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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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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2008


Over the last three days, SE&L has had the opportunity to champion the current canon of Giuseppe Andrews. We’ve looked at the amazing Americano Trilogy, touched on the brilliance that is the pro-animal Garbanzo Gas, and found ourselves unexpectedly moved by the sensitive short Cat Piss. But this is just the tip of the talent iceberg when it comes to the new voice in American cinema. Andrews has actually been making films for years - inconsistent reports put his first efforts as far back as 1999. The date doesn’t matter really. What’s important is the output - dozens of deranged delights that continue to redefine the focus of film and the ability for anyone with talent and moxie to make it. Many consider these works his “mainstream” efforts, since they are readily available to the public via standard DVD distributors. 


Of course, there are some maddeningly MIA titles. The long dormant Bathroom Home School Box Set from long time supporter Troma has promised intriguing titles like In Our Garden, Dad’s Chicken, Air Conditioning, Monkey, and The Date Movie. Even more frustratingly, while this special section was being prepared, Andrews’ own website announced the addition of another new film, Orzo.  So it’s almost impossible to keep up with this man’s amazing productivity. Still, over the course of the last five years, the staff at SE&L has been lucky enough to see ten other Andrews’ opuses, films so ingenious and inspiring that they actually forecast the future of the artform. In this last day discussion of the man and his muse, we will provide a brief overview of each outstanding title. Together with the previous blog pieces, both the knowledgeable and the newbie should have a fine frame of reference to begin their own Andrews’ reevaluation. Let’s being with:


Trailer Town


Where the Andrews obsession started for many. This absolutely mesmerizing movie begins with a bang and continues down a cockeyed course of craziness until its fatalistic ending with its “I’m mad, drunk, depraved and dirty as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” philosophy. Forcing arcane authenticity to the point of inventive retardation and trading cinema vérité for skin flick straightforwardness, it’s a masterpiece. Buried somewhere in the piss-soaked liquor stained souls of these decomposing denizens lives the true spirit of America, not quite dead but pretty damn close to needing life support. Featuring the fantastic Bill Nolin, Andrews’ first true superstar.




Period Piece


Everything about Period Piece is a philosophical missive about misinterpreting libido for love, pain for personal connection, and desire for dreams. There is much more here than a gross out comedy about old people talking filthy, or snuggling with dead baby pigs. As its title suggests, Period Piece is a statement about the world, today. In our era of mass marketed sex, the influence of XXX material is like an infection. Some people are drowning in the disease, and these are the men that Andrews wants to champion. After all, their needs are as valid as anyone else’s, they’re just not as pretty…or profound…or proper.




Touch Me in the Morning


Touch Me in the Morning is like a series of sharp stabs in the solar plexus, a ennui-reducing wake-up call for anyone who thinks Miramax is the cutting edge of Indie art. Uproariously funny, occasionally cruel, and inventive to a fetid fault, this initial volley in the Andrews career vault is simply outstanding. There is no other moviemaker, past or present, doing what he is doing in the newly minted digital domain. There is no pretense in his work, no attempt to tweak the world into a weird, wacky package. It’s all about people, places, and the public perspective of each.




Dribble (Found on the Best of Tromadance DVD Volume 3)


If anything, this satisfying short film matches the previous masterpieces Andrews has crafted brave beat for beat. He offers more of a narrative here, taking his main character through the trials and tribulations of being a has-been sports hero. There are scenes so profound they literally boggle the mind. There are moments so perverted you feel dirty overhearing them. Andrews loves the language of filth, and he uses words and images in carefully crafted couplets of corruption, blending the brash with the brazen and the bawdy to practically revolutionize onscreen dialogue. One of the man’s best efforts, bar none.




Who Flung Po? (Found on the Trailer Town DVD)


This seems like the film John Waters was trying to make with Polyester. Groovy, grotesque and giggle inducing, this is a funnier, more fetid take on the trailer park people Giuseppe uses to populate his films. Some of the same old faces are present in this tale of pornography and parenthood and there are several classically comic sequences. More fully realized than Trailer Town (again proving that if said film had a viable narrative, the entire enterprise would have skyrocketed into the realm of near perfect prurient parable) Who Flung Poo? is a laugh riot filled with great repeatable lines, a taboo busting storyline and some wonderfully weird characters.




Wiggly (found on the Touch Me in the Morning DVD)


Using the theme of difficult decisions, Wiggly is wonderfully weird. Vietnam Ron is the star here, playing Andrews’s dad, and as usual, he is amazing - a creepy combination of Charles Manson and scarred skeleton. He shouts his lines with a demented glee that is marvelously manic. The usual suspects also turn up throughout the film, and when we get to the fated finale, Andrews handles the meaningful moment perfectly. A great little diversion.




Ants (found on the Touch Me in the Morning DVD)


Our friendly freaked out Ron is back again, essaying the role of a mentally unstable filmmaker melting down at the merest suggestion that something he’s done doesn’t fit his ant movie’s mandates. The standout scene, however, has Andrews randomly rollerblading while an original song about the sport plays in the background. It is both ethereal and engaging, as is this entire short.




The Laundry Room (found on the Touch Me in the Morning DVD)


Perhaps the most “mundane” of Andrews’s films, this feels like two ideas crammed together. The mass-murdering marauder (our Wiggly and Ants star Ron once again) is faultlessly frightening, but there is a strange interlude where an ancillary character goes into a patented Andrews’s X-rated rap that feels out of place. While very entertaining, it’s not a true testament to this auteur’s abilities.




Jacuzzi Rooms (Found on the Period Piece DVD)


Nothing more than a simple set up – four of Andrews’ company getting smashed in a seedy hotel room – this improvised look at men out to party is strangely spellbinding. There are the typical taunts about penis size and sexual prowess, and with liquor involved, things soon turn violent. You can tell that Andrews stopped the drunken antics about halfway through and delivered typed pages filled with poems and elegies to keep the cast coherent. Such a scripted strategy really doesn’t help. If Period Piece is a representation and rejection of sex, then Jacuzzi Rooms is a debauched denunciation of booze.




Okie Dokie


A terrifying testament to the power of love, laced with farts and a fatalistic view of interpersonal relationships, Okie Dokie argues for the continued genius of this maverick moviemaker. Part personal ad come to life, part dialectic on the disconnect between men and women, it picks up where Piece left off, and ties together the various thematic ideals in the other offerings of his oeuvre, specifically Touch Me in the Morning and Trailer Town. Featuring the standard Andrews repertory company, Dokie uses interweaving stories of companionship created and relationships torn asunder to literally redefine the way in which we view romance, lust, depression, and death.

 


 


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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2008

You might want to sell any stock you have invested in major labels, especially if it’s EMI.  After some belt-tightening, they’re now shuffling around personnel, causing a rift with artists that they can’t afford to piss off (including Coldplay and Robbie Williams): Artists’ managers protesting EMI shake-up.  Even after that bit of bad news, they compound it by having their pink slip machine work overtime: EMI’s drastic belt-tightening.  But there is one piece of good news coming out of this as they’re now thinking of cutting off money to everyone’s least favorite industry slimebags: RIAA might be doomed.  Ah, but fear not… When it comes to fresh ideas to save themselves, the industry is full more useless, empty platitudes than a candidate’s speech as witnessed by this pathetic MSNBC article.


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