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by Rob Horning

20 Jul 2009

Recently, as I mentioned before, I re-read the novel Dune, something that felt vaguely shameful to me, so shameful that I feel compelled to mention it again here as a kind of penance. While I was quickly and compulsively working my way through Muad Dib’s rise to the godhead, I was too ashamed to take the book on the subway; instead I waited until I got home from work to furtively dive in. Not that the book itself is shameful; it’s rightly regarded as a classic. I think my shame came from how much it remind me of myself when I was 12, when I first read it, how much I was indulging a useless nostalgia, as all the innocence was gone from my reading. Whenever I felt myself getting caught up in the story, I found myself adamantly retreating to an analytical distance, seeking in some way to ironize my own engagement.

While I was reading, I found myself frequently and needlessly recurring to the near-incomprehensible map of the planet on which most of the action takes place. It’s not like the geography is confusing. But the map is more confusing than anything else, with lots of locations labeled that I don’t remember ever being mentioned in the text, with hopelessly geeky names like “the Minor Erg”. The glossary, on the other hand, is extremely useful and great for laughs, too. My favorite part is the Pale Fire style references to nonexistent reference works; e.g. the parenthetical in the entry for Krimskell fiber that reads “For a more detailed study, see Holjance Vohnbrook’s ‘The Strangler Vines of Ecaz.’ ” I think half the reason you write a science fiction book is to throw in stuff like that. And to produce appendixes that go into utterly gratuitous detail about the fictional universe you’ve invented. Reading Dune‘s appendixes made me wonder whether the novel was just an excuse to allow Herbert to publish the appendixes, which seemed to contain the quintessence of his inspiration, still crystalline and impenetrable and inaccessible. Novels like Dune tap into the primordial passion of naming things, or renaming familiar things in some made-up language, and drawing up maps for the sheer pleasure of naive cartography.

What started me thinking about this was a passage in Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy—a survey of differences between oral cultures and cultures that have writing.

For oral cultures, the cosmos is an ongoing event with man at its center. Man is the umbilicus mundi, the navel of the world. Only after print and the extensive experience with maps that print implemented would human beings, when they thought about the cosmos or universe or ‘world,’ think primarily of something laid out before their eyes, as in a modern printed atlas, a vast surface or assemblage of surfaces (vision presents surfaces) ready to be ‘explored.’ The ancient oral world knew few ‘explorers’, though it did know many itinerants, travelers, voyagers, adventurers, and pilgrims.

Michael Chabon’s essay about childhood in the most recent New York Review of Books touches on a similar idea. Citing the mental maps he made of his neighborhood, replete with personal landmarks unique to him, Chabon claims that “Childhood is a branch of cartography.” He connects this with maps in adventure stories:

People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map—marked here there be tygers and mean kid with air rifle—that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children.

Combine with this Ong’s argument about adventurers, and you get something like this: A certain species of books, mainly attractive to young adults, seem designed to re-stage that transition from an oral-dominated world of adventure to text-dominated (i.e. mapped) world on a small scale, in the reader’s mind. An epic story unfolds on the oral-tradition model, but it’s fused to a battery of maps and glossaries and appendices that engulf the narrative and sap its power away, or at least redirects that narrative’s momentum and energy. That is to say, perhaps part of the drama of novels like Dune lies in having the adventuresome oral tradition evoked again for readers while allowing them reader to ultimately and triumphantly reject it in favor of textuality, literacy, maps, dictionaries, and so forth. We master the technologies of text as we’re reading these otherwise unnecessarily confusing books—consulting the maps and the glossary—and experience ourselves transcending the universe of the story as it unfolds. We end up feeling as though we are alongside the creator of the story, in an “adult” world of total comprehension. Then we confirm it by reading the appendix. Eventually we associate with adulthood the idea that we can do away with the fiction and just stick to the facts, presented in as bare-bones a fashion as possible so we can take in more of them. We skip right to the maps in the back; the stories just get in the way.

by PopMatters Staff

20 Jul 2009

This past June Grizzly Bear played a Milwaukee show at the Pabst Theater and here’s a glimpse of that appearance.

by PopMatters Staff

20 Jul 2009

Kanye West played London’s iTunes Festival (how’s that for corporate branding) this weekend. Here’s some great footage from ITV.

by Sarah Zupko

20 Jul 2009

Cornershop’s new video features a lot of old archival footage of English life, with a lot of reverse loops to create Monty Python-esque backwards silly walks. The UK group is self-releasing their latest album entitled Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast on July 27th.

by Bill Gibron

20 Jul 2009

It made $30 million dollars in its opening weekend. It was hailed as another comedy classic from the man who made Iron Curtain bigotry box office gold. Messageboards were touting the film’s near 70% Rotten Tomato rating, adding that in their mind, making seven out of ten of the world’s cynical critics laugh must mean something. Yet something unexpected happened this past Friday afternoon when the first tallies of the weekend were counted. Brüno, which many felt would be one of the bigger hits this otherwise lackluster Summer season, was almost 80% off from the previous week. And while many thought that number couldn’t possible hold, two more miserable days at the ticket takers rewarded the latest from Sacha Baron Cohen with an unhealthy 72% fall. Ouch!

Of course, for anyone who felt the film was a one note bit of obnoxiousness that overstayed its welcome early and often, this was no big surprise. Even some in the industry predicted that even without another smash weekend, Brüno would still have enough staying power to barely make it to $100 million. But it seems like the proposed sensation has stalled, given over to a general vibe of being a success, but not a “success”. As the various pundits try to figure out what went wrong, we here at SE&L have our own impressions. True, some have come from reading the thoughts of others and taking the temperature of the whole Twitter/Facebook demo, but the truth remains that what was once considered a given has suddenly become a commercial question mark.

Broken down into five recognizable trends, here are some reasons why Brüno won’t be Borat, or even Paul Blart: Mall Cop for that matter. Let’s being with:

The Right Movie - The Wrong Movie Season

As tentpoles go, Brüno is clearly not the kind of film you build an entire summer around. It’s niche, perhaps in the most niche-iest way possible. It’s trading on the previous success of a similarly styled film and it’s dealing with subject matter that may or may not alienate its intended audience. And yet what does Universal do? It centers it in between a trio of highly anticipated titles (Public Enemies, Ice Age 3, and Harry Potter 6) and expects it to hold its own. Perhaps if they had positioned it toward the end of August, when the Summer is winding down and the other studios are selling off their also-rans to an already overdosing public, this oddball effort could have stayed the course. Instead, it looks to shine semi-brightly for another few days and then become the source of much industry speculation.

“Gay Don’t Play”

Another cited reason for Brüno‘s lack of “legs” is the film’s main subject matter - homosexuality. And not just the inference of same, mind you, but the quasi-censored hardcore pornographic illustrations of the orientation. Now, Joe Sixpack and many in the equally narrow-minded Red State citizenry really don’t care for alternative lifestyles (a gross overgeneralization, granted), so imagine their surprise when a proposed mainstream comedy gives them upfront examples of Queer Nation Gone Wild! While one would hope that the rest of the country is as supposedly unprejudiced as the always complained about ‘Coasts’, here’s betting the Brüno stirred up a lot of negative watercooler conversation around the various borderline Bible belt factions of these often fractured United States.

It’s All the Midnight Screenings Fault

One of the more unusual theories about Brüno‘s 72% drop off center around math - specifically, the concept that Midnight screenings, held the Thursday before the movie “officially” opened skewed the follow-up percentage higher. In essence, what these obsessive-compulsive bean counters are arguing is that if Brüno hadn’t given into the new 12:00am trend, it would have earned LESS its opening weekend, and thus the difference between then and now would be statistically smaller. OK - that’s true. But we also have to remember that this film arrived on more screens that Borat, had less competition over its initial three days (I Love You Beth Cooper? Please!), and was building on an already established “star” in Sacha Baron Cohen. Midnight or not, any major drop indicates trouble in ambush comedy paradise.

The Humor Didn’t Match the Hype

Far be it from us to blame the film itself (it’s such a classic, right? RIGHT?) but it seems clear that, unlike its racist Eastern European cousin, Brüno just didn’t deliver the promised goods. Jokes fell flat, much of the scripted material was not as “inspired” as previous incarnations of the character, and audiences clearly expected more of the man on the street material and less of the lead’s lecherous bedroom activities. By the time the narrative shifted from sex to celebrity, many had made their mind up. Even the inspired bits with the African baby and the religious “convertor” were met with less than enthusiastic responses. Again, you can blame an ad campaign that literally gave away most of the gags in the trailer. But you can also blame a comedian who tried to fool most of the people twice, and as the famous maxim says, that ain’t happening, girlfriend!

Relax - It’s Just Part of the Nu-Blockbuster Model

Perhaps the most rational statement made in regards to Brüno‘s record fall-off is also the most telling in general. Apparently, we live in an age of instant access and equally direct responses. A film like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen earns massive money its first weekend because everyone wants to see it. Those who don’t like to fight such audiences wait until a week or two later. Word of mouth also operates to put butts in/keep butts out of first run seats, as does the occasional critic. Still, Hollywood understands that even the biggest hit is going to see its financial fortunes reduced by 55% to 60% in its second weekend. That almost always because another popcorn player is walking into the arena, ready to do box office battle. Again, Brüno had to put up with Harry Potter. Not a very fair fight, really.

In truth, the key concept here is word of mouth. In today’s multimedia overload dominium, the less than enthusiastic reactions from a couple of ‘bros’ means that something you might take the chance on theatrically becomes the most recent add to your Netflix queue. Get enough of those responses - and Brüno clearly wasn’t walking on a cloud of consensual unanimity - and a near 3/4’s drop doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Some will chalk it up to the viewing public finally wising up while others will shrug it off as standard cinematic operating procedure. Whatever the case, it looks like this film will follow the course taken by many of the movies this Summer - gangbusters out of the box, commercially underwhelming from there on.

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