Unfortunately, the tracks haven’t been developed to their full potential in a live setting, falling somewhat flat compared to his elder material. In all fairness, it could’ve been an off night at Nashville’s Exit/In, but the band didn’t seem into it and it seemed a great deed to get Vanderslice himself into the performance. It also doesn’t help that half the audience left after the opener, one of the songwriting world’s most secret weapons, the Tallest Man on Earth.

by Rob Horning

3 Jul 2009

I found the weirdly joyous response by some of the most renowned bloggers  to this interesting post about the death of the freewheeling blogosphere of old a little unseemly, an object lesson of what a small world that it is among them. They all seem to lament the loss of “charm” from blogging, since it is no longer a casual activity for them. Yes, they seem to collectively be saying, we were once young and foolish and not as professional as we should have been, but our social capital pulled through for us in the end. Our example proved that the blogosphere was nothing revolutionary, just a new tool for the ambitious to display their talents and make useful connections. It’s sort of a bummer that all those new voices allegedly coming from outside the established power networks in America will continue to be ignored, but oh well! We are all paid pundits now!

Of course I don’t blame them for professionalizing—would that I were paid for blogging. But with professionalization comes all the customary ways in which the fantasy of “meritocracy” is thwarted, or rather, the fantasy that raw merit could triumph over a lack of soft-power skills—cozying up to idols, self-promoting without being annoying, etc., etc. The promise of the blogosphere early on was that it was to provide a new path to the public sphere, a way for new voices to be heard. But instead it was just a new media for journalists to do their woodshedding. I think the idea that you could make it big in the blogopsphere was always a bit of a distortion, since those people who did make it big most likely would have succeeded in journalism anyway. What seemed to have happened is that the early bloggers formed a network and were able to help each other along into the establishment as they began to advance in their careers. In the past, those sort of networks would not unfold in a public forum, as they did in blogs with all the reciprocal links and log-rolling. If the charm is gone in a certain sector of the blogosphere, it’s because the pretense that it’s not an audition for big media punditry has been dropped.

Still, when Ezra Klein writes, “The blogosphere isn’t thrumming with the joyous, raucous, weirdness of the early years. And that’s a shame. But the upside is that it’s more careful. It reports and investigates and uncovers”, he’s mainly referring to his generation of analysts and journalists. I’m guessing he doesn’t bother to read around much in the weird blog world that is certainly still out there (and I’m sure there is a lot of “charm” in the non-professional blogging and video making and so on happening online), because he has a responsibility to keep up with all the big league pundits and have opinions about them. Professional opinion makers who now write blog posts as part of their repertoire for their job are naturally going to assimilate journalistic seriousness to their practice. Laura, the author of the original post, argues that this has somehow made the blogosphere “less hierarchical”—I’m not sure if that is a typo, but it seems that the hierarchy has reasserted itself almost totally, in that most of the bloggers that people link to are established in a reputable big media post or an established think tank. Bloggers establish credibility by becoming affiliated to established brands, by publishing under well-respected banners. It is harder now to create a brand for yourself that extends its reach beyond Facebook, the base camp for inconsequential self-branding.

What was revolutionary about blogging then is merely that it allowed those traditional networks to metastasize in front of the jealous outsiders who, with their own unacknowledged blogs, feel even more bereft. They perpetuate for those outsiders the idea that the world is somehow rigged, and help them continue to fail to see that part of “merit” is the ability to push your meritorious work among the people who can bring it wider repute. In other words, blogging seemed a way to sneak around the whole self-marketing thing—you just put your awesome writing online and wait for the plaudits to roll in. But of course that doesn’t happen. Instead, it is tempting to do even less of the self-marketing, since the work is already out there, and easier to become overwhelmingly discouraged, since it is being ignored. Talent is a matter of taking your own work seriously, and the “freewheeling world of the blogosphere” early on had the illusion of being a place where such serious career-mindedness wasn’t necessary. Now we know better.

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