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Sunday, May 13, 2007


Perhaps you’ve seen the trailer. It features a whisper thin slacker type sitting by the seashore, melodiously requesting that somebody listen to his story “all about the girl who came to stay”. For a moment, the feeling seems sad and somber, the dark, dreary setting matching the mood and atmosphere of the plea perfectly. Still, there’s something gnawing at the back of your brain, a familiarity that keeps you from getting completely lost in the scene. And then it hits you. The actor, Jim Sturgess, is not presenting an original sonic sentiment. No, he’s channeling John Lennon circa 1965 and Rubber Soul, crooning the Beatles’ tune “Girl” as part of a…what’s this? A musical based on the compositions of the Fab Four? Apparently, current filmmakers have learned nothing from the past.


In an industry not noted for its intellectualized approach to art, the notion of using the creative canon of cultural icons John, Paul, George and Ringo is not a new idea, but it certainly is a bad one. With at least two certified cinematic disasters looming in the medium’s rear view mirror, how anyone could greenlight a project which melds a myriad of Beatles songs into a operetta-like look at the most tumultuous time in US history screams of stupidity – or at the very least, short sightedness. Yet now, with the trailer for director Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe showing up in theaters, it appears that some suit drank the creative Kool-Aid on such a cockeyed conceit. And the potential apocalypse is up on the screen for everyone to see.


In brief, the preview offers up the story of Jude, a naïve Englishmen who arrives in America and gets a job as a dockworker. Instantly, he is swept up in the peace and love movements of the ‘60s. All throughout the various meet-cute moments and supposedly iconic vistas, the reworked hits of the greatest band ever waft in the background and pour from the pouting mouths of the frighteningly young cast. We even see snippets of what looks like a dream/LSD sequence, with British comedian Eddie Izzard as a diabolical circus ringmaster (Mr. Kite, anyone?). Things change, however, when the Army calls Jude’s pal. Before you know it, hippies are doing choreographed dance moves in the middle of Central Park, while soldiers scream in rice patties, “Helter Skelter” blaring in the background.


Sounds potentially promising, right? Maybe, thanks to Taymor’s stint as the director and creative force behind the Broadway smash The Lion King. That’s no small feat, considering she was starting with a cartoon as the source material for a live action extravaganza. Perhaps she can find a way to make this work. After all, Milos Forman took the similarly formless rock opera Hair and found a way to make its divergent collection of poptones perform in tandem to tell an actually story. So why not Taymor? Well, the comparison between Universe and the 1979 Forman film is apt, especially since this new show looks like a direct rip-off of the previous production. From the aforementioned park sequence to the mimicked moment when a young man faces the military draft board, there’s a clear filmic familiarity capable of breeding a serious amount of creative contempt.


It’s not just the idea that a series of songs, disconnected from each other in time, theme, style and substance, are being jerryrigged into an equally narrow-minded view of one of history’s most important and multifaceted eras. No, the recent trend, even on the Great White Way, is to take an artist’s entire catalog (say that of Abba, or Bob Dylan), draft a dodgy script that tries to link the material together, and present it with a fair amount of verve and generational gusto. Pop culture is fueled by youth, and with many of the sources several DECADES out of the limelight, such songfests had to appear fresh and innovative – at least to this just out of diapers demographic. There are also hints of knowing nostalgia, a determination that boomers and their ever increasing outer fringes will find the trip down memory lane wistful and warm.


But the Beatles – they’ve proven downright deadly before. Taymor is not the first filmmaker to tackle the quartet’s potent portfolio, and before you start screaming over a certain Peter Frampton/Bee Gee debacle entitled Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, let’s recall the first real Fab Four fiasco. Back in 1976, documentarian Susan Winslow was approached by 20th Century Fox with a very strange proposition indeed. The studio was looking for a novel way to exploit their vast vault of World War II battle and newsreel footage, and they thought that juxtaposing it against the Beatles would be a perfect commentary on the importance of both entities. Monty Python ex-Pat Terry Gilliam reportedly rejected the idea as “sacrilegious”, but Winslow thought she could make it work.


Of course, the still-feuding boys would have nothing to do with the project, so all of their songs were re-recorded by ‘famous’ rock acts of the era. Elton John’s previous hit version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was dug up, while other artists like Helen Reddy (“The Fool on the Hill”), The Four Seasons (“We Can Work it Out”) and the Brothers Johnson (“Hey Jude”) came onboard specifically for the film. There were some interesting takes on the material – vaudeville crooner Frankie Laine’s version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, Rod Stewart’s sizzling “Get Back” and Tina Turner’s dynamic cover of “Come Together” – but the problem wasn’t the music itself. No, once placed alongside scenes of battle and Nazi propaganda, the entire project took on a weird, almost diabolic tone.


Try as she might, Winslow could not save her film, now entitled All This and World War II (a supposed satiric stab at irony, ala the British dance hall dramatization of WWI, Oh What a Lovely War! ). A massive soundtrack album was released, but the project was eventually shelved. For many, it was the only logical choice. After all, the very idea that music created in an era of freedom and revolution would be used as the backdrop to an overview of international atrocities in the name of power seemed ludicrous. Currently available only in bootleg editions, the final product is actually fairly entertaining. The songs may suffer every now and again, but the context they provide on the War is actually very astute.


All This and World War II appeared to be the last word on adapting the music of the Beatles to the big screen. Still, the lads from Liverpool remained as popular as ever, and when music executive Roger Stigwood was looking for a way to channel the reputation of his prized act The Bee Gees into other lucrative venues, an off Broadway production from 1974 seemed like the perfect solution. Stigwood’s RSO Records label had released the massive hit double LP score for the disco draw Saturday Night Fever, as well as the hit soundtrack to the movie version of Grease. With the Brothers Gibb under contract, and a desire to work with then Comes Alive powerhouse Peter Frampton, the genesis of future flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was born.


Stigwood had it all figured out. He would hire the former band’s legendary producer, George Martin, tap famous faces (Steve Martin, George Burns) and rock acts (Alice Cooper, Aerosmith) to play important characters, and dress the whole thing up in a silly psychedelic dreamscape that was part frilly fantasy, part scathing attack of the debauchery-laced record biz. He hired Cooley High/Car Wash director Michael Schultz to helm the project, opened up his checkbook, and plunked down a whopping $18 million for the budget. Now, that may not seem like a lot, but only the year before, Steven Spielberg’s epic UFO thriller Close Encounters of the Third Kind cost a scant $20 million. Certain he would make back his money on the inevitable record release, Stigwood saw nothing but dollar signs.


Of course, said symbols all ended up in red on the bottom of his movie’s balance sheet. Pepper was a disaster, an unmitigated morass of bad casting, inert performances, horrendous narrative spasms and an overall feeling of camp creepiness. The Bee Gees were bad, Frampton failed to impress, and even the professional member of the acting team – Donald Pleasance, Paul Nicholas, etc. – seemed subdued. Instead of capturing the magic of the Beatles, the movie buried their energy and invention in a fog of Muzik-lite adaptations and arcane artistic choices. A critical and commercial catastrophe, Sgt. Pepper sat as the industry’s delineated disaster du jour – that is, until Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate came along and stole its box office bomb thunder.  And yet Stigwood was right in the end. The soundtrack album sold extremely well. 


Better still, it looked like future filmmakers had finally gotten the point. Since Sgt. Pepper, no one has again tried to tie the Beatles to a big screen musical. In fact, until Michael Jackson bought the rights to the group’s publishing and started allowing certain songs to be used in advertising campaigns, the remaining members of the band have been very careful to control their use. Only recently, for 2001’s I Am Sam, did a significant amount of Fab Four material find its way into a film (and again, it was cover versions of famous songs). But this time, they were used sparingly, offered to help define Sean Penn’s mentally handicapped character.


Across the Universe, on the other hand, looks like someone trying to remake both Hair and Pepper with just a little of Oasis’ “All Around the World” thrown in for good measure. And for all we know, it could turn out to be a major motion picture triumph. Indications are, however, that trouble is looming on the hit parade horizon. A few months back, Revolution Pictures Executive Joe Roth (himself a quasi-filmmaker) took Taymor’s cut of the film, carved out nearly 40 minutes (it was originally running somewhere in the area of two hours plus), and showed his ‘version’ to test audiences – all without the director’s knowledge. Then we learn that the movie has been ‘done’ since 2005, and that Ms. Taymor herself has been tinkering with the editing for over a year. All claim it’s merely an issue of length, not legitimacy. Right.


We’ll have to wait until September before the final fate of Across the Universe can be determined. Maybe Taymor’s talent for the unusual has cracked the knotty nut that is utilizing the Fab Four’s music in movies. Perhaps the jarring effect of hearing seemingly tone-deaf performers bellowing out the band’s songs will be softened by some new narrative or performance perspective. Maybe everything will gel together – reality and fantasy, song and sentiment. The trailer tends to indicate otherwise, as does the track record for such a strategy. There’s a line in the title track that seems to suggest a possible outcome. “Nothing’s going to change my world”, the lyric boasts, and in the universe of the Beatles on the big screen, such a prediction is dour indeed.



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Sunday, May 13, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Immaculate Machine —"Dear Confessor "
From Fables on Mint
While traditional fables are simplistic and moralizing, Immaculate Machine’s Fables is an open-ended series of vignettes based on the idea that our lives are stories. These tales of travel and mischief leave plenty of room for listener interpretation. The energetic Victoria based trio formed in 2002 and released two CDs independently before signing to Mint Records. Their critically acclaimed debut Mint album, Ones and Zeros, was released in 2004.


Tarwater —"A Marriage in Belmont"
From Spider Smile on Morr Music
It’s the sound, not the song. At least at the beginning. Bernd Jestram and Ronald Lippok sit in their recording studio located in the heart of their city and turn the knobs, press the buttons, shift the regulators. Until they find a sound, until a sound finds its way to them. A rhythm, a melody, a noise. “Then, we slowly write the song afterwards.” For Spider Smile, Tarwater have found astonishing decided pop songs. They, the electro duo, each of them with his roots in East-Berlin’s sub culture and avant-garde. Their songs being full of allusions and references shall encourage the listener to link his/her own stories with the ones by Tarwater.


Benni Hemm Hemm —"snjórjljóssnjór"
From Kajak on Morr Music
So much time didn’t go by. And quick it was, too. Not only the sounds and texts for Benni Hemm Hemm’s second album Kajak were written within a few, concentrated weeks. The recordings in Sundlaugin, the studio of Sigur Rós, were also done within only four days. During four magical days eleven musicians recorded thirteen vibrating tracks. With kettledrums and trumpets, with guitars, trombones and a glockenspiel. Emotionally, energetically, emphatically. An insistent shining. Warm and visible already from a distance.


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Sunday, May 13, 2007

My loneliness was still there, but it was getting louder, and easier to dance to.
—Brett Butler, Knee Deep in Paradise


Her favorite thing to do when she visits is to peruse my bookshelves. They rarely change—everything squared safely away in categories, alphabetized, hardbacks with hardbacks, paper with paper. But, she looks at them every time as if they’re new, and she says, “I just love this.” For a long time, I thought she, like me, loved the visual, the idea, of stacks of collected books, waiting to be read and reread. It’s so great a site even for me that on my way from the kitchen to the living room, dinner tray in my hand, sometimes I’ll stop and stare at the shelves and remind myself how much I have to learn, and how my education is right there, perfectly ordered, ready. Recently, though, I heard my mum’s words differently. She’s not marveling at the books, or their order, or anything at all to do with them specifically. Her expression, I realized, says: “I created a reader.”


My mum and I have always shared books. She’s often mentioned how she read to my sister and I in the womb, that her one major goal in life was for her children to love books. We do—my sister and I are big readers, thanks to our mum. I remember when my sister and I were maybe 11 and 13, mum would take us secondhand book shopping, and we’d run into the book exchanges in Shepparton so we could be first to grab whatever Stephen Kings had come in that week. In those days, my sister and I shared a lot less. Or, perhaps, while we didn’t mind passing books around, we knew early the thrill of book ownership.


In recent years, mum and I, too, share fewer books. Strangely, the woman who once handed down Kurt Vonnegut, JP Donleavy, and Joseph Heller, has started reading trashy crime novels almost exclusively. As much as she knows about Kilgore Trout, she knows even more about James Patterson’s Alex Cross. She’ll sit on the couch and fly through the latest Harlan Coben, and yet the copy of The Fixer I gave her a few months back still has a bookmarks in it’s center. I don’t know quite what happened, but, as mum would always tell me, it doesn’t matter what you read (I was addicted to Dean Koontz for a while, my sister Anne M. Martin), as long as you’re reading. I’m praying, however, that my trash addiction passed with adolescence.


A decade ago, when I had just turned 18, I handed my mum a copy of Brett Butler’s Knee Deep in Paradise. I loved the book; Butler was on TV at the time, in Grace Under Fire, a show I watched only really when I remembered it was on. Bulter’s story is about growing up in the Deep South, coming to terms with her self-abuse, finding new respect for her parents, and herself. It’s a poetic, shocking read; I knew my mum would love it as much as I did. Something I didn’t think too much about when I gave mum the book was the little lead pencil markings I’d made inside next to passages I wanted to remember, that stood out to me as particularly meaningful. In the book, Brett writes a lot about her mother, intelligent and well-meaning, but scarily unstable. Despite her mother’s complications, Brett lets us know her mother was instrumental in her success. Brett writers of her mother’s unflinching compassion, her interest in her children’s lives, her encouragement of her kids to be unique, educated, and open-minded. My mother is complex in her own ways, and her philosophies mirror those of Brett’s mum. I underlined passages relevant to that. I also underlined passages I felt mirrored my experience – Brett had learned from her mistakes and perhaps, this early in my life, I could, too. I underlined passages about drinking, about bad men, about wanting to crawl away from life. The sad opening paragraphs of chapter 14, I’ve not only underlined, but bordered with five-pointed stars. I was a kid, really, at the time, and knew very little about what was to come. But I realize now, a rocky teenagehood, completely outside of my family home, prepped me early.


My mum handed the book back to me close to tears. We’d had a strong relationship to that point, but there was a lot we didn’t know about each other. She was the cool mum who hated doing the cleaning, and bought me mixed drink cans and took me to parties because that’s what cool mums did. To her, I was the rebellious free spirit, who looked after herself despite her wildness. Brett’s book showed us each other’s lies. She read my underlines, and began to know me. It turns out, we were more alike than we let ourselves realize.


My mom and I share fewer books now, but we rarely go a day without revealing something about ourselves to each other. Like Brett’s mum, mine is there for me, always willing to give, to help, to rescue. Her complexities are my complexities. She created not only a reader, but a woman. The books on my shelf, their importance, their order, and their underlined passages, reveal her as much as they do me. 


 


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Saturday, May 12, 2007


Vietnam veteran Cage Diamate is in trouble. He’s indebted to the mob, required to fight in illegal kickboxing matches. He is also tormented by a pretty severe case of post-traumatic overacting stress syndrome. Every time he’s about to score a KO, he sees images of that Asian Hell and he slumps over like a ragdoll sans stuffing. His gangster boss is incredibly pissed by his losing streak, and gets even angrier when Cage skips town to “find his way”. Apparently, said destination was a VA hospital, where he befriends a freaked out hop head named Legs who suffers from agoraphobia. Eventually released by his doctor even though he is not quite cured, Cage heads over to the local nightclub where his old job as a dishwasher is waiting for him. So is his ex-gal pal, a little flaxen-haired honey who worships the ground he walks on.


As he gets back to his pruny fingered/soiled serving platter life, Cage also reconnects with his rural bayou roots. He begins writing songs in secret, hoping to restart a previous path toward musical superstardom. When his girlfriend hears his tunes, she tries to convince him to join her on stage. When he won’t, she goes on and wows the crowd with his claptrap anyway. In the meanwhile, our unhappy hoodlums want Cage back, and plan one final death match for the marked man. In addition, the club where Cage and his sweetie work is about to go under, and they decide to stage a benefit to save it. Naturally, it’s scheduled for the night of the big fight. When he refuses to brawl, his crooning companion is kidnapped! It will take a miracle for this Ragin’ Cajun to win the day.


Like a stand-up comic recognizing that he is just a few fatal moments away from completely bombing, Ragin’ Cajun is shameless. This movie tosses in everything but the My Lai massacre in order to avoid some manner of formulaic flop sweat. It’s an action adventure drama carved completely out of clichés. However the way in which actor David Heavener and his main muse, writer/director William Byron Hillman combine the standard cinematic archetypes becomes a sheer jaundiced joy to behold. They don’t care if it’s all been done before. This crazy combo just wants to entertain, to tell a standard tale of vengeance and redemption that hits all the right beats. So what if every section is beaten with a sledgehammer full of hokum - they’re still striking, aren’t they? As a result, Ragin’ Cajun is an impossible film to dismiss, no matter how hard it tries to circumvent your expectations with inane, worn-out hogwash.


Heavener has to be one of the bravest performers in all of the business called show. He is not beyond looking bare-chested and broken (that’s how he ends up most of the time, even when he’s NOT fighting), weepy-eyed and wimpy (dude cries A LOT in this movie) and sexually celibate to the point of near sainthood (he and main squeeze Charlene “Dallas” Tilton share a single, stunted kiss). Add to that his inner rock star (Heavener wrote and performed almost all the music for this film) and the typical psychosomatic licks that come from being a flashback prone ‘Nam casualty, and you’ve got the most completely complex character an actor could ever want. That Heavener attempts to portray EVERY SINGLE facet of this persona in each line reading causes him to resemble a tone-deaf Sybil. If there were an Oscar for most bald-faced bellyaching by an actor, Heavener would have no immediate equal.


And then there is the music. That’s right, Ragin’ Cajun is a kind a musical, in the way that Triumph of the Will is a song and dance extravaganza. Every time an emotion needs to be over-emphasized, whenever the action is getting a little too energetic - Heck, whenever the Hell Heavener feels like it - someone breaks out in semi-melodious mawkishness. Supposedly selling himself in the country and/or western genre, Diamond Dave is all over the map with his harmonious hooey. There are a couple of power ballads, some inspirational singalongs, and lyrics of such lunatic fringe fearlessness that you have to wonder why Heavener’s not a constant on The Doctor Demento Show. Titles like “I Slipped on My Best Friend (and Fell in Love)”, or the classic “I L.U.V.Y.O.U.” just resonate with cornball creativity, and as delivered by Heavener you can’t help but smile with saccharine satisfaction. Perhaps the best bits are when Dave tunes up and sings solo. The minute his fingers hit the guitar, entire orchestras and bands blare behind him in a whacked out wall of sound.


All of this adds up to a movie that can do nothing but amuse. There are barrelfuls of badness here, umpteen ugly moments that make no sense within the standard cinematic showcase. But Heavener and Hillman don’t care - they just keep shoveling the substance, hoping no one notices how impractical and illogical it is. In a sense, Ragin’ Cajun is like a compendium of old Hollywood storytelling. It’s not enough to have the suffering hero with a bad brain and criminal ties. We need the gentle girlfriend, the floundering nightclub, and the owner desperate to bring in some bucks. In addition, there has to be a well meaning mental patient, a mobster with his back to the wall, a couple of hired goons, and a selection of set-pieces - both musical and muscle based - to give us the necessary emotional uplift. Add in minor nods to religion, gun violence, the American policy in Southeast Asia, and a single sequence of narrative invention that’s so surreal it sticks out like a strange sore thumb, and you’ve got a cult classic just waiting to be embraced. Ragin’ Cajun has nothing new to offer at the core of its creation. But how it shamelessly puts those moldy old ideas together is the stuff of B-movie magnificence.


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Saturday, May 12, 2007

The following thoughts were occasioned by reading two wildly dissimilar works in conjunction: Will Wilkinson’s recent Cato Institute policy paper about happiness research and Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. First of all, they couldn’t be further apart on the readability scale. Wilkinson writes clean, compelling prose sprinkled with wit and pointed, impassioned polemic, while Laclau and Mouffe evince the distinct aversion to active verbs and discernible grammatical subjects that you often find in works of nebulous social theory. And they initially seem to be coming from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. Wilkinson, a libertarian, argues for as little governmental intervention as possible into the lives of sovereign individuals; Laclau and Mouffe are socialists trying to conceive of a method to bring about “radical democratic politics” to forward Leftist interests, arguing essentially that the individual has no identity outside of political struggle. Laclau and Mouffe are trying to find ways to build poltical blocs, to develop ad hoc unity among a disparate group so it can then effect social change. Wilkinson seems to be arguing against the social usefulness of collective will.


Nevertheless, maybe because I am misinterpreting them both, but I found a surprising potential for synthesis between the two works, mainly because Wilkinson’s eagerness to discount happiness research leads him to take some rather nuanced, relativistic stances at various points about they way people comprehend their own interests, just as Laclau and Mouffe, eager to dispatch essentialist, given notions of what it means to be working class, systematically undermine all appeals to universal notions. There’s no one determinant of class identity, any more than there is one definition of what happiness is, as experienced. (Whether an objective notion of well-being that we are not actively conscious of can be considered happiness is another question.)


Wilkinson cites approvingly a passage by philosopher Nicolas White, who argue that “As we develop a picture of what life is to be like, we don’t start from a ‘framework’ concept of happiness (an idea of what the picture on the puzzle will be), to which to tailor our particular aims so that they’ll fit into it…. For the most part we build up a conception of what happiness would be out of the aims that we have.” Compare that with this passage from Laclau and Mouffe: “The fixity of every social element in the first theorizations of hegemony proceeded, as we saw, from the indissoluable link between the hegemonized task and the class that was supposed to be its natural agent…. But, insofar as the task has ceased to have any necessary link with a class, its identity is given to it solely by its articulation within a hegemonic formulation. Its identity, then, has become purely relational. And as this system of relations has itself ceased to be fixed and stable—thereby making hegemonic practices possible—the sens of every social identity appears constantly deferred.” In other words happiness is contingent on aims, and aims are contingent on given social formations, and what values can become dominant (hegemonic) through the way they are articulated and their appeal broadened or made constitutive of identity for those swayed by them. The inefficacy of happiness research to pin down a consistent definition opens up the space in which hegemony can be constructed. Political work consists of defining happiness in such a way that suits a particular bloc while conveying a sense of individual empowerment (a sense of concrete identity and fulfillment of that identity’s potential) to those throwing support behind the bloc. Happiness research, then, is discourse attempting to perform this work, constructing happiness in a politically useful way and presenting that definition as natural and inevitable. Individual happiness and the collective good administered politically thereby merge into a single conception, albeit one that is always contested and is ever-shifting, no matter how much it insists it is objective and transcendent and eternally true. To gloss White, not only is the picture on the puzzle indeterminable until you start to work at putting it together, but the pieces themselves are always shifting, as is the logic of the rules for solving the puzzle.


In short, happiness may be what L&M (not the cigarette) call “nodal points,” semi-fixed notions in the field of relations that seem universal and transcendent but are actually up for grabs. Despite their tendency to shift, we still rely on them to orient ourselves in construing our own goals and in conceiving how to relate to peers and how to structure who the enemies are.


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