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Friday, Feb 1, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

It’s the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s pop classic, Thriller, and Sony is doing a podcast series all through 2008 in celebration. The series will feature interviews with luminaries such as Akon, Nick Cannon, Chris Brown, will.i.am, Quincy Jones, Imogen Heap, and more. Here’s the teaser and the first episode will run on 12 February.



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Friday, Feb 1, 2008

John Tierney wrote a piece in the NYT about the pseudoscientific algorithms online dating services use to help people meet the one. Arguing that computers do a better job than people themselves at picking from prospective mates, this is how the story concludes:


Until outside scientists have a good look at the numbers, no one can know how effective any of these algorithms are, but one thing is already clear. People aren’t so good at picking their own mates online. Researchers who studied online dating found that the customers typically ended up going out with fewer than 1 percent of the people whose profiles they studied, and that those dates often ended up being huge letdowns. The people make up impossible shopping lists for what they want in a partner, says Eli Finkel, a psychologist who studies dating at Northwestern University’s Relationships Lab.
“They think they know what they want,” Dr. Finkel said. “But meeting somebody who possesses the characteristics they claim are so important is much less inspiring than they would have predicted.”
The new matchmakers may or may not have the right formula. But their computers at least know better than to give you what you want.



It’s not surprising that shopping for a mate would turn out to be less effective than having a computer more or less randomly select one. This is not a testimony to the effectiveness of the algorithms but an indication that spontaneity and unpredictability are important ingredients in launching a relationship—perhaps more important than liking the same music and reading the same books and professing to have the same sort of hobbies. What would-be lovers want is not so much to see Godard films together but to share a sense of destiny.


No matter what the methodology, the idea that some particular person was scientifically chosen to like you is likely a strong argument in that person’s favor, so the proposed matches probably go into their dates feeling fairly confident of being charming. After all, this person has to like you or else the computer wouldn’t have spit their name out, right? It’s a sanction to love, trusting to the almighty power of Science. Whereas when you pick a person yourself, based on some fantasy of what you wish appealed to you, you become responsible for the choice (as opposed to Science) and are obliged to second-guess yourself and to wonder whether you might have done a better job—the person’s shortcomings become a comment on your own inability to shop effectively. That responsibility can lead to self-doubt and an unwillingness to trust that anything will work out. “It’s not that I haven’t taken the time to get to know this person,” one might think, “it’s just that I didn’t think hard enough about making my selection.” There’s always one more profile to look at before making a choice anyway. Shopping for a person based on your own personal preferences seems to lead to an illusion of control over the object sought after, turning the date partner into a kind of commodity and generating an expectation that you should be able to return it if it doesn’t completely satisfy. That’s probably why the online dating thing seems to work better for people who want only sex. There, pragmatic calculation is welcome and necessary.

In general, we tend to define what is romantic in terms of the absence of the sort of rational calculation processes we use to strike good bargains. Romantic feeling is typically set in opposition to that kind of thought; the feeling is residual, what’s left over after everything that has been purposely sought after is accounted for. It only feels like love when we can’t quite account for it, and it doesn’t seem to have been manufactured by our cleverness or practicality. When a relationship serves some pragmatic end, it doesn’t seem like love, and hand-picking a partner according to a laundry list of expectations is far too pragmatic. Instead, our love stories tend to be framed in terms of overcoming obstacles, rejecting the protests that loving some particular person makes no sense.


Here’s a sweeping generalization: In coming to reject arranged marriages and the like, our society has strongly shifted in the other direction, and we balk at any whiff of instrumentality in the procurement of intimate partners. So we have to play elaborate tricks on ourselves to avoid accusing ourselves of being calculating in our love, of loving for the “wrong” reasons, which is to say, for any reason other than a blind willingness to be in love. This we call chemistry or sympathy, the force of attraction that can’t otherwise be explained rationally. Computer-assisted dating is one trick for masking our own intentionality, transferring the calculation to the computers and absolving ourselves of the pettiness of actively deducing what we should want from another person and scheming how to get it, leaving us to blithely and passively react to the suitor supplied, just as we are used to, incidentally, from consuming entertainment.


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Thursday, Jan 31, 2008


When you first hear the storyline for Julian Schnabel’s brilliant new French language biopic, some cinematic formulas immediately come to mind: youthful editor of a Parisian magazine, struck down in his prime by a medical condition that leaves him paralyzed (or better yet, “locked in”); only able to communicate through the blinking of his left eye, he overcomes adversity and lives to write a tell-all tome about his life ‘submerged’ in a quasi-catatonic state. Indeed, there’s a dour, disease-of-the-week feel to the description, an inevitable cliché of “conquering hardship” that makes any attempt at art seem specious at best. And yet The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is just that - a sensational cinematic canvas created by a man who understands the inherent beauty in form, function, and now filmmaking.


Schnabel, a painter as well as director, has always gravitated toward stories about the creative. His first film, Basquiat, focused on the enigmatic New York graffiti artist, while Before Night Falls found Javier Bardem channeling Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. Diving Bell is inspired by the book of the same name, a volume written by former journalist and Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby detailing his mental and medical travails after suffering a cerebrovascular incident (read: stroke) that left him literally unable to move. Using a unique visual approach to telling the story, and getting deeper inside a man and his illness than previous films of this nature, Schnabel shows that perception is just as important as process. While most narrative would focus on the day to day hurdles of being hospitalized, Diving Bell goes under and over, between and around said situation.


This is a film that wants its audience to really get the feel of Bauby’s plight - at least initially. For the first 30 minutes, Schnabel employs a shaky, marginally focused first person POV, letting us see what our patient sees, and letting us listen to the running commentary in his head. One of the most devastating things that happened to Bauby was the loss of physical acumen coupled with the retention of all his mental faculties. There was still a vital, intelligent, and complicated man inside the motionless system of organs and secretions, someone who truly ate up life and all its passions. But Bauby was no saint, and Schnabel is wise to keep him multifaceted. Thanks to flashbacks used as internal starting gates for our story, we see a womanizing cheat, a mediocre father, an absentee son, and a belligerent boss. It’s all important to Diving Bell‘s overall power. Without such a personality, Bauby would be another valiant hero in a hospital gown.


But this is not what Schnabel is after. Like a celluloid illustration of the old phrase “life’s what you make it”, The Diving Bell and Butterfly tries to argue that physical limits do not mean the end of all existence. While it seems like a simple enough statement, the two examples we see make a very strong, very substantive case. Bauby’s aging father, played with exceptional grace and gravitas by Max Von Sydow, has gotten to the point where he can no longer easily maneuver about his home. He complains of the corporeal restrictions, of how age and his failing limbs have condemned him to only a small percentage of his previous mobility. Yet the minute he learns of his son’s horrible fate, the self-pity he felt switches to love - love for what he has, love for his child’s plight, love that he has a chance to talk to him one last time. It’s a devastating moment in the movie, an epiphany which guides us through the rest of the revelations.


Most of the narrative is taken up with Bauby learning the ropes of his new reality. We get painstaking sequences where nurses and speech therapists work with him to establish the alphabet/blink system he uses to communicate. Schnabel is good about not overplaying this material. It could grow tedious very easily. But thanks to the concept of communication intrinsic in the exchanges (we can hear what Bauby is thinking - the staff cannot) and the misunderstandings that result, there is significant suspense here. Yet this is not just a film “locked in” to a Who’s Life Is It Anyway? directive. Thanks to some gorgeous fantasy sequences (most revolving around the title imagery) and a near flawless flair for his compositions, Schnabel transcends the traps innate in such a story.


Equally important is the acting, and French star Mathieu Amalric is terrific as Bauby. Compelling both in and out of his condition, we get a real sense of humanity hindered. During the flashbacks, Amalric is all swagger and strength. He comes across as a man of determination, even when faced with situations that tend to undermine his machismo. The love story side of Diving Bell is probably the most underdeveloped, and that’s perhaps the fault of the source material. We learn of a girlfriend, someone so selfish that she can’t bear to see her man in such a helpless state. Her phone conversation with Bauby is so demoralizing, so dark in its intentions and significance that we can’t quite fathom how this couple ever got along outside of bed.


Yet the real star here is Schnabel. He takes great risks, from the opening gimmickry to the last act foreshadowing of his character’s fate. There are hints throughout that Bauby will never recover (we get a few doctors proclaiming breakthroughs, and therapy does have him responding, if only in incremental amounts), and by this time in the film’s theatrical run, a quick glimpse at IMDb or any other online information source will give away the ending. But this is not the saddest way the story could end. There is a sense of release in the way Schnabel sets up the finale, a way of proving that one last act of expression is all a person needs in this world. He or she just has to hope that someone is around to take down their words and share them with the rest of the world.


As awards season winds down and the usual suspects walk away with various symbolic statuettes, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly seems destined to be an amiable afterthought, a well respected work that ends up seated second behind more popular (or populist) choices. Yet this is the kind of movie that will endure, that will reconfigure the way such subject matter is dealt with, as well as rewriting the rules on how to successfully visualize the plight of people physically restrained but mentally strong. As with all art, it is difficult and demanding, requiring patience, attention, and the shedding of unimportant preconceptions. Julian Schnabel understands this all too well. Perhaps that’s why everything he tries in this film succeeds. Perhaps this is why The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is such an inspiration experience. 



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Thursday, Jan 31, 2008

Alessandro Porco’s latest book of poetry is Augustine in Carthage, and Other Poems, published by ECW Press in April. Re:Print caught up with Alessandro for a brief chat about the book, the poet’s career, and his busy-busy life. Porco is currently at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he is working on his dissertation. His poetry has appeared in Matrix, Grain, and Queen Street Quarterly. He blogs here.


Tell us about your latest book:
My latest collection of poetry is Augustine in Carthage, and Other Poems (ECW Press), which will be officially released in late March / early April. It’s been four years since I finished writing The Jill Kelly Poems (ECW Press)—my book-length ode to the adult-film star affectionately referred to as “the anal queen.” I’m suspect of teleologies of progressivity and enlightenment, meaning you’re not likely to catch me telling you how I’ve “developed” over the four-year publishing interregnum (though, I guess, four years ago I wouldn’t have used the term teleology on account of it’d likely make me sound like a douchebag! I’m comfortable with that now). In fact, the collection’s title long-poem, “Augustine in Carthage,” deals with this very suspicion of progressivity, amongst a variety of other things.


What’s it all about, really?
Ultimately, “Augustine in Carthage” is a trans-historical re-imagining of Book III of St. Augustine’s Confessions in present-day Montreal. It includes picaresque scenes and interludes involving, for example, philosophizing strippers (who apparently like to quote Whitehead while giving lap dances), Tampico bombers (my homage to Ed Dorn), drug-induced hops down rabbit holes, coprology (what can I say, I’m a fan of Pasolini!), and even some comic-book heroism (in the form of that adroit character Plastic Man). But for all its bombast “Augustine in Carthage” examines, quite seriously, ideas related to the experience of experience, the morality of poetry, and the hypocrisy of spiritual conversion. Of course, perhaps the most famous allusion in modern poetry to Book III of the Confessions takes place in Eliot’s The Waste Land: “To Carthage then I came” (“III. The Fire Sermon”). There he quotes directly from Augustine; the passage from the original reads, “To Carthage then I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves sang all about mine ears.”


Basically, think of Carthage as Vegas and you get the picture (and, to boot, Augustine wasn’t yet a saint ... all the better). Indeed, Eliot serves as a Tiresias-like guiding presence over and above the poem. (One other key literary text against which a continuous parallel is established is Petronius’s Satyricon.) But all this makes it seems way more highfalutin than it perhaps actually is—I mean, the first page and a half or so includes a length description of strippers at Montreal’s famed Club Super Sexe ...


That said, it is a difficult poem and one that I—and my reputation, such that it is—have much riding on. In that sense, the impending release of the collection is very nerve-wracking and frightening (not feelings I felt initially with my first book, to be honest). Of course, I should admit, however, that the nerves and frights are also associated with the other conspicuous poem in the collection (hopefully not so conspicuous though as to be the overwhelming focus of critical reception): the book ends with a 21-part series titled “We So Seldom Look on Nantucket.” Basically, as the title would suggest, it’s 21 limericks—but not of the anaesthetized Edward Lear variety. These are 21 of the filthiest limericks I could think to write (in the words of limerick scholar G. Legman, who, referring to his anthology The Limerick, wrote: “This is the largest collection of limericks ever published, erotic or otherwise. Of the 1700 printed here, none are otherwise.”)


Basically, these little artifacts began as a dare and evolved into something quite lovely (albeit, depraved, too). As a whole, these limericks make The Jill Kelly anal-sex poems seems like a rather Victorian G-rated affair—hence, my nervousness. While I certainly don’t want to spoil anything (here’s my pitch: by the book to read what I’m talking about), I can give a hint of what I’m describing: e.g. the Holy Mother Mary satisfying Jesus and, maybe, just maybe, there may be some sexual intercourse involving amputees. If that sounds like something you’d be into, please do pick up the book (and, then, maybe you should see somebody)!


There’s plenty else, of course, that exists in between these first and last poems. Things I’m very proud of: some translations (loose translations a la Robert Lowell’s Imitations) of 20th century Italian poets Ungaretti, Campana, and Quasimodo. There are what I’ve dubbed as “remixes” of classic English poems. Also, there’s a couple performance pieces. Hell, even a love poem or two. Overall, to borrow a formulation from Paul Muldoon, the collection’s “much of a muchness,” if you know what I mean—though that “much of a muchness” is compressed into a tight little punch of beautifully designed book (17 poems over 60 pages).


It’s an exciting time for me these days. The book’s release looming, I have a series of readings I’ll be doing in the spring and summer months. That should be fun, allowing a little travel time for me, catching up with friends in various cities (including Montreal where I’d f!@#$% love to bring the book into Club Super Sexe! That seems fitting, given my early mention of the joint.). Hopefully the book’s release will inspire some heated debate, some positive reviews, some negative reviews—either way, I just hope that it sets discussion about things into motion.


What else is keeping you busy?
In March, I’ll start my tenure as the official hip-hop columnist for the online supplement of Maisonneuve Magazine, Montreal’s city magazine. I have free reign with the column, open to everything from standard reviews to interviews, hot topics and all that good stuff. The column’s a nice compliment to my current Ph.D. dissertation work on hip-hop poetics at the State University of New York at Buffalo. It’s moving along, slowly but surely.
I’m desperately trying (usually in bars) to convince some of my more esteemed and mature academic peers and colleagues that Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is one of the best films of the last 10 years (slowly, I can feel them coming over to my side on this!).
I’m busy teaching a course this term on the subject of Sports Literature at SUNY-Buffalo.


Any Current Essentials we should look out for?
Repeated viewings (and I mean over and over and over again) of the first three seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which, quite frankly, is one of the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV.


I’m excitedly looking forward to the spring-time releases of Jason Camlot’s The Debaucher (Insomniac Press) and R.M. Vaughan’s Troubled: A Memoir in Poems (Coach House)—both examples of Canada’s finest literary artists.


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Wednesday, Jan 30, 2008


Kevin Smith can talk. Anyone who’s seen him in interviews or watching his Evening with… series knows this. The man is a motor mouth, a non-stop gob smacker who believes in the power of words and the consistent flow of same. And the best part about it is, he’s inherently interesting. He’s a natural storyteller, a man who can measure out the facts of a situation in a way that draws you in and keeps your attention, even if you could care less about what he’s actually talking about. It’s a skill that’s translated well to his work in film. While many may question his competency behind a camera, no one can deny the clever dialogue and pre-Tarantino/Cody conversations he’s been responsible for.


So it should come as no surprise that over the last year or so, Smith has teamed up with production pal Scott Mosier to present SModcast, one of ITunes most popular downloads. Deriving its name from the participants initials (Smith/Mosier Podcast) and using the format for a weekly free form discussion of whatever strikes their fancy, it’s typically one of the best hours one can spend alone with their favorite MP3 device.  With the one year anniversary of the project coming up (the first SModcast arrived online on 8 February, 2007), SE&L wants to celebrate and look back at some of the highlights from the 40 plus installments. In doing so, the reasons for Smith and Mosier’s success can be easily understood.


First and foremost, the guys don’t shy away from popular or pandering subject matter. Smut sites like PornTube/Red Tube should actually send these guys a finder’s fee for the amount of traffic they drive to the deviant side of the ‘net. It’s not for sexual gratification or gratuity, though. Sure, there are discussions about hardcore and its ‘self-satisfaction’ facets, but Smith is genuinely intrigued by the fetish side of filth, and will go into long dissections of incredibly nasty XXX material - and make it funny and insightful as well. Mosier is more like the moderator, guiding the subject (no matter how sordid) with questions and queries meant to keep the audience from thinking that sex is the center of these filmmakers’ lives. Yet he too can have his prurient side. 


Hot button political issues are also an occasional source of in-depth analysis. Back in December, Smith felt some major audience bite back when he addressed race - more specifically, the lack of epithets geared toward whites. During the back and forth, he used several derogatory terms (for informational purposes, only) to describe blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and other ethnicities. The next week, he began the broadcast by commenting on the negative email and forum posts he got, recognizing that many failed to get the big picture point. This happens frequently during a SModcast. While he is talking to the general public, and his View Askew aware fanbase, Smith can be very insular. During a near two hour Christmas edition, Conan the Barbarian was deconstructed in such detail that John Milius must have found himself embarrassed over the detailed attention.


This is part of any podcast’s fatal flaw - that is, what the presenter finds intriguing or interesting may just bore the mainstream to death. But Smith seems acutely aware of that fact, and rarely lets the subject get so sidetracked. And he’s not afraid to take a stand. After reading about a particularly nasty case of pedophilia, our host was adamant that the criminal suffer a horrendous bodily penalty (something about the man’s testicles and a cleaver). Even when Mosier tried to step in and restrain his response, Smith was relentless. That’s a good word to describe SModcast. No matter the topic being bandied about, the show will try its damnedest to canvas all the angles.


Other themes include Smith’s ongoing battle of the bulge (the dude has a SERIOUS self esteem issue regarding his weight), Mosier’s love of Harry Potter and everything about the J.K. Rowling universe, post-marital sex, and the traffic in California (New Jersey-ite Smith relocated a while back). Every once in a while, the filmmaker and producer will actually talk shop. Currently in production on the Seth Rogen/Elizabeth Banks vehicle Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Smith will chat about casting and location shooting, while Mosier stresses the issues of making low budget films as compared to the rest of the movie mainstream. We also heard horror stories about past productions, as well as anecdotes about working in the business called show.


This usually leads to a lot of name dropping, and some wonderful yarns. Smith and Mosier still rib buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for their consistent failure to thank them during their Good Will Hunting awards run (the guys co-executive produced the Oscar winner). When it was announced that Jason Lee was going to make Underdog and Alvin and the Chipmunks, the company cast member (he’s appeared in almost every Smith project aside from the original Clerks) got some slightly less than good natured ribbing. Mosier occasional drops out to travel or take care of business. During these occasions, Smith calls on old buddies from his days in Jersey. Perhaps the best known is the Jay to his Silent Bob, the always evocative Jason Mewes. Their time together can be a treat.



Yet it’s Smith, and his wonderfully witty personality meshed with a true talent for working the vocabulary that makes SModcast into a must-subscribe stalwart of the fledgling medium. Whereas most Pod people fail to understand that rambling does not equal entertainment, or personal bias and perspective do not lead to universal acceptance, this is one of the few insiders whose ideas actually play perfectly to the general public at large. Even if you’re not a huge fan of Smith’s films, or find his constant referencing to his sex life with his wife to be much ado about bluffing, you can’t deny the presence and personality coming out of the headphones. It’s a rare gift, and a talent few can learn, let alone possess.


But Kevin Smith has it, and that’s why SModcast is so consistently intriguing. Where else would you hear a famous filmmaker discuss the problems of getting his ideas greenlit, where a friend will ruminate on the fact that his heroin addiction probably led to the loss of his teeth? Who else would make purposefully homophobic remarks about his best friend’s “man trips” to England and Europe? Where else can you hear grown men discuss what they would and would not glean through feces for, or life as the person in charge of casting porn films? Since the holidays, and the beginning of production on Zack and Miri, the regularity of the episodes has been thrown off. But here’s hoping that, once the movie hits the can, the dynamic duo will return to their weekly one-on-ones. Kevin Smith sure can yak, and SModcast is the perfect place to hear him do what he does best.   


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