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Thursday, Jan 3, 2008

Because the manner in which media is distributed these days has so changed the way I experience it and even conceive desires about it, I wanted to refresh my memory on Marxist literary theory, which strongly emphasizes the network of social relations within which a work exists. (You can already see this has done wonders for my prose style.) It seems that, for example, the amount of music available for free (if you are willing to take it) makes it impossible to listen to it in the same way. This reminded me of Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism where he attributes to Marx the idea that “capitalist society, with its predominance of quantity over quality, its conversion of all social products to market commodities, its philistine soullessness, is inimical to art.” One pessimistic way of applying this idea: Accustomed as we are to attach a price to cultural product, the fact that it’s suddenly (for all intents and purposes) free encourages a massive and rapid accumulation, which serves to reinforce the status of the art as product rather than experience. We become buried under the surfeit, doomed to process the material rather than enjoy it—forced to focus on consuming our way through it rather than actually listening to it, watching it, reading it, whatever the case may be.


In other words, we may be so ideologically conditioned to regard culture as a priced product that we can’t understand it or value it outside of that context, even as technological change is reducing the relevance of price to cultural experience. The underpinning assumption is that the social context that produces cultural objects also produces at the same time (or dialectically, if you prefer, with each altering the development of the other) the subjects fit for such objects—mass culture, for instance, is presumed to yield a certain sort of person fit to be one of the masses, with lowest-common-denominator tastes and untroubled by disposability. So we experience “free” with a kind of panic, either the culture is becoming worthless or we are in the midst of such a bargain that we need to consume as much as we can to behave rationally within that market. But the outcome—collections of music, for example, that run into the thousands of albums—is anything but rational. Spending hours devouring clips on YouTube of commercials you remember from childhood is not especially rational either. Trying to read 17 newspapers a day, because you can, because they all shed a slightly different light, is not entirely rational despite being technically feasible with no extra financial costs at the margin.


It’s hard to escape the pressure that marginal thinking puts on cultural consumption—the idea that if you can download one song for free and 1,000 songs for free at the same expense, you may as well get the thousand, quality concerns be damned—precisely because capitalism has weaned us to view culture as something to consume. Eagleton, assaying the Marxist position on artists’ commitment to progressive or revolutionary attitudes, offers this bleak comment. Comparing postwar art to that inspired by the fascist crisis, he writes:


There are less “extreme” phases of bourgeois society in which art relegates itself to minor status, becomes trivial and emasculated, because the sterile ideologies it springs from yield no nourishment—are unable to make significant connections or offer adequate discourses. In such an era, the need for explicitly revolutionary art again becomes pressing. It is a question to be seriously considered whether we are not ourselves living in such a time.



The ideology by which we see art as commodity (which has innumerable facets—reflected not just in the digital files vended online, but in the breathless coverage of Christie’s and Sotheby’s art auctions, the manufacture of promotional materials and solicitation of reviews, the reporting of sales figures and the equivalence of profit with popularity and popularity with quality, and so on) seems to be one of those sterilizing ideologies that yield no nourishment, but optimists might argue that the wide, cheap distribution and interactive nature of the internet are reshaping that ideology by revolutionizing forms and media themselves, which inevitably reshapes the consumers of such forms and media. This view verges on “crude technologism”—the idea that technology automatically (and undialectically) produces new social conditions. But if such a revolution is happening, it leaves a certain generation (mine) especially strung between ideological configurations—open to new developments but conditioned by old practices. And it’s not clear that this shift won’t yield art (and art appreciators) that’s even more philistine—leading to more quantity over quality, not just for ideological stragglers and strandees but for those fully formed within the internet era. The interactivity and superfluity of culture encourages us not to grapple with it as it is but to alter it to suit our prejudices and convenience. We can, say, only engage with culture at the level of relaxation—listen to smooth jazz and watch TV shows that spoon-feed us the feelings we’re supposed to have. Or we can only pay attention to culture to the degree that it seems to be paying attention to us—read only the comments people leave for us or that are about us on social networks.


But those tendencies will be mixed with a kind of indifference to regarding culture economically, as protected property. This indifference to prices, ownership, copyrights, etc., will inevitably rise to a new way of experiencing culture. A utopian prognosis would be something that builds in part on the premise of individuals mashing up digital content and sharing it to amuse friends and in part on the inconsequentiality of what’s already made—everything may come to be seen as raw material for some further production and consumption itself will seem boring. The lack of cultural scarcity will render a coveting, consumerist approach pointless. But another alternative would be the sort of thing Brave New World suggests, where the ocean of interconnected cultural material becomes a network of control.


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Wednesday, Jan 2, 2008


While you were sitting around celebrating the holidays, SE&L was busy compiling its lists of the year’s best (and worst) releases. Focusing on the unique and the illogical, the routine and the outrageous, each assemblage attempted to address both the standard and the strange, releases everyone had heard of and efforts nobody knows.  Beginning with our look at The Top 10 Films of 2007 You Never Heard Of up and including yesterday’s unusual take at the Best DVDs of the Year, it’s time to play a little collective catch up. Enjoy!


The Top 10 Films of 2007 That You’ve Never Heard Of


The 10 Worst Films of 2007


The 10 Worst DVDs of 2007


The 10 Best Films of 2007


The 10 Best DVDs of 2007


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Wednesday, Jan 2, 2008

This is a neat story to start the day: Rejected author has last laugh. I’m a fan of rejected anythings getting a leg up, so it was doubly nice to read about a 20-times rejected author (by all the majors) getting her day in the sun.


Birmingham writer Catherine O’Flynn has won Costa’s First Novel award (formerly the Whitbread) with her book, What Was Lost. The above article, from the Times Online, lists a surprising number of big-name authors who faced years of rejection before finding success. They include HG Wells, Beatrix Potter, and JK Rowling.


The article also mentions a guy called David Lassman, a much-rejected writer who, in frustration, submitted the opening chapters of Jane Austen books to publishers, changing only the character names, to see what would happen. One in 18 publishers and agents recognised Austen’s work. How awesomely weird.


So, What Was Lostshould be huge. I’m going to check out Lassman’s work, though. I’ll get back to you.


 


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Tuesday, Jan 1, 2008


The transition has been interesting - and aggravating - to watch. Companies that, at first, failed to embrace the digital format and all it could offer, are now taking the content-laden high road to battling the ongoing HD/Blu-ray confusion. We finally saw Holy Grail releases, titles no one thought would ever make it onto DVD, arriving in well planned marketing droves, while some filmmakers (David Fincher, Todd Field), purposefully released bare bones versions of their efforts (Zodiac, Little Children) in anticipation of far more fleshed out Special Editions. As independent producers and distributors continued to use the flexible technology as a means of getting their movies out and into the mainstream, archivists plundered vaults and resolved rights issues hoping to uncover some previous lost cinematic gems.


It was also a sad year for certain companies. Troma took a massive home theater hit, the inflated budget for its feature film Poultrygeist limiting its ability to continue providing promised direct to video titles, and Something Weird Video broke ties with Image Entertainment, ending the exploitation enterprise’s run with the commercial content provider. In fact, with the unclear clash over high definition ready to either explode or implode the industry, lots of little companies trying to champion the outsider or unusual entertainment have seen their strategies come up short. Still, 2007 was a stellar year for DVD, the big names brandishing even bigger guns to illustrate the medium’s potential - and profitability.


While the list could be much, much longer, here are SE&L“s selections for 2007’s best. Eclectic, diverse, and missing many celebrated releases (Blade Runner, anyone?), it still represents what the format does best - bringing well known and fringe films to the avid cinephile. We begin with a definite Criterion classic:


#10 - The 3 Penny Opera: The Criterion Collection
G. W. Pabst’s adaptation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s 3 Penny Opera is an astounding cinematic experience - like watching M the musical as filtered through a neo-realistic view of silent-film German Expressionism. At first, you feel overwhelmed by the arch, stylized approach to the story. When it’s all over, wrapping up its cutting condemnations and finishes with a flourish, we wonder why we ever doubted it. Because of the knotty narrative turns, the backdoor wheeling and dealing, and clearly defined criticism of Germany’s lax citizenry, what started out stark and dated turns timeless and all too telling. Criterion’s presentation is just perfect, including enough context to further update the seemingly arcane approaches.



#9 - The Beatles in ‘Help!’
It’s a shame that Help! is constantly saddled with the “second best Beatles film” moniker. When compared to the rest of their output, it’s faint praise indeed. Certainly A Hard Day’s Night set a cinematic bar so high that not even the most important band in the history of modern music could compete with it, and compared to other rock and roll film showcases of the time, it’s an unbridled masterwork. But for some reason, when placed along an equally fictional version of a ‘day in their life’, The Beatles’ East Indian romp gets some substantial short shrift. Thanks to this new deluxe two DVD version (the film has been MIA from the home theater format for years), that assessment should now change.



#8 - This Film is Not Yet Rated
If it accomplishes nothing else, Kirby Dick’s brilliant This Film is Not Yet Rated should put to rest all the arguments about the MPAA and its influence over movies. The next time you hear a spokesperson for the group argue that they “don’t determine substance or require edits,” and that “the rating is merely voluntary…etc”, you will have a factual rebuttal for all that bullshit. In fact, the MPAA is like the Warren Commission, totally unflappable in its party-line approach to any issue brought before them. But just like Oliver Stone, Dick opened a door that few have ever walked through, especially in the 40 years since the entryway was first built. His dissertation, and the wonderfully dense DVD that accompanies the documentary, is JFK.



#7 - The Three Stooges Collection: Volume 1 - 1934 - 1936
Fulfilling the wishes of longtime fans, Columbia has finally wised up, dropped the three short per package DVD format, and delivered The Three Stooges in a logistically sound chronological breakdown. Covering the first three years the performers pitched their vaudeville shtick to motion pictures, the 19 mini-masterworks presented all contain the classic line-up that most devotees prefer: mean leader Moe, absent minded minion Larry, and unbelievably brilliant bundle of butter, Curly. There is no Shemp, no Joe Besser, and definitely no Curly Joe DeRita to muck things up. While there is nothing wrong with any of these later stage substitutes, nothing beats the magic of the original Stooges. Looking over the titles offered, there is not a bad apple in the bunch.



#6 - Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters for DVD
Who says they don’t make good dada anymore? This big screen version of the Cartoon Network/Adult Swim anomaly offers three amiable (if slightly psychotic) fast food products - a shallow shake, some science-minded fries, and a babyish blob of mystery meat - taking on unhinged elements from around the universe. Part origins exploration, part satiric stream of incontinence, it may not make a lick of sense. But when you’re laughing this hard, does logic really matter? Even better, the DVD version (complete with a whole other version of the movie) reimagines the medium in a way that both embraces and mocks the special feature heavy format. It stands as a symbol of the film, and the series in general.



#5 - The Sergio Leone Anthology
He was born into the belly of Italian show business. By the time he was a teenager, he was very familiar with the Italian film biz. While helping out on the peplum epic The Last Days of Pompeii, he suddenly found himself behind the lens, and it would be a place he’d remain for the rest of his career. He only made nine credited films, but for fans of the spaghetti Western, four would remain major motion picture milestones. But there was much more to Sergio Leone than squinting antiheroes and one-horse towns draped in quick-draw bloodshed, as illustrated all throughout this sensational box set. It’s the perfect place to begin your journey into the bleak bombastic world of the director, and all the cinematic splendor that comes with it.



#4 - David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE
INLAND EMPIRE is a masterpiece. It is also an aggravating avant-garde amalgamation of incomplete ideas. It’s a brilliant distillation of David Lynch’s career defining dream logic. It’s also a three hour exercise in excess and a brilliant argument for the switchover to digital filmmaking. As with most works by the artist/auteur, this fragmented take on “a woman in trouble” (to quote the film’s tagline) raises many more questions than it ever dares to answer, and squeezes more imagination and invention into three hours than most movie studios manage in a lifetime. The DVD delves even deeper into the narrative, providing deleted material and additional context to show how the ‘film’ was formulated. 



#3 - The Films of Kenneth Anger Volume 1 & 2
How lucky are we film fans? In the span of less than eight months (Volume 1 hit in January), we’ve been able to finally get our hands on the entire output from one of avant-garde filmmaking’s most revered names. Every single cinematic statement Anger attempted are here - from the homoerotic horror of Fireworks to the seminal Scorpio and Lucifer Rising - and they have never looked richer or more inviting. With a restoration overseen by the filmmaker himself, and a collection of added bonus features that helps to explain his importance, we finally see that there was more to this man than his craven collections of Tinsel Town tawdriness, Hollywood Babylon.  He stands as a true outsider artist.



#2 - Grindhouse Presents Planet Terror/ Death Proof
As a greatest hits package of every exploitation conceit ever considered for heating up a local passion pit, Quentin Tarantino’s dazzling Death Proof stands as a sensational slice of electrified genre porn. With his creative cameos, attention to genre detail, and meta-manipulation of the medium itself, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror stands as a pert post-modern masterpiece, one of the best self-referential scarefests ever conceived. Together, they created one of 2007’s most sublimely satisfying cinematic experiences. While we wait for the eventual DVD release of the entire Grindhouse experience, we have this pair of sensational separate releases. Each movie is modified to fit the expanded running time, and the additions are amazing - as are the enlightening extras that help flesh out the filmmakers’ intent.



#1 - The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky
Many have never heard of him. Others only know selected works - the ‘80s effort Santa Sangre, the consistently mentioned “midnight movie” El Topo - but even for those who claim an intimate knowledge of cinema, director, poet, agitator, self-described “deity” Alejandro Jodorowsky remains an enigma. This could be due to the fact that the filmmaker has only helmed seven projects in the 50 years he’s been in the business. Part of the problem is also that Jodorowsky remains a vehemently idiosyncratic artist. Like many Latino moviemakers, he lives his works and is only driven to create when the passion (and the fiscal possibility) strikes him. The final issue with his covert career is the lack of access to his major films - Fando y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain. Only the first title has ever appeared on DVD, the other two considered “lost” due to ongoing animosity between the director and infamous ‘70s business bully Allen Klein.


Now, with all wounds apparently healed, Anchor Bay is beginning the post-millennial re-evaluation of the incredibly talented maverick’s career. With The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky box set, not only do we get a chance to see the works that loom largest in the auteur’s considerable legend, but we have a chance to see the best that the digital medium has to offer as well. To go into detail on each and every extra would take pages, but, in brief, here’s what one can expect. There’s the definitive 90-minute documentary, La Constellation Jodorowsky, which provides a wonderful overview of the director’s life and career, and each movie houses a full-length audio commentaries by the auteur that really explains and illustrates his artistic ambitions and personal themes. And in doing so, it gives a forgotten film giant his more than necessary due.


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Tuesday, Jan 1, 2008

Welcome back to Re:Print.


It’s been a big week, yeah? I’ve spent much of it stifling at work, in an un-air-conditioned DVD shop, hating every single face that says to me: “Wow, it’s hot in here!” Really? We hadn’t noticed. And neither had the last 35 customers to sweat their way through the latest releases. Global warming is well and truly under way, and has landed smack on Australia. Here I am, 11.09pm on New Year’s Day and the air blowing through my office window is filthy and hot. It stinks of dirty grass. No relief, not even at home, not even at midnight. Actually, the split-system in the living room is brilliant, but my partner refuses to let me move the computer next to the TV. So, here I am, and it’s hot. 


New Year’s was a slow one. I spent it watching Wild Palms, of all things. Scouring the ‘net today, though, I see a good time was had by most elsewhere in the universe. We heard fireworks going off, which excited me, until a little boy came into the shop this morning with a “Missing Dog” poster—the terrier named Bonnie ran away in fear of those fireworks, apparently. So, there’s that tradition ruined. Here’s hoping Bonnie finds her way home safely. My pup, Fulci, feels her pain. He spent the noisy clock-turning under a blanket by the couch.


As always, my New Year’s resolution is to “read more”. I say it every year, and usually wind up reading roughly the same amount of books as the year before. With a new house, and a new library all set up and looking awesome in the other room, I’ve decided that even if I read the same amount of books as last year, I want some of them to be those steadily yellowing over there, that I already own. I’m toning down the book-buying, and digging through the existing stockpiles for new and exciting reads. I’ll let you know how I go as the months progress. At the moment, I’m still knee-deep in movie tie-ins, with The Assassination of Jesse James… on the go now, and Death Sentence coming up next. I just finished Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz—a quick read, horribly morbid and sad. Jesse James is proving a harder task—Ron Hansen’s language is true to the time period, and I’m wrapping my tongue around old west words more sluggishly than expected. After the movie books, it’s classics all the way. Well, long-standing shelf-dwellers, at any rate.


Here’s to a great 2008 in books. Myself and my co-blogger, Lara Killian, will be here to capture the highs and lows as we see them. For now, here are some articles to read to get you ready for Books ‘08:


Read all about the best books of 2007 set in New Jersey.


Who will be who in 2008 according to the Guardian.


Compare Ty Burr’s reading resolutions to your own, like this one:


Read at least one book that is not being adapted into a major motion picture. In 2007 I really enjoyed reading The Golden Compass and Atonement and No Country for Old Men and Persepolis and The Kite Runner (OK, the last one not so much). Was there anything else that came out last year? Can someone tell my wife I’ll get around to The Omnivore’s Dilemma when Cate Blanchett is signed to star in it?


Hmm, yes.


 


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