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by Bill Gibron

20 Jun 2008

As stated before, the gossip got it wrong. Troma, left for dead by pundits who proclaimed its “Poultrygeist only” business plan a model for nothing but failure, wasn’t really on the brink of extinction. Instead, the independent titan responsible for such memorable cult classics as The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet was merely reconfiguring its priorities. It needed to move from its Manhattan digs when unscrupulous landlords raised their rent by a ridiculous amount, and the lack of available DVD product had nothing to do with a deteriorating bank account. Instead, the company’s latest big screen spectacle, a deranged chicken zombie flick, needed a theatrical chance before more digital delights hit the local B&M.

This past April saw the label finally return to the fan-friendly format, offering up the ganja goof Pot Zombies, and just last month, two more treats were unleashed on unsuspecting audiences everywhere. And both Bloodspit and Belcebu: Diablos Lesbos were just like other items in the distributor’s cockeyed catalog - oddball finds from a world slowly embracing the DIY moviemaking ethos. This pattern continues with June’s releases. In Offensive Behaviour, a group of idiosyncratic individuals find themselves locked in a struggle between life, love (or at least, sex), and death. In addition, Demons Among Us takes the corrupt corporate take-over of the media and imagines it as a parable involving a small Australian town under the onslaught of a group of devil-possessed killers.

In our first film, the residents of a small New Zealand apartment complex, are having a hard time coping. For them, things couldn’t get much worse. Upstairs, Quentin is sick of his nagging girlfriend Debbie. She wants him to give up his dreams of being a filmmaker and get a job. He just wants to sell a screenplay. Suddenly inspired, he decides to star her in a porno with best buddy Clarke to gain some quick cash. Meanwhile, an effeminate hitman/hairdresser named Nigel is also being harassed by his bitter old nun of a mother. She wants him to follow in the family footsteps - professional assassination. He just wants to style and blow. When a $500K contract job goes awry, it draws everyone into a surreal circle of sex, violence, and misplaced mail.

Beginning with a perfectly awful (and quite hilarious) movie pitch, and channeling the post-modern indie ideal fostered by such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, Offensive Behaviour is neither as outrageous as it thinks it is, or as funny as it could be. Five years in the making, Patrick Gillies’ good natured gonzo can’t quite match the men he’s mimicking, but then again, it’s hard to feel fresh when your final product has been gestating since 1999. If you remove all the Pulp Snatch strategies and the planned tastelessness, one winds up with a decent, quite winning comment on how technology and the Super VHS spirit have changed filmmaking.

Since our hero fancies himself another homemade auteur, it’s interesting to see the clueless way Gillies handles him. Wide eyed optimism is one thing - brain dead filmmaking fundamentalism is another. When Quentin stumbles across a pile of rotting corpses, he doesn’t shirk. Instead, he revs up the camcorder and creates a snuff subtext. In fact, the whole living room smut storyline is far more successful than the swishy, stereotyped mother/son material. During these moments, both actors do a wonderful job of turning up the tension, and the dialogue has a wonderfully fresh ring to it. But anytime a director resorts to limp-wristed revelry in portraying a homosexual, instant proto-PC flags start flying. Gillies tries to countermand this notion by making the other gay character far more ‘normal’, but even he ends up wielding a dildo in a strange, Star Wars like battle scene.

Overall, Offensive Behaviour feels more like a miss than a hit. It still has much to recommend it - gallant performances, witty scripting, definite directorial flare, and a welcome cultural subtext - and yet it also feels incomplete. We never know why our family of assassins is after the grubby guy in the Apartment 7. We can’t quite fathom the attraction between Debbie and Clarke…that is, until a last minute denouement tries to clear it up. The ending does reek of the slightest of rip-offs, having it all be a ‘dream’ being just as crass as what is offered, and no movie can kill an innocent guinea pig (totally offscreen) and get away with it. As a matter of fact, Offensive Behaviour is the kind of film that offers a fairly balanced collection of positives and negatives. How you gauge the balance will definitely decide your personal entertainment fate.

On the other hand, Demons Among Us has no such issues. This is a straight ahead horror movie with small touches of David Lynch tossed in for added atmosphere. When Joe moves into a tiny town in the Australian outback, he senses something sinister in the air. Isolation has rendered the place odd, and slightly off-putting. One day, the entire Winters family is found dead, their bodies torn apart in senseless savagery. Naturally, the newcomer is the prime suspect, but our hero knows differently. Seems he’s convinced that Hell’s minions are running rampant throughout the countryside, and they mean to destroy all life on the planet. With the help of local gal Kylie Fitzgerald and Police Sergeant Geoff Harding, he hopes to uncover - and put an end to - their Satanic plot.

If ambience were indicative of brilliance, Stuart Simpson’s Demons Among Us would be genius. It’s unusual Donwunder locations, accented by excellent camerawork and powerful post-production tricks, yields an amazing assortment of moods. It also adds a great deal of necessary menace. Since Simpson isn’t out to fully explain his evil media premise - there is a strong link between advertising and malevolence established - and because his narrative is so straightforward (death, investigation, accusation), he needs something to fill in the blanks. Luckily, his work behind the lens is so impressive we forgive the occasional flaws. In fact, the missing elements add an aura of mystery that actually works here.

It helps that he has a capable cast of actors to realize his vision. Nathaniel Kiwi is excellent as Joe, bringing the right amount of disbelief and drive to his character. Similarly, newcomer Laura Hesse isn’t hampered by some kind of Method mannerism. Her shock seems very real, her decision to fight born out of personal determination, not some scripted circumstance. Perhaps the most difficult individual element here is the slightly silly enigma known as Ed Winters. Essayed by Peter Roberts (who also plays the investigating detective) in gin blossom makeup and dark sunglasses, we never get a handle on this crude corporate shark. He seems the perfect target for a mangoat marketing scheme, but we’d like to know more about what he represents, realistically.

Still, Demons Among Us delivers in the all important fright department, its frequent homages to films like The Evil Dead neatly buried inside its own angle on supernatural terror. The gore is plentiful, and yet kept in check, while the numerous camera tricks (multiple exposures, digital F/X) add another layer of inventiveness. Sure, there are obvious moments of genre referencing, as when Kylie carries a camera into a dark passageway, night vision reflecting the unseen nastiness within, and we never sense the story being properly wrapped up. Indeed, one gets the impression that Simpson is prepared to go down the full Raimi road, delivering sequels meant to explore the legimately loose ends. As it stands, this is a great beginning. But even if we never see another installment, what our independent maverick has created here remains quite impressive.

As usual, Troma tries to flesh out these unknown entities the best they can. The images are uniformly good, especially when you consider the lo-fi aspects of the productions. Similarly, the scant added content (some bloopers for Offensive, a Making-of and a gross out short for Demons) doesn’t detract from the movies they’re meant to supplement. In fact, it’s fair to say that with this batch of DVDs, the once floundering reputation of Lloyd Kaufman’s indie icon is completely back on track. These are the kind of films Troma built their current reputation on - completely unlike what the mainstream delivers while coming curiously close to the art the CEO consistently champions. It’s good to know that, with all the changes affecting the industry, there is still such a home for outsider cinema.

If you like your comedy cockeyed and just a tad underdone, Offensive Behaviour will deliver enough chuckles to eventually win you over. Just don’t worry too much about Patrick Gillies’ overcomplicated script and you’ll definitely enjoy the ride…or at least, part of it. Demons Among Us, on the other hand, is a minor masterwork, the kind of creep out that stands as a solid example of one man’s unfettered vision. It’s the sort of movie one gets lost in - and from the looks of it, this is not the nicest place to lose one’s way. Together they signify what Kaufman and the clan have been arguing over for months - Troma is back. Frankly, based on the influence the company can claim here, they never ever really left.

by Kirstie Shanley

20 Jun 2008

All About Style

Anyone in attendance would have easily thought it was a Saturday night instead of a Tuesday as they gazed into the eyes of starlets Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo.

In the crowded Vic Theater, packed with people dressed for the occasion in all sorts of mod, emo, and punk attire (sometimes elements of all three!), the four members of Ladytron emerged on stage adorned by alternating strobes. The two male members of the band, Liverpool natives Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu, stayed back, immersed in total darkness, while Mira and Helen took to the front in matching silky black attire. Much like a microcosm of their music, many of their effects remained concealed mysteriously in the back. Up front, Korg keyboards were de rigueur, and the alternating vocals of Helen and Mira sailed over the instrumental onslaught. At times, their chords assaulted the cheering crowd; at other times they drifted across in waves. Each strobe cast a mixture of intense bright light and shadows across the pair of female singers, the harshness matching the onslaught of sound that often emerged from the stage.

Ladytron are currently on tour to support their recently released fourth studio album Velocifero. Like their past albums, it is packed with synth-pop goodies that mix a dreamy sensibility with the compulsion to dance. “Ghosts” and “Runaway” came off particularly well, with a lushness expected of this electropop quartet. They mixed these new songs with old favorites, such as “Playgirl” and “Seventeen”. Though there was minimal stage banter, Ladytron did seem appreciative of their audience who basked in the glory of the music.

by Rob Horning

20 Jun 2008

If goods become free, but consumption takes time, we may find ourselves in danger of being overwhelmed with things we have acquired that are demanding the time to be used. This hidden time cost of seemingly free things is easy to overlook, because we don’t customarily think of goods costing us anything but money. But internet distribution is changing the economics of cultural consumption, unleashing the attention economy, and forcing us to consider how we budget our limited time for information intake. In The Harried Leisure Class, Staffan Linder suggests that we will stop collecting information and consume more ignorantly instead in an effort to cram more consumption into our days, buying first and asking questions later, if ever. We buy goods based on whatever information came to us, via ads or advice, rather than expend precious consumption time doing our own research.

But isn’t it Google that is supposedly “making us stupid,” as Nicolas Carr argues in this Atlantic piece? Though Google is in some ways the ultimate research tool, reducing the time necessary to find information (hence the end of pointless arguments about factual things at family meals; now we just look things up), it also gives us information without much context, without our having to make the effort to organize our investigations. It also gives us way too much information, more or less indiscriminately—our searches aren’t always particularly refined. And Carr’s point is that it changes how we read: Citing developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, he writes,

the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

The advantage reaped by the speed with which we can acquire information is negated by the sheer amount that comes back at us. And the ease at which we get this plenitude tempts us into the shallow, efficiency-oriented pseudo-reading that Carr is concerned about. The time we have to read is limited, and we have so much more to read, that inevitably we start to select the easier stuff to read so we can feel like we are sucking down more of it.

I think about this sometimes when I’m editing, honing text and deleting words and tightening prose and resolving ambiguities and misleading phrasings so that it may be more easily processed by readers. I’m helping them read it faster so they will understand it more quickly, but at a much more superficial level. As Carr writes, “Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed.”

Linder argues that as we become squeezed for consumption time, we’ll consume more expensive things over cheaper things when possible to make use of more goods on a total-cost basis. But when the cost of goods is zero, what happens then? As behavioral economists (most vociferously, Dan Ariely) have pointed out, we find the promise of free things hard to resist (even when a little thinking reveals that the free-ness is illusory). So when with very little effort we can accumulate massive amounts of “free” stuff from various places on the internet, we can easily end up with 46 days (and counting) worth of unplayed music on a hard drive. We end up with a permanent 1,000+ unread posts in our RSS reader, and a lingering, unshakable feeling that we’ll never catch up, never be truly informed, never feel comfortable with what we’ve managed to take in, which is always in the process of being undermined by the free information feeds we’ve set up for ourselves. We end up haunted by the potential of the free stuff we accumulate, and our enjoyment of any of it becomes severely impinged. The leisure and unparalleled bounty of a virtually unlimited access to culture ends up being an endless source of further stress, as we feel compelled to take it all in. Nothing sinks in as we try to rush through it all, and our rushing does nothing to keep us from falling further behind—often when I attempt to tackle the unread posts in my RSS reader, I end up finding new feeds to add, and so on, and I end up further behind than when I started. It’s hard enough for me to delete a feed from Google reader; it’s even harder to get rid of unneeded stuff I’ve taken physical possession of, even if it was free to begin with, even if I can remember vividly fishing it out of a pile of garbage on my walk home from the subway. (Sometimes that little self-aggrandizing narrative makes it harder. Such stuff plays into my fantasy of myself as some kind of shrewd scavenger, beating the “system” by living off its cast-off crap—I tend to forget that the deluded hippies in the Manson family had the same dream.)

One way of coping with the problem of being overwhelmed with free stuff is to voluntarily impose prices, a kind of Pigovian tax that internalizes the time costs of consumption. Steve Randy Waldman, in detailing his idea for a postage system for email, is attacking a related problem—because emailing is free, there is nothing stopping us from being inundated with unwanted messages, but if the sender was willing to pay, we might take that into account and become willing to read. And if it’s a message we wanted, from someone we know, we could refund the postage.

The receiver of the mail would set the postage rate and get the money. That is, you do not pay a postal service for delivering mail (that’s free in the internet age), you pay the recipient for the burden your correspondence places upon her attention…. It would serve as a guarantee of nonabusiveness, but would rarely be paid. Therefore, people could set their postage rates fairly high without losing mail they care about.

But what about when we abuse ourselves, say, by signing up for Rapidshare and downloading every album posted on an mp3 blog? It’s hard to imagine volunteering to pay for something you know you can get for free, but then we risk making everything we have accumulated worthless from the sheer inability to find anything or decide among things.

I often feel like I’m strung between two conflicting ideologies, and outmoded one oriented toward getting as much as you can, and a new one oriented toward navigating an endless tide of information. They are basically two different ways of looking at how to anchor one’s identity, with the side effect of structuring how we consume. The epitome of the old way was to become a collector, to see yourself in stuff; the new ideology points us toward seeking fame, to see ourselves reflected back in the shimmering pool of digitized information.

by Timothy Gabriele

20 Jun 2008

Amazingly enough, Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis has been met with virtual silence thus far by the major record companies, despite the relative ubiquity of 2006’s Night Ripper on Illegal Art Records. He released his fourth album this week, Feed the Animals, under the newly fashionable pay-what-you-will model used by Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. Armed with an illegal mashaholic summer jamfest, a high profile scheme, and a potentially far-reaching audience, Gillis teeters himself closer to the orange alert attention of the music industry’s legal industrial complex.

Gillis is in many ways the music industry’s worst nightmare: a well revered artist on a populist and decidedly anti-capitalist bent. His music broadcasts the message of music as a universal language, both interpersonal and catholic, quotidian and intimate. In this space, a record exists amongst its peer albums as a dialogue, not a competitor. Gillis has avoided the polite avenues for fair use, gleaned through music’s top-selling brands for his own gains, and, to boot, he’s ahead of the curve in terms of utilizing the latest digital sales technology. Girl Talk’s pay-what-you will method is certainly at least five years away from any credible media giant touching it with a ten foot pole. After all, how do you convince the shareholders that the way to save your dying company is to let consumers set their own price? A free market economy is designed upon the Hobbesian principle that the proles, given the freedom to set their own boundaries, will always choose none. The uninducted masses, so the theory goes, would hypothetically act without restraint, without caution, and with only their own self-interest in mind. It’s easy to see why they would think so. That’s pretty much been the model the multinationals have followed for the past 20 years or so. 

Sure, Girl Talk is not a household name yet, but certainly the big five have to know about them. It’s not like their name or their source material are any secret. Unlike many sampledelic artists, Girl Talk do not mask their sonic bibliography under the plaster and latex of endless tweakings. In fact, they are rather cavalier about the orgy of pop radio sounds cross-pollinating throughout their records. The liner notes for Night Ripper give shout-outs to each artist whose work was used as the album’s mortar. And within hours of Feed The Animals‘s release, fans were already compiling a comprehensive list of all the album’s recognizable primary sounds on Wikipedia. The information is widely accessible. Yet unlike Jon Oswald’s Plunderphonics, which was voluntarily decimated 19 years ago under threats of legal action, Girl Talk have been asked to neither nor desist. Could it be that the music industry actually has, gasp, better things to worry about these days?

Rather than inviting trouble though, the pay-what-you-will model may actually present a legal loophole for artists like Girl Talk. The problem with selling material with uncleared samples seems to be an issue over ownership of the sounds themselves. Would the same rules apply if said sampling artist were to only accept “donations” for their art? Consumers are not being asked to give money out for the purchase of Feed the Animals. They’re being ask to donate to a musician and his label for having made Feed the Animals, which they will gladly give you for free. In this context, Feed the Animals is about as illegal as any mashup some kid in his living room designed for his blog.

Appropriately, the button under the field where you fill in your personal price for Girl Talk’s new album says “Feed the Animals”. The music industry long ago stopped caring about whether it could feed its artists. Maybe they’ll finally stop treating them like animals when the artists begin to realize they can feed themselves. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are well-fed post-industry cash cows. Gillis is another story. If proven a success, Girl Talk’s newest experiment may pose more of a threat than all the Napsters the music industry once refused to shake a ten foot pole at.

by John G. Nettles

20 Jun 2008

Here’s Looking at You, Kid: I came home from work the other day to find my 13-year-old son doing the dishes, voluntarily, to give his mother a break. As I went to him to give him kudos on his act of industry and kindness, I was stunned to notice that the top of his head was no longer at eye level. It’s one of those moments I’ve been having a lot lately, the realization that I no longer have a little boy living in my house but a budding man, with a whole new world of trials ahead for both of us. He’s gotten to an age where he’s vibrating with the need to go and do on his own, but without a clear sense of which of the infinite paths before him to choose. It’s a delicate, dangerous juncture, and as his dad I must be very careful from here on out.

In this place I feel for David Gilmour (the Canadian novelist and film critic, not the overrated British guitarist) as he looked across the dinner table at his 15-year-old son Jesse, flunking out of school and getting into all the worst kinds of teenage trouble. Realizing that the wrong course could well drive his son out the door, Gilmour made him a deal: no school, no work, free rent, in exchange for watching three movies a week of Gilmour’s choosing. It was a risky plan but Gilmour reasoned that if he could not speak to Jesse in Jesse’s language—teen angst, rampaging hormones, depression and self-destruction—then he would use his own, the universal language of film with its capacity to illustrate the wide spectrum of the human condition. This bold experiment is chronicled in Gilmour’s memoir The Film Club (Twelve Books, 2008).

I’m going to drop my usual snarky pseudointellectual pose here and just say it: I loved this book, every word of it, unreservedly. As the weeks roll on and Gilmour shares the richness of the cinematic universe in all its hues with his son, from French New Wave to Kurosawa samurai epics, from spaghetti westerns to goofy pure-Hollywood comedies, the two men begin to form bonds of communication and wisdom that so-called parenting experts can only dream about having. Gilmour writes in unflinching terms about the perils of navigating the treacherous waters of his son’s life—drinking and drugs, his risky foray into white-boy hip-hop, his obsession with a particularly manipulative 16-year-old femme fatale—with patience and firmness and, hardest of all but most importantly, trust in Jesse to do the right thing.

This is not to say that Gilmour makes himself out to be Ward Cleaver with a DVD player. During this period Gilmour struggles with his own demons, out of work and anxious, desperate to save his boy, and always terrified of making that fatal mistake that drives Jesse away. But while Gilmour educates his son, Jesse educates his father in the crucial balancing act between being the child’s friend and being his parent. As so many of us who were raised in the post-Dr. Spock era can attest, that balance is the most difficult stunt to pull off, but the most necessary. The Film Club shows that it can be done, maybe not with a feel-good Hollywood ending, but with something far more substantial.

(Also highly recommended, if you can find it, is Dennis Hensley’s remarkable book Screening Party [Alyson Books, 2002], the story of six diverse friends brought together by their monthly movie gatherings. Poignant, both sad and hopeful, and spank-me funny, it’s worth combing the Internet to find.)

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