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by Bill Gibron

23 Jul 2008

How do you like your comedy - serious (meaning witty without being wanton) or scatological (bring on the feces and the farts!)? Do you prefer your laughter driven by sparkling dialogue, insightful characterization, and tasty interpersonal bon mots, or do you favor giggles glazed over with expletives, bodily fluids, and the fun that can be found in both? It’s a contention that’s as old as the genre itself. For centuries, jesters have lived (and often died) by mocking the rich, ribbing the poor, and playing to both’s baser instincts when the subtler forms of funny didn’t do it. In the movies, it seems the two are often mutually exclusive. After all, no one mistakes The Marx Brothers for the Three Stooges. With the sensationally sophomoric Step Brothers hitting theaters tomorrow (25 July), it’s time to look back on some illustrations of how clever and crude in combination - or C3’s for short - end up being a source of undeniable hilarity. 

While the latest from Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, and newest creative soulmate John C. Reilly is all foul mouthed frat boy toilet trade-offs (and damn funny in the process), it’s really nothing more than an extended series of splatter jobs. There’s no important message, no attempt to find reality in its ridiculousness. Yet there are many actual examples of where the two seemingly divergent styles of comedy have meshed quite effectively. Some would even argue that, when done properly, the clever/crude combo gives rise to another alliterative adjective - classic (anyone for C4?). Below are just a few non-inclusive illustrations of the best of both wit worlds expertly fused together. The only comic continuity present is that both types are offered equally, and balanced to make sure neither completely overwhelms the others. If one or the other is out of whack, they fall back into their home category for easier examination.

And let’s get some debatable punchliners out of the way right up front, shall we? The Producers? Too brilliant to be considered crude, even given the bad taste hippie Hitler subtext. There’s Something About Mary? Jokey juvenilia without a stitch of socially redeeming value. The Blues Brothers? The outsized physical shtick and stunt set pieces override the craven culture steals from the black community. Animal House? Something serious? Come on…it’s college after all. Certainly, one could go out on a limb and champion subversive standard bearers like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, groove on the gore-laced lunacy of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead or Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, or defend the dick driven delights of something like Superbad. But when it comes to the C3’s, the comparison goes beyond good. There must be a visible inclusion of both the dignified and the dumb within final framework. Let’s begin with:

Knocked Up

While many people write off this Judd Apatow masterwork as just another example of his communal comedic approach (same group of actors, different storyline and setting), there is really much more going on here than slackers obsessed with sex. The message of maturity, about facing life’s unexpected events with candor and personal power are unmistakable. Toss in a few priceless takes on marriage and parenting, and a group of computer geeks that give both delineations a bad name, and you’ve got one of the greatest laugh-fests ever. If Mr. Apatow is remembered for nothing else, this stellar reflection of reality circa 2007 will stand as his best.

Blazing Saddles

You can tell Mel Brooks meant to be confrontational when he helmed this racially charged laugh riot. After all, he was working from material co-written by Richard Pryor, and a few of the original titles for this crazy comic western were Black Bart and Tex X. This remains one of the few non-blaxploitation films to drop the “N” word with intense regularity (up to 70 times, almost always exclusively by whites), and even today, it’s depiction of Old West prejudice still stings. Beyond anything PC, this is one terrific satire, a film that competently comments on the civil rights movement while incorporating a campfire sequence filled with air biscuit floating cowboys.

Female Trouble

John Waters always wanted to make a mass murder melodrama, a combination of Douglas Sirk and Charles Manson. Inspired by Helter Skelter participant Tex Watson, he succeeded with this outrageous sudser, the story of Dawn Davenport, her retarded daughter Taffy, and her rags to riches to repugnance career as a ‘crime is beauty’ supermodel. Loaded with the kind of dialogue that bears constant repetition and the sort of over the top plot points that make Peyton Place seem like The Seventh Seal, this bad taste treat only gets better with age. Along with the equally unsettling (but not quite as funny) Pink Flamingos, it proves Waters’ reputation as the genuine Prince of Puke. 

Tootsie

Before you start squawking and defending this brilliant Dustin Hoffman romp as a pure example of serious, straightforward comedy, remember one very important thing. This movie is entirely premised on one of the most hackneyed, lowbrow facets in all of humor - a guy in a dress. Drag has been a staple of the genre since the all male days of the ancient Greeks, and from burlesque to Benny Hill, it’s been viewed as the cheap and easy way to tweak an audience’s funny bone. In this case, all parties involved raise the vaudeville stunt into something sublime. And don’t forget the less than subtle amorous advances of the dirty old man soap star. Now that’s disgusting!

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

Kids spewing profanity. Movies as bad influences. Grassroots campaigns against flatulent Canadians. A useless war fought over stupid USA entitlements. Political hot potatoes tied tenuously to the First Amendment and the right to free speech. These are just a few of the areas creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone mine for this flawless big screen adaptation of their hit animated TV series. Taking on the then simmering subject of the media’s influence on the young (Columbine had just occurred four months prior) the duo drove a massive middle finger directly into the eye of dim-witted pundits and self-proclaimed know-it-alls everywhere. It remains the best miscreant musical of all time.

by Rob Horning

23 Jul 2008

The myriad of choices we have in the consumer marketplace is supposed to make up the bulk of our inheritance for having been born into thriving capitalist democracies. Parsing these options allow us to experience the freedom of choice, which is elided with freedom and liberty in general and is meant to compensate for various inequities in income, social mobility, and political access. But as behavioral economists and various consumer researchers have attempted to demonstrate, a surfeit of choices is as likely to make us miserable as it is to make us happy, and the choices can feel merely like occasions to make mistakes, not reveal personal preferences and give tangible shape to our innermost sense of ourselves. We frequently lack the information to make wise decisions in the marketplace yet are compelled to make them anyway—to express our pseudo-political will, and make manifest our vaunted individuality, of which we are supposed to be so proud. So we are left feeling insecure, vulnerable, beleaguered—paradoxically looking for advice on what to buy to express our uniqueness.

The studies detailed in this Scientific American article make matters appear even worse, as it suggests that having to repeatedly make choices—as our consumer culture prides itself on making us do—leads to degraded “executive function”.

When you focus on a specific task for an extended period of time or choose to eat a salad instead of a piece of cake, you are flexing your executive function muscles. Both thought processes require conscious effort-you have to resist the temptation to let your mind wander or to indulge in the sweet dessert. It turns out, however, that use of executive function—a talent we all rely on throughout the day—draws upon a single resource of limited capacity in the brain. When this resource is exhausted by one activity, our mental capacity may be severely hindered in another, seemingly unrelated activity.

In other words, the bombardment of marketing we are confronted with tires out our brains and makes it more likely we will make poor decisions or lack the wherewithal to resist that marketing. The advertiser’s campaign against us is really a war of attrition.

If making choices depletes executive resources, then “downstream” decisions might be affected adversely when we are forced to choose with a fatigued brain. Indeed, University of Maryland psychologist Anastasiya Pocheptsova and colleagues found exactly this effect: individuals who had to regulate their attention—which requires executive control—made significantly different choices than people who did not. These different choices follow a very specific pattern: they become reliant on more a more simplistic, and often inferior, thought process, and can thus fall prey to perceptual decoys.


This way of viewing the brain suggests we should take a conservationist approach to decision-making, delegating insignificant ones so that we may be sharp for the ones that matter. One might even argue that we could let ads make the unimportant consumption decisions for us, trusting the ubiquity of certain products in the media as a proxy for their worthiness. But then, of course, we would need to decide which decisions to delegate (or make on automatic pilot) and which ones to take ourselves. And that may be the most insidious aspect of all the marketing—it obfuscates the importance of various choices, making silly things seem integral and important decisions seem matter of fact.

by PopMatters Staff

23 Jul 2008

Theresa Andersson
Na Na Na (Empty Heart) [MP3]
     

Birds Fly Away [MP3]
     

Na Na Na (Empty Heart) [Video]

Lykke Li
I’m Good I’m Gone (Metronomy Mix) [MP3]
     

I’m Good I’m Gone (Black Kids Mix) [MP3]
     

Amy Ray
Blame Is a Killer [MP3]
     

Kristoffer Ragnstam
Swing That Tambourine [MP3]
     

Passion Pit
Sleepyhead [MP3] (from Chunk of Change releasing 16 September)
     

Kuroma
Alexander Martin [MP3]
     

by Nikki Tranter

23 Jul 2008

From the New York Times:

Lyall Watson, a maverick scientific polymath and explorer who wrote the best-selling book “Supernature” and introduced the “hundredth monkey” theory to explain the sudden and inexplicable transmission of behavior and ideas across social groups, died on June 25 in Gympie, Australia. He was 69 and lived in West Cork, Ireland.

I’ve only just begun to learn about the enchanted life of Lyall Watson with his unorthodox upbringing, his 100th Monkey theory, and the tapeworm he invited into his body and named Fred. Prior to news of his death, and subsequent fanciful obituaries, all I knew about the author was the incredible volume, Gifts of Unknown Things, which has resided among the “special books” on my desk since high school.

At first, I loved the book for its majestic cover illustration and promise of something grounded and true in the world in the way it describes the flight patterns of male flies among other natural, beguiling things. Since, the book has taught me that the little differences between human cultures are the most interesting, and has introduced me to New Age science and futurism, stuff I don’t strictly follow or even really understand, but am strangely drawn to.

I found Gifts of Unknown Things in a box of library donations. The cover caught my eye, and the first page I flipped to featured these words: “Nobody gets used to people’s coming back from the dead…” How do you pass that up? Everything Lyall Watson describes in his books, he does so with rapt urgency, like he’s looking at the whole world for the very first time.

Better late than never to get the skinny on such a fascinating writer.

by Bill Gibron

22 Jul 2008

It’s time to get out the black wreaths and the ceremonial armbands, especially if, like this critic, you grew up on a steady diet of Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and their exemplary movie review program Sneak Previews/At The Movies. With the duel announcements this week that Richard Roeper (the replacement for the late Chicago Tribune icon) was leaving the show, and that Roger Ebert was done with his participation, Disney finally felled the giant they’d been gunning for since cancer caused the Sun Times scribe to walk away from his on-air participation. It’s no secret that the House of Mouse wanted the series gone - or at the very least, significantly cut back, reconfigured for a new demographic, and bolstered by a bigger piece of the potential pie (Ebert maintains the symbolic “Thumbs”, At the Movies greatest inadvertent asset). Now they’ve got their wish, much to the dismay and detriment of the serious filmgoer fanbase.

While the pro/con summarization of cinema clearly goes against the intellectual approach to film (movies are much more than a recommendation or rejection), the format created by the legendary Midwest columnists would come to symbolize the video age vitality of the medium. With more and more access to movies - thanks in part to technological advances like cable and VCRs - there needed to be a standard bearer for the post-modern motion picture storm. Enter Gene and Roger, two seasoned salts who braved the bad weather of offering opinions on what many saw as a no win, highly personal proposition. After all, just like music and humor, entertainment evaluation can never be communal or completely universal. Still, they tried, and in the interim, they created consensus, addressed issues threatening the artform (colorization, rampant and gratuitous violence) and even stepped in it now and again.

With Siskel’s passing in 1999, many felt the show would simply fade away and die. Ebert tired diligently to maintain the profile, and after a series of guest hosts and high profile ‘auditions’, he settled on Mr. Roeper. To many outside of Chi-town, he was an odd choice. While the native was born in the city of big shoulders, his columns (and eventual reviews) were of regional interest, mostly. When he was tagged to replace Siskel in 2000, he met with some initial resistance. Some saw him as too mainstream, preaching the studio press kit while his partner kept the criticism ‘real’. Over the years, Roeper has gained the respect of both the industry and the audience. When Ebert himself took ill in 2002, the relative newbie grabbed the reigns of the again shaken showcase and continued to foster its importance.

And now, it is no more - at least, not in the way we remember it. In some ways, it’s unbelievably sad the way this all happened. A few months back, there was a dispute over whether the show could actually use the infamous hand gesture. Ebert, who maintained the rights to most of the format with Siskel’s widow Marlene, felt slighted by Disney’s lowball figure to re-up their interest, and so the pair prevented At the Movies from giving the thumb. Then, this year, with the improving critic returning to his 41 year long print gig, it looked like the non-renewal writing was on the wall. Roeper’s “retirement” from the show is further illustration that, aside from certain financial considerations, Uncle Walt’s ‘yes’ men were no longer interested in keeping the series alive. Both men issued press releases, taking the high road in what was, for both, an understandably painful professional chapter.

The mangy Magic Kingdom proposes to have the last laugh, however. Just yesterday 22 July, the studio announced a “new” version of At the Movies featuring E!‘s Ben Lyons and Turner Classic Movies’ Ben Mankiewicz. While they hope the fresh faces will bring in a “younger, hipper” audience, the 26 and 41 years olds, respectively, have little else to offer. Both are considered seasoned professionals, and yet they lack the background, and more importantly, the perceived authority of Roger and Gene. Remember, Sneak Previews was a PBS program specific to the Chicago area before hitting syndication. And both critics were well into their time stint as print critics. Lyons is just a few years into his current career path, while Mankiewicz can rely on his illustrious heritage (related to Frank, Herman, and Joseph L.) to buy him some early respect.

One wonders how the reduced viewership who made the show a must-watch requirement before hitting the Cineplex feel about both moves. Ten or fifteen years ago, yours truly would have been devastated. Even though he frequently had to fish about to discover what elusive cable station was syndicating the show (and when), Siskel and Ebert were an essential aesthetic guide. Sure, they could be incredibly wrong (Gene adored Saturday Night Fever, while ‘Uncle’ Roger continues to hate on the brilliant Blue Velvet), but more times than not, they tempered their judgment with insights that smacked of that critical rarity - perspective and insight. Rare was their’s a declarative or assertive opinion. They always provided analysis with their sometimes snap judgments. Siskel championed polished and professional scripts, while Ebert longed for directors capable of commandeering the various nuances of cinema.

Yet as with all film journalism, the duo appear destined to be boiled down to a rather superfluous set of symbols. As with numerical ratings or alphabetical/iconographic scores, the thumbs were a concession, a way of giving the casual filmgoer a shorthand commercial calibration. If Siskel and Ebert gave a movie “two thumbs up”, it was probably very good. If they declared the opposite, you could easily write it off your list. When they differed, and they did so frequently, an inferred sort of interactivity was necessitated. You had to match up your own idealized view of what movies meant with the men on the screen, and then indirectly gauge accordingly. Many remember the memorable arguments the pair would participate in, each knowing their particular view made the most sense. Over time, bias and age would play a part, but for many, it was all about those up/down digits.

With Internet illiteracy slowly corroding the world of legitimate publishing (and the accompanying professionalism of actual writers), it’s sad to realize that the ‘yes/no’ dynamic has become At the Movies’ lasting legacy. As stated before, no website which offers reviews does so without such shortcuts. Rotten Tomatoes has the whole “fresh/rotten” routine, while others provide stars, popcorn kernels, or film reels as a means of giving you the gist of the scribe’s ideas. Turning 600 to 1000 words into a series of cartoon clapboards may feed the masses, but it’s also a lazy man’s means of understanding cinema - and if there was one thing Siskel and Ebert (and eventually Roeper) were not, it’s indolent. They took their job seriously, even when it looked like VHS (and then DVD) would reduce all cinema to a series of direct to tape travesties.

Business models are entitled to treat inventory in the most effective way possible, capitalizing on its worth while making sure it doesn’t depreciate enough to warrant a sell-off. In the case of Disney and At the Movies, they clearly believed in two indisputable facts - Ebert was the show and Ebert wasn’t coming back. For all his syndicated steadiness, Roeper never felt irreplaceable. He was a place holder - albeit a damn fine one - for some ethereal pairing that could never occur. No one could replace the show’s curmudgeonly conscious (which Siskel clearly was), and Ebert’s importance to the mediums he helped maintain meant that his continued departure invalidated the show’s worth. No offense to anyone involved, but the At the Movies of 2008 - excellent guest hosts and repeat reviewers or not - was not the series of 1978, or 88, or 98.

Naturally, none of that matters now. Both Ebert and Roeper have vowed to soldier on, and with new on air outlets opening up all the time (HD NET, Reelz cable channel) there are soft places for both to land. And Mickey has his revamp, which while already starting to stink, at least seems evocative of the show’s spirit. Whatever happens, film criticism has lost one of its most important links to mainstream meaningfulness. Thanks to the talents and tireless efforts of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Richard Roeper, an otherwise out of touch audience had a reliable source of EPK-less, non-Infotainment Tonight-lite movie information to draw on. Call it the continued tabloiding of TV, or the web’s final revenge on the Fourth Estate, but the absence of At the Movies will definitely be felt. Even in the most inclusive environment, there needs to be a leader. Here’s hoping this is one champion that’s down, but not out. 

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