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Tuesday, Dec 18, 2007

In BusinessWeek a few issues ago (I’m just starting to catch up on my reading), Peter Burrows was pushing subscription music services, trotting out some sensible arguments against being tied down to enjoying only the music you own—you can discover so much new stuff, sample music on whims, and listen to a lot of cheesy songs you wouldn’t necessary want on preserve on your hard drive. And you don’t have to worry about a hard drive crash erasing your collection, because you won’t have a collection: peace of mind through shedding belongings, which bring with them the anxiety of having to protect them. (This always makes me think of Spalding Grey explaining in Swimming to Cambodia how he conquered his fear of swimming in deep water by leaving his wallet in plain view on the beach. He was so worried about the wallet being stolen that he didn’t think about the danger of being too far from shore.)


It seems inevitable that eventually a wireless device will be introduced that gives you access to all of recorded music for a subscription fee. The technology seems to be in place; it just requires the right combination of design, promotion and cooperation among what’s left of the music industry. And this will seem like a great idea until people realize what a pain in the ass it is to select what they want to hear from the near infinite possibilities, and will long for the simplicity of radio stations one trusts to play good music. This, anyway, is what Sirius seems to be banking on, as their cocky commercials about their portable players implies.


For those who aren’t indifferent or open-minded enough to give over control over what music they hear to professional—to people who must play DJ for themselves (and probably their friends) ownership of music is essential for several reasons. First, making the purchase is a decision-making moment that in itself gives pleasure—it’s a moment in which one gets to make some piece of knowledge one has operational. The decision also invests one emotionally in the thing purchased, increasing the possibility for enjoying it. This is one of the sad realities of consumer societies, that putting money where your mouth is is way to fix your attention on something and be optimistically disposed toward its being about to please you. When you download a bunch of music off a borrowed hard drive, your investment in the music is zilch, and the effort to sort through it all is herculean—all those little decisions about whether you like this or that song as you weed through has less pleasure attached to it because nothing ultimately is at stake in the choice. In such a situation, when I’m trying to assimilate a large quantity of music, I find myself thrown back on my taste alone, and that taste is nebulous, contingent. When I buy music, I find I have more reason to try enjoying it at different times, trying to find the mood or occasion that suits it.


And the big collection is necessary if you want to impress people with mix CDs. You give yourself a much larger vocabulary to speak with when you have more songs to choose from and consequently more juxtapositions to play with. It’s nice to have a lot of music when you want to give it as a gift to someone else. I don’t know that any recipient of a mix CD has nearly as much invested in it as its creator, but some of the emotion that gets poured into making mixes must survive into the final product. And that residual emotional is a direct result of someone working hard to make the most out of their music collection. (The friend I visited in Seattle recently had a new friend who made him a bunch of compilations, and reading through the track lists, I almost felt like I was getting to know her without actually meeting her. But I didn’t ask to listen to them—accustoming to making the compilations myself, I get peevish having to hear other people’s; sad, really, the joy that I think compilations can give is something that I myself am generally shut off to.)


Collecting is a means for filtering, as is making the compilations, and both of these activities are about bringing knowledge to bear, making decisions with consequences. The subscription service removes the consequences, almost makes the idea of having selective musical taste superfluous. Not there is anything wrong with that; musical taste’s centrality to identity seems a peculiar quirk. Nonetheless, taste in commercial music comes down to what music you are willing to pay for specifically. If you are paying to have it all, you effectively have no taste.


 


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Monday, Dec 17, 2007


It stands as one of the big debates among critics. It surpasses annual best of lists and arguments over overrated/underrated directors/writers/actors. For purists, the answer is obvious. Film is meant to be an isolated and individual experience, especially for someone given the charge of examining it for consideration and comment. On the other hand, the post-modern movie scribe believes that as populist entertainment, a film should only be considered as part of a group dynamic. Only with an audience can a comedy’s humor be judged correctly. Only with a crowd can a fright fest’s shivers be accurately gauged.


Of course, as we’ve come to discover over the last two pieces in this prolonged Fourth Estate examination, viewers and reviewers don’t mix. Even worse, many publications and their editorial staff are not looking for the mob mentality - at least, they didn’t used to. To say that an audience’s reaction SHOULD be important to a critic is like suggesting that they can’t do their job without it. And yet they are asked to all the time. Naturally, if you visualize your aesthetic purpose as playing reporter, delivering plot and how the reader might react to it, the forced guffaws and freely shed tears are your basic bread and butter. But if your job is more in line with classic criticism - viewing each movie as it applies to the overall artform - some complimentary ticket holder’s take means very little.


Let’s face it - your typical critic is not out to pander. Pauline Kael didn’t establish her legacy by listening to the amplified ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ of a packed Cineplex. Roger Ebert didn’t win his Pulitzer by gauging the number of shrieks a Poltergeist play date received. A reviewer takes the job because they love the medium, and their approach to same and how they view it is intensely private…until made public. While it’s nice to hear an audience sigh in appreciation of a motion picture job well done, it’s never mandatory. Even worse, some suggest that hearing crowds crow over an obviously hackneyed effort actually amplifies their contempt. It can be confusing at best.


Perhaps, by example, the problems in both approaches can be better highlighted. Let’s take a crass, horribly unfunny comedy like Rush Hour 3. Screened for the press in a preview audience-only offering, fans of both Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker lined up hours before hand to support their favorite onscreen action duo. So when they finally find a seat, complain about the critic’s row, and settle down for some cost-free entertainment, they’re ready to react. All throughout the lame, nonsensical 90 minutes of movie, the crowd cheered. They literally rolled in the aisles as obvious jokes limped by, and they rallied like less than sober sports fans when the finale unfolded. Praise poured out of the mouths of all but the critics. They were too stunned to speak.


Then there’s Sweeny Todd. The Sondheim musical, brought to wondrous life by director Tim Burton, was a terrific tour de force, the kind of operatic experience that allows a viewer to escape and explore. Though the songs can be difficult and the amount of blood overpowering, the film is a literal work of art - and yet, in the half-full preview screening it played in, the crowd was subdued to the point of possible boredom. There was a smattering of applause as the credits rolled, and the comments given to the studio representatives suggested an alarming level of discontent. Of course, most of the critics found it masterful.


So, which reaction is valid, and which one is not. From a professional perspective, Todd is the clear winner. It has a 90% positive rating vs. Rush Hour 3‘s 20%. Yet box office is usually the final word, and in the case of the tired tre-quel, Chan and Tucker are destined to come out ahead. So what is the audience reaction actually predicting? If not artistry, than mere appreciation? And is that really a critic’s job - to determine what’s saleable vs. what’s skillful? Under a traditional career definition, that goes against everything a journalist represents.


But what about the private screening? Does the lack of an audience matter there? It’s clear that, in the case of movies like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the added involvement of a crowd would not matter. In fact, their presence could have cancelled out the magical spell being weaved by the able bodied auteurs behind the lens. On the other hand, the odd family film fragmentation of something like The Water Horse, or the quirky indie issues at the heart of Wristcutters: A Love Story might have actually benefited from an audience’s input. Not every movie announces its intentions in obvious ways. If a viewer can offer up some insight, igniting a reaction in a critic’s head, then it’s a clear case of win/win.


This almost never happens, however. Instead, inappropriate laughter and unnecessary communal commentary are the norm. At a screening of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a man was so amazed by the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, that he reacted to her dramatic execution by shouting “DAAAAMN! They cut her head off!” In another case, while a character in Feast of Love (and otherwise awful film) was dying, snickers could be heard from various members of the movie going multitude. The misplaced giggle is probably the most blatant audience offense. Just because you’re not frightened by a scary movie doesn’t mean some other member of the attending throng isn’t. Your disrespectful defense mechanism is not really appreciated.


Still, it’s hard to argue with this core concept of the theatrical experience. All three Apatow efforts this year - Knocked Up, Superbad, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story played so well with an audience that it’s hard to imagine experiencing each without them. Similarly, I Am Legend needed its fan-base support, if only to help keep viewers awake during the dull third act build up. The audible gasps during The Kingdom and The Bourne Ultimatum did argue for both film’s action acumen, and genre workouts like Rob Zombie’s Halloween and The Mist played much better with an exponential level of fear.


It really doesn’t answer or even address the question, however - and drama remains the twisted trump card. Serious films play on so many differing levels and emotions that they can quickly bifurcate a crowd. Reactions to something like Rendition were all over the map, while American Gangster fell across clear actor/demographic lines. Michael Clayton and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford didn’t play like end of the year candidates in their private morning screenings, but when shown with a crowd, both received realistic, indirect boosts.


Just like judging movies for a living, prognostication by popularity is a horribly incomplete science. Evan Almighty flopped, yet the audience who attended the preview lapped up every uneven minute. Bee Movie made viewers buzz, yet it looks to be one of the least successful CGI efforts ever. On the other hand, Stardust and Sunshine had strong critical approval and yet turnstiles remained relatively still. It’s been said that if one could predict - within an acceptable frequency - what will work and what will fail, they’d be the richest man or woman in Tinsel Town. It’s just not that easy.


And audiences aren’t the answer. While the clash over private vs. public will probably end up remaining a matter of personal preference, the conversation will continue. As stated in other installments of these ‘confessions’, there is an automatic bias from the professional community against being herded and harassed. Major markets probably never even consider the issue while smaller regions wrestle with it week in and week out. Obviously, the studios think that some films play better with more people present. Others are for media minds only. Perhaps it’s not a matter of right and wrong after all. It may not even be an issue at all. But in light of the way criticism is marginalized nowadays, one thing is obvious - all reaction is taken with a huge grain of cinematic salt, both inside and outside celluloid. 


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Monday, Dec 17, 2007

Pan’s Labryinth (2-Disc Platinum Series) [$34.98]

DVD versions of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning films are no doubt already part of many a fan’s collection. But to really win that special someone’s gratitude this holiday season, buy them these particular editions. The in-depth “making of” and “interviews” extras with the directors, actors, writers and technicians convey stories of patience, endurance, perseverance, intellect and imagination. Indeed, these admirable qualities of the human spirit emerge just as undeniably strong in the telling of the extras as they do in these beautiful films. Heart-swelling factors aside, it’s also just really cool to learn how Babel spanned those huge geographic and linguistic chasms to so captivatingly interweave such complex yet basic human stories. It’s a pleasure to learn not only about the degree of mental muscle that went into the epic storytelling of Pan’s Labryinth, but also the fantastical special effects, not least the physical endurance required of the man beneath the latex, who made that haunting, paradoxical fawn a permanent presence in our dreams.


 


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Monday, Dec 17, 2007

The History Channel offers a fascinating look at the literal building of empire through architecture. Covering thousands of years of human development and civilization building, empires are perhaps the obvious prism to frame an analysis of societal growth because, if nothing else, they are fairly comprehensively documented. Architecture has always been viewed by the powerful as a primary means to convey their power and values and so it is quite fitting the means to talk about the empire here. From Ancient Greece and Egypt through to the British Empire, this series is enlightening and thought-provoking and of interest to anyone interested in where we came from.


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Monday, Dec 17, 2007

The spate of post-mortem Johnny Cash product shows no sign of abating, but unlike much of what’s come out in the last four years, The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show is worthwhile to both the casual Cash fan and anyone interested in American popular music. For more than four hours, we’re treated not only to Cash’s many hits—“Ring of Fire”, “I Walk the Line”, “A Boy Named Sue” and others are given the expected airings—but also to a bevy of tunes that formed the foundation of Cash’s music: his wonderful reading of Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues”, several old Carter Family songs, a holy heap of gospel numbers, and much, much more. There’s a lot of great stuff on this collection, and the guest list for Cash’s show was eclectic and impressive: Stevie Wonder, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, James Taylor, Neil Young, Jerry Lee Lewis, among many more.


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