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Saturday, Jul 7, 2007

I’d just finished at the Amazon checkout counter when I stopped to marvel at the A9-Clickriver search and sell tools the website employs. It’s A9’s job to make sure my Amazon Books homepage fits my specific tastes, or at least what it believes my specific tastes to be based on my previous searches and purchases.


This past Thursday, I opened Amazon Books to be greeted with two stunning and provocative covers—the first was Lesley Arfin’s Dear Diary, the second Chris Nieratko’s Skinema. The women on these covers appear raw and vulnerable, and something about their specific shapes and positions clicked in me a desire to get closer to them.


Dear Diary by Lesley ArfinVice BooksJune 2007, 231 pages, $20.00

Dear Diary by Lesley Arfin
Vice Books
June 2007, 231 pages, $20.00


I’m since not so sure Nieratko’s book is going to prove my thing, but Arfin’s has me intrigued. Nieratko’s appears, based on the Amazon blurb, like a Please Don’t Kill the Freshman for the adult market by a guy who thinks his debauchery makes him cool and edgy and enviable. There might be an element of that in Arfin’s book, but hers appears to go the extra, exploratory mile. Arfin opines and sasses, but she also digs beneath her surface persona to find out if the woman she became after high school is a product of her high school days, or simply what she believes her high school days to have been. Her digging consists of interviews with former best friends, boyfriends, and high school enemies. Can you even imagine? What becomes of the Arfin of today if those same school friends who gave the woman hell turn out to have been just as fucked up and confused and hurt back in the day as she? That’s the question I’m looking forward to answering.


Score two for A9; one for me.


Skinema by Chris NieratkoPowerHouse BooksMay 2007, 288 pages, $15.00

Skinema by Chris Nieratko
PowerHouse Books
May 2007, 288 pages, $15.00


I clicked around Amazon a bit that day and concluded that book-buyers are watched far more closely than any other Amazon visitor. When I head to Amazon Music, for instance, I’m greeted with Wilco CDs, Paul McCartney albums, and the big, white, smiling face of somebody called Miley Cyrus. This doesn’t match at all my recent fox-hunt on the site for a best of Cinderella. Fantastic Four greets me over at the DVD section, but I hated that movie, and my last DVD purchase was the new Chocolate War special edition.


Back over at books, they’re trying to sell me the new Harry Potter, which I don’t want, but they also want me to buy Soon I Will Be Invincible which I already have, and a book called My Dreams Out in the Street by Kim Addonizio that contains yet another provocative, striking cover.


My Dreams Out in the Street by Kim AddonizioSimon and SchusterJuly 2007, 272 pages, $23.00

My Dreams Out in the Street by Kim Addonizio
Simon and Schuster
July 2007, 272 pages, $23.00


The Addonizio recommendation alone had me adding new books to my shopping cart. Just check out the art on her other books, In the Box Called Pleasure, What is This Thing Called Love, and Little Beauties—how could I resist? I wondered as my credit card approved if I’d just discovered another Amy Bloom, based solely on cover photos and titles. And I thought about how Amazon was the first place I read about The Virgin Suicides, and where I first heard Chris Smither sing. And how indispensable the “So You’d Like to..” lists over there have been, introducing me to countless authors and bands. I wondered if Amazon doesn’t recommend me DVDs and music the same way it does books because it knows my books mean more to me. I think about that, and I kinda fall in love with A9, even though I know it’s all so Big-Brother-y and wrong.


Amazon can’t see me, it doesn’t speak to me, and it doesn’t want to hear my recommendations, but, like an actual big brother, it knows me better than I know myself. It’s ready and willing to instruct me on new authors, poets, and essayists it thinks I’d love. It flashes artwork at me it knows will catch my eye, and it does, and it works, and shameful as it is to let this no-name, mechanical entity rule over me so, I’m actually better for it. And you probably are, too.


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Saturday, Jul 7, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: The genre’s definitive dominatrix lights up the screen in a trio of the seediest, sleaziest exploitation epics ever created.


Olga’s House of Shame/ White Slaves of Chinatown/ Olga’s Dance Hall Girls


In an abandoned coalmine somewhere between the urban sprawl of New York City and the black lung of Butcher Holler, is Olga’s House of Shame. Really nothing more than the Teamster’s former lunch shack converted into a den of inequity and sin, it houses the white babes in bondage of the mob’s favorite dominatrix, Olga. This high cheekboned badass relishes and relies on the torture and torment of women, all in preparation for their eventual use and abuse by paying members of paternalistic society. With the help of her haberdasher turned henchman brother Nick, she finds parolees, the disenchanted, and the heavily impressionable, and before you can say Somerset Maugham, she’s got them manacled, bound with leather, strapped into homemade electric chairs, and prancing like my little pity pony around her Love Canal style estate. True, there is always an ungrateful gal or two wanting to escape the life of degradation for a slight sip of the milk of human kindness. But Olga has some inventive means of quenching the thirst for personal dignity.


Meanwhile, Peking duck and the Eastern/Oriental mindset are given a big kick in the diversity as our Olga sets up shot in the Chop Suey district and, with the help of opium and a lack of political correctness, begins her career as a provider of dope fiend hookers. That’s right, whenever you or your buddies are wondering just where to find the finest and freshest flesh feasts, you need look no further than the gone to seed supermodel Madame O and her White Slaves of Chinatown. Offering a wide assortment of society’s dregs for all manner of mistreatment, you can really get your Marquis De Sade started at this BYOBI (bring your own branding iron) establishment. Everything is offered here, from blowtorches to combs. But it’s not all electrodes and evisceration. Even Olga herself occasionally finds time for a little employer/employee interaction. Picking out one of her more unconscious chanteuses, she moves in and performs the art of seduction the only way she’s ever known how: by beating someone until they pass out.


Finally, what’s an upper class Manhattan housewife to do when she’s grown bored of the cosmopolitan highlife? Well, she can read the want ads, meet up with the slimy sleazeball Nick, and apply for a lifetime contractual position as one of Olga’s Dance Hall Girls. Helping to redefine the term “hostess” so that it requires more horizontal than vertical attention, our decidedly different looking headmistress spends a great deal of down time motivating her indentured bop queens into giving up their goodies for the sake of a sick thrill. And for the most part it works, since even a bored Suzie Housewife is more than happy to throw down the gauntlet of acceptable social behavior and expose her Bill Blass to the paying clientele. But they best be wary of making Miss O angry. She will get Greenwich Village on their hinder and beat them to a bloody pulp. Either that, or endlessly discuss the ramifications of violating contractually agreed upon terms over and over again with the ladies until their brains melt.


Get ready to be incredibly disappointed by this set of Olga films. Those who have long dreamed of seeing these urban grit girl fests in the privacy of their home, hoping they were warped and weird counterpoints to the non-metropolitan masochism of the later Ilsa series, may want a ribald recount. Bereft of even the slightest titillation factor (unless you are deep into S&M—more on this later) and poorly shot, filmed, and acted, the Olga movies offered on this Something Weird triple feature could best be described as monotonous in the most completely literal interpretation of that word. These are movies made for a sole audience, with only one main goal in mind and created from a singular premise. In some ways, the SCTV spoofing of similarly seedy concepts, with such comically precise titles as “Dr. Tongue’s 3-D House of Slave Chicks,” accurately captures the ludicrous laziness of these movies.


Not films, actually, since they tell no cohesive story and are filled with images and archetypes instead of characters. In fact, these cinematic explorations of sleaze function as lurid litmus test, a good gauge to your sexual proclivity. If you find any of the elaborate and carefully staged bondage material the least bit enticing, if your cabbage is tossed when you witness Olga beating a wounded wanton wench back to the stone age, or if you salivate at the sight of long, static tableaus featuring women in various stages of servitude, then you may be the perfect candidate for this trilogy of trauma. But most other exploitation audience members will, once the novelty has worn off, wonder just what the whipping post the big deal is here.



The Olga films are blueprint formations all the way. Each is exactly the same in tone and timbre. We are introduced to Olga and her occupation: white slaver to the world, provider of female pulchritude, and occasional dealer in illegal drugs. She is always associated with a “mob” or “syndicate” who bankrolls her brainwashing and bondage. She always has a less than masculine “assistant” who aids her in the finding of new flesh. And the storylines always center on locating new gals, discovering the traitors, and meting out punishment for crimes, be they actual or thought. There is a minimum of dialogue (Dance Hall Girls has more spoken words than the other two films combined times 20) and a voice-over narrator gives us the Joe Friday style set of facts for everything that is happening on the screen (our storyteller always seems to know even more than what is being shown, or could be inferred from being shown).


We then cut to scenes of women oppressed, filmed matter of factly to provide the raincoat crowd the requisite amount of raunch per second of screening. There is always some fake violence involving electricity, knives, or bizarre implements of defilement. Everything is forced and invariable, offering very little drama or filth. In reality, these films are nothing more than B&D books come to ersatz “life.” Olga’s House of Shame is probably the most entertaining (if one can find these flat visions of vice enjoyable), since it provides the most amusing voice-over story structure, plus the pear shaped asexuality of Olga’s Barry Humphries in training brother Nick. His chase of Elaine through the woods, wobbly male “pouch” in full undulation, is worth the price of admission alone.


But as for the rest of these night terror tortures, Chinatown is too prosaic to make much sense. We do learn a lot about why Asians have had such a hard time, socially, within the United States since the crass, racist comments made about life and crime in the Oriental areas of urban society are downright slanderous. For a film to try and excuse what is basically an exercise in perverted sexuality as some sort of unwanted “yellow plague” seems horribly unfair. Dance Hall Girls is decidedly different, as it offers pages and pages of dialogue. That’s right, Olga and her minions talk…and talk and talk and talk. Seems there’s not a meaningless topic that these miscast actors can’t mangle and moon about for untold moments of monotony. If you ever wondered why House of Shame and Chinatown have ix-nayed on the alking-tay the verbal Valium of Dance Hall will lull you into a sense of silence.


Even worse, all of the Olgas are slim on the skin side. While the nudity level seems to increase as the titles moves along, there is very little revelry in the reveal. It seems that nakedness is treated as an offhanded indirect result of having to persecute and mistreat women. Even when our Olgas decide to get their pre-soft core freak on and rub their prisoners for a little same sex leisure, the newsreel manner of the sequencing makes for limp biscuits all around. It’s easy to understand why these films were such a scandal in the early ‘60s; people used to seeing the nudie cutie booties of various sun worshipers scurry across the screen must have purged their petticoats upon seeing these scenes of pseudo sick sordidness and sadism. But in the light of today’s anything-for-a-jolly social mentality, it all plays out like a very special episode of Fear Factor.


Any fan of exploitation worth their heft in hedonism will definitely want to check out this mad mistress and her love of pain. But the casual fan that has only heard about the outrageous nature of these movies will be disarmed at how devoid of violence they truly are. Olga may be “possessed of a mind so warped that she made sadism a full-time business,” but the movies capturing her mental malady are quite sobering.


 


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Saturday, Jul 7, 2007

The Buttonwood column in the most recent Economist takes up the topic of terrorism in the wake of the recent foiled plots in the U.K. Despite the “frightening prospect that terror tactics perfected in Baghdad might be brought to the streets of Britain on a regular basis,” financial markets barely reacted, and investors seem “completely unconcerned.” This leads the columnist to virtually speculate that terrorism is accepted as a given aspect of society, that it’s already built into the structure of things and factored in to the decisions made on capital’s behalf.


Perhaps this points to an admirable sang froid on the part of investors. Terrorist attacks kill far fewer people than car accidents, so why should they have a long-term impact? After all, mainland Britain survived 20 years of bombing by the IRA and Spain’s economic growth has not been thrown off course by the activities of ETA, the Basque separatist group. Provided the violence is sporadic, people have to carry on with their daily lives.


The radical place to go from this sort of thinking is to conclude that of course terrorism is presumed as given; capitalist society itself, with its gale-force winds of creative destruction, can be viewed as inherently terroristic. The random disruptions of terrorists plots, successful or not, are possibly analogues for the instability necessary for continued innovation, for the insecurity that finds redress in the stable certainties supplied by consumerism (“We never close”).


This is close to the ideas sociologist Henri Lefebvre advances in Everyday Life in the Modern World, where he conceptualizes the terroristic society in terms of compulsion carried out at the level of the quotidian. He seems to have in mind the pervasive ideology of competitiveness and individualism and materialistic hedonism that makes it a draining struggle to resist the currents pulling people toward passive consumption, convincing people to be satisfied with material comfort as opposed to fulfilling, meaningful activity. Terroristic society, Lefebvre argues, presents limited human potential (being realistic) as a precondition for what one experiences as freedom (accumulation of goods). But in such a society, terror is so omnipresent it becomes invisible:


  In a terrorist society, terror is diffuse, violence is always latent, pressure is exerted from all sides on its members, who can only avoid it and shift its weight by a superhuman effort; each member is a terrorist because he wants to be in power (if only briefly); thus there is no need for a dictator; each member betrays and chastizes himself; terror cannot be located, for it comes from everywhere and from every specific thing; the ‘system’ (in so far as it can be called a ‘system’) has a hold on every member separately and submits every member to the whole, that is, to a strategy, a hidden end, objectives unknown to all but those in power, and that no one questions


What Lefebvre conjures here is a panoptic sort of society, where individuals in perpetual competition police each other and themselves in accordance to a ideology that champions atomization, etc. Everything that bears mainstream ideology (other-directed success on society’s prevailing terms) becomes terroristic—he singles out fashion and the ideal of youthfulness as exemplary of the operations of a terrorist society.


Obviously this is not the kind of terrorism that involves randomly blowing up buildings in the name of a religious creed. The question is whether such bomb-exploding events disrupt the fabric of the “terroristic society”—the panoptic prison where we presumably live lives of quiet desperation—or are an integral, structural part of it. Do they succeed in opening a rift in the seamless operation of the “system” or are they merely part of that system, flying a false flag?


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Friday, Jul 6, 2007


The big buzz building around the Internet the last two days has centered on a striking new trailer. It features people partying, having fun, all viewed through the various handheld recording devices that have swept across the post-millennial landscape (PDAs, cellphones, camcorders). Suddenly, an Earth-shaking noise is heard. The fun stops. Another massive thud. And then a horrific, otherworldly wail. People start to panic. Before long, we are tossed into a chaotic, first person POV destruction of New York City, including mandatory symbolic obliteration (poor Statue of Liberty) and some very familiar movie monster noises (Toho, anyone?). The unusual clip – no narration, no major marketing tag lines – suddenly cuts to black. On the screen, the following title cards appear: “From J.J. Abrams” and “1/18/08”.


Fans of the Alias/Lost creator, fortunate enough to see (and in some cases, unlawfully capture) the teaser as part of the Transformers theatrical preview package, immediately rushed home and searched the Internet Movie Database for some clue as to what this proposed film, code named “Cloverfield”, was really all about. Many speculated that it would be the long dormant Godzilla sequel, which made sense since Abrams was the creative force behind the Mission Impossible franchise reboot and is currently developing a Star Trek reimagining as well. So why not give the big green radioactive lizard another shot, right? Well, that rumor was quickly nixed when studious fans recognized that Paramount (the company behind the new film) does not own the rights to the character.


Others have guessed that, based on the movie it was attached to, it may be another ‘80s cartoon title (the prime suspect: a proposed live action version of Voltron). Of course, that was also immediately negated when a World Wide Web search found readily available information on said project – and Abrams name was nowhere to be seen. From another alien invasion ala Independence Day to something called The Parasite that the producer/director has been working on, the fascinating footage – and its eventual bootlegging on the ‘Net – has caused quite a stir. It’s the kind of ‘viral’ world of mouth that marketers are mad about, especially in this interconnected age when a well placed site, a MySpace page, and constant conversation on the numerous movie and fan messageboards can keep an unreleased product viable for months.


Naturally, Paramount has been playing pirate killer, removing the various incarnations of the trailer from all known potential playback portals (YouTube, etc.), though if you look hard enough, you may still be able to find the horrible, hack quality video. Their aggressiveness has lead some to argue that the studio is really behind all the ‘illegal’ activity and is using the whole controversy as a means of generating press (and it’s worked – after all, we’re talking about it here). Through all the denials and determined PR statements, one thing’s for certain – Cloverfield is no longer a non-entity. Among the many 2008 titles generating incredibly early interest (Indiana Jones 4, Speed Racer, The Happening), this still unknown effort has moved right up to the top.


Of course, this isn’t the first time that mysterious images meshed with online elements have generated major movie curiosity. As far back as 1989, when Tim Burton announced that Michael Keaton would play the lead role in his version of Batman, the technically savvy have spent endless amounts of time in stern speculation over movies in production and decisions (both artistic and practical) by filmmakers helming their works in progress. It’s the foundation for immensely popular websites like Ain’t It Cool News and Coming Attractions. Indeed, the fanboy and the obsessive have long known the inherent value of futile flame wars over casting, concept, and characterization. While it may not change the actual movie being made, it sure helps keep the profile high and mighty. Perhaps the best example of such a strategy remains the infamous Blair Witch Project. For almost the entire year prior to its Summer 1999 release, this minor mock documentary became the most celebrated unseen horror film of the decade. 


It all began with some secretly distributed videotapes. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wanted a little publicity for their $22,000 experiment, and knew that the growing influence of the Internet could help. As a highly believable webpage was being built centering around the movie’s mythos, the guys sent out copies to various sites. One influential individual who received a copy was AICN honcho Harry Knowles. For all his obvious self promotion, this life long film dork adored the film. In fact, it was he who started much of the “is it real, or is it fake” conjecture. His reaction was so visceral, so perfectly aligned with the response Myrick and Sanchez were looking for, that they built their entire campaign around it. It was a strategy they took to Sundance and Cannes.


Thanks to the website, and similar praise from other sources, The Blair Witch Project soon became the talk of the techs. Most of the conversation centered on the “missing” kids who supposedly starred in the film (the actors were asked to keep a very low profile until the movie was released) and how, though many claimed there was no such thing, the town of Burkittsville was indeed home to a vengeful demonic spirit. There was even an uproar over accusations of copycatting and outright plagiarism. Filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler were livid when they learned of the Blair Witch plot and format. It seemed sneakily similar to their effort The Last Broadcast, centering on a group of public access show producers who enter the New Jersey Pine Barrens – and never return.


Naturally, all the buildup, all the exposure both good and bad, all the preview screenings (and eventual leaked reviews) and SciFi Channel specials (one supposedly offering the true story of the child killer at the center of Witch’s narrative) lead to unbelievably high audience recognition, and when it finally found its way into theaters at the end of July 1999, it was a monster hit. Everyone, from the most avid horror fan to the mere curious onlooker, just had to see what this mysterious movie was all about. Hailed as some manner of masterwork, The Blair Witch Project has since become a unique, if nominal, genre fluke. It’s a hard film to watch in light of all that we now know about the production, and it no longer carries the ethereal impact it once had.


Yet studios saw how a carefully created package involving both online and standard tactics of marketing and awareness could generated immense interest (and larger than usual box office dollars). Warner Brothers jumped on board early, using the incredibly evocative tagline “What is the Matrix?” and a similarly named Internet address to begin the build-up for it’s proposed virtual reality thriller. The company followed suit by lobbing various rumors about the casting and storyline for their proposed late ‘90s Superman update (it backfired, more or less killing the project until Bryan Singer came along and jumpstarted it). Of course, the most recent example remains Snakes on a Plane. From the decision to dump the far more mundane Pacific Air 121 title, to the last minute reshoots that upped the film’s previously pegged PG-13 language and violence, New Line went all out catering to the WWW crowd. Some still believe it eventually cost the company (the film was only a moderate hit).


So whatever Cloverfield ends up being (our money is on a gimmicky, one note effort that will be low on spectacle and high on Witch like slacker confrontations), here’s hoping Abrams and Paramount play it smart. It is one thing to involve the rich vein of human curiosity that floods through the various dial-up, DSL, and cable connections across this country. When properly tapped into, said pipeline can produce dynamic dividends. But just like the flawed concepts of focus groups, and advanced screenings geared toward constantly remaking a movie to fit an elusive utilitarian entertainment ideal (the greatest good for the greatest number), you can pay too much attention to the untrained audience and end up killing whatever made your movie distinctive in the first place. The teaser certainly succeeded in its named capacity. It has us interested. It will be five more months before we know if there’s more to this story than hope – and hype.


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Friday, Jul 6, 2007

Comedian Patton Oswalt’s career has reached celebrity status, but his comedic presence has not waned. His most famous roles consist of Spence Olchin on The King of Queens and Rémy in the new animated feature Ratatouille. As a comedian, he started the Comedians of Comedy tours and Comedy Central series, bringing together comics such as Brian Posehn, Zack Galifianakis, Maria Bamford, and himself. On July 10th, 2007, Patton will be releasing his second comedy album, Werewolves and Lollipops.


Link to a track off his new CD: The Dukes of Hazzard


Appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien:



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