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Monday, Mar 5, 2007


It’s legitimate release limbo out there right now, with most of the big name studio titles taking only tentative steps toward becoming honest to goodness retail fodder. It seems that most major DVD distributors are holding off on delivering the “A” picture goods, waiting for summer to hurry up and re-ignite the interest in motion picture mediocrity. So while we wait for the rest of the Oscar nominated efforts to find their place upon the B&M shelves (only The Queen and Letters to Iwo Jima are left) and wonder what special features will be added to films like The Fountain and Pan’s Labyrinth, here’s an overview of the available entertainment options for 6 March, all just a debit card decision away:


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan


We here at SE&L wish we’d have come up with the comparison, but we’ll give columnist Joe Queenan his due. Make no doubt about it – Sacha Baron Cohen is the new Roberto Benigni, and this so-called ground breaking comedy is the Life is Beautiful of 2006. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this almost instantaneous backlash – it didn’t require a remake of a children’s fairytale to instigate it. No, people who were bowled over by this manipulative mock doc have started crying foul, and once this emperor dropped trou, nothing seemed so satiric anymore. True, there are elements here that remain clever – the Kazakhstan backdrop with its hyper-horrible social stigmas, the world’s first glimpse of man to man ass wrestling – but the ambush aspect of the jokes has definitely turned tepid. This is still a very funny film – thankfully, the ship has sunk on its status as a classic.

Other Titles of Interest


Cinderella Liberty


Made in an era when character alone could drive a narrative, this insightful effort, following a hooker and the sailor who falls for her wounded charms, are high water marks in the careers of James Caan and Marsha Mason. If you can overcome the bleakness of its mid-‘70s vision, you will be rewarded with amazing performances and lots of emotional truth.

Fast Food Nation


You really don’t want to know what goes on behind the counter at your favorite nationally recognized hamburger chain – at least, that’s what author Eric Schlosser and director Richard Linklater are counting on. Using the scribe’s scandalous factual exposé about the industry as the basis for their fictional story, the duo drive a stake directly into the heart of America’s obsession with convenience cuisine.

Let’s Go to Prison


Want to fully understand the state of big screen comedy? Take a gander at this amazingly unappealing so-called send-up. Granted, jail is a regular jokefest, especially when you consider the multiple variations on “don’t drop the soap” that are available. Taking individualistic idiotic irony to its most painful extremes, there is not a single significant snicker to be found in this magnificently mediocre movie.

The Manitou


When Jaws mania turned William Girdler’s wildlife rip-off Grizzly into boffo box office, the exploitationeer parlayed that popularity into this attempted mainstream macabre. Starring Tony Curtis and Stella Stevens, Mr. Day of the Animals devised a surreal storyline involving a psychic, his glam gal pal, and a growth on her back that just might be the reincarnation of a demonic Native American spirit. As weird as it sounds.

Peter Pan: Platinum Edition


Though they haven’t done a lot right recently, there was a time when Disney drilled animated takes on classic kid fare like this right out of the cinematic stadium. Watching this movie a half-century later, it’s easy to see why. Instead of concentrating all its efforts on micromanaging a movie to fit every demographic, the original House of Mouse just wanted to entertain. They do so magnificently here.


And Now for Something Completely Different
King Kong Fu


Okay, here’s another clear case of a title telling the entire story – or at least, indicating SE&L‘s interest in this relatively unknown release. To read the write-up for this 1976 stinker, a Chinese gorilla skilled in the marital arts (aren’t all apes so gifted???) runs ramshackle over an overwhelmed Wichita, Kansas community. He eventually kidnaps Rae Fay and climbs the highest building in the city – a Holiday Inn. Are you laughing yet? If it sounds like one of those classic So-BIG efforts (a movie “so bad, it’s good”), a few unlucky critics have some sobering news for you. One considers it so awful, it requires immediate cinematic vivisection. Others lament the lack of any discernible talent among cast or crew. Whatever the case may be, there is still something absolutely adorable about that name. And the cover art kicks butt, too.

 


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Monday, Mar 5, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

LIVING LEGENDS (click on screen)


You can see the rest of the set here


THE WRENS (click on screen)


You can see the rest of the set here


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Monday, Mar 5, 2007

In a recent New York magazine story, Emily Nussbaum argued that a generation gap now exists between an older cohort, sensitive to privacy concerns, and a younger group who are comfortable with surveillance and perhaps transliterate this in their minds into “attention.” The gist of her case is that the new generation grew up with the internet and reality TV as a given, so they are comfortable with the potential for an audience for everything we do and the pressure to achieve such an audience. Nussbaum doesn’t think their indifference to privacy is a matter of ignorance (the usual take on the question, with which I happen to agree) but rather, it may be a matter of the older cohort’s jealousy and fear of the opportunities for self-publicity and exhibitionism they never had in their own youth.


More young people are putting more personal information out in public than any older person ever would—and yet they seem mysteriously healthy and normal, save for an entirely different definition of privacy. From their perspective, it’s the extreme caution of the earlier generation that’s the narcissistic thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, “Why not? What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone’s gonna find your picture? Just make sure it’s a great picture.”


I suppose it could be seen as narcissistic to imagine anyone cares enough about your specific personal information that you need to make it private—this is my attitude, actually, when I don’t shred my mail or take care to send email over secure WiFi networks, and that sort of thing. I have this naive blind faith in my own irrelevance. It would be great if I could bring myself to believe that the nitwits on The Real World were on the show because they didn’t take themselves too seriously, but I can’t make that leap of faith (or logic). The sheer performativity of living your life as if it were stocking a public archive seems to me of a different order of self-obsession than being punctilious about what one reveals to people who really don’t care. When you watch a show like The Real World, you have the palpable sense that surveillance is the breath of life to them—they seem afraid that they’ll cease to exist the minute people stop watching them.


I’ve generally argued that compulsive self-revelation is search for recognition in a society that trains us to pay attention to products and brands—using the technological tools available, we commodify ourselves and allow others to notice us by, in essence, shopping for us—programming our number into their phone, adding us as a friend on whatever social networking site is considered important at the time to your chosen demographic, hooking up an RSS feed for our blog or Flickr stream, evaluating one of our personal profiles on which we’ve calculated our most flattering preferences and interests, and so on. Nussbaum spins this kind of recognition as “community” and perhaps it’s all that is left of the vaunted Habermasian public sphere—actually it’s probably an improvement over what was left of it before the internet took off. One can promulgate various identities and investigate all sorts of subcultures and so on but at the expense of objectifying something of one’s spirit to make it susceptible to digital dissemination. Is this true of social interaction generally, that it objectifies us as its price? Then the difference is the material record technology generates of this process, confronting us with our compiling multiplicity. I shudder to consider the many poor identity-related choices I’ve made in the past (e.g., 1980s haircuts); presumably the new generation is not concerned with this, or any accusations of hypocrisy that might ensue. This I cannot understand, and I’m not convinced that youth are simply more “thick-skinned” than the rest of us. They just have not yet realized all the ways in which this technology can weaponized.


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Monday, Mar 5, 2007

Just like the headline says…  Related to a story from last month’s issue of Backstage magazine, President Bush has proposed to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, a long-time whipping boy of the GOP.  However, as the article points out, Congress can reverse that decision and offer a counter-proposal to increase the funding.  Sadly, we’re backwards enough not to support the arts as they do in Europe so this is your chance to tell your representative to do the right thing and increase support for the NEA.  Granted, it’s not a perfect organization and should expand the arts it does support but it would be much worse NOT to have the NEA than to have it around and thriving.  See Petition Urges Artists to Demand Fed. Funding for details.


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Sunday, Mar 4, 2007


We Americans apparently love our crap. Give us cinematic Sauvignon and we’d rather swill sickly blockbuster Boone’s Farm. Case in point – the repugnant Wild Hogs, a movie made for a common denominator lower than the lowest one on record. This midlife crisis suburbanite biker garbage raked in $38 million big ones over the 2 March weekend. It bested the police procedural perfection of David Fincher’s Zodiac and took new boy on the block Craig Brewer back to the sophomore slump woodshed with his exploitation attempt, Black Snake Moan. Yes, when offered filet, or at least something that closely resembles some manner of non-processed animal by product, we immediately queue up for the aesthetic-clogging junk.


Just look back over the last month or so. Everyone had Eddie Murphy pegged as the next Denzel Washington, ready to finally find some Oscar love at the end of his rollercoaster career (and personal life) rainbow. Then an unfunny hemorrhoid named Norbit came crashing into your local Cineplex, dragging the comedian’s Academy chances down to the level of the film’s toilet-based wit. While some can argue that the site of a nominee dressed up as a culture’s worst ethnic nightmares had no affect on his Best Supporting Actor chances, it couldn’t have helped. Even as Mr. Murphy stormed out of the Kodak Theater (allegedly), he had his massive bank account (aided by the film’s $75 million take), not the annual victor’s party, to laugh – and fume - all the way to.


It’s hard to see why the comic should care. Everyone should be as lucky as to have his audience appeal. His Teflon talents are apparently so non-stick that he can send the cause of racism back 275 years and still walk away a bankable star. All an Oscar can do is turn him into Cuba Gooding and/or Lou Gossett, Jr. Besides, he knows that his demographic prefers Velveeta to Gruyere. Shrek, Dr. Doolittle, and Daddy Day Care prove that fact. So there’s no reason to worry about a lack of professional legitimacy. As long as the money keeps pouring in, the child support payments will be met and all will be right in the materialistic Murphy universe.


Similarly, Nicholas Cage can calm down as well. His long festering comic book caper Ghost Rider has been trying to deflect a dozen months of bad buzz on its way to an early Spring opening (or what many in Hollywood used to consider the scheduling equivalent of the kiss of death). Even the confirmed geeks over at Ain’t It Cool News couldn’t drum up the usual “be there, cause you’re square” kind of support for this graphic novel nonsense. But thanks to an omnipresent trailer that seemed to be playing constantly since Tom Brady last won a Super Bowl, and clips that focused on Cage’s “good old boy, American Chopper-lite” persona, the satellites surrounding NASCAR nation turned out in droves. 


Actually, that’s not fair. It was cellphone-addicted adolescent retards that drove both of these films. As a matter of fact, it’s teens in general, not film lovers or cinema snobs, that drive the movie business’ heavily insured SUV. Want to know why the unreasonably reviled Titanic still sits among the top grossing films of all time? Just ask your hormonally hopped up wannabe fame whore. Though she will probably admit to the passing fancy – just like her previous worshipping of boy bands…and personal integrity – it was indeed her allowance dollars that crowned James Cameron king. It’s the same with the pleasant Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Girls get to swoon over Johnny Depp’s dark eyeliner and Orlando Bloom’s blushing baby face, while the boys can tap their testosterone with either energetic swordplay, or Keira Knightley.


Oh, and we can’t forget families – those nasty little nuclear units that still believe fruit leather is part of the reconfigured food group pyramid (next to Lunchables, right?). They REALLY love a fat laden filmic repast. When reviewing the highest grossing movies of 2006, over 50% are geared toward the tots. There was Cars ($244 million), Night at the Museum ($205 million), Ice Age: The Meltdown ($195 million), the $190 million Oscar winner Happy Feet (take that, better CGI entries) and Over the Hedge ($155 million). Even more interesting, when looking over #s 11 through 20, not a single kiddie flick can be found. So the answer is obvious – if you want a few more greenbacks in your commercial coffers, make sure the wee ones are part of your production design.


By catering almost exclusively to the two demographics that support the vast majority of moviemaking profits, the studios feel empowered. The gamble of manufacturing a motion picture gets a little less risky, and returns can be almost guaranteed when buffered by DVD and merchandising tie-ins. Certainly there are examples that buck this carefully micromanaged trend (Lucas’ Star Wars romps, Jackson’s magnificent Lord of the Rings films), and art can frequently find a place on the standard motion picture menu (The Departed, for example). But by in large, the mega-multinational monoliths who overshadow the rest of the media landscape prefer to pay their bills by delivering prepackaged product that goes down easily and leaves no biting or bitter creative aftertaste.


Thus we have a 2007 movie season looming with retreads, sequels and more examples of Wild Hogs harmless hamburger helper. There is nothing wrong with embracing a mindless mid-life crisis picture featuring actors who have all done, and really should all know better, but just like restaurants, Tinsel Town can’t thrive on gourmet fare only. If all you gave the people was Pan’s Labyrinth, or The Prestige, they may be better nourished, aesthetically. But McDonald’s has been around more than half a century for a reason. We apparently want, nay CRAVE, the entertainment equivalent of comfort foods. The Fountain may seem like substantive cinematic sustenance, but all the populace really requires is a tempting Talladega Nights taco or two.


In his recent book on the movie biz, Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet argues that audiences today love mediocrity – indeed, prefer it to artistry or innovation. “The very vacuousness of these films is reassuring”, he states, going on to argue that such shared disappointment creates a kind of communal bond. It’s the same with our varying tastes in vittles. We will occasionally venture out into the world of fiery foreign (film) foodstuffs, or indulge in a bit of eclectic (indie) fare. Yet if there were movie Mac and cheese being served up at our favorite burger joint/Bijou, we’d rather have a super-sized serving of same.


Call it the concept of the collective consciousness experience (people still argue that any genre of film – horror, comedy, actioner – is better when seen with a crowd) or a desire to follow along with the rest of the fad gadget front (can’t be left out of what your fellow filmgoers feel is a cash-worthy creation), but it adds up to one clear conceit – American audiences readily prefer a diet high in saturated stupidity and sugar-laced silliness. They fancy it over a banquet featuring intelligence, wit or authentic emotion. And since it’s impossible to completely cleanse one’s personal preference palate, we will continue to see junk like Wild Hogs (or, perhaps, the upcoming Blades of Glory) dominating the top of the charts.


And what about the more rarified offerings? All one can say is bon voyage, bon appetite.


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