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Saturday, Jun 7, 2008

For a while, it seemed like the rumors would turn out to be true. Months of speculation had concluded that Troma, the independent titan responsible for such memorable cult classics as The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet was on the verge of closing its doors forever. The production company, now largely in the business of distributing films produced outside their umbrella, had sunk all its cash into the demented zombie comedy Poultrygeist, and the lack of legitimate support from theater owners was driving founder Lloyd Kaufman and crew to the point of bankruptcy. There were even stories that inventory was being sold off and the main offices moved to the more “financially friendly” confines of New Jersey, the last desperate gasp of a business barely afloat.


Well, apparently, the gossip got it wrong. Sure, Troma left its Manhattan digs to travel over to the shores of its notorious neighbor, but this was done out of bold face necessity. Landlords raised their rent by a ridiculous amount, and there was no way the company could compete under such lend/lease larceny. Similarly, the lack of available product had nothing to do with a frantic fire sale. Instead, the business model mandated the push for Poultrygeist before unleashing another slew of digital delights. This past April saw the label finally return from the DVD dead, offering up the ganja goof Pot Zombies, and just last month, two more treats were unleashed on unsuspecting audiences everywhere. And just like other items in the cockeyed catalog, Bloodspit and Belcebu: Diablos Lesbos prove why, when it comes to sensational schlock, no one tops Troma.


Oddly enough, both movies come from outside the US. Australia is the setting for the story of a long dead vampire, back from the dead and desperate to retrieve a magical coat of arms. With the brand, the aging neckbiter can return to the land of mirrors (otherwise known as “Mirrorland”) and rejuvenate. While waiting to reclaim his birthright, he spends his off hours sexing it up with the hired help. Of course, his main nemesis, the wheelchair bound Dr. Ludvic, has discovered the power inherent in the tacky talisman, and the mad medico intends to use it to destroy the crafty Count Blaughspich (aka “Bloodspit”) once and for all - that is, if the demon’s wantonly wicked sister doesn’t stop him beforehand.


Spain is our next exotic location, and outside Madrid we meet up with a band of unhappy hookers. When heroin addict Mani gets involved in a robbery turned fatal, she spends time in prison. Upon release, she returns to her sex for sale ways. Meanwhile, her former boyfriend, a rocker named Toni, has magically transformed into Belcebu - a death metal menace whose unwieldy popularity has led to fan suicides and public censure. Hoping to find the sister - and sense of purpose - she left with the musician, Mani reconnects with him. Of course, by this time, Belcebu has successfully sold himself to the Devil. In return, he must make an annual sacrifice to the mangoat, and his ex may be the ritual’s main stage star.


As is typical with Troma, both of these movies are under the radar remnants of a DIY ethos that has long since stopped being practical within the artform. Sure, the current technology allows almost anyone to make their own damn movie (and even better, distribute it in a professional manner), yet when you watch either effort offered here, you get the distinct feeling of the personal passion the filmmakers had for their project more than any major moneymaking ideal. This is clearly the case with Bloodspit, which seems to be celebrating every outrageous horror spoof made in the last 20 years. Director Duke Hendrix, who co-wrote the wacky wayback weirdness with partner Leon Fish, fashions a kind of John Waters look at European exploitation, a movie with as much atmosphere as comic anarchy - and twice the tasteless tawdriness.



Drawing on sources as surreal as The Addams Family, Nosferatu, the typical Dracula dynamic and what appears to be the films of Chris Seaver, Hendrix and Fish proffer nonstop laughs, some wonderfully ridiculous characters, and more than a little unnatural skin. The ladies hired by the duo to do their flesh flashing dirty work give a new meaning to the word ‘dive bar’, yet they fit in perfectly with the pair’s aesthetic. Certainly, the level of toilet humor and dirty double entendre will remind one of the LBP universe. There are trips to the toilet bowl and graphic descriptions of human (and monster) genitalia, the whole thing reeking of middle schoolers mocking each others physical inadequacies. Hendrix and Fish also love accents. Between the Scots, the Brits, the Slavic and the just plain undecipherable, we are treated to a literal UN of vocal lunacy.



And yet thanks to the directorial style implied, an odd angle approach that utilizes the language of film as much as the dialogue of debauchery to get its point across, Bloodspit becomes a minor masterwork. Sure, it looses its bearings halfway through, demanding that the actors actually lift the narrative back on track, and if you’ve seen one Aussie stripper in her skivvies, reminding everyone that personal grooming and nutrition are actually GOOD things, but for the most part, this movie is terrifically entertaining. You can tell that Hendrix and Fish know their local lore. Peter Jackson and his pre-Rings gross out glory spews from every psycho shock sequence, and thanks to the ultra-low budget, imagination takes the place of production value. With pitch perfect performances from everyone involved, and a gamey grindhouse ideal at work, this is one incredibly infectious entertainment.


As silly as Bloodspit is, Belcebu is the exact opposite. This is a foreign film than takes itself far more seriously. Sure, there is a slightly satiric tone to the material, a Rosemary’s Baby like look at how the Devil controls all aspects of business and popular culture, but the real message behind Sergio Blasco’s self styled vanity project is that a life devoted to sex, drugs, and rock and roll can only lead to misery, addiction, and death. Starting off as a complicated character study before careening wildly over into pornography and a last act orgy of desecration and dismemberment, the writer/director/star accomplishes something quite rare. He makes us believe in the freakish and unfathomable while staying true to the blasphemous nature of the beliefs he is channeling. This is not your typical Satanic romp. Blasco really delves deep into the entire Black Mass basics.



Of course, we have to wade through Mani’s initial fall from grace, and there are times when Belcebu seems more interested in the life of a low rent hooker than dealing with its literal demons. The rock star storyline is frequently shuttled to the back so we can see our heroine shooting up, strung out, or slagging off. There are even moments reminiscent of Mamma Roma, when the local prostitutes hang out and trade secrets and safety tips. Blasco creates a real sense of community for his Spanish skanks, and it helps establish a tone of authenticity that supports the slam dunk surrealism to come. Indeed, once the professional cameraman Angel arrives on the scene, his oddball reaction to sex signifying that something is wrong with his supposedly straight machismo, we sense Belcebu beginning its turn. Sure enough, within seconds, Mani is a memory and its all soft core shuck and underworld jive.



Blasco looks the part of a long haired metal head, delivering his doom and gloom bombast in a manner that reflects every outsider rock act endlessly touring the club concert circuit. He lends his movie a real sense of scope. Similarly, the F/X work is very effective, gory and gruesome in that always welcome return to the practical and physical side of splatter. There are some sensational kills here, including a Cannibal Holocaust homage where a female victim is literally skewered from crotch to cranium, the massive pole then used as a statue for the rest of the dark ritual. There’s even a little winged imp that adds some crazy comic relief amongst all the arterial spray. Some may feel that Belcebu takes too long to get to its blood soaked climax, and many will find the street walker sequences to be dour and depressing. But the end result is something unique and totally of its own accord - a true indicator of what Troma tries to bring to all of its releases.


As for the DVDs themselves, nothing much has changed. The tech specs are uniformly good, the audio and video neither horribly misguided nor reference quality. It’s always a treat to see Kaufman do his patented proto-pervert act during his pre-feature introductions, and here he provides two classic examples of his extremism. For Bloodspit, the Tro-man is ensconced on the throne, doing his ‘duty’ to support the film. For Belcebu, it’s a Spanish language send-up complete with very un-PC pronouncements from his female co-hosts. As for extras, there are interviews with Hendrix and Fish, some outtakes, and a Behind the Scenes discussion with Blasco that, sadly, is not subtitled. In addition, there are lots of corporate come-ons to keep you spending those hard earned dollars in the distributor’s direction.


But the most important part about the release of Bloodspit and Belcebu: Diablos Lesbos is that the creature feature carnival barker known as Troma is back in business. In another few weeks, two more titles will be featured, and long in development projects like the proposed Giuseppe Andrews box set may now actually see the light of day. And considering how amazing Poultrygeist actually is (read the review here), it’s clear that the company wasn’t merely spinning its excess cash wheels. For anyone wondering what happened to the formidable B-movie madhouse, the return to DVD distribution indicates that everything is fine in the feverish land of Tromaville. It’s a welcome return for devotees desperate for the diseased and the dopey


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Saturday, Jun 7, 2008

Where he once sounded like a crank, U2 manager Paul McGuinness now sounds prescient when he rails against Internet Service Provides (ISPs) and their adverse effect on the music business.  He has his own reasons for being mad at them but now there’s yet another reason.  That’s because Time Warner is starting to test out a new system which will charge consumers extra when they go over a certain download limit.  If they can get away with it in the first market they’re testing it in, they’re likely to bring the system nationwide and then other ISPs will follow- see this Yahoo/AP report for details. 


So why should you care?  Normal websites’ pictures and text don’t add up to anything but if you’re used to streaming music all day (through an online station or a service like Napster or LastFM), you might get stung by the extra charges.  Similarly, if you’re a video buff who likes to watch YouTube a lot or stream movies through a service like Netflix (which I do), you’ll probably gonna get stuck with an extra bill too.  Admittedly, you’d have to stay on for about 5-10 hours to incur the charges but do you really want to time yourself daily on Net use (though you do need to step away from your computer now and then)?


The end result could then be that web users may shun these services or cut back on their use of them.  That means that these services would also lose money and have a harder time staying in business if they start losing their audiences.  If they were smart, these companies would team up to make the public aware of this coming storm and get them made enough to complain to Time Warner and any other company that tries to stick consumers with higher rates for Net access.  Otherwise, you could have less and less choices for online entertainment…


And don’t think it’s just Time Warner who’s going to be watching your Net use and leaning on you if they think it’s too excessive.  Comcast now seems to be going after ‘Net hogs,’ seeming to go after users who access streaming videos (i.e. YouTube).


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Friday, Jun 6, 2008

Wisdom and Sense interviews Rose Tremain
Rose Tremain just won the Orange Prize for her book, The Road Home. In this 1996 interview with Elena Dedukhina, she talks about literary prizes in detail. Tremain was a Booker Prize judge in 1988 and 1990. On literary prizes, she says: “Prizes are confirming. Self-belief is a profound requisite of being a writer and—as with any self-generated phenomenon, it can falter from time to time. Winning a prize helps to get you back on the road of self-belief.”


Philip Pullman talks to the Telegraph
It’s all about age-branding. If you haven’t heard, books in the UK will be marketed towards very specific age groups come Autumn. Books will be printed with labels stuck on covers indicating that a book is for the “9+” group or the “11+” group. Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, is not impressed: “I don’t want to see the book itself declaring officially, as if with my approval, that it is for readers of 11 and upwards or whatever. I write books for whoever is interested.”


Sophie Kinsella tackles the 5-minute interview
She’s the perfect judge for the new Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance (is there a book award they haven’t thought of?) with her hugely successful Shopaholic series, and here she discusses buying high heels but never wearing them: “The moment for those gold-encrusted Manolo Blahniks just never seems to present itself.”


Frank Herbert visits the Mother Earth News
I couldn’t go past this one. It’s just about the longest interview you’re ever likely to read, in one of the strangest places. I bet when you’re done with this, you’ll want to grab a sleeping bag and head for the wilderness, because Herbert likes to do that, and because the ads on this site are all about appreciating nature. Herbert’s first words: “I’ve always considered myself to be a yellow journalist.”


Daniel Wallace is interviewed at Cosmoetics
This is really worth a read. Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish opens up about writing, publishing, MFA programs, and the fact that he’s “never been a huge reader”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an author say that. His comments on an author’s luck:


I think luck plays a big part in a writer’s career.  But my first five novels didn’t get published because I was unlucky; they didn’t get published because they were bad.  I had the same agent for three of those books.  So Big Fish was definitely a better book than the others. It was turned down by 16 houses before Algonquin took it.  Still, here, there was luck involved.  Algonquin had been expected a book by one its established writers and it didn’t come in.  They needed a book to take its place, and quick.  They opened that day’s mail and what was in it: my book.


 


 


 


 


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Friday, Jun 6, 2008

At Waxy.org, Andy Baio has a couple of excellent posts about the Whitburn Project, an effort to catalog and preserve every pop song released since the advent of recording. Baio downloaded the project’s spreadsheet, and performed some analyses of the data. Highlights of his findings:
1. A pop song’s average length is becoming longer, hovering at around 4:00. (This strikes me as way too long. I generally head for the exits at 2:30.)
2. The pop charts turn over much more quickly in recent years. Prior to the mid 1990s, few songs came and went from the charts in four weeks. Since then it has happened with increasing frequency.
3. Nevertheless, fewer songs chart then in previous decades.
4. There have been more one-hit wonders in the ‘90s and ‘00s than in the ‘60s and ‘70s.


Also interesting, if not surprising: This tag cloud of the words in pop song titles reveals that two of the most frequently used words are “love” and “baby.” I guess that makes the Supremes “Baby Love” the ultimate pop song.


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Friday, Jun 6, 2008

The most recent Harper’s has an interesting article about culture-bound syndromes (the fear of having one’s penis stolen in particular, a Nigerian phenomenon). Culture-bound illnesses are society-specific mental illnesses that would seem to be an acute expression of some aspect of that culture’s fears and preoccupations. It takes the pervasive ideology and renders it intimately and pathologically personal, employing it to explain away otherwise nebulous complexes of symptoms of dis-ease and anxiety. A culture’s concerns find bodily expression; obviously this has something to do with the prevalence of eating disorders in Western society. In this overview of culture-bound disorders, we learn this:


In North America the incidence of anorexia nervosa increased dramatically since the 1960s, coinciding with a drastic change in the feminine body ideal towards thinness, as propagated by the fashion lords and publicized by the media [GARNER & GARFINKEL 1980; JONES et al. 1980; LUCAS et al. 1991]. It is of interest that the weight tables used by American physicians, supposedly objective scientific measures of “normal” standards of health, followed the fashionable downward trend in female body weight [RITENBAUGH 1982]. The increasing frequency of anorexia nervosa is associated with socio-cultural factors such as disturbance of intrafamily relations due to the nuclearization and limitation of Western families, and the penetrant influence of the mass media popularizing Hollywood-type life styles and beauty ideals. Since the 1980s, cases of anorexia nervosa have also become increasingly known in non-Western countries among young women in social strata exposed to heavy Westernizing influence, notably in Japan and Hong Kong [Di NICOLA 1990; LEE et al. 1993]. The epidemic spreading of anorexia nervosa among young females of all Western countries, and among certain Asian populations and immigrants under Westernizing influence, links this syndrome to socio-cultural emphases and developments in modern Western societies.


In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi’s overarching argument in the book is that the coming of the machine led to an extremely dislocating shift to a market culture in 19th century Europe that disoriented the populace and threw value systems into chaos. In the culture-bound disorders overview, the authors write: “The bouffée délirante reactions are sudden attacks of brief duration with paranoid delusions and often concomitant hallucinations, typically precipitated by an intense fear of magical persecution through sorcery or witchcraft. They are also characterized by a confusional state and by highly emotionalized behaviour and, after the attack, by amnesia, or rather disavowal.” That is basically identical to the penis-thieving described in the Harper’s article. The overview continues, “In its symptomatology, the bouffée délirante is reminiscent of the transient psychotic reactions occurring in the early phases of industrialization and mass-urbanization in 19th century Europe; described under such names as folie hystérique in Paris and amentia transitonia in Vienna” [empahsis added]. The reorganization necessitated when implementing a market system has the potential to unleash these strange social illnesses, which seem like pathological ways of expressing a personal resistance to the “creative destruction” of market culture that the conscious mind perhaps wouldn’t bother with, knowing it is futile.


In many ways the Harper’s article was reminiscent of this unforgettable Atlantic article by Carl Elliott about voluntary amputees (a phenomenon which, incidentally, is back in the news), but it culminates in the author wanting to enact an instance of hysterical penis theivery. Thankfully Elliott did not remove his own leg in the name of journalistic diligence. Elliott was preoccupied with the very frightening question of whether merely describing an ailment like wanting to have your limbs removed was enough to make people catch it. The author of the Harper’s piece seemed to be trying to test that premise, seeing the ability to contract a culture-bound phobia as proof of having truly become acclimated to a foreign culture. This paragraph from Eliot’s article nicely captures what is at stake:


Ian Hacking uses the term “semantic contagion” to describe the way in which publicly identifying and describing a condition creates the means by which that condition spreads. He says it is always possible for people to reinterpret their past in light of a new conceptual category. And it is also possible for them to contemplate actions that they may not have contemplated before. When I was living in New Zealand, ten years ago, I had a conversation with Paul Mullen, who was then the chair of psychological medicine at the University of Otago, and who had told me that he was a member of a government committee whose job it was to decide whether pornographic materials should be allowed into the country. I bristled at the idea of censorship, and asked him how he could justify being a part of something like that. He just laughed and said that if I could see what his committee was banning, I would change my mind. His position was that some sexual acts would never even occur to a person in an entire lifetime of thinking about sex if not for seeing them pictured in these books. He went on to describe to me various alarming acts that, it was true, had never occurred to me. Mullen was of the opinion that people were better off never having conceptualized such acts, and in retrospect, I think he may have been right.


I’m inclined to agree to, though I’m completely uncomfortable with the further implication that there should be limits on the freedom of thought; that some ideas are too dangerous to be expressed even in a putatively free culture.


But perhaps the notion of freedom needs more careful consideration in light of “semantic contagion.” At SkepticLawyer, an Australian legal blog, this discussion, prompted by a Tyler Cowen lecture, of liberty and culture’s interaction made me wonder if the fixation on personal freedom (the snakeskin jacket syndrome) was itself a culture-bound syndrome.


Finally, in language sure to gladden the heart of jurisprudes everywhere, throughout the address [Cowen] placed considerable emphasis on the rule of law and the benefits that flow from it. What poor countries need is not more liberty, but more law, law that is abstract, end-independent but - and this is the clincher - also enforced. He then moved into territory that is politically dangerous, but needs to be addressed: one of the things that helps promote both liberty and prosperity throughout the Anglosphere is citizens’ widespread ability to be loyal to a set of abstract concepts. Russia, he pointed out, is failing as a free society not because it is poor - Putin’s shrewed management of high commodity prices has put paid to much Russian poverty - but because Russians tend to privilege their friends and contacts above all else, leading to epic levels of corruption. Corruption, of course, is a signal rule of law failure.
He then asked, somewhat rhetorically, if liberty was confined (and defined) by culture: ‘We should not presume that our values are as universal as we often think they are’. What happens, he asked (also rhetorically), if - in order to enjoy the benefits of liberty and prosperity - societies have to undergo a major cultural transformation, including the loss of many appealing values? Cowen focused on Russian loyalty and friendship, but there are potentially many others. Think, for example, of the extended family so privileged throughout the Islamic world, or the communitarian values common in many indigenous societies.


Take that one step further—perhaps the struggle to exchange communitarian values for market-based ones throws off pathological symptoms: What if individuality (and the consequent preoccupation with personal freedom) itself is a kind of sickness that the demands of a market society imposes on us, forcing us to surrender those other indigenous values. This, more or less, is what Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation. The labor market requires the end of paternalist protections extended by pre-market societies; to make this palatable, the destruction of the safety net is represented as the freedom from state intervention into personal life. Polanyi writes,


To separate labor from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one. Such a scene of destruction was best served by the application of freedom of contract. In practice this meant that the noncontractual organizations of kinship, neighborhood, profession, and creed were to be liquidated since they claimed the allegiance of the individual and thus restrained his freedom. To represent this principle as one of noninterference, as economic liberals were wont to do, was merely the expression of an ingrained prejudice in favor of a definite kind of interference, namely, such as would destroy noncontractual relations between individuals and prevent their spontaneous reformation.


So Sailor’s fetishistic attachment to his snakeskin jacket in Wild at Heart—“a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom”—is perhaps emblematic of our need in general to cling to the consolation prize of individuality in the face of our loss of a more-organic value system, which roots our self-worth in a social system—in a community’s mode of functioning. But we are too far along the path of a market society to turn back; we’d experience that pre-market culture as unfreedom, the loss of possibilities, even though we rarely seize upon all those possibilities and are likely to feel oppressed by them. Yet we are haunted by these values, and perhaps our submerged longing for them causes us to pervert the freedom the market culture supplies us with, leading us to come up with wildly bizarre uses of freedom, like lopping off our limbs.


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