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Tuesday, Feb 26, 2008

It’s funny that in the scandal that a Maxim reviewer flogged a Black Crowes album without hearing it, the reports usually start out that the mag wasn’t exactly a bastion of journalism to begin with, which is to say “Well, what do you expect?”  As Fred Mills at Harp point out, Dr. Eugene Chadbourne used to do the same at Maximum Rock and Roll as did Richard Meltzer elsewhere but the big difference was that they proudly admitted it up front, which is to say “Hey, I already KNOW this is a joke?”  OK but the Maxim thing is an isolated incident… right?  I mean, reviewers don’t blow off their assignments and just type up whatever fits their mindset (or the publication’s mindset), right?  They actually sit down and play a record at least a few times, concentrate on it and really think about it, right? Nope.  Granted, it ain’t as egregious as this Maxim case but the sloppy way that some of these write-up’s are done are obvious when you see cliches, not to mention repeating passages from the press release (which you don’t necessarily know about but which does happen).  So yeah, Maxim does deserve the public shaming for this stupid incident but don’t be too sure that the rest of the scribing world is so clean either.  Shocking, ain’t it?


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Tuesday, Feb 26, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

The Clash - Live: Revolution Rock
This new Clash live show documentary will be airing on PBS stations in the US in March and will be coming to DVD via Sony/Legacy on 15 April. The 60-minute program highlights some of the best performances from the seminal band’s all-too-brief career, ranging from live-in-studio bits to playing Shea Stadium during the Combat Rock tour.


The Raveonettes
Aly, Walk With Me [MP3]
     


Todos Tus Muertos
Andate [MP3]
     


Legendary Argentine rasta-punk band’s greatest hits record makes their music available in the United States for the first time in ten years. A unique mixture of social messages and massive doses of punk, ragga, reggae and raw energy.


Buy at Amazon


Everthus the Deadbeats
Organics Mechanics [MP3]
     


Eric Matthews
Little 18 [MP3]
     



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Monday, Feb 25, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

...or If John Grierson Were Alive Today How Hard He Would Plotz

By Jesse McLean


The mainstream acceptance of documentary films is undeniable, which is to say they’ve started to make money. This newfound box office clout has transformed the genre from one of format to mood.  Non-fiction films are now subject to the same rigorous expectations of any western, thriller, or musical.  And while it is always heartening to see practitioners of a heretofore ‘ghettoized’ art form reap a financial reward, that cheer is darkened by the thought of a Darfur genocide doc pitched to unctuous studio execs a la The Player (“It’s Super Size Me meets Schindler’s List!”). 

John Grierson, the Scottish-born pater familias of British and Canadian documentaries wrote in his book First Principles of Documentary, “We believe that the materials and the stories taken from the raw can be finer (more real in the philosophical sense) than the acted article.”  Which is all fine and good, but when you’re opening on 2000 screens, you want to know that it’s going to play in Poughkeepsie. 

Grierson engendered the notion of documentary as unaltered truth, and his veracity has been debated ever since, but never before have the tools of cinematic grammar and genre conventions been applied to the form with such verve. 

The most common tact stolen from fictional films appears in the crosscut.  Innumerable examples exist of this editorial dash between two or more threads of action to create suspense (Roger & Me, The War Room, Startup.Com, Hoop Dreams, ad nauseum).  Now I don’t suggest that documentarians should be barred access to the rudimentary tools of editing, but this technique can only erode the already crumbling notion of unvarnished truth espoused by giants of verité like Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, Public Housing, Domestic Violence) or Allan King (Warrendale, A Married Couple, Dying at Grace).  I’ll make a concession: if the editing style of your documentary owes a heavy debt to Hitchcock, maybe you should back away from the Avid for a breather. 

In the mood for courtroom fireworks?  No need for Grisham, just turn to Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Capturing the Friedmans and others, (although this trope is the domain of the TV investigative feature and so popular that, well, it has its own station). 

How about docs that mimic other genres?  Crime drama meets police procedural in Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill, The Thin Blue Line, Biggie and Tupac, Cocaine Cowboys.

Dysfunctional family drama?  Capturing the Friedmans (again), Tell Them Who You Are, Brother’s Keeper, My Architect, Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows.  You get the feeling that if Eugene O’Neill were around today he wouldn’t be typing but shooting from the hip in HD. 

When discussing the ascendancy of documentaries, there is an undeniable elephant in the room, and that’s not a fat joke.  Michael Moore makes non-fiction issue films but rarely deserves the appellation of ‘documentarian’. Moore is the filmmaker as polemicist, a projected cousin of non-fiction rant books that littler bookstore shelves hither and yon.  And while I often agree with his politics, this is not the reason I bristle at yelps regarding his passing acquaintance with objectivity.  I expect from him the same impartiality proffered by wingnuts like Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity.  Those who preach to the converted deftly avoid the burden of objectivity but sacrifice authority for all their furious exhortations. 

He has also spawned a brood of filmmaking brats infatuated with making themselves the star. Progenitor Ross McElwee aside (Sherman’s March,Time Indefinite), odious first person entries such as 20 Dates, My Date with Drew and the inexplicably popular Tarnation enervate.  All I have gained from these works is that I don’t want to watch films about people I would change seats on a bus to avoid. 

Now to the fun part - who to blame?  I would like to extend a judicious finger at reality TV but I believe it only highlights the public’s thirst for truth.  Once these stopped being ‘reality shows’ and were tagged ‘reality based’ (with story editors on staff, for Christ’s sake) it turned into professional wrestling. Artificiality admitted and embraced, their popularity soared and activated in the viewer’s brain what I like to call the Aaron Spelling Effect, with symptoms mimicking those of enveloping narcosis. 

However, the longing for truth continued and it is a sensible urge.  In a world of fictional WMDs, steroid-fuelled homerun kings and Katie Couric News Anchor, how’s a fella supposed to set his moral compass?  At the movie theater it would seem, a sanctuary for us all in troubled times. 

In days past (I’m looking at you Depression Era), we trudged to the theatre for escape.  Only now we crave truth but in digestible form.  Hence, the addition of genre spice to our documentary gruel.  The problem is that the majority of the public receive information in a ‘documentary’ as if it was as John Grierson intended, “raw…more real than the acted article”.  Filters are left at the door (Hepa or otherwise) along with critical thought.  It’s as if the smell of popcorn causes ninety-minute brain death. 

Which leads me to shake my accusing finger at David Holzman’s Diary

It’s 1967.  David Holzman picks up a camera and films his daily life.  He is a lover of film and the process of filmmaking.  He cites Jean-Luc Goddard’s maxim about truth in cinema.  A clip from a glossy Vincente Minnelli film is included in a rapid sequence of one night’s television viewing.  David films his girlfriend sleeping in the nude.  He acquires a fish eye lens and plays with it, hoisting the camera over his head like a child.  He interviews a friend who voices his concerns regarding David’s experiment.  He drives his girlfriend away with his filming obsession. 

The Library of Congress entered this film into its National Film Registry in 1991.  Why, one might wonder, would a film of anodyne detail deserve such an honor?  Well, it is a terrific document of New York’s Upper West Side in the late sixties and looks good in black and white.  And for those that don’t know David Holzman’s Diary, it was fake. 

I don’t bring this up just to cite what could be the first ‘mockumentary’ long before it became a term, the most tiresome word in a sitcom pitch, or the form for many first time directors to tackle (Woody Allen, Tim Robbins, Rob Reiner, Albert Brooks and Jim McBride, director of Diary).  I don’t bring up this hard to find film (once available on VHS, currently available from UK’s Second Run DVD in Region 0 PAL) in an effort to convince you of how subtle and effective its evocation of ‘reality’ - I may as well try to describe a cool breeze. 

The two directors mentioned illustrate the unending battle between fact and truth.  While Goddard famously maintained that film should be ‘truth 24 frames a second’, Vincente Minnelli responded in an interview that film is, in fact, ‘a lie 24 frames a second’.  Not only does it provide a telling comment on the methods of two widely divergent talents, it foretells (in an already prescient film) the problematic crux of the blockbuster documentary.  A form ostensibly dedicated to objectivity should not concern itself with character arcs, plot points or, God help us, test screenings (“I liked When The Levees Broke but could it be less of a downer?”). 

So the next time you’re lined up to see the newest non-fiction film about the troubles along the Gaza Strip, consider instead buying a ticket to Don’t Mess With The Zohan.  For if Vincente Minnelli is right, you just might learn something. 


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Monday, Feb 25, 2008

At Economist’s View, Mark Thoma links to an old Paul Krugman piece in which he suggests that socialist economies fail when people cease to subscribe to the ideology that props them up.


neither technological change nor globalization can explain the fact that socialist economies did not merely lag the West: they actually went into decline, and then collapse. Why couldn’t they at least hold on to what they had?
I don’t think anyone really knows the answer, but let me make a conjecture: the basic problem was not technical, but moral. Communism failed as an economic system because people stopped believing in it, not the other way around.
A market system, of course, works whether people believe in it or not. You may dislike capitalism, even feel that as a system it will eventually fail, yet do your job well because your family needs the money you earn. Capitalism can run, even flourish, in a society of selfish cynics. But a non-market economy cannot. The personal incentives for workers to do their jobs well, for managers to make good decisions, are simply too weak. In the later years of the Soviet Union, workers knew that they would be paid regardless of how hard they tried; managers knew that promotions would depend more on political connections than on performance; and nobody was offered rewards large enough to justify taking unpopular positions or any sort of serious risk.


So socialism was finished once workers stopped believing in the utopian possibilities of shared effort and shared goods. Once personal selfishness takes priority over one’s integrity of effort, it becomes a game of manipulating the system and figuring out ways to minimize effort and maximize gain. In other words, one starts acting “rational”—it may be that as Eric Hoffer suggests in The True Believer this sort of rational behavior can only be suspended in times of upheaval and revolution; eventually the egalitarian will to sacrifice fades and the reality of people having differing levels of talent returns to the fore. It becomes clear that everyone is not really equal in terms of opportunities or outcomes, and people search for new ways to bring their personal advantages to bear on their living conditions. This is the lesson of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, which depicts the Brook Farm experiment as a cauldron of thwarted ego and personal jealousies. The lesson there is that charisma can’t be redistributed the same way property can, and it always reestablishes the hierarchies you are trying to eliminate.

Krugman’s aside that capitalism may “even flourish” in a cynical society is what strikes me as most interesting. Rigorous self-centeredness and a refusal to compromise personal interests for collective ideals is what helps capitalism function and what permits zealots to proclaim selfishness is virtue and greed is good. Thereby capitalist ideologues can redefine cynicism: It’s not rejection of shared ideals but the cowardly refusal to compete and the excuses such shirkers and slackers make.


But capitalism does require a certain set of beliefs to reproduce itself. It’s not some remainder that’s left after ideology is purged. But it’s more a matter of believing that work and pleasure are opposites, that cooperation is a tactic, that competition builds character, that identity is built through collecting consumer goods rather than making things.


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Sunday, Feb 24, 2008


Leave it to the 80th anniversary of Oscar to throw us all for a loop - at least metaphysically. In one of those years where it seemed like every award was predetermined, Sunday night’s Academy telecast offered a few solid surprises - and a fair amount of sure things as well. It was a strange night overall: Jon Stewart taking his usual post-modern satiric swipe at everyone and everything associated with Hollywood; Daniel Day-Lewis was almost personable; and someone stole John Travolta’s eyes! There were highlights (Once winning Best Song, and Stewart leading co-winner Marketa Irglova - with Glen Hasard - back onstage to give her music cue shortened thank you’s) and lowlights (The Golden Compass beating two better films for Visual Effects), but mostly, the eighth decade of this Tinsel Town trophy fest packed a welcome bit of unpredictability.


It started with the Best Supporting Actress award. No one thought Tilda Swinton had a chance, though her turn as Michael Clayton’s corporate antagonist was cinematically solid. No, everyone had pegged Ruby Dee to take home this prize, and on the off chance she failed to get the career capper, critic’s list favorite Amy Ryan was waiting in the wings. So imagine everyone’s surprise when Swinton‘s name was called. It signaled yet another instance where this category confounded the traditional thinking. Something similar happened when Best Actress came along. From the underdog pinings for Juno‘s Ellen Page to the old world welcome back for the expected Julie Christie, Marion Cottillard‘s work in the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose was viewed as quite the long shot. So when her name was announced, the stunned performer literally fell apart. She was so visibly moved during her acceptance speech that you just knew she too thought her chances were slim.


On the men’s side of the evening, everything went as scripted. Javier Bardem took home the Supporting Actor trophy, touting No Country and his homeland of Spain in the process, while Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis continued to carry There Will Be Blood on his sinewy British shoulders. Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic provided another of the night’s unexpected thrills when Robert Elswit walked away with the Oscar for Best Cinematography. In a career spanning more the 25 years, and dozens of good (Boogie Nights) and god-awful (Moving Violations) movies, this was only his second nomination - and he ended up beating Roger Deakins who was up for two awards himself (No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The man behind the Coen’s bleak Southwestern vision went home empty handed for the seventh straight time.


Elsewhere, there was conformity and confusion. Somehow, Compass did beat both Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for Visual Effects while La Vie en Rose picked up a second trophy for Make-Up work (beating Norbit, Hallelujah!). The Bourne Ultimatum garnered three trophies, all in the technical fields (Achievement in Editing, Sound, and Sound Editing). On the other hand, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street had to settle for a single award for Best Art Design (Dante Ferretti and partner Francesca Lo Schiavo had previously won for The Aviator). Other singular winners included Atonement (Best Score), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Best Costumes), and Juno (Best Original Screenplay). Diablo Cody, author of the feel-good pop culture comedy was another recipient visibly shaken when she accepted her statue. Even her typical ‘too cool for school’ demeanor faded in light of the moment’s majesty.


Another shocker was Taxi to the Dark Side. The story of a cabdriver who died while in US custody (he was arrested and tortured by American forces), beat two other Iraq- based narratives (No End in Sight and Operation: Homecoming) and category mainstay Michael Moore (SiCKO) for Best Documentary. On the other hand, Pixar proved its continuing Oscar dominance by taking home yet another Best Animated Feature trophy for Ratatouille. It’s Brad Bird’s second, a staggering achievement when you think about it. Yet in the end, it was Joel and Ethan Coen‘s night. They took home acknowledgements for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and ultimately, Best Picture. None of these wins was a stunner - the boys had won the DGA and Producer’s Guild Awards - but it was still very odd to see the Academy embrace these particular filmmakers so. The duo have never been known to walk to the industry beat, not in their movies or in their public personas.


So No Country for Old Men will go down as the evening’s big winner (four in total) and the second crime drama in a row to take home the top prize (after The Departed in 2007). Trivia buffs will likely be the only ones who remember the names of the Best Live Action (The Mozart of Pickpockets) or Animated (Peter and the Wolf - again!?!?) Short, or the winner of Best Foreign film (Austria, for the true story of Nazi Counterfeiters). Office pools worldwide will smart over the upsets and eyes will now turn to the ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves’. The 12 months of 2007 produced a literal landslide of excellent cinematic fare, much of which never even got a chance at Oscar gold. A year from now, we’ll be having the same argument over 2008’s hopefully abundant crop of celluloid. Here’s hoping next year’s ceremony is even more surprising.


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