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by Zane Austin Grant

6 Jul 2009

At some point in most long-term romantic relationships, couples fall upon the unfortunate question game of ‘would you still love me if…?’  They ask each other questions like:  Would you still love me if I were horribly disfigured in an accident?  Or, would you still love me if I changed my sex?  Only the most faithful of comics couples think to ask, “Would you still love me if I fell into a swamp during a fire, died, and was then regenerated by ‘plant consciousness’, retaining my old memories but identifying more with the plant kingdom than animals? Oh, and instead of flesh, my skeleton would be covered with moss and ferns and swamp stuff?”

Though the possibility of this transformation seems many worlds away, somehow readers of Swamp Thing suspend disbelief.  In addition to buying into this narrative of a man reborn as a plant, we began to agree that such a swamp thing would have a semi-traditional courtship with a human.  Of course, to just let that relationship run its course without the meddling of traditional authorities would be too unrealistic.  The year 1986 just wasn’t ready for a sentient plant and human romance, and in issues #47-53 Abby Holland’s relationship with Swamp Thing was put on trial as a “crime against nature”, mirroring controversy over the real U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold anti-sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick around the same time. Enraged, Swamp Thing returns the city to a fast-growing wilderness and demands not only Abby’s release, but legal recognition of their relationship.  Some city-dwellers revel in the bounty of the new jungle city, but the state wants to reassert its authority. 

Falling in love with someone who is deemed unfit by society to be your partner has been a common literary theme since time immemorial.  From Shakespeare to Stendhal, it’s a trope in which we love to engage.  The addition of modernity versus nature, or the city versus wilderness, gives rise to a much appreciated King Kong grandeur in the Swamp Thing saga.  The combination of Swamp Thing’s love for Abby and his mixed feelings about humans are manifested in the scale of his transformation of the city.  This panel, from Alan Moore and John Totleben’s Swamp Thing #53 shows the city’s transformation and the growth of the kindly monster’s hubris.

by PopMatters Staff

6 Jul 2009

PopMatters and Lala are happy to present this tribute playlist of some of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, spanning his life in music from his earliest hits with the Jackson 5 to his final studio album.  They’re songs everyone knows, a testament to their enduring power of Jackson’s impact on popular culture.  And thanks to our friends at Lala, PopMatters is providing the playlist for free to all readers who sign up with a new Lala account by clicking the “Get this playlist - FREE” button on the player below.

Plus, if you sign up with Lala through the player between July 6th and July 12th, you’ll be automatically entered into a drawing to win the Grand Prize: the ultimate Michael Jackson discography on MP3!  That’s each of Jackson’s studio albums, plus compilations, his early work with the Jackson 5, and assorted singles—just for signing up for a free account on Lala.

How Lala Works:
Signing up for Lala is akin to signing up MySpace or Facebook - it’s free and no credit card is required. Simply click the “Get this playlist - FREE” button on the PopMatters Michael Jackson Tribute Playlist above and you’ll automatically receive all of the songs to start your Lala collection. With sign up, you also get 25 songs of your choice from Lala’s collection of over 7 million songs.

Lala enables you to build a web music collection—you can take your music and fuse it with a massive licensed catalog to easily play, buy, and share on the web from any location. You can also add all the music you already have (MP3s, ripped albums, tracks bought on iTunes, etc.) to your collection on Lala.

If you’re at home, work, a friend’s house, where ever… your music collection is there too, all easy to access in a browser.

Once you have signed up, you can stream any song in the Lala catalog, again a whopping 7 million tracks, one time, including all of the albums and songs that appear in Lala player widgets on PopMatters.

What happens after the first full play of a song? Lala is a store that sells MP3 downloads and streams, which they’ve dubbed “web songs.” You can pay $0.10 for the web song and stream it an unlimited number of times from any computer, and an additional $0.79 to buy a downloadable MP3 without DRM protection. MP3s on Lala are typically $0.89 each. Any MP3 you buy on Lala is bundled with the “web song,” which is added to your Lala collection for unlimited streaming.

You can add web songs to your Lala collection from PopMatters by clicking the “add” button, visible by scrolling over the song in the Lala player. Once you add a song to your collection, you can stream it anytime on Lala or whenever you see it on a Lala player. As noted, to start you out, the first 25 web songs are free!

Check out the Lala FAQ for details.

So get started with the free PopMatters Michael Jackson Tribute Playlist!  Sign up with Lala to receive the entire playlist for free be entered to win the ultimate Michael Jackson discography in MP3, courtesy of Lala and PopMatters.

by Bill Gibron

5 Jul 2009

There are literally dozens of fanboy feuds in the realm of MST3K, fights as futile as Joel vs. Mike, Sci-Fi vs. Comedy Central, Crow T. Robot Mach 1 vs. Crow 2.0 - heck, even Rifftrax vs. Cinematic Titanic gets the cowtown puppet show geek juices flowing. Yet the one subject that seems almost lost in the entire compare and contrast dynamic is the participation of one Josh “Elvis” Weinstein. Perhaps it’s because he was gone before the series went mainstream - meaning he was around for the KTMA and Comedy Channel years, but left before the rest of the media made the show into a cult phenomenon. As a participant in the founding days of what remains one of the funniest things ever to grace an analog television screen, he seems misguidedly ill-considered. Of course, new fans haven’t had much of a chance to monitor Weinstein’s skills…until now.

That’s right - as part of their continuing desire to bring as much Mystery Science Theater 3000 to the digital age as possible, Shout! Factory is releasing Volume XV of their bravura box sets. This time around we are treated to surefire classics like The Girl in Lovers Lane (two drifters land in a small town and stir up some powerful hormones), Zombie Nightmare (voodoo and body building meet the living dead) and the immortal Racket Girls (spinsters put on unflattering togs and grapple like your grandma). Also included is one of the best episodes from the first season of the series - The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy. As Mexican macabre goes, it’s all flashbacks and K. Gordon Murray mandated exposition. But as an example of what Weinstein contributed to the mix, it’s eye-opening, especially when you toss in the Scrapbook bonus features which trace the show’s seminal UHF roots.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the original parameters of MST have been available on DVD. Rhino released a volume (#9) which offered up episode 104 - Women of the Prehistoric Planet, and last time around, Volume XIV presented the oddball offering Mad Monster (episode 103). But with Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy, we get one of the greatest between-movie skit selections ever - the arrival of the menacing (and poorly house trained) demon dogs. Riffing on everything from Land of the Lost (the main “intelligent” pup is known as Enoch) and Star Trek (the cosmic cur suggests a toast of “Tranya” as a symbol of friendship) there is a whole Alien/Aliens vibe going on which transcends the trip into easy toilet humor (remember, these bow-wows have squirrel like space bladders).

As for the movie - well, that’s another story entirely. It seems that whatever original director Rafael Portillo was trying to accomplish with all the slipshod science and ersatz folklore in this scary movie, the Americanization of such falderal created an even more incomprehensible mess. What many fans don’t realize is that this particular goofiness was actually part of an ongoing series featuring the title terror, the villain known as The Bat, and the attempts by both to thwart the good people of Mexico. Perhaps that’s why this material is so reliant on flashback and explanations. Instead of action, we get inert explanations of things that happened so many years ago that the characters should have heard of them by now. By the time we’ve reached the 60 minute mark, we are still waiting for the automaton part of the mix to make its appearance. It’s not worth it.

As for the remaining features, Girl provides the kind of Joel-based cracks that made his eventual retirement (three episodes later, with Mitchell) all the more meaningful. He is excellent here, leading compatriots Trace Beaulieu (Crow) and Kevin Murphy (Servo) through a plethora of exquisite gags, including takes on actors Brett Halsey, Joyce Meadows, and, best of all, Jack Elam (“what is that ODOR???”). The skits are sensational as well, especially the cracking train ditty “What a Pleasant Journey”. It matches perfectly with the maudlin melodrama of the film, a potboiler filled with homoerotic ridiculousness, rampant brotheling, and enough pie-eyed puppy love to give those notorious demon dogs a run for their interstellar kibble. Between the fey father figure who immediately warms to the concept of vigilante justice and the bare-assed babe casting entendres from a sitting room bathtub (?), there’s enough strange surreality to keep the rather limp premise at bay.


Similarly, Zombie Nightmare lingers long in the memory for reasons that have very little to do with the faux frights onscreen. The actors are so incredibly arch, everyone from nice newcomer Frank Dietz to the media-hardened hilarity of Adam West and rocker Jon Mikl Thor, that it’s hard not to fall into this movie’s misguided machinations. Perhaps more memorable is Shawn Levy - yes, THAT Shawn Levy. The future director of such unbridled dreck as the Pink Panther remake and those two nauseating Nights at the Museum shows why he’s a wholesale hack with his turn as the freewheeling Id-case, Jim. With hair that would make New Jersey mall rats blush and a build that suggests one too many Slim-Jim dinners, he’s anti-sex personified. That he is considered a menace in this movie says something about the script’s overall ineffectualness. As for the MST material - it’s aces, as usual.

But neither of these nuggets can match the matron-on-matron gag reflexing of Racket Girls. Originally entitled Pin Down Girls, we are treated to a proposed inside look at the tumultuous and tantalizing world of female wrestling, highlighting the potential criminal element hiding within. In actuality, the only thing revealed is the spastic anti-athleticism of the thick-thighed models passing as competitors populating Scalli’s gymnasium as jiggle show. And that includes the immortal Peachy Page, whose R. Crumb carriage becomes the main cinematic focus as she tumbles, tousles, and teases the audience with her various “skills”. Mike and the ‘bots have a field day with this dreary dames as doormats exposé, especially when real life wrastlin’ champs Clara Mortensen and Rita Martinez show up to prove that Ms. Page isn’t the only one with limited ‘thespian’ tendencies. 


As for the added content included with these titles, Shout! Factory has gone all out. Both The Aztec Mummy and Girl feature material lifted from the MST Scrapbook (an old compilation of behind the scenes and early KTMA clips). Zombie Nightmare has actual cast members Frank Dietz and Jon Mikl Thor traveling down memory lane in updated - and very funny - interviews. There is also an odd “sneak peek” at something called Hamlet A.D.D. The animated material, featuring Trace, Kevin, and Majel Barrett Roddenberry is quite peculiar…and quite entertaining. Along with a few promos and a collection of MST mini-movie posters, Shout! certainly signals their intentions of keeping their announced commitment to all this amazing in-theater spoofing.

And in the process, here’s hoping that Weinsten gets the recognition he so richly deserves. Granted, Kevin Murphy did make Tom Servo solely his, so much so that any other version of the character seems simplistic and half-hearted. In addition, Frank Conniff’s turn as Beaulieu’s beleaguered sidekick, TV’s Frank, is such a sublime supporting effort that Weinstein’s Erhardt does pale in comparison. But you can’t have comic greatness without a foundation of funny business, and those in the know argue that there was more to this teenage whiz kid that bad glasses and false bravado. J. Elvis is an important part of the MST3K legacy. The more exposure he can get (and Season One definitely deserves it), the sooner fans will see what purists have known for all these years. 

by Bill Gibron

5 Jul 2009

Consider the short film. Actually, consider the concept of the short film first. When people hear the label, they automatically think of a couple of completely different and competing conceits. The main one is the surreal student project where creative dreams and aesthetic leaps are captured on celluloid for all the insular intelligentsia to see - and for the most part, they’re right. Gone are the days when mini-movies actually attempted things like narrative, character, or theme (the other ideal, by the way). Instead, they tend to represent the very fringes of filmic art - visual collages that challenge and chuckle at the very mandates of the medium. That is not to say that such approaches are wrong. Indeed, some of our greatest auteurs (David Lynch, Martin Scorsese) got their start fashioning big, brassy ideas into tiny formats.

But if the recent compilation from Cinemad is any indication, very little has changed in the land of the self-indulgent (and deluded) cinematic short. In 1998, the Xeroxed ‘zine by Mike Plante was dedicated to discovering new and unusual talents in the world of outsider filmmaking. Published intermittently and now found almost exclusively online, this waystation for the experimental and the avant-garde has championed some of the most earnest and unusual talents in the entire field of underground art. Now, with the help of DVD distributor Microcinema, Cinemad celebrates its recent 10th anniversary with an “almanac” - an anthology of titles chosen to represent the best, the brightest, and the most mindboggling of the many filmmakers featured - and it truly is an odd bunch.

Along with an accompanying 60 page booklet covering the individuals represented, Cinemad starts out with the amiable Edge-TV with Animal Charm by Animal Charm. It then moves on to Above Below by Cam Archer, Letters, Notes by Stephanie Barber, Valse Triste by Bruce Conner, Pictures from Dorothy by Kevin Jerome Everson, and The Sun by James Fotopoulos. One of the longest pieces in the collection, the startling Lot 63, Grave C by Sam Green is next, with three efforts by Jake Mahaffy - War (trailer), Wellness (trailer) and Motion Studies #3: Gravity - putting in an appearance. We are then treated to Light is Calling by Bill Morrison, Viscera by Leighton Pierce, and The Time We Killed by Jennifer Reeves before a final triptych from Deborah Stratman - How Among the Frozen Words, It Will Die Out in the Mind and The Magician’s House.

As stated before, the term “film” should be used loosely - or perhaps only literally - when dealing with these often frustrating fragments. Granted, they are all the product of some very powerful and strong-willed individuals, creators with clear visions of what they think they are doing and how it comes across visually. Sadly, only a few offerings here make a real lasting impression. Letters, Notes offers nothing more than a series of sentences animated over the top of some iconic images. But Stephanie Barber’s approach provides the kind of depth and determination that other entries here lack. Similarly, Jake Mahaffy gets three chances to shine, but only War manages to maintain our interest. In fact, Motion Studies #3 is an example of gallows’ humor so obvious it seems almost juvenile. The same could be said for the shock value silliness of Edge-TV.

In fact, almost every wannabe cineaste here could take a lesson from Sam Green. His memorable and moving Lot 63, Grave C takes a well known subject (the death of Meredith Hunter at the Rolling Stone’s Altamonte Free Concert in 1969) and mixes in some investigative journalism and filmed flashback perspective (from the seminal documentary Gimme Shelter) to try and locate where the man is now buried. Though it skips over much of the behind the scenes seriousness of what happened that fateful December night - Hunter did brandish a gun before being stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels - there is a poignancy to following the fate of one of history’s many cultural footnotes. This makes Lot hard to shake. Indeed, by the end of the 10 minute exposé, we are convinced that the Maysles should contact Green about companion piece status to their own amazing movie.

It’s just too bad then that few of the remaining films leave a similar impact. Many, like The Time We Killed are thwarted by a simple creative choice (a nearly whispered voice-over narration) or a failed concept (Bill Morrison’s failed Decasia redux Light is Calling). Others, like Viscera, struggle to get their message across due to an oblique, almost insular perspective. The overlapping of images and editing styles may seem like a solid way of illustrating your optical ideas, but not every cut and paste production yields some manner of universal truth. More times than not, art is like beauty - totally in the eye of the beholder and wholly reliant on some decent lighting.  No one is questioning the talent of the individuals celebrated by Cinemad. Perhaps this is a case where the ability can’t find its way into reality, or visa versa.

Frankly, the enclosed booklet is far more fascinating. Given an opportunity to speak, these filmmakers find ways of coalescing their thoughts in intelligent and insightful ways. They don’t doddle over shot selections or budgetary constraints. They frequently uncover ways of working out the issues seemingly lost in their films. Of course, there are the occasional glimpses of outright arrogance, examples of ambition far outweighing a sense of skill set proportion. Yet even in the most annoying cases, some clear information comes across. For everyone involved in Cinemad - both behind the scenes and in the actual pages of the publication - movies are a labor of love. They represent dreams deferred and sometimes realized, an entire lifetime filtered into a single roll of film stock.

As a result, Microcinema should be praised for picking such an obscure and profoundly idiosyncratic subject to commemorate. There are literally dozens of short film compilations floating around the DVD format and this one contains some of the most difficult and dense material of the lot - and maybe that’s the point. After all, all art is not freely recognized in its era. Sometimes, it takes preservation, and a latter reconsideration, before someone’s work manifests into an iconic tableau of talent. Anyone looking for material far outside the mainstream knows that Cinemad is a tag to trust. Others will need to come at this compendium with the requisite amount of skepticism. Being alternative and underground doesn’t automatically make you cool. For all its ambitions, this Almanac is rather inconsistent - just like most so-called examples of art.

by Rob Horning

4 Jul 2009

I’m all in favor of championing meaningful work over bureaucratic paper-pushing or assembly-line tedium, but nonetheless, I was a little skeptical of Matthew Crawford’s thesis in this New York Times magazine essay, adapted from his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft. (A more philosophical version of the essay’s ideas is here.) He certainly has a point in detailing how mechanics are presumed to be less intelligent than office workers and information workers, but he tends to err on the other side of the equation, painting those who don’t work with their hands as deracinated half men. In championing “real” work as tinkering with tools and fixing engines and rewiring houses and that sort of thing, Crawford seems to have in the back of his mind the supposed threat of boys being neutered and pussified by modern education techniques—namely they are being medicated so that they won’t be aggressive and so that their rambunctious curiosity is stifled:

There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.”

That sounds very reminiscent of this sort of thing: “Consider, for example, the fact that we still expect our six- to-eleven-year-old sons to sit for hours at a stretch, reading and writing, at a time in their lives when adventure calls.” Of course, girls can be expected to sit around a school; after all they need to get used to sitting around at home waiting for their men. But boys are special. Crawford tries to be a bit more gender neutral than that, but you can’t help but feel that he’s motivated by a sense that masculinity is bound up with a certain sort of tactile manipulation of the world. Those without handymen skills are hardly men at all; they are at the mercy of the social order and economic division of labor instead of being rugged individualists.

Crawford is a motorcycle mechanic, so you can throw in the gratuitous machismo of revving engines and indulging dangerous pursuits in search of kicks. His economic exchanges then, instead of being suspect and shamefully interlocking him into the system, are saturated with manliness, trading in a testosterone currency:

Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day. Peering into the portal of his helmet, I think I can make out the edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn’t ridden his bike in a while. I give him a wave. With one of his hands on the throttle and the other on the clutch, I know he can’t wave back. But I can hear his salute in the exuberant “bwaaAAAAP!” of a crisp throttle, gratuitously revved. That sound pleases me, as I know it does him. It’s a ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it is “Yeah!”

Fuck yeah! Woo-hoo. One bro helping another bro out, just how the world should be. None of that impersonal faceless corporate world or the cash nexus for him.

As is the case with many independent mechanics, my business is based entirely on word of mouth. I sometimes barter services with machinists and metal fabricators. This has a very different feel than transactions with money; it situates me in a community.

That repairmen and such are undercompensated compared with bankers goes without saying, but in many respects this is because of what Crawford points out—those jobs can’t be outsourced, so they are paid in security; and those jobs are absorbing and immediately rewarding (you get to see what your work has wrought), so they are paid in satisfaction and integrity. They are motivated to work for reasons other than money, and thus by the inexorable logic of capitalism, they are underpaid.

Crawford rhapsodizes how the real men who do real work draw not on institutional information but informal networks of semi-arcane lore, sometimes resorted to brute trial and error or a mystified sort of intuition that comes from long practice.

The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.

Yes, it is thinking, but must he call it real thinking? Real thinking takes place outside of machine shops too. But he tends to be suspicious of any job where knowledge production or dissemination is the purpose, and regards jobs that require coordination as inherently stultifying. Crawford declares, “There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well”—hoping to put a rhetorical stake in the heart of middle managers everywhere. If only everyone would stop being so insistent on the rules and started generating ad hoc procedures as they went along, then everyone would feel so much more creative and fulfilled. We all would be allowed to reinvent the wheel.

But Crawford’s point about the middle manager’s moral maze is right on:

A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.

That’s a good explanation of weasly corporate-speak, which is not the product of ignorance but instead of the need for plausible deniability. But that also means that they are thinking on their feet, albeit verbally. Crawford assumes there can be no satisfaction in this, that it is automatically born of desperation and squirming. That is the same mistake as assuming that the dirty work of mechanics is stupid.

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