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Wednesday, Oct 31, 2007

I’m not much of a fan of Halloween, although I am a big fan of the candy—I like artificially flavored, pure-sugar, teeth-rotting candies that come in little plastic coffins, and the peanut butter cups in the shape of pumpkins, and all that. What I have trouble with is not trick-or-treating, but the wearing of costumes. I realize I’m in the minority in this: NPR reported this morning that about 2 million people were expected at the annual Halloween Parade in Manhattan. But I find seeing people in costumes a bit embarrassing, a bit like peeping through a window into their inner psychic weirdness. Many people probably enjoy it for just that reason; it offers a chance to be exhibitionistic without guilt, and carries with it the illicit allure of the carnivalesque, the loosening of strictures, the subversion of social norms, and all that other Bakhtinian goodness. But the fantasies being unleashed in costume form somehow seem so paltry: people dressed as characters from TV shows, or attempting some other “clever” appropriation from pop culture. But the clever costumes are less embarrassing than the vaguely sexual ones: Spend any time at the parade and you may conclude that most women want to dress up like hookers and most men want to look like women. With an opportunity to dress up and tap into the collective unconsciousness, it seems as though people gravitate to the image that our culture projects as being the most powerful, from an attention and marketing standpoint—that of the beautiful, objectified women who is sexually available. So adults in costumes becomes a depressing reiteration of the way sexuality is so thoroughly bound up with commercialization. I guess in other cultures, where the harvest celebration still has religious overtones, there’s a greater emphasis on the spiritual world—ghouls and demons. Now, it’s become a strictly carnal affair.


Anyway, that makes me one of those lame people who goes to costume parties without one. Why they can’t be more like 18th century masquerades, where many wore the same costume, the eerie domino suit, and the emphasis was on concealing your identity altogether—and generalized licentiousness—rather than trying to come across as cool, a heightened form of one’s true self?


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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.


___


ABOUT THE WRITER
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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