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by Jason Gross

2 Oct 2008

Just as we’re mourning the possible collapse of Creative Loafing (and Washington City Paper along with it), another title finally gets resurrected on the web.  It’s been brewing for a few months now but No Depression has now relaunched online at nodepression.com.  If you care about alt-country/Americana music and you want to help it thrive with a sterling publication that supports it, then you should support ND.

by Bill Gibron

1 Oct 2008

In Hollywood, they say a good movie is only a solid script away. Put a decent director and a somewhat salable cast in an excellent screenplay and the resulting quasi-classic will reap plenty of motion picture dividends…at least, that must have been the bag of magic beans Ed Harris bought when he brought the human bubble head Renee Zellweger on to co-star in his formal horse opera Appaloosa. The actor turned filmmaker did have some mighty good source material (a novel by Spencer scribe Robert B. Parker) and he oversaw the story-lining with another performer turned penman, Robert Knott. And with a company of costars including Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henricksen, Jeremy Irons, and Timonty Spall, what could possible go wrong.

The answer is the unworthy Oscar winner (for Cold Mountain) herself. As she did with Leatherheads six months before, Ms. Zellweger has the uncanny ability to instantly suck all the life out of any project she appears in. With Jerry Maguire the sole exception, she is a perfect example of what Tinsel Town would call a “substitute star”. She’s the actress you place in a role when someone better fails to audition, or can’t clear their already project-heavy calendar. Having done little to suggest her A-list consideration (was Bridget Jones’ Diary really that popular? Or good?), she acts as a kind of excellence demolisher. Things can be going along swimmingly, and suddenly her plastic surgery disaster face makes a puffy appearance, and everything goes to Hell.

Thankfully, Appaloosa has so much more going for it that the infamous ruddy Z can’t completely undermine its charms. Leatherheads wasn’t so lucky - then again, it also offered up The Office‘s king of anti-charisma, John Krasinski, as a lead. Indeed, there have been many movies, going back to the days of jaw-dropping contract player contemplation, where bad personnel choices on the part of the production have undermined otherwise decent efforts. Just in the last forty years alone, several worthwhile movies have found themselves floundering under the weight of incompatible casting and the soiled suspension of disbelief that’s comes from same.

During the ‘70s, The Wiz was considered one of Broadway’s true cross culture successes. The African American take on The Wizard of Oz was a toe-tapping, hand clapping delight, and studio suits were anxious to see it translated to the big screen. Higher drama ace Sidney Lumet may have been the first hiring mistake, but moving the famed magical land to a fantasy fueled Manhattan was actually a stroke of genius. And when it was announced that a pre-Thriller Michael Jackson was playing the Scarecrow and Ted Ross was playing the Lion (a role which won him a Tony on the Great White Way), things seemed solid.

Then the role of Dorothy was awarded, and with it, much of the movie’s hoped for success was dashed. Diana Ross had received some decent notices for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, and Motown sugar daddy Berry Gordy had managed to finagle an Oscar nomination for the former Supreme. But by 1978, the dime store diva was 34, far too old to play the adventurous Kansas teen. A few rewrites later, and the new Dorothy was a dowdy teacher, in her late 20s and still as naïve as a young gal from the Midwest (by way of the Five Boroughs) was supposed to be. While diehards complained, at least she could sing. When the Tinman and Wizard were cast, Lumet turned to comedy for his caterwauling. Nipsey Russell, of game show fame, became the metal head without a heart, and Richard Pryor was implausibly placed as the ruler of the fictional land. As a result, both roles had their songs significantly cut.

While it wasn’t a disaster the size of Paint Your Wagon (in which noted non-crooners Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood warbled off key), it proved that proper casting was necessary to make something as already uneasy as a big screen musical circa the Me Decade work. Twenty years later, something similar would happen to noted speculative fiction author Richard Matheson and the long dormant adaptation of his novel What Dreams May Come. One of those classic “unproducible” screenplays that Hollywood likes to rumor about, several famed filmmakers had tried to conquer the complex visual and metaphoric meanings in the story of a man who travels into the afterlife to save his suicidal wife. With the advent of CGI, and the big screen buzz earned by Map of the Human Heart director Vincent Ward, it seemed like Dreams was finally a go.

All that was needed was a cast. Fresh from his Academy Award for Jerry Maguire, Cuba Gooding Jr. signed on. Soon afterward, noted Swedish star Max Von Sydow agreed to appear. But when it came time to create the perfect married couple, the duo that would literally die to save each others souls, Ward picked the improbable pair of Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra. The “He” had just walked away with his own gold statue for Good Will Hunting. The “She” showed promise alongside Wesley Snipes in Spike Lee’s interracial romance Jungle Fever. Together, however, they were like oil and asphalt, absorbing each other’s potential talents and rendering them flat and lifeless. Dour and depressed is not Williams’ strong suit. His lost looks often seem like the suppression of a laugh, and when forced to emote beyond basic disbelief, he’s inert. Sciorra complements him note for absent note.

And the sad thing is, What Dreams May Come is a beautifully written and rendered experience.  Ward went out of his way to render his versions of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in unforgettable imagery, and with the help of some major memory boarding, earned some warranted Oscar love. The rest of the movie should have been equally celebrated - except Williams and Sciorra destroyed that possibility. It was something the stream of consciousness comic would do to other projects with potential like Bicentennial Man and Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia. Oddly enough, it was Ward who paid the price. It would be seven years before his unsung gem River Queen saw a small, limited theatrical release.

Recently, Bryan Singer tried to revive the Superman franchise with his cracked continuation of Richard Donner’s spurned sequel from 1980. Locking in Kevin Spacey as a pitch perfect Lex Luthor, and discovering the unsung talents of Brandon Routh as his above-expectations Man of Steel, all the Usual Suspects director needed was a proper Lois Lane to fill out the fabled trio. His choice challenged all expectations - 23 year old Kate Bosworth. With a decent resume that included turns in The Rules of Attraction, Wonderland, and the Spacey led Bobby Darrin biopic Beyond the Sea, she seemed capable of carrying the part - that is, until the overwrought script saddled her with a young kid, a bad case of self importance, and a Pulitzer Prize.

It was clearly too much for Kate, who decided the best way to respond to said character dimension was to act as if everything she saw was boring as Hell. Her non-reactions reduced much of the heroics to moments of arch anticlimax. While Singer was struggling to bring something epic to the material, his Lois was losing the likability battle with the audience. While not as big a snafu as turning Darth Vader into a broken boy band member with a lox’s acting chops, it argued for a creative cluelessness that seems to permeate many Hollywood hires. Ability means nothing when a name - preferably from a known TV series - can be utilized instead. And if you can catch pop culture currency at the same time, all the better.

Clearly, Ms. Zellweger is considered something of a sure thing - bad Botox or not. Otherwise, why would both Clooney and Harris cast her? Her obvious shortcomings are evident in every scene she sullies (she’s a bit better defined in Leatherheads, if that’s any solace), and yet IMDb has her featured in four future releases. Call it the byproduct of an excellent agent or the blinding glimmer from her (minor) array of awards, but she clearly gets the jobs.  Trophies should never gauge talent - or even better, suggest chemistry. Still, twice this year, a perfectly good film was flummoxed by the appearance of someone who should never have been considered for the part in the first place. Substitute or not, casting can definitely kill a worthwhile effort. One imagines Mr. Harris and Clooney agreeing on that. Audiences certainly will. 

by L.B. Jeffries

1 Oct 2008

There are a variety of barriers that come up when you try to coerce someone into engaging with a video game’s narrative. The first inclination is to have them roleplay a character that lives in that story. This has a few problems. For starters, the player might be repulsed by the role you’re asking them to inhabit. They might not like what they have to say and do in the story or game design. If you solve that by completely removing all traces of personality, then the player may be irritated at the lack of expression and feedback available to them as a deaf-mute protagonist. The natural solution to that dilemma is to give the player absolute control over their character’s appearance and personality, but this tends to alter the roleplay relationship into one of caring for your creation. Attempts like Mass Effect or Fallout are impressive, but they are still operating on a connection much more similar to a parent-child scenario than actual roleplay. The peak game of this parental connection, The Sims, illustrates this psychological shift best. It isn’t you inside that house, it’s your little man or woman or whatever. So it still leaves a fundamental question: is there some way to engage a player with characters and story in a game that circumvents all of this?

Yes, and it’s surprisingly simple: chuck the baby and keep the bathwater. Dan Benmergui’s Storyteller is a flash game in which you don’t play as any particular character. You instead control three separate characters in a three part story-panel. Depending on where you position the characters in the initial ‘Once upon a time’ panel will affect their presentation in the middle ‘When they grew up panel’. Put the girl on the poor, deserted half of the panel and she becomes an evil wizard. Leave one of the men on the green, white castle portion and they become an armored knight. The middle panel features a similar set of options: place the man inside the cage as the prisoner, make the woman the knight, and then dictate the outcome of her duel with the wizard (whom you created). You can use this character placement to dictate how the romantic relationships turn out in the final panel along with who dies and who wins the battle.

This engagement method is, like The Sims, founded along the principles of giving the player a dollhouse to play in. When you add a narrative though, a distinct shift occurs: I’m not guiding the characters to see what happens to them in the plot, I’m directing them to the outcome I’ve created for them. Frankly, given the amount of time I spent exploring and tweaking three little people and seeing the results, I’d say it solves the engagement problem quite nicely. You can find more of Benmergui’s stuff here.

by Nikki Tranter

1 Oct 2008

Ooh, to be Horace Engdahl this morning…

Engdahl is secretary of the Swedish Academy, the group responsible for selecting literary Nobel Prize winners. In a recent interview, as reported by the Independent, Engdahl referred to American literature as “isolated” and “insular”, further stating: “Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world.”

Did he really…?

He did, and the backlash has begun. New Yorker editor David Remnick is having a go, as is Harold Augenbraum, director of the US National Book Foundation. “I’ll send him a reading list,” Augenbraum is quoted as saying. (That’s my kind of threat.)

The larger issue here is the Nobel selection process, and just what US authors are supposed to assume upon hearing such grand dismissal from a key figure on the selection committee. An American author has not taken home a Nobel Prize for literature since Toni Morrison in 1993; Engdahl started on the prize committee just four years later… connection?

The latest winner will be annouced next week. Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth are said to be frontrunners. From the sounds of things, with all books in contention surely well and truly finished by Engdahl and his committee, the pair might rethink writing those just-in-case acceptance speeches.

by Rob Horning

1 Oct 2008

3 Quarks Daily linked to an interview with Sarah Palin conducted by conservative Hugh Hewitt. I don’t advise reading the whole thing, unless you want to vomit, but the bit highlighted by 3QD is fairly illustrative of where democracy in America is at:

HH: Governor, your candidacy has ignited extreme hostility, even some hatred on the left and in some parts of the media. Are you surprised? And what do you attribute this reaction to?

SP: Oh, I think they’re just not used to someone coming in from the outside saying you know what? It’s time that normal Joe six-pack American is finally represented in the position of vice presidency, and I think that that’s kind of taken some people off guard, and they’re out of sorts, and they’re ticked off about it, but it’s motivation for John McCain and I to work that much harder to make sure that our ticket is victorious, and we put government back on the side of the people of Joe six-pack like me, and we start doing those things that are expected of our government, and we get rid of corruption, and we commit to the reform that is not only desired, but is deserved by Americans.


This strikes me as total insanity. I am not sure what it would mean for “normal Joe Six-Pack” to be “represented” in the vice presidency, but I assume it means putting a “regular” person (as opposed to a “career politican”) in the position to illustrate some reality TV-like premise that anyone can be considered fit for governing and that being an executive in charge of one of the largest and most intricate bureaucracies the world has ever seen is just a matter of common sense and Christian values. It is the very essence of the problem with the Bush administration: the idea that competence is a fiction and any Joe Six-Pack can be put in charge and everything will be just fine. Basically, the implication is that the vice presidency, as well as every other leadership position in government, serves an entirely symbolic function. The figureheads in these slots don’t have to have any expertise; they simply need to represent some idea that appeals to some aspect of the electorate. Palin doesn’t even bother to deny that this is so. The whole point of her inclusion on the Republican ticket is to be average, to be the antithesis of capable, and to encourage voters to express their contempt for politics by electing a truly incompetent politician—someone who is just like us.

In the LRB, Jonathan Raban connects Palin’s glorification of Joe Six-Pack with Poujadism, the anti-intellectual movement inspired by French demagogue Pierre Poujade.

Sarah Palin has put a new face and voice to the long-standing, powerful, but inchoate movement in US political life that one might see as a mutant variety of Poujadism, inflected with a modern American accent. There are echoes of the Poujadist agenda of 1950s France in its contempt for metropolitan elites, fuelling the resentment of the provinces towards the capital and the countryside towards the city, in its xenophobic strain of nationalism, sturdy, paysan resistance to taxation, hostility to big business, and conviction that politicians are out to exploit the common man.

To placate this bloc of voters, it’s most effective to persuade them that government can be made to disappear, and they can all then be happy kulaks in their peasant paradise.

Given these dynamics, it’s futile to criticize Palin from any East Coast elitist like me would consider a rational viewpoint. Raban takes a shot anyway, highlighting what seems most threatening about her—her smug contempt for intellectual curiosity:

What is most striking about her is that she seems perfectly untroubled by either curiosity or the usual processes of thought. When answering questions, both Obama and Joe Biden have an unfortunate tendency to think on their feet and thereby tie themselves in knots: Palin never thinks. Instead, she relies on a limited stock of facts, bright generalities and pokerwork maxims, all as familiar and well-worn as old pennies. Given any question, she reaches into her bag for the readymade sentence that sounds most nearly proximate to an answer, and, rather than speaking it, recites it, in the upsy-downsy voice of a middle-schooler pronouncing the letters of a word in a spelling bee. She then fixes her lips in a terminal smile. In the televised game shows that pass for political debates in the US, it’s a winning technique: told that she has 15 seconds in which to answer, Palin invariably beats the clock, and her concision and fluency more than compensate for her unrelenting triteness.

But any attempt to highlight Palin’s failure to grasp the complexity of any issue facing America can be spun as being part of the “conspiracy” against ordinary people, but in this case the conspiracy is simply an acknowledgment of consensus politics as it must be exercised in a democratic government of any scale. Professional politicians are necessary to make government work, and the nature of the job—its ambiguities and compromises and negotiations; the stuff that requires actual deliberation and judgment—doesn’t lend itself well to glamorous portrayal in simplified stories about heroes and individual greatness. But when we vote—for most of us, the one great heroic act of civic participation we manage to muster the energy for every few years—we don’t want to waste it on a compromised character. Thus, we are better off knowing very little about the actual careers or evolving positions of the people we vote for; for the vicarious function of voting, an iconic nobody like Palin is perfect.

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