Jack White and pals played a tune off Horehound on Jimmy Kimmel’s show Friday night.
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Clichés work. Granted, they are stock, trite, and cheap, but if they didn’t provide the kind of guaranteed instantaneous success a writer or filmmaker is looking for, they wouldn’t be considered a narrative chestnut, now would they? These stereotypes often contain a nugget of truth but approach such revelations in the most shorthanded, shortsighted way possible. Using them can be lazy or legitimate, depending on the outcome. All of which highlights the pros - and obvious cons - of Bring It On: Fight to the Finish. Representing the fifth (that’s right FIFTH) effort in this loosely linked franchise, there’s nothing but formula and forced archetypes here. Along with what seems like a never-ending supply of ‘dope’ dance sequences, what we wind up with is something pat and predictable, but fairly fun anyway.
Her royal chica-ness, Lina Cruz, is all discombobulated. Her waitress mom has just remarried, landing a very rich Malibu hubby, and she’s about to leave her East LA hood. Naturally, the mama-sitas that make up her main cheer crew - Gloria and Treyvonetta - are muy p.o.‘ed. Before she knows it, she’s a snarky self-important fish in a pond filled with arrogant Caucasian witches. While stepsister Skyler tries to teach her the ropes of her new exclusive high school, Lina just wants to pout and hook back up with her homies. Not even the interested eye of basketball jock Evan can turn her haughty head. Under duress, she agrees to join the sorry school cheerleading squad, where she remains mostly unmotivated until she runs into Avery - reigning queen bee and Spirit Competition champion. Desperate to beat the biz-nitch, she calls on her old friends to bring her new team to life, with the hope of being good enough to enter the upcoming cheerleading contest.
Funny, fresh, and incredibly forced, Bring It On: Fight to the Finish should make many a daydreaming tween/teen happy. While parents will be perturbed by the suggestion that school is merely a conduit for excessive amounts of rump shaking, adolescents will probably adore this contrived combination of wish fulfillment, upward mobility, and pure punk’d retribution. Yes, everything builds to a final dance off with the good guys giving the over the top baddies a run for their routines. Yes, the whole “suddenly rich” angle reeks of dishonesty and race-based class struggling. Certainly actress Christina Milan was hired because she’s got snake-like hips and a likeable street cred cuteness. But none of this makes the movie inventive or exciting. You simply have to go with its mechanical flow and hope that the makers don’t muck things up.
Luckily, director Bille Woodruff puts his music video training to good use as he swings the camera around the otherwise uninspired choreography. Unlike the real cheerleading squads who offer nothing but precision, presence, and perfect synchronization, the cast here can’t quite “bring it” all together. If you look closely in the crowd, you’ll see dance literate extras who clearly graduated sometime in the Clinton Administration. They help the leads look good, if not completely competent. Equally decent is the script from Elana Song (Bring It On: In It to Win It) and Alyson Fouse (both In It to Win It and Bring It On: All or Nothing). They understand this material and pepper the dialogue with lots of clever cut downs. There is a tad too much ham-fisted hookiness, and the cheesy “cheer” lingo gets old quickly, but at least they keep things moving.
Of course, Bring It On: Fight to the Finish is not the kind of movie you come looking to for logic. After all, Lina gets her across the tracks pals into the Malibu school so easily that you’re certain it will come back to bite the babe (it does). Similarly, the last act “revelation” that anybody can be a member of an All Star team makes the middle section histrionics all the more pointless. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the film is wicked washout Avery. She is the very definition of one dimensional, never given more to her mean girl personality than a squint and a finger snap. Actress Rachele Brooke Smith tries to bring something deeper to the role, but it never arrives. At least she could relish being odious. Instead, you imagine a single well placed criticism would have her caving like a member of the chess club.
Still, you have to appreciate the attempted energy. For a film that runs a whopping 103 minutes (did we really need the street party, the Rodeo Drive dance, AND the Boys/Girls Club music montage???) there is never a truly dull moment. Granted, we never buy the Lina-Evan hook-up, especially since Cody Longo has little chemistry with Ms. Milian and that makes their snuggle scenes a tad tiring and the wannabe “wigger” jokes are offensive. As long as Woodruff works his magic and keeps the music slammin’, something about this otherwise routine film finds a way to work (the DVD dishes some backstage dirt and a few deleted scenes, but nothing mandatory).
Since there is no need to connect each sequel to each other, or to the original film from nine years ago, the Bring It On series can continue on ad infinitum. Hollywood is always churning out the attempted teen idol type, doe-eyed talent failing to realize their revolving door flash in the pan status. As long as said machine keeps cranking out the film fodder, agreeable attempts like Bring It On: Fight to the Finish will discover a direct to DVD lifeline. And while it may seem like they’ve uncovered every last one of those hoary old tried and true axioms Bring It On needn’t worry. There are certainly hundreds of clichés and racial/social stereotypes left to explore - and here’s guessing they’ll try to tap into each and every one of them.
I’ve been on vacation the past week in Wildwood, New Jersey, (North Wildwood to be precise) which is down the shore about 30 miles south of Atlantic City, near the southern tip of the state’s coastline. It’s long had a reputation as a working-class beach town for immigrants from Philadelphia, and it’s still not uncommon to see houses down there with the Italian and Irish flags flying from the awnings alongside the U.S. flag. Like its North Jersey equivalent, Seaside Heights, Wildwood has an extensive boardwalk that retains a carnivalesque atmosphere, where scams and bad bargains of all sorts are made to seem innocuous and where the water-gun-game barkers and snake-handling carneys and iron-on T-shirt makers seem like artisan practitioners of threatened traditional crafts.
I played lots of skee-ball to win tickets (my high-risk, high-reward strategy—always shoot for the 100s), which I could then trade in for plastic army men, balsa-wood propeller planes, and off-brand candy. I also rode an old wooden coaster that may have concussed me; I got off and wandered the amusement pier punch drunk, in search of place to sit and fortify myself with a lime ricky.
The upper middle classes from the Philadelphia area tend to eschew Wildwood in favor of Ocean City and Cape May, Avalon and Long Beach Island—similar places by and large that have somehow managed to manufacture class distinction for themselves. The aspirational towns tend to push a contrived family-friendliness and institute measures like charging a fee to use the beach to seem exclusive. Thanks to their protected reputations, real estate values rose dramatically during the bubble years in these towns, which meant that much of the earlier generations of buildings (the boarding houses and one-story “shit shacks”) have all been razed in favor of generic aluminum-sided, triple-decker condos and elaborate second-home mansions.
Unlike the claims made by interviewees in many documentaries about a single, allegedly fascinating personality, there is one particularly grandiose one spouted off early in Ondi Timoner’s rough-cut but fascinating We Live in Public that actually seems to be true. Speaking of online media entrepreneur Josh Harris, one person refers to him as “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” While the film that follows does a crack job of making this case, it doesn’t much bother trying to convince viewers that they’ve necessarily missed out on anything by this omission.
Harris made himself millions by founding and selling a couple brilliantly-conceived businesses right at the dawn of the Internet, and went on to sell his soul for a shot at fame—before claiming that it was all just “performance art.” One business, Jupiter Communications, made him wealthy simply by collecting and selling online market research to people before most anybody else thought of it. His next venture, Pseudo, was even more forward-thinking. Never mind that it was the mid-1990s and online video involving watching a few seconds of movement on a tiny RealPlayer screen, in between long bouts of herky-jerky movement and flashing “Buffering” signs. Harris set up the first online television network, with channels on multiple subjects (hip-hop, art), all swaddled in a glittery blanket of Silicon Alley cool. Blinded by the light (and the sneaking possibility that nobody was really watching), investors snapped up the stock and Harris rode off with yet more millions.
Which is where Timoner’s film gets interesting. Flush with bubble money, in 1999 Harris dumped $2 million of it into building a multi-level underground stage for an art project of heretofore unseen scope. Called “Quiet: We Live in Public,” it was a giant stage completely wired for video and sound, where a hundred people would live in total surveillance. There was free food at a long banquet table, a bar with free drinks, a clear-sided public shower stall, long rows of cubicle-hotel sleeping racks, a heavily-stocked firing range, and (just for kicks) Stasi-like interrogation sessions. Most importantly, though: everything wasn’t just being recorded on film, all the participants could watch themselves and each other while it unfolded. It was an exhibitionist’s wet dream.
Harris would later try to claim in a 2008 communiqué that Pseudo (a hot-air enterprise which burned through millions before getting sucked down the sinkhole of the dot.com crash) was “a fake company” and just “the linchpin of a long form piece of conceptual art,” not a critical misreading of the public’s online desires. “We Live in Public,” however, certainly fulfilled the definition of conceptual art (that, or a very expensive game of rats-in-a-cage, played by a cold-hearted sociopath who just wanted to turn humans into his own personal TV actors).
The astounding footage that Timoner—who was one of Harris’ willing internees—includes makes the whole thing look like the Stanford Prison Experiment spliced with some hellish eternal loft party, all booze, tears, glitter, and mind games. Packed with free-loading performance artists, rave kids, and the whole orbit of hangers-on spun off from the decade’s IPO-flush party scene (and shut down by the NYPD on January 1, 2000), the whole thing seems the perfect capper to a particularly narcissistic period in the history of a famously self-obsessed city.
And that was before Harris launched his next project: wiring every nook and cranny of the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, for online broadcast. While his exhibitionist bunker show presaged reality TV with the kind of visionary brio that made him so wealthy (Survivor and Big Brother premiered just months later in the summer of 2000), it was this next phase that truly managed to predict just where society was going.
It’s definitely disturbing to watch the scene Timoner includes where Harris and Corrin have a blow-out fight and then split off to their respective corners to check what people are saying in the online chat rooms. But one would be hard-pressed to say how different this scene is from a very common one from 2009: a couple sitting together in a restaurant and not talking, just plicking away at their respective PDAs.
It wasn’t for nothing that Harris was referred to as the “Warhol of the Web.” Self-indulgent or not, the creepily self-referential and airless digitized worlds he created were like flares being sent up from the not-so-distant past, lighting up the path that was taking us toward the anti-private, everybody’s-a-star world of today.
We Live in Public is nowhere near the film it could be. Although there’s a light dusting of criticism here and there, Timoner’s relationship with Harris (the two have been working on the film since 1999) seems too intertwined for her work to truly open the book on a man whose badly-timed brilliance seems almost matched by his eerie, clinically detached voyeurism and bratty quest for fame at all costs.
But then, most people who worked with Warhol seemed to take his similarly alien quietude in stride, as well. Of course, Warhol at least occasionally bothered to tell his painted or filmed subjects that they were fabulous, Harris (currently flogging another venture in look-at-me! Entertainment hucksterism, Wired City) just seems to be looking for the next IPO.
If you were a Martian trying to figure out America in the second half of the 20th century, you could do worse than to start by reading Jules Feiffer’s Village Voice cartoons. His strips for the Voice basically invented the genre of the adult comic, and that’s adult in the “content which would interest a mature person who thinks about the world around them” sense rather than in the XXX Pussycat Theatre sense. He created a model for strips like Tom Tomorrow’s “This Modern World” and David Rees’ “Get Your War On” which use the medium of comics to deliver a satirical take on current events and the world around us.
Feiffer took on the big public issues of the day. He was the first cartoonist to speak out against the war in Vietnam, he skewered Dwight Eisenhower for failing to support the Civil Rights movement, and pointed out the absurdities of the Cold War and the growing military-industrial complex. He tirelessly highlighted the misuse of language and the abuse of power, drawing on first-hand experience of the latter thanks to a stint in the U.S. Army.
If Feiffer had a recurring theme, it was the refusal of those in power to confront reality, describe it clearly, and take action. Not content to bask in America’s postwar prosperity, he always prodded his country to be better. But Feiffer was not always abrasive: when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he ran a strip in which a child reads a fairy tale about a handsome prince who woke up a sleeping country—but when the prince was assassinated they went right back to sleep.
Feiffer developed a distinctive style incorporating a flexible number of “frames” which were usually just images separated by white space. They often featured a single individual speaking directly to the reader, like an actor delivering a monologue on stage. That may have been a metaphor for the isolation of modern man but also accommodated Feiffer’s somewhat undeveloped artistic style: his strength was characterization and dialogue, not elaborate backgrounds or action sequences. Concentrating on dialogue let him display his knack for capturing how different types of people presented themselves in speech while subtly undermining their statements with his art.
A memorable strip in 1963 featured a spokesman for the peace movement who’s just discovered the reason for the movement’s failure: they haven’t marketed peace as a product. But they’re going Madison Avenue now and as with any advertising campaign, it’s important to find the right tone: “If we’re going to make peace catch on as a product, we’ve got to make it as masculine as war!” How to accomplish this? By borrowing the language of the Pentagon, so peace councils become “Peace Commands” (Peace Comms for short) and peace workers become “Trouble Shooters” who run programs with themes like “Peace Escalation.” He concludes: “Gentlemen, once we make the image of peace more warlike, our fund raising problems will be over! I’m sure congress will be happy to give us all we want.”
Fantagraphics is issuing Feiffer’s Village Voice strips in bound volumes: the first to appear is Explainers: The Complete Village Voice Strips 1956-1966 which came out in May. Some of the material treated in these comics is past history: we no longer have to deal with Joe McCarthy or worry about the Soviet Union blowing us all to smithereens. But it’s amazing and somewhat disheartening how contemporary many of them seem.
In 1961 Feiffer drew a strip of a well-dressed man explaining the news business to the unwashed: publish diverting trivia and press releases and leave real reporting alone. “Free press? We’re a nation of trade journals!” The only reason that’s not totally current today is because we barely have any newspapers left worth paying attention to. Even the Village Voice, once a leader in investigative journalism, has today become just another free weekly from New Times Media. So criticizing newspapers may soon be a nostalgic pursuit tantamount to complaining about the scratchy sound from your record player or that the keys on your typewriter are sticking.
Feiffer’s greatest contribution may be his enduring portraits of notable types among his fellow private citizens. He views them through a rather jaundiced eye and of course they’re studied in their neuroses (cultural note: neurosis is a basic emotion for New Yorkers) and totally full of themselves, but so vulnerable and human at the same time. He ceased cartooning for the Voice in 1997 but his characters live on in popular culture.
There were Bernard and Huey, two masculine archetypes who would later turn up as Sandy (Art Garfunkel) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) in Mike Nichol’s 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. Bernard was timid, reflective, and sensitive and never got the girl, while Huey was confident, oblivious and had to fight them off with a stick. And of course Bernard could never figure out what he was doing wrong, while the women who went home with Huey saw no contradiction in declaring that they like sensitive guys only to ditch him every time for the brute.
Then there was the leotard-clad modern dancer perpetually offering a “dance to Spring” or a “dance to the loss of innocence” which always began optimistically and frequently ended with her twisted up like a pretzel or cowering in the corner. She’s still with us, most recently as the subject of a production at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2009.
Pointless (and often self-imagined) personal competitions were a regular theme, and often music was the battleground. In those days it was jazz rather than indie rock but the spirit was exactly the same. A Feiffer beatnik confidently proclaims that jazz was invented by Steve Allen in 1955 and is taught at the New School. “If you don’t like it, you’d better learn. It’s the coming thing.”
In another strip, a middle-class gentleman is determined to puncture the pretensions of those who claim to be cool. It’s become difficult since everyone has learned the “right” books to buy and the “right” records to listen to: yes there were recipes for hip non-conformity in the 1950’s just as there are today. But not to fear, he’s found the solution to unmasking the pseudo-hip: he sneaks over and turns on their radios! If they’ve left it on WQXR, they’re busted! The take-home message: take care to change the setting on all your radio dials to an approve station before throwing a party, lest an undercover hipness detective be on the guest list.
Here’s a final image which should prove that the more things seem to change, the more they really don’t. Two small boys inspect a crater. One explains that programs for public housing and school construction were proposed to boost employment, but were politically unacceptable as government interference with the free market. Then a bomb fell out of the sky, leaving a huge crater, and workers had to be hired to fill it in. So the solution to unemployment was found by accident: the government started a bomb-dropping program and put people to work filling in the craters. As the boy concludes, this leaves everyone happy because “Nobody complains about national defense.”
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