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by Rob Horning

30 Aug 2009

I’ve been on vacation the past week in Wildwood, New Jersey, (North Wildwood to be precise) which is down the shore about 30 miles south of Atlantic City, near the southern tip of the state’s coastline. It’s long had a reputation as a working-class beach town for immigrants from Philadelphia, and it’s still not uncommon to see houses down there with the Italian and Irish flags flying from the awnings alongside the U.S. flag. Like its North Jersey equivalent, Seaside Heights, Wildwood has an extensive boardwalk that retains a carnivalesque atmosphere, where scams and bad bargains of all sorts are made to seem innocuous and where the water-gun-game barkers and snake-handling carneys and iron-on T-shirt makers seem like artisan practitioners of threatened traditional crafts.

I played lots of skee-ball to win tickets (my high-risk, high-reward strategy—always shoot for the 100s), which I could then trade in for plastic army men, balsa-wood propeller planes, and off-brand candy. I also rode an old wooden coaster that may have concussed me; I got off and wandered the amusement pier punch drunk, in search of place to sit and fortify myself with a lime ricky.

The upper middle classes from the Philadelphia area tend to eschew Wildwood in favor of Ocean City and Cape May, Avalon and Long Beach Island—similar places by and large that have somehow managed to manufacture class distinction for themselves. The aspirational towns tend to push a contrived family-friendliness and institute measures like charging a fee to use the beach to seem exclusive. Thanks to their protected reputations, real estate values rose dramatically during the bubble years in these towns, which meant that much of the earlier generations of buildings (the boarding houses and one-story “shit shacks”) have all been razed in favor of generic aluminum-sided, triple-decker condos and elaborate second-home mansions.

by Chris Barsanti

30 Aug 2009

Unlike the claims made by interviewees in many documentaries about a single, allegedly fascinating personality, there is one particularly grandiose one spouted off early in Ondi Timoner’s rough-cut but fascinating We Live in Public that actually seems to be true. Speaking of online media entrepreneur Josh Harris, one person refers to him as “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” While the film that follows does a crack job of making this case, it doesn’t much bother trying to convince viewers that they’ve necessarily missed out on anything by this omission.

Harris made himself millions by founding and selling a couple brilliantly-conceived businesses right at the dawn of the Internet, and went on to sell his soul for a shot at fame—before claiming that it was all just “performance art.” One business, Jupiter Communications, made him wealthy simply by collecting and selling online market research to people before most anybody else thought of it. His next venture, Pseudo, was even more forward-thinking. Never mind that it was the mid-1990s and online video involving watching a few seconds of movement on a tiny RealPlayer screen, in between long bouts of herky-jerky movement and flashing “Buffering” signs. Harris set up the first online television network, with channels on multiple subjects (hip-hop, art), all swaddled in a glittery blanket of Silicon Alley cool. Blinded by the light (and the sneaking possibility that nobody was really watching), investors snapped up the stock and Harris rode off with yet more millions.

Which is where Timoner’s film gets interesting. Flush with bubble money, in 1999 Harris dumped $2 million of it into building a multi-level underground stage for an art project of heretofore unseen scope. Called “Quiet: We Live in Public,” it was a giant stage completely wired for video and sound, where a hundred people would live in total surveillance. There was free food at a long banquet table, a bar with free drinks, a clear-sided public shower stall, long rows of cubicle-hotel sleeping racks, a heavily-stocked firing range, and (just for kicks) Stasi-like interrogation sessions. Most importantly, though: everything wasn’t just being recorded on film, all the participants could watch themselves and each other while it unfolded. It was an exhibitionist’s wet dream.

Harris would later try to claim in a 2008 communiqué that Pseudo (a hot-air enterprise which burned through millions before getting sucked down the sinkhole of the dot.com crash) was “a fake company” and just “the linchpin of a long form piece of conceptual art,” not a critical misreading of the public’s online desires. “We Live in Public,” however, certainly fulfilled the definition of conceptual art (that, or a very expensive game of rats-in-a-cage, played by a cold-hearted sociopath who just wanted to turn humans into his own personal TV actors).

The astounding footage that Timoner—who was one of Harris’ willing internees—includes makes the whole thing look like the Stanford Prison Experiment spliced with some hellish eternal loft party, all booze, tears, glitter, and mind games. Packed with free-loading performance artists, rave kids, and the whole orbit of hangers-on spun off from the decade’s IPO-flush party scene (and shut down by the NYPD on January 1, 2000), the whole thing seems the perfect capper to a particularly narcissistic period in the history of a famously self-obsessed city.

And that was before Harris launched his next project: wiring every nook and cranny of the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, for online broadcast.  While his exhibitionist bunker show presaged reality TV with the kind of visionary brio that made him so wealthy (Survivor and Big Brother premiered just months later in the summer of 2000), it was this next phase that truly managed to predict just where society was going.

It’s definitely disturbing to watch the scene Timoner includes where Harris and Corrin have a blow-out fight and then split off to their respective corners to check what people are saying in the online chat rooms. But one would be hard-pressed to say how different this scene is from a very common one from 2009: a couple sitting together in a restaurant and not talking, just plicking away at their respective PDAs.

It wasn’t for nothing that Harris was referred to as the “Warhol of the Web.” Self-indulgent or not, the creepily self-referential and airless digitized worlds he created were like flares being sent up from the not-so-distant past, lighting up the path that was taking us toward the anti-private, everybody’s-a-star world of today.

We Live in Public is nowhere near the film it could be. Although there’s a light dusting of criticism here and there, Timoner’s relationship with Harris (the two have been working on the film since 1999) seems too intertwined for her work to truly open the book on a man whose badly-timed brilliance seems almost matched by his eerie, clinically detached voyeurism and bratty quest for fame at all costs.

But then, most people who worked with Warhol seemed to take his similarly alien quietude in stride, as well. Of course, Warhol at least occasionally bothered to tell his painted or filmed subjects that they were fabulous, Harris (currently flogging another venture in look-at-me! Entertainment hucksterism, Wired City) just seems to be looking for the next IPO.

by Sarah Boslaugh

29 Aug 2009

If you were a Martian trying to figure out America in the second half of the 20th century, you could do worse than to start by reading Jules Feiffer’s Village Voice cartoons.  His strips for the Voice basically invented the genre of the adult comic, and that’s adult in the “content which would interest a mature person who thinks about the world around them” sense rather than in the XXX Pussycat Theatre sense. He created a model for strips like Tom Tomorrow’s “This Modern World” and David Rees’ “Get Your War On” which use the medium of comics to deliver a satirical take on current events and the world around us.

Feiffer took on the big public issues of the day. He was the first cartoonist to speak out against the war in Vietnam, he skewered Dwight Eisenhower for failing to support the Civil Rights movement, and pointed out the absurdities of the Cold War and the growing military-industrial complex. He tirelessly highlighted the misuse of language and the abuse of power, drawing on first-hand experience of the latter thanks to a stint in the U.S. Army.

If Feiffer had a recurring theme, it was the refusal of those in power to confront reality, describe it clearly, and take action. Not content to bask in America’s postwar prosperity, he always prodded his country to be better. But Feiffer was not always abrasive: when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he ran a strip in which a child reads a fairy tale about a handsome prince who woke up a sleeping country—but when the prince was assassinated they went right back to sleep.

Feiffer developed a distinctive style incorporating a flexible number of “frames” which were usually just images separated by white space. They often featured a single individual speaking directly to the reader, like an actor delivering a monologue on stage. That may have been a metaphor for the isolation of modern man but also accommodated Feiffer’s somewhat undeveloped artistic style: his strength was characterization and dialogue, not elaborate backgrounds or action sequences. Concentrating on dialogue let him display his knack for capturing how different types of people presented themselves in speech while subtly undermining their statements with his art.
 
A memorable strip in 1963 featured a spokesman for the peace movement who’s just discovered the reason for the movement’s failure: they haven’t marketed peace as a product. But they’re going Madison Avenue now and as with any advertising campaign, it’s important to find the right tone: “If we’re going to make peace catch on as a product, we’ve got to make it as masculine as war!” How to accomplish this? By borrowing the language of the Pentagon, so peace councils become “Peace Commands” (Peace Comms for short) and peace workers become “Trouble Shooters” who run programs with themes like “Peace Escalation.” He concludes: “Gentlemen, once we make the image of peace more warlike, our fund raising problems will be over! I’m sure congress will be happy to give us all we want.”

Fantagraphics is issuing Feiffer’s Village Voice strips in bound volumes: the first to appear is Explainers: The Complete Village Voice Strips 1956-1966 which came out in May. Some of the material treated in these comics is past history: we no longer have to deal with Joe McCarthy or worry about the Soviet Union blowing us all to smithereens. But it’s amazing and somewhat disheartening how contemporary many of them seem.

In 1961 Feiffer drew a strip of a well-dressed man explaining the news business to the unwashed: publish diverting trivia and press releases and leave real reporting alone. “Free press? We’re a nation of trade journals!” The only reason that’s not totally current today is because we barely have any newspapers left worth paying attention to. Even the Village Voice, once a leader in investigative journalism, has today become just another free weekly from New Times Media. So criticizing newspapers may soon be a nostalgic pursuit tantamount to complaining about the scratchy sound from your record player or that the keys on your typewriter are sticking.

Feiffer’s greatest contribution may be his enduring portraits of notable types among his fellow private citizens. He views them through a rather jaundiced eye and of course they’re studied in their neuroses (cultural note: neurosis is a basic emotion for New Yorkers) and totally full of themselves, but so vulnerable and human at the same time. He ceased cartooning for the Voice in 1997 but his characters live on in popular culture.

There were Bernard and Huey, two masculine archetypes who would later turn up as Sandy (Art Garfunkel) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) in Mike Nichol’s 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. Bernard was timid, reflective, and sensitive and never got the girl, while Huey was confident, oblivious and had to fight them off with a stick. And of course Bernard could never figure out what he was doing wrong, while the women who went home with Huey saw no contradiction in declaring that they like sensitive guys only to ditch him every time for the brute.

Then there was the leotard-clad modern dancer perpetually offering a “dance to Spring” or a “dance to the loss of innocence” which always began optimistically and frequently ended with her twisted up like a pretzel or cowering in the corner. She’s still with us, most recently as the subject of a production at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2009.

Pointless (and often self-imagined) personal competitions were a regular theme, and often music was the battleground. In those days it was jazz rather than indie rock but the spirit was exactly the same. A Feiffer beatnik confidently proclaims that jazz was invented by Steve Allen in 1955 and is taught at the New School.  “If you don’t like it, you’d better learn. It’s the coming thing.”

In another strip, a middle-class gentleman is determined to puncture the pretensions of those who claim to be cool. It’s become difficult since everyone has learned the “right” books to buy and the “right” records to listen to: yes there were recipes for hip non-conformity in the 1950’s just as there are today. But not to fear, he’s found the solution to unmasking the pseudo-hip: he sneaks over and turns on their radios! If they’ve left it on WQXR, they’re busted! The take-home message:  take care to change the setting on all your radio dials to an approve station before throwing a party, lest an undercover hipness detective be on the guest list.

Here’s a final image which should prove that the more things seem to change, the more they really don’t. Two small boys inspect a crater. One explains that programs for public housing and school construction were proposed to boost employment, but were politically unacceptable as government interference with the free market. Then a bomb fell out of the sky, leaving a huge crater, and workers had to be hired to fill it in. So the solution to unemployment was found by accident: the government started a bomb-dropping program and put people to work filling in the craters. As the boy concludes, this leaves everyone happy because “Nobody complains about national defense.”

by Bill Gibron

29 Aug 2009

Frank Frazetta and Ralph Bakshi were two highly influential icons from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The former, through his paintings and cover illustrations, literally redefined the look and feel of the fantasy genre. The latter, both beloved and controversial, took cartooning in a more complex and adult direction, formulating such cult classics as Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Wizards. As the ‘80s began, the popularity of the sword and sorcery pulp category was at an all time high, and Bakshi wanted to continue exploring the realm. While his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings had proven problematic, bringing Frazetta’s beef and cheesecake conceits to life seemed like a perfect post-American Pop challenge. Oddly enough, it would be the last film the animator would director for nearly a decade.

At its core, Fire and Ice is really nothing more than a battle between elemental good and evil, hot and cold representing each dramatic conceit, respectively. In the allegorical tale, evil Queen Juliana has raised her son Nekron to be a master of the dark arts. Through pure manipulation of will, he can control a massive glacier, sending it roaring across the fertile lands of this unnamed world. Destroying everything in his path, our villain uses an army of Neanderthal like “dogs” to do the rest of his unholy bidding. In the volcanic region of Firekeep, King Jarol is worried. Unless some manner of peace treaty can be reached with the advancing forces, his dominion is doomed. Nekron demands absolute subservience, and when Jarol refuses, the wicked warlord kidnaps his daughter, Princess Teegra. It is up to a drifter named Larn and his partner/protector Darkwolf to step in and save the day.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way right up front - those who hoped that Blue Underground would release both Fire and Ice and the previous two disc DVD bonus feature, the brilliant Frazetta documentary Painting with Fire, as part of this otherwise fantastic format upgrade will be gravely disappointed. True, the main feature is still offered here in all its uncut glory, and the Blu-ray version looks amazing. It’s colorful, detailed, and showcases Bakshi’s unique approach to animation brilliantly. But that 2003 in-depth exploration at the life and work of the storyline’s source and artistic inspiration (Frazetta did collaborate on the project helping with character and costume design) is no longer part of the packaging. Sadly, it turns a previous must-own into something of a casual curiosity.

Indeed, there will be many who take one look at Fire and Ice, compare it to the current crop of computer-aided animated films, and wonder why anyone would champion such a visually awkward approach. At this point in his career, Bakshi was exploring the possibilities of rotoscoping, an old process by which live action footage was “drawn over” to create a more realistic sense of cartoon movement. Having embraced the technique in full for his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy (that film covers about the first book and a half), he would literally hire actors, put them through their paces on film, and then turn said material over the animators. Painstaking and problematic, rotoscoping produced what Bakshi called “painting in motion.” In retrospect, it was a perfect match with Frazetta’s epic illustrations.

Yet there is also something clunky and incomplete about the look, a lack of fluidity and finesse that will leave some fans feeling cold. Bakshi does everything he can to liven up the proceedings, giving characters like Nekron the full blown psycho bad guy treatment. There is also a heavy undercurrent of sexuality and machismo present, the characters truly connected to their physicality and form. The one thing you can definitely say about Fire and Ice is that Bakshi and his illustrators really emphasize the functionality of form, putting all aspects of the human (and other) body to expert use.

In addition, the narrative does contain enough twists and turns to keep us engaged. Certainly there are times when Larn’s lack of skill and Teegra’s tendency toward always being recaptured grows old. We like a little variety in our plotting, to see our characters grow, learn, and improve. Here, without Darkwolf’s constant interference, we’d have nothing more than happenstance and failure. Toward the end, when Nekron lets the full force of his evil come alive, Fire and Ice definitely finds its footing. The stand-off is handled very well indeed and the acting really emphasizes what’s at stake. While lacking any known names, the voice work here is strong overall, Bakshi getting the best out of everyone involved.

Still, Fire and Ice will feel like a slight disappointment, a blood and bodice filled misfire that occasionally looks like a corrupted episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Indeed, rotoscoping limits what can be done within the narrative. If Bakshi didn’t film it, it couldn’t be illustrated, and while rare hand drawn elements like the Dragonhawks provide a moment of artistic freedom, everything else is truly locked into the approach. Indeed, one of the reasons Bakshi remains a well-regarded if marginalized figure within the world of animation is his rebellious desire to do things in ways both inventive and aggravating. He’s been accused of being a racist and a revolutionary. Luckily, he’s on hand here to guide a fairly informative commentary track, as well as a Q&A on working with Frazetta. There’s also an old Making-of featurette which explains the rotoscoping process more fully.

Newcomers to Bakshi’s world will probably be less than impressed with what goes on here. Yet in some ways, Fire and Ice and the way in which the film was made highlights the growing changes in animation throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. It many ways, it can be seen as a precursor to the mainstream acceptance of anime, the Japanese conceit that combines detailed realism with visionary ambition to accentuate the plotting and character performance. While Frazetta is a minor player here (made even more so by the Blu-ray’s lack of Painting with Fire), his imprint remains strong within Bakshi’s bravado turns.

While Fire and Ice is less of a classic and more of a oddity, it definitely delivers what it promises. Sadly, it would signal the last full length animated feature the filmmaker would ever produce. Bakshi would go on to make the Gabriel Byrne/Brad Pitt/Kim Basinger live action combo Cool World, but he has yet to return to the artform that made him famous. Like Frazetta, he seems locked into a time when FM radio provided a potent backdrop for misspent youth and adolescent angst. No matter how serious the connection to speculative fiction or fantasy, both men will be remembered for the nature of their artistry. Fire and Ice is a perfect example of why. 

by Tyler Gould

29 Aug 2009

Because not enough of the world’s music has Timbaland’s stamp on it, he teamed up with Rockstar Games to create a music mixer based on this Flash toy. The result is Beaterator, and it’s coming out for the PSP on September 29th, replete with beats, loops, and a veritable smorgasbord of sounds meticulously crafted by the hit machine himself.

Between this, the utilitarian KORG DS-10, and the inimitable Electroplankton, developers are carving out an interesting niche for music production on handheld video game consoles. Check out this video to see Timbaland in action, Beaterator in hand.

   

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