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Saturday, Dec 15, 2007

The fall-out continues from the Rolling Stone cigarette ad masqueraded as a feature or vice versa.  Now a coalition of indies has gone public in an open letter to the magazine about their anger over the incident.


Also, in the first part of any Ike Turner obit is his deplorable treatment of Tina Turner and while there’s no justifying that, it’s also ignorant to forget that despite what kind of horrible person he was, he did have an important impact on music as detailed in this BBC article/tribute.


 


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Friday, Dec 14, 2007

Bookforum linked to this article about the effects of text messaging on traditional courtship practices in the Philippines. I know that sounds fascinating, and you’re probably not even reading this sentence because you eagerly clinked on the link. But as I never have understood the allure of texting, I found the story illuminating.


Clearly it makes sense when to send messages when they are cheaper than talking, as they are in the Philippines, as the article points out. I don’t know if that is true with the typical American cell phone plans, but it ought to be. I have long wished there would be a plan that would allow nothing but text messages, because I’m not much for chitchat—when forced to use the phone, I generally just want the pertinent information, two or three of the the five Ws maximum. And I don’t think I would want a smartphone, which seems like too much technology for my simple needs. I think I need the stupidphone.


Anyway, Randy Jay Solis, the article’s author, suggests that texting is apparently well-suited for courtship because it creates an extra-intimate space in which the communication takes place.


Texting allows for depth in the courtship stage, an efficient way to exchange a variety of important, intimate, and personal topics and feelings. “The mobile phone screen is able to create a private space that even if you are far from each other physically, the virtual space created by that technology is apparent,” Arnel [a random Philippine teen] explains. “No one can hear you say those things or no one else can read them, assuming that it is not allowed to be read or seen by others.”



This is probably obvious to everybody who has ever texted, but it never occurred to me that this would be so, that technology would produce a virtual space that users would regard as more intimate rather than one further step removed from intimacy. I usually construe this kind of technology as a filter, a level of protection, a way to deny presence, whereas it probably can seem more intimate than a whisper in the ear when satellites are recruited into bringing you into a sweet nothing.


Solis points out how texting facilitates the ability of strangers to meet and become intimate whenever boredom strikes. But this intimacy, perhaps because it is technologically amplified, becomes more addictive.


Texting answers the need for a sustained connection necessary to increase and maintain intimacy, but it has also made couples more dependent on each other. “It became a habit,” *Emmy explains. Partners text each other as often as they can and have a compulsion to keep the communication constantly moving. One respondent attributed this to the “unwritten rule of texting.” Clara elaborates, “Once a person has texted you, you have to reply. If you don’t reply, the person will automatically think you ignored him or her on purpose. So you have to reply no matter what, even when you really have nothing to say.”
Since most of the couples initiating a romantic relationship do not have the luxury to meet up in person or talk over the phone regularly, the frequency of texting becomes a distinct indication of their seriousness about the relationship. “To commit is to be there for the person, 24/7. Texting helps in achieving that despite of the barriers in time and distance,” *Von explains.


This pinpoints what is the probably the main reason I have resisted getting a phone all the years, beyond Luddite inertia. I’m a little bit terrified of this kind of dependency and compulsion, of being unable to ignore a message without guilt or to go without sulking when my message garners no response. It’s bad enough with email—I had to abandon instant messaging for the same reason. When the messages are flowing back and forth in rhythm, its like you are wired into your correspondent, but then if there is a gap, it’s like a betrayal, like being abandoned. I would get too impatient and paranoid in the delays, as though I were waiting for someone to pass me the crack pipe. It may takes more maturity than I can muster to presume innocence when an urgent or intimate message goes out there and just hangs, and it seems like the texting life would be filled with such mishaps and emotional misfires. In general, communications technology promotes impulsive immediacy over consideration, yielding a fraught, fragile intimacy that is only as a deep as the last message. All intimacy requires continual reciprocal contact, but accelerating that contact may be more than our limbic systems can handle. That, anyway, would seem to be part of the argument of an essay Solis cites, Heidegger, Habermas, and the Mobile Phone by George Myerson. According to these notes Myerson argues that “mobile communication is fragmented, accelerated, highly commoditized, and ultimately meaningless.” He suggests that mobile phones are a critical step in the effort to meter all communication, to translate it into a purchasable object, to have it measurable in money. It ceases to be communication and instead becomes a species of exchange. That argument verges on a semantic trick, and my susceptibility to it is probably rooted in my bias for pragmatic talk, but it still seems an apt description for texted testimonials, and their cousins, the messages exchanged on social networking sites that are little more than acknowledgments that people are scrutinizing one another. It seems curmudgeonly to complain about there being more intimacy in the world thanks to technology, I know. But ultimately, the way communication is quantified may be what seems so sinister about the heightened intimacy of texting; it turns the freedom of love into a kind of dope high purchasable on demand. And our bodies are supplanted by the devices we use to reach one another, the ones that let us be everywhere at once, and nowhere.


 


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Friday, Dec 14, 2007

From the LA Times last month:


Under the Dramatists Guild contract for playwrights (first agreed to in 1919 and largely unchanged to this day), no changes can be made to a script without the consent of the author, who must also be involved in selecting the cast and director.


The studio bosses insisted, however, that the process of creating movies was fundamentally different and more like an industrial assembly line designed to maximize profits (this predated the notion of film as art). The way they saw it, a playwright sold a product while a screenwriter sold a service.


Oooh. Where does it come from, this idea that screenwriting is, somehow, not real writing? That the screenplay itself is not a singular art form? It’s not considered unusual, is it, for a writer to pen a play simply for the purpose of writing that play. Can a writer not also pen a film script for the exact same purpose, simply for the existence of the script, the creation of a story in a particular structure and style? Or does a screenplay exist only to be filmed? This would appear to be the case when looking back at the evolution of the writer in Hollywood.


Sean Mitchell’s LA Times piece attempts a look at both sides of the story here. I don’t know if I agree with his approach, negatively slanted against the writer, and I don’t know if his arguments regarding early Hollywood writers hold too much weight (at least, I found he could have chucked in a few more verifiable stats), but it does get one thinking.


Writers made this uneasy bargain decades ago, choosing, as humans often do, money over principle. The first playwrights and authors who came west in the 1920s, answering the demand for scripts, discovered that in Hollywood they could make five to 10 times what they could earn for a play or a novel. Who cared about ownership or copyright protection?


So the sins of the fathers should be visited upon the sons? Because artists chose to allow themselves to be exploited in the 1920s, doesn’t mean that artists today should still be paying the price. What if Mr. Chandler read that? Mitchell continues:


As long as there’s enough money to go around, writers can afford to forget what they gave up in the way of artistic rights and can live well while working within the system. It’s only when some new studio math or unforeseen media expansion alters the financial equation, as is happening now, that their relative powerlessness is again exposed—to their understandable consternation.



Understandable is an understatement. Writers in Hollywood have been cheated for years, the expansion of the Internet and home video markets have simply paved the way for Hollywood to screw them in new and exciting ways. If they don’t fix the problem now, writers will continue to lose. But Mitchell doesn’t appear altogether optimistic:


DVD percentages aside, it’s hard to imagine how this awkward reality is going to change any time soon based on the historical record and hegemony of big media.


So the beast is too big, don’t bother fighting? That’s not what Hollywood has taught me over the years. One man can make a difference says John Briley’s Oscar-winning Gandhi screenplay, Steven Zaillian’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List screenplay, Eric Roth’s Oscar-winning Forrest Gump screenplay, and, my golly, doesn’t the list go on.


Speaking of Mr. Chandler ... from his essay, “Writers in Hollywood”:


Its conception of what makes a good picture is still as juvenile as its treatment of writing talent is insulting and degrading. Its idea of “production value” is spending a million dollars dressing up a story that any good writer would throw away. Its vision of the rewarding movie is a vehicle for some glamorpuss with two expressions and eighteen changes of costume, or for some male idol of the muddled millions with a permanent hangover, six worn-out acting tricks, the build of a lifeguard, and the mentality of a chicken-strangler. Pictures for such purposes as these, Hollywood lovingly and carefully makes. The good ones smack it in the rear when it isn’t looking.


Oh, I hope the picketing writers of today are holding their placards with similar sensibilities.


To finish up, I’m recommending William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade (Grand Central, 1989) [especially the bit where Robert Redford suggests Goldman take a look at an alternate script of All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron], John Irving’s My Movie Business (Random House, 2000), and Alice Walker’s phenomenal The Same River Twice (Simon & Schuster, 1997), in which the author looks back at the film version of The Color Purple ten years on.


 


 


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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007


For the weekend beginning 14 December, here are the films in focus:


I Am Legend [rating: 6]


I Am Legend is a depressing experience. For everything it gets right, dozens of things go horribly, horribly wrong


Richard Matheson should have never written his now classic genre novel I Am Legend. Over the four decades since its release, great names in horror (Vincent Price) and mainstream cinema (Charleton Heston) have tried to bring the book to life. In the case of the Italian made The Last Man on Earth, Price had to deal with poor production values and budgetary concerns. And Heston’s Omega Man tried too hard to be faithful to both the creature community as well as standard ‘70s speculation. Now comes Will Smith, Mr. Summer Blockbuster, trying to establish a new seasonal shilling post with his winter waste of an adaptation. Scribbled by that talentless hack Akiva Goldsman and directed with little flair for the epic by Constantine‘s Francis Lawrence, what wants to be a potent post-apocalyptic shocker ends up as bereft of energy as the deserted New York streets depicted.  read full review…


Margot at the Wedding [rating: 7]


Busy, overdrawn, and working much too hard to get to its less than impressive point, Margot at the Wedding is entertainment as inference.


To steal a line from one Homer J. Simpson, familial dysfunction is the Washington Generals of the independent film genre. When writers and directors want to work outside the parameters of the mainstream, they typically use their own autobiographical angst to portray parents as insensitive louts, brothers and sisters as distant and depressed, and their own immediate relatives as messed up, maudlin burdens. From their perspective, there is no such thing as a happy brood. Instead, every clan is a craven collection of psychosis just waiting for an event to well up and erupt. In the case of Noah Baumbach, it’s a marriage that causes the commotion. Unfortunately, what happens in the days since the arrival of Margot at the Wedding add up to very little that’s believable or enjoyable.  read full review…


Alvin and the Chipmunks [rating: 2]


Alvin and the Chipmunks is, what we call in the profession, a “-less” film. This means it’s point-less, joy-less, soul-less, and worth-less.


When one reviews the history of pop culture fads and phenomenon, the unlikely popularity of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (aka ‘Dave Seville’) and his studio experiment known as The Chipmunks remains a certified oddity. By speeding up the tape during the recording of an otherwise silly tune (1958’s “The Witch Doctor”) the struggling songwriter came up with a gimmick that wowed a pre-Beatlemania public. Using the woodland creatures as a hook, he crafted the hilarious holiday classic “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”. From then on, the imaginary trio took on all subjects, from ‘60s pop to ‘90s urban country. When Bagdasarian died in 1972, his son carried on the family legacy. After numerous cartoon incarnations, Fox is finally releasing a ‘live action’ version of the squeaky voiced combo. Based on the results, daddy should come back and haunt his misguided progeny ASAP.  read full review…


Look [rating: 7]


Like Short Cuts absent Altman’s metaphysical heft, Look is an oddly compelling little film.


There is no such thing as privacy. Stop kidding yourself. From the moment you leave the house to the second you step back in your supposedly secure abode, the world’s many Big Brothers are constantly watching you. There are cameras on street corners, lenses trained on you as you drive, fill up, or pay your daily tolls. Once at work, bosses monitor your computer, gauging Internet access for abuses and reading email to gain a managerial advantage. In the mall, every fitting room is monitored, every store a shoplifting prevention zone with more manpower than on a military base. Even our leisure is a source of surveillance, marketers and advertisers buying credit histories and charge plate purchases info as a means of making informed demographic decisions. Yet as writer/director Adam Rifkin points out in his intriguing new film Look, life goes on - and we seem oblivious to the fact that someone is constantly watching. read full review…


The Singing Revolution [rating: 7]


Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region.


The fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.  read full review…


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Thursday, Dec 13, 2007

THE SINGING REVOLUTION [dir. James Tusty]


The fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.


As portrayed in James Tusty’s memorable documentary of the same name, Estonia suffered greatly throughout the course of its harried history. Directly in the middle of the fray between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s armies during World War II, they were occupied by both factions before finally succumbing to Communist control in the ‘50s. From that point on, a nation previously devoted to peace and personal freedom found itself under the heavy dogmatic thumb of Moscow’s ruling junta, and the lack of sovereignty sparked a sense of national pride that lingered, underground, until the 100th anniversary of the annual Singing Festival became the focal point for a call to change. From there, all that was required to unseat Soviet rule was a commitment from brave members of the citizenry, and the use of nonviolent protest in light of a mighty military crackdown.


Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region. While the annual celebration and its symbolic performance grounds did become an aggregate space for spontaneous protests and planned rallies, the backdoor machinations that resulted in secret deals, unusual alliances, and dangerous stands were far more responsible for the eventual change than the actual reliance on traditional folksongs. What the singing did symbolize, however, was the previously unknown national consciousness. People who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as activists could use the cover of communal participation as a means of protest.


Tusty goes into great detail here, speaking with individuals who were actually there on the front lines. As much as story about Russia’s fall as Estonia’s rise, he is careful to include contextual information, how Gorbachev’s calculated move to make the Soviet Union more modern opened a can of free speech worms he couldn’t contain. Indeed, while there are several other factors that helped form Estonia’s break, the ability to freely and openly address the nation’s rich cultural past was the catalyst that many newly formed factions used to advance their call to arms. Even more astounding, Tusty gets everyday Estonians to describe the terror they lived under, the undeniable knowledge that the KGB sat at every corner, recording their every move and word.


Indeed, what a film like The Singing Revolution reminds us of is that, unlike life in America, the threat of overthrow by an imperialistic or theocratic system is typically a political campaign away for these minor nations. Even when Gorbachev’s reforms seemed to suggest a lack of reasonable response from Russia, Estonia knew there was still a chance that tanks and troops would sweep across the border and take back control forcibly - and that’s just what happened…almost. One of the most compelling parts of the narrative is the last ditch effort by Communist hardliners to take back the Union. A coup led to Gorbachev being placed under house arrest, and with the Central Committee in the hands of those who’d return power no matter the consequences, things looked grim. It was thanks to two industrious police officers, given the task of protecting Estonia’s radio and television tower, and Boris Yeltsin back in Moscow, that truly saved the day.


As with any political thriller, this is incredibly compelling stuff, and Tusty doesn’t amplify or marginalize the material. Instead, he lets narrator Linda Hunt provide the plainspoken facts. Then he will accentuate the ‘you are there’ moments and newsreel/television footage with the voices of those who were actually involved. The humble cop who secured the nation’s sole source of information is relatively down to earth regarding his part in history. Similarly, those who staged the concerts and the rallies are on hand to describe the feeling of seeing hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women coming together for the noblest of citizenry causes.


In fact, if there is one minor flaw in Tusty’s approach, it’s that we don’t get enough of the title element. Songs are indeed sung, but they are only offered in snippets. It would be wonderful to see just one of these important melodies completed all the way through. In addition, there is very little input from the Russian side of things. Though their handling of the matter is not what’s important here, a little more scope would seal the documentary’s importance. Still, it’s hard to deny the human drama that plays out over the course of these mesmerizing 90 minutes. Just listening to the participants casually rattle off their stints in Siberian labor camps and as political prisoners (some for many years) is inspiring enough.


It’s the kind of confrontation that makes one question their own commitment to country. The United States has been incredibly lucky in that no foreign nation has ever literally tried to invade and take over. We’ve stood by across decades as other countries claim rights to and overthrow empowered governments for completely incomprehensible or selfish reasons. It’s clear that there’s authority in the voice of dissent, and when matched to a tune that proclaims native roots and right to self-determination, the force is strengthened further. Without its annual proclamation of music, Estonia might still be a Russian stronghold today. But thanks to The Singing Revolution, it’s a proud, prosperous democracy. It proves that power always remains where it begins - with the people.


 



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