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Thursday, Mar 6, 2008

I’ve wondered for a while now whether conservative theory could ever experience a vogue in the soft humanities (literature, cultural studies), not because of any intrinsic merit in the material but because it would supply a new niche for graduate students to exploit, fresh territory on which to stake a claim. Maybe this is already happening, or already happened: First, a tentative survey of the literature from a critical perspective: an examination of the tropes of conservative discourse, say, and how they have evolved—something like Hofstedter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Then, a deconstruction that shows conservative thought (something like Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom or Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy) is actually liberal thought. Then, an actual embrace of the reimagined or rehabilitated conservative works, and their use to explicate the raw material of humanities courses—Bronte novels and the like. I want to see the Hayekian reading of Jane Eyre, dammit!


Anyway, relevant to this fantasy, there’s been some discussion in the econoblogosphere, prompted by this Tyler Cowen post, about the dearth of conservative works of theory that stand the test of time. Cowen’s central claim about 20th century conservative political theory books seems right to me: “I opined that none have held up particularly well, mostly because they underestimated the robustness of the modern world and regarded depravity as more of a problem than it has turned out to be.” In other words, social conservatism is purely reactionary and history (the modern world’s robust ability to encourage tolerance) leaves such people behind.


Jacob Levy restates the problem this way: “there’s no modern work to teach alongside Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State, and Utopia that really gets at what’s interesting about Burkean or social conservatism…. The problem isn’t… that the conservative temperament isn’t easily reduced to programmatic philosophical works…. One of the problems is that history keeps right on going—and so any book plucked from the past that was concerned with yelling ‘stop!’ tends to date badly to any modern reader who does not think he’s already living in hell-in-a-handbasket.”


Brad DeLong sees no problem in this. He thinks we need to stop kidding ourselves that social conservatism has any theoretical component: “I say cut the Gordian knot. THERE ARE NO ATTRACTIVE MODERN CONSERVATIVES BECAUSE CONSERVATISM SIMPLY IS NOT ATTRACTIVE. DEAL WITH IT!!” He then uses Burke as an example to illustrate that “conservatism is a sometimes useful rhetorical weapon, not a set of principles.” There’s no point pursuing some kind of equal time for conservative theory to teach alongside libertarian or liberal theory because there isn’t any.


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Wednesday, Mar 5, 2008


Thirty-nine is just too young, no matter how you look at it. Life provides such limited opportunities that, to lose them all at such an age smacks of cosmic injustice. Many of you may not have heard of John Polonia, nor know of his work. He was a leftover from the Super VHS craze of the late ‘80s/ early ‘90s, a kid at heart with dreams just as naïve and wide-eyed. Along with brother Mark, he made horror movies - cheap, no-budget straight to video genre exercises that filtered an obsession with US and foreign fright into shockingly original terror visions. Prolific to a fault, the Polonias were the trademark example of the new technological age. They were teens (at the time) that wanted nothing more than to express themselves on film - and the scientific progress within the medium helped them achieve that goal.


And now John is gone - taken down by a heart aneurism just short of his 40th birthday. He leaves behind a devoted brother, an equally loyal spouse, and a young son. As Mark began the painful process of sending emails out to individuals he felt connected to, a strange kind of sadness swept over the outsider arena. It wasn’t just the tragedy of a career cut too short of an existence ended before its time. No, there was a sense of loss for the medium as well, a weird kind of ennui that suggested something equally depressing. It seems, no matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you try, you’re one solid step from notoriety - or nothing. In the case of John Polonia, it appears only a privileged few have had the pleasure of experiencing his creativity - or understand the man himself.


There’s no denying the Polonias specialized in what can kindly be called grade-Z schlock. It was what they loved. It was where their passions lied. Growing up during the startling transition from the post-modern ‘70s to the home theater ‘80s, the boys were literally inundated with cinema. Birthday gifts included camera equipment, and collaborations with other like minded moviemakers yielded special effects and actors. Together, they forged a grass roots loyalty to Argento and Fulci, Carpenter and Romero. They made slasher films, vampire epics, tongue in cheek monster movies - they even spoofed themselves with last year’s winning Splatter Beach. Thanks to DVD and the ease of distribution it provides, the boys were just breaking away from the notion of mainstream indifference. Instead, websites were championing their films, with offers from independent studios starting to pour in.


Yet the tragic loss of John underscores the main problem in today’s progressive media. Back before anyone could make film, there was a keen sense of perspective and preservation. True, a great many decent efforts were tossed on the coals of disposability, but at least the masterful ones stayed somewhat safe. Today, everyone’s an artist. There are no aesthetic checks, no creative balances. John and Mark Polonia were able to make movies and have them seen as a direct result of these critical barriers being breached. It is not meant to be a putdown, simply a statement of fact. By direct corollary, one fears John’s work will be lost among the DIY rabble, frequently scoffed at as interchangeable and easily dismissed.


What’s not so readily removed is how much true fan affection the Polonias put in their films. From the puppet like aliens in Feeders to the wood demon of their latest film, Forest Primeval, there was a wonderful throwback element to the days of tacky creature features and Saturday matinees. They also adored gore, making their movies as bloody and as disgusting as possible. When you look over their entire output - and it’s a massive canon, to say the least - it’s like retracing at the entire history of horror. They reflect the changing attitudes in the genre, from comedy to cruelty, invention to outright rip-offs.


Ever-present were John and Mark, twin brothers with bushy moustaches and voices carved out of a clear Northeastern cadence. Fighting the cusp between able and amateurish, these like minded siblings sought to express themselves in ways that played directly into their personal proclivities. They always remained technically proficient, even working on other people’s films as actors, writers, and editors. They were genial, often self-deprecating about their product, using the burgeoning digital format to explain themselves in featurettes and commentary tracks. There was always a wistful quality to their discussions, an acknowledgment of luck in an industry that rarely rewards anything save nepotism and ‘who you know’ networking.


With John gone, it will probably be difficult for Mark to immediately move on. As he said in his recent email, it just won’t be the Polonia Brothers anymore. But spirit is a funny thing - it tends to infuse itself (sometimes indirectly) into the remainder of reality. No matter what he does from this point forward, Mark will always carry his spitting image offspring with him. That means that, if and when he makes another movie, it will clearly be a joint effort. If any good can come out of this tragedy, it’s that the messageboard attention John’s death received will provide some renewed interested in the Polonia’s films.


Tempe Entertainment, who released Primeval, is already planning a tribute for the last film the brothers made together. Not surprising, it’s a send-up of the genre entitled Monster Movie. In many ways, it’s a fitting end for a collaboration that often celebrated the weird and the whacky. Thirty-nine is just way too young. Here’s hoping John Polonia will be remembered more for his films and not for such an untimely passing. 


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Wednesday, Mar 5, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

OK Go
A Million Ways [MP3]


OK Go has released a five-song digital EP, You’re Not Alone, on iTunes in support of Katrina relief. Joining the L.A. band on the short set is the very fine New Orleans brass band Bonerama. Check out “A Million Ways” and then head on over to iTunes to pick up the collection.

     


Los Campesinos!
You! Me! Dancing! [MP3]
     


Barry Adamson
Spend a Little Time [MP3] (from Back to the Cat out 22 April)
     


Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
R.E.M. Medley [Video]


The Epochs
Giving Tree [MP3]
     


Wheat
Move = Move (radio edit) [MP3]
     


Doomsday comes to theatres on 14 March in the US and Universal has created a game for all those fans of first person shooter titles. Called the Marauder Massacre Game, it’s your chance to take out the zombies hunting humanity. [play game]


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Tuesday, Mar 4, 2008


When it happens, it’s rather unsettling. In debate, we call it “squirreling”. In society, it’s known as being ‘out of step’ or ‘rebellious’. It’s never easy being the odd man out in any critical consensus. We all know the feeling of championing a band or artist who others hate, and visa versa. Yet in the world of film reviewing, such an outsider stance often results in feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. There’s also a sense of seniority at play, a deference to those who’ve done the job longer than others. The old guard gets the benefit of the doubt, so to speak, while the newer members are viewed through a novice scrim of suspiciousness.


It is a rare occurrence, but the examples are very telling indeed. Last month, Be Kind Rewind premiered. Michel Gondry’s love letter to home video and the DIY spirit of the new medium technology was uniformly undervalued by critics, many complaining that the story seemed shallow and scattered. Yet to these supposedly trained eyes right here, Rewind was genius. It extolled the value of VHS while proving that film becomes a social language all its own. During the public/press screening, you could literally feel the shrinking sense of perspective. While others in the journalist’s row scoffed and shifted in their seats, one or two of their number were transfixed - and taken in - by Gondry’s efforts.


Or take the upcoming Funny Games. A near shot by shot remake of Michael Haneke’s 1997 film of the same name, this twisted tale of a wealthy family brutalized by some very unusual killers is as smarmy and smug as it is distasteful and vile. It has nothing but contempt for the audience, purposefully tosses convention to the window, and more or less acts as an egotistical deconstruction of the whole thriller genre. Some have really connected with this film, calling it brave, bold, and masterful. But at the private screening held for press, there was only one critic who felt the same.


You could tell which one it was. He laughed at all the lame observational satire and seemed to connect with the confrontational style Haneke was preaching. During the more static bits, when bored viewers (like yours truly) looked around for some manner of diversion, you could see the man enraptured by what he was seeing. As the credits rolled and the group wandered out, the comments were harsh:


“Reprehensible!”


“Atrocious”


“Just plain bad”


“Pointless! Just pointless.”


“A repugnant piece of sh*t”


And circumventing the bile, making his way past those who wanted an additional moment with the monitor to express their disgust, the odd man out successfully skirted detection. Days later, at another event, a random comment about Funny Games elicited a sigh from said individual. Clearly, he ‘got’ what Haneke was supposedly selling. The rest were, apparently, just grumpy stuffed shirts.


Being the filmic freak can make you feel that way. This past year, the remake of Halloween and JJ Abrams experimental Cloverfield both struck massive love/hate chords with audiences. From this reviewer’s perspective, both films were excellent. This didn’t mean that he was praised for his honesty or challenged on his choice. No, most of the feedback was downright rude and abrasive. Profanity laced missives were the norm, as were blatant challenges to one’s credentials. Since a critic lives and dies by his or her opinion, such attacks are routine. But it’s interesting to see how many premise their putdowns on the sole basis of having a differing or direct opposite judgment than there’s.


Dealing with one’s peers doesn’t make it any easier or different. Around Oscar time, a conversation about The Savages started up (as an outgrowth of Juno‘s predetermined Academy win). Many in the room found it thought provoking, intense, sadly funny, and moving without being overly dramatic. They argued their case well, supporting their positions with actual evidence of dialogue remembered, specific scenes, and how close to home the film finally hit. Yet this critic was on the outside looking far, far in. He was harangued for not finding Laura Linney ‘amazing’. He was questioned as to why he thought the scripting was weak (answer: it didn’t seem real). And he was routinely disputed as being outside the mainstream in this regard.


It takes a certain type of stamina to do this week after week, to watch one mediocre Hollywood hack job after another with only your wits and your writing skills as a buffer. You recognize immediately upon liking or disliking a movie that you’ll be up against a certain consensus and may indeed find yourself walking a certain belief corridor by yourself. There’s no doubt that a critic has to develop a resilient spine, a keen wit, and a Helluva thick skin. It’s impossible to survive otherwise. Just the hate email alone would be enough to undermine even the heartiest sense of scholarship. Remember, most journalists came into film because it was a passion - something they studied either as a curriculum or as a fan. There’s no real tendency to shoot from the hip, even when they may want to.


On the other hand, most opposing viewpoints come from passion. They are perfectly appropriate and still highly irrational reactions. Funny Games wasn’t bad because it blatantly revised the way we are supposed to look at violence on film. It had major directing, acting, and scripting flaws as well. Yet sometimes, those issues are absent in the “squirrel”. For them, the link is so thoughtful and profound that all the other problems seem petty. How many times have you read a review where a critic clearly says “Factor ‘X’ was so powerful that it helped get the audience through Faults ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’?” That’s the magic and mystery of movies at play.


Certainly there is a sound guilty pleasure in being the odd duck, the squeaky wheel amongst the Kool-aid consuming rabble. Take Borat, for example. At the time, everyone thought of it as the second coming of cinematic comedy. Sacha Baron Cohen was being anointed as the new mock-doc king, and his work was actually being offered for Awards consideration. In more than one piece, yours truly took both the film and the actor to task, suggesting that he was really just an emperor pretender with a new set of snarky clothes. A little over a year later, the backlash has equalized the original praise. Now, what seemed dull witted and worn out has become somewhat prescient and pretty much on the money.


Still, that doesn’t make it any easier. During the press screening for No Country for Old Men, there were several audible groans when the still considered controversial ending finally played out. Several in the select crowd actually went so far as to suggest the film was ruined by the unconventional finale. It’s an argument that still, rages all across messageboards and fansites. Yet the Coens went on to capture several Academy Awards last month, an unscientific suggestion that perhaps some in the voting pool got their approach. That won’t silence the reviewing rebel - and perhaps it shouldn’t. It’s important to remember this, however - critics don’t purposefully buck the trend just to be different. Everyone’s opinion is valid, even if it’s not on the same page as yours.


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Tuesday, Mar 4, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
backpack-picnic

This week: Learn about the sinister inner workings of the world’s largest company.  In this, the debut of Backpack Picnic’s third season, an oblivious employee runs into trouble with upper management when he unwittingly divulges a bizarre company secret.


PopMatters offers exclusive early looks at new episodes of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.


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