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Thursday, Jun 14, 2007




New trip; same old routine. International flight. Packed like sardines. Ten and a-half hours to get from there to here – wherever that may be. No matter where it is, it always seems to take ten – minimum – to get delivered to any international destination. Is it just me? A function of that little archapelago in the Pacific that I make a habit of inhabiting. Or is it true for you, too? No matter where you reside.







Okay. So, how about you? Does this ever happen to you, as well? . . .


Mid-flight, an unscheduled nod-off, only to wake unexpectedly nine minutes later; face flush against the spiny shoulder of the Indian teen to your left. A trace of spittle rolling from your lips, dribbling now along his bicep.


Yuk.


 


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Thursday, Jun 14, 2007

On a recent flight I traveled beside a 13-year old boy who spent most of the flight not munching complementary pretzels and sucking down Cokes or watching the Ryan Phillipe movie most of the other passengers “enjoyed” but reading passages from the Bible he carried with him. Why I found this reassuring, I can’t immediately say; perhaps it was as Zizek theorizes in The Sublime Object of Ideology, and I was comforted by the material presence of an object that resonates belief—it believes so that I don’t have to. It’s very existence, and the boy reading it, establishes beyond doubt the reality of a whole substratum of faith without my having to make any spiritual effort. Zizek cites a Stalinist expression: “Whatever I may be thinking, objectively I am believing,” thanks to the presence of an object that connotes the material reality of belief. I don’t have to believe myself to be in an objective state of belief—this is why cultures have often developed designated mourners that can do the formally required grieving, freeing up the bereaved to take care of more pressing matters. So in this case it may be that I have convinced myself that the passenger beside me has freed me to write blog entries and play computer chess (about which more later) by carrying the visible signs of his belief with him, participating in that great religious stratum in American society in which I grumblingly subsist but in theory I’d be lost without. I need the forms of spirituality enacted around me to not be troubled excessively by spiritual questions myself. I need there to be religious folk so I don’t have to be religious myself. I have faith by proxy.


I’m not entirely convinced by this reasoning, though Zizek’s use of it to explicate laugh tracks is pretty interesting—the shows laugh so we don’t have to, and we can experience enjoyment without making the effort necessary to understand, make the movements in our thought to produce genuine amusement, laughter. We can rest assured that we participated without effort, which is its own reassuring satisfaction, the pleasures of passivity. As Zizek puts it, “Even if, tired from a hard day’s stupid work, all evening we did nothing but gaze drowsily into the television screen, we can say afterwards that objectively, through the medium of the other, we had a really good time.” In other words, a really good time can be had merely by mimicking the form, perhaps more so by mimicking the form rather than genuinely experiencing pleasure. Purer pleasure is always already secondhand, mediated, predigested, since this preempts the difficult questions of purpose, why am I bothering with pleasure? What is this pleasure supposed to accomplish?


Which brings me back to Bibles. One of the comforting things I find about the Bible is that it is a book whose meaning is almost entirely exogenous; it makes little effort to justify itself by present a thesis, by mounting a coherent and unifying argument, by rationalizing its heterogeneity. This means that despite the laborious efforts of concordance, the work to organize the text and being it all to account, it still promises the leisure of unstructured reading; it invites being picked up and flipped through at random—hence the divination procedure of opening it at random and trying to deduce the horoscopic relevance of the passage chosen. Approaching the text with that spirit feels as though it frees us from the hassles of belief as well; we can demystify the words by reading them without preconception, without needing to understand them, and this becomes a practice of faith as well—we can take care to not make any interpretations to assure our faith’s perfection. We validate the religious without partaking of it; haphazard Bible reading thus becomes a kind of homeopathic remedy for becoming overwhelmed with theological complexities and conundrums and puzzles, which after all may lead one to question faith, to question the spiritual altogether. Thus the path to spiritual sublimity may be a principled ignorance, taking for granted what you are searching for without necessarily suspending your quest or conceiving its ultimate end.


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Thursday, Jun 14, 2007

The phenom of the web has allowed a revolution in music consumption unknown before.  As part of this, there are “leaks” of albums, which are posted before their official release date.  For some sites and blogs, this attracts attention for obvious reasons- fans are hungry for this music and don’t want to wait.  Sometimes this is done with the label’s/artist’s blessing (i.e. MTV making the new White Stripes album available now) and sometimes it isn’t.  But as part of this problem and controversy, some review sites are also jumping the gun, trying to be the first to weigh in on a record and whet the appetite of consumers (notably Stereogum).  An understandable concern on the part of labels and artists is that fans will read a good review of a record months before it comes out and then madly search for a copy for themselves to download for free.  Is this the way of the future?  Is this a good thing in a way as it’s building buzz for a record or depriving the label and artist of sales later?  Is the genie out of the bottle or do sites/blogs have some responsibility and culpability in this?


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Wednesday, Jun 13, 2007


You can see what Ghost Rider is trying to do. It’s right there in between all the comic book movie clichés and formulaic action picture trappings. Indeed, if it weren’t for an apparent industry mandate that every funny page crime fighter has to be turned into a mainstream movie icon, star Nicholas Cage and writer/director Mark Steven Johnson could have helmed a really inventive take on the unusual Marvel character. Unfortunately, studio interference is evident throughout this ultimately semi-successful effort, from the casting of Eva “Mediocre” Mendez as Cage’s love interest to the last act showdown drawn directly from the Big Book of Popcorn Film Flash. Instead of staying with character quirk and individual development, we end up with something that’s more eye candy than evocative.


The story starts when young Johnny Blaze discovers his stunt man/daredevil dad is dying from cancer. Hoping to save his life, he makes a deal with a sinister stranger that requires an oath in blood. Naturally, the contract backfires, and Blaze discovers he is indentured to the Devil. He will forever be known as Ghost Rider, a fiery skeletal figure riding a menacing motorcycle. As the bounty hunter for the underworld, his job is to return damned souls to their place of eternal unrest. When Blackheart, Lucifer’s love child, goes after a mythic parchment containing 1000 damned souls, it is up to our fire-drenched anti-hero to stop him. Along the way, he must reconnect with his former fling Roxanne, and discover the secret identify of the kind-hearted cemetery caretaker who seems to know a great deal about the entire Ghost Rider lore.


Granted, it’s a pretty dumb premise for a pen and ink champion. Without the context of the comic, its customary attention to origin detail and backstory characterization, we are left filling in a lot of blanks on our own. Unfortunately, Cage isn’t about to help. Instead, he packs his performance with the kind of eccentricities and observable oddities that, at one time, established his thespian credentials (see: Vampire’s Kiss or Peggy Sue Got Married). His interpretation of Johnny Blaze involves jelly beans instead of beer, the Carpenters instead of anything remotely rock and roll, and a goofy shyness in place of disturbed bravado. It’s an interesting set of choices which, sadly, have very little to do with the actual comic the character came from. A brief perusal of the original story is far more mystical, dealing with demons, the ‘Spirit of Vengeance’, and a great deal of supernatural spectacle.


This Ghost Rider could be easily categorized as the “user friendly” version of the icon, a far more approachable (and valiant) entity than the one first conceived. There is tons of talk, all throughout the rather simplistic script, of Johnny’s desire from “a second chance” and the ability to redeem his soul-selling decision, and Cage never overemphasizes the crime fighting/payback element of the man-monster. It’s clearly a cop out, a decision designed to make the Rider more stoic than scary, as well as more personally palatable to a mainstream audience. Similarly, the casting of Eva Mendez is truly a demographically demanded decision. She’s not bad here – in fact, there are moments when she overcomes her inherent flatness to show some real emotional depth. But alongside Cage, whose like ionized idiosyncrasy, she’s nothing more than adolescent fantasy fodder.


The rest of the cast should be commended for making the most out of what is standard fire and brimstone balderdash. Wes Bentley, who comes across as a Goth kid unhappy over his allowance, makes for a vague and uninteresting Blackheart, while Peter Fonda’s Satan is more acid casualty than fallen angel. Still, both do a decent job of playing off Cage, and countermand a lot of the stock malevolence they have to portray. As Blaze’s manager and sidekick, Donal Logue is lost. Since the jokes he’s given are beyond bad, he keeps tossing in line readings that seem pulled from another performance. Similarly, Sam Elliot’s caretaker is left over from The Big Lebowski, his drawl so derivative now that you keep waiting for him to poke some cows or ‘get along’ a few doogies. Taken in conjunction with Mark Steven Johnson’s journeyman directing, filled with wickedly wide shots that hope to instill scope into this otherwise small storyline, everything is technically proficient.


When matched against the amazing special effects, however, their adeptness is barely impressive. Ghost Rider is indeed a highly proficient product of the post-millennial reliance on computer technology, and his fiery image makes a definite impression. This is especially true when Blaze first discovers his destiny, and races down a local side street, shop canopies and parking meters melting under his inferno-like presence. Equally stunning is the skyscraper fight, where a completely possessed Blaze rides right up the side of the glass building’s façade. Sure, you’ve see the sequence a hundred times (thanks to a trailer that gave away most of the movie’s visual magic), but within the context of the story, it still scores significant points. The evil elements are not so well done. Both Satan and Blackheart look like snaggle-toothed sea creatures instead of something more sacrilegious, and last act arrival of hundreds of ‘lost souls’ is like a cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and the minions from Constantine.


Yet it’s the departures from the original source material, along with the lack of sufficient character support, that has really divided movie fans. Many could forgive the personal plot holes for the amazing amount of visual finesse on hand. But those hoping that the newly released Extended Edition DVD would cast some light on shallower subjects will sadly be left searching. There is some intriguing material reinserted into the film – more moments between a young Blaze and his dad, Roxanne having to deal with the police – but for the most part, the new information is as ambiguous as what is already on the screen. Why it’s taken Blackheart this long to defy his father, why Satan waited several years before tapping Blaze’s Rider potential – heck, the whole reason behind the character’s odd choice of refreshment and music would have been nice. Instead, it’s more focus group falderal offered as additional insight.


In the end, such a strategy is what really undermines Ghost Rider. Without all the necessary Hollywood hokum, absent the sequences suggested by past comic book movies (this film frequently feels like a production from a parallel universe in its ridiculous amount of referencing), this could have been something strong. Not necessarily popular or marketable, but a unique take on material mostly unknown to the movie going public. It also suggests that the proposed Nicholas Cage/Tim Burton Superman may not have been such a bad idea after all. From a filmmaking perspective, no one understands the vastness of visuals better than the off-kilter ex-animator. And via his intriguing take on Johnny Blaze, Cage continues to argue that he has uncultivated acting chops just waiting to be exploited. Those who’ve dismissed this movie outright are dead wrong. But there are aspects here that truly make it hard to embrace.  It’s a dichotomy that ultimately dooms this attempted trail blazer.


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Wednesday, Jun 13, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Wooden Wand
The Pushers (Morning Version) [MP3] from James & The Quiet (Ecstatic Peace!)
     


Spitting at the Cameras [MP3] James & The Quiet (Ecstatic Peace!)
     


James Jackson Toth says he “wanted [James & The Quiet] to be an un-weird record.”
[MySpace]


Aesop Rock
None Shall Pass [MP3]
     


The Black Angels
The First Vietnamese War [MP3]
     


[MySpace]


Over the Rhine
Trouble [MP3]
     



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