After what seemed like an interminable wait for the sound check to complete, New York City rockers The Bravery took the stage to an anxiously waiting crowd at Toronto’s Opera House on Tuesday night. It was well worth the wait. The rich sound unleashed right from the get go was nothing short of monumental and worthy of a stadium-sized sound system. Lead vocalist Sam Endicott strutted all over the stage sporting a white suit over a prison-stripe undershirt, completing the look with a white flower in his hair. His voice was reminiscent of The Cure’s early era Robert Smith, a feature that complements the rock/electronica sound of the band. It wasn’t until Endicott had half a dozen songs tucked away that he stopped to breathe and share with fans a story about the now-closed Brooklyn bar, Magnetic Field, a place the band once liked to frequent. He added that their next song was about that place and launched into their hit “Believe” much to the delight of the wildly clapping crowd. They kept the flow of songs steady and energetic for the rest of the set which included the current radio single “Slow Poison” as well as “Time Won’t Let Me Go”, and introduced some new material from their much anticipated upcoming album Stir The Blood. An already great performance was capped off with a brilliant version of “Honest Mistake” and a short but sweet three-song encore.
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No one likes getting cheated. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you hate yourself for being stupid enough, or gullible enough, to overlook some obvious manipulation. You can’t stand the fact that something you should have seen coming 800 miles away somehow tricked you into averting your attention, just so it could steamroll over you with its obviousness. And then there’s the public perception, the knowledge that others around you are falling for this calculated carnival barking, unaware that when they actually walk into the filmic freak show tent, they’re not getting genetic mutations, but pickling jars filled with low rent medical refuse gussied up to resemble two-headed horrors.
Ten years ago, The Blair Witch Project was touted as the most horrifying film ever, a motion picture experience that rivaled then recognized fright night champions as Psycho, The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Initially sold as a feature made out of real found footage (the actors were not allowed to do publicity during its initial festival run in order to further the “they really died” dynamic of the narrative), websites and Sci-Fi Channel specials pushed the boundaries of purposeful PR ballyhoo. By the time the movie arrived in general release during the Summer 1999, audiences were amped to see a compilation of scenes from a failed documentary, the filmmakers finding themselves way over their heads inside a particularly sinister local legend.
Of course, none of it was true. The stars sat back and laughed, eventually coming out to prove they were still “alive”, while the websites and TV shows that fed the furor over the reality of the Witch mythos also revealed their fictional foundation. By the time the movie hit video several months later, no one still believed that three kids disappeared in the Massachusetts woods looking for a fabled female devil. Even worse, the movie played like a passing fancy, effective initially before devolving into a Borat like case of overkill. Today, it gets half the respect it once earned. And then there were some, like yours truly, who walked into the cinema with expectations the size of Suspiria, only to have the next 90 minutes play out like a bad case of Blind Man’s Bluff. Indeed, when the final shot settled over the audience that warm July day, a voice in the very back shouted out “Is that it???” Truer words have never been blasted at a blank film screen before.
Now we’re facing a repeat of that ridiculous mega-hype, an artistic situation that threatens to turn this Halloween into another case of huckster hokum. For the last few weeks, Paramount and Dreamworks have been “sneaking” the spook show thriller Paranormal Activity to eager audiences ready to experience “the scariest movie of all time” (hmm…where have we heard that before?). Internet addresses geared specifically toward dread are heavily quoted in said advertisements, suggesting that a new kind of creepshow classic awaits those who dare to enter their local Bijou. Campaigns have requested that fans in places where the movie had yet to open “demand” it be brought to their town, and a recent Twitter/Facebook faced strategy had the studios releasing the movie “wide” if one million people signed up for said strategy.
We are introduced to a young couple who’ve decided to set up a camera in their bedroom, the better to document the strange goings on that have plagued their restless nights as of late. The woman is convinced that it is a reoccurrence of a “haunting” that happened to her when she was a child. The man is drawn to the possible notoriety and fame that might come from their documenting real live paranormal activity. Over the course of several nights witness strange noises and see unusual sights. By the end, the presence of something far more menacing has made itself known and our subjects are desperate to escape. But as we have learned throughout the course of this frequently unfocused film, rational human thought and the cinematic shell game can’t creatively co-exist. Naturally, logic loses out.
Because of its low budget trappings, so-so performances, and incredibly long slowburn set-up before anything remotely interesting happenings, some will have a hard time with this film. It’s an exercise in anticlimactic bait and switch that prepares for something it never plans of providing. Red herrings abound, from the entire exorcism angle (including mandatory webpage exposition), a psychic who’s too scared to stick around, and a creepy Ouija board sequence that draws some initial intrigue and then is simply tossed aside. The main scenes feature our couple sleeping as unseen footsteps plod along, doors open and close, lights flicker on and off, and other random noises disturb their slumber. There is a definite “seen one, seen them all” vibe to these night terror takes, a sense that given the small scale of the production, this was the best scares that could be achieved.
Others will feel like the riders on a shriek specked rollercoaster, their inexperience and quick ability to lapse into the contrivances of the narrative guaranteeing that the minute something minutely unusual happens, they’ll be losing their liquids in a quasi-cathartic recognition of the movie’s manipulative power. Director Oren Peli suffers from the constant camera movement shtick that more or less renders any attempt at suspense pointless, and the ending feels like a cop-out, an attempt to offer the patient viewer with the kind of slam bang selling point the rest of the movie lacks. Those long schooled in the ways of horror will see most of Paranormal Activity‘s gimmicks quite clearly. For others, this will be there monster movie war story for years to come.
Perhaps the saddest part of all the PR pandering is that we are so easily able to fall for it - AGAIN! It’s as if the Blair Witch never happened. Thirty years ago, people paying to see Last House on the Left were told to remind themselves “It was only a movie.” For many, that advertising tagline was more imaginative than the obvious exploitation effort on the screen. John Carpenter’s Thing was heavily promoted as a “double dare” title around specific adolescent demographics, a splatter showcase so nasty you were basically belittled into taking the potentially nauseating risk. When Witch was hailed as ‘the scariest movie ever’, it was doing so from a place of obvious novelty. Few films had used the POV perspective to tell their tale, and with the surrounding company gag order, many were still convinced the final film was actually real. Today, we see hundred of examples of this style.
No one will think Paranormal Activity is real. Even though it’s being sold that way (the film opens with the studio thanking the San Diego Police Department), it is an obvious ruse. The script doesn’t try to sound true to life. Instead, it follows the same haunted house elements that exasperate audiences who want the victims to wise up and get the Hell out of harms way. It’s funny to watch the studio sell it as a “group” experience, the hope being that by seeing it with a whole bunch of potential marks, a few of their jitters will rub off on you. Odd that they don’t use the same strategy for comedies or dramas (see “Precious” with someone whose shoulder you can cry on…). So the hyperbole’s been turned up to 11, pundit after macabre know-it-all arguing that William Friedkin’s Oscar nominated look at demonic possession is a fair comparison to this low rent clap trap. Right.
Of course, opinions are just judgments based on personal and collective outlook. But in a genre that’s more mocked than embraced, that sees so many shoddy examples of same that studios now longer screen them for cocksure critical cynics, Paranormal Activity is bucking the trend. It’s still being sold as a Mount Everest of eerie when its probably a Pike’s Peak of unfulfilled possibilities. Like the old cliché claims - fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, shame on you. With the rare exception of the Spanish sensation [REC] , which actually used the fact that a patron actually soiled themselves watching the brilliant zombie effort, expectations rarely lead to realizations (it’s a great film - seek it out on DVD). Paranormal Activity will be the cause du jour for the next few weeks until Award Season proper kicks in. By the time Santa is sliding down the chimney, it will be in the same place The Blair Witch Project was post-release. Here’s betting that 10 years from now, something else will come along to render this cheat chuckle worthy. Until then, as Public Enemy would argue, don’t believe the hype.
Heart of My Own
Releasing: 26 January
Basia Bulat will perform a pre-release show at the Bellhouse in Brooklyn, NY on October 7th in support of this, the follow-up to 2007’s acclaimed Oh, My Darling. The free song below, “Gold Rush”, has an epic, old Western steam engine vibe to it; well worth a listen.
01 Go On
03 Sugar and Spice
04 Gold Rush
05 Heart Of My Own
07 If Only You
08 I’m Forgetting Everyone
09 The Shore
10 Once More, For The Dollhouse
11 Walk You Down
12 If It Rains
Gold Rush [MP3]
I was thinking more about a line in the last paragraph of James Surowiecki’s New Yorker column about consumer spending.
But the evidence for a radical shift in the way we consume seems more like the product of wishful thinking (there’s a palpable longing among pundits for Americans to become more frugal) than anything else.
It’s what is in the parenthesis that interests me, that “palpable longing” that most likely refers to David Brooks, who pined for “economic self-restraint” in this recent New York Timesop-ed. Since I tend to think of cheerleaders for the consumer society as being situated ideologically on the pro-business right, I regarded this kind of rhetoric as a move by Brooks toward the crunchy left, with its preoccupation with environmental responsibility and conservation and recycling and the like. But an old Joan Didion piece about the Washington press corps during the Clinton years (aptly titled “Vichy Washington”), reminded me of the obvious point that Brooks is reaching back to an older tradition of conservative intolerance personified back then by Robert Bork:
Bork is worth some study, since it is to him that we owe the most forthright statements of what might be required to effect “a moral and spiritual regeneration,” the necessity for which has since entered the talk show and op-ed ether. Such a regeneration, Bork speculated in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, by one of four events: “a religious revival, the revival of public discourse about morality, a cataclysmic war, or a deep economic depression.”
This puts a religious-bigot spin on the The Shock Doctrine thesis: rather than use crisis to implement a neoliberal program of economic deregulation, conservatives should seize the opportunity presented by widespread economic misery to push through a variety of behavioral proscriptions. Didion quotes Bork’s outrageous dictum that “moral outrage is a sufficient ground for prohibitory legislation. Knowledge that an activity is taking place is a harm to those who find it profoundly immoral.”
This tradition makes it more understandable why pundits are “palpably longing” for a more frugal America and why they overlook the evidence that Americans have been spending more largely because the cost of housing, medical care and education have risen precipitously (thanks in part to the flood of credit inflating asset values). The new frugality seems malleable enough a concept to serve as fresh code for an old battle, that of restricting individual freedoms to preserve religious authority in society. Religious institutions once had a monopoly on meaning and doled it out in return for obedience. Consumerism, and the identity fashioning it enabled at the individual rather than community level, usurped that power, demanding only an obedience that often felt like liberty—the restriction of self-expression to choosing among a plethora of goods in the consumer marketplace. The longing for a more frugal America is one of way of renewing the call for a more “spiritual” America, which is a way of demanding the legislation of morality in the name of values presumed to be universal and incontestable.