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by Bill Gibron

28 Apr 2009

It’s funny to watch the pundits weigh in, humorous in the kind of sick, twisted and very dark way that comedy can occasionally creep up on you. Critics were kept away and still they had comment on how something so obviously mediocre (since it wasn’t screened for them, you see) ended up becoming a $29 million pre-Summer season smash. Many point to the actress (or “talent”, in this case, one Beyonce Knowles), while others suggest that the urban market, well known for supporting their favorites, took some of the money they set aside for Tyler Perry every year and spent it instead on this ersatz thriller. There’s even the suggestion that race - in this case, the African American as victim vs. Caucasian as cruel villain angle - brought in viewers ready to uncork four decades of civil rights struggles on their local Cineplex.

So which is it? Why did Obsessed, a poorly received, sneaking through the backdoor entry into the typically tepid Spring movie cavalcade, become the exception and not the rule. Tracking had the film making something in the middle teens over the 24 April weekend, and yet when all was said and done, that tally was almost double. It’s nothing new. Every year, some movie comes in with mediocre expectations and thoroughly exceeds them. It’s as much a given as some highly hyped mega-hit in the making walking into the blockbuster foray and coming up short - as in ‘someone’s gonna get fired’ short. But there is something a tad more sinister here, a suggestion that seems incongruous to the way we view the social fabric and, instead, signals a jaded and somewhat racist view of the media, and the movies that rely on it for publicity and purpose.

Going back to our man in drag for a second, it’s always stunning to watch young white male journalists joust over why a film like The Family That Preys or Madea Goes to Jail winds up near or at the top of the three day totals. They blame organized church groups and other special interests for stepping in and buying up entire theaters, while others use an insulting “they don’t know any better” sort of rationale. When teens show up en masse for another Saw sequel, PG-13 horror romp, or stupid sex comedy, they aren’t accused of being compelled as a group no matter the title, or even worse, aesthetically out of step with what is proper and right. True, fright films are often dismissed outright because of their content and craven appeal. But when it comes to movies made for a certain niche, the analysis is not so nice.

Though it might sound brazen to suggest it, people like Tyler Perry and producer William Packer (who tackled both Obsessed and the previous stepping hit Stomp the Yard) realize that, like George W. Bush, Hollywood hates black people. Oh, they don’t dislike their money, or their motivation to see something familiar and fun (right Transporter and Fast and Furious series?). No, what Tinsel Town takes away from all ethnic cinema is the same narrow-minded, common denominator view that finds them changing the nationality of the main characters in 21, or allowing M Night Shyamalan to hire non-Asians to play Asian characters in his anime adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Since they don’t understand people outside their own xenophobic sphere of influence, they instead dumb everything down to a level of ludicrousness that’s truly offensive.

Granted, no one is saying that Perry or his offshoots make the most complicated or realistic looks at life within their community, but if African Americans were really offended by their antics, they certainly wouldn’t line up to fund their farcical morality plays. No, what a film like First Sunday, or Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins offers is a motion picture experience that actually understands (or tries to understand) the minority experience from the inside out. As Spike Lee has often said, filmmakers of color are the only one’s capable of speaking to their people’s sensibilities. And when you have 85% to 90% of Hollywood run by Caucasians, what does that tell you about the ‘voice’ within the films being made? The stereotyping is so blatant that it’s been the source of several scholarly looks at the industry’s inferred intolerance.

Again, no one is arguing for the artistic merit of a movie aimed specifically at a certain sector of society. There are dozens of high minded entries that fail to resonate with their proposed demographics’ ideals. When you watch one of Tyler Perry’s PLAYS (not the film adaptations of same), you instantly understand the difference. The playwright turned cultural phenomenon doesn’t start with characters or situations, he starts with philosophies and racial identity. He combs through the community and picks out things that matter the most - love, religion, hardship, faith, hope, displacement, togetherness, the inevitability of failure, and the enduring reality that family can overcome almost all such strife. He then pulls out some noted archetypes, plugs in some amazing gospel soul music, and - viola! - an instant hit.

It’s not unlike what someone like Judd Apatow does. Knocked Up is nothing but accidental promiscuity taken to the ultimate biological ends, the shiny white TV goddess given over to a relationship with a schelpy Jewish boy in hopes that he will mature enough to become a meaningful partner. Toss in some stoners, a collection of couples clichés, and enough scatology to make it all seem like a frathouse joke, and you’ve got a movie still praised by critics (including yours truly) as something genuinely clever and insightful. Yet how many would argue that a film like Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? or Meet the Browns isn’t the same thing, just shifted over into the world of African American? Even more homemade efforts like So Fresh, So Clean and Family Reunion, The Movie resonate better than a standard slate of opening weekend offerings.

So it’s not surprising that Beyonce, a superstar within the music business, and a movie geared toward taking the minority position in a standard he said/she said thriller winds up walking away with box office gold. Just like when Perry hired Janet Jackson and Jill Scott to be in one of his films, such tied promotion pushes the media transversely across boundaries it may never experience otherwise. Of course, the kicker comes when you look beyond the numbers and see what is really going on behind the scenes. Obsessed may have been produced by people of color, but it was actually directed by a white man from London (Steve Shill), and written by another member of the majority (David Loughery) responsible for other ‘race’ related material like Lakewood Terrace and Passenger 57. Talk about a twist ending. Maybe Hollywood has finally wised up. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re doing what they do best - carpetbagging a concept that someone did first, and does better. 

by Deanne Sole

28 Apr 2009

When Macon Leary of Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist wants to protect himself from the friendliness of other passengers on aeroplanes, he takes out a novel.

The name of his book was Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, and it was 1,198 pages long … It had the advantage of being plotless, as far as he could tell, but invariably interesting, so he could dip into it at random.

I spent a long time searching for Miss MacIntosh in secondhand book stores, never seriously expecting to find it. Had it been released in Australia? Not everything is, as I found when I tried to track down Greer Gilman’s Moonwise. The illustration at Dalkey Archive Press, the agent of Miss MacIntosh‘s latest republishing, showed an orange-brown cover with a knobbled texture: not an interesting thing to look at, but inside it was supposed to be either brilliant or horrible depending on the reader. Marguerite Young took 18 years to finish her book, and when it came out in 1965 one critic called it his most hated publication of the year.

“Anyone who has not heard of Miss Young, nor read her magnum opus, “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling,” need not feel ashamed,” stated the obituary in the New York Times when Young died in 1995 at the age of 87. “[E]ven Miss Young’s most ardent admirers … concede that the book, variously described as “a mammoth epic,” “a massive fable” and “a work of stunning magnitude and beauty” … is rather much to take in a single season. Too rich for a repast, it is better savored, they say, like a bedside dish of candy, one bite-sized bonbon at a time.”

by Sarah Zupko

28 Apr 2009

Bob Dylan: Together Through Life—The big release of the week comes from one of the most important songwriters in pop music history. Dylan has been undergoing something of a renaissance late in life, working at a pace many younger musicians can’t match. Together Through Life came together on the road last year and is something of a bonus to fans, coming hot on the heels of 2008’s critically acclaimed The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs.

by Michael Edler

28 Apr 2009

I have a secret. I like Death Cab for Cutie. I’m a 36-year-old, married man, living in Chicago, and I walk my dog two or three times a day (I am a terrible and awful urban cliché) and I really like Death Cab for Cutie. I think Transatlanticism is a very good album with depth and glorious pop hooks, and dynamic depth. I own every Death Cab album and think each has important merit in my love of music.

But have refused to see Death Cab for Cutie in concert. The myriad of 16- through 25-year-old girls, hungry for sensitivity, dragging their boyfriends to play sing along for a two-hour Death Cab show has always prevented me from wanting to see them live.

This time, I would not be deterred. I was going to see Death Cab for Cutie. I was going to buy three or five beers and stomach the high pitched yelps, the desperate sing along, the disappointed boyfriends, and I was going to like this show.

by L.B. Jeffries

28 Apr 2009

Coming out just before Halo 3 was released onto the Xbox 360, Gears of War managed to be the game that was in the right place at just the right time. People were hungry for a definitive action game for the 360 and this title stepped up. Third person shooters had steadily been evolving on the PS2 for some time, but Gears deserves credit for honing this design to its essential elements. It borrows from the “over-the-shoulder” camera of Resident Evil 4 while using the left-trigger aiming that was popularized in the Call of Duty series. The cover system was inspired by Space Defender and Kill Switch.

Coupled with this critically acclaimed melding of ideas is a plot that has received a much more mixed response. The macho setting of Gears of War has been criticized for being shallow and for its homoerotic undertones. At its core, the game is mostly a classic retelling of the standard ‘Dude War Story’. The characters may be cliché and their relationship by the numbers, but it’s the same classic formula that people have relied on for centuries. For the purposes of this essay, I played and beat the game on co-op with a friend split-screen at Hardcore difficulty.

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