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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007

In an interview I did a decade ago, composer David Behrman said: “As far as machines being the enemy, I’m convinced that technology is amoral. Whether it’s a force for good or evil or neither depends on who is doing what with it and for what reason.”  I came back to that after I read a Christian Science Monitor article about the power and limits of Facebook.


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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2007


As an idea, it wasn’t very original. Filmmakers had been updating Shakespeare since the Bard’s plays first appeared. Even as far back as their first staged productions, directors and theater companies have been meddling with the Masters’ hollowed words and characters. So when Troma employee James Gunn proposed an updating of the playwright’s classic tale of star crossed lovers, it wasn’t something novel. Heck, West Side Story had done it in the ‘50s, and it was and still is considered a classic. As a notion, turning Romeo and Juliet into a punk rock pierced body part projection of the Manhattan Independent Film Company’s aesthetic, seemed quite normal. Besides, director Lloyd Kaufman relished the idea. Long a proponent of cinema as art, he saw the subject as a perfect realization of all his lofty ambitions.


Over the previous 25 years, Troma had developed a myopic reputation as a gross-out gore enterprise. Thanks to Kaufman, its chief spokesman, president, and guiding creative force, the company had grown from the maker of mindless sex farces (The First Turn On, Squeeze Play) and distributor of genre/horror oriented fare (Mother’s Day) to a recognized industry icon. But with 1985’s The Toxic Avenger, Kaufman created a character that instantly connected with everyone, including outsider audiences. Utilizing the still in its infancy home theater marketplace to widen the fanbase, Troma was soon turning out product with provocative names like The Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Troma’s War, and Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. The formula for each film was strategically similar – find an outrageous situation, pile on the blood and female breasts, and deliver a clever combination of old fashioned exploitation and new fangled VCR fodder.


No one expected the newly minted Tromeo and Juliet to be any different. Though the company had ridden the Avenger‘s coattails (and receipts) through a couple of sequels, and had found financially beneficial homes for a myriad of languishing, unknown films, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had not been the company’s most inventive time. Fans started complaining over recycled content, uninspired approaches, and the lack of any real significant social value. For many, Troma was becoming the Mad Magazine of moviemaking. It was okay to love them as a kid, but once your cinematic adolescence arrived, you’d gladly trade your Toxie treasure for a far more meaningful fright film experience. Besides, VHS was a dying format. Something called DVD was on the horizon. Hoping to hold its marketplace, Gunn’s version of Shakespeare’s seminal story was greenlit.


The result was Independent FILM‘s last hurrah, the final gasp in the pre-digital discussion of celluloid as the saving grace of cinema’s stalwart ideals. The camcorder production had been part of the movie mix since the late ‘80s. There were even individuals like William Wegman who experimented with the medium as far back as the early ‘70s. But film, actual FILM, was still considered the main motion picture pathway. More could be done with lighting and design, and editing was easier than on clumsy, easily creased magnetic tape. But logistics argued for the handheld camera, and its ability to radicalize the realities of a location. No longer were long set ups necessary, complicated even further by technically trained crews. Digital defined the very essence of the practical point and shoot ideal. With a Super VHS in hand, you were your own cinematographer and your own studio.


Inherently, Troma understood this. Porn had replaced film with video, and most of the industry was looking at the viability of the technology. But Kaufman is a kind of convoluted craftsman. Though his films may stink of the frequent fart joke mentality they employ, his philosophy has always centered on the artist, and their art. Raised on the filmic revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he made his mark in movies during the equally tumultuous era of the ‘70s. For him, a VHS would never replace a reel of well-shot film – and he would use Tromeo and Juliet to prove that. Though most of the company’s recent output had been seen as cheap and uninspired, and the Bard viewed as box office poison (this was before Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-stylized rip off, by the way) Gunn’s script was so special that, as long as it was given a proper professional production, something special would result.


As a scribe, James Gunn was untested. Today he is known as the mind behind such blockbuster offerings as Scooby-Doo, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and his own homage to the horror films of the ‘80s, Slither. Yet back then, he was a hungry young film fan desperate to get in on the industry’s ground floor. Tromeo and Juliet would announce his arrival in a truly spectacular way. Setting his story in the crime-ridden streets of a maleficent Manhattan, his warring clans (the Capulets and the Ques) involved in pornography and perversion, Gunn fed directly into the tried and true Troma system. He made sure to add plenty of sex, a few surreal stabs at standard scares (including the first act arrival of a ‘penis monster’) and a healthy dose of boldfaced bloodletting. Yet amongst all the tattoos and East Village eccentricity, scattered among the lesbian scenes and overdone fight sequences, Gunn snuck something into this film that few Troma entries had before – heart.


Indeed, Tromeo and Juliet is a very emotional movie, made even more effective by the work of its incredible cast. In the leads, Will Keenan and Jane Jensen find the perfect balance between satire and seriousness, actually getting us to care about this couple’s future. Even more shocking, Kaufman surrounds the pair with equally adept performers like Debbie Rochon, Sean Gunn, Stephen Blackeheart and Bill Beckwith. Together, they form a company of pseudo Shakespearean proportions, delivering Gunn’s adept dialogue with passion and panache. Even better, the script’s narrative drive finds smart, clever ways of incorporating some of the Bard’s actual lines into the conversations. As a matter of fact, Gunn was so successful in establishing the affection between the lovers that when the original ending was screened (following the classic, the pair commit suicide) test audiences demanded a paramours’ reprieve.


Even more importantly, Tromeo and Juliet argued for the continued viability of film as a means of independent expression. Indeed, the most crucial aspect of outsider cinema is its connection to the hobbled Hollywood hackwork it so desperately battles against. Video, and the current trend toward digital, sets up a clear delineation between itself and celluloid. It purposefully plays on the homemade sense of its construction, supposedly bringing the audience closer to the content. As a result, however, it also distances itself from the medium being mimicked, and this means the message looses a lot of its impact. Film, because of its cinematic synchronicity, argues ideas with images. With it, you don’t have to worry about tape’s obvious disparities. A Troma film and a Tinsel Town title are on equal aesthetic footing.


This is why Tromeo and Juliet represents the Independent film world’s last viable gasp. Sure, Troma continued to use celluloid (Terror Firmer, the soon to be released Poultrygeist) to realize its aims, but there was something far more substantive about what Kaufman created out of Gunn’s inventive ideas than any eventual projects. In combination, they forged a happy medium between the company’s previous perversion and the gravitas of Shakespeare’s subject. While some may scoff at the notion of a company accountable for so many mediocre and misguided movies as the last bastion of good old fashioned art, one viewing of Tromeo and Juliet should appease all concerns. It wasn’t the most original idea ever conceived. The end result, however, is one of Independent film’s brightest moments.


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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2007
Photograph by Dipfan

Photograph by Dipfan


The New York Times routinely opens up a dialogue with the editors of the various sections of the newspaper, its business divisions as well as editorial departments. The Media and Marketing Editor, Bruce Headlam, is taking questions from readers this week.


When asked who the media and technology stories are pitched at, he replied:


I typically imagine two kinds of readers: the inner reader and the outer reader. The inner reader is someone either employed or deeply involved in the media or technology businesses and the outer reader is an interested spectator. When the section works well, we hit the perfect balance between those readers’ interests. If the casual reader isn’t drawn into any of the articles or finds the section too “inside baseball,” then I haven’t done my job.


It’s a job worth doing because — ­ narcissism aside — the media business is pretty interesting right now. Ten years ago, the industry seemed firmly in the control of the men (and they were almost all men) who built mighty conglomerates like Time-Warner and Viacom. Now because of the disruptive power of technologies like the Web, those same companies are nervously trying to figure out how to appeal to the typical 18-year-old who won’t pay to download a 50 Cent CD, won’t watch “The Office” when it airs on Thursday (or might not even watch on TV), and would rather get his news from a blogger than from his local paper.


That transformation has been a punishing one for a lot of businesses — music, television, newspapers and now advertising — and I’d argue that it’s going to have more far-reaching implications well beyond the media business, especially in such areas as medicine and politics.


A couple of weeks ago, Bill Carter quoted Jeff Gaspin, the president of the NBC Universal Television Group, on this subject and his reply is worth reprinting here: ‘‘The shift from programmer to consumer controlling program choices is the biggest change in the media business in the past 25 or 30 years.’‘


That’s the revolution we’re trying capture in our business pages, even when it feels like it’s our own heads falling into the basket.


 


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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2007

Blender‘s PR people forwarded me a link to its latest stab at generating “controversy”—a list of overpraised albums. it doesn’t take a whole lot of ingenuity to craft such a list—just look at what appears on other publications’ “best of” lists and aim a few cheap shots at them. I’m a sucker for such contrarianism; I’ll admit I clicked through to the link despite my general rule not to ever click on any mail from a PR firm. (Why would I want to encourage them?) The list yields absolutely no surprises, and I can’t imagine anyone so insecure about their appreciation for, say, Pet Sounds or Astral Weeks to have doubts sown by these half-assed attempts at iconoclasm. And as reassuring as I may find it to see someone else question the eternal genius of Radiohead, I know I can’t really find any comfort there, because the criticism is shallow, and as is true in the PR realm generally, no publicity is bad publicity. To be singled out as overrated is just another way to be rated highly.


Lately I have been striving to stop worrying about what rating any music should have (one of the reasons I don’t do much record reviewing anymore). The reasons I have for this are about what you’d expect; the arbitrary ranking nullifies the contextual factors that give any listening experience its character, and the ranking reduces something indescribably complex to something fungible, a number, etc. The impulse to rank and rate seems a defense mechanism against actually having the elusive sensual experience itself, which may always prove to be evanescent, unrepeatable and thus a little depressing after the fact. Rank it, however, and it seems as though you have pinned the experience down and taken possession of it.


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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

The Trolleyvox —"I Call On You"
From Your Secret Safe on Transit of Venus
The Trolleyvox’s new release is a two album set that is comprised of Your Secret Safe, a full-band electric album produced by Brian McTear (Danielson, Espers, Mazarin, A-Sides, Lilly’s, Apollo Sunshine) featuring nine new originals and a ripping version of The Who’s “Our Love Was”; and Luzerne, a gorgeous acoustic album featuring songwriter-guitar player Andrew Chalfen and lead singer Beth Filla.


Swivel Chairs —"Afterthought"
From The Slow Transmission on Transit of Venus
The Slow Transmission is an album born of a friendship and musical partnership that has lasted more than a decade. Over that time, the Swivel Chairs song-writing duo of Jeremy Grites and Jason Brown have polished their craft through numerous self released cassettes; CD-R albums; compilation tracks; several split albums and EPs with bands like Audible (Polyvinyl) and The Banes; and the acclaimed 2004 indie-pop album A Late Day For Regrets on Portland OR’s Paisley Pop label.


Robert Pollard —"Rud Fins"
From Coast to Coast Carpet of Love on Merge Records
Pollard explores the poppier, “Beatles” side of his musical personality here. In the universe where Bob explains the Freudian divisions of his psyche, he calls Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love his id; Standard Gargoyle Decisions his ego’ and himself his Super Ego.
John Ralston —"Fragile"
From Sorry Vampire on Vagrant Records
What would become the jangly, densely layered Sorry Vampire, the second full-length from John Ralston, began as just a few basic elements and eventually snowballed into over 50 songs with almost twice as many individual tracks on each song. The record was built to give the listener the experience of hearing something new with each repeated listen – you’ll likely never hear this record the same way twice. The final dozen tracks also speak to the ‘luxury’ Ralston experienced by not having time constraints and being able to home record.


The A-Sides —"Cinematic"
From Silver Storms on Vagrant Records
In Philadelphia, they don’t get many big waves. But recently, they’ve been getting a little bit closer. The A-Sides suggest the ocean, the clouds, love, fury, life and death, with a sound that’s like sunshine on your arms, seeping in right after the biggest waves in the world have torn you down.


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