Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Feb 1, 2008


It’s the lost ones that always seem to find each other, star crossed or not, planned or accidental. To them, life is an exploration made more manageable by like associations, similar philosophies, and a belief in liberation as both a blessing and a curse. Sex is also a catalyst, binding indifference to affection and making both as addictive as smack. And when reality comes calling, when the truth of the 9 to 5, dollars and cents social structure demands some ritualistic sacrifice, these inseparables manage to dodge the bullets and keep on running. Baby Shoes and Alex are such a couple. She sells her underwear to perverts on the Internet. He plays protector, and when the time is right, green-eyed zelophile. Together they form a union more perfect than that of classical paramours. It’s also clear that they’re barely hanging on.


In his absolutely stunning and undeniably brilliant short film Alex and Her Arse Truck, UK filmmaker Sean Conway creates the kind of character sketch that has you sitting back, slack jawed, in satisfied contemplation. It’s a movie that sticks with you long after the final image has faded away. Similar in style to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, but far more fierce in its unconventional flair, this is a book come bounding to life, a novel’s worth of detail and depth in 15 far too brief minutes. The main narrative is easy to understand - Alex is planning on taking a bath, and her man plans on watching. Along the way we meet a geek burglar, a well-endowed swimmer, two larded drug dealing lesbians, and a pub filled with reprobate raffling off our heroine’s soiled knickers. While there are hints of other stories in all these recognizable references Conway’s work has the overall effect of being wholly original and wildly inventive.



Like his American counterpart, trailer park Pasolini Giuseppe Andrews (the indie genius contributed two songs to the soundtrack here), Conway is interested in life the way it’s really lived - not the sugar coated, candy colored version of existence fed to us via television and advertising. There is a razor sharp authenticity here, an eccentricity meshed with the undeniable truth that easily takes one’s breath away. His actors really help sell the situation. As Baby Shoes, Danny Young is dynamic, looking like a slightly less smug Colin Farrell. He brings a real warmth to his jealousy-torn role, and his voice over narration is loaded with story enhancing emotion. Similarly, Gina Blondell’s Alex is the flawless personification of everything Conway wants to convey. She’s sexy, stupid, alluring, ambiguous, and ever so slightly out of reach. Even her walk screams something significant. In a setup that mandates a ying to a partner’s yan, Young and Blondell make a wonderful - and better yet, believable - pair.


Conway is also a true star here, a future filmmaking giant just waiting to have his rock solid aesthetic appreciated by the masses. Thanks to the lovely photography by Lol Crowley and the director’s attention to detail, we find ourselves lost in this carnival like collection of fringe dwellers. Conway also has a satisfying habit of being overly aggressive with his cues. At any given moment, the movie feels like it’s getting away from us, ready to rush forward faster than we are willing to accept. Many times, a scooter riding Young will simply take off out of frame, leaving us behind to contemplate what the emergency is. Clearly, like everything else in this manchild’s frame of reference, the day’s too short to simply sit back and appreciate the details. If you don’t hurry, conservatives and conformity will catch up with you.



There are other layers to Alex and her Arse Truck that help make this 15 minute masterwork feel far more fleshed out and realized. Race becomes a subversive sexual subject, as does overweight lesbian congress. We get surreal, enigmatic images of a swimming man covered in Band-Aids and a cheerleading group practicing in a darkened parking lot. The musical score does a great job of supplementing the circumstances, amplifying the out of control atmosphere and accenting the characters. As unheralded auteurs go, Sean Conway will definitely be a name to watch in the future. If there is any justice in an artform landscape littered with lame journeyman hacks, his will be a creative spark recognized and revered. Alex and her Arse Truck is all the proof anyone needs.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Feb 1, 2008

An ad in today’s Los Angeles Times proclaims:


Go from no travel

to know travel


Which caught my attention, since it is a major premise behind this blog.


But, for those who know, it isn’t enough to “know” (you know?). Because, as in all things in life, what



makes



a thing live, what brings it to life, is the



how



. As in: how the travel is described. How the trek is rendered into words is what makes that place, or event, the people, their practices and beliefs, their paintings and songs and sports and abodes and pets and sartorial styling and favored slang, breathe. Only then does an object of our attention take on dimension, assume texture, radiate color. So, when it comes to travel writing, there is the travel, sure. And the travel is comprised of the sightings and the happenstances and the cadence of the spaces. But there is also that small matter of the writing that brings it all into focus. The words make the places palpable. One without the other and neither can be. Not complete, at least. Not a perfect sum; a satisfactory set; a finished whole.


Imagine that.


Which, when I do, often freezes me fast in my tracks. As in: “Yikes!” What is it that I must do? To explain this place. And how could I ever possibly make it so? And is this really going to be enough? So that you would possibly, truly know.


Which brings us to this reality. As sad as it is true:


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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. 



Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.