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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008


Remember back when the ultimate Woody Allen reference regarding his recent film output went a little something like this - “I prefer his early, funny films.”? Well, there’s a new movie mantra one can use in association with the former American auteur - “I prefer his earlier films, period.” During a self imposed European exile where one return to form (Match Point) has been masked by a series of substantial disappointments, Allen has indicated he will soon return to the US to overhaul is oeuvre. And if Cassandra’s Dream, his latest underperforming offering, is any indication of his motives, the man clearly recognizes the aesthetic slump he is in.


Ian and Terry are two working class blokes from London. Both dream of a better life. Ian works in their father’s restaurant, hobnobbing with businessmen who promise him part in their lucrative real estate deals. Terry is a mechanic, hands constantly dirty and mind stuck in a spiraling cycle of gambling and drink. When he looses £90,000 one night, he goes to his brother for help. Their decision? Seek some financial backing from their benevolent Uncle Howard. He runs a series of successful clinics, and always seems to have large amounts of cash to give the family. But when they ask for his help, Howard turns the tables. Seems he’s under investigation for unethical - even criminal - activities. He needs the boys to do him a favor. He needs them to kill the board member that’s ratting him out. Stunned, Ian and Terry weigh their options. One wants to take care of his pregnant girlfriend. The other wants the money to break out of his desperate life. Together, they must decide what they are - men, or murderers.


Though he’s tackled crime and misdemeanors before, Allen is the last director you’d imagine capable of creating a tense, interfamilial suspense thriller. There’s just too much classicism in him, too much Greek tragedy meshed with hours spent in Manhattan arthouses absorbing every Bergman riff imaginable. Trying to balance the demands of his well-meaning motives with the requirements of the genre leaves Allen unsettled and ineffective, two words that encompass the creative drought evident in Cassandra’s Dream. It’s not just the overdone angst, the push me/pull you problems in the storyline, or the odd sensation of hearing English actors spout the filmmaker’s patented New York-isms. No, the real problem with this talky, turgid exercise in moral ambiguity is that Allen has finally found a cinematic category he can’t fully handle - and the resulting awkwardness is undeniably dull.


While stars Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell are both accomplished actors, it’s only the latter that makes an impact. Though he chain smokes to the point of distraction, Terry is the weaker member of the conspiracy, and as a result, the one we feel the closest bond toward. McGregor’s Ian is so smugly sure that he’s destined for business acumen greatness that we can’t connect to his perplexed pipe dreaming. At least Farrell’s flawed sibling uses realistic vices - gambling, drink, lying - as a means of making sense of his lax life. If they are supposed to represent two sides of a similarly dispirit coin, we don’t see the connection. Instead, it’s like watching Slack and Slacker complain about their miserable existence in clipped British accents.


Even worse, those around Ian and Terry are like specters, ill-conceived one note supporters that never provide a foundation for their feelings or flaws. Tom Wilkinson’s Uncle Howard, supposedly rich and successful, comes across as vague and poorly written. He has enough money to buy and sell his relatives out of their ever increasing financial worries. He can jet set around the world and keep high living arrangements in three very expensive cities. Yet the minute his ethical lot is challenged by a whistleblower, he has no other option than to ask his nephews to commit murder. If it was a matter of counter comeuppance, a kind of challenge to his young charges to put their morals where their mouth is, Allen needed to run his screenplay through the typewriter a couple more times. As it stands, the half-assed hitman angle feels like a necessary narrative catalyst, nothing more.


Equally uninspired are the other personalities floating around the boys. Claire Higgins mother character is so whiny (‘we’re poor, and it’s all Dad’s fault’) that when Allen tries something novel with her toward the end, we don’t respond. Similarly, there are so many clues and connections being expressed by Terry’s gal pal Lucy that we wonder why she hasn’t called the police and turned the brothers in. Yet the worst offender is Sally Hawkin’s Kate. Spewing lines that would sound arch even coming out of the circa ‘70s mouth of Diane Keaton, she’s the spoiled, slutty actress whose muse is the excuse for her bed hopping indistinctness. We never really care for her, so we don’t see Ian’s fascination. Oddly enough, Allen lets both girlfriends drop at the end, hoping something poignant comes from it. It doesn’t work.


Indeed, all of Cassandra’s Dream is a moody, maudlin miscue. Whereas previous Allen efforts revolving around good people doing bad things had a stigma of social relevance to them, the entire narrative plays like so much UK jive. There is nothing particularly English about what Allen is up to, nothing indicating an insight into people or place. Instead, this is a clear case of locational locomotion - taking a bland, baseless story and sticking it wherever the travel agency takes you. Perhaps in a US setting, without the ephemeral ambience of a European perspective, this material might work. But one senses Allen treading water here, waiting for his next bout of inspiration. Clearly, it’s been a long time coming and has yet to arrive.


Which all leads back to the opening thought. Is Allen helping or hurting his legacy by pumping out the product - ANY product - every 18 months or so? Would his already wounded reputation benefit from a little artistic hindsight, a banishment both creatively and continentally? When something like the incomplete experimentation of Alice or September appear like masterworks in comparison, Cassandra’s Dream really shows its fatal flaws. The only true tragedy here is that a once vital and important filmmaker has apparently lost his way. Whether he finds it upon a return to his native soil remains to be seen. Clearly, the move abroad was a mistake. Cassandra confirms this. 


 



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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008


This is the Paul Thomas Anderson that all his past films promised. This is the unbelievably talented young gun whose been accused of channeling Robert Altman for a lack of his own signature style. All reverence and referencing are now officially gone, replaced by a solid conceit which announces the 37 year old as one of his generation’s greatest. How Upton Sinclair’s mannered Oil! became this brilliant dissection of greed and God, stoked by a sensational performance by Daniel Day Lewis as wildcatter Daniel Plainview, will remain part of cinema’s creative karma. Still, all credit to a director for playing outside his contemporary comfort zone, exploring period piece precision in a way that few filmmakers have ever managed to accomplish. In concert with the amazing cinematography and storytelling, we end up with an epic so electric it threatens to destroy everything we know about the medium.


When we first meet the ambitious prospector, Plainview is trading silver for surveys and supplies. His ultimate goal is oil, and he soon strikes it rich. Hoping to interest the big companies in his land-based pipeline ideal, Plainview targets a small town. Thanks to a tip from a disgruntled member of the destitute Sunday family, the mogul gets what he wants. But it comes with a price that he may not be willing to pay. Local preacher Eli, brother of the betrayer, wants Plainview to support his fledging church. With lip service and lies, the two come to a cautious accord. But as money begins to blur the ethics of all involved, both sides start to suffer. Plainview’s young son is injured in an accident, and Sunday uses the issue to blackmail the man. Even worse, an important piece of land stands between the tycoon and his ambitious dream. As usual, Eli holds all the cards - or at least, that’s what Plainview lets him think.


When you remove the turn of the century pretext, There Will Be Blood is really nothing more than a battle between two ancient religions - Christianity and Capitalism. Both dogmas are offered in their most perverted, unsavory versions, each one championed by an icon seemingly forged directly out of the individual ideologies’ darkest heart. Plainview is the most obvious in his subversion. He may play protector and beneficiary, but the only good that will ever come out of his speculation inures to his bank account only. On the other end of the spectrum, spiritually if not in principle, is Eli Sunday. The original flim flamming man of God, this unholy holy roller wants everyone to believe in his noble, church going purpose. But again, we soon discover that there’s more to his motives than Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Indeed, between the two, Eli is more evil, since he can’t differentiate between the congregation and his own personal coffers. For Plainview, it’s always about his own pockets.


The war that Anderson sets up plays out against a blistering backdrop of the West as untamed wilderness. Forget the cowboys and their Native American enemies. Ignore the gunslingers and the main street High Noon showdowns. This is how the new frontier was won (or better still, overthrown), and it’s more cutthroat and depraved than any exchange of gunfire. By using the indomitable pioneer spirit against itself, by showing that everyone has an agenda when it comes to land, money, and the fine art of the double cross, Anderson lifts the story beyond its patient, personal components. In some ways, it’s like watching human incarnations of philosophical opposites striving for karmic control. Both men here are despicable and self-centered, but only Plainview lives up to his name. Even with his Cheshire Cat grin and down home palaver, the man is one mean SOB.


Sunday is the harder component to get a handle on, and it’s to actor Paul Dano’s credit that he never lets Day-Lewis overwhelm him. A last minute replacement on the film (apparently, Anderson was not happy with his first choice), he brings an unnerving quiet to what could have been a scenery chewing caricature. Religious fervor often brings out the worst in a performer, letting the spirit overtake any sense of subtlety. Here, Dano is all underplayed menace. He seems weak willed and self-righteous, but the minute Plainview tries to trounce him, the wily preacher shows his hidden horrors. Sunday is easily the oddest element in the film, a figure that some may mistake as minor. But in truth, he supplies the most important facets of the film - a barrier begging for our sly industrialist to confront and conquer. And it’s not an easy campaign.


Naturally, all the buzz that’s built around Day-Lewis and his work here may seem like nothing more than massive media blitzing, but for once, the hype is actually under-serving the work. The English thesp is absolutely spellbinding, so good that his mere presence in a room creates untold levels of character complexity. Some have likened his voice and manner to late filmmaking legend John Huston, but that’s not all together true. Instead, Daniel Plainview is the very essence of the self-made man, a human carved out of the various personalities and perspectives he’s gained in a world filled with business-oriented observation. He’s a master mimic and manipulator. Anderson makes this a physical as well as emotional reality by having the first act of the film play out in pantomime - no dialogue, just Day-Lewis in all his 49er regalia, endlessly toiling for that next scrap of the dream. He is building who he is as he systematically stakes his claims.


As a director, Anderson does a sensational job of assembling his story, He starts small - closed in caves and small ranch shacks. Before long, we see Plainview literally traversing the distance between his claim and the Pacific Ocean. Every so often, the plot throws our emblematic anti-hero an issue (complex son, long lost brother, obstructionist land owner) and we watch as our auteur devises interesting and insightful ways of having Plainview overcome them. By the end, he’s so indestructible, so completely devoid of inherent human kindness that a chance for reconciliation and redemption are avoided for one last game of one-upmanship. Within a design centered more on individuals than ideas, it’s amazing how deep Anderson manages to get. Add in the stellar look and texture of the film and you’ve got one mesmerizing masterpiece.


In fact, the funny thing about There Will Be Blood is that it has the kind of narrative resonance that drives a wedge into your subconscious. As you sit around, days…even months later, your mind wanders back to certain symbolic items: the burning oil rig; Plainview passed out on the floor; Eli’s ethereal services; the last line of dialogue - “I’m finished”. It all gels into the kind of monumental motion picture experience the artform has been missing for far too long. If this movie is ignored come awards time, it will merely be another sign of its lasting classicism. True cinematic greatness eventually gains critical consensus. For Anderson, Day-Lewis, and Blood, the time is clearly now.


 



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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008


Hype - specifically the viral, Internet marketing kind - has been under the gun recently, thanks in part to the failure in 2006 of Snakes on a Plane. Pimped and overplayed by fans who felt the title alone indicated a pure kitsch confection, the resulting benign b-movie was very good. But compared to the web-based blitzkrieg that came before, excitement and expectations were bound to clash and then be dashed. The failure forced studios to reexamine its information superhighway strategies. It didn’t stop Lost legend J.J. Abrams from embracing the concept for his latest production - the monster destroys Manhattan home movie Cloverfield. Now, after months of speculation and backwards ballyhoo, the novel genre effort has arrived - and it definitely lives up to the propaganda.


Young Rob Hawkins is leaving New York for a new job opportunity in Tokyo. On the night before his departure, younger brother Jason, best friend Hud, and various friends and family have gathered to celebrate. They include Jason’s fiancé Lily and the object of Hud’s obsessive affection, Marlena. The only person missing is Beth, Rob’s long time gal pal and secret love interest. Confused by something that happened between them weeks before, the trip to Japan has both questioning their commitment. During the festivities, an earthquake - or something like it - hits the city. Suddenly, the power goes out. In the panic, the partygoers head for the building’s roof. There, they see something horrifying. A section of Manhattan explodes into a massive fireball. Then there is a scream. It’s something big. It’s something angry. It’s something ready to destroy New York, block by block. 


Cloverfield is the first great film of 2008. It defies or exceeds the potential inherent in the premise and the approach. Those who believe they are in for another Burkittsville romp will be stunned by the surprising scope here. Somehow, within the POV ideal, TV director Matt Reeves has found a way to make events play out as epic and beyond our comprehension. There are sequences of silent terror. There are moments of big budget action set piecing. Buried in the middle is a believable story about post-modern kids, cameras and cellphones in hand, trying to make sense of some undeniably Earth shattering events. This is so much more than a mere Blair Witch Godzilla. This is a film about perspective, about how we view our world through the media’s mighty lens.


Like Cannibal Holocaust, which used torture and reprehensible atrocities to take on the glaring, unforgiving eye of the filmmaker, Reeves reinvents the giant creature category of horror to question our perverse POV fixation. During the initial chaos, when fireballs and skyscrapers are falling to the ground, one of the characters asks Hud why he’s still filming (he was assigned the job of getting taped testimonials during the party). His answer is matter of fact - “People are gonna want to see this. They’re gonna want to know how it went down.” That’s 2008 in a nutshell, a social conceit that doesn’t believe anything as reported unless there’s accompanying footage taken from an up close and personal perspective. There’s another telling moment when a band of looters pauses to watch a TV report on the attack. Though the events are happening right outside the shop, they are transfixed by how the small screen editorializes and distances them from the fray.


Much of Cloverfield functions this way. Through the lens of a handheld camcorder, the impressive beast (and the astonishing special effects used to create it) comes across as totally believable and unnerving. Even with the shaky, optically disorienting aesthetic used in both the composition and narrative construction helps sell the concept. Full on, what we see here might appear fake or forced. But captured in glimpses, viewed out of the corner of the frame or in the distance as part of another scene’s backdrop, the rampage is a revelation. Those who get queasy from such a Blair/Bourne ideal may want to pack a little Dramamine before they head to the Cineplex. But there is no cure for the impact and power the visual element brings to the standard scare tactics.


Certainly, there are references and homages everywhere. A jaunt down a dark, foreboding subway tunnel recalls Stephen King’s The Stand and moments from James Cameron’s Aliens. The battle between the military and the monster resemble any number of Kaiju experiences from the past, while the makeshift medical lab hints at other world-ending virus tales. What we don’t expect is the Brooklyn Bridge destroying melee, as well as the scramble across a pair of damaged apartment towers. Some of this material may seem sensationalized, presented for the pure art of action. And character motive is sketchy at best. But Reeves, along with Lost scribe Drew Goddard, are relying on our post-9/11 instinct of survival at any cost, and our need for familial connections, to explain the contradictions.


Indeed, the obvious references to the World Trade Center attack (massive debris clouds consuming the streets, victims covered in soot roaming aimlessly through the chaos) is a wonderful - and wise - choice. Because that was a media driven disaster, something 90% of us experienced via our television set and nothing else, it helps sell such a stylized design. Even better, the first person POV that made The Blair Witch Project such a noted novelty works much better here. Of course, this could be because Cloverfield has an actual plot. It’s not a Candid Camera “gotcha” like indie experiment. While comparisons are fair, they’re far from direct. Witch definitely wastes its haunted woods potential. This amazing movie makes the most of the caught as it happens dynamic.


It will be interesting to see how this film eventually plays on the small screen. Since it’s the kind of entertainment that requires the display of a theater to sell its scale, a move to DVD may diminish much or all of its power. But there is still enough awe-inspiring imagery and dread-building suspense here to keep fright fans happy, while those looking for something to salvage an already awful cinematic January should jump for joy. There will be split sentiments - typically along already established genre love/hate lines - over the effectiveness of this gloriously gimmicky exercise in storytelling. The best advice? Ignore the hype and experience Cloverfield for yourself. It’s the only way to gauge how valuable the pre-release You Tubing of the title actually was. Besides, you’ll get a chance to see one of the year’s biggest surprises in the process.


 


 


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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008

I’ve been reading Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch, which argues that computing power has become a centralized utility, like electricity, and the consequences of this will be nothing like what such utopians as Kevin Kelly, et al., have predicted. It won’t be a force for unleashing innovation and personal freedom; instead it will enact a more thorough state surveillance capability and be a powerful disincentive for creating intellectual property, leaving our culture awash in dilettante-produced mediocrity. Rather than pay an elite group of talented content-creators, companies can instead draw from the pool of free, user-generated content, a boon of unpaid labor, and monetize it in a way the individual workers can’t. (Management consultant types call this crowdsourcing. In a blog post, Carr called it digital sharecropping.)


Carr acknowledges that people have good reasons for donating their labor—namely, they are paid in recognition and the work is usually a creative outlet. But you still get the sense that it annoys him that amateurs are able to amuse and inform one another, that they are taking bread out of the mouths of anointed media professionals. Carr quotes a photojournalist who says that “the internet ‘economy’ has devastated my sector.” And presumably we are supposed to feel sorry for him, though what this means is that more people are sharing more images documenting more of the world’s activity for people to make use of as they see fit than ever before. Photojournalism is no longer strictly a matter of having the privileged connections to get work publicized and have one’s talent sanctified. If photojournalists feel threatened, its because they are being made aware how much of their distinction is a matter of access to travel and equipment and high-profile places to publish their work. If their work was so far superior to the work of amateurs, wouldn’t publishers and collectors be willing to pay for it, since everyone would see the difference and it would be something that could be marketed? The difference in talent may not equal the savings, and may never again. That seems to be what Carr is arguing, and lamenting: “Many cultural goods remain expensive to create or the painstaking work of talented professionals and it’s worth considering how the changing economics of media will affect them.” Hmm. I’ve considered it, and I’m inclined to say good riddance.


Being an obscure nobody, I’m strongly tempted (it probably already shows in my tone) to revel in schadenfreude and gloat about the misery of established artists or creative workers. How one feels about the fate of the poor photojournalist may be a litmus test for what one believes overall about talent. I’ve tended to think talent is far more subjective and ineffective that it’s generally held to be—that is, that it has no measurable value in mometary terms, but can only be assigned an approximate dollar value residually after other explanations for art market variances are accounted for—and that determination and connections are more important to success. And maybe, since these are somewhat destructive attributes to have, despoiling most personal relationships and making everyday life somewhat of a prod and a torment, they deserve to be amply compensated; those who are cursed with them are driven to produce the stuff we in our leisure can happily consume, while we enjoy things like family life and interpersonal relationships. We may need an airtight system of intellectual property rights to entice these miserably ambitious people to make commercial art, but that art, cherish it now though we may, is not the best or only art there is. It just happens to be what our economic system privileged and yielded and lauded, with a whole adjuct commercial system of reviewers and appraisers and collectors with a vested interest in it. If such work is “crowded out of the Web’s teeming bazaar” that may not be such a crushing loss. It may simply mean we need to recalibrate our aesthetic understanding of what we dub to be brilliant art to be something other than that which is created by an individual and possessed by a wealthy collector. We may have to accept art that is made collectively, distributed for free, and is never quite in a finished form. We may have to understand creative work as a process rather than a product. Horrible, I know.


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Thursday, Jan 17, 2008

The NME reports that George Michael has signed a major book deal with HarperCollins. According to the article, George will write a “no holds barred”, “truly authentic” autobiography set to shock more than any press article could hope to. I, of course, am too excited as George Michael is on my list of Top 10 Men I Just Love to Death. Funny, though, that none of articles online today mentions Bare, the book from way back in 1991. That book was considered way no holds barred for its time, and proved quite juicy, if a little odd, as George talks about “George Michael” as an alter-ego he wished to let go of.


This new book, obviously, will be updated to include the drugs, arrests, and whatever, that have plagued, one might say, George recently. Hopefully, too, we’ll get a good long spiel from George about the benefits of music downloading, as mentioned on BBC News here. Still, Bare is a fairly saucy read, if lacking in truth somewhat. It was released, after all, long before George officially came out. What it does reveal, however, is how self-aware the guy is. I can’t wait to read the updated life story, with the new, open George on the literary loose.


I can’t find a release date for the book, so while we wait, let’s look at George on Extras, the TV cameo of the year:



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