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Wednesday, Oct 31, 2007

This question came up in a music mailing list and I wondered about this myself.  I remembered then that a good part of the answer came from another field- politics.

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Wednesday, Oct 31, 2007

By Edward Wasserman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Surely it’s good news when a super-rich couple pledges $10 million a year to found a crack team of investigative journalists whose mission will be to dig out the best stories they can find.

After all, elsewhere in the news media budgets are bled white to slake the thirst of Wall Street predators, seasoned reporters are coaxed to pasture so their pay can be banked, out-of-town bureaus are shuttered, and editorial energy is redirected onto online initiatives to engage and cultivate twitchy market segments that shrug at boring old tales of exploitation, injustice and corruption.

When today’s chieftains of the news business consider its future, they’re more likely to drool over Facebook, the social networking sensation, than to draw inspiration from the great reporting of the past.

So who’s going to pay journalists to do the grimy, old-line work of holding the rich and powerful accountable?

Enter Herbert Sandler, a Northern California financial services billionaire, and his wife, Marion. The outfit they’re funding, Pro Publica, is to be a New York-based reporting powerhouse of 24 investigative journalists led by Paul Steiger, for 16 years managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and a highly respected guy.

Pro Publica’s staff will work on the elusive, important, long-range stories that few news organizations have the stomach or money to take on. Once the stories are done, they’ll be offered to newspapers and broadcasters or posted on Pro Publica’s own Web site so the public can read them.

This is good, bold stuff. Yet the plan does have flaws, some of them serious.

First, Pro Publica’s own ambitions are a problem. Its backers make it plain they’re in the business of hunting big game, “stories with significant potential for major impact.” In finding outlets for the stories, they’ll “likely be offered exclusively to a traditional news organization, free of charge, for publication or broadcast with an eye toward maximizing the impact of each article.”

Together, as the Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner wrote in one of the few criticisms of the plan, these elements suggest that Pro Publica will proffer top-notch journalism to big, powerful news organizations, the ones that need it the least.

Second, is it even true that we have insufficient coverage of tough, front-burner national stories from the high-impact media Pro Publica wants to feed? I wonder. With the Bush administration leaking like an overripe melon, and a torrent of first-rate books about high-level deception and stupidity, the real problem may not be what’s out there - in newspapers, magazines and online, from domestic and foreign sources; it’s what the public can be induced to pay attention to.

Breaking stories is one thing; setting the public’s agenda is quite another.

Third, the implication of the plan is that the stories that truly matter are national. Many are. But many more aren’t. The isolated and beleaguered
eporters who are breaking their picks hacking away at local zoning scandals, crooked landlords, corrupt courts and local environmental disgraces fall beneath Pro Publica’s gaze.

Unfortunately, the Pro Publica model suggests that if these people want to make their mark they need to pack up and head to Manhattan, which already has the richest concentration of journalistic talent on earth.

This country’s journalism profession is already being hollowed out, and it’s hard to see how that process won’t be aggravated by creating an elite squad
of ace reporters composed mainly of top talents who can readily find work elsewhere - many of them drawn from places where the need for their unique
skills is acute.

A culture of accountability, to be truly national, needs to be built in the provinces as well. If the Sandlers are thinking about shedding another $10 million, they might consider bringing aboard a second kernel of supervising editors of the integrity and skill of Steiger and his colleagues. Then they should use most of the money to seed newsrooms throughout the country with endowed investigative positions, whose occupants would be advised by these editors and whose sleuthing would be focused on the small-bore social and political outrages that affect people most directly and most insidiously.

So let’s welcome Pro Publica, and acknowledge the role that philanthropy can play in funding the indispensable coverage that market incentives cannot alone guarantee. But let’s also hope this is the first step, not the last.


Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. He wrote this column for The Miami Herald.

Tagged as: journalism
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Tuesday, Oct 30, 2007

As our month-long tribute to terror ends, SE&L celebrates one of the missing in action icons of practical special effects - Mr. Rob Bottin.

On the Mt. Rushmore of Cinematic Repugnance he’s Teddy friggin’ Roosevelt, his brooding, bearded façade figuring prominently along with those of Dick Smith, Tom Savini, and Rick Baker (substitute Stan Winston where appropriate). His cartoonish, slightly surreal take on creature F/X was marked by a disturbing level of invention, and when asked to recreate more human horrors, his autopsy like efficiency reveled in the body’s more noxious humors. Yet after giving David Fincher a tour de force performance for his serial killer spectacle Se7en, he more or less disappeared, showing up sporadically for a few high profile projects (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club) before fading away. Since 2002 however, he’s been more or less MIA, a once brilliant madman lost in the exile of his own increasing reputation.

A California boy, Rob Bottin was born in 1959. He grew up loving monster movies and started creating his own characters while in his teens. A few of his sketches caught the eye of fellow fright lover Baker, and at age 14, he was hired on to work for the in-demand artist. After assisting on the ’76 version of King Kong and that space opera blockbuster Star Wars, his big break came when John Carpenter was looking for someone to realize the menacing pirate ghosts for the filmmaker’s much publicized Halloween follow-up, The Fog. Bottin, an imposing kid at 6’2”, not only designed and executed the F/X, but he played the lead spirit – Capt. Blake – at the end of the film. After a brief stint supporting Tom Savini on the sickening slasher sleazefest Maniac, Bottin began working with Baker on the pair’s next secret project.

Buried in myth and clouded by contradictory innuendo, the falling out between the men over the creation of a realistic werewolf transformation remains an incomplete motion picture legend. At the time, Baker accused Bottin of stealing his ideas, while the young gun threw the same accusation back at his onetime mentor. Watching The Howling and An American Werewolf in London side by side, the mutual influence is obvious. Yet were Baker reverted to a bloodless, full body metamorphosis for director John Landis, Bottin used the inherent limits of individual physicality to create a more brutal, bloody change. With Joe Dante’s Howling beating Werewolf into theaters, it looked like the student got the last laugh. However, when Oscar rolled around, it was Baker who walked away with the newly created award for make-up effects.

Undaunted, Bottin literally threw himself into his next project. The remake of The Thing was a technical nightmare, but assigned director Carpenter could think of no one better than the gifted 23 year old to realize the creature concepts he had in mind. The original ‘50s classic had actor James Arness dressed as something resembling a human carrot. The Thing’s reinvention would be more along the lines of the source material short story “Who Goes There?”. Carpenter wanted the ultimate shapeshifter, a being that could literally take the form of anything it came in contact with. In these pre-CGI days, it was an epic undertaking, but Bottin was up for the challenge. He worked seven days a week, sleeping in his shop, for over a year to make the horrific entities the director wanted. By the end of production, Bottin was so spent he had to be hospitalized for extreme exhaustion.

All the hard work paid off, though. For many, The Thing remains the last word in advanced physical effects. It’s a gruesome, gore-filled cavalcade of bleakness and cruelty. From the ultra realistic dog death sequences to the finale which finds Kurt Russell’s McReady battling a 30 foot amalgamation of everything the extraterrestrial’s emulated over the course of the film, Bottin filled the frame with as many innovative atrocities as possible. When it hit theaters in 1982, fright fans heralded the movie’s sluice drenched spectacle. Critics were not so kind, often referring to Bottin as the cinematic equivalent of a geek show barker. Of course, time has only cemented The Thing’s status as a classic. Today, Bottin is idolized, not marginalized, for what he created.

Luckily, his next project would help broaden his appeal. When Joe Dante was looking for someone to visualize the wild – and frequently wicked – imaginary threats forged in the brain of that famous little despot Anthony as part of a big screen remake of the classic Twilight Zone episode, he turned to Bottin. Like Looney Tunes on acid, the F/X expert turned rabbits into oversized demons, and manufactured a collection of corrupt cartoon effigies who recalled the Warner Brothers icons gone gangrenous. Dante loved what Bottin did so much that he brought him on to realize the goofball aliens of Explorers. During this same time, Ridley Scott was actively seeking someone to help him lift the fantasy film out of its sword and sorcery doldrums. Overwhelmed by what he had seen of his work, he asked Bottin to assist in bringing the main villain of his latest film, Legend, to life.

For some, turning the rather unimpressive Tim Curry into the stunning mangoat known as The Lord of Darkness remains Bottin’s latex and appliance masterpiece. In form and figure, the characterization is flawless, from the elongated and hoofed legs to the massive horned headpiece. Even more astonishing, Darkness has a massive musculature that hides its actor’s own flabby physique. When combined with Curry’s inspired performance and Scott’s stylized approach, the domineering demon became the film’s signature visual, surpassing stars Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, and a wealth of impish supporting players. For all its flaws as a film, Legend still stands as a stunning triumph for the artistic technician.

After working on another Dante film (Innerspace) and turning Jack Nicholson into the Devil for The Witches of Eastwick, Bottin returned to splatter with Paul Verhoven’s terrifically vicious Robocop. The violence he created was so nasty in fact that the movie received an initial X rating. When the MPAA finally came up with the NC-17 in 1990, Robocop was often cited as an example of a film that suffered at the hands of the board’s implied censorship. With its exploding limbs, melting bodies, and ultra-realistic gunshot wounds, Bottin definitely pushed the limits. Yet when he and Verhoven regrouped to take on the long dormant sci-fi project Total Recall, the ratings results were the same. Like The Thing before, the make-up maestro expanded the possibilities of his craft, turning the Mars madness into a primer on various techniques and approaches (the film would be recognized by the Academy with a Special Achievement Award).

While he was working all kinds of movie magic to turn Arnold Schwarzenegger into an interstellar hero, a little something called computer generated imagery was slowly seeping into the fabric of film. The Abyss became one of the first films to use the new technical tool to realize a F/X sequence – in this case, the watery alien probe – and as studios saw the potential in motherboards for their outsized visuals, experts like Bottin suddenly saw their talents devalued. While he continued pressing forward, helping Warren Beatty and Barry Levinson realize the gangster brutality of Bugsy, and giving Basic Instinct its ice picked pulse, it would be three years before he stepped onto a set again. By that time, digital was destroying manmade dexterity, and as if in direct response to such shortsightedness, Bottin set out to break the benchmark once again.

Initially, it’s hard to see how Se7en does this. Many of the murders occur off screen, and when we witness the repulsive results of John Doe’s unhinged “preaching”, the ratings mandated cuts removed much of Bottin’s brilliance. Still, he researched every aspect of the film, taking in a real autopsy and studying obesity’s affect on the body. He reviewed crime scene photos and the creation of police evidence files. When the cast and crew saw the results of Sloth’s visualization, the effect was so disturbing it made more than a few sick to their stomach. When added to director Fincher’s already dark vision and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s bleak ideas, Bottin’s genius generated the kind of psychological terror that has since made the film infamous.

And then – nothing. Well, not really. Bottin did work on Mission: Impossible, Fear and Loathing, Fight Club, Charlie’s Angels, and the Adam Sandler flop Mr. Deeds. According to the IMDb, his last legitimate credit was for “special animatronic cow and bull effects” in Serving Sara. A scan of the World Wide Web turns up very little current information. When Special Edition DVDs are put together, his participation is typically reduced to archival interviews or older featurettes ported over from previous packages. His absence from the current cultural landscape is confusing at best, especially when you consider how influential and important his work has become. There are people who literally obsess over everything Bottin has ever done, from his uncredited turns as a teen to the missing footage excised at the hands of the MPAA. For many fright fans, he’s an unseen God, a man whose disturbing dominion has suffered without his input.

Perhaps Bottin feels he can’t compete with the scan and spatter concept of post-millennial makeup. Maybe’s he’s earned all the money and respect he could ever want and simply needs a rest after four decades in the industry. At 47, he’s still a very young man, and could easily make a comeback should the right project strike his fancy, and with the retro renaissance currently feeding the fright film, a Bottin helmed Saw or Friday the 13th would seem like a gore nerds dream come true (he wrote an unused script for Freddy vs. Jason back before the project ended up with Ronny Yu). Whatever the reason for his vanishing act, here’s hoping he recognizes how much he’s missed. A sketch artist with a stylus can only do so much when it comes to creature effects, and Bottin could be a wonderful guide to those unfamiliar with hand on latex practicality.

Besides, horror needs him desperately. Bottin believed in using imagination and innovation as a means of achieving his frequently gruesome goals. He never let the limits of a budget or a medium get in the way. Sure, he obsessed over things, often to his detriment, but the results stand as archetypes for the artform. As a makeup artist and special effect technician, Bottin managed the seemingly impossible. Even as technology transformed the industry, his gear and greasepaint efforts stand as timeless. Sure, they can remake The Thing (as currently planned), using CGI to realize what almost killed the craftsman, but it won’t be the same. Indeed, no carefully rendered and realized monster can match what Bottin did with blood, sweat, and a lot of bladder F/X tears. This is why, even absent from the scene, Rob Bottin rocks. He’s the standard no hard drive can replicate – or replace.

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Tuesday, Oct 30, 2007

Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy, Yann Martel’s illustrated Life of Pi, Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad ... the list of anticipated reads from Australia’s independent Text Publishing house is never-ending. In looking for the Australian distributor of Girl Meets Boy, I was sent to the Text website, and reminded just how invaluable the company is to Aussie readers—especially lovers of foreign literature, and those with tastes left of centre.

Text Publishing is behind the Australian releases of I’m Not Scared and When I Was Five, I Killed Myself, David Denby’s work, works by Athol Fuard and Anna Funder. The company publishes authors as diverse as Gideon Haigh, Linda Jaivin, Patrick Suskind, Alexander McCall Smith, Arnold Zable, Jeanette Winterson, Garry Disher, Shane Moloney, Helen Garner, Tim Flannery, and Mary Roach. And, when visiting the company online, one notices a straightforward approach to self-advertising – no glossy pictures to capture the attention, no bells, few whistles, just an uncomplicated, readable list of what’s new. The books, it would appear, speak for themselves. 

Publisher Michael Heyward notes on the Text website Australia’s “slender and heartbreaking history of publishing independence.” Text, partnered with Canongate, has had a hugely successful year, and, according to The Book Standard, assisted Canongate in doubling profits in 2007. 

His success all well and good, Heyward is not focused on numbers, but “edit[ing], design[ing], and publish[ing] books that readers love.”

Text is online here.

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Tuesday, Oct 30, 2007

the message on a mobile medium

Tiffany Shlain’s movie, The Tribe, is the number one short film on i-Tunes. In a New York Times article last week she said that “iTunes had actually made it advantageous, in a way, to make short films. “It’s one of these beautiful moments in time,” Ms. Shlain said. “People aren’t trained yet to download a feature and watch it” on their television, she added. “Most people are going to watch on their iPod or a computer. The technology really isn’t there yet to move it over to TV. And people are much more apt to download shorts, because of YouTube and iTunes.”

Tiffany’s early short films can be found on You Tube. They’re a collage of found images and archival footage spliced with images she’s created. Tiffany describes her films as ‘fast paced’ but it’s the smooth glide of exhilaration not an edgy adrenalin rush. The Tribe – an essay on “what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st Century” –added extra elements, narration, bits of performance, animated dioramas using dolls (in this case Barbie, the iconic doll created by a Jewish American woman) and “avant-garde visual techniques”. They have elements of humour as well as poignancy, an approach that Tiffany’s husband Ken Goldberg, an artist and scientist who co-wrote The Tribe, has described as “using humour and play to disarm our preconceptions.”  Tiffany created a book and flash cards to go with The Tribe and described the film as “the appetiser” and the discussions as “the main course”.

Ken is a pioneer of telerobotic art projects conducted over the internet and these installations, that create an art project as a way of commenting on the tool and critiquing it while it’s being developed, will be wrapped around the experience of the films they’ll be producing with their new company, The Moxie Institute. It has a still-to be-announced structural mix of non-profit services (a ‘think tank’, white papers) and the sale of the films, which have a strong social message “focusing on the power of film and the web to make social change”. Ken and Tiffany are investigating ”the intersection between these worlds and how the rules are changing. We hope to share the ideas that work and form bridges with leaders in the respective industries to achieve better financial and social returns.”

There are now many film-makers taking on big environmental, social, humanitarian, and cultural questions. At the recent Sundance Film Festival Tiffany co-hosted a ‘think tank’ on the intersection of film, the internet and social change. Highlights from The Movies That Matter panel were intercut with an interview with Tiffany from the think tank.

Directors, writers and producers on Monday’s Movies that Matter Panel have influenced everything from AIDS policy, to the phase-out of PVC packaging, to the global warming debate. Participants included: Sean Fine War / Dance, Judith Helfand Everything’s Cool, Rory Kennedy Ghost’s of Abu Graib, Eric Schlosser Fast Food Nation, Gayle Smith (The Center for American Progress), Diane Weyermann Participant Productions, and Brian Steidle (subject of The Devil Came on Horseback), Helene Cooper of the New York Times (who became an anti-Apartheid activist after seeing Cry Freedom) moderated. While everyone agreed that the movies can matter, there were a variety of approaches to how and why. We’ve all seen the effects of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. My mom’s cat knows about it. Weyermann noted, “The idea was to try to reach as many people as possible to incite change.” Participant Productions clearly carried this out successfully through non-profit partnerships and savvy marketing. To head off doubters, a “bible of science” was provided to press along with the film’s initial release. A year after the Sundance premiere, “The debate about whether global warming exists is over,” said Weyermann. “Now it’s ‘what can we do?’”

Report from Treehugger.

Tiffany’s movies don’t have a plot they have a perspective, where they are philosophically matters as much as what they are. Natural Connection, a short film Tiffany made in 2001 begins with the camera going in through an eye, and the way that the images slide together, morph into one another, and spark off one another makes it seem as if we’re watching the process of thinking, impressions deepening into ideas. Questioning the permeable borders between art and science, considering the reasoning of the scientist, something observable and measurable, and the mystery and intuition that fuels the artist, is also something that underpins all of Ken’s telerobotic art projects. And Tiffany’s father, Leonard Shlain, has written several books that study the intersection between art and science. His book Art and Physics proposes, “…that the visionary artist is the first member of a culture to see the world in a new way. Then, nearly simultaneously, a revolutionary physicist discovers a new way to think about the world.” I think of Tiffany’s movies as demonstrating what happens when this seeing and thinking collide.

Tiffany was the founder of the Webby Awards and a few years ago stepped away from the day-to-day running of the company to concentrate again on film making. Her invention that receives the most attention is the Zen koan-like five word acceptance speech: e.g. Al Gore saying “please don’t recount this vote”. But she also made the awards democratic with a People’s Voice award, able to be voted on by anyone who’s connected to the internet, running alongside the official award made by industry innovators and practitioners. What’s genuinely popular now is able to be celebrated along with technical breakthroughs that are yet to move into widespread use. Tiffany formed the Digital Academy of Arts and Sciences to vote on the official awards.

Tiffany has always been guided by the notion that the internet is a communications medium that has the responsibility to provide the kind of information as a public trust that traditional media companies find it difficult to do in a time of declining revenues. Recently the Webby Awards held a summit to look at the message of the media, with internet co-inventor Vint Cerf, Arianna Huffington the publisher of The Huffington Post,  Biz Stone, Co-Founder of Twitter, and Shawn Gold of MySpace, and founder Joshua Schachter among the presenters. There are papers from the conference at the Webby’s site.

On her own blog Arianna Huffington talked about the value of community.

Over at WebbyConnect, the talk was about a trend that is already happening: the realization by a growing number of major media companies that the best way to succeed—and make money—in the Brave New Media World is to give away your content. Forward thinking companies are now adopting long-term growth strategies, and moving away from short-term profit-seeking.

“Make as much as you can, any way you can” was the approach many big companies had taken to monetizing the web. The New York Times stuck some of its most popular content behind a pay wall, and Microsoft stuck 30-second pre-roll ads on its MSN Video videos.

Neither of these strategies paid off: online readership of the Times’ columnists dropped, and users at MSN complained of a negative user experience.

So now TimesSelect is dead. MSN is cutting way back on pre-roll ads. And, elsewhere, CBS has made a major u-turn away from the notion of hording its content on its own site, instead letting its material be available all over the web. Quincy Smith, the new president of CBS Interactive put it this way: “CBS is all about open, nonexclusive, multiple partnerships.”

The conclusion is inescapable: online, promiscuity can be profitable. And not just when it comes to porn!

To its credit, CBS and other major players are finally realizing that the key to online success is community, community, community.





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