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Monday, Oct 22, 2007

When it comes to mixing genres, it’s usually recommended to be obvious. An action comedy or a horror romance typically works best when audiences can sense the split between the two. Viewers like their cinematic categories decipherable, if only because it allows them to draw on an internal list of expectations and prepared responses. Dread should be scary, witticisms humorous, etc. But mix the combination too subtlety, shade a drama with just the slightest hint of science fiction or fantasy, and you threaten to leave the observer dumbfounded. David Lynch does this all the time, simply because he will use any and all filmmaking standards and subcategories to fulfill his artistic means. This leaves a tantalizing title like Dog Bite Dog in a similar cinematic quandary. What we supposedly have here is a typical cops vs. criminal adrenaline rush. But thanks to some unusual thematic and stylistic choices, the movie mutates between firefights and frights, standard stunt set-pieces and moments of moody macabre.

When the wife of a prominent judge is murdered in cold blood, Hong Kong police are baffled. Obviously a professional hit, they hope to locate the killer before he finds a way to escape their grasp. On a hunch, disgraced policeman Wai follows a suspicious man. Their eventual confrontation leaves no question of the stranger’s culpability. Looking for a place to lie low, murderer Pang procures the help of a young girl living in a landfill. She’s more than happy to help, the daily abuse by her incestuous father having successfully destroyed her spirit. As Internal Affairs investigates Wai (as a way of getting to his comatose cop father) and the crew assigned to the crime grows agitated, Pang plans his escape. He will take the girl, hijack a boat, and return to his Cambodian home. Of course, his pursuer has other plans, and it’s not long before the two are battling among the side streets and warehouses of the business/harbor district. It’s a war that will continue across borders and into countries where such inhuman confrontations are a matter of course. 

Dog Bite Dog (new to DVD as part of the Dragon Dynasty series from Genius Products) is the horror movie of Hong Kong action films. It’s Halloween with an abused Cambodian orphan as Michael Myers and a tripwire maverick cop as his equally volatile Dr. Loomis. They battle along a landscape inspired by the green/gray dreck drone of Saw and the gritty, grim atmosphere of Se7en. There are shades of Frankenstein (murdering monster befriending harmed human outcast) and any number of metropolitan zombie epics (a big city has never looked so desolate or disturbing). As helmed by Pou-Soi Cheang with a real flare for the dramatic and the distressing, this is an incredibly brutal and aggressive experience, a descent into the kind of mindless terror and blood-spattered nihilism that makes the MPAA weep. Yet thanks to the typical Asian story conventions – elder/young gun conflict, parental shame and family face, lawless law enforcement – and the remarkable performances by a completely devoted cast, we end up with something that utilizes the formulas to create a wholly original, and quite upsetting, experience.

We know we’re in for something different from the opening shots. While the title sequence suggests Nine Inch Nails gone even more industrial, the first glimpses of assassin Pang come as a big surprise. Hiding in the hold of a massive cargo ship, he is fed like an animal, a broken bowl of rice cherished like a convicted felon’s final meal. Before we know it, our antihero is pumping five bullets – several at point blank range – right into the head of an elegant older lady. While it’s vile and viscous, the crime is not really the issue here. Director Cheang is actually more interested in how animalistic individuals interact (thus the title). Of course, it takes a while before policeman Wai lowers himself to Pang’s level, but we get hints along the way. Though its somewhat skimmed over, we see the officer dealing in dope, beating suspects, torturing informants and generally acting like an unhinged madman. We expect fireworks when these two interact. What we get, instead, are confrontations so cruel they literally make one wince.

These aren’t gory, gratuitous exchanges. Instead, Cheang stages them to maximize the mindless hostility involved. Pang has been raised to be this violent. Wai has worked all his dangling Daddy issues into a tight little nuclear ball, and he can’t help but explode. Backstory is limited, so Dog Bite Dog is never really interested in getting into the psychological or symbolic manner of our good guy/bad guy’s past. Instead, these powder keg personalities simply go off (and often), leaving dozens of corpses and confounded witnesses in their wake. Even more impressive, Cheang is not afraid to kill off his characters. Though Hong Kong action films have their standard disposable victim fodder (usually a fat, oafish officer or a buffoonish bureaucrat), this movie more or less leaves everyone up for the Grim Reaper’s grasp. It truly heightens the suspense when, as Roger Ebert and Gene Sickel loved to argue, anyone can die at anytime – and typically does.

Even better, the whole landfill subplot gives the movie a uniquely maudlin edge. In the commentary track that accompanies this new DVD release, actor Edison Chen (who plays Pang) discusses the whole garbage village culture, from the massive mound itself – several football fields in size – to the unconscionable way people use the rotting refuse. Such authenticity really makes the relationship between Pang and the slightly slow girl he rescues into something bordering on old fashioned tragedy. It feels like John Woo worked through a 1930s Hollywood tearjerker. On the polar opposite of visual intrigue is actor Sam “Wai” Lee’s transformation from cop to caged beast toward the end. On the second disc of extras provided with the title (including interviews with Chen, director Cheang, and a thorough Making-Of), the star discusses his approach to character, and points out that Wai and Pang are really two sides of the same corrupt coin. Law is of no import to their purpose – unless it’s the natural order of kill or be killed.

Fans used to high flying martial artistry, slo-mo bullet ballets, and overly stylized sequences of outrageous and dangerous stuntwork will probably see Dog Bite Dog as something of a letdown. It’s more mano-y-mano than badass swagger and cool jazz heroism. It’s a dark, dense tale of terror told with sharp implements and callousness vs. the supernatural and the creepy. With an ending as bleak as they come, and a sense that everything we’ve seen has perhaps been all for naught (though the alternate narrative track suggests final shots that would have stated otherwise), it’s a tough, uncompromising entertainment. While most Hong Kong action aficionados think they’ve seen it all, Dog Bite Dog suggests otherwise. It stands as an understated film fusion that succeeds in staying true to all the references it relies on.

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Monday, Oct 22, 2007

From a music mailing list:

the Bob Moog Memorial Foundation needs help preserving Moog’s warehouse of mildew damaged papers, instruments and tapes and is begging for donations to help move the materials to a safer storage location and to start restoring them.

See the Bob Moog foundation
Also see this photo site

Moog was the brilliant gent who remodeled the synthesizer so that it could be more easily used and become more accessible to musicians around the world.  He was also one of the world’s greatest theremin crafters and a helluva nice guy.  I had the pleasure to interview him at PSF here.

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Monday, Oct 22, 2007

Lately, perhaps out of some atavistic urge to feel like I’m still in graduate school, I’ve been reading Trollope’s Palliser novels, which explore happenings in the marriage market for various peers, heiresses, and parliamentarians in the late Victorian age. Trollope is no prose stylist, and he doesn’t seem to trust his readers to get anything; he has a clumsy habit of explaining with a thud what’s between the lines of his dialogue, which lulls you into a laziness about thinking too hard about the action. (This does make the books considerably easier to read, it must be confessed.) Forgive this overstatement as a kind droll irony, though, and the books become much funnier, and they are pretty humorous to begin with—not in a laugh-out-loud way by any stretch of the imagination, but Trollope is so consistently cynical that a curmudgeon like me can take pleasure in them. The characters are almost always keeping their minds on the money and struggling to find various ways to politely pass that off. The only exceptions are the female heroines, who are made dramatically compelling mainly by serving as an alternative reward to money for the muddled, dithering heroes, who invariably must choose between financial pragmatism and romance. But these heroines usually have a counterpart who struggles with the way women are shut out from the public sphere; the recurring Glencora Palliser character serves as a series-long touchstone for this theme, but each novel has its own iteration of the smart, ambitious woman who must marry to have a vicarious career. Trollope doesn’t explicitly condemn this arrangement, though he usually makes these women suffer without ever seeming convinced they don’t deserve it.

But this vicarious behavior is complemented by other strategies for power, or at least self-gratification, which are set against the backdrop of the real political power exercised by the politicos who are always just offstage. Lizzie Eustace, of The Eustace Diamonds, has her shrewdnesss warped by the lack of an outlet and her ambition redirected toward the only sphere she is allowed to exercise her wits, finding a lover. She seeks one with no respect for social mores, her “Corsair” whose contempt for society might allow her to feel free of it by proxy. Trollope tells us, “She had a grand idea—this selfish, hard-fisted little woman, who could not bring herself to abandon the plunder on which she had laid her hand—a grand idea of surrendering herself and all her possessions to a great passion.” This is her way of transforming her wealth into a purchasable narrative through which she can experience the oversize emotions she has been accustomed to believing come with her rank. The marriage market, so reimagined, becomes her way of making her life into a novel, of allowing for the best kind of consumerism of all, self-consumption. And then we see the society scandal-mongers relishing in her tale, eagerly consuming the story that we readers are consuming too while sustaining the plausibility of the fictional world we are trying to lose ourselves in—what could better symbolize realism than gossip, the nuts and bolts of how we articulate social values in everyday life?

This figuring of how the novel should be consumed within the novel itself, through the eager consumption of scandal, typifies the way novels model for us how to enjoy vicariousness. Lizzie, in playing at sincerity to win lovers who she then can’t property respect as she hopes to (who is not a “Corsair” capable of duping her), gets herself tripped up by the classic consumer conundrum: the inauthenticity that comes from trying to purchase authenticity. “Could she not be simple? Could she not act simplicity so well that the thing acted should be as powerful as the thing itself;—perhaps even more powerful? Poor Lizzie Eustace! In thinking over all this, she saw a great deal.” Called upon to respond naturally, simply, in order to perfect herself as an attractive object, Lizzie instead takes artifice to the next degree of complication, simulating objecthood and playing out a pretense to supply herself with a sense of her subjectivity—of her pursuing her own desires. “To be always acting a part rather than living her own life was to be everything.” Consumerism, vicariousness, identity-construction through narratives, they all prove to be different iterations of the ever-disappointing process of willing states (pleasure, spontaneity, love, etc.) that can be experienced only as by-products. But our failed attempts, thanks to outside ideological prodding from the advertising world (which tells us the right objects can vindicate a phony self—the fantasy prompted by consumption making an identity “as powerful as the thing itself” if not moreso) lead us only to redouble our efforts rather than conceive new goals. Lizzie thinks money can buy her the right to a “poetical temperament,” but that temperament itself is clearly a calculated sham; it may as well have been derived from an advertisement. The only power she is left with is the power to conceal her own crimes, to hide the fact that thee is nothing true inside her beyond the schemes, that she has, as Trollope tells us bluntly, “no heart.” Whether her angelic antithesis, Lucy, does, is another question—she is rather lifeless, moved around like a piece of furniture and waiting eagerly to be commanded by her fiancé/boss.

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Monday, Oct 22, 2007

Phew… it seem like only yesterday we were wading into the first crowd of the festival, and now CMJ is but a memory (oh how we’ll miss you dear). Of course, all that’s gone is not forgotten: we’ve got Day 4 and 5 photo updates courtesy of our friends at Flavorpill below, and our annual artist breakdown and general recap begins tomorrow. Get pumped!

Check out Flavorpill’s CMJ preview...

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Sunday, Oct 21, 2007

So, you want to be a filmmaker - and not just any kind of cinematic savant, but a semi-genuine, wholly independent, self-styled artist who reinvents the various genres they attempt while maintaining one realistic eye on the ever-changing moods of the mainstream. You long to see your name in lights, or if not that, as the headline on some web critic’s blog, and you bask in the imaginary glow of your own creative epiphanies, struggling for a way to share them with the rest of the world. Well, thanks to DVD, and the accompanying wave of handy homemade moviemaking sciences, your long dormant living dead extravaganza is just a few simple steps away. And SE&L is here to help. Call it an instructional guide or a series of procedural stereotypes, but almost all the no name homemade horror movies follow a concrete collection of logistical laws.

Certainly, some of you aren’t interested in tripping the terror fright-tastic. You’d rather work out the longstanding issues between yourself and your parents, your sexuality and its uncharted truth, or the world and your passionate personal political agenda. Now, there is nothing wrong with said subjects, and well received examples of same pepper the emerging underground scene. But if you want some cash to go along with your chaos, fear is a solid first rung on the inevitable ladder of legitimacy. It’s easily marketable, instantly recognizable, and occasionally profitable – or so the interviews with established genre veterans frequently state. However, you’ve got to get past a few hurdles before becoming the next Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson. Let SE&L provide the blueprint for your approaching success with these 10 simple steps. When applied, they provide the shortcuts that others had to struggle to discover. While not foolproof, it’d be foolhardy to ignore them, beginning with:

Step 1 – Ignore the Conventional Wisdom RE: Technology
It used to be that, if you wanted to make movies, you had to know film. Not just know film, but study celluloid in a way that suggested a scientific handle on the subject. You had to make every reel count, taking exposure, lighting and shutter speeds. And talk about expensive. You had to pimp yourself to every dentist, local real estate magnet, and businessman with a hankering to play producer just to get a minimal amount of scratch. Well, Grandpa, digital is your deliverance. On the cheap – or cheapish – you can get a good camcorder, a collection of tapes, and – Viola! – you’re a director. Of course, mise-en-scene and other aesthetic artform considerations are optional. You’re a rebel. Screw the language of film, right?

Step 2 – Reminder: Stay Firmly Within the Homemade Horror Movie Subject Areas
Of course, creativity will not be your strong suit, initially. You just figured out how to download and access editing software on your laptop. No one expects you to be George Romero after that. Still, there are limits to your potential premises, dogmatic dictations about subjects you can and cannot tackle. Here are the three acceptable areas of horror that you are allowed to explore – zombies, vampires, serial killers. Prohibitions exist on anything involving science fiction, ghosts and/or haunted houses, and first person POV Blair Witch rip-offs. No one, not even the experts in said genres, can avoid those potential motion picture pitfalls consistently. They’re deadlier than a store bought monster mask and an aging porn star cameo combined.

Step 3 – Hire only Friends, Associates, and Random Well Wishers
They say a film crew is like a family – one big, dysfunctional and incestual hillbilly clan. So remember to keep your employees intimate. Avoid the local colleges and high schools and hire only actors who will tolerate your first time filmmaker hissy fits. There’s only room for one overly dramatic diva on set, and it’s YOU, baby. Besides, theater majors make lousy scream queens. As for costumers, cinematographers, and special effects technicians, look for members of your immediate sphere of influence and target individuals with a penchant for thrift stores, a relatively steady hand, and a collection of self-made taxidermy specimens, respectively. They will elevate your production value ten-fold.

Step 4 - Don’t Skimp on the Storyline
Remember, you may never get another chance at making a movie. No matter technology’s ease of access or the fervent desire of those around you, creating cinema can literally kill your inspired drive. It’s that whole “dreaming vs. doing” ideal. Anyway, since this may be your single shot, use it as a means to work out each and every one of your narrative agendas. Always wanted to feature a mass murderer who plays in his own feces while watching female victims go lesbian for his enjoyment? Make that a major subplot. Do you think Eddie Deezan like know-it-all nerds with creepy, whiny voices have been marginalized in the last few years? He’s your hero! Remember, there are no bad ideas, just badly written ones.

Step 5 – When in Doubt, Throw Blood on It
Of course, you may be one of the unlucky multitude that actually stumbles upon one of those rare lame storylines. It happens. If you discover that your re-vampire saga about extraterrestrial neckbiters who want to impregnate the females of Earth as part of some master race plan just doesn’t have the heft you imagined, gore it up. Bring on the body parts and offer up the offal. Even the most discerning fright fan will cut you some slack if you, in turn, cut up some corpses. Of course, don’t go overboard. Ample arterial spray is one thing. Autopsy like vivisection is reserved for sluice experts like Tom Savini only.

Step 6 – Nudity is Nice as Well – With One Caveat
If you can’t say it with blood, naked bodies will work just as well. As a novice filmmaker, you may not know this, but horror is the heavy metal of cinema. It plays directly into an adolescent’s angst, sense of social worth, and desire to see things die. So pander to this populace a little and toss in some tush. Just remember this one important fact – most of the girls who’ll agree to get wild have their own body issues they’re dealing with, and aside from random cutters, most have chosen tattoos as a way of expressing this pain. Exposed breasts are always a fright film plus. Said mammaries with large Middle Earth maps across them tend to be antithetical to arousal

Step 7 - Reminder: It’s not Stealing, it’s a Homage
Don’t be afraid to copy. This isn’t high school math, or the Bar Exam. Peeking at previous auteurs’ efforts is perfectly acceptable in the world of outsider cinema. After all, you’re supposed to benefit from the trailblazing of those who came before, but it’s not an inferred process. There is no celluloid osmosis. So you have to watch the work of others, and if something they’ve done inspires you, go ahead and borrow. If it works, you’re a studied apprentice of past masters. If it doesn’t you’re merely offering a tribute to those who came before. In the realm of horror especially, plagiarism is permitted. In fact, it’s how many macabre maestros earned their wicked wings.

Step 8 – Out of Fashion Musical Trends are Your Film Score Friends
Unless you’re going wholly retro and returning to the days of silent scares, you will need underscoring to set the mood and tone of your narrative. Some experts have even stated that motion picture dread is 10% story, 40% image, and 50% sound. In that regard, you won’t be able to afford some slick orchestral composer ready to channel Bernard Hermann and Danny Elfman. Nor are you John Carpenter or Robert Rodriguez, capable of making your own scary movie noise. While licensing fees can eat into your limited fiscal means, remember this – forgotten tune trends can bail you out every time. Scare standards include ska, death metal, techno, and navel-gazing alt-folk acoustic fare.

Step 9 – Post Production is Cinematic Salve
There’s an old saying on Hollywood film sets – “We’ll fix it in post”. Nowhere is this maxim truer than in the realm of outsider filmmaking. Something that looked remarkable the day you created it can feel sophomoric or ever silly when buttressed up against a supporting set of shots. Even worse, an actor or actress you admired tremendously when they emoted in person may resemble a lumbering lox once the viewfinder focuses on them. Thanks to all the advances in after production retrofitting, you can CGI out a bad performance, or rerecord a lisping thespian’s dialogue. Even better, colors can be moderated and details clearly defined with a series of keystrokes. In fact, the only trouble untweakable is your own lack of talent.

Step 10 – Distribution is only a DVD Drive Away
So, you’ve spent six consecutive weekends at your grandfather’s ranch filming in his abandoned chicken coop. You’re friends are tired, your significant other hates you, and you’ve got fake blood, Vaseline, and way too many Hot Pocket drips staining your wardrobe. You’ve sacrificed time, learned (and then relearned) cutting style and narrative clarity, and that local punk funk fusion band you commissioned is three weeks late delivering its “Devil’s Suite” for your climatic chainsaw orgy. Now imagine what such a circumstance was like when you had to rely on a theatrical release of a VHS company to carry your vision. Now, all you need is a computer, a pile of discs and the desire to burn baby burn. It may not certify your international acclaim and untold wealth, but at least you’re guaranteed some level of audience.

And there you have it – 10 simple lessons, 10 foundational rules of thumb that will start you off on the right film footing. Violate/ignore/reinterpret them at your own, and your directorial future’s, risk. Pay no attention to those who’ve completely avoided any or all of these guidelines and still managed to make stellar homemade cinema. There’s freaks after all, the exception that never bears out the actual rule. There are only so many Eric Stanzes and Scott Phillips in the world of outsider auteurs, and even they fall into parts of this determinative Decalogue now and again. While some would like to think this is a New Wave for motion pictures, a kind of digital self determination, viewers and commercial success continue to impose their own archetypes and clichés on the burgeoning format. Before the pool of popularity dries up, you better jump in and start swimming. The water may be murky, but the currents are completely in your favor – for now.

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