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Monday, Jan 21, 2008

Always at the forefront with important news, Time magazine brings us the gory details of a very important development: people are paying other people to follow them around like paparazzi.


Even as real celebrities battle those pesky cameramen on the streets and in courts for intruding on their lives and trading on their images, some regular folks, from parents hosting teen birthday parties to Gen Xers out on the town, have decided that the attention could be fun—and worth paying up to $1,500 for. Cowher launched Celeb 4 A Day in Austin in November and is expanding to Los Angeles this month and San Francisco in February. There are similar companies, like Private Paparazzi in San Diego and Personal Paparazzi in Britain, and wannabe big shots in other places have taken matters into their own hands, hiring freelance photographers to trail them.


Josh Gamson, a sociology professor, was dragged into the spotlight to explain this curious phenomenon: “If you don’t have people asking who you are, you’re nobody,” he explains.


As absurd as this sounds at first, it’s really no different than hiring wedding photographers. Only instead of restricting yourself to such special events, you can treat every night out with your fiends as if it were your wedding. This seems extravagant and sort of pathetic, but not entirely beyond the pale. It also, however, serves as a reminder of the seductiveness of surveillance, and why it is so difficult for stir people into protecting their rights of privacy. Former modes of social recognition have been superseded by fame, by publicity as an end in itself, and we now all accept that it’s enough to be known, and it is doesn’t really matter what one is known for, if there even is anything. So there is no illegitimate avenue to being famous, or reaping what are percieved to be the rewards of that. As a result, we’ve glamorized being watched to the point where exhibitionism no longer registers as a fetish but is instead almost a baseline norm.


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Sunday, Jan 20, 2008


It’s so high concept and gimmicky that it should crumble under the weight of its own ambitions. It takes an already tired approach - the first person POV perspective milked to death by all the surrounding Blair Witch hoopla - and channels it through a much more coherent and creative ideal. Some have called it an event film, a rollercoaster ride through a city under monstrous siege. Others have referred to it by another, less flattering name - the bile express, perhaps in reference to the motion sickness inducing cinematography. But there’s no denying one fact - the J.J. Abrams produced monster movie Cloverfield is poised to become a true phenomenon. And in these dog days of January, the most lax time for cinematic excellence, that’s an amazing fact.


Yet this has also been a divisive affair, one that has just as many complainers as champions. All appreciation is opinion based, as is consensus. Majority rule does not determine a film’s final assessment as art, nor does the amount of money made instantly mandate a rejection reconfiguration. Basically, people are entitled to their view of the film, even if they use some specious reasons in support of their disdain. As a matter of fact, reading over the initial reactions to the film, certain constants can be gleaned. Aside from the purely physical responses (more on this in a moment), the various grounds for grousing deserve some discussion. In looking them over, one by one, we begin to see how expectations can undermine any entertainment experience. We also see that Cloverfield can create incredibly passionate feelings on either side of the summation. 


Issue 1 - The Camerawork
This complaint is actually a dangerous double edged sword. On the one hand, it’s easy to understand people who didn’t like the handheld shaky cam POV because it made them ill. Both Blair Witch and the last two Bourne films claimed many a queasy stomach on their way to box office fortunes. So a clear caveat should come with every ticket sold - “Warning: This Movie May Cause You to Lose Your Lunch”. But barking about it afterwards seems like an aggravation sticking point, an “I got sick so it sucks” rationale that just doesn’t float. No, the real noggin scratcher comes from those who don’t like the approach from an aesthetic standpoint.


Now, no one hid the fact that Abrams wanted to make the movie this way. The trailer offered nothing more than starring at the lens logistics. In interviews, he explained that the film was inspired by a trip to Japan where he saw thousands of Godzilla toys. He speculated that it would be interesting to create an American version of said monster, yet handle the narrative in a novel, contemporary fashion - from the perspective of the petrified citizenry, lets say. So anyone mad that the movie ended up as a camcorder creation is misguided. It’s like arguing that a chocolate bar was horrible because it was made with cocoa. Huh? If you don’t like sugar, don’t eat candy. If you don’t want to see grainy, digital photography, you picked the wrong flick.


Issue 2 - The No-Name Cast
Remember the pretense here - a realistic depiction of New York being overwhelmed by a giant creature. It’s the event, not the individuals that are important. Sure, we have to warm up to the characters a little before the chaos occurs, if just to keep us locked in during the many action scenes. But why would famous faces make this any easier? Some, including this critic, would argue that recognizable actors would ruin the atmosphere. Being identifiable is one thing. Having sure superstar impact is another. For those who’ve seen the film, imagine the Army triage sequence with someone from The Hills as the victim. Aside from the vicarious thrill inherent in such a fatal set up, such a vacuous celebrity space saver would destroy everything Cloverfield has going for.


Issue 3 - The Running Time
By most accounts, this is an 80+ minute movie that ends up being about 70 minus credits. That breaks down to 15 minutes of party-based premise, and 55 minutes of bedlam. The complaints, however, have ranged from the film being too short (arguable) to being WAY, WAY too long (what?). Many argue that the send-off could be clipped by at least half, and that there needed to be more sci-fi stunting and action. Granted, there is a little down time in between bouts of monster madness, but to say that the film needs more of this material is ludicrous. Again, the intention of Abrams and his crew was not to make the same old horror show. Instead this was a real time type story strategy, letting events play out over a few heart stopping hours instead of several days and night. While it’s possible to argue over the allotment, the movie really seems perfectly paced.


Issue 4 - The Lack of Monster
This is a real deal breaker. You either like the way director Matt Reeves handled the numerous creature reveals, keeping the beast locked in its carnage and not posing or pussyfooting for the camera, or you’re flashing back to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla and cringing in CG-ire. Frankly, the subtle approach has never endeared itself to the masses. Spielberg devotees will never get over the way he handled War of the Worlds’ many army/alien confrontations. One big battle took place completely off screen. Similarly, M Night Shyamalan’s Signs had an extraterrestrial invasion and then went and forgot most of the little green men. The idea of keeping the mayhem money shot just out of reach is one of the reasons Clovefield works. It was also the reason why Frank Darabont’s The Mist was so masterful. Jaws kept its fiend underwater for most of the movie. Doing the same with this skyscraping scrapping entity only amplifies its impact. Still, in the ‘show me’ state of the mainstream, this apparently wasn’t good enough.


Issue 5 - The Downer Ending
It’s SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER time. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to go in 100% untainted as to major plot developments, leave this part of the piece NOW. There, now that all the neophyte tenderfooters are gone…you just know that our main gang of survivors is not going to come out of this intact. We are going to loose a few along the way (and we do) and the death of the beast (if it can be achieved) will come with lots of character collateral damage. We do see a couple of the kids take off in a helicopter. There is no follow up. Of course, our hero, his buddy Hud, and plot catalyst Beth all end up in Central Park, their transport torn apart by the creature. There’s a close-up, a crunch, and some last minute monologuing. We leave our couple cowering as jets fly overhead, delivering an inferred nuclear payload. There’s an explosion, and then silence. Now, ‘Net rumors have unearthed a garbled bit of dialogue that plays over the final credits. Unscrambled, the ominous line has a faint voice whispering “It’s still alive”. Slam! Sequel!



Come to think of it, Cloverfield appears purposefully set up to tweak many a moviegoer’s most cherished viewership clichés. It’s not filmed particularly well, presents actors that don’t inspire a preconceived notion of heroics or hindrance, offers a monster movie with minimal monster, and gets its business over and done with in a short, succinct, and very somber manner.  To many in the plebian viewership (not all audiences, by the way), this will truly cramp their celluloid style. Epics aren’t erratic and scope should come from carefully controlled compositions, not the haphazard luck of a wavering camcorder. And yet it’s these very things, these bows to the You Tube/MySpace generation (to quote craggy members of the older generation) that make Cloverfield a flop. Oddly enough, to others, they’re the reason the film feels like a revelation.


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Sunday, Jan 20, 2008
Corey Delaney

Corey Delaney



By Rowena Robertson


It’s only just over a week since it happened, but it seems as if Corey Delaney (aka Corey Worthington) has always been there. For the remaining few who don’t know who he is, Corey is the yellow sunglasses-sporting, Melbourne (Australia) teenager who hosted a MySpace-enabled party at his parents’ outer suburbs home last weekend while they were away on holiday. The party was apparently attended by over 500 people, neighbours’ property was supposedly trashed and the police were called in (dog squad, helicopters included). Local and international press leapt on the story.


The media’s response to Corey’s hijinks neatly highlights much that is rotten about the fourth estate – its inordinate focus on the lowest of ‘lowest common denominator’ stories (in a week that saw financial markets take huge tumbles, this was the main story in just about every newspaper in Australia - priorities, anyone?) and its piranha-like desire to devour the (in this case, relatively) innocent.


And indeed, it didn’t take long for the demonization of Corey to start. A Current Affair’s effort stood out, with host Leila McKinnon dripping moral superiority and outrage in an interview with the teenager. Corey, as would any 16-year-old who cares about the judgement of his peers and no-one else, refused to take the blame for the party getting out of hand, and went on to utter the now-famous response to McKinnon’s asking what he would say to other kids thinking of doing the same thing – “get me to do it for you.”


(And some took him at his word. One Sydney promoter offered to pay the teenager up to $10,000 to stage parties, and Corey has apparently also fielded a $2000 offer from a promoter in Queensland.)


Corey’s unabating cockiness fuelled further media coverage and anger. Mid-week, Victoria Police charged him with creating a public nuisance and producing child pornography, which only served to make them look pathetic and desperate, and, with regard to the child pornography charge, just a little bit evil. That charge supposedly stems from some mobile phone footage of semi-clad teenage girls playing Twister at the party. Good luck making that one stick.


The media created ‘Corey Delaney’, and they are to blame for his defiance, the job offers and the trumped up police charges. The best thing Corey can do in the face of his vilification is to continue to milk his fame for all it’s worth.


While the media’s treatment of the teenager has been largely contemptible, it’s almost impossible not to delight in the pop cultural ramifications of his notoriety. The power of the internet to turn an unknown into a cult celebrity in the blink of an eye can be seen in the Corey-related websites and products that have sprung up in the last week. At coreydelaney.com you can buy t-shirts featuring his famous yellow sunglasses; at slapcorey.com you can wallop the boy into next week.


You just know Corey would love it.


About the writer – Rowena Robertson is a freelance writer and the editor of Poster magazine (Australia).


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Saturday, Jan 19, 2008


As a rule, melodrama and martial arts don’t really mix. Sure, it seems like, every kung fu classic utilizes hyper-stylized heroism and ample Asian tradition to tag its subtext, but pure Hollywood hokum is never the best battle support. It just seems so silly for a champion, capable of the greatest feats of physical force ever seen by man, to play the schlub in a lover’s triangle or find himself manipulated and taken in by a faux femme fatale. Oddly enough, this is the recipe used by Hong Kong filmmaker Dennis Law for his 2006 fight club crime saga Fatal Contact. With up and coming star Jacky Wu Jing in the lead, and some astounding hand to hand combat at its core, this is the kind of flamboyant fisticuffs that genre devotees dig. Too bad the narrative keeps tripping over into potboiler country, applying a campy kitchen sink formula to an otherwise wonderful bit of brawling.


When we first meet Kong, he is a member of the Chinese Opera. His obvious skills attract the attention of gamblers who want to use him as part of their underground boxing ring. Initially reluctant, our hero has a change of heart when a young woman named Tin wanders into his life. Carrying a deep, dark secret and angry at her impoverished lot in life, she hears the amount of money the mobsters are offering and tries to convince Kong to join up. But it takes a public dressing down at a fancy restaurant before he finally concedes. Instantly successful, his undefeated ways get the attention of some very high rollers. They stage bigger and bigger contests with larger and larger purses. Eventually, Kong is taking on the reigning martial arts campaigns with millions of dollars changing hands. But when the stakes get too high, no one is safe - not Tin, not the former kung fu master known as Captain, and definitely not our stalwart warrior.


For all its hang wringing theatrics and convoluted plotting, Fatal Contact has some amazing fight scenes. They crackle with the kind of energy that only comes from professional martial artists performing at the top of their game. Set-up like chapters in an otherwise overwrought story, Jing manages to make each one different - especially when you add in the calculating bit where he begins to LIKE hurting people - and we sense it all building to a major climax. While the good vs. evil element is present, as well as the decent vs. the depraved, it’s hard to really figure out what the character of Kong gets out of all this. He definitely has feelings for Tin, but they are muffled by money. And while he worries about his position on the National Team, he ends up taking on some one of similar stature. And many of his bouts end up in the paper. Wouldn’t that undermine his position automatically?

But the biggest problem with Fatal Contact is the kept woman/prostitute subplot. We learn that Tin’s friend is a hypocritical harlot, the kind of ‘woe is me’ character used to influence audiences just as easily as she does rich men. Just as we’re about to see another sequence of man-on-man face smashing, along comes this dolled up drone and - ZAP - the energy and life is literally leeched out of the movie. It’s not that we don’t care about this sad woman’s lot in life. It truly is horrible that she believes her fate lies in serving abusive tycoons for cash. It’s just that it plays like nothing more than a narrative tangent meant to give depth to a basically simple story. The underground crime tale should take center stage. But director Law lets the sidelights subvert his intent.


There’s also a problem with the basic setup, something mandating a SPOILER warning. If you don’t want to know where the story goes, skip this paragraph and move on. During each fight, we learn that Kong is, more or less, invincible. Even the best combatants in his camp fall to the enemy (during wonderful “street fighter” style sequences). But not our semi-superhuman hero. He can take several nail gouges to the face and still kick ass. He is so good, so flawless in form and execution, that he can more or less call his own shots. And then, when the murderous urge overtakes him, he is like a comic book caricature, a Hong Kong Hulk that no one can defeat. So there is little suspense in each action scene, a knowledge that Kong will triumph even within the most outrageous odds.


With this new DVD from Genius Entertainment and The Weinstein Group’s Dragon Dynasty Collection, some of these stumbling blocks are acknowledged and addressed. Thanks to this two disc set, we learn about the volatile state of Asian cinema, the needs of the producers, and the waning interest from audiences. The full length audio commentary from Law and film scholar Bay Logan details the problems with bringing untried talent to the screen, the reason for added dramatics, and how this type of entertainment compares to the past glories of the genre. On the second DVD, we get interviews with the female stars, learning from them the need to draw a divergent viewership and the hardships of working in the industry. Even Jing explains the tenuous position of such spectacle.


And it’s sad, especially when you consider the status of this rising action hero. We want to understand more about Kong’s lot, about his National Team backstory and the reasons for his quiet gullibility. He’s an intriguing character, inherently interesting because of his physical agility and geniality. But when we see the sudden shift over into killer mode, when he gets that murderous glint in his eye and goes primal, the lack of context throws us off. We’re supposed to read it as instinctual. It comes across as insane. Because of the attention paid to factors swirling around our lead, we never learn enough about Kong to keep him center stage. It’s an issue that concerns Jing as well.


Through these conversations, we discover that all is not well in the once thriving Hong Kong arena, that Western conventions and other influences have taken the filmmaking in directions that the creative element doesn’t agree with. In attempting to ‘modernize’ or cater to this new ideal, some of the standards used to make their movie magic have been lost. Indeed, a good way of describing Fatal Contact is as an epic battle of physical proportions constantly brought back down to earth by standard archetypal dramatics. The undeniable grace of the body ballet, the well choreographed majesty of a martial arts tussle have been cast aside for more mindless character pursuits. Between the comedy of the Captain (who’s taken freeloading to a whole new level of laziness) and the dour hooker histrionics, there’s very little room for our champion to shine. And that’s a shame. 


DVD


 
EXTRAS



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Saturday, Jan 19, 2008

Berkeley Center for New Media Announces Endowment

Photo by Craig Newmark. CONE sutro forest project.

Photo by Craig Newmark. CONE sutro forest project.


Last year Craigslist founder Craig Newmark placed a camera that allowed thousands of people, collaboratively controlling it online, to capture images of birds from the deck of his home on the edge of the Sutro Forest in San Francisco. It was project developed by Ken Goldberg, now the Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media and Texas A & M University. It’s a project that’s a metaphor for all of his double-edged art/science projects, the tools are only valuable when it’s possible to observe and understand how people use them in their natural habitats. The Berkeley Center for New Media has just announced an endowment of $1.6million from Craigslist, matched by $1.5 million from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for a total of $3.1 million. It will support research, symposia and lectures. Craigslist and the Center for New Media share “...interests in research areas such as privacy, reputation, trust, access and new ways to encourage socially constructive actions,” said Goldberg. The Berkeley Alumni magazine said “The Center for New Media is less concerned with whiz-bang technologies than with old values—truth, depth, reliablitity, authenticity, aesthetics, and public service.”


Goldberg’s telerobotic art projects created around his research with the Industrial Engineering and Operations Research School at Berkeley were in the realm of what he termed “telepistemology”, the study of ways of knowing, and the validity of what we know, if that knowledge is gained at a distance, through the internet. He encourages what he calls “the resumption of disbelief,” being skeptical of what we find on the internet. His Dislocation of Intimacy project wondered if all that we discover about the world through the internet, which seems like everything, might be nothing more than the shadows on the walls seen by the prisoners in Plato’s cave parable. He combined this with wondering about a place for genuine mystery and wonder in this world, with a mechanism that was a telerobotic version of Duchamp’s hidden noise in ball of twine project. Whether to dismantle something to find out how it works or accept the mystery is a crucial question in today’s world.


All of the telerobotic projects were available to anyone, anywhere online, and the opening up of university research to the world is part of an going mission. There’s a Los Angeles Times article posted on the Berkeley Center for New Media’s website that looks at the phenomenon of university lectures delivered through i-Tunes as free podcasts.


By making hundreds of lectures from elite academic institutions available online for free, Apple is reinvigorating the minds of people who have been estranged from the world of ideas.


For several years universities have posted recorded lectures on their internal websites, giving students a chance to brush up on their classes or catch ones they missed.


But 28 colleges and universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and Yale, now post select courses without charge at iTunes.


The universities want to promote themselves to parents and prospective students, as well as strengthen ties with alumni. Some also see their mission as sharing the ivory tower’s intellectual riches with the rest of the world.


“It was something we couldn’t easily do before the digital age,” UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said.


Michelle Quinn. LA Times. November 24, 2007


 


 


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