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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007


That’s right! It’s Terror Time! Time for Short Ends and Leader to get its ghoul on as part of our annual celebration of all things scary. For the entire month of October, the blog will be focusing on different horror heavyweights, from known names like Troma to unheralded upstarts like Wicked Pixel. In between, we’ll address the new movie macabre classics, unearth a few forgotten gems, talk about old fashioned monsters, and countdown the best and worst in specific genres (zombie films, the greatest moments in splatter). First up is that master of literary evil, Stephen King. With 1408 hitting DVD this week, we’ll look back at the cinematic career of the greatest living writer of fear ever. Good thing he has all those literary accolades. As our Monday feature explains, his big screen reputation is rather shaky.


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007

Monks in Burma, Maira Kalman, Portfolio magazine, and more Stephen King.

The Clippings File


What the Monks told the Military Powers in Burma


The BBC has news footage of UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari in Burma, who was allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi but has not yet met with senior members of the Burmese military. Agence Presse France said that “Ibrahim Gambari met with Aung San Suu Kyi for more than an hour, the UN said in a statement. The rare encounter, seen as a sign of intense pressure on the regime, took place at a government guest house in the main city of Yangon.”


The Nation has printed a letter from U Thangara Linkhara, the abbot of a monastery in Yangon, to the leader of the military, Tan Shwe. “We monks [see that] Burma’s difficulties have gone on for over 60 years. As delicate political issues have not been solved in a delicate way, now after 60 years they have been needlessly prolonged, like an unfinished painting,” he wrote. “The root cause is power. Those individuals who temporarily held the people’s power on behalf of the people have prolonged [their hold on power] for their own purposes for over 60 years. The original owners of power, the people, have been made innocent victims: more and more repressed and poor and impoverished. In fact, the people’s power should be in the people’s hands, so that people can live comfortably and free from difficulty.” His letter is written with metta (loving kindness) and he makes suggestions for peacefully returning power to the hands of the people. 


In an editorial in The Guardian, Pankaj Mishra explains the moral authority of Buddhist monks in violently oppressed societies.


Buddhist monks, living not in forests but in retreats close to populated settlements, are traditionally bound to laymen by an ethic of social responsibility. Not surprisingly, in Tibet and Burma, where a modern, militarised state tyrannises a largely pre-modern and unorganised population, monasteries have been exalted as alternative centres of moral and political authority, and monks and nuns have come to spearhead resistance to unrighteous regimes.


Certainly, Buddhists are not immune to ideological delusions. In early 20th-century Japan, and in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and 90s, many Buddhist monks succumbed to the lure of nationalism and militarism. Nevertheless, with its absence of dogma and emphasis on intellectual and spiritual vigilance, Buddhism has proved to be less vulnerable to fanatical zeal than not only other major religions, but also such modern ideologies as nationalism and secularism. As Nhat Hanh exhorts, echoing a major theme of the Buddha: “Do not be idolatrous about, or bound to, any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.”


It helps, too, that Buddhist political methods aim, relatively modestly, at dialogue and moral conversion rather than total revolution. Writing to Martin Luther King in 1965, after another Buddhist self-immolation in Vietnam, Nhat Hanh explained that “the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors, but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man.”


Pankaj Mishra. “The Burmese monks’ spiritual strength proves religion has a role in politics: Buddhism and its values have inspired a tradition of non-violent protest more powerful than secularists understand”  The Guardian. October 1, 2007


The Nation has linked to a You Tube video of the military beginning to use force to beak up the monks’ protests from burmadigest, which is continually posting footage of what’s happening on the streets in Burma.


Behold Maira Kalman


Maira Kalman from The Principles of Uncertainty

Maira Kalman from The Principles of Uncertainty


With the closing of its Times Select subscription service the New York Times has opened a treasure chest of guest columns to the general reader, although, like a pirate pursuing treasure, you need to dig to find them.


One of the most popular, and unusual, was Maira Kalman’s year- long illustrated essay “The Principles of Uncertainty” which ended in April. The columns have been gathered together in a book that’s just been released. In “Principles of Uncertainty” she addressed the great questions of life and death and happiness and grief in a way that connected with her readers and attracted hundreds of comments each month. Readers began posting their reactions the moment the column went online.


“Principles of Uncertainty” has many of the whimsical existential qualities of her children’s books, which included a series of books about a beagle-like dog Max, a poet, who lived in New York but dreamed of going to live and write in Paris. Max saw poetry everywhere, in the lives of the people around him, and literally written on the trees, sidewalks and cars of the city. Max fulfilled his dream and in Paris married a shapely poodle, a showgirl/dog. He moved to Los Angeles and in Max in Hollywood, Baby saw his poems turned into a screwball comedy movie. Max began to think deeply about illusion and reality, and as he was about to become a father took a—perhaps dreamed—trip to India, and pondered the nature of reality, marvelling at the way that a deeply metaphysical spirituality is threaded through daily life in India.


Maira Kalman has frequently illustrated covers for the New Yorker Magazine: my personal favourite is a portrait of her dog Pete (who is also the star of two books) at a desk, reading. She told Steven Heller, of the graphic design magazine, Eye, that walks with Pete are her primary inspiration. “I was out walking the dear dog (who is a sweet meal ticket – two books about him, one New Yorker cover and a back page) and I saw 500 things that made me want to make art. I ran into a father taking two kids to school. The girls were wearing green skirts and orange rain boots and one of them had a ponytail and was carrying a pink book and was pigeon-toed. Then I saw a man wearing a bowler hat with a feather and he was wearing an eye mask like Zorro made out of a twenty-dollar bill and I thought, ‘There is a God. Thank you, whoever is showing me this.”


Portfolio, turned inside out.


Before the first issue of Conde Nast’s quarterly business magazine, Portfolio, was released earlier this year I was sceptical about its editorial stance of applying Vanity Fair’s glossy approach to the world of business. The physical magazine is yet to appear on Australian newsstands, but the constantly updated online version of Portfolio has made me eat my words. Instead of reducing business to shallow celebrity cover, Portfolio has applied the business writer’s examination of the money and financial power-broking to culture. While there are fawning profiles of business and finance figures, and features on luxury products there is also a unique examination of the financial practices that underpin culture. Examinations of hedge funds investing in art, and how auction houses set estimates for works of art to be sold.


A new online story looks at the business of sampling.


Modern-day sampling started in the South Bronx, where party DJs in the 1970s would find a favorite chunk of music and blend two duplicate records to play that section over and over. It has always been the de facto beat-creation process for hip-hop producers, but as the music has exploded in popularity, copyright laws have been enforced more regularly and the stakes—and money—involved in the sampling business have risen accordingly. For example, as rapper Kanye West celebrates selling nearly 1 million copies of his new album, Graduation, last week, royalty checks aren’t just being readied for him, but also for Elton John, ’70s duo Steely Dan, and the abstract German band Can. West borrowed from a motley crew of musicians to create his hit album’s sound collage, which means he’ll be dividing his several million dollars with the original artists. Jay-Z, Nas, and even West’s competitor 50 Cent built their catalogs on sample-based albums, their tens of millions in royalties split among hundreds of artists, some of whom haven’t released a new song in decades.


Damon Brown. Portfolio. Sep 24 2007


.


What Happens to Storytelling when Readers Disappear.


Stephen King has edited the “Best American Short Stories 2007” compendium, and writes in the New York Times about going to a book store and having to get down on his knees and rustle about on the bottom shelves to find short story magazines.


...writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.


Last year, I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf. It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. If the stories felt airless, why not? When circulation falters, the air in the room gets stale.


 


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007

Why does he do the things he does?
Why does he do these things?
Why does he march
Through that dream that he’s in,
Covered with glory and rusty old tin?
Why does he live in a world that can’t be . . .


What Do You Want of Me, The Man of La Mancha


This is the song that has been going through my head of late, since I end up listening to it every time I ferry my daughter to and from school, ballet class, voice lessons, her SAT tutor. Wherever. We listen to it (well, she sings along, so I listen to it) since she’s thinking of auditioning for that part in the up-coming school play. She’s rehearsed it so often, though, that it is now lodged in my mid(-to-middling)-term memory. Which probably accounts for why the words came on thick, accompanied by full orchestration, last night when I went to my son’s ninth grade parental mixer.

Because—what a bunch of bluster that was! Twenty-five bucks a plate, endless wine refills and hot hors d’oeuvres from roving people-in-waiting, main course of roast beef—medium—and blackened rosemary chicken, two kinds of salads, four kinds of dessert, and plenty of adult puffery, all at a former Nobel Prize-winning physicist’s ex-abode. A stone’s throw from CalTech and light year’s away from my income bracket. Enough to get my pipes working on that other La Mancha tune: “The Impossible Dream.


 


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007

What was so surprising and maybe refreshing about Robert Plant’s announcement recently wasn’t that a Led Zep tour wasn’t going to happen along with their upcoming UK reunion show, it was this quote:


“When I do come back from touring I’m shocked to find a lot of my mates tend to be going to bed far too early and that means I should probably be doing the same. Maybe I should stop having a good time and get old.”


Plant’s been as conscious about age as Neil Young from his salad days in the 70’s: he often referred to himself as “Old Robert” even back then.  But to hear him talk now goes against the grain of most other long-time stadium-fillers.  It wasn’t just the obvious lyrics to “My Generation” or the loss of their rhythm section that made the Who’s future shaky- Daltrey’s throat problems along sidelined them.  Ditto the Stones not just when Richards tumbled out of a tree recently but also when Jagger had similar problems with his voice.  At this point, both bands seemed like the types to tour ‘til they literally dropped but age kicks your ass no matter what your income bracket is. 


Plant realizes it and not only says it but also lives it.  Age is catching up with his peers whether they like it or not and one day, they’ll have to admit it too.  But that doesn’t mean that they all should just pack it because they’ve hit a certain age.  Obviously, everyone ages differently (my grandma is 90 and she’s able to still live on her own).  Or look at the many jazz, country or blues musicians who live out their golden years on stages.  The fact that rock icons were able to do this also took the stigma away for being over 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 and still doing concerts in that genre.  Nothing wrong with that and in some cases, it’s commendable, especially when some of them still make good albums.  But even the Godfather of Soul couldn’t do leg splits in his later years and classic rockers who reach the AARP threshold will have to make compromises too, whether they or their fans like it or not.


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007


It’s important to remember a film’s intended demographic. A gross out slacker comedy to some will be a realistic look at a life among one’s peers to another. It’s the same with comic book adaptations. While the genre was always geared toward post-adolescent audiences with a healthy nostalgia for their collections and the characters, there remains an equally thriving underage contingent that doesn’t respond well to all the introspection and brooding. So when the initial Fantastic Four film decided to drop the existentialism and go for the grade schooler, the obsessive reacted like someone had dismantled and played with their limited edition action figures. What they failed to recognize was that not every movie has to be focused directly toward their mentality. Sometimes, a family friendly approach can find a payday as well.


Of course, this doesn’t excuse the first installment in the proposed franchise. It was a tripe trifle, forged out of the flimsiest of scripts and topped with the most awkward of casting considerations. For those who couldn’t imagine a worse take on the material than the 1994 Roger Corman reject (made to settle a rights issue), the update was equally awful – what with it’s reliance on cornball humor and blatant Hollywood hokum. Yet even with the inconsistent acting – Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis just can’t make the superhero thing work, period – and less than impressive F/X (especially in connection with Reed Richards’ shoddy CGI shape shifting), the movie made a profit. And if there is one constant in the motion picture biz, is that success demands a sequel. Equally important is remembering to copy exactly what made the first effort fiscally viable.


Our new saga (now on DVD from Fox) starts when a planet in a nearby galaxy suddenly implodes and splits apart. From the chaos comes a silver streak of light, its path marked directly for the Earth. In the meantime, Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are trying, once again, to get married. They’ve failed four times before, and they’re hoping that the fifth times the charm. During this stressful time, brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) has been living it up, womanizing and trading on the Four’s good name for his own fame whoring needs. Old pal Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), on the other hand, has finally settled into his all rock persona, and is even enjoying a romance with blind gal pal Alicia Masters. When the Army contacts Reed about building a machine to track the cosmic radiation generated by some newly discovered holes in the planet’s surface, the bad news is discovered – The Silver Surfer has come to our world. And eight days after he arrives, the occupied planet simply dies. 


With director Tim Story back behind the lens (a call many feel belies the franchise’s biggest flaw) and a new character to carry us past the problems, The Rise of the Silver Surfer is definitely better than you’d expect. It’s also a popcorn flick full of the same old slop. For everything it gets right (the reverence toward the title entity, the epic arrival of Galactus) it provides even more fuel for the faithfuls’ ire. Granted, Stan Lee never intended this quartet to be taken too seriously. Unlike other comic avengers, the Four were a dysfunctional family that actually catered to and basked in the limelight. But with Alba’s Sue Storm even drippier as the narrative’s main wet blanket, and superficial supermodel Julian McMahon’s dreadfully dull take on Dr. Doom, our newly introduced chrome conqueror has a lot to countermand. For the most part, the metal man succeeds.


Indeed, after seeing this outing, there is hope for the planned Silver Surfer spin-off project, thanks in part to the stellar reading Laurence Fishbourne brings to the role. When combined with the state of the art computer animation (it’s a Weta level of realism that the first film avoided), and some old fashioned stand it work, our interstellar sentry with the planet prepping mandate definitely comes alive. Although he’s hardly a main character – The Thing’s blind babe gets about as much screen time – his impact is such that we actually anticipate his next appearance. Thanks in part to a broadening of scope (we’re dealing with a world killer here), the accompanying action that surrounds the part, and the last act change of heart, we get a well rounded, three dimensional star who is stuck as a supporting player in a meandering mess. 


This makes the main foursome seem all the more minor. Chiklis cannot overcome his man in a costume conceit, and every time The Thing interacts with the others, it’s like stepping back in time to the less convincing era of pre-‘80s make-up work. Richards’ stretch skills are more believable this time around, though they almost always wind up part of some slapstick gag. One of the main narrative elements in the film – the Surfer interaction side effect of Johnny Storm switching powers with his fellow crime fighters – makes for some interesting sequences, especially during a midpoint problem in London. Yet the firestarter character remains a cloying card, the kind of slick, look at me loudmouth that can grow annoying very easily. Luckily, actor Chris Evans has little to worry about when it comes to grating. Jessica Alba’s whiny, wounded Sue Storm is enough to drive any sane superhero lover to irritation.


Still, you can sense Story’s fascination and love of the material, and it’s an opinion seconded by the bonus features found on the new two disc digital edition. The director’s commentary is especially enlightening, since we learn of his outright geek love for the Four, as well as his desire to stay as true to the comics as possible (who knew). Even in the documentary featurettes provided on the making of the movie, Story is a stone cold nerd. Creating and controlling the world that these beloved icons exist in seems to bring out his inner child. Among the rest of the cast and crew, it appears to be nothing more than business as usual. A second alternate narrative track (featuring a producer, writer, and editor) is a dour, overly technical affair that saps any possible enjoyment out of the project. Similarly, the F/X and design overviews often provide little more than electronic press shilling. The only legitimate look behind the scenes comes from a near hour long backstage glimpse. It’s great stuff.


It’s just too bad then that Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, plays to such a specific demographic. This is the kind of movie that requires a viewer who’s still open to the magic of movies while not being so dense that they miss some of the more satiric bits. Be a little too lost and Tim Story’s take on this title will seem like advanced trigonometry. Know a little too much about the comic in question and the many liberties taken with the characters, and you’re going to be angry at every single frame. Viewed with the proper eyes and processed by the necessary mentality, this plaintive blockbuster wannabe really rocks. Any other critical consideration argues for its slightly average amusements. Figuring out where you stand on the subject will end up being the best guide for your potential pleasure


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