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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2007


As an idea, it wasn’t very original. Filmmakers had been updating Shakespeare since the Bard’s plays first appeared. Even as far back as their first staged productions, directors and theater companies have been meddling with the Masters’ hollowed words and characters. So when Troma employee James Gunn proposed an updating of the playwright’s classic tale of star crossed lovers, it wasn’t something novel. Heck, West Side Story had done it in the ‘50s, and it was and still is considered a classic. As a notion, turning Romeo and Juliet into a punk rock pierced body part projection of the Manhattan Independent Film Company’s aesthetic, seemed quite normal. Besides, director Lloyd Kaufman relished the idea. Long a proponent of cinema as art, he saw the subject as a perfect realization of all his lofty ambitions.


Over the previous 25 years, Troma had developed a myopic reputation as a gross-out gore enterprise. Thanks to Kaufman, its chief spokesman, president, and guiding creative force, the company had grown from the maker of mindless sex farces (The First Turn On, Squeeze Play) and distributor of genre/horror oriented fare (Mother’s Day) to a recognized industry icon. But with 1985’s The Toxic Avenger, Kaufman created a character that instantly connected with everyone, including outsider audiences. Utilizing the still in its infancy home theater marketplace to widen the fanbase, Troma was soon turning out product with provocative names like The Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Troma’s War, and Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. The formula for each film was strategically similar – find an outrageous situation, pile on the blood and female breasts, and deliver a clever combination of old fashioned exploitation and new fangled VCR fodder.


No one expected the newly minted Tromeo and Juliet to be any different. Though the company had ridden the Avenger‘s coattails (and receipts) through a couple of sequels, and had found financially beneficial homes for a myriad of languishing, unknown films, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had not been the company’s most inventive time. Fans started complaining over recycled content, uninspired approaches, and the lack of any real significant social value. For many, Troma was becoming the Mad Magazine of moviemaking. It was okay to love them as a kid, but once your cinematic adolescence arrived, you’d gladly trade your Toxie treasure for a far more meaningful fright film experience. Besides, VHS was a dying format. Something called DVD was on the horizon. Hoping to hold its marketplace, Gunn’s version of Shakespeare’s seminal story was greenlit.


The result was Independent FILM‘s last hurrah, the final gasp in the pre-digital discussion of celluloid as the saving grace of cinema’s stalwart ideals. The camcorder production had been part of the movie mix since the late ‘80s. There were even individuals like William Wegman who experimented with the medium as far back as the early ‘70s. But film, actual FILM, was still considered the main motion picture pathway. More could be done with lighting and design, and editing was easier than on clumsy, easily creased magnetic tape. But logistics argued for the handheld camera, and its ability to radicalize the realities of a location. No longer were long set ups necessary, complicated even further by technically trained crews. Digital defined the very essence of the practical point and shoot ideal. With a Super VHS in hand, you were your own cinematographer and your own studio.


Inherently, Troma understood this. Porn had replaced film with video, and most of the industry was looking at the viability of the technology. But Kaufman is a kind of convoluted craftsman. Though his films may stink of the frequent fart joke mentality they employ, his philosophy has always centered on the artist, and their art. Raised on the filmic revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he made his mark in movies during the equally tumultuous era of the ‘70s. For him, a VHS would never replace a reel of well-shot film – and he would use Tromeo and Juliet to prove that. Though most of the company’s recent output had been seen as cheap and uninspired, and the Bard viewed as box office poison (this was before Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-stylized rip off, by the way) Gunn’s script was so special that, as long as it was given a proper professional production, something special would result.


As a scribe, James Gunn was untested. Today he is known as the mind behind such blockbuster offerings as Scooby-Doo, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and his own homage to the horror films of the ‘80s, Slither. Yet back then, he was a hungry young film fan desperate to get in on the industry’s ground floor. Tromeo and Juliet would announce his arrival in a truly spectacular way. Setting his story in the crime-ridden streets of a maleficent Manhattan, his warring clans (the Capulets and the Ques) involved in pornography and perversion, Gunn fed directly into the tried and true Troma system. He made sure to add plenty of sex, a few surreal stabs at standard scares (including the first act arrival of a ‘penis monster’) and a healthy dose of boldfaced bloodletting. Yet amongst all the tattoos and East Village eccentricity, scattered among the lesbian scenes and overdone fight sequences, Gunn snuck something into this film that few Troma entries had before – heart.


Indeed, Tromeo and Juliet is a very emotional movie, made even more effective by the work of its incredible cast. In the leads, Will Keenan and Jane Jensen find the perfect balance between satire and seriousness, actually getting us to care about this couple’s future. Even more shocking, Kaufman surrounds the pair with equally adept performers like Debbie Rochon, Sean Gunn, Stephen Blackeheart and Bill Beckwith. Together, they form a company of pseudo Shakespearean proportions, delivering Gunn’s adept dialogue with passion and panache. Even better, the script’s narrative drive finds smart, clever ways of incorporating some of the Bard’s actual lines into the conversations. As a matter of fact, Gunn was so successful in establishing the affection between the lovers that when the original ending was screened (following the classic, the pair commit suicide) test audiences demanded a paramours’ reprieve.


Even more importantly, Tromeo and Juliet argued for the continued viability of film as a means of independent expression. Indeed, the most crucial aspect of outsider cinema is its connection to the hobbled Hollywood hackwork it so desperately battles against. Video, and the current trend toward digital, sets up a clear delineation between itself and celluloid. It purposefully plays on the homemade sense of its construction, supposedly bringing the audience closer to the content. As a result, however, it also distances itself from the medium being mimicked, and this means the message looses a lot of its impact. Film, because of its cinematic synchronicity, argues ideas with images. With it, you don’t have to worry about tape’s obvious disparities. A Troma film and a Tinsel Town title are on equal aesthetic footing.


This is why Tromeo and Juliet represents the Independent film world’s last viable gasp. Sure, Troma continued to use celluloid (Terror Firmer, the soon to be released Poultrygeist) to realize its aims, but there was something far more substantive about what Kaufman created out of Gunn’s inventive ideas than any eventual projects. In combination, they forged a happy medium between the company’s previous perversion and the gravitas of Shakespeare’s subject. While some may scoff at the notion of a company accountable for so many mediocre and misguided movies as the last bastion of good old fashioned art, one viewing of Tromeo and Juliet should appease all concerns. It wasn’t the most original idea ever conceived. The end result, however, is one of Independent film’s brightest moments.


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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2007
Photograph by Dipfan

Photograph by Dipfan


The New York Times routinely opens up a dialogue with the editors of the various sections of the newspaper, its business divisions as well as editorial departments. The Media and Marketing Editor, Bruce Headlam, is taking questions from readers this week.


When asked who the media and technology stories are pitched at, he replied:


I typically imagine two kinds of readers: the inner reader and the outer reader. The inner reader is someone either employed or deeply involved in the media or technology businesses and the outer reader is an interested spectator. When the section works well, we hit the perfect balance between those readers’ interests. If the casual reader isn’t drawn into any of the articles or finds the section too “inside baseball,” then I haven’t done my job.


It’s a job worth doing because — ­ narcissism aside — the media business is pretty interesting right now. Ten years ago, the industry seemed firmly in the control of the men (and they were almost all men) who built mighty conglomerates like Time-Warner and Viacom. Now because of the disruptive power of technologies like the Web, those same companies are nervously trying to figure out how to appeal to the typical 18-year-old who won’t pay to download a 50 Cent CD, won’t watch “The Office” when it airs on Thursday (or might not even watch on TV), and would rather get his news from a blogger than from his local paper.


That transformation has been a punishing one for a lot of businesses — music, television, newspapers and now advertising — and I’d argue that it’s going to have more far-reaching implications well beyond the media business, especially in such areas as medicine and politics.


A couple of weeks ago, Bill Carter quoted Jeff Gaspin, the president of the NBC Universal Television Group, on this subject and his reply is worth reprinting here: ‘‘The shift from programmer to consumer controlling program choices is the biggest change in the media business in the past 25 or 30 years.’‘


That’s the revolution we’re trying capture in our business pages, even when it feels like it’s our own heads falling into the basket.


 


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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2007

Blender‘s PR people forwarded me a link to its latest stab at generating “controversy”—a list of overpraised albums. it doesn’t take a whole lot of ingenuity to craft such a list—just look at what appears on other publications’ “best of” lists and aim a few cheap shots at them. I’m a sucker for such contrarianism; I’ll admit I clicked through to the link despite my general rule not to ever click on any mail from a PR firm. (Why would I want to encourage them?) The list yields absolutely no surprises, and I can’t imagine anyone so insecure about their appreciation for, say, Pet Sounds or Astral Weeks to have doubts sown by these half-assed attempts at iconoclasm. And as reassuring as I may find it to see someone else question the eternal genius of Radiohead, I know I can’t really find any comfort there, because the criticism is shallow, and as is true in the PR realm generally, no publicity is bad publicity. To be singled out as overrated is just another way to be rated highly.


Lately I have been striving to stop worrying about what rating any music should have (one of the reasons I don’t do much record reviewing anymore). The reasons I have for this are about what you’d expect; the arbitrary ranking nullifies the contextual factors that give any listening experience its character, and the ranking reduces something indescribably complex to something fungible, a number, etc. The impulse to rank and rate seems a defense mechanism against actually having the elusive sensual experience itself, which may always prove to be evanescent, unrepeatable and thus a little depressing after the fact. Rank it, however, and it seems as though you have pinned the experience down and taken possession of it.


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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

The Trolleyvox —"I Call On You"
From Your Secret Safe on Transit of Venus
The Trolleyvox’s new release is a two album set that is comprised of Your Secret Safe, a full-band electric album produced by Brian McTear (Danielson, Espers, Mazarin, A-Sides, Lilly’s, Apollo Sunshine) featuring nine new originals and a ripping version of The Who’s “Our Love Was”; and Luzerne, a gorgeous acoustic album featuring songwriter-guitar player Andrew Chalfen and lead singer Beth Filla.


Swivel Chairs —"Afterthought"
From The Slow Transmission on Transit of Venus
The Slow Transmission is an album born of a friendship and musical partnership that has lasted more than a decade. Over that time, the Swivel Chairs song-writing duo of Jeremy Grites and Jason Brown have polished their craft through numerous self released cassettes; CD-R albums; compilation tracks; several split albums and EPs with bands like Audible (Polyvinyl) and The Banes; and the acclaimed 2004 indie-pop album A Late Day For Regrets on Portland OR’s Paisley Pop label.


Robert Pollard —"Rud Fins"
From Coast to Coast Carpet of Love on Merge Records
Pollard explores the poppier, “Beatles” side of his musical personality here. In the universe where Bob explains the Freudian divisions of his psyche, he calls Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love his id; Standard Gargoyle Decisions his ego’ and himself his Super Ego.
John Ralston —"Fragile"
From Sorry Vampire on Vagrant Records
What would become the jangly, densely layered Sorry Vampire, the second full-length from John Ralston, began as just a few basic elements and eventually snowballed into over 50 songs with almost twice as many individual tracks on each song. The record was built to give the listener the experience of hearing something new with each repeated listen – you’ll likely never hear this record the same way twice. The final dozen tracks also speak to the ‘luxury’ Ralston experienced by not having time constraints and being able to home record.


The A-Sides —"Cinematic"
From Silver Storms on Vagrant Records
In Philadelphia, they don’t get many big waves. But recently, they’ve been getting a little bit closer. The A-Sides suggest the ocean, the clouds, love, fury, life and death, with a sound that’s like sunshine on your arms, seeping in right after the biggest waves in the world have torn you down.


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Tuesday, Oct 9, 2007


Okay, it’s time to admit it. You’re addicted to dung. You know what we mean. Garbage. Junk. Refuse. The kind of generic popcorn movie fluff that Hollywood passes off as art each and every week of the year. As a matter of fact, you’ve been mainlining the mainstream for so long that you know longer have the arterial constitution to tell good from god awful. At this point in your problem, you’re more or less gone, given over to lackluster gross out comedies, anemic thrillers, overripe melodramas, and the same old “I hate my life” indie angst fests. Even the typical tame horror romp finds a way to get your gooseflesh perky. In fact, if you’re not experiencing the non-acting abominations that are Robin Williams and Jennifer Aniston, you’re not sure it’s actually a movie you’re mooning over.


Well guess what – it’s time for an intervention – TROMA style. As the leading purveyor of pure art in the entirety of modern motion picture making, founder Lloyd Kaufman and his merry band of product purchases have come up with a dozen definitive films that, when experienced, will work better than a trip to rehab and/or a featured video on TMZ combined. It will get you out of the shame cycle, correct your bass ackward crap aesthetic issues, and release you from the grip of baby blood drinking studio suits. Here’s a warning, however. It will not be easy. The sights you see and the stories you experience will not be some cookie cutter committee claptrap marginalized for maximum demographic delight. No, these are real films by real filmmakers, and their clarity may put you off – at first. 


But if you stick with it, give it time, and follow these rigorous rules of celluloid self-examination, you might just find that your compulsion is curable. Heck, you may even discover that you prefer a good dose of unnecessary sadistic bloodletting or undead neck nibbling to the latest Saw installment. Just remember – these are not official Troma helmed productions we’re talking about. The power of those bad boys is too great for the fragile first timer. Instead, these are the company-approved offerings that best illustrate their big picture dynamic. Once you’ve survived these samplings, a date with everyone’s favorite mutant mop boy is just a relapse away.  Let’s begin with:


Step 1: Give Up the Self-Destructive Streak (Suicide, 2001)


Armchair psychiatrists would argue that the main reason people gravitate toward Tinsel Town’s trash is that they have some manner of indirect death wish. Well, if you want to see individuals with a much greater desire to end it all than you will ever have, try this intriguing German mock doc. Using a handheld POV to support a premise where people sign up on the internet to have their title acts filmed, we get one of those “is it or isn’t it real” presentations that will have audiences arguing for days afterward. Even better, it will begin the cleansing and curative process.


Step 2:  Acknowledge the Devil’s Hold on Cinema (Screamplay (1985)


While blame is never healthy (we are trying to take responsibility for ourselves, remember), one must never forget the role the mangoat plays in keeping us hooked on hackwork. An excellent example of this paradigm arrives in the form of this writing as reprobate satire. When a screen scribe’s imagination becomes so vivid that the crimes he imagines become real, no one in the business called show is safe. And the best part is – this is one wickedly witty work, proof that not all scripts are culled by committee scat. Outsider auteur George Kuchar is even part of the cast.


Step 3: Give Up Drugs (Meat Weed Madness 2006)


At this point, you’re well beyond a simple negative pronouncement. In fact, it’s painfully obvious that just saying “No” would do very little except exercise your vocal chords. What you require, instead, is a healthy dose of demented tough love – and this surreal Southern Gothic is just the demented dime bag you require. Here, a group of gals stumble upon the Bullpocky Plantation and its title herb – a plant cultivated from human flesh! One toke and you’re not only over the line, you’re high on your own supply and ready to bogart the soul out of someone.


Step 4: Take a Vow of Chastity (Killer Condom 1996)


It’s a fact – sex will only screw you up. Unfocused fornication and purposeless petting will merely lead to heartache, body issues, and suffering. Don’t believe it – then check out this Teutonic treat about a prophylactic that preys on people. When Detectice Mackaroni discovers a rash of missing “member” cases, he stakes out a seedy motel in hopes of finding some answers. Turns out, there’s a randy rubber on the loose, looking to stop illicit physical contact once and for all.  While Christians can call for abstinence and liberals long for education, this is one solution that’s also ribbed (for her pleasure).


Step 5: Avoid a Life of Crime (Wiseguys vs. Zombies 2003)


Everyone thinks that gangsters are so cool, and with Hollywood glamorizing their murder for hire mythos, it’s hard to tell the felonies for the Sicilian family trees. But one screening of this Cosa Nostra corpse grinding will cure you of even the most lingering Sopranos sympathies. Two hit men, delivering bodies and bottles to a connection in Miami, wind up face to face with bloodthirsty remnants of the undead. And these are the kind of flesh fiends who can’t be bribed with irrefutable offers. It’s enough to make those geared toward goombah’s choke on their cabbagool!

Step 6: Try Alternative Foods (Meat for Satan’s Icebox 2004)


Speaking of inedible vittles, one of the best ways toward self-help and aesthetic purification is the toxin purging properties of a new diet. Sadly, almost every life altering culinary amalgamation has been forwarded by a baneful buck hungry business, from organic to raw. Leave it to this ignominious indie effort to offer stripper sirloin as the latest answer to what’s for dinner. That’s right – Soylent Green is not the only human-based hunger hinderer anymore. With Satan himself working as a homespun homosapien pitchfork man, there’ll be plenty to go around.

 


Step 7: Recognize the Inherent Evil in Youth (The Children 1981)


Of course, everyone knows that kids are craven. They’re about the wickedest little buggers this side of Nazis and roughed collies. So keeping away from the wee ones is always warranted. But what if you find yourself slipping, influenced unfavorably by a cherubic face or a tongue-heavy “thpeech patuwn”? Just remember – hiding behind that cute façade could be a radioactive monster ready to hug you into an early grave. At least, that’s what this beloved low budget fright flick tells us. Leave it to cinema to make progeny even more precarious.


Step 8: Recognize the Inherent Evil of the Stage (Bloodsucking Freaks 1976)


They say that movie is illusion, but that’s only partly true. Theater is much more existence mocking since it uses the inherent connectivity of a live event to foster a fictional, usually melodramatic methodology. So in order to keep such Great White Way wants to a bare minimum, rehabbers might want to check out this gore soaked creepshow classic. Centering on Sardu and his supposedly “fake” torture show, there’s enough amateur brain surgery, little person perversion, and garroted gals to swear you off the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd forever.

Step 9: Reconcile that Life is Chaotic and Episodic (Dumpster Baby 2000)


Here’s another truism: existence if futile - or if not fruitless, at the very least fractured. Seemingly random events can add up to one Helluva karmic cock-up and you may never ever recognize said fact. Indeed, what you require is a celluloid guide, a movie that makes the seemingly senselessness line up and have meaning. This tale of a rejected infant and the Prague like predicament of the effect it has on everyone around it will surely solidify your grip on human happenstance. After all, if a dada-esque excursion into the obscure can come out legible, your world can too.


Step 10: Never Forget that War is Hell (Combat Shock 1986)


Combat produces a two-fold trial for the average vet. First, there is the atrocity of battle, the spilling of blood, the loss of individual life. Then there is the aftermath – the broken government promises, the unattended internal scaring, the lack of sympathy and support from the ungrateful society around you. It’s a situation all too familiar to Frankie Dunlan in this intense urban nightmare. Destitute and desperate, with a family to feed and no prospects in sight, our hero simply sinks into a cesspool of his own bad luck. Proof that all pointless police actions are deadly in many different ways.

 


Step 11: Understand that there are People Much Worse Off than You (Luther the Geek 1990)


Remember when you mother convinced you to eat your greens by telling you that people in far off, invisible lands had it so much tougher than you. Well, your guardian could have looked closer to home for more powerful illustrations of elder acquiescence. As a young boy, our title character saw a group of men taunting a real life sideshow oddity. Years later, this newly crowned psycho killer somehow manages to gain parole. He decides to do a little freak showcasing on anyone who’s available. So the next time you sing your sob story, this caustic cautionary tale will hopefully dull the despair.

Step 12: When in Doubt, Blame Cannibalistic Extraterrestrials (Flesh Eaters from Outer Space  1998)


Of course, after all these substantive steps, after reflection and tons of therapeutic screams, you may still feel a little flummoxed. Have no fear – ET is here. That’s right, if you can’t gain control of your habit, if you still hanker for a hunk of blockbuster cheese, if you can’t help but wonder what Michael Bay is up to next, then explain away your malady as the byproduct of an abduction. And what better example of outer space madness can one choose than this Warren F. Disbrow classic. Revolving around a bloodthirsty crater critter who piggybacks onto a returning US astronaut, it’s the perfect personal pass. It’s also the only way Troma can treat the torment.


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