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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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Monday, Oct 1, 2007

Even if you’re not a fan of their music, you still have to be impressed and amazed by the bold move that Radiohead made with the release of their new album, In Rainbows, which is coming out in less than two weeks as a download (if you have a jones for a hard copy, the band is also offer the CD/LP/bonus model as of December too).  It’s sure to shake up the industry but it might be in ways that you might not expect and might not take hold for a while too.


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Monday, Oct 1, 2007
by PopMatters Staff
PopMatters sponsor: Daptone Records

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
100 Days, 100 Nights [MP3]
     


Amy Winehouse stole her band for her 15 minutes in the spotlight, but Sharon don’t care about that. Sharon’s been due for her name in bright lights for a long time, and those 100 days and 100 nights have finally produced a glorious and highly anticipated new album with the Dap-Kings that is earning critical praise from everyone from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times and all spots in between. The world tour kicks off at the legendary Apollo Theatre, an apt first step to getting Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings en route to their own status as soul music legends. [PopMatters review]


PopMatters sponsor: Daptone Records

Budos Band
Chicago Falcon [MP3]
     


The Budos Band is the quintessence of Staten Island Soul. Their exciting new afro-influenced take on instrumental music has been captivating listeners from turntables as well as bandstands across the nation. Eleven pieces in all, their group consists of drums, bass, guitar, electric organ, two trumpets, baritone saxophone, and a percussion section employing bongos, congas, tambourine, guiro, clave, shekere and cowbell. Their music has been described as “compelling”, “unbridled”, “psychedelic”, “innovative”, and above all “soulful”. [PopMatters review]


PopMatters sponsor: Unfiltered Records

The Grey Race
On the Chin [MP3]
     


The Grey Race play soft melodic pop rock that is sure to appeal to fans of Paul McCartney (think Wings) and Sean Lennon (with perhaps a hint of John) as well as indie fans of Jeff Buckley and Midlake. American Songwriter says the debut album “Give It Love” is “quite a find”, and we hope you feel the same about its dark musings on the nature of survival in our everyday lives.


Klaxons
Magick (Simian Mobile Disco remix) [MP3]
     


Emma Pollock
Adrenaline [MP3]
     


Daft Punk
Human After All (Justice Remix) [MP3]
     



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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007


He’s the most popular author of genre fiction ever. His sales have staggered a publishing industry used to thousands, not millions of units moved. His name is synonymous with fright and fear, a moniker mentioned alongside the classical macabre names. Yet when it comes to motion picture translations of his titles, Stephen King can’t catch a break. Granted, it’s an old story, one that’s been going on for nearly three decades now. But when Brian DePalma took the novice novelist’s first successful tome – the telekinetic teenager tale Carrie – and made it into box office gold, it opened the door for dozens of like minded auteurs to attack King’s canon. To say that the results have been scattershot at best would be some manner of historical heresy. With rare exceptions, he’s the King all right – the king of cinematic crap.


From a purely technical standpoint, there are well over 100 adaptations of the author’s work available for consideration. The split is about 60/40 between short stories and actual full length works. The vast majority of these movies were made between 1976 and 1996, and more than a couple represent the franchising or serialization of pieces (Children of the Corn, The Lawnmower Man) that lacked the necessary narrative heft to sustain multiple takes. In completely subjective terms, King’s craft has resulted in around 15 well regarded films. There are another half dozen or so that could be called successful without necessarily arguing for their overall artistry. That still leaves nearly 80% of the output in the average to awful category, and for anyone who has waded through that celluloid swamp, the garbage far outweighs the merely mediocre.


All of which leads to the question of why – why can’t King’s brainchildren catch a motion picture break? It seems like, for every Stand By Me, there’s a pair of unnecessary ‘Salem’s Lot sequels, for each Shawshank Redemption, there’s a similar big budget failure like Dreamcatcher or Hearts in Atlantis. Of course, some may argue that the man’s outstanding oeuvre, containing more text than a century of filmmaking could possibly handle, begs for such a hit or miss maxim. But the fact remains that some of the author’s best books – Pet Sematary, The Dark Half – have ended up delivering incredibly average entertainments. Even the seemingly successful interpretations – The Stand, IT – have issues among the faithful, from casting to editorial cuts.


It’s important to note why King is so heralded in the first place. Among his kind – writers specializing in horror – he’s one helluva storyteller. In fact, he’s so good, so adept at getting into your subconscious and laying down the ground rules, that it’s almost impossible for a film to step in and match your imagination. It’s the reason Stanley Kubrick rewrote The Shining as more of a psychological character study vs. a harrowing haunted hotel saga. Without the effects to accurately recreate King’s kinetic set pieces (the killer topiary animals, the shape-shifting interior design) the famed director had to rely on atmosphere, and acting, to carry his vision.


Or consider Christine, for a moment. John Carpenter is a horror maestro, a man responsible for a bevy of brilliant terror treats. When it was announced that he would helm an adaptation of King’s killer car novel, aficionados of both the writer and the director were psyched. To have two legitimate legends of their craft collaborating seemed like a dizzying dream come true. Of course, such a fantasy flew squarely into the reality of what Carpenter had taken on. As a book, Christine is almost all internal monologue, the character of Arnie Cunningham’s best friend Dennis Guilder explaining how his buddy slowly went insane under the influence of the evil automobile. There are also additional plot points that the movie completely avoids.


Now, this is nothing new for a book to film transfer. You can’t take the text verbatim and expect it to become a meaningful motion picture. But when you mess with a beloved work of fiction, you invite two kinds of criticism. The first comes from fans upset at the changes made. The second arrives from individuals who can’t quite figure out why this title deserved the big screen treatment in the first place. Both may have a point and still be completely wrong. Novels are not perfect, and sometimes, what seemed good on the page can appear paltry blown up 70 feet high. In fact, it’s clear that a lot of King’s works play better in the theater of the mind than the local Cineplex.


But that still doesn’t address the issue of his slipshod status. Perhaps a compare and contrast could help. In 1983, venereal horror icon David Cronenberg became attached to direct one of King’s more commercial works – the psychic thriller The Dead Zone. The basic premise found Johnny Smith, an average man, awaken from a coma after five years. Involved in a horrible auto accident, he barely escaped with his life. During rehabilitation, he discovers he has a gift of second sight. By touching a person, he can look into their past as well as their future. He even has the ability to influence and change events yet to come. All of this leads to a confrontation with a Presidential candidate who is out to start World War III. As the wheel of fate would have it, Smith must play assassin to stop the political favorite.


Again, Cronenberg tweaked the tale, removing backstory and emphasizing other aspects of King’s book. With the West still battling a frigid Cold War with the East, the importance on nuclear annihilation was illustrated, and thanks to a wonderful performance by Christopher Walken, Johnny’s dilemma was given depth and gravitas. So while some of the book’s more important twists were avoided or amplified, Cronenberg stuck to the basics. He believed in King’s ability to tell a tale, and did very little to vary from his prophetic prose. It remains one of the main reasons that The Dead Zone is a brilliant film, as well as a powerful page turner.


In sharp distinction, something like Pet Sematary pales in comparison. While it has its defenders, many find this film a shadow of King’s horrifying, hellacious original. Dealing with a topic that automatically hooks many prospective parents – the death of a child – and using reincarnation as a means for a far more terrifying prospect, the novel was originally scrapped by the author. He felt that, in a creative realm where he pushed the envelope of the gruesome and grotesque, a killer kid was just too much to fathom. Luckily, King’s better half (his wife Tabitha) convinced him otherwise, and yet another bestseller was born. Yet when it finally came around to making the movie, a series of bad decisions resulted in a less than successful product.


Up front, director Mary Lambert was a moviemaking novice. She only had one feature under her belt (the little seen Siesta) and may have helmed some successful music videos (for Madonna, among others), but that’s hardly the resume for taking on such a tricky piece. To make matters worse, she cast mostly unknowns. Among the leads, only Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster himself) had any real name or fame value. The final nail in the creative coffin was the direct participation of King. By this time (1989), he had grown tired of how his books were treated by screenplay writers, and he took a stab at the script. Yet even the man who originated the story failed to stay true to it. There were changes in both situations and tone that bothered longtime fans.


All the missteps did eventually add up. While slightly effective, Pet Sematary the movie is nowhere near as powerful as the book. Part of the problem is the actors. Aside from Gwynne, everyone else has a tepid, TV movie like quality to their presence. Even worse, the subject matter seems severely toned down so as not to totally derail already angst ridden Mommys and Daddys. Such audience friendly fiddling seems to go hand in hand with a King adaptation. This is especially true of broadcast standards and practices. Many of the author’s tales have been translated into small screen mini-series, the better to deal with their scope. But such a strategy limits content, undercutting the epic evil of IT, or the end of the world wonder of The Stand.


And yet some artists manage to turn the tentative into the terrific – and they seem to follow the Cronenberg method of manipulation (which can actually be traced back to DePalma and Carrie). Take The Shawshank Redemption. Frank Darabont took the original prison story and kept the core conceits. Changing very little, but streamlining some of the subplots, he managed what many consider to be one of the greatest films of all time. Rob Reiner reinvented both “The Body” (which became the nostalgic classic Stand By Me) and Misery by playing to King’s strengths (story) while deemphasizing his weaknesses (his lack of visualized action). Recently, Swedish director Mikael Håfström took 1408 and created a wonderfully moody minor classic – and he did so by remaining faithful while still striking out on his own.


Clearly, staying true to King is not an instant guarantee for achievement. Such efforts as Needful Things, Secret Window, and Apt Pupil all managed minor liberties with their source, and still they appeared underwhelming and incomplete. On the other hand, open interpretations often end up equally unexceptional. Graveyard Shift abandoned most of what the short story had to offer, and yet the giant rat retread was dull and dopey. Similarly, The Mangler made the mechanical horror of the original into something far stupider and unbelievable. Apparently, for every insightful interpretation (Dolores Claiborne) there’s a failure to figure things out properly (The Night Flyer, anyone?).


Perhaps the key is talent. While not a given (Dreamcatcher came from Lawrence Kasdan, after all), it is obvious that when individuals of great artistic insight take on King’s work, something worthwhile usually results. Darabont did it again with The Green Mile, which makes his upcoming work on fan favorite The Mist all the more exciting. Mick Garris usually makes the most of the author’s words, having guided several entertaining TV efforts. George Romero gave the sensational schlock of Creepshow the proper EC comic coating (though his Dark Half was merely a marginal triumph) and even the man of letters himself argued for his frequently misplaced participation when he directed the disastrous Maximum Overdrive.


So maybe it is just a statistical anomaly. A man with so many adaptations of his work is bound to have more than his fair share of failures. And when you consider that he’s working in horror, an already tricky cinematic type, that anything with his name attached actually gels should be cause for celebration. Yet King has written very few clunkers in his four decades behind the typewriter, and the subpar productions (Firestarter, Thinner) keep cramping his reputation. In fact, the hack nature of his many movie flops has definitely impacted his literary worth. Though he’s frequently referred to himself as the medium equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, the vast majority of his writing is not junk food. Sadly, most of the movies made from his ideas are barely digestible. 


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