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Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007

The Sunday NYT ran a story about a sorority house at Depauw University in Indiana that threw out most of its members in an effort to shed the chapter of its reputation of being for “socially awkward”. Apparently that’s code for not being white and emaciated:


Worried that a negative stereotype of the sorority was contributing to a decline in membership that had left its Greek-columned house here half empty, Delta Zeta’s national officers interviewed 35 DePauw members in November, quizzing them about their dedication to recruitment. They judged 23 of the women insufficiently committed and later told them to vacate the sorority house. The 23 members included every woman who was overweight. They also included the only black, Korean and Vietnamese members. The dozen students allowed to stay were slender and popular with fraternity men — conventionally pretty women the sorority hoped could attract new recruits. Six of the 12 were so infuriated they quit.


Especially mortifying is the account of a recruiting event where “national representatives took over the house” and “asked most members to stay upstairs in their rooms”—basically because they felt the actual members would scare away new prospects. You think these members would have resigned in disgust and contempt right then.


This whole incident seems terrible and unfair and all that, but what kind of organization did these women think they were joining? We’re not talking about NOW; this is a sorority, part of the Greek system, which is a cog in the machine perpetuating all the traditional entitlements and conventional arrangements that have been passed down through the upper middle classes. The Greek system? Biased? Of course it is; that’s it’s raison d’etre by and large. By entering in to the system you confess your wish to have your social life bureaucratically arranged and subjected to conformist codes. “Socially awkward sorority” is thus an oxymoron—sororities are about purging awkwardness and making social life work mechanically. You are looking for official sanction on your choice of friends and activities, so by consenting to that, you have to admit of the possibility that the officials in charge might withdraw their blessing, otherwise it meant nothing in the first place—which it does for everyone outside of the system. Unfortunately, the social networks the Greek system sustains has real power in the world beyond college; so the whole thing is not merely submissiveness and hierarchy for its own sake, but for the sake of anchoring yourself in the broader post-collegiate hierarchy. (I chose to live in darkness, pretending that by rejecting hierarchical systems in college I could somehow deny their existence in the world beyond; this shows I learned almost nothing while in college about the real world.) Is it lame that sororities judge members by their potential attractiveness to men? Absolutely. Is this sort of thing unprecedented in the real world? Not exactly. The nice thing about the Greek system is that, unlike patriarchy at large, women are not forced to participate in it, so they need not endorse a by-and-large sexist arrangement by collaborating with it for tactical gains within a seemingly inescapable system of oppression.


Why this sad story merits coverage in the New York Times‘s front section is worth considering: That this particular chapter, where women were apparently giving each other solace rather than orchestrating ways to attract male attention, has been effectively shut down is presented as a representative example, though I’m not sure how much can really be concluded from one ripe example. Perhaps more significant is how the article gives us a good pretense to exercise our facility for righteous indignation as we consider the callousness of Delta Zeta’s national officers and breathe a sigh of relief that our own lives are not beset by such shallowness (and then we flip to Sunday Styles). But also the story lets us experience the vicarious thrill of humiliation, our secret pleasure in seeing these kinds of codes of comparison being upheld (at a safe distance from ourselves, of course). I was thinking about this while watching the Acadamy Awards show and how comfortable I was in denouncing various celebrities as “ugly”, as if I really cared and as if my opinion mattered in the least. But this is the purpose of the red-carpet show, isn’t it? To give people a chance to pass judgment at home? We all collude in this kind of superficiality when it seems safe to, because we have learned so well its collective power and would love to indulge the fantasy of exercising that power personally. Not to be too trite, but in those fleeting moments of judgment we become convinced that we escape observation ourselves.


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Monday, Feb 26, 2007


That slight electrical buzz you sense in the air is the remnants of an Academy Awards ceremony that went slightly off kilter. With Paramount probably producing brand new stickers to announce The Departed‘s major Oscar wins (screenplay, editing, director AND picture) and the Babel: Special Edition disc more than likely on indefinite hold, the repercussions of Hollywood’s yearly attempt to regain a bit of artistic integrity will be short and succinct – unlike the telecast itself. So as we wait for the final three nominees to make their way onto the preferred home theater format, the divergent choices available this week will have to satisfy your cinematic jones. They may not make up for the Pan’s Labyrinth debacle, but at least a couple will remind you why movies are indeed magic. So, for 27 February, feast your eyes on these motion picture possibilities: 


Tideland


It’s been a tough couple of years for Terry Gilliam. The one time God of the film geek world has seen his filmic fortunes wane substantially. Part of the problem was his misguided mash-up with Miramax, a problematic collaboration that resulted in The Brothers Grimm. While fighting over final cut with a certain member of the Weinstein Family, the ex-pat Python went out and made this movie, based on the book by Mitch Cullin. And it was critics, this time, that caused the commotion. Resoundingly booed at its Toronto Film Festival premiere, the filmmaker has since launched a one-man campaign to save his cinematic reputation – and, in conjunction, the fate of this so-called adult fairy tale. As with most of his movies, it’s a love it or loathe it affair, with more votes coming down on the negative. Maybe this DVD release will finally settle the argument one way or another.

Other Titles of Interest


Alexander: Revisited


Oliver Stone must rue the day he ever decided to take on the story of this famed ancient great one. All production problems and budget issues aside, the whole bi-sexual angle (or lack thereof in the final cut) has brought this movie more notoriety than box office. Now, in it’s THIRD DVD incarnation, the filmmaker adds 40 minutes of material and declares himself done. Sounds more like a surrender.

A Good Year


In an obvious attempt to recapture the cinematic glory they achieved with Gladiator, director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe came together to make this supposed romanticized look at redemption. Granted, the idea of a high powered money man getting all moist over his idyllic past showed some slight promise, but the final film was a cloying bit of claptrap without a lick of likeability or real world legitimacy.

The Return


After the shocking success of The Grudge on these shores (who would have thought that high concept Americans would cotton to the causal terrors that comprise most J-Horror?), star Sarah Michelle Gellar decided to revisit the Asian fright film dynamic one more time. Sadly, the result was this ridiculously routine thriller. Remove the rural setting and you’ve got the same old girl ghost goofiness.

Stranger than Fiction


His performance with Jack Black and John C. Reilly was one of the legitimate highlights of an otherwise dull as dishwater Oscar ceremony. That doesn’t make this semi-serious comedy any more compelling. With a premise that practically screams Charlie Kaufman and weirdly wicked turns from Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, this should have been a cinematic slam dunk. Sadly, it misses the basket by a few unfunny furlongs.

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny


Farrell’s Academy musical partner also has a DVD out this week, and for fans of his previous incarnation as part of the world’s greatest rock band, this is the movie of the century. Unfortunately, cult does not easily translate into commercial, and no matter his building box office appeal, Black couldn’t put enough butts in theater seats. For true devotees and those looking for a mainstream movie alternative.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Deep Red/ Inferno


Over the past couple of years there’s been a real renaissance in Dario Argento’s cinematic fortunes. His contributions to the Showtime series Masters of Horror have given him a much higher public profile, and after decades of speculation, he is now in the process of filming the final chapter of his Three Mothers trilogy. It’s convenient then that Blue Underground is re-releasing some of the maestro’s best films, including his breakthrough giallo and part two of the aforementioned terror triumvirate. Of the titles coming back to DVD, Red is the best, a deliciously disturbed exercise in murder mystery macabre that deserves to be ranked right up there with some of the greatest movies ever made. Inferno is more frustrating, a clear example of significant style over far too subtle substance. Yet the visuals are so powerful, their effect so overpowering, that we forgive the film its little minor narrative misgivings. Here’s hoping the rest of his considerable canon – including the lost in limbo Four Flies on Grey Velvet – make it back to the digital domain sometime soon.

 


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Monday, Feb 26, 2007

Please pardon the explosion of audiovisual content into this blog, but I was forwarded this clip, and I couldn’t let it pass without comment. If you don’t remember this from 1984, it’s Billy Squier’s video for “Rock Me Tonite.” Yes, that’s t-o-n-i-t-e, tonite, not to be confused with the pedestrian g-h-t variety. Can’t you feel the exc-i-t-e-ment? More semiotic analysis to come, but first some background: Squier first rose to prominance as singer for the above-average but commercially unsuccessful power-pop band Piper. He went solo and eventually released Don’t Say No, a vaguely sleazy proto-poodle-rock record which ruled AOR radio in 1981 along with J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame and REO Speedwagon’s immortal Hi Infidelity.


With “The Stroke”, Squier managed to find a sound simultaneously stripped down and bombastic; it had all the idiocy (and irresistiblity) of a band like Slade (of “Cum on Feel the Noize” fame) without being entirely juvenile and devoid of conceivable sex appeal. The record’s other hits—“My Kinda Lover”, “Lonely Is the Night”—were similarly loud and stupid in the best possible way. Def Leppard would later appropriate this formula for its Pyromania record, tour with Squier in the U.S. and steal his audience after upstaging him night after night. Perhaps this set off the desperation which led to the catastrophe you see above in the video. (Ironically, Squier had opened for Kiss while in Piper and should have learned the cardinal lesson of always getting underwhelming bands to open for you on your arena tour. This is how I came to see the band Third Eye Blind open for the Stones.)


At first Squier was working a journeyman rocker/prisonhouse-chic look, which this album cover epitomizes. Note the denim shirt and bare feet and the fact that he seems to be sprawled on the floor of a bus station lavatory: “All I got—and all I need—is this here Telecaster.” But for the follow up to Don’t Say No, the far inferior Emotions in Motion, pastel creep had begun to set in.  The bedraggled rocker look has morphed into an effeminate quasi-Eddie Van Halen thing (though arguably Squier looks more like Asylum-era Paul Stanley here); one can only presume that he was being encouraged to consolidate his fleeting grip over the Tiger Beat demographic by softening his image. The music too was a little softer—more synths, more power ballads. Then with his next album, with MTV in full swing and music videos at their first apex of cultural significance, came Signs of Life (produced by Meat Loaf Svengali Jim Steinman) and the abomination we see above. I’m guessing the idea here was to push Squier’s androgyny to the next level and make him into the hair-metal Prince or something: hence the satin-swathed bed (straight out of the risible jacket photography from 1999) and the uninhibited “dancing”, which seems a weird cross between aerobicizing and particularly outré masturbation.


The video begins with some jazz-hands finger-snapping on the soundtrack, and Squier writhing in the satin sheets as though it were an alarm clock. He scratches his head sleepily, pulls on a pair of pajama pants, and we get our first look at the weird set-up I’m guessing we’re supposed to pretend is his loft apartment—giant scrims with close ups of his own eyeball on them, big windows opening out onto red skies at night, a few lamps that seem to have mauve lightbulbs in them, dressing screens back-lit purple that shield our view of a brick wall, some cheap-looking armchairs with clothes draped over them, etc. Then he pulls on a shirt that has one sleeve cut off and the other barely attached so that it ends up looking like a wristband around his bicep. Why are his clothes in tatters? we wonder. Perhaps the red skies at night indicate that we are in postapocalyptic times. This is the height, remember, of nuclear-war hysteria and fears of the Evil Soviet Empire; it was common place to set videos in nuclear wastelands to make them seem more emotionally urgent. Maybe only something like nuclear holocaust had any real potency as a free-floating signifier within a nonnarrative music-video context; maybe directors felt they had to at least gesture toward it, since it seemed an inescapable part of the era’s visual vocabulary, like pastel and oversize graphic elements on ludicrously large posters.


Anyway, we don’t have much time to mull any of this over, because Squier inexplicably begins dancing, as if that’s just what he always does after rolling out of the sack. When my alarm goes off and music is playing, I generally don’t get up and start doing an interpretive routine around my living room, but maybe that’s just because I don’t have as much space as Squier seems to have in his fictional apartment. But then, what he’s doing is less dancing than spasming—he looks like a mannequin whose strings have become tangled. Or maybe the puppeteer’s quaaludes just kicked in or something, for then he’s lurching around the apartment in his sweat socks (or are they wrestling booties? It’s hard to tell at this resolution.) Apparently he was searching for a mirror in which to complete his morning ablutions—but wait, then his mirror suddenly opens up on to what looks like the mouth of hell, and Squier recoils and begins crawling on the floor and having some kind of epilepti-erotic episode with himself on the painted concrete. And then, after a freeze frame on his arching his back in ecstasy dissolves into him humping the floor at the foot of his bed, it really starts getting weird.
Some notable moments:


1:07—What is that in his hand? Is that a pink camisole? After what we’ve seen, how can anyone conclude it’s not part of his own wardrobe?


1:15—The size of his fantasy loft apartment is much larger than we realized, larger than a few racquetball courts placed end to end. This, I imagine the director believed, emphasizes the loneliness of his bed.


1:20—Squier’s jump-rope dance move seems especially awkward, even worse then his skipping around the loft, until he resolves it in a spank-the-pony/air guitar flourish.


1:26—The lingering freeze-frame of Squier tearing his shirt off somehow fails to make this would-be climactic moment more dramatic—perhaps because the shirt was already so shredded, it seemed he had an unfair head start.


1:29—Is he now wearing the same camisole he threw at the hanging lamp?


1:40 to 1:55—An Elizabeth Berkeley-esque routine on the firetruck-red stripper pole and the windowsill.


2:03—Air guitar is one thing, but air microphone?


2:13—The papier-mâché crane hook? Mario Brothers has more realistic looking heavy equipment. And what is this doing in his apartment? Is he supposed to be living in a dockside warehouse?


2:43—I try to imagine what’s going through Squier’s head as he collapses on his face into the satin sheets. Was he filled with shame and self-loathing? Or did he have a moment there where he truly forgot he wasn’t eight years old? And how is he not laughing when he rolls himself upright and sings, “Times are all and all in time, / I stepped beyond the borderline / Of who we are and where we long to be”?


At last, he grabs the guitar that has been teasing us in the corner all along, plugs it in, and magically he joins his band—sort of Loverboy gone new wave—in an even more sterile environment, with more giant posters of himself and ugly pseudo pop art suspended from the ceiling. Even though they all make jackasses out of themselves by jumping around and pretending to play instruments despite the absence of any amps or patchcords or wires of any kind, every member of this band calls out for specially tailored derision: I’m content, though, to call your attention to the drummer’s Panama Jack hat and the studded Gary Glitter guitar strap on that Stray Cats reject playing bass. I’m guessing his unbuttoned Chams shirt did not distract anyone from the lameness of his greased-out Kenickie hairdo, even when he takes his bass off at the end to throw the shirt off his shoulder to expose more of his chest. The keyboardist dive-bombing his fingers to play the one-note synth “lick” of this outro is pretty great, but nothing can top the Rockette kicks Squier and the drummer trade off toward the end.


I’ve gone into much greater detail than I planned to, but I think you get the point: The argument that this video ended Squier’s career is entirely plausible. It was right around this time when the sheer existence and novelty of videos was no longer enough: you couldn’t do an unchoreographed dance around a half-assed set anymore and expect to get away with it. Million-dollar video budgets were not too far off in the distance. And journeyman retreads like Squier would no longer get second chances when so much more was riding on image rather than songwriting talent or musical charisma. The awfulness of 1980s music obviously has much to do with this purging of the talent pool.


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Sunday, Feb 25, 2007


Two of our biggest adversaries—time and authority. Constraints that keep us from living in a pure state of freedom. One to keep us moving forward, the other to keep us in check. Occasionally moving us forward, in the process of keeping us in check. An irony of sorts, but society’s operant framing truth.


But what does that have to do with the title of this entry—which seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with time and/or authorty. Actually, it does, but it’ll take a step or two to get there.


 


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Sunday, Feb 25, 2007


It was almost as if they did it on purpose. Two hours in, and Oscar was bucking the trend. Eddie Murphy was left standing at the altar, his all but guaranteed Best Supporting Actor award walking off with Alan Arkin. You could almost see the cloud caused by Norbit filling up the Kodak Theater. Then Dreamgirls suffered another setback when it’s 60% chance of winning the Best Song category was completely ignored. A certainly shocked Melissa Etheridge walked onto the stage to the thunderous applause of an audience already in love with everything that Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth stood for. Even the ancillary categories got into the act. A little known animated short called The Danish Poet beat out a category of competitors that each sounded like a shoe-in.


But then it all collapsed, falling apart faster than Clint Eastwood’s remarks for specially recognized recipient Ennio Morricone. Instead of continuing the snubs, instead of recognizing something other than the predicted winners, Oscar went right back to following the formula. Though it seemed like it could conceivably continue the twist ending trend - they gave the cinematography award to Pan’s Labyrinth (beating out favorite Children of Men) only to turn around and award Germany’s The Lives of Others over Guillermo Del Toro’s popular pick – the voting members decided to stick to the script. With the exception of The Departed for Best Picture, the rest of the major categories went as planned.


And in some ways, that’s how it’s meant to be. What would have been the story this manic Monday had Babel swept all the categories, or if Peter O’Toole had finally won his well deserved trophy? Would the headlines read differently had Martin Scorsese walked out of the ceremony sans the little gold man, and would anyone outside a certain cinematic fanbase really bat an eye had Helen Mirren been upset by, say, the absentee Dame Judi Dench? No, Hollywood handed the media just enough spectacle mixed with speculation to guarantee a lot of post-presentation quarterbacking. But that’s all. While it may be interesting to ponder these questions while going over the big night’s picks and pans, it doesn’t make for a satisfying celebration of film. 


It’s fairly obvious that somewhere along the line, Dreamgirls wasted all its acquired Academy Awards goodwill. Snubbed from most of the important categories (actor, actress, director and film) it could only snag an obvious victory for Jennifer Hudson. Had that predicted incident not occurred, the heavily hyped musical would have only had the Best Achievement in Sound award to its name (kind of obvious, don’t you think?). Similarly, Babel was oft cited as the Crash of 2007, a stunning possible spoiler with as many detractors as defenders. Oddly enough, it too was tripped up – multiple times. Of its seven nominations, it could only win in the Best Score category. Even Little Miss Sunshine underachieved. It’s wins for Arkin and Best Original Screenplay represent a 50% return on its four lowly nods, but for a film regularly anointed by divergent groups as the year’s best, even that number seems like an underachievement.


Then there’s poor Guillermo Del Toro. How horrid was Oscar to him? Here’s a man who made what was, arguably, one of the greatest foreign films of the last few decades, a work easily comparable to the likes of Fellini and Buñel, and yet he has to sit back and watch as his work merits three technical awards. What seemed like a sweep at the beginning of the evening turned into a kind of inverse rebuff. As a matter of fact, if you look at the awards Pan’s Labyrinth lost, you’d think the Academy had it out for him personally (two of the three losses were for his direct involvement in the film). The same could be said for Disney. Aside from a lone statue for The Pirates of the Caribbean‘s F/X work, the studio was shut out of the Best Animated Short Subject and Feature category. In all, the House of Mouse and its partner Pixar lost four potential Oscars.


Certainly there are reasons to celebrate. It was a smooth move on the part of the telecast to have Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppolla and George Lucas present the Best Director category. Though it gave conspiracy theorists fuel to fuss that the Academy Awards voting (and results) are not as secret as one thinks, it was awesome to see Scorsese take the stage to the warm embraces of the men with whom he helped shape the ‘70s – the last great decade of film. It’s great that he finally has the Academy monkey off his back. Now maybe they can recognize him when he makes one of his truly great films. Similarly, Al Gore’s victory for An Inconvenient Truth may have marked another illustration of Tinsel Town’s liberal leanings, but the piercing documentary on global warming really does deserve all the supporting accolades it can get. Even Ellen DeGeneres was warm and witty, using her dry and droll style as the perfect counterbalance to what always ends up being a sadly sloppy spectacle of self-importance.


Naturally, the Academy still can’t get its shindig technicalities together. Pointless montage tributes by the likes of Michael Mann (some random look at America in movies) were upstaged by even worse visual dance interpretations of the nominated films by the stupid shadow ballet of something called Pilobolus. While those in the theater got to witness the warm embrace that Morricone gave Eastwood after his Once Upon a Time in the West-less resume was screened prior to the awarding of his honorary Oscar, the folks at home missed the moment. Whoever was doing the directing decided that random shots of clueless stars was better than viewing a little Spaghetti Western history. Similarly, George Miller’s award for Happy Feet was another of those minor upsets that will end up being overblown by pundits come column time, but Mr. Road Warrior needs a better stylist. He looked like an Aussie barrel of petrol in a bad penguin suit.


Overall, Oscar remains a horrible waste of nearly four hours, superfluous Celine Dion included. Another big budget high profile release from a major Hollywood studio loaded with celebrated superstar talent ends up walking away with Best Picture, the pre-season awards glut tore all the tension out of the major triumphs, and Jack Nicholson was once again the self-imposed life of the party (apparently, in his next film, he’ll be channeling Rod Steiger). The artist formerly known as Dirty Harry proved he can’t improvise worth a crap and Leonardo DeCaprio has sexy stoic game face to spare. It was a night of prepared statements on folded index cards, frequent shout outs to God, and the overwhelming impression of a major awards derailment diverted. It was safe. It was static. It was Oscar.


Maybe one year the Academy will simply go for broke. It will ignore SAG and the DGA, the WGA and the Golden Globes, and decide for itself what deserves end of the cinematic season praise. It will press past the publicists eager to meter out a little more marketing mantle and avoid the studio heads who hold the fate of the film community in their baffling business minded mitts. Instead of ignoring movies like The Fountain or Children of Men, it will find room on its plate for inventive, edgy efforts. There may even be a time when comedy comes to the fore, finally taking its place alongside the drama and the musical as Best Picture mainstays. Until that day, we can be thankful for the little surprises scattered amongst the aggravating annual afterthoughts.


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