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Saturday, Feb 17, 2007

Coy “Cannonball” Buckman is an ex-stock car champion with a very shady past. Wrongfully incarcerated for the death of a young woman during a race, he’s recently been released from prison and is looking to reclaim his good name. Along with his best friend Zippo, Cannonball decides to compete in the highly illegal, underground car rally known as the Trans-American Outlaw Road Race. But he faces stiff competition for the $100,000 first prize. There is country singer Perman Waters, who hopes to use the contest as a way of publicizing his career. There is Wolfe Messer, a German Grand Prix driver who hopes to show up the Americans with his souped-up European automobile. Jim and Maryann are two surfers who hope to win the cash so that they can buy a beach house in Hawaii. And Sandy Harris has brought two of her waitress friends along for the get-rich-quick ride.

Even though Cannonball is the favorite to win, two conflicting elements conspire to keep the bold Buckman down. One is longtime nemesis Cade Redman, who wants Cannonball out of the race…at any cost. And the other, oddly enough, is Coy’s brother, Benny, who’s in debt up to his cement shoes with the mafia. If Cannonball doesn’t win, the entire Buckman family stands to lose…permanently. It’s a demolition derby between good and evil, life and death, as lean, mean automotive machines traverse the highways and byways of this great land of ours, hoping to be the next bicoastal racing champion.

Like a cool breeze blowing across a summer’s evening at the local drive-in, Cannonball is pure, unadulterated B-movie magic. Part cornball chase picture, part idiosyncratic comedy, this sequel of sorts to Death Race 2000 (the same creative team is involved, though the story is markedly different) is a randy reminder of why certain staid formulas seem to always work so well. No matter the premise (illegal race across the country) or personalities involved (hard-bitten ex-cons, hillbilly hick singer), a good old-fashioned land-speed story is entertainment at its most primal.

Call it male machismo moviemaking or a well-honed tapping into of America’s love affair with the automobile, but whenever you pit vehicle against vehicle in an all-out contest to the end/prize/death/revenge, the results are resplendent. Some films have forged their entire identity on such horsepower hijinx—The Blues Brothers, The Junkman, Gone in 60 Seconds—while others have traded on the epic pavement power struggle to underline their larger point (Bullitt, The French Connection, and Ronin are good examples of this supplementary ploy). But for some reason, Cannonball careens off the top of the pleasure dome to resonate with a combination of craziness and craftiness to circumvent all possible pitfalls—not to mention plot potholes. Certainly, this is a low-rent actioner with a budget to match its less than broad scope, and you’ve probably seen better bumper-to-bumper ballistics in modern TV cop shows. But there is a special sublime quality to this high-octane oddity that really gets down deep in your merriment manifolds, producing untold RPMs of rejoicing.

It all begins in the setup. David Carradine, fresh from Kung Fu and Death Race 2000, is the washed-up, recently paroled from prison stock car champion who hides a secret sin that burdens his hardened soul. Winning this cross-country grand prix will offer him redemption and a less tarnished reputation—especially with his correctional officer girlfriend (essayed by the beautiful Veronica Hamel). Naturally, there is a mechanic sidekick—with the great name of Zippo—who idolizes and worships the very seat Dave sits on, and the black cloud of doom hovering over this wide-eyed worshiper is so thick it’s like the near-solid sludge in a frozen crankcase. Add the no-good brother (Corman main man Dick Miller, as brilliant as ever) who’s in hock up to his hemorrhoids with the mob, and the insane maniac bad guy (genre giant Bill McKinney, Deliverance, She Freak) who wants to get back at Carradine for reasons that seem more crackpot than concrete, and the basic cornerstones of car crash bedlam are in place.

But the wonderful thing that director Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Eating Raoul) does with his retro road race is flesh out the subplots with conspicuous eccentricities. Indeed, it is the ancillary characters, the oddballs off to the side that really sell Cannonball as something more than a low-rent Smokey and the Bandit. While there is no one here as instantly memorable as Jackie Gleason’s foul-mouthed fussbudget Buford T. Justice, Bartel still gives us the Cole Porter–obsessed Mafioso, the atonal, quasi-talented country bumpkin singer (Gerrit Graham), the self-righteous Euro-trash champion (James Keach) and dozens of delightful cameos. Indeed, throughout the course of Cannonball, be on the lookout for such AIP stalwarts as Martin Scorsese, Sylvester Stallone, Joe Dante, Don Simpson, Mary Woronov, and the low-budget legend himself, Roger Corman.

Still, for all the acting chops and prickly personalities therein, a film like Cannonball is really a director’s medium. How well you respond to its road rage comes in direct proportion to how successful Bartel is in anchoring the action. Thankfully, the man’s skill with a camera is considerable, and while you’ve probably seen better highway histrionics in big-budget stunt flicks, you’ve never experienced the high-speed chase in quite the same way as he delivers it here. Bartel enjoys positioning the camera at or near street level, accenting the feel and flow of the road beneath the wheels. He then cross-cuts to aerial shots of the vehicles in strategic circumstances, allowing the curve of the concrete or the upcoming landscape to dictate the dynamics and suspense.

Certainly, the action sequence has exploded in the nearly 30 years since Cannonball was made (the superhighway surrealism of The Matrix Reloaded‘s freeway fracas comes to mind). But as an example of nuts-and-bolts, no-CGI engine block stunt work, including a couple of absolutely incredible sequences (the gap jump and the pileup), Cannonball has a nice revved-up reality. Sure, it is an over-the-top tapestry of spark plug parameters that pushes the envelope of believability as it roars toward the finish line. But within its muscle car madness breathes a true escapist delight. And what more do you want on a sultry August evening at the neighborhood passion pit than a mindless exercise in gearbox gratuity? While it is the lesser of Bartel’s street beat ballyhoo (Death Race 2000 is just a fantastic bit of futuristic foolishness), Cannonball still delivers the appropriate axle greasing.

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Saturday, Feb 17, 2007
by tjm Holden

I was in Tokyo for work at The Japan Foundation and ended up at the Mandarin Bar. This watering hole commands the entire 37th floor of the 38-storey building that houses Mandarin Oriental, one of Tokyo’s nascent six-star hotels. Rooms at the MO start at five hundred bucks, which is why I was only having a drink there. As it was, drinks were about 20 smackeroos a pop, which is also why I was there. I wanted to partake of what surely is one of Tokyo’s most expensive pubs. As dear as it may be, if drink is your thing then you should consider going. And if you go I would recommend the Martinis. Ample in portion, very dry, chilled, and shaken, and probably strong enough to stop a rampaging rhino at fifty furlongs.

The Manhattans were not bad, apparently, as the woman seated next to me was quickly learning. Red (were both the drink and her cheeks), with enough whiskey to make “s” quickly transmogrify into “th” (and occasionally x, y and z). This inadvertent seatmate introduced herself as Sachiko (which, soon enough sounded seriously like “Thathiko”) and after the slow dance of “how-and-who-are-you”s, and the magic elixir of a softly-lit, tastefully understated, but glistening, vibrant, barroom full of sleek, well-appointed, self-satisfied people, Sachiko and I were quickly moving toward shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie.

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Friday, Feb 16, 2007

Phillip Wohl (“Philly” to his friends and family) is his mother and father’s pride and joy. He is also their overpowering yoke. The youngest of three children, the mentally handicapped man has never attended school, and barely left the Queens apartment where he lives with his overprotective parents. At 52, Philly is an extroverted exercise in overcoming personal limitations. In some ways, his parents are more limited by the effects of age and responsibility than Philly and his cerebral shortcomings. With his caretakers each in their mid-to-late ‘70s, Philly’s future is very much in peril. Without his family, there will be no one to take care of him.

Filmmaking cousin Ira decides to champion a change in Philly’s life (and document the journey along the way). Ira wants Philly to leave home, go to a special school, and be evaluated for placement in a group home. For Philly’s parents Pearl and Max, this news is greeted with begrudging acceptance. They want the finest for their son. But they also can’t imagine a time in their life when he hasn’t been an active, omnipresent part. Philly’s journey into an existence with more options and opportunities is really a story about letting go, having faith in humanity, and knowing that, no matter what happens, the young man you raised will always be your Best Boy.

One of the most remarkable portraits of a family unit in fundamental free-fall, Best Boy can easily be described as a last will and testament to the old fashioned attitude toward the mentally handicapped. Prior to the mid-1970s, those whom society deemed “retarded” or “slow” were often shipped off to homes and hospitals, hidden away like a dark secret in a back closet of the community. In such stark places, the level of care directly coincided with the institution’s idea of the patient’s practical usefulness. No matter what you may think of him in his present, proto-tabloid manifestation, Geraldo Rivera will always be sainted for saving the physically and developmentally disabled from the living Hell that was most state-sanctioned sanitariums. Rivera’s 1971 report on the New York snake pit Willowbrook (forever to be equated with horrifyingly unethical and inhumane treatment) opened the dialogue (and the legislative agenda) for a more principled and sympathetic handling of these sweet, special souls.

Over the years, while the mentally ill have been sidelined, viewed as victims of their own self-indulgent desire to remain insane, the intellectually challenged have gone from handicapped to “handi-capable”, seen as potentially constructive, contributing members of the human race. Best Boy is an allegory for this transition, a version in miniature of this shift in ideals. It admonishes the sheltering of those who are “special” from the rest of the populace, while advocating their eventual re-entry into the real world (even with all its bureaucratic and traumatic consequences). It’s a moving, magnificent window into a realm that most of us have never seen or had any direct contact with.

Best Boy is one of those rarities, a true-life documentary that transcends its basic subject matter and premise to say something universal about the human condition. Like Brother’s Keeper, Hoop Dreams, or Capturing the Friedmans, we soon learn that the initial reason we are watching these individuals has long since taken a backseat to the real interpersonal and character drama now playing out. As Philly moves from total dependency into the first few baby steps of autonomy, the impact on everyone is delightful and devastating. For the last half-century, Philly’s parents have known only caring for, and being the constant companions of, their son. Philly represents their life, their purpose for living. He has been everything from a burden to a bounty. When we meet Philly, he is in limbo, someone his parents rely on to clean the house or wash the dishes. Yet with all these indicators toward independence, his relatives will not relinquish control, considering the possibility of his leaving home unthinkable.

All of their own emotional issues are tied up in him. Philly’s father Max is so down and defeated, quietly pained by his son’s plight that medical maladies are literally eating him alive from the inside out. He is a skeleton of a man, a strong, silent, and stubborn stick figure in a constant state of reflection and rejection. Pearl, on the other hand, is a far more shrewd and suggestive entity, a woman who deeply loves her son while keeping the family spotlight solely on what best serves the adults’ needs, not just Philly’s. There are facets to her personality that reek of Jewish-mother stereotyping: she loves to guilt Philly into focusing attention on her, while subtly manipulates his decisions. You often get the impression that there is nothing between the elder Wohls except the age-old oppression of Philly. It’s interesting how the freedom of school and the excitement of the outside world devastates everyone other than the Best Boy himself. He loves it. The rest of the family can only resolve themselves with waves of weary finality.

But Best Boy is more than just a nuclear family fending off the final meltdown of mortality and change. There are greatly comic moments (Philly experiencing animals at the Bronx Zoo for the first time) and scenes of perfect emotional resonance (Philly meeting Zero Mostel backstage at a performance of Fiddler on the Roof is magical and moving). We never once feel that Philly is being exploited, and his camera-carrying cousin Ira never lets events turn maudlin or sappy. Death is handled with straightforward dignity. Loss is expressed simply and made to be understood. The same goes for happiness and harmony. Best Boy balances out all the emotions that come with change, and channels them into a marvelous statement about resilience and respect.

Much more a movie about aging and family responsibility than a tale of retardation, Best Boy doesn’t really tell a linear story, aside from Philly’s eventual address change. What it really resembles is a sacred scrapbook—a portrait of pain, promise, and persistence presented in animated movie clips. Scenes can and do contradict each other, and the flow is often tossed out of equilibrium by an inserted moment or lengthy shot. But there is a reason for this restlessness, this tone of untapped turmoil. Philly has spent 52 years isolated in a cocoon of smothering care, of “doing the best one can do” to manage an almost unmanageable circumstance. The newfound freedom Philly is feeling is peppered with clashing concerns for Pearl and Max. For them, Philly was everything. Without him, the void is next to impossible to fill. It’s the resolution to this reality that makes Best Boy more than a manifesto for the mentally challenged. At its basic level, it’s just a film about the family struggle over letting go.

Toward the end of Best Boy, Philly’s mother Pearl says that if God really wants to torture someone, He should give them a retarded child. Without blinking an eye, she adds, “You’ll never know the internal pain. Never.” While that may have been true when she said it, it’s hard to imagine that Philly is anything but an inspiration today. This is one special human who really deserves the title Best Boy.

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Friday, Feb 16, 2007

I picked up a copy of Vance Packard’s classic ad-scare polemic, The Hidden Persuaders, in a thrift store recently—a Pocket Book edition that originally cost 35 cents. It’s not even a pocket-size paperback, and the dried, no-longer-adhesive glue cracks every time I open it. I love the cover, which has no illustration, just alarmist announcements of all of marketing’s mind-control-like secrets—whose salaciousness is barely concealed, if at all: “WHY men think of a mistress when they see a convertible in a show window. WHY women in supermarkets are attracted to items wrapped in red. WHY automobiles get longer and longer.” What makes Packard’s book such an effective piece of propaganda about psychologically oriented marketing is that it always suggests that the stupid shopping decisions we make aren’t our doing really but the result of evil advertisers’ manipulation. This twist lets readers pretend they can have the pleasures of shopping without the responsibilities; it puts their consumerism in the passive voice. Reading Packard’s sensationalized accounts of Pierre Martineau (whose Motivation in Advertising is a kind of companion volume to Packard’s book, well-worth reading, if only for its genial cynicism) and Ernest Dichter (a perfectly villainous sounding name for the founder of Motivational Research), we can become incensed at all the ways we have been tricked or gloat to ourselves over all the times we resisted and outsmarted Dichter’s overlords, the devious ad men (always men in this 1950s text). Packard’s outrage that science would ever be employed to exploit people—that scientists might love money more than an abstract notion of humankind and posterity—has a refreshing naiveté to it, and I’m pre-sold on the argument that consumer society needs to invent a new kind of consumer who wants to buy, buy, buy constantly, as if against his own will. In Packard’s account, depth psychology is deployed to “invade the privacy of our minds” and sell personality to people who hadn’t even realized they needed more of one. And consumers must be made to feel constantly discontented and led to think it common sense that buying something more could fix that feeling. (This is sometimes celebrated as a ambitious faith in innovation, a force that keeps the economy growing.) At times he hints at the considerably more interesting thesis that depth psychology may actually invent the notion of personality, the desires that adhere to a lifestyle concocted on some paste-up board on Madison Avenue—that motivational research posits and inculcates the motivation that it originally sought to merely describe. Packard works to make the line between description and inculcation hard to draw, so that once a shared human preference is noted by psychology researchers, it is immediately instrumentalized into something to manipulate people to behave in ways counter to their best interests. Common advertising tropes—the promise of transformation, say—yield irresistible symbols (never mind how these change over time—long cars become big trucks, I guess) that can operate on us against our will; suddenly we become helpless at the subliminal sight of ice cream, we are duped into becoming brand loyalists by the clever way our subconscious desires are toyed with. One chapter describes women being literally hypnotized by products in the supermarket.

It’s easy to mock the alarmist histrionics and complain about the paternalism this analysis seems to invite—the restriction of ads to protect people from things they only seem to want.  (The libertarian would be prompted to argue, If individuals can’t be trusted to know what they’d prefer, why should we then trust a government agency to decide it? From this perspective any desire we might feel is valid by definition, and it’s absurd to argue that we are duped into wanting cosmetics or big, dumb cars or cigarettes or whatever.) Ads become like drugs—people seem to derive pleasure from them, but it is a pleasure that works on a reward system that is out of the individual’s rational control and is therefore dangerous. This interpretation intrigues me because it is sometimes overlooked that ads are not merely reeducation campaigns but do provide pleasure—we enjoy resisting them, enjoy submitting to them, enjoy the way they stock our imagination with fantasies and give us a shape for our aspirations. But they also make us angry at all the other forms of experience they crowd out or cannibalize. Our ambivalence ultimately provides enough of a wedge for ads to slip through and colonize everything; they become an ambient presence, inevitable, about as worthwhile to complain about as smog or litter. The power to do anything about ads is obviously beyond any individual’s control, so we make our own private deals with them, getting what we can.

Packard went on to write about planned obsolescence in The Waste Makers, which pushed the notion that society is trained to celebrate wastefulness, usually in the form of fashion, which champions change for its own sake, or for the sake of establishing hierarchy. Written in the margin of that book I had written a note about comparing planned obsolescence to Veblen and Bataille’s “The Notion of Expenditure,” which ridicules the common sense notion of utility. Seeing all utility as confining and disciplinary in its rationality (usefulness implies production, which implies work), Bataille argues for a kind of anti-utility in destructive play, “expenditure,” a pointless waste that society nonetheless relies upon: “luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, art, perverse sexual activity.” Veblen rationalized waste as “conspicuous consumption”—showy displays that attempt to establish one’s wealth incontrovertibly. No one feels richer than the guy lighting $100 bills on fire. Waste, for Veblen, is not waste but a status purchase. But Bataille follows anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who in Essai sur le don links wasteful displays to potlatch rituals, competitive gift exchange which often verges into sacrificial waste. The greatest glory (which Bataille defines as the most absurd and rapacious waste) comes with losing the most; it’s a short leap from there to the masochistic impulse of surrendering all of your will in a perfect potlatch gesture that can’t be topped. This ties back to the manipulative ads that can dictate our will; these ads fulfill this fantasy of surrendering our will but within a safe context, where the repercussions are small and contained—the ads are socially tolerated safe zone for this kind of submissiveness. Ads can make us feel rich in will, so rich that we can give it up rather than exercise it.

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Thursday, Feb 15, 2007
by Harlem Shakes

Harlem Shakes w/ Deerhoof
Diary #3

We’re now four days into tour—four shows, four cities, four venues, and what feels like a thousand hours in Thevandra. A pattern is
developing. First, we drive all day:

Then, we arrive at a venue, load equipment into the club, soundcheck (if time and tattooed men permit), and find food.  Then, we play our set:

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