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Saturday, Jan 5, 2008


His is not an unusual story. As an artist of color working within a medium not necessarily friendly to same, Charles Burnett had a decidedly uphill battle to become a filmmaker. As with many like minded ‘60s students, he turned his 16mm UCLA thesis focusing on the troubled Watts section of Los Angeles into an unusually beautiful and moving meditation on race and the rejection of the American dream. Hoping to see it released, he failed to realize that the many songs included as part of the overall poetry were unsecured. The costs of such rights issues made distribution impossible, and aside from a few festival screenings, his efforts wound up the stuff of legend. He eventually went on to work in Tinsel Town, delivering outsider works like 1990’s To Sleep with Anger and 2000’s Finding Buck McHenry.


Yet it was the mythic movie from his youth that continued to define his reputation. Many wondered if it was as good as people claimed, while others questioned the reasons why it hadn’t been remastered and restored - especially in these days of ‘everything on digital’ DVD domination. Thanks to Milestone Films, and Burnett’s alma mater, the $150,000 needed to settle the soundtrack matter was raised, and a new 35mm pristine print was struck. Suddenly, the once lost film was found - and over the course of the last few months, it has emerged as a considered classic. It sits on many ‘Best of’ lists, and the National Film Registry has selected it for preservation. Even better, Milestone has stepped up and created a seminal home video package that allows the context of the film’s creation, as well as other examples of the director’s work, to fully come to the fore.


Dark and documentary like, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is a window into a world few have ever experienced, let alone knew existed. Capturing the look, the feel, and the sense of poverty like no other film before it, it represents a remarkable bit of artistic perspective. With no real narrative to speak of and characters drawn directly out of unrelenting real life, it stands as a startlingly authentic experiment, and a true dramatic testament to the human spirit. While the era is clearly the ‘70s, and Burnett relies on old school blues and soul as a Greek Chorus score, this is a timeless examination of life along the fringes of normative society, a peek into situations stark and circumstances unfathomable. When a slaughterhouse seems more inviting than a shabby family home, you recognize the cultural commentary is nothing short of potent.

We follow Stan, a sad man who seems lost within his trials to merely survive. He is the title entity, a man working in an abattoir helping with any and all butchering tasks. His pretty wife tolerates his many moods, but wonders why a still vital and virile male won’t take her to bed regularly. When a friend suggests he has no hope, he decides to fix up his wreck of a car by buying a used engine. When local lowlifes try to talk him into crime, his better half abruptly steps in to remove the unlawful influence. In the meantime, the couple’s two kids wander aimlessly through an inner city landscape where fake violence meets the real thing on a regular basis. It’s an existence sketched out in government indifference, a place where comfort - when it comes - arrives in short, senseless bursts always capable of collapsing in on itself.


Treating everything viewed - animal slaughter, childhood roughhousing, slow grind passion, inappropriate advances - in a manner which offers little in the way of interpretation or judgment, Killer of Sheep is a very challenging experience. It asks us, the audience, to step into a reality that seems unreal, and sympathize with people and plights that appear alien to our smug, suburban eyes. Without being confrontational or controversial, without resorting to the kind of callous stereotyping that makes ethnicity charges stories so suspect, we find grace inside the dark, dire ghetto. You can see that Burnett believes in his intentions. The movie never forces itself into situations that demand responses. Instead, we let the casual daily drone wash over us, the arguments over money and opportunity, status and stumbling blocks becoming nothing but a background buzz to the discontent surrounding the characters. 


Yet you can also feel the director’s education based desire to reference past masters. While the neo-realists of Italy were far more focused on telling a story, Burnett uses the same monochrome pastiche to capture his almost amateurish moments. Real life actors Henry Sanders (as Stan) and Kaycee Moore (as his wife) are surrounded by locals and available friends, their lack of pretense apparent in every sped up line reading, every slight smile while staring straight into the camera. The camerawork is either purposefully static or unintentionally handheld, the lens capturing glimpses of faces and facets that we are perhaps not supposed to see. There is a vague voyeuristic quality to what Burnett offers, the viewer as uncomfortable witness to an unsatisfied wife, children caught in mindless cruelty, and a man downbeat and desperate.


The DVD presentation allows Burnett to put his efforts here into perspective, and the accompanying commentary track (with scholar Richard Pena) offers a great deal of information and insight. But even more startling are the short films offered as complements to the director’s oeuvre. Dealing with subjects as varied as a dying horse and Hurricane Katrina, they argue for an artist quite capable of staying within the accepted framework of the medium in order to make his points. This is especially true of the supplemental long form film offered - 1983’s My Brothers Wedding (it focuses on the various high and lows that occur as a disjointed family prepares for one sibling’s suspect nuptials). Presented in two different versions - the original 118 min cut and a new, 90 min director’s redux - we see Burnett working in a more friendly and fast paced style, while still incorporating many of the more contemplative touches that made Sheep such a success.


In retrospect, this is the kind of arcane aesthetic pronouncement that could only have survived in the ‘70s. Today, even in the most broadminded of production realms, Burnett would be viewed as a maverick making difficult cinema in far too easy going filmmaking times. This doesn’t distract from Killer of Sheep‘s amazing merits, just forewarns those coming in unprepared and expecting some kind of mainstream motion picture. This is a vision as yet untainted by the need to sell out and sell through. We can thank Milestone and the many supporters of this unusual, unmatched movie for making sure future generations can enjoy its undeniable masterwork. It makes Burnett’s struggles seem less like the story and more like a fabulous, unfathomable footnote. Once you’ve seen this film, you realize that’s exactly where said struggle belongs.


 


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Friday, Jan 4, 2008


Call it reverse retro - something so endemic of its time or place that it transcends nostalgia to become a definitive cultural statement. Every medium has them - from the brazen blaxploitation films of the ‘70s to the sublime synth pop of the ‘80s. No other era has as many ethereal examples as the ‘60s however. As a decade noted for its artistic reinterpretation, where nothing was sacred and everything was subverted, old war horses and sacred cows got the aesthetic agriculture taken out of them. Nowhere was this truer than in television, where sitcoms and the writers who created them tried to undue years of formulaic funny business. From monsters to musicians, it was a creative temperament ripe for the reimagining.


One of the best one’s ever to fool the format was Get Smart. Conceived by comic legends Mel Brooks and Buck Henry as part of a one off speculative deal, this silly spy spoof featuring the world’s dumbest secret agent lasted five fascinating years. It also rewrote the entire decade’s agenda on how serious subject matter could be mimicked and mocked. Now available is an exemplary complete series set from Time Life DVD (this is how all TV shows should be handled), revisiting this emblematic entertainment proves the backwards revisionism theory. It is less like a trip down memory lane and more like the discovery of the perfect counterculture confection.


For those unfamiliar with the show (it’s been in and out of reruns for quite a while), the set up is simple. Maxwell Smart, codenamed 86, works for CONTROL, a government intelligence organization battling the forces of geo-political complexity and international evil. Answering to the tough but genial Chief, and typically paired with leggy female cohort 99 (whose name is never revealed), the duo regularly take on KAOS, a band of nogooniks led by Mr. Big and overseen by Vice President of Public Relations and Terror, Siegfried. Though they are sworn enemies, Max and his nemesis enjoy a surreal mutual admiration society. Oddly enough, there is respect and honor among these stunted secret agents. Along with the standard menagerie of villains, sidekicks, and one-off helpers, we meet unlucky android Agent Hymie, the mysterious Agent 13 (who communicates with CONTROL from unusual locations like lockers and mailboxes), and Fang, the bureau’s asthmatic dog.


Over the course of 138 episodes and two networks (it originally began airing on NBC, but ended its run with a single season switch over to CBS), the spy vs. spy tomfoolery used gadgets, goofiness, and some good natured lampoonery to create its weekly 26 minutes of mirth. Some of the most memorable visual jokes included the top secret Cone of Silence (a device which supposedly allowed conversations to go unheard), Max’s classic shoe phone (complete with heel receiver and instep dialer), and various incognito guns. The numerous James Bond knock-offs, usually applied more for comic than crime relief, became iconic for series’ devotees. They also helped the show successfully focus as much on the actual genre being tweaked as well as jibing to the archetypes within it.


Thanks to Sean Connery and his amazing machismo magic, the ‘60s was awash in kitsch crazy spy stuff. Film was constantly on the make for another franchise icon (Flint, Helm) while TV also found a wealth of espionage angles with dramas like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible. Get Smart was one of the few attempts at bridging the increasing clichés already forming to manufacture something original inside the formulaic and familiar. As one follows the episodes offered, through first season highlights like “Satan Place” and “Survival of the Fattest” to last act offerings like “Apes of Rath” and “And Baby Makes Four”, we see the growth of the characters, the creation of network mandated narrative constants, and the development of seminal series catchphrases - “missed it by that much” and “would you believe…?” - that became cult fad fodder.


To call the show uneven would be stating the obvious. Fans can probably pinpoint the moment the ingenuity became to wane - perhaps with the required wedding of 86 and 99, or the last season decision to have them procreate. But for the most part, the inventive internal aspects of the series, as well as the external elements of the experience (changing social dynamics, growing political unrest) keep it fresh and original. While it’s impossible to evaluate all fives series and 138 episodes, it’s clear that, as an example of TV’s attempts at battling cinema’s anti-studio system rebirth, Brooks and Henry were on the right track.


This is pop art parody of the highest order, a veritable trip back in time to the slapstick slickness of the swinging ‘60s. The look of the show combines conservative government bureaucratics with hipster bachelor padding. Everyone smokes, and they smoke A LOT. Sunglasses are statements of the sinister and the suave, while 99’s dresses run the dramatic gamut from Carnaby Street minis to natty New York maxis. Without directly addressing the ever-changing face of the era, we get hints of hippies, lots of Cold War mongering, the slightest slip into psychedelia (the sets are always amazing), and enough pseudo slick lingo to fill the mind of an amiable and impressionable audience.


The acting, of course, made the experience and it remains, without a doubt, exceptional. Though he was hired mostly due to an outstanding contract he had with the network, Don Adams proved to be an invaluable piece of the puzzle. He literally steals every scene he is in as Smart, whiny wisenheimer voice hiding an equally wimpy work ethic. Using some of the material he honed as part of his stand up routine, and a great deal of improvisational grace, he became the satiric standard bearer for most of the decade’s sprawling spy fascination. In fact, it’s safe to say that without Maxwell Smart, the uneven farce of Casino Royale would never have been fathomable, let alone possible.


Equally alluring in wildly different ways is Barbara Feldon as 99. As enigmatic as she is predictable (her crush on 86 is evident from the earliest episodes), the character cuts a swatch that balances out much of Get Smart‘s surreality. Like the calming centering of a constantly out of whack storm, she comes across as sexy and smart, easily understood and never off the handle. Indeed, if Feldon had been given a more prominent role, she could have turned the show semi-serious, which would never have worked. But thanks to her classiness, her deft comic timing (she was great with a joke as well), and the chemistry she shared with everyone from Adams to Edward Platt (as the omniscient Chief) she transforms the obligatory Emma Peel eye candy role into something quite special.


Indeed, that’s the best way to describe Get Smart in general. It’s an amalgamation of incongruous elements that shouldn’t really work together yet somehow, do. It’s the perfect incorporation of the dumb with the discerning, the improbable with the imaginative. Of course, it takes tons of talent to pull this off, and from Brooks and Henry in the background (between them, both wrote dozens of episodes) to standard day to day production players like scribes Chris Hayward, Leonard Stern, and Arne Sultan, this was unconventional TV from standard boob tube scribblers. Add in the fringe turns, the wondrous non conformity in disguise of Dick Gautier as Hymie, the various nefarious villains played to perfection by such stalwarts as Bernie Kopell (Siegfried), King Moody (Shtarker), and Milton Selzer (as double agent Parker), and the various guest turns (Johnny Carson, James Caan, Don Rickles), and you’ve got a concept with enough creativity to carry it through even the toughest times.

As for the tremendous Time Life DVD compendium, it’s a veritable treasure trove of discoverable delights. Divided up by season, both Brooks and Henry add a commentary to the pilot, while Feldon offers her thoughts on Episode 17 - “Kisses for Kaos”. Disc five of the first set contains nothing but extras, including interviews, promos, TV appearances, reunion footage, bloopers, a documentary, and an interactive feature. It’s the same packaging paradigm that is carried over onto each additional season in the box. Other highlights include 1967 Emmy Broadcast material, NBC memos (both from Season 2), commercials, current cast interviews (Season 4) and a memorial to the late Don Adams (Season 5). Each collection also contains a booklet providing context and scope, and the transfers in general are terrific - bright, colorful and loaded with era-defining detail.


Oddly enough, Smart was one of the few ‘60s shows that did not translate well when it was inevitably updated. The 1980 big screen version, entitled The Nude Bomb, was a major critical and box office disappointment, while the 1989 TV movie Get Smart, Again! was slightly more winning. It led to an attempted revamp by Fox with Andy Dick as Smart and 99’s son (it lasted seven uneven episodes). Now, Hollywood has again come calling, placing comedic flavor of the moment Steve Carell in the role of Smart, with Anne Hathaway as 99, and Alan Arkin as The Chief. The preview trailer tells little about how successful this update will be. The goofiness is there, but the original Adams/Feldon spark appears absent. Until then, we have this remarkable overview to remind us of how the right combination of ability and anarchy can merge to form an almost effortless entertainment. Like other examples from the time - The Addams Family, for example - the sum of Get Smart is uniquely equal to its many magnificent parts. It remains a seminal spy spoof sitcom. 


 


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Friday, Jan 4, 2008

There will be no more memoirs of the life of Brigadier-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC, outstanding Victorian soldier, coward, bully, womaniser, cad, bounder and hugely admired all-round bad egg. George MacDonald Fraser, chronicler of the great man’s life and editor of his copious personal papers, has died at the age of 82 after losing a battle with cancer but winning a substantial literary reputation and a worldwide army of devotees.




The Times reports here, while NPR has a moving tribute by OED editor, Jesse Sheidlower here.


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Friday, Jan 4, 2008

Thanks to Art of Noise for that title.  In a series of articles for CNET, a former Washington Post writer rips a current WP writer for taking shortcuts in an RIAA story, which claimed that the hated music industry scourge was saying that customers ripping CD’s is illegal.  While Marc Fisher’s original story did seem to cut corners about what the RIAA was claiming was legal or not (ripping is illegal if it’s then shared on a P2P service), I also wonder about the vitriol the CNET writer levels against Fischer while letting the RIAA have as much say as it likes to defend itself.  Note this segment in particular:


“Here was an opportunity for (RIAA prez Cary) Sherman to declare once and for all that copying CDs for personal use is lawful. He stopped short of that, saying that copyright law is too complex to make such sweeping statements. He did state that there is one full-proof way of discovering the RIAA’s policy on personal use: check the record.” 


For the rest of the article, the RIAA gets the benefit of the doubt while Fisher is hung out to dry but note that Sherman has to still weasel his way around this issue as if to say that in fact, the case ain’t closed about this.  That would even go back to Fisher’s original claim that the RIAA is not in fact cool with ripping or at least they refuse to go on record to counter that.  The CNET article notwithstanding, the RIAA’s rep is still in the mud, even if they cry about being misquoted.  They have themselves to blame for suing thousands of people in questionable lawsuits.


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Friday, Jan 4, 2008

This recent post by Nicolas Carr, about Amazon’s vaguely creepy “Askville” campaign—a World of Warcraft-like scheme in which consumers win virtual money for use in Amazon’s virtual world by supplying real world tips and facts—offers another way to explain the point I was fumbling toward in the previous post. Carr, a techno-skeptic who generally sees nothing especially liberating about the internet, details a long-running debate he has had with Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, who touts the internet’s transformational possibilities.


In July of 2006, I entered into a quasi-wager with Yochai “Wealth of Networks” Benkler about the ultimate economic structure of the most popular social media sites. I predicted that the dominant sites would pay for their content - that they would, in Benkler’s terms, be “price-incentivized systems.” Benkler predicted that the sites would be pure “peer-production processes” existing outside “the price system.”
So what happens if people get paid with virtual gold: Is that price-incentivized or not? I would argue that it is. If you’re working for gold, whether real or fake, you’re putting a price on your labor. I mean, if you take beads in trade for something of value, then the beads are money, right? But of course I’m biased, being a participant in the wager. Maybe Benkler would argue that fake gold is more like a token of esteem or a gift of the heart than like a wage.
One thing’s for sure, anyway: If you can pay your workers with virtual money, you’ve got a helluva labor strategy.


Yesterday I was trying to make the case that we are conditioned to be price-incentivized, and this makes it hard for us to process culture that’s not assimilable to that logic; we tend to import market thinking to our manner of appreciating culture, even when the cultural is not distributed through a market, or produced with profit incentives in mind. Carr seems to consistently argue that non-financial incentives are illusionary, utopian, or really monetary motives in disguise, and I’ll admit that this sort of cynicism rings true to me. But then I wonder whether if that case holds true only for firms and doesn’t necessary apply to individuals, who are more flexible in their motives, and can win in other ways than registering profits. People clearly are willing to work at public tasks not for money but for inclusion, recognition, and the sheer pleasure of social participation. It may be that people like integrating themselves into networks not necessarily with a view to any definite advantage, but for its own sake, out of a species-driven urge toward gregariousness. Being a part of a network for its own sake is at least as plausible as accumulating money for its own sake.


Anyway, Carr is mainly concerned with production: Can you extract quality without paying for it through the sheer size of a network? This is sort of a belief that a million monkeys gleefully and spontaneously typing online will ultimately produce Hamlet, even if each monkey only contributes a word. Yesterday I was wondering about consumption, and whether we need price incentives to motivate us to consume, to cue us to the value of what we might consume and to give us a framework for manufacturing desires. Or could some networked system of peer recommendation replace prices as cues to what culture is valuable? Also, will we be able to conjure limits for ourselves in the absence of cultural scarcity, a condition that was created by the transformation of cultural activity into a product. In other words, is the internet decommodifying artistic production, leading to new (or a return to old) ways to experience cultural phenomena?


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