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Tuesday, Mar 11, 2008


Blame it all on Godzilla. Or better yet, blame it on Toho Studios, Sandy Frank, and any other individual or entity that has a say in how Japan’s favorite oversized lizard gets manipulated and marketed around the world. When Rhino released Volume 10 in their recently halted Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD collection (don’t worry - Shout! Factory is taking up the mantle), it included the satiric show’s riff on Godzilla vs. Megalon. Famous for introducing the Ultraman-inspired Jet Jaguar, as well as a weird arms race theme (the undersea kingdom of Seatopia decides to fight nuclear testing by…sending a massive monster to destroy Tokyo?), it stands as a fan favorite.


Unfortunately, as with many movies in the MST3K catalog, issues over rebroadcast rights reared their ugly head. Devotees of the classic cowtown puppet show have long had to resign themselves to the fact that many of the series’ most memorable episodes would never see the light of a home video release. The reasons are many - post-commercialized claims, long unsettled legal disputes, family tiffs, limited use contracts - but the fact remains that both Godzilla and his success inspired turtle brother Gamera have been visibly absent from the Rhino releases. When Megalon hit, many thought the drought may finally have ended. Others believed it was too good to be true. They were right.


Indeed, aside from a few review versions sent to websites and publications for write-up, and a couple of accidental brick and mortar sales, Volume 10 of the Mystery Science Collection soon became an out of print prize. The box set was pulled, rumors surfaced and were settled, and anyone desperate to own the DVD version of the installment had to pay big bucks to collectors and/or price gougers. In response, Rhino is releasing a ‘replacement’ disc, an ‘upgrade’ if you will. Taking Gojira’s still warm seat in the digital package will now be the classic Season Four installment, The Giant Gila Monster. Starring the leg up vocalizing of Don Sullivan and directed by The Killer Shrews’ Ray Kellogg, this forced perspective reptile on the prowl picture is truly bad…meaning it makes for flawless MST fodder.



It seems that Chase Winstead and his fast driving teen buddies just can’t get enough of tearing through the dirt roads of their backwater burg. But when a pal and his pretty thing fail to show up for a rendezvous at the passion pit, the town gets worried. Seems the boy is the son of factory owner Mr. Thompson, and this rural entrepreneur loves to throw his weigh around. He especially enjoys bossing the likable Sheriff Jeff. When more people go missing, the mystery deepens. Then local lush Old Man Harris sees a giant Gila monster crossing the road. It causes a massive train accident where victims confirm the creature. It is up to Chase, his crippled sister, his French speaking girlfriend, and the aging lawman, to save the barn dance and destroy the beast once and for all.


In a clear case of Fourth Season syndrome (a theory among critics by which a television series reaches its first of possibly many creative peaks), The Giant Gila Monster stands as many MiSTie’s most memorable outings. It contains the sensational second on air cast incarnation - Joel Hodgson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, and Frank Conniff - and finds the program banging on all of its sarcastic cylinders. From the sensational invention exchange (who doesn’t want to punch out Renaissance Fair stereotypes) to Tom Servo’s expose on how Kellogg employed the ‘bended knee as blocking device’ technique, it’s a marvelous installment. While it may not replace the mesmerizing “man in suit” dynamic of Godzilla’s Eastern promise, it satisfies in its own schlocky way.



Indeed, the movie itself is a mishmash of horror, rock and roll, melodramatic schmaltz, and standard formulaic filmmaking. Kellogg uses minimal sets (a garage, a barn, a soda shop) and lots of local Texas backdrops (the movie was filmed in the Lone Star state) to tell his tale, and via the use of miniatures and massive close-ups, he creates a well-meaning (if rather unexceptional) giant beast. Sullivan’s Chase Winstead is a juvenile delinquent in the Steve McQueen/The Blob sense. He’s a good kid, occasionally misguided in his engine revving routine. There are songs (composed and sung by the star himself), a wacky old drunk, some choice chest puffing, and a good amount of over the top orchestration. All of it tries to make The Giant Gila Monster more imposing than it is.


As for the MST material, it’s above reproach. The in-theater joking is marvelous, most of the mirth centering on giving the title character a rib-tickling running critter commentary. Though it admits to having a brain “the size of a chickpea”, the Gila definitely gives good wit. Similarly, there are numerous mentions of the actor’s everpresent knees, a complete deconstruction of Sullivan’s tune “The Lord Said Laugh”, and a choice skit where comic drunks are discussed. This is the kind of movie that easily lends itself to the MST3K treatment. It’s hokey without being completely horrible, pedestrian without plodding along. The combination of film and funny business represent the reason many think Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains the best show in the history of the medium.



Of course, what many outside the obsessive will wonder is - is this DVD worth getting? Rhino is selling them for under $8 (for those who already own Volume 10) and it will be included in every new version of Volume 10.2. The answer is a resounding YES, if only for the introductory material. Somehow, Joel, Trace, and Frank were all convinced to re-don their character costumes and recreate an opening sequence from the show. Within this older, balder, and bulkier version of MST‘s memorable players, Joel and the ‘Bots help Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank explain the “upgrade” process. It’s one of the best things the series has ever done, and a burst of badass nostalgia for anyone who truly adores the show.


But there’s more here than that. Along with a gallery of stills, the disc also houses a 12 minute interview with actor Don Sullivan. He expresses his love of the film, how MST3K helped him appreciate it even more, and how he came to Hollywood with big dreams and $3 in his pocket. He also talks about his songwriting, the meaning of “The Lord Said Laugh” and why he dropped out of show business. It’s an insightful Q&A, one of the best ones these discs have provided. As an added bonus, we get two audio-only tracks from the Sullivan catalog. They’re a hoot. It all turns a must-own DVD into one of the best format fortunes out there. So perhaps instead of blaming Godzilla and his monetary keepers, we should thank them. If for nothing else than the return of our favorite MST icons, The Giant Gila Monster makes Volume 10.2 terrific!


 


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Tuesday, Mar 11, 2008

EMI was recently bought out by Terra Firma, a private equity group led by the delightfully named Guy Hands, who is not surprisingly perplexed by the encrustation of parasites (aka talent scouts, “creative types”, or A&R people) who seem to contribute nothing measurable to the bottom line. These cultural medicine men are customarily romanticized by their own ranks as having some mystical power to intuit what will sell (in other words, who has “talent”) and because it is basically a crap shoot determining what will tap the pop culture zeitgeist, past performance in the A&R world does function as a guarantee of future success. Just read this crazy article from the NYT Magazine about Rick Rubin to see how spiritual the discussion about the transcendent powers of the almighty A&R guru can become.


I tend to root against the culture connoisseurs who commercialize their own alleged creativity in this way; I prefer my creative types to be humble craftspeople who actually make interesting things, not ersatz sages with a gift for sophistry and self-promotion. But when you market yourself as someone with special access to something as mercurial and inherently unsystematic as creativity, you are setting yourself up for a well-deserved fall. Guy Hands agrees with me:


Mr Hands told the SuperReturn private equity conference in Munich: “The power and the decision has sat with the A&R man, who is someone who gets up late in the day, listens to lots of music, goes to clubs, spends his time with artists and has a knack of knowing what would sell. They were committing money with no sign-off, no nothing. What we are doing is taking the power away from the A&R guys and putting it with the suits - the guys who have to work out how to sell music. Trying to persuade 260 people to give up their power has been hard. We had labels at EMI that were spending five times as much on marketing as their gross revenues. We told them you could stick a £50 note on the cover of a CD and have the same effect, and we also wouldn’t have to pay them. Those sorts of comments don’t go down too well.”



John Gapper, in his FT column, offers a token defense of A&R practices, allowing that suits would be no better at them and would likely to bureaucratize the talent-search process and make it even worse. But A&R people need not be replaced with suits, they can be replaced with the masses themselves, who A&R people once presumed to speak for. On his blog, Gapper makes the more persuasive point that A&R people have been made moribund by the low-overhead music-discovery opportunities on the internet. He explains: “Given the straits of the industry, it seems fair enough to question whether they have the special powers that they claim, or whether they are simply rent-seekers who have inserted themselves between bands and investors and soaked up a lot of money.
This seems to me one of the most interesting issues facing the industry. You could mount a good argument that the internet and digital distribution has undermined the rationale for the bloated A&R overhead. When new artists can be discovered on MySpace, it surely brings into question whether quite so many highly paid talent-spotters are necessary.”


It doesn’t just bring it into question; it answers it with a resounding no. The easy manufacture of cultural product makes editors more necessary than ever, but the ability of the internet to aggregate the “wisdom of crowds” and perform massive feats of analysis mechanically works to pick up the slack. Hence, something like the website Pandora could be processing an influx of raw, unjudged music and spitting it out in pieces to those it determines will like it. Then that data could be aggregated to determine where record labels, if they still exist, should make big bets. And niche indie labels will fill in any gaps and allow for culture not mathematically derived from the lowest common denominator of public taste.
Bands, according to Gapper, defend the “rent-seeking” A&R gurus, but that’s because they are the ones telling the bands they have special talent—the musicians’ special gifts them confirm those of the A&R people, creating a death spiral of narcissism and self-congratulation. Lets hope the Guy Hands of the world put an end to it.


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Tuesday, Mar 11, 2008

Recently I finished Australian author Markus Zusak’s fantastic novel, The Book Thief (2006). Coming off of a disappointing read (see my post on Labyrinth), this book reaffirmed my faith in the beauty of prose—and the amazement that comes with reading something entirely new. Besides being an incredible story, this book is creative with words in a way I haven’t seen for too long. Words have an active presence, a forcefulness, almost a will of their own. Liesel, the central character in a narrative told by a surprisingly sensitive Death, is handed over to a foster mother who uses words as weapons:


She seemed to collect the words in her hand, pat them together, and hurl them across the table (35).


Elizabeth Chang writes for The Washington Post:


Death, like Liesel, has a way with words. And he recognizes them not only for the good they can do, but for the evil as well. What would Hitler have been, after all, without words? As this book reminds us, what would any of us be?


Liesel’s claim to fame, her own way of validating her existence in the bizarre microcosm of Nazi Germany, is to steal books, even before she learns how to read at the late-blooming age of 10. Once she starts the thievery, she can’t stop, and it becomes her small act of rebellion in the restrictive confines of 1940s German society.


I thought of Liesel recently when I was asked at my library job to take a pile of denuded (read: coverless), unwanted books to the recycling dumpster behind the high school cafeteria. Tossing in armful after armful of dusty, unread, out of date library books, I thought of Liesel digging a precious overheated tome out of a Nazi literary funeral pyre and hiding it under her jacket, burning herself to save the words (122). She would go to any length to save a book, no matter the effort it cost her, and no matter what the book was. And here I was, tossing them into a dumpster. I took a moment to ponder the literary relativity and the value of words. Death narrates:


Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain (80).


I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Zusak’s award-winning 2005 novel I am the Messenger, which was already checked out of the library when I finished The Book Thief. What was your last read that made you appreciate language in a new way?


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Monday, Mar 10, 2008

In celebration of the Coen Brothers’ Oscar winning No Country for Old Men (arriving on DVD today, 11 March), Short Ends and Leader looks back at a May 2007 piece regarding the promise of the latest offering from the filmmakers, as well as their overall career trajectory.


The review in the most recent Variety says it all – after half a decade in the cinematic wilderness, the Coen Brothers have apparently returned to their original, brilliant filmmaking forte. The movie in question is their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s drug and death thriller No Country for Old Men, and advanced word is more than favorable. Indeed, it’s the kind of unmitigated praise (with words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘masterpiece’ tossed around) that the skilled siblings once attained with surprising regularity. Fans who have long hoped for a return to form should be smiling from ear to ear, and while we will have to wait until sometime in late November to see if the Cannes screening buzz is true, any promise of their previous brilliance is worth celebrating.


You see, the Coens were, at one time, undeniable gods of quirky, unconventional filmmaking. While they never delivered a monster mainstream motion picture (2000’s O’ Brother Where Art Thou? is the closest they every came to a certified hit) they also never really hid behind a veil of independent or outsider auteurship. Instead, writer/producer Ethan and writer/director Joel have openly helmed some of the most memorable movies of the last two decades, remarkable masterworks with titles like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In all, the nine films they made over their first 17 years in the industry represent the best that modern cinema can achieve. They even achieved that rarity for visionary artists – an actual Oscar (for crafting the screenplay for Fargo).


But something happened in 2001, right around the time that their black and white opus The Man Who Wasn’t There was hitting theaters. For a long time, the Coens had hated the idea of working outside the system. While their films had always been embraced by the studios (well, mostly), they had never really had a concrete deal to depend on. But when O’ Brother went ballistic, giving former ER star George Clooney a substantial boost into the realm of superstardom, the boys appeared ready to bathe in the limelight of legitimacy. They took a sketchy divorce comedy by a pair of unheralded Hollywood hacks (Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, responsible for Life, Big Trouble, and the horrid Man of the House), reworked the material to fit their idiosyncratic ideals, and got their pal George back on board. Suddenly, Intolerable Cruelty was on the production fast track.


When A-listers Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thorton and Geoffrey Rush signed on, it looked like the Coens would finally see some solid commercial returns. And they didn’t intend to totally abandon their esoteric cinematic style. As they saw it, this was a chance to meld their vision with a viable high profile product. Unfortunately, they failed both demographics. Devotees destroyed the film, seeing nothing of their favorite filmmakers in the dull, derivative mess. Even worse, audiences outside the boys’ normal sphere of influence discovered very little to like about this cobbled together collection of clipped dialogue, oddball characters, and stylized visual imagery. After a few feeble weeks at the box office, the film only earned back half of its $60 million price tag.


Luckily, the guys had already lined up their next project. Looking for something to subvert his normal nice guy image onscreen, megastar Tom Hanks provided the duo with their crumbling career safety net. He hooked up with the Coens for their planned remake of the Alec Guiness classic The Ladykillers, hoping that by playing a corrupt con man looking to rob a local bank he could win back a little of the acting credibility he once had (the man owns a pair of Academy brass, remember). The cast was fleshed out with additional faces unfamiliar to the boys’ standard acting crew (J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans), and while Hanks excelled in the lead, the rest of the movie felt oddly off balance. Even the staunchest Coen supporters had a hard time defending its flatness.


The result was a flop of reputational, not financial, proportions (the movie made money, believe it or not). What was happening to the brothers was something they had never experienced in the past. With the weak one-two punch of these underperforming efforts, followers began to doubt their inherent artistic acumen. At one time, their amiable aesthetic was unquestionable. The guys were geniuses and that was that. But somehow, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers showed that these irrefutable emperors did indeed have some frayed bits in their otherwise fanciful clothes. Of course, such a conclusion was only partly true, but the status carried. Suddenly, the one time deities of motion picture mastery were viewed as vulnerable, flawed, and very, very human.


Again, it’s not hard to see why. Modern writers/directors would give up their posh seats at the trendiest restaurant of the moment to claim any one of the Coens’ previous efforts. Blood Simple was such a shock to the system that mainstream critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were beside themselves with praise. The follow-up, the comedy classic Raising Arizona remains one of the great ensemble laugh fests ever formulated. With those two projects alone, most moviemakers would be satisfied, but the Coens continued their scorching streak of cinematic stalwarts.


During an unusual period of writer’s block, the brothers managed to salvage two scripts from the depths of literary despair. The final products – Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink – stand as the best examples of the boys’ early period works. Dense, obtuse and frighteningly fleshed out, their takes on the period crime caper (Crossing) and the Golden Era of Hollywood (Fink) function as fascinating bookends, movies that completely encapsulate and explain the Coens’ interpretation of the language of film. Both projects wallowed in excessive detail, used sequences of startling violence, and just the slightest hint of socially unacceptable behavior (drinking, death) to round out their splashy, flashy finesse.


After their massive critical success, the pair was picked up by super producer Joel Silver to make their next movie – a satiric screwball comedy about big business entitled The Hudsucker Proxy. Like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying sans the music and misguided optimism, the Coens riffed on everything old fashioned and mannered about the post-War Tinsel Town comedies, and came up with a bafflingly insular work that few outside the fanbase could cotton to. From Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mysterious Kate Hepburn brogue to a plot premised on stock market fluctuations and company corruption, it took a few years of reconsideration before anyone considered Hudsucker a worthy companion to the boys’ previous gems.


Fargo, of course, was the duo’s final coming out. When Gene Siskel declared that he was sure he would not see a better film the rest of the year – and it was MARCH 1996 when he made such a statement – you just knew something special was in the offing. Driven by an idiosyncratic setting (upper Minnesota) and equally arcane accents, the Coens created a kidnapping/murder mystery with as much buffoonery as bite. With Oscar worthy performances from William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi, and an Award winning turn by star Frances McDormand, the guys finally received the industry idolatry they so richly deserved (and statuettes for Best Original Screenplay).


The final three films in their notable nine movie run were equally important. The Big Lebowski proved that the Coens had lost none of their ridiculous razor’s edge, turning the story of a stoner and a case of mistaken identity into a fresh and full bodied farce. O’ Brother showcased the power in music, as well as the boys’ understanding of rural America revisionism. And when The Man Who Wasn’t There offered up a similar theme of flat feloniousness among small town folk, its anti-histrionic take on such acts of desperation was a revelation. So it’s no substantial shock that Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers would feel like letdowns. Neither was an original creation from the guy’s unusual perspective, and neither tried to funnel their fascinating film fusion into a cohesive or vital vision. In fact, when the quirkiest element involved remains Tom Hank’s Southern dandy accent, you know you’ve swayed from what made you famous in the first place.


So it’s great to hear the outpouring of praise for No Country for Old Men. It’s been a long time since the Coens captured the imagination of the creative community, and though they’ve only been out of consideration for a few years, their exile from importance seems infinite. At one time, they wrote the new rules on how to deliver motion pictures from the mundane and the stagnant. They catered to characterization instead of high concepts, and smoothed out their scripts with a narrative flow as fluid as a puddle of pulsating mercury. If they end up winning Cannes’ biggest prizes (as they have done several times before) or simply walk away with the word of mouth necessary to jumpstart their next few films, then all is right in the cinematic universe. The Coens used to be said cosmos’ brightest stars. It’s wonderful to know they haven’t supernova-ed, at least not yet.


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Monday, Mar 10, 2008

When composer/saxist John Zorn invited journalists to a pair of weekend shows, his one request was that they would not write about it. Of course, the next thing that happened was that a flurry of angry exchanges were unleashed with some defending Zorn and others calling him crazy and conceited. I was there for one of the shows but I paid for my ticket and wrote about it. Later though, I wondered again about the strange relationships that develop between artists and writers.


A mentor of mine warned me that it was never a good idea to get chummy with musicians. He occasionally broke the rule himself but tried to maintain it in general. My batting average is about the same but I know the reasoning behind this idea—you don’t wanna have to call your friend out on a bad album in print. Even it’s constructive, it can still sting. Unfortunately, I’ve found the same thing with other writers—most of the time when you’re asked ‘what do you think of my article,’ they’re really asking ‘could you please find something nice to say about it?’


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