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Monday, Jan 7, 2008

This article from Scientific American suggests something that I’ve often suspected, that boredom is less a matter of dull circumstances than of unimaginative people.


a new generation of scientists is grappling with the psychological underpinnings of this most tedious of human emotions—and they have found that it is more complicated than is commonly known. Researchers say that boredom is not a unified concept but rather comes in several flavors. Level of attention, an aspect of conscious awareness, plays an important role in boredom, such that improving a person’s ability to focus may therefore decrease ennui. Emotional factors can also contribute to boredom. People who are inept at understanding their feelings and those who become sucked in and distracted by their moods are more easily bored, for example.


In the past, I’ve argued that consumerism as a system induces people to become more prone to boredom by encouraging them to feel entitled to convenience and hence exist in a state of perpetual impatience, which is quite like boredom. People come to regard their own experience as disposable, something to be hurried through. At the time, I didn’t know about the Boredom Proneness Scale, developed by two psychologists, or what its application has found in terms of whether people are getting more or less bored as society becomes more saturated with commodified culture. But the researchers who created the scale have identified two main characteristics of those easily bored that fit well with my theory: Boredom stems, in their account, from a need for novelty and an inability to generate their own stimulation: In other words, they have become passive consumers who wait to be entertained by some new external stimulus as rapidly as possible. These in turn derive from a short attention span. The question then is whether consuming culture designed for people with short attention spans can actually produce a short attention span. Or is A.D.D. not something our environment has inflicted on us.


This point of view gives a new cast to a meme that already sounds creepy and ominous—the onset of the “attention economy.” It feels as though we have less and less attention to give, as our surroundings become hypermediated, and worse, the scarcity of attention reinforces itself. Attention ceases to be a renewable resource.


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Sunday, Jan 6, 2008


I’m not sure if other film critics have it, but I know I do. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but then again, I can’t imagine that it’s completely my fault. I’ve met other people outside the journalistic community who definitely possess it, and for the most part, they have learned to live with. I too have discovered a way to balance its oppressive, off putting aspects with the rigors of what I do, but it can be a burden of unfathomable difficulty. You see, I suffer from what’s known as ‘The 10 Minute Curse’. What this means is that, in 99 cases out of 100, I can tell if a movie is going to excel or suck within the first 10 minutes of it unraveling on the screen (theatrical or TV). It almost never fails, and it really is a pain in the as…aesthetic.


From what I understand, it comes from a lifetime as a film fan coupled with a sudden burial in and barrage of the artform. For the last six years, I’ve spent my days mired in movies. Some weeks I’ve watched up to a dozen DVDs, and during awards season, it’s not unusual to attend seven or eight screenings in a scant five days. Conservatively, I’ve seen about 3000 films in a little less than 67 months. Doing the math, that’s just under 45 per month. Using the standard 4.5 week measure, that comes to about nine every seven days. Argh! And when you add in my college days, when going to the student union and catching a double feature was a daily doped up occurrence, along with the rest of my Cinephile status, I’m a perfect candidate for time tainting, as we sufferers sometimes call it.


You see, the brain is a baffling thing. It makes connections and sees similarities and synchronicity even when our conscious mind misses it. Over the course of a couple of decades, the mental chemistry gets shifted, creating a kind of celluloid dementia. It can happen with music too - I have an old friend who’s been part of the business for decades, and his curse is so refined now that he can today tell if a song is a hit or a miss in under 15 SECONDS. Because film contains facets that can temporarily circumvent your curse, 10 stands as most fatalities’ median mark. For some, it can take much longer. Those with times under have been known to freak out and find solace in a life spent in quiet contemplation - or in a sanitarium straight jacket.


In essence, the menacing motion picture mojo works like this: you sit down in your favorite recliner/assigned stadium seat, favorite beverage/overpriced theater snack close at hand. As the previews pass by and the anticipation draws near, the synapses in your head start switching over into preprogrammed predetermination mode. An actor’s name can trigger it, as can a specific genre (horror, CGI kid flick), or storyline (dysfunctional family attempts to reconcile). Soon, before the first image has been viewed, the mind’s eye is mirroring a hundred previous viewings and thousands of similar titles. As the opening unfolds, conclusions are being calculated, similarities are being sought out and shelved, and levels of predictability and possibility are ordered, defined, and prepped.


Then, right around 9:59, it strikes. It’s a sad, sinking feeling - even if the final formulation indicates that the movie is going to turn out good, or even great. Part of the magic of movies lies in the ability to be surprised and swept up in a world where you’re unsure of what’s going to happen next. But the 10 Minute Curse robs one of said discovery. It’s like a little voice in the back of your head whispering “I told you so” over and over again - and you don’t even know what the comments are referencing, at least not yet. Then, when the film finishes and ephemeral opinion proves correct, part of the pleasure simply dies inside you.


Let’s take a couple of recent examples. As I settled in my seat waiting for National Treasure: Book of Secrets to start, I recalled my minor appreciation of the original film. While Nicholas Cage has always been an odd action star choice, the historical hooey passing itself off as modern archeological swagger had some relatively enjoyable moments. But the sequel - silly, stagy, and slapped together in a manner that simply screams “created by committee” had me convinced it was going to underachieve from the moment Riley lost his beloved red Jaguar - and there was still over two hours to go. Imagine the distress of sitting in a theater, seats filled with entitlement minded freebie ticket holders, knowing that nothing you could do would improve the unspooling spectacle before you.


On the other hand, there’s been a lot of jawing about Juno, especially among critics who feel the film is all tween/You Tube pseudo Tarantino preening. Many of the arguments, while slightly overwrought, remain well reasoned and quite passionate. So approaching the studio provided Oscar screener with some trepidation, I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed it - and at the moment when a pro-Life protester convinced our heroine that fetuses have fingernails, I realized that the haters were hopelessly misguided. While not the major Oscar fodder championed by any far stretch of the imagination, Ellen Page’s excellent work and Jason Reitman’s whipsmart direction made the experience evocative and memorable. The only downside was that I knew this was going to be the case 80 minutes before the final verdict came in.


I feel lucky that this is a recent occurrence. Back when Miller’s Crossing first floored me, or I recognized 2001: A Space Odyssey as the greatest film of all time, it would have been horrible to have those epiphanies marred by the curse. Of course, it would have been nice to be so cosmically clued in when certified stink bombs like Battlefield Earth or Batman and Robin came calling. On the one hand, being bothered by such a stigma can be conceived as a blessing in disguise. In an environment where deadlines loom, workloads double, and demands battle expectations for continued career viability, knowing a turkey within a scant few scenes seems a critical godsend. Yet, in order to be completely fair, to make sure one’s not relying on the otherworldly guidance time and time again, a reviewer has to reject the curse and work twice as hard to combat it’s influence. A good critic, that is.


Take the case of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. This nauseating little cinematic turd, based (badly) on the real life case of tortured and murdered teen Sylvia Likens (killed by her certifiably psycho guardian Gertrude Baniszewski) tries to get away with an air of amiable nostalgia countered with hints at the horrors beneath the surface. It wants to be Blue Velvet with a sickening swatch of pedophilia soiling the storyline. Viewed on DVD, it tricked the curse for a while, keeping the final outcome in question for more than 80 complicated minutes. But then, when the final act proved nothing more than one adult’s uninspired mea culpa and callous cry for attention, the obvious heinousness heretofore hidden landed like a big steamy motion picture pile. It practically made you ashamed for previously drinking the celluloid Kool-Aid.


Then there’s Joshua. Your typical evil kid doing horrendous things that only the post-modern Bad Seed could possibly conceive of thriller, the slow pacing and deliberate plotting from co-writer/director George Ratliff and scribe David Gilbert threaten to invert and implode on viewer contact. As the movie meanders, dragging both logic and intelligence through the brazen brat genre run of the mill, we can’t imagine that anything good will result. The curse clamors for attention, already rendering its decision, and yet the film won’t finalize the assessment. Then the title character launches into a haunting little last minute ditty, complete with condemning lyrics and a montage loaded with exposed secrets, and the blithering blight disappears. Suddenly, the already acknowledged dullness transforms into a begrudging admiration, and a flop finds a way to save itself.


Still, it’s important to note that this really is not a benefit, nor is it ever used as an unearned shortcut to getting one’s ever present work done. It is truly a curse, a stinging little personal pain that permeates the pleasure of cinema and robs the sufferer of the medium’s majesty. It’s like never getting comfortable in your seat, or that constant car alarm that goes off while the neighbors are away. You hope it doesn’t happen, and yet it never really leaves. Sure, some films (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood) are so rock solid that it doesn’t feel the need to arrive, while others announce their awfulness (Norbit, Shrek the Third) so early that a hasty conclusion actually acts like an afterthought. So remember, the next time you’re grooving on your favorite film and the DVD counter clicks over onto 10:00, somewhere in the artform universe, there is a critic enjoying the very same title - and their fun has just fallen into formula. Consider yourself lucky.


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Sunday, Jan 6, 2008

As 2007 was coming to a close, time, and the allocation thereof, took a runner, and left many of us in the critical appraisal business with too much to opine upon and a shortage of waking hours in which to do so. The problem was, that once you make your existence and potential usefulness known to publishers, they don’t exactly take holidays. In other words, whether or not time existed in which to appraise them, the books just kept coming in. They piled up on the desk, in dark corners, dust beginning to gather on their perky press releases, and waited in passive aggressive accusation to have their pages turned.  Eventually, in between the usual year-end wrapping-up and holiday commitments, they are dragged out and opened up—particularly the graphic novels because, let’s face it, they’re shorter and the covers are always better.


Herewith, a miscellany of opinion on some items that came across the transom over the past couple months.


Super Spy by Matt Kindt (Top Shelf)


The setting is never quite clear but it seems to be your basic World War II-era Europe, all long shadows, nice suits, trains, and fedoras. But in Matt Kindt’s odd, haunting novel, the details are merely backdrop to a more existential tale about the moral blankness and enervating suspicion that must form the life of the spy. In taut, sepia-toned panels, we follow spy after spy as they struggle through Byzantine codes and indecipherable instructions, parsing enemy from lover, and more often than not meet death, bleakly and pointlessly. Kindt’s book appreciates the romantic trappings of fictional espionage, but undercuts it at every possible opportunity with cynical humor and an understanding of the tragedy of lives wasted in the shadows.


Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly)


This slim little volume of racial and sexual self-loathing has already been roundly and rightly praised elsewhere, but let’s give it another pat on the back. Tomine is a queasy chronicler of the bad relationship, as he so acutely showed in 2003’s Summer Blonde, but he outdoes himself here in a scenario about a Japanese-American slacker in his late-twenties who’s doing his level best to suffocate any chance at success (particularly romantic) in his life. Like Chasing Amy without the groin jokes.


Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm by Percy Carey (Vertigo)


Given the deep love given comics by so many rappers, it’s a strange oversight how so few graphic novels even come close to depicting their world. Sentences is a half-successful attempt to try and make up that disparity, and in the meantime try to also add an entry to another woefully underused graphic genre: the memoir. It’s the life story of Percy Carey, aka M.F. Grimm, who grew up on the Upper West Side back when it still had some grit, and later got into rapping at the same time that he was also hustling, ending up in a wheelchair for his troubles. Though Ronald Wimberly’s manga-inspired art has a welcome edge to it (recalling a reality-based The Boondocks at times), and Carey’s voice is refreshingly straight-ahead and no-excuses, the overall effect is somewhat less than exciting.


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier by Alan Moore (DC Comics)


In the League books, Alan Moore has pretty much had a grand old time pressing into service his frightening knowledge of literature for a cracking good series of superhero adventures that thrill as much as they make you want to stock up on Penguin Classics. This newest mini-classic—in which the League enters the postwar era in somewhat ragged fashion after the police state of Orwell’s 1984 goes on the wane— is as rollicking a ride as any. Moore’s imagination works overtime on spot-on literary pastiches (everyone from Evelyn Waugh to H.P. Lovecraft, Virginia Woolf and Victorian-era erotica) that are interleaved in between story episodes containing the expected lashings of fights, escapes, and skullduggery. Too clever by far, but by the time James Bond shows up (as the villain) and you’re using the helpfully included 3-D glasses, it hardly matters.


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Sunday, Jan 6, 2008
Our Dumb CenturyAuthor: The Onion EditorsCrownSeptember 2007

Our Dumb Century
Author: The Onion Editors
Crown
September 2007


Fans of The Onion, you know who you are. Our Dumb Century purports to represent the last hundred year’s worth of front pages and headlines of the venerated news supplier. Presenting the best fake news stories from the 20th century, read headlines like “Death-by-Corset Rates Stabilize at One-in-Six” and “Congress Reduces Work Week to 135 Hours”. Watch out, your friends might grab your copy right off your coffee table.


Satirical news devotees will find nothing to be disappointed with in this hilarious collection of stories and images from “American’s Finest News Source”. Originally published in 1999, the editors define political issues as only The Onion can. The book is divided up into five temporal chunks that roughly outline the American eras of industrialization, war, the ‘swell’ middle of the century, more war (plus hippies!), and the golden era of television (i.e. the apathetic last two decades of the 20th century).


The Onion spares no fashion statement, consumer product, or political candidate in its broad survey of fabricated news headlines from the last century’s worth of subject matter. Hindsight being 20/20, the writers take full advantage of their position at the very end of the 1990s when writing in present tense about subjects like the Campbell’s Tomato soup can design, proclaimed on an October, 1962 (six years before Andy Warhol’s painting) cover to be ‘Brilliant’ ‘Pop Art’ by art critics, while the Campbell’s CEO maintains, “‘It’s just soup.’” Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.


Martin Luther King, Jr’s 1963 proclamation that “‘I Had a Really Weird Dream Last Night’” shares a page with the headline, ‘Earth’s Fossil Fuels Will Last Forever, Geologists Say’. Thirty years earlier, The Onion ostensibly reported that with the 18th Amendment repealed, “U.S. Distilleries ‘Resume’ Alcohol Production”; workers involved with the production of alcohol are now undertaking “the Olympian task of making it seem as if they are just now returning to production after years of prohibition-enforced inactivity.” A small blurb in the opposite corner of this front cover lists a group of Hollywood celebrities whose ‘Careers [were] Destroyed Today’; unsurprisingly more than a few of them were reputed alcoholics.


The editorial staff’s attention to detail is displayed on every page, from the fluctuating cost of the broadsheet copies, to revamped insignia of the paper’s name over time, to shifting typeface that reflects the date stated at the top of the page. Always relevant, always thought-provoking, this book is a great reference source about history and popular culture no matter what page you open it up to.


Rating: 8


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Saturday, Jan 5, 2008


His is not an unusual story. As an artist of color working within a medium not necessarily friendly to same, Charles Burnett had a decidedly uphill battle to become a filmmaker. As with many like minded ‘60s students, he turned his 16mm UCLA thesis focusing on the troubled Watts section of Los Angeles into an unusually beautiful and moving meditation on race and the rejection of the American dream. Hoping to see it released, he failed to realize that the many songs included as part of the overall poetry were unsecured. The costs of such rights issues made distribution impossible, and aside from a few festival screenings, his efforts wound up the stuff of legend. He eventually went on to work in Tinsel Town, delivering outsider works like 1990’s To Sleep with Anger and 2000’s Finding Buck McHenry.


Yet it was the mythic movie from his youth that continued to define his reputation. Many wondered if it was as good as people claimed, while others questioned the reasons why it hadn’t been remastered and restored - especially in these days of ‘everything on digital’ DVD domination. Thanks to Milestone Films, and Burnett’s alma mater, the $150,000 needed to settle the soundtrack matter was raised, and a new 35mm pristine print was struck. Suddenly, the once lost film was found - and over the course of the last few months, it has emerged as a considered classic. It sits on many ‘Best of’ lists, and the National Film Registry has selected it for preservation. Even better, Milestone has stepped up and created a seminal home video package that allows the context of the film’s creation, as well as other examples of the director’s work, to fully come to the fore.


Dark and documentary like, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is a window into a world few have ever experienced, let alone knew existed. Capturing the look, the feel, and the sense of poverty like no other film before it, it represents a remarkable bit of artistic perspective. With no real narrative to speak of and characters drawn directly out of unrelenting real life, it stands as a startlingly authentic experiment, and a true dramatic testament to the human spirit. While the era is clearly the ‘70s, and Burnett relies on old school blues and soul as a Greek Chorus score, this is a timeless examination of life along the fringes of normative society, a peek into situations stark and circumstances unfathomable. When a slaughterhouse seems more inviting than a shabby family home, you recognize the cultural commentary is nothing short of potent.

We follow Stan, a sad man who seems lost within his trials to merely survive. He is the title entity, a man working in an abattoir helping with any and all butchering tasks. His pretty wife tolerates his many moods, but wonders why a still vital and virile male won’t take her to bed regularly. When a friend suggests he has no hope, he decides to fix up his wreck of a car by buying a used engine. When local lowlifes try to talk him into crime, his better half abruptly steps in to remove the unlawful influence. In the meantime, the couple’s two kids wander aimlessly through an inner city landscape where fake violence meets the real thing on a regular basis. It’s an existence sketched out in government indifference, a place where comfort - when it comes - arrives in short, senseless bursts always capable of collapsing in on itself.


Treating everything viewed - animal slaughter, childhood roughhousing, slow grind passion, inappropriate advances - in a manner which offers little in the way of interpretation or judgment, Killer of Sheep is a very challenging experience. It asks us, the audience, to step into a reality that seems unreal, and sympathize with people and plights that appear alien to our smug, suburban eyes. Without being confrontational or controversial, without resorting to the kind of callous stereotyping that makes ethnicity charges stories so suspect, we find grace inside the dark, dire ghetto. You can see that Burnett believes in his intentions. The movie never forces itself into situations that demand responses. Instead, we let the casual daily drone wash over us, the arguments over money and opportunity, status and stumbling blocks becoming nothing but a background buzz to the discontent surrounding the characters. 


Yet you can also feel the director’s education based desire to reference past masters. While the neo-realists of Italy were far more focused on telling a story, Burnett uses the same monochrome pastiche to capture his almost amateurish moments. Real life actors Henry Sanders (as Stan) and Kaycee Moore (as his wife) are surrounded by locals and available friends, their lack of pretense apparent in every sped up line reading, every slight smile while staring straight into the camera. The camerawork is either purposefully static or unintentionally handheld, the lens capturing glimpses of faces and facets that we are perhaps not supposed to see. There is a vague voyeuristic quality to what Burnett offers, the viewer as uncomfortable witness to an unsatisfied wife, children caught in mindless cruelty, and a man downbeat and desperate.


The DVD presentation allows Burnett to put his efforts here into perspective, and the accompanying commentary track (with scholar Richard Pena) offers a great deal of information and insight. But even more startling are the short films offered as complements to the director’s oeuvre. Dealing with subjects as varied as a dying horse and Hurricane Katrina, they argue for an artist quite capable of staying within the accepted framework of the medium in order to make his points. This is especially true of the supplemental long form film offered - 1983’s My Brothers Wedding (it focuses on the various high and lows that occur as a disjointed family prepares for one sibling’s suspect nuptials). Presented in two different versions - the original 118 min cut and a new, 90 min director’s redux - we see Burnett working in a more friendly and fast paced style, while still incorporating many of the more contemplative touches that made Sheep such a success.


In retrospect, this is the kind of arcane aesthetic pronouncement that could only have survived in the ‘70s. Today, even in the most broadminded of production realms, Burnett would be viewed as a maverick making difficult cinema in far too easy going filmmaking times. This doesn’t distract from Killer of Sheep‘s amazing merits, just forewarns those coming in unprepared and expecting some kind of mainstream motion picture. This is a vision as yet untainted by the need to sell out and sell through. We can thank Milestone and the many supporters of this unusual, unmatched movie for making sure future generations can enjoy its undeniable masterwork. It makes Burnett’s struggles seem less like the story and more like a fabulous, unfathomable footnote. Once you’ve seen this film, you realize that’s exactly where said struggle belongs.


 


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