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Monday, Sep 10, 2007

These were inspired by reading this alternately brilliant and irritiatingly self-involved essay in the Guardian by Jonathan Lethem.


1. George Harrison released the best solo album by a Beatle. This, of course, is Cloud Nine. Okay, it’s All Things Must Pass, and you have to ignore the god-awful third disc of jams appended to it. What this suggests is that Harrison had become the best songwriter in the Beatles by the end of their career, which is borne out by his contrbutions to Abbey Road and maybe even the Get Back sessions prior to that. By the end, McCartney was content to try to rewrite “Hey Jude” style anthems over and over, and Lennon couldn’t muster anything other than rote blues jams for the most part.


2. Ringo’s not such a bad drummer. Sure,  he’s not Ginger Baker back there, but he stays out of the way of the songs and plays admirably economical fills that have become part of the vocabulary of pop music. They are in fact a huge part of what signifies “Beatlesque.”


3. Lennon’s attempts at political expression are unfortunate. His heart was probably in the right place, but his attempts to be relevant weren’t particularly insightful. The band’s mere popularity was enough of a political statement in itself; the lyrics really didn’t need to make any sociocultural statements. It’s a shame because Lennon’s genius was for writing songs about personal pain: “Help”, “I’m a Loser”, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.”


4. The Beatles became archetypes after the fact. They became famous as a group and thus ended up being interpreted in the media in terms of group-psychology notions about family dynamics and sociological types. The band members’ identities were defined in relation to one another on the basis of very limited samples of behavior and then became self-reinforcing. These identities seem to apply only to the individual Beatles as Beatles, and in terms of how they are understood publicly. Their private characters remain especially unknowable, though I think we know more about John and Paul’s “real selves” from Walls and Bridges and Give My Regards to Broad Street respectively then from any accomplishment they had while Beatles.


5. Beatles songs are in danger of becoming simply the soundtrack to the story of their own rise and fall. The proliferation of an industry based on the Beatles’ celebrity threatens to make their songs significant only in the context of the band’s history rather than standing alone and being absorbed into the private and personal life of listeners. Instead of being tied to the listener’s specific memories, the songs tend to signify first and foremost the Beatles themselves. The same way Abba’s songs are now the soundtrack to a broadway musical rather than possibly the soundtrack of your life, the Beatles songs mark moments of progress of the Fab Four on their way to beatification. You can vicariously pretend to their lives, but it’s much harder to imagine they had your dilemmas in mind when they were churning out hits.


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Monday, Sep 10, 2007

New and old iPods, new and old complaints

An old truism is that you never buy the first or latest version of any software or techie device.  The reason’s simple- the newest version is bound to have bugs and problems and you effectively are providing research and development for the company while also paying for the privilege to do so.  But ultimately, that’s the price of having the latest slick little device in our consumer culture.  How many iPhone users had buyers’ remorse when they first found out that the product was discounted $200 only two months after they bought theirs?  They were pretty pissed of course and eventually Apple had to offer discount vouchers though they’re for half the price and only good to trade in for more Apple merchandise.  As a ZNet article pointed out, the $100 that they “refund” the original iPhone customers ain’t gonna buy you much through Apple.  This literal/figurative miscalculation on the part of Apple may do their brand more damage than any of their perspective competitors: there’s surely going to be less people ready to buy the next slate of new Apple products when they come out, feeling burned by the iPhone (though rest assured, plenty still will).  If you’re still not convinced that Apple ain’t the most consumer-friendly corporation out there, ask yourself why they’re offering new iPod classic models with a whopping 160MB capacity but only offering Wifi capabilities in their new iPod Touch models with a measly 16GB capacity.  Clearly, they don’t want to cut into their own iPhone biz but they’re driving trying to carve up the market as best they can by not offering all the bells and whistle in one place (i.e. large capacity plus connectivity).  Still, they own the market for portable music and will probably for a while.  Unless of course, they keep screwing up these roll-outs…


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Monday, Sep 10, 2007
<Finding the Way Home: By Brenda Ann Kenneally on MediaStorm


(Link to "


Finding The Way Home”)


At the Webby Awards this year MediaStorm won the official award from the group of judges made up of experts and peers for the best online magazine. Its video pieces have taken photojournalism into a new realm. Where once a photo-agency would have provided images to newspapers and magazines, MediaStorm lists its services as “picture editing, audio editing, production of broadcast quality video and multimedia presentations, custom photography, audio and video reporting and web multimedia infrastructure development.”


The changing role of visual images in newspapers is important to consider. I was drawn into the stories on MediaStorm’s website by the power of the images, which struck me as following in the tradition that photographers like Cartier Bresson, Berenice Abbott and August Sander set of using new tools as photography itself was settling into becoming a powerful storytelling tool, to show us the world, catching some resonant moments, that linger.


(Link to “Zakouma”)


It seems to me MediaStorm has created an entirely new hybrid form, a new way for visual artists / journalists to profit from their work now that free photo-sharing sites such as Flickr have taken away the need for organisations to go to agencies to buy images. It has some of the elements of a press agency in the way that newspapers and media organisations buy complete stories: National Geographic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times are among the media organizations that have bought stories from MediaStorm. 

Collected on MediaStorm’s own site the pieces have the call to conscience that’s the hallmark of great photojournalism by showing the world as it is, and they “read” well as a collection but without an overt editorial message or mood or identity that would usually come with being a “magazine”. “Never Coming Home: What It’s Like to Lose a Son in the Iraq War”, presented on Slate leverages “the power of still imagery and spoken word, allowing subjects to tell their own stories.” The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its series “Altered Oceans”, which mixes video and written reports. In a similar vein “Blighted Homeland”, a series created with MediaStorm, looks at the devastation of the homeland of the Navajo people due to the lingering effects of nuclear tests. “From 1944 to 1986, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were dug and blasted from Navajo soil, nearly all of it for America’s atomic arsenal. Navajos inhaled radioactive dust, drank contaminated water and built homes using rock from the mines and mills. Many of the dangers persist to this day. This four-part series examines the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo reservation.”


On MediaStorm’s site transcripts are run with the video pieces. The eye reacts to a story, but the brain processes and reasons with words, so the stories come to have several lives, in several time frames. I think of the success of Joseph Campbell’s conversations with Bill Moyers, how they were a smash hit as the television series “The Power of Myth” and sold well on video, but that they’ve also had an enduring life as a book of transcripts that’s become a work of reference on myth in the modern world. MediaStorm’s stories have taken that model to the Internet.


MediaStorm founder Brian Storm, has offered this ‘roadmap’ through the site:


Emmy nominated:


Kingsley’s Crossing
Bloodline


Audio and Stills (No Video)


Never Coming Home


From the Ed Kashi and Julie Winokur Team


Friends for Life
The Sandwich Generation


Innovation with Kashi


Iraqi Kurdistan


Animals


Zakouma
Black Market



Video from the extraordinary Ray Farkas:


Brian Surgery
New York Reacts


Outside of journalism, but you might also enjoy them:


1976
Creep
Heaven, Earth, Tequila


complete list of our projects and Client projects


Interactive Applications


Darfur for CFR, the interactive application


Finally, Why Photojournalists Should Gather Audio


 


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Sunday, Sep 9, 2007


Though every generation likes to think that they’ve discovered Hollywood’s dirty little secret, the truth is that remakes have been around forever. Back in the silent days, storylines would be revisited time and time again, and once sound reinvigorated the artform, notorious non-talkies were recreated for a sonically sensitive viewership. All throughout the Golden Era, previous hits were reconfigured for new stars and directors, and musicals were made over to keep the Depression/War weary audiences entertained. Though they didn’t call themselves by the now notorious name, the ‘50s and ‘60s were flooded with genre efforts that basically repeated the same narrative ideas and themes ad nauseum, and the ‘70s saw deconstructionist directors take on their Tinsel Town favorites as an experiment in homage/hubris.


Yet over the last few years, the remake has raised its profile significantly, thanks in no small part to the decision by filmmakers to take on well known and beloved projects from the past. When Gus Van Zant decided to soil the reputation of Alfred Hitchcock by creating a shot for shot revamp of his seminal Psycho, buzzers started going off in film fans heads. If such an important movie masterwork could be given such a pathetic post-modern push, what was next? The answer came at the cost of such genre classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween. While one can debate the validity and viability of these recent retoolings, the words of the late, great Gene Siskel still reverberate – why remake good movies when there are perfectly bad films out there that could use a redux.


In honor of such cinematic wisdom, SE&L presents a few suggestions for lamentable works that could really use an artistic overhaul. With the exception of one genuine gem, the movies discussed here all had promise – at least, when they were originally conceived. But somewhere along the line, their ability to translate said potential into actual motion picture polish went askew. Now, they have a chance for aesthetic redemption – that is, as long as the right combination of creativity and consideration is utilized. If not, God help us all. Let’s begin the discussion with one of the biggest eggs ever laid by a major movie name:


Howard the Duck

Fans of the original source material were excited when it was announced that George Lucas and his production company were taking on the fowl from another planet, given the filmmaker’s still active Star Wars cred. Even when it was discovered that Willard Huyuck would handle the writing/directing chores, there was still optimism. This was the man responsible for helping script American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. With the standard pre-production security that accompanied ‘fantasy’ films of the era, no one knew what the title character would look like, but with a creative staff like the one at ILM, it promised to be something really special. It turned out to be a little person in a kid’s party outfit. Gone was the gaunt, cigar chomping anti-hero of dozens of cynical comics. In its place was an obvious costume that constantly reminded the viewer they were watching some guy in a suit. Add in the other misguided elements – the bumbling Tim Robbins’ character, Howard’s asexual attraction to co-star Lea Thompson – and you’ve got an abysmal cinematic mess.


In 2007, all of this can be changed. First and foremost, CGI has come such a long way that fully realized characters like Gollum (or any number of Star Wars prequels props) can be rendered in life like, interactive expertise. Howard’s original grating gumshoe qualities can be reinstated, and this new animated version can blend seamlessly into the live action without sticking out like a dwarf in duck duds. Even better, the comic book movie has been reinvented and is now revered by Hollywood, which understands the wealth of goodwill and greenbacks they can earn by giving the fanbase what it wants. All someone has to do is convince Uncle George that this project would be worth his sagging genre reputation (one assumes he still holds the rights) and find the right industry obsessive (Kevin Smith, perhaps) to give this quirky quacker the cinematic respect he deserves. Oh, and one more thing – NO Thomas Dolby electro-pop soundtrack, please!


The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

When Don Knotts walked away from his role as Deputy Barney Fife on the solid ‘60s hit The Andy Griffith Show, he did so with an armload of Emmys, and a huge amount of performer popularity, on his side. Universal, long hoping to tap into that formidable fame windfall, put the actor into a series of specially designed projects, many crafted by the Griffith show’s staff writers. Who better to guide Knotts’ big screen persona than the men who developed it for the boob tube. After the combination cartoon/live action comedy The Incredible Mr. Limpet, the actor next appeared in this wonderful little gem. Using a horror theme (Knotts is a typesetter who investigates a local haunted house, hoping to become a real life reporter) and his personal pliability with physical goofiness, the filmmakers found the right balance between humor and heart. The result is an enduring classic that stands up well, even today. It showcases Knotts’ deft timing, and offers a perfect subject showcase for his shaky shenanigans.


So why remake it? Well, two reasons, actually. It’s a fantastic storyline – a little contrived and clichéd at times, but still effective as a quaint, quirky character study. It would be easy to see someone like Steve Buscemi, or a younger Jeff Goldblum, playing the part of nerdy nebbish Luther Heggs. Both are individuals who can infuse their performances with enough peculiarities and pathos to elevate the material. Secondly, special effects have grown so in the last 40 years that the haunted house element of the narrative can really be explored. The notion of a small town tainted by a towering estate with an evil past has a delightfully discordant ring to it, and done properly, the contrast between comedy and creeps can be winningly maintained – similar to the way the divergent emotions were equalized in Edward Scissorhands. In fact, if Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are looking for another project to participate in, this would be right up their alley.


The Sentinel (1977)

In 1975, two books dominated the genre fiction landscape. One was Stephen King’s vampires in a small town tome ‘Salem’s Lot. The other was Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel. Centering on a New York supermodel and her brownstone apartment (that just so happens to be poised precariously over the actual gates of Hell), it was a nasty little gem, a pure page turner with gore and gratuity in abundance. Naturally, fans who favored flocking to the Cineplex to get their spine tingled couldn’t wait for an adaptation. Sadly, what arrived in 1977 was a toothless, watered down version of what Konvitz created – and oddly enough, he was responsible for the inept, uninvolving screenplay. Part of the problem with the big screen translation was the terrible casting. Christina Raines defined blandness as the helpless heroine, and director Michael Winner (a Brit, hot off the success of Death Wish) decided to pepper the rest of the roles with old school Hollywood heavies like Martin Balsam, John Carradine, Jose Ferrer, Ava Gardner, and Burgess Meredith, among many others. This gave the narrative a lame Love Boat feel. Winner himself was also an issue. He kept the blatant terrors of the novel tented in a veil of ambiguity and subtlety, in direct contradiction to what readers wanted.


With the current trend toward turning every fright flick made in the last 30 years into a pre-tween remake, it’s astounding no one has thought of revisiting this material. In the right hands, you could easily have a menacing mesh of Dario Argento’s Inferno and William Freidkin’s The Exorcist. The book is bursting with sensational scare setpieces, and with the newfound F/X tech, they can be accurately recreated in all their blood drenching glory. Even better, Tinsel Town could easily find a filmmaker more in sync with Konvitz’s sense of splatter. Imagine this property helmed by Sam Raimi, Neil Marshall, or Nacho Cerda – filmmakers who understand the visceral appeal and ambient awfulness in a little arterial spray. And then there is the ending. Since we learn that the title entity stands guard over the entrance, keeping the demons and the damned from roaming the Earth, just visualize the last act spectacle once the doors to Satan’s sin palace swing wide. It’s enough to make true macabre mavens giddy. 


Robot Jox

With the towering success of Michael Bay’s Transformers (a hit despite the prominent display of his much maligned name on the marquee), the time seems ripe to remake this Stuart Gordon sci-fi epic. Granted, the premise is a tad perfunctory: there’s no more war. Country/conglomerates now wage battle as part of a spectator sport where the title ‘athletes’ operate skyscraper sized automatons in rock ‘em, sock ‘em beat downs to the death. But thanks to the undercurrent of espionage (someone is sabotaging the machines to favor one ‘side’ over the other) and the overpowering possibilities of the visuals, we have something that CGI could make truly magnificent. This is not to say that Gordon’s movie is bad. In fact, it’s very good. It’s just hampered by a lack of financing (the production company actually went bankrupts during filming) and limited stop motion animation effects. Add in the lack of true star power – the cast is recognizable, but definitely relegated to the lower tiers of celebrity – and a basic b-movie feel, and you’ve got a project ripe for rediscovery.


In fact, Bay may be the perfect person to head up the remake. He has a tendency to inflate everything he does with an elephantine sense of importance, and he’s comfortable carving insular universes out of recognizable reality. Unlike The Island, which tried for future shock and wound up delivering flaccid schlock, Bay could really explore the dynamics of a planet gone playground, a world were a no holds barred rumble between giant machines determines the fate of nations. One can easily see the old Soviet iconography and new American jingoism being incorporated into the mix, and with the right set of actors – why does the name Nicholas Cage immediately come to mind? – this could be both monumental and meaningful. Indeed, Robot Jox is one of the few off title properties that carries a lot of inherent commentary possibilities. This means Bay could make something important for once, whether he realizes it or not.


The Incredible Melting Man

When Rick Baker was still an unknown scrub, drinking in the discerning genius of movie make-up guru Dick Smith, he was asked to participate in this peculiar project, a mid ‘70s update of a standard ‘50s sci-fi shocker. His mandate – create the title character in all its goo glop glory. And he did just that, much to the joy of slimy sluice fans everywhere. Too bad the film surrounding the slowly disintegrating astronaut was so lame. Filled with unintentional humor, oddball tangents, and a lack of other onscreen grue (while the man’s melting could be shown, his grizzly murders could not) the results are as ridiculous as they are repugnant. After a few play dates in the still standing passion pits and last remaining urban grindhouses, the film went on to obscurity, disdain, and in some outsider environs, considered cult status. It eventually achieved a newfound, if noxious, appreciation as part of a classic installment of the TV phenom Mystery Science Theater 3000.


Still, it’s a wonderful idea, and if handled by the appropriate genre guide, we could have a new installment of the one time fashionable “double dare” entertainment. For a little background context – back at the beginning of the ‘80s, when the VCR made make-up and physical effects the scare sets cause celeb, movies were made that tested the mantle of the average moviegoer with their over the top, exploitative gore. Examples included Lucio Fulci’s Zombi and City of the Living Dead/Gates of Hell, as well as John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Their reputation as notorious, noxious examples of excess had fans challenging each other, putting their love of all things red and revolting to the true eye gouging, skull drilling, head-bursting test. In the considered hands of someone like Eli Roth, or Rob Zombie (two filmmakers who get the groove of outrageous offal), we could have a new puke paradigm on our hands. 


Nightbreed

Clive Barker wanted it to be “the Star Wars” of horror films. After successfully bringing his brilliant Hellraiser to the silver screen, he eyed his “monsters among us” novella Cabal as his next project. It was to be big and brash, the culmination of his reality based repugnance (ala the beloved Books of Blood) and love of all things fanciful and foul. Using up his entire cache of industry interest and filmmaking favors (remember, this was only his second full length feature behind the lens), he envisioned an epic terror tale dealing with psychopathic serial killers, hidden underworlds, and misunderstood menace. He even got body horror icon David Cronenberg to step before the camera as one of this main leads. Production was problematic, with cost overruns and budget concerns cranking down the creativity. Similarly, scope had to be scaled back and many of the more important moments in the film (the descent into the bowels of Midian, with all its accompanying creatures) had to be trimmed or merely tossed away. When it was all over, the studio hated what they saw, and buried the film via a short spring release.


Except for the lack of support, Barker no longer faces the massive monetary concerns that held the original Nightbreed back. CGI and other effects are relatively inexpensive, and can be mastered by any one of several outside the industry artists. Even better, DVD has made incomplete movies like this a much more saleable commodity. If Barker could just get his hands on the missing film reels, restructure the storyline, and fix it all up with some computer generated jazziness, he might have something. Even better, he could just give up the notion of revamping the film himself, and let someone else tackle the actual literary source. Cabal is one of the author’s best works, and in the hands of someone equally in tune with what Barker was after – say, Peter Jackson? – the possibility exists for the epic the author always hoped for. Of course, as the prequels proved, the Star Wars comparison can be restrictive at best. Perhaps reconfiguring it as “the Lord of the Rings of the macabre” would be a good place to restart. 


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Sunday, Sep 9, 2007

Days three and four found me sitting through three movies directed by women, which is an anomaly in the real world. It’s unheard of to have this much female influence happening in the world cinema all at once, and even though it is really nice to be treated to such displays of female power and intelligence, it still doesn’t make up for the fact that women in Hollywood (especially female directors) are still getting pigeonholed. Not many multiplexes are going to relish the thought of relinquishing their straight guy- and kid-friendly popcorn palaces to this current work directed, produced, starring, and, essentially made for women. Oh, and Many of these ladies are over 40.


While this mini-renaissance may have gained steam starting late last year, with three women over 50 (Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Meryl Streep) claiming three of the five coveted spots for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for the first time in what felt like forever, it looks like we can look forward to the return of stories about real, contemporary women (of all shapes and ages) to the big screen this season. It’s about damn time.


As good as some of these films were, though, I sat in the theater pondering on whether or not these well-made, good-intentioned films would actually connect with an audience outside of it’s target demographic. I can’t really see any teenage boys getting all revved up for The Jane Austen Book Club when they have the choice of seeing Superbad, but perhaps one or two of these deserving pictures can get some critical buzz behind them to garner some sort of noticeable box-office receipts.


Female directors do get the raw end of the deal for one misogynist reason or another when it comes to the success or failure of their films. Take for example Julie Taymor, whose Across the Universe (which I will see Tuesday) was recently taken out of her hands by studio executives after the director refused to edit and whittle her vision down to meet their demands of making the film shorter. If a lengthy, challenging film like this was directed by a man, he would be called an artist, but a woman standing up against a studio is probably going to be called something much nastier. There are signs that the old guard Hollywood boys club may be showing signs of weakness, and this is why these pro-female films should be supported, and celebrated—even though one of them isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders.


Beware of spoilers ahead


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