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Wednesday, Oct 3, 2007

What’s the future hold for music journalism with commercial sites increasingly providing reviews and interviews?

Photograph by Soul Portrait

Photograph by Soul Portrait


Radiohead has announced on its website that its new album In Rainbows will be available for download from its website at a price to be determined by the buyer (on October 10) and in December as a boxed set of vinyl albums. Artists taking control for the selling of their recorded musical works, and the music being simultaneously an artwork and advertisement for itself is nothing new. Singer and lyricist Johnny Mercer founded Capitol Records in 1942, and in the same year the Musicians Union called on its members to strike to protest at recorded music being played on the radio for free, fearing that it was putting musicians out of work. We’ve circled back now to the realisation that was arrived at after the musicians strike, that the piece of music being played on the radio is an advertisement for the musicians and their live performances and other types of merchandise, as well as the record itself.


The recorded musical object may now be almost literally something throwaway. A few weeks ago the Sydney Morning Herald gave away a compilation Jazz cd followed by a soul compilation in order to make cheesy marketing puns, make your Sundays swing, give your Sundays soul with the Sydney Morning Herald. In July Prince gave away cd copies of his new album Planet Earth with the British Mail on Sunday. And Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell bypassed record stores and are selling their new albums at Starbucks. I’d buy Joni’s new album Shine through Amazon’s new MP3 sales center if it weren’t limited to the U.S.


What’s fascinating is how the new sales systems are subtly beginning to affect criticism. I first found out about Bruce Springsteen’s new album Magic from Bruce himself, through an e-mail, because I’d signed-up for his newsletter. A link directed me to Amazon.com for the preview of the video for the song “Radio Nowhere”. In the not-so-distant past I probably would have found out about a new Springsteen album from Rolling Stone, or a pre-release story in the New York Times. I don’t read the customer reviews or put much store by the purchase suggestions on Amazon.com but it occurred to me that while I’m making a purchase on something I already trust from another source (a William Gibson novel, because I read every novel he writes) I’ll listen to an Amazon.com podcast interview with Gibson and listen around the marketing pitches.


And I’ve unthinkingly gone to the author interviews on the website for the Powells bookshop when I want to find out something about a book I’m interested in. There’s an interview with Greil Marcus on Powells.com about his new book The Shape of Things To Come. I’m an indirect writer reading and thinking about things from a distance and probably too much of my fieldwork is through a trip to the library so I’m inspired by what he says about the directness of his writing, that insights come to him from visiting the places where events happened.


I’m a great believer in ambient research. Once I was talking with a woman who was writing a book on the Lindbergh kidnapping. I asked her if she’d been to the house where it took place — or, supposing the house might have been torn down, to the place where it had been. No, why? she asked. Because there might be something there that would open doors for you that no one else would ever think to mention, I said. That’s what I learned when I went to Zurich in 1983 to visit the site of the Cabaret Voltaire, where dada was proclaimed? invented? discovered? in 1916. It was on a strikingly twisted old-town street. Nearby was a plaque indicating the house where Lenin had lived before returning to Russia on the sealed train. The building that had housed the Cabaret Voltaire had a plaque too, with graffiti I tried to convince myself was interesting. But no one had thought to mention that a nightclub where the 20th century first announced itself was now the Teen and Twenty Disco.


Greil Marcus


.


And there are original essays on Powells.com. My friend Damian had been mesmerised by Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi and after swooning gloriously over the book myself (which I read in India, after staring at a sweetly kitten-like Bengal Tiger batting at a rope in the Mysore Zoo) I was compelled to read the essay Yann Martel contributed to Powells.com on how influence, inspiration and hard work led to The Life of Pi.


I visited all the zoos I could find in the south of India. I interviewed the director of the Trivandrum Zoo. I spent time in temples, churches and mosques. I explored the urban settings for my novel and took in the nature around them. I tried to immerse myself as much as possible in the Indianness of my main character. After six months I had enough local colour and detail.


I returned to Canada and spent a year and a half doing research. I read the foundational texts of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. I read books on zoo biology and animal psychology. I read castaway and other disaster stories.


All the while, in India and in Canada, I took notes. On the page, in a smashed-up, kaleidoscopic way, Life of Pi began to take shape. I took a while to decide what animal would be my main animal protagonist. At first I had an elephant in mind. The Indian elephant is smaller than the African, and I thought an adolescent male would fit nicely in the lifeboat. But the image of an elephant in a lifeboat struck me as more comical than I wanted. I changed to a rhinoceros. But rhinos are herbivores and I could not see how I could keep a herbivore alive in the high seas. And a constant diet of algae struck me as monotonous for both reader and writer, if not for the rhino. I finally settled upon the choice that in retrospect seems the obvious one: a tiger. The other animals in the lifeboat ? the zebra, the hyena and the orang-utan ? arose naturally, each one a function of a human trait I wanted to embody, the hyena cowardliness, the orang-utan maternal instincts and the zebra exoticism.


Yann Martel


I’m an intrepid consumer of media. Today I was standing in front of the foreign newspapers at my local newsagent in Kings Cross, trying to decipher them, grabbing at unfamiliar mastheads. And through the combination of training in analog 20th century journalism and writing about 21st century digital media (and talking to the inventors of new formats and artists who are experimenting with them) I hope I have a good radar for what’s worthwhile and trustworthy. Things are different with books and music. I’m a consumer first, my interest is mostly recreational. I tend to read and re-read the same authors and listen to and listen for new works recommended by musicians I’m already familiar with: I was a music journalist first, and most of the bands that I knew and wrote about as a teenager are still doing worthy, even extraordinary works. I can navigate around the marketing on sales sites because I don’t need to be sold, I’m already buying. But what about authors I don’t know about and that friends don’t tell me about, how do I find out about them if the Los Angeles Times Book Review page isn’t something I read very much any more and I’m suspicious of marketing without a context?


 


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Tuesday, Oct 2, 2007


There is a rare volume of forgotten lore, a work that remains the standard bearer for such determinative discussions. The (fictional) work of wonder is called Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time and included chapters on giving Pat Sajak a talk show, the introduction of Rambo Black Shrapnel Candy, and competitive ice dancing (with recent updates including entire volumes on Bob Mould’s new techno groovin’ and the whole tween whore phenomenon). But one of the main segments of the digest deals with a very famous author. Indeed, the Stephen King portion - featuring sections of bringing his books to the silver screen as well as how this acclaimed novelist also plays lame rock and roll with a band of fellow fiction crafters - contains a subgenre centering on permitting the brazen bringer of the bestseller to direct a motion picture.


To mimic the tome’s title, it really did seem like a swell concept at the time. Film companies were buying up the rights to King’s works and, with more miss than hit, the audiences were suffering under the less-than-successful translations. So someone determined that the biggest critic of all this cinematic crap - King himself - would probably be best to helm his own horrors. Unfortunately, the result was Maximum Overdrive, a movie the equal or worse than many of the malformed features flopping all over the screen. Of course, Steve had never, ever made a movie before, but that didn’t stop Dino De Laurentiis from sticking his well-paid publishing ass behind the camera.


At the start of our story, it’s a typical day on the Earth circa 1986. Poison are a pop culture dynamo, breaking hearts and making hits. Reagan still believes it’s morning in America, even if the heavily napping leader barely sees the AM. And a rogue comet flies a tad too close to the globe and a gross green haze encases us all. During this state of cosmic mistiness, all the machines go wonky. Lawnmowers cut down their owners and soda dispensers unleash unholy flying terror from their can compartments (in both regular and diet dimensions). But the most hideous of all horrors comes when the long haul rigs, the Peterbilts and the Macks, start developing a diesel-fueled mind of their own.


Soon the workers and customers of the Dixie Boy Truck Stop notice something strange. Unmanned vehicles start showing up at the station, running over anyone who gets in their way. Among those immersed in the mayhem are short-order cook Billy; hitchhiking college girl Brett; fiery, foul-mouthed depot owner Mr. Hendershot; and Deke, the son of one of the mechanics. The humans must make a stand to protect their lives. Luckily, the Dixie has quite the armory in the basement. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to deter the demonic vehicles one bit. The survivors must learn how to pump more than gas if they intend to live through this crankcase-inspired chaos and avoid the mayhem associated with contraptions having conniptions.


Here is the problem with Maximum Overdrive in five simple words - all the characters are idiots. Every single underwritten one of them. For someone who makes his living telling stories, King is proficient at providing a fun foundation for Maximum Overdrive (though, as an example of his short story acumen, “Trucks” is not one of his better mini-macabres). For a while at least, the machines gone wild mayhem works. The opening set piece sequences—with ATMs cursing out their customers and bridges balking at the whole “opening and closing” routine—are rich in sinister silliness. They balance out some of the inanity within the set-up by highlighting the payoff potential inherent in the premise. But the minute we head over to the Dixie Boy, and King’s mindless plot pawns open their mouths to squeak, the entire enterprise goes garbage.


Never before in the history of even the most scorching summer beach read has there been dialogue as retarded as the lines spoken during the irritating interpersonal exchanges in Maximum Overdrive. Trying to capture colloquialisms and build-up individuality with dumb running verbal clicks, there’s not enough exposition or expression in the offal orations. The script makes no attempt to link up the people populating its places, so we just have to start making assumptions: that the young players will end up together, the sour old man will be the heavy, and everyone else is fodder for the frights. The characters come and go so randomly, without any effort to make an impact or logical connection to the events unfolding, that we really don’t care what happens to anyone.


Thanks to such imbecilic script issues, none of the actors here stand a chance. Emilio “Still Waiting for a Brat Pack Reunion Project” Estevez uses every expression he carries in his toolkit of method emoting—both defiant consternation and goofball smirk - to turn the hero Billy into something other than a nonsensical narrative doormat. He fails in every possible way. And whoever hired Laura Harrington to play the romantic lead across from the pseudo-Sheen must have been having a bad eye day. While it may not be fair to call this actress as repellent as a repugnant ranch hand’s jock rot, if the ugly stick fits…to be fair, Ms. Harrington is only working with what the good Lord gave to her. Too bad the big guy was obviously feeling stingy that day.



Other obvious agent firers include Yeardley Smith (practicing a countrified rube characterization that will have fans of The Simpsons recalling an overweight Lisa asking her trailer trash husband Ralph to take her to the li-bary), Pat Hingle (did the man ever look like he was regular?), and Ellen McElduff (who did go on to play important roles in JFK and TV’s Oz). There are also a couple clever blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos - Marla Maples (quick, a dollar for whoever remembers who the hell she is/was) and King himself (playing a brain dead dufus better than you’d expect from a high paid scribe) - but for the most part, this is an ensemble piece with lots of the parts either missing or defective.


And yet, somehow, this creatively bankrupt bonanza is still oddly watchable. It’s not good by any far stretch of the imagination, but it does recall the description King once gave to his books: Maximum Overdrive is the cinematic equivalent of a stack of fast food, albeit a meal left out in the sun too long and swarming with bugs. For every appetizing element - the delirious appliance-based deaths, the hilarious hick accents - there is a basic moviemaking mistake - lack of interesting characters, a completely pat third act - that thwarts all attempts at maintaining an attention span.


Watching Maximum Overdrive is a lot like living with a roommate who constantly wakes you up throughout the course of a night’s sleep (banging into walls, evading the police, et cetera). Just when you’ve gotten into a comfortable groove of bad film friendliness, one of the players will blather on like a chattering chimp and that old feeling of bored butt-bother comes calling. There may be a time in your otherwise busy life when a minutely engaging movie like Maximum Overdrive serves its entertainment purpose - and people who are partial to pathetic motion pictures may actually enjoy King’s freestyle folly - but don’t expect a great deal of the master storyteller’s talent. This movie manages to undo years of reputation gained from a catalog of classic novels.


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Tuesday, Oct 2, 2007

Bruno Schulz was shot dead in the street by a Nazi, not an unusual fate for a Polish Jew in 1942. A hundred nameless people shot dead in the street by Nazis (vaguely, historically, without anything to connect us to them any more than we were intimately connected to the Chinese miners suffocating underground or the limbless torsos of Rwanda years ago) is a statistic, but the author of Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass shot dead in the street by a Nazi is a literary outrage, mentally palpable, a cut that time will never mend; there will not be another Schulz. Never again that particular, melting, ecstatic prose, that combination of Kafka and backwards-looking sorrow, a yearning after childhood so vivid, so intense, that he had to resort to Symbolism to explain it. Rubbing salt in the wound come rumours of one final manuscript, The Messiah, which seems to have vanished completely, drafts and all.


Donne can ask us not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, but in Schulz it tolled for this one world, this capsule of beauty that was Bruno Schulz, tucked away in his backwater village of Drohobych, a bachelor whose self-portraits show him with a slightly bowed head, peering sideways (a requirement of self-portraits you might think, the artist having to look sideways at the mirror, but witness old Rembrandt calmly gazing forward or Mervyn Peake with his globular eyes and stallion hair), alert, even wary, as if he spent his life waiting for that bullet. Here he was at 50, only just starting to have his stories published, the beginning of a new career, really, before this thug put a bullet in him, not knowing that this man had a history, not knowing about the father, Schulz Senior, who turned into a horsefly, a cockroach, and a crustacean, who dried up and was swept away, who collected birds, did deals with a black-bearded man who might have been the devil, and preached the genesis of creation around the figure of a tailor’s dummy—not knowing about Adela the housemaid of unusual and suggestive powers, or the other housemaid Genya who made white sauce out of invoices—not knowing Nimrod the puppy or Dodo and his brain disease—not knowing the mysteriously Proustian and metamorphic Book, “a large, rustling Codex, a mysterious Bible … an enormous petal-shedding rose”—oh this foul dumb goon, whose only claim on our attention is that he shot Bruno Schulz.


Some writers die of old age, some of sickness or cancer, some of suicide or drinking, and some die like this, stupidly, but leaving great beauty behind: “enclosed in a glass capsule, bathed in fluorescent light, already adjudged, erased, filed away, another record card in the immense archives of the sky.”


(The quotes in this post come from Celina Wieniewska’s translations of Schulz’s Sklepy Cynamonowe and Sanatorium pod Klepsydra.)

Further Reading:
A Schulz website in Polish.
A Schulz website in English.


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Tuesday, Oct 2, 2007

For the first time in a long time, I bought a bottle of Snapple yesterday with my lunch and noticed that they were running “real facts’’ printed under the cap. It’s not often that “facts” are used in marketing campaigns; they tend to deliberately steer clear of facts if at all possible and evoke feelings. Advertising seems designed to undermine the tyranny of the fact and let us loose in the playground of fantasy and solipsistic belief that needs no petty substantiation from the outside world. Anyway, with my lime-flavored green tea I got “Real Fact #36”: “A duck’s quack doesn’t echo.”


That the facts are numbered struck me as interesting. They are probably numbered in hopes that it will trigger some collecting habit in someone out there who will then start trying to acquire every single bottle cap in the series and procure that sense of accomplishment unique to advanced, decadent consumer societies. But the numbering also had the effect of making it seem as if the Snapple company had cataloged every fact and determined there were 46,785, or something.


I also wondered what made a fact “real.” it was troubling to think that Snapple was implying that there were plenty of false facts floating around, and they were making the truth contingent on drinking a lot of sugary tea. If I were deeply curious about the slippery nature of so-called facts, I suppose I could consult historian Mary Poovey’s book, A History of the Modern Fact (I’ll spare you the title’s post-colon elucidation), which declares the fact to be, in the words of the reviewer Amazon cites, a “pioneering epistemological designation” that was more or less invented during the Enlightenment. Before that, presumably facts were even stupider things than they were in Reagan’s time.


But the particular real fact on my Snapple cap seems a bit questionable to me, less a fact along the lines of “Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald” or “Mercury poisoning causes birth defects”, and more like a folk saying or a cryptic aphorism you could pull out of a Zen Buddhist text. I find myself doubting whether or not it’s a real fact after all, and not some compressed parable about how one shouldn’t say silly things if one wants to be heard and remembered and have one’s words live on in future generations or something.


The real fact comes with a website address attached, so I’m guessing it’s a newfangled interactive marketign ploy hoping I will live the brand a little bit. I assume I could go to the site and supply some user-generated content Web 2.0 style and offer up my own real facts. I have only a few so far:


A Key lime pie tastes best when sliced into quarters.
If you drink black coffee, you are more likely to burn your mouth.
An accurate count of pigeons in a public square is impossible to pin down.
Mosquitoes won’t bite a bald head.
A good night’s sleep won’t improve your dreams.
You can’t boil the flavor out of unripened fruit.


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Monday, Oct 1, 2007


Who really controls the content of a film – the director or the audience? To hear most professionals tell it, the endless stream of input from focus groups, test screenings, and the MPAA does more to influence a final cut than artistic vision or cinematic scope. Sure, a filmmaker starts with the movie modeling clay (actors, script, location, effects) but he or she is required to pass through a gauntlet of editorial considerations before their effort ever sees the light of a projector. It’s one of the main reasons why the DVD format has been so popular. It has legitimized the so-called “director’s cut” of a film while providing access to deleted scenes, extended sequences, and supplemental explanations of the entire post-production process. While insightful, it can also be frustrating. On rare occasions, indulging the creator only confirms the need for broader motion picture perspective.


Proof of this dilemma arrives in the new two disc collector’s edition release (from Genius Products and the Weinstein Group) of the summer sleeper 1408. Adapted from a Stephen King short story and helmed by Swedish newcomer Mikael Håfström, this old fashioned thriller connected with audiences unwilling to deal with the post-millennial ideal of splatter shock horror. Instead, this psychological creep out reminded viewers of the days when ideas, not atrocities, made the average fright fan’s skin crawl. A serviceable hit, the brand new digital release is giving those interested a chance to see something rare – a slightly different interpretation of the film, including additional scenes, a tad more blood, and an ending in keeping with the original script’s intent.


For those unfamiliar with the storyline, John Cusack plays Mike Enslin. An accomplished novelist at one time, our scribe now spends his days visiting supposedly haunted locations and writing critical assessments of the places for traveler’s guidebooks. When he receives a postcard from New York’s Dolphin Hotel containing a cryptic message (“Don’t Enter 1408”), he’s immediately intrigued. But when he tries to stay in the noted room, manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) refuses access. There have been 56 deaths in 1408 over the last century, most of them unexplained and quite nasty. Undaunted, Enslin demands entrance. What he finds in the smartly furnished accommodations is a horrible history of evil. He also comes face to face with past tragedies and his own simmering psychological issues.


As part of this new two disc DVD, the theatrical version along with Håfström’s reinterpretation are both offered, and at first, the differences appear minimal. Since King’s original story was so open ended, it allowed screenwriters Larry Karaszewski, Scott Alexander, and Matt Greenberg great leeway in how to approach the material. The original adaptation was much darker, and dealt extensively with Enslin’s fragile family issues (sick father, dead daughter). Multiple drafts later, Håfström inserted some much needed humor, and the desire to hurry up and ‘get to the scares’ was tempered by a more controlled, claustrophobic path. Of course, the ending caused the most concern. After spending 90 minutes with the main character, the question became one of audience acceptability. The brains behind the movie had their own aesthetic conceits. The viewers eventually won out.


One earns a greater appreciation for Håfström’s talent when the extended “director’s cut” is screened, however. The inclusion of more backstory, a clearer definition of what haunts 1408, and why Mike Enslin was “called” to the location in the first place, fleshes out a film that, on occasion, felt like a mere exercise in eerie vs. a wholly realized narrative. As not to spoil the surprises, the new version makes Enslin more of a participant and less of a victim. He stands for something now instead of simply being the casualty of a spooky space gone goofy. In the informative commentary track that accompanies the revamp (there is no such discussion on the theatrical release), Håfström, Alexander, and Karaszewski make it very clear that their ideas for the film flew directly in the path that preview participants wanted events to take. While they’re not unhappy with the finished product, this longer look at 1408 is closer to what they had in mind.


In either case, the film remains a tour de force – of acting, of atmosphere, and of movie macabre archeology. Like The Legend of Hell House moved uptown, 1408 focuses on tone and mood more than actual haunted happenings. Certainly we see paintings come to life and walls weep and bleed, but this is not some slice and dice death dream populated by decapitated ghouls and entrail-eating demons. Instead, all the terror comes directly from John Cusack’s amazing performance, and he takes on the role with verve and gusto. Unlike previous films where the actor seems to be channeling his still simmering post-adolescent smarm, Mike Enslin is very much an adult – a man ridden hard by life’s inexplicable lessons and left to suffer through the resulting setbacks.


When you add in the mysterious menace of Samuel L. Jackson (proving he can make the most meaningless role thrive) and the comforting calm of Mary McCormack as Enslin’s estranged wife, you’ve got a collection of performances that really payoff – and thanks to the new redux of the film, their presence is even more important. Olin is just as much a catalyst as a character here, while Lily’s shattered security seems to help her husband make his final determinations. The additional deleted and/or extended scenes further expand the interactive dynamic between the trio, including moments of imminent danger for all and the siren’s allure of 1408. In fact, Håfström was clearly out to make a personal story. The fear factors are just added ambience.


When taken together, everything accomplished as part of 1408 places the film firmly on a level with other inferential entertainments – movies with names like The Haunting and Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of King’s The Shining. In fact, this movie frequently feels more successful then either of those pictures since Håfström was able to realize his loftier ambitions with the help of clever F/X and modern technological advances. The featurettes found on the second disc illustrate how helpful such cinematic science can be, while the director himself argues for his own clever choices (filming on a closed set, emphasizing the ‘banality of evil’ theme). We wind up with a greater appreciation for this taut little thriller, as well as all the decisions that made it a reality.


In the end, though, it’s hard to argue with either presentation of this fine film. The theatrical version literally leaps off the screen with kinetic frighteners, bringing the hair rising, spine tingling terror directly into your subconscious. Håfström’s update is like other successful King translations (Misery, The Dead Zone) in that it finds the scares as well as the sentiment behind them. In either case, we get classic movie macabre at its most capable and considered. While the rest of the genre bathes in blood and freefalls through a chasm of cruelty, smart supernatural thrillers like this argue for the future of the format. And thanks to DVD, director’s hindered by stagnant audience ideas get a chance to express themselves properly. Like 1408, it’s win/win for all involved. 


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