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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008


It’s River Phoenix all over again. Don’t recognize the name? No need to worry. He’s definitely related to Joaquin (look it up). Many in the current pop culture demo were teething when the unlikely Hollywood hunk, a combination of staggering talent and blond boy good looks was found dead from a drug induced heart attack. It was 1993. Phoenix was only 23. And now he has a slightly older companion with a similar star power spiral in the late Heath Ledger. When the tab-net tragedy went wildfire on 21 January, the assumption divvied into two distinct camps - pissed it away and impossible to believe. As the pundits began the piling on, and the speculation went seismic, other questions came up. Not surprisingly, very few have easy, understandable answers.


Here’s what we do know - Heath Ledger, a rising A-list member of the Tinsel Town elite, accidental gay cowboy extraordinaire and Australian son, was found dead in a New York apartment sometime on Tuesday afternoon. He left behind a daughter (with ex-partner - and co-star of Brokeback Mountain - Michelle Williams) and a devastated core of family and friends. He had just begun work on the Terry Gilliam fantasy The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, leaving the state of that project (and its seemingly cursed director) in temporary limbo. More importantly, he had beaten out several big name actors to be Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Joker in said filmmaker’s continued reimagining of the Batman character. The Dark Knight, as the summer spectacle is called, was already one of 2008’s most anticipated films. Now, its name is nuclear. 


And it’s just starting. The concern over the need for Ledger’s participation in post-production on said film drove Harry Knowles and the gang over at Ain’t It Cool News to go a little pre grave digging and contact the studio. Nerd nation was assured that the actor had completed his commitment to the project. The clown face was 100%. It was part of the deal to do the Gilliam movie. So the Caped Crusader saga remains intact. It will also probably be the last time Ledger is seen on the big screen. His turn as the early ‘70s Bob Dylan archetype in Todd Haynes I’m Not There and as a drug casualty in Candy now stand as his last stints as a serious dramatic type. While his super hero villainy promises to be terrifying (the trailer hints at delightfully twisted horrors), it’s the more streamlined leading man form that audiences will remember.


Ledger began acting the year before Phoenix’s senseless self-destruction. He had a small part in the Aussie film Clowning Around, as well as more unusual Downunder efforts like Blackrock. He came to our shores to co-star in 10 Things I Hate About You, and found some fleeting small screen fame in the Shaun Cassidy created sword and sandal series Roar. Yet it was working alongside another of Australia’s favored sons, Mel Gibson, that brought Ledger to the big time. With the one-two punch of revolutionary war actioner The Patriot, and the modern rock meets medieval jousting of A Knight’s Tale, he finally arrived. From then on, his choices seemed random, and in a couple of cases, very brave.


He was one of the Brothers Grimm in the Gilliam flop for Miramax. He was Billy Bob Thorton’s embittered son in Monster’s Ball. Between the period piece pomp of Four Feathers and Casanova, to the lesser outings in genre jokes like The Order, he seemed like a star being poised and prepped for a massive mainstream breakout. That came with his turn as tortured Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. He earned one of the film’s two male acting honors (he was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy) and saw his status rise. Where once he appeared unlikely to be a popcorn hero, he did look ready to balance both aspects of his craft with occasionally bouts with box office clout.


It was a path followed rather closely by Phoenix. He too was a young man playing in an aggressive adult’s world, a critically acclaimed effigy that seemed to suggest great things over a long, successful time. Sure, there also were undercurrents of trouble and tragedy, a soul too old for the teenage body of a boy to contain, but in the dead-eyed ‘80s where everyone was coked and cooked from greed and gumption, such a dark side was dead sexy. Phoenix took the first part of that flimsy phraseology to heart, even after landing one of the most important parts of his young career - the original young Indiana Jones in Last Crusade. Of course, he rejected the recognition and crawled back into his Indie skin, leaving behind remarkable performances in My Own Private Idaho and Dogfight.


There is a difference, however. Phoenix’s appetite for destruction - and drugs - was all too deliberate, that stereotyped cry for help from someone who many felt was beyond the basic psychological needs of the common man. From all initial reports, Ledger’s pharmaceutical finale may have been accidental, spur of the moment, or just plain inconsequential. While his closest relatives regale the media, and anyone else willing to sacrifice etiquette and listen, with tales of his giving spirit, easy going nature and love for his two year old, the celebrity chumsuckers are already smelling buckets of ratings blood. They’re circling the story, and its 24 news cycle ocean, ready to pick apart the bones of any snippet of sensationalism with their own brand of self-serving guesswork.


Was an Olson twin involved? Maybe, and then a definite ‘No’. Did the recent break-up with Williams (and resulting party animalism) plant a suicidal seed, or did he simply mix too many sleeping pills with a case of exhaustion, pneumonia and/or some other fatalistic catalyst? Who saw him last? Who has insight into what he was thinking before, during, and after the act? Sign them up, champion their appearance and indirect information, and let the ethically inert yakking begin. As the Gilliam camp regroups, as Nolan eventually releases a statement in support and suffering for his lost collaborator, as mothers weep, fangals gawk and fanboys fidget (no Joker in Part 3, huh?), the tragedy of a human life lost will be swept up in yet another wave of that grand old Day of the Locust legend of young prominence poisoned and fading into myth.


You’ll hear the names of other Hall of Flame-Out members mentioned, nods to everyone from James Dean to Kurt Cobain. Even when his death is ruled something other than a purposeful attack on everything he achieved, his acting skill and the resulting acclaim will play Devil’s advocate to the continuing disbelief. Poems will attempt to explain his allure, songs will be sung trying to make sense of potential snuffed out, the standard siren’s lament to all fallen figureheads. While it may sound resoundingly callous, we’ll get over this death. We’ll mourn the fallen, place him in perspective, line up for Dark Knight come July, and indulge in the months of unfathomable pre-release publicity. It will all be so careful, so cautious, so…cash flowing.


Ironically enough, the tagline for Nolan’s blockbuster in the making is a snide little comment from Ledger’s Joker - “Why So Serious?” The answer, sadly, is succinct. It’s because you left us too soon, Heath. We thought we knew you, and now we never will. You leave behind a body of work for future generations to judge. They’ll have the much better perspective. For now, we’ll have to suffer the whirlwind of conjecture and gossip. It will be funny sad, Mr. Joker, not funny ha-ha. No one feels much like laughing now, and you really can’t blame them. After all, 15 years ago we went through something very similar to this. It was, like this, horrible and unexplainable. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much a guarantee we’ll go through it again sometime in the future.


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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008

While 2007 was a busy year for new graphic novelists and cartoon artists of all kinds, particularly now that they’re getting some long overdue respect, one of the real treats for the genre came late in the year when W.W. Norton (in their infinite wisdom) re-released a pleasingly hefty pile of books by the late, great Will Eisner. As in father of the graphic novel, as in the churning vortex of industrious creativity during the bastard art form’s early formative years, as in mentor and inspiration to a generation of artists from Michael Chabon to Frank Miller, as in the reason that the greatest creative award in graphic novels and comics is named the Eisner Award. Yes, that Will Eisner.


Norton secured the rights to the Eisner back in 2004 (he passed away in 2005) and have been steadily releasing nicely presented trade paperback and hardcover editions since then. The trilogy that made up A Contract with God came out in 2005, while a quarter of Gotham-centric titles were bundled into the hefty Will Eisner’s New York a year later. Those four titles—City People Notebook, New York the Big City, Invisible People, and The Building; all originally published between the early-1980s and early-1990s—were then released last December as individual paperbacks.


As groundbreaking as Eisner was in pushing the idea that comics could be not just serious but also art, in a sense, there remains an overwhelming sense of the past around his work, even the material drawn only a couple decades ago. The rubbery-faced goons who galumph through these books, all exaggerated features and shabby clothes, seem at first like caricatures out of some Depression-era vaudeville. Eisner’s faces are rarely just there, instead registering Dickensian pathos or Broadway musical-style joy, without a lot of shading in between. The style is right out there and populist in the great early-to-mid 20th century style, located visually somewhere between Mad and Playboy. These stories of love and loss in the great big city of New York range from the two-page character vignettes of New York the Big City (all true then as they are now and fifty years hence) to the fairy-tale tragedy of The Building, many of them moral fables anchored around a particularly concrete piece of real estate, whether it’s a subway grate or office building.


Being the fantasist at heart, these books seem almost a truer expression of Eisner’s heart than the three weighty “autobiographical stories” bundled together in Life in Pictures (also released late in 2007 and reviewed in full by PopMatters’ Erik Hinton here). Although the trilogy—To the Heart of the Storm, The Name of the Game, and The Dreamer—contain a number of sharply drawn portraits that limn the corners of the Jewish-American experience, whether in high society or a comics sweatshop, they seem more forced and less organic than the self-contained fables of the New York novels. Some things just beg to be made up.


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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008

Several people in the particular corner of the blogosphere that I frequent have linked to this transcript of a conversation n+1 had with a hedge fund manager. The very existence of this piece is encouraging, because it suggests that the sort of people who are likely to complain vociferously about capitalism are now actually taking a specific interest in the workings of capitalism. (I regard myself as one of those people, and for a long time I was content to complain about corporations without troubling to familiarize myself with a newspaper business page.) But what I found most interesting was this passage:


if you had a pool of half a billion dollars of mortgages, maybe there would be 300 million dollars of triple A paper you would sell to fund that, and then there would be smaller tranches of more junior paper. And the buyers of that paper, particularly the very senior paper, the triple-A paper, were not experts, they’re not mortgage experts, they say, “It’s triple-A? I’ll buy it.” This is money market funds, accounts that are not set up to do hardcore analysis, they tend to just rely on the rating agencies. And again the spread that they’re getting paid is very small, so they don’t really have a lot of spread to play with to hire a lot of analysts to go and dig in the mortgage pools and really understand them, they kind of rely on the rating agencies, and that’s their downfall. It’s kind of an interesting interaction in the sense that a lot of this mortgage project was almost created by the bid for the CDO paper rather than the reverse. I mean, the traditional way to think about financing is “OK, I find an investment opportunity, that on its face, I think, is a good opportunity. I want to deploy capital on that opportunity. Now I go look for funding. So I think that making mortgage loans is a good investment, so I will make mortgage loans. Then I will seek to fund those, to fund that activity, by perhaps issuing CDO paper, issuing the triple-A, double-A, A, and down the chain.” But what happened is, you had the creation of so many vehicles designed to buy that paper, the triple-A, the double-A, all the CDO paper… that the dynamic flipped around. It was almost as if the demand for that paper created the mortgages.


The argument you heard while subprime mortgages were booming was that it represented this great democratization of credit, tapping pent-up demand among the lower classes who had been unfairly denied credit for so long. Never mind all the advertising the mortgage industry took out; that demand was there and latent, it was argued. But as the hedge-fund manager explains here, there were huge incentives for highly leveraged financial players to create demand—they needed something upon which to extend their derivatives business. Knowing how profitable the derivatives would be, they managed to devise a way to let them come into being before the instruments they would be derived from. And this was accomplished mainly by separating competent understand of risk from the investors who were pouring in the money by way of ratings agencies inappropriately certifying the structured vehicles (and collecting their fees). Another thing to remember when you hear that the credit crisis was the fault of the borrowers getting in over their heads.


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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008


On 22 January, the Nominees for the 80th Annual Academy Awards® were announced. In preparation for 23 January’s op-ed piece, here is a list of those chosen for recognition on 24 February:


Best Motion Picture of the Year
Atonement (Focus Features) A Working Title Production: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, Producers
Juno (Fox Searchlight) A Dancing Elk Pictures, LLC Production: Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick and Russell Smith, Producers
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.) A Clayton Productions, LLC Production: Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox and Kerry Orent, Producers
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Production: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax) A JoAnne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company Production: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Lupi, Producers


Performance By an Actor in a Leading Role
George Clooney in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax)
Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah (Warner Independent)
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (Focus Features)


Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros.)
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War (Universal)
Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment)
Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)


Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Universal)
Julie Christie in Away from Her (Lionsgate)
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (Picturehouse)
Laura Linney in The Savages (Fox Searchlight)
Ellen Page in Juno (Fox Searchlight)


Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There (The Weinstein Company)
Ruby Dee in American Gangster (Universal)
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement (Focus Features)
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone (Miramax)
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)


Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
Persepolis (Sony Pictures Classics): Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Ratatouille (Walt Disney): Brad Bird
Surf’s Up (Sony Pictures Releasing): Ash Brannon and Chris Buck


Achievement in Directing
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Julian Schnabel
Juno (Fox Searchlight), Jason Reitman
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.), Tony Gilroy
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Paul Thomas Anderson


Achievement in Cinematography
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros.): Roger Deakins
Atonement (Focus Features): Seamus McGarvey
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Janusz Kaminski
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Roger Deakins
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Robert Elswit


Best Documentary Feature
No End in Sight (Magnolia Pictures) A Representational Pictures Production: Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (The Documentary Group) A Documentary Group Production: Richard E. Robbins
SiCKO (Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company) A Dog Eat Dog Films Production: Michael Moore and Meghan O’Hara
Taxi to the Dark Side (THINKFilm) An X-Ray Production: Alex Gibney and Eva Orner
War/Dance (THINKFilm) A Shine Global and Fine Films Production: Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine


Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Beaufort Israel
The Counterfeiters Austria
Katyn Poland
Mongol Kazakhstan
12 Russia


Achievement in Visual Effects
The Golden Compass (New Line in association with Ingenious Film Partners): Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris and Trevor Wood
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Walt Disney): John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and John Frazier
Transformers (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Russell Earl and John Frazier


Best Adapted Screenplay
Atonement (Focus Features), Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
Away from Her (Lionsgate), Written by Sarah Polley
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson


Best Original Screenplay
Juno (Fox Searchlight), Written by Diablo Cody
Lars and the Real Girl (MGM), Written by Nancy Oliver
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.), Written by Tony Gilroy
Ratatouille (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Brad Bird; Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird
The Savages (Fox Searchlight), Written by Tamara Jenkins


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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008

I’m thinking of a Clive Barker line ... let me find the exact quote. “Every body is a book of blood. Wherever we’re opened, we’re red.” The one below is Oscar Wilde’s “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future” from A Woman of No Importance.


Isn’t this just the best? It’s nicked from a LiveJournal blog I’ve steadily become addicted to over the past few months called Bookworms with Ink. The site invites readers to post photographs of their literary tattoos. Scrounge around a bit and you’ll find dedications to everyone Tolkien to Woody Allen to Vonnegut to Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s such a thrill to see certain words and pictures brought to life through tattoos. The site is moderated by LiveJournal user “Oh You Trendy Girl”, and has been up and running since early 2006. A museum of literary skin art—it’s an absolute treasure.


Check out this latest post from Tetaelzbieta:
“I’ve got almost enough money for my first tattoo, and the three things I love enough to put on my body are The Lord of the Rings, Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safan Foer and East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I’m either getting Tolkien’s initials or the white tree of Gondor (in black ink) on my left wrist. I think I’m going to go with the word “timshel” on my right wrist for EoE, and I haven’t decided on the EII tattoo yet. Anyone have any Tolkien, JSF or Steinbeck tattoos? From any of their works, I’d love to see them! I’d also love some recommendations for fonts for the EoE tat. What types of fonts look best, etc. Thank you thank you!”


The enthusiasm! It’s infectious. Read just a selection of the daily chatterings here and you’ll spend the rest of the day plotting your lit-tat. Some of those on the site are divine; others, I’m not so sure about. It’s all very much to-each-his-own, and that’s very much the point. Of tattoos in general. It’s all about you, isn’t it? What’s meaningful to you, what generates your desired thoughts and reminiscences. It makes sense, then, that as important as a Vonnegut quote might be to me, a Tolkien quote is to Tetaelzbieta. It’s interesting, too, to note just how many of these literary tattoos are of images from children’s books, suggesting their importance to the tattoo-ees has been lifelong. One of my favourite literary tattoos is the work of my very own tattoo artist, Squirrel from Tattoo Nation in Echuca VIC. He won a National Best Back Award for this:


Today I’m loving this “Hip to be Square” quote from American Psycho:


How affecting, though, must these varied works be to these people? There’s a beautiful sleeve on the site, owned by a lady called “Scum Queen”, that features an illustration from Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Scythe”. Now, this is not Peter Pan quote hidden away on the spine. This is a balls-out, massive half-sleeve. The work that’s gone into the thing, from design through to placement and actual inking is mind-blowing. And it’s on this tiny arm. You display that for life, that one story. What an advertisement— there’s got to be something fucking intense in a such a work for someone to want to be reminded of it every single day. I, for one, am going to hunt it down.


Other literary tattoos can be found at HubPages, and there’s a great essay here at The Believer which is worth a read, too, called “A Blank Human Canvas” by Margot Mifflin, author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo.


Unless otherwise noted, all pictures here were lifted from Bookworms with Ink


 


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