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by Bill Gibron

13 Feb 2009

Do few genre filmmakers “get it” that when a true artisan comes along, their presence can be initially perplexing - especially when he or she is being asked to reinvent a classic of macabre cinema. So many fail - David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s awful The Eye, for example - that anyone managing to survive said re-imagining is rare indeed. That’s why Marcus Nispel is such a welcome anomaly. Not only has he been charged with reviving the fortunes of two “archetypal” motion picture monster franchises - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th - but he’s managed to make the recognized classics all his own. In fact, some might argue that his updates are just as good (or better) than the originals.

Nispel is an interesting career case. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, he came to America at age 20 to start a production company. Concentrating on commercials and music videos, he worked for artists as diverse as Faith No More, Simply Red, Elton John, and No Doubt. He won four MTV Video Music Awards and saw his Portfolio Artists Network expand their advertising reach with clients like Coca-Cola, Nike, Mercedes and UPS.  In 2003, Michael Bay was looking for a new face to take on his planned redux of Tobe Hooper’s grindhouse epic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nispel, who had first tried to get into feature film directing with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s End of Days (he left the project over “creative differences”), was initially seen as an odd choice. Instead of going with a recognized horror name, Bay and company thought the cinematic novice would do the material justice.

They were absolutely right. With his trademark de-saturated color schemes, emphasis on atmosphere and tone, and a gore-drench brutality that the original completely lacked, Nispel made the story of Leatherface, his cannibal clan, and the unlucky teens that dared tread into his personal slaughterhouse domain an electrifying, terrifying experience. While paying homage to what Hooper and his beer-swilling buddies accomplished back in the Me Decade, he updated the premise for a blood and guts oriented post-modern crowd. Even cynical critics who normally dismissed fright flicks as the bastard step-children of the motion picture artform couldn’t deny that Nispel had forged something powerful and slightly sadistic out of what could have been a campy bit of nostalgia. The film became one of the Summer’s surprise hits and led to a less than successful origin story prequel.

For his part, Nispel went on to a pet project of his -Pathfinder, an adaptation of Nils Gaup’s 1987 film Ofelas. A contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, the original’s narrative was moved Westward, with Native Americans and Vikings taking the place of the Tjuder and Lapp tribes. With lead Karl Urban fresh from his turn as Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a directorial dedication to authenticity and history, studios clearly thought Nispel could deliver something spectacular. As the April 2007 release date came and went however, it was clear that this tale of murder, revenge, and cross culture clashing would do little but die at the box office. For his part, Nispel took the failure in stride, sitting back and studying his options (like the long rumored adaptation of American McGee’s Alice for horror heavy Wes Craven).

So it was quite shocking to see Nispel’s name featured in the initial teaser material for the proposed update of the Jason Voorhees legacy. It appeared like a step backward, a desperation move by a filmmaker who failed when moving outside the fear factory. In addition, the Friday the 13th franchise, while fun and very much tied to the introduction and explosion of home video in the 1980s, was not the kind of “classic” that Chainsaw was. Perhaps from a purely cultural standpoint, but Sean Cunningham’s crude slice and dice definitely wasn’t finding a spot in the Museum of Modern Art (where Hooper’s film now sits). Indeed, it looked like for all intents and purposes that Nispel, finding no success to separate himself from murder and mayhem, came crawling back to the scary movie to save his career.

In truth, bringing this director back was a godsend. Of all the films that need careful reconstructing, Friday the 13th is definitely high on the list. It’s an oddball mystery, a tawdry take on And Then There Were None where we don’t get the joy of figuring out the killer’s ID until the fiend shows up and says “Hello.” Betsy Palmer is brilliant as cook turned psycho Pamela Voorhees, and her machete battle with last girl Alice is amazing in its broad scoped camp cravenness. But before that, we have to suffer through endless minutes of stalk and shock, with little suspense preparing us for Tom Savini’s autopsy level make-up F/X. Today, the hockey masked hacker known as Jason is considered a true horror icon. But that status definitely comes from the other 10 films the character has starred in. At first, Friday the 13th was not about the deformed boy. It was about his batshit mother.

Nispel’s decision to redefine Jason as an animalistic predator is just one of the new film’s novel approaches to the material. This new Friday the 13th thwarts convention as easily as it embraces the standard slasher formulas. The opening 25 minutes are all film craft and corpses, Nispel showing off in ways that both shiver the spine and tweak the brain. By the time the title shows up, we’ve already experienced the death of his mother, the rise of Jason, and the set-up for the next part of the plot. Nispel’s greatest asset, and the one element that differentiates him from all other post post-modern horror filmmakers is his level of seriousness. He never treats the genre like a joke, or a lesser level of cinematic artistry. He sets up his scenes like old school masters would and he works the audience like regaled names in the category’s past. Sure, there’s still a by the numbers corpse grinding involved, but getting there is an exercise in polished, professional cinema, nothing more or less.

Indeed, the reason Nispel should now be number one on any studios classic horror remake list - an inventory now containing such noted names as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, and The Evil Dead - is that he won’t kowtow to fanboy lusts or messageboard mandates. He won’t cater to memory or excessive obsession. Instead, he will play the narrative exactly the way the material requires. As a matter of fact, the next update he should attempt should be Sam Raimi’s breakthrough demons in a cabin romp. The Evil Dead would be perfect for Nispel’s ominous ambience and sensational splatter rampaging. He would use the wilderness as an effective foil to the foolishness happenings within, and when the creatures start to emerge, he could really turn on the terror. Just like Leatherface and his family, Nispel could even make the entire thing into some sort of redolent look at society circa 2010 (or whatever date the studios decide to set).

Because of his complete confidence in his own vision, because he can take even the cheesiest chestnut from the macabre mindfield and turn it into something stunning, Marcus Nispel should be instantly tossed to the top of the horror heap. He should never have to worry about working. He should have a laundry list of potential projects to choose from. Even when he fails - and Pathfinder is nothing short of subpar - he shows a spark and originality that few filmmakers possess. Remember, both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th were predisposed to fail. Devotees just knew that anyone tackling these titles would come up incredibly short. That Nispel managed to match - and in the case of Jason’s journey, best - the previous offerings says something about his gift for gruesomeness. Clearly, when it comes to horror, he “gets” it. Any producer looking to jumpstart their genre franchise should “get” him as well.

by Mike Deane

13 Feb 2009

I’ve long been a modern R&B hater. I’m not claiming it’s not a valuable genre or form of music, because it obviously is, it’s just never had any musical elements that have appealed to me. From Boyz II Men to Brandy to Chris Brown, it’s always come off as boring and preposterous; all of the “whooowhoowhoooo”s and the needlessly sappy and slow songs lost my interest by the first chorus. There have been exceptions over the years; Usher, Beyonce, R.Kelly, Ciara have all nailed it on certain songs, bringing a certain energy and swagger to a typically uninspired and maudlin genre, but my feelings towards modern R&B changed a couple of summers ago when Rihanna’s “Umbrella” hit the radio (minus Jay Z’s terrible intro verse) with its heaviness, hookiness and nonsense “ella” and “ay” repetitions.

“Umbrella” seemed to have a lot more going on than previous modern R&B, with its heavy keyboards and hip hop drums. When the follow-up single came out, “Shut Up and Drive”, I realized that “Umbrella” had nothing to do with Rihanna—it was essentially karaoke—the real talent was with the writers. It’d be a while until I found out who that writing team was, and the answer drew me in to modern R&B.

When friends started talking about The-Dream’s album Love Hate (Love Me All Summer / Hate Me All Winter), I was not on board.  It just seemed like typical R&B and I already had my token listenable R&B song with Usher’s “Love in the Club”. After hearing more and more of The-Dream’s debut album I realized that he was employing Rihanna’s “ella”s and “ay”s and something like Young Jeezy’s “Aaaaayyy”s. After very little investigation I found out that The-Dream (Terius Nash) and his production partner Christopher Stewart were the geniuses behind “Umbrella”,  that’s all that was necessary for me to give the entire album a chance.

Prejudices can make people do odd things. I had ignored modern R&B for a decade, when I’m sure when mined there are a ton of good albums regardless of your tastes. Hearing The-Dream’s debut has given me more listening satisfaction than most other 2008 releases (it was released Dec 2007). I’m kind of glad that I was late in discovering Love Hate, because it means that the wait for more The-Dream is not as long as it is for those early adapters. So, with his new album, Love vs. Money, set for release March 10 (I wonder how close Def Jam will get to that actual date), I want to give late praise to The-Dream and Love Hate—from the perspective of a changed man. For all you R&B haters out there: if you’re going to check out one R&B album, make sure it’s this one, it’ll change your perspective.

by Sarah Zupko

13 Feb 2009

Easy Star All-Stars have previously recorded critically acclaimed reggae tributes to Pink Floyd (Dub Side of the Moon, 2003) and Radiohead (Radiodread, 2006). Michael Keefe went so far as to call the band’s “seriously dubby paranoia is the reggae of the new millennium.” They are following up those popular efforts with a new take on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band releases on April 14th and will include an impressive array of guest artists, including Steel Pulse, Matisyahu, Michael Rose (Black Uhuru), Luciano, U Roy, Bunny Rugs (Third World), Ranking Roger (English Beat), Sugar Minott, Frankie Paul, Max Romeo and The Mighty Diamonds. Check out the first single “With a Little Help From My Friends”. It features Luciano and is releasing exclusively on iTunes along with a B-side dub version featuring the legendary U Roy.

Easy Star All-Stars
“With a Little Help From My Friends” [MP3]

March 12: Boulder, CO @ Fox Theatre
March 13: Denver, CO @ Cervante’s Masterpiece Ballroom
March 14: Aspen, CO @ Belly Up
March 15: Ft. Collins, CO @ Aggie Theatre
March 18: Austin, TX - SXSW Opening Party @ IODA
March 19: Austin, TX - SXSW showcase at Vice

Photo © www.ollyhearsey.co.uk

by C.L. Chafin

13 Feb 2009

Glasgow’s Popup are a new addition to Conor Oberst’s Team Love Records. Sounding like the result of a drunken bathroom hookup between Arab Strap and the Pixies, Popup have made the best song about Siamese Twins in love you’re likely to hear this week. Not to overstate things. But, as LeVar Burton might say, don’t take our word for it. Check out their brand spankin’ new video for “Love Triangle”.

by Rob Horning

13 Feb 2009

I grew up about an hour northwest of Philadelphia, in what was then considered the country by my citified relatives. For much of my childhood, I was terrified of the Amish, in the same way kids might be afraid of monsters under the bed or spiders. Dour bearded men in black presiding in judgment over the way of life I took for granted—it was very confusing, utterly incomprehensible that one would volunteer for that life, and it seemed to me that the Amish should be forced for humanitarian reasons to get themselves on the grid. (I was eight.) The idea that I might wake up in a somber world without electricity and forced to worship a god who ostensibly hated progress kept me awake at night; I actually slept for a while with a small transistor radio on underneath my pillow to reassure myself that technology still existed. (This proved costly in batteries.) I even refused to see the movie Witness because it had Amish people in it.

I have since mastered my fears. With their apparent pursuit of communitarian ideals and commitment to an unpublicized life, I wonder whether they are living the life I sometimes sound as though I profess as an ideal. Rather than be sucked into accelerated, stressful and unfulfilling modern life by communications technology and its attendant ideology of convenience; rather than overwhelm themselves with the abundance of ultimately meaningless choices offered by consumerism, they choose a self-imposed isolation that strengthens the importance of interpersonal relations. Rather than adopt the contemporary preoccupation with identity fashioning, they accept traditional, religiously derived roles. That last one is really the sticking point—no matter how appealing it might seem to extradite myself from consumerism, I wouldn’t ever wish myself Amish.

Nevertheless, they serve as a provocative foil, as this fascinating post from Kevin Kelly (via Kottke) demonstrates. He details the various ways the Amish innovate on their own terms, which I hope to god doesn’t launch an Amishpunk design craze along the lines of steampunk. What interested me was not so much the Amish’s “hacking” skills, as Kelly calls them, but their deliberate attitude toward technology, and the possibility for a different, more conscious way of integrating it, their example suggests. “In any debate about the merits of embracing new technology,” Kelly notes, “the Amish stand out as offering an honorable alternative of refusal.” Kelly explains how the Amish are not ignorant or even entirely apart from mainstream society—some have power generators, autos, refrigeration, etc. Kelly suggests they are simply 50 years behind us, by choice. (That’s what Manhattan snobs say about my Queens neighborhood.) Instead, the Amish interact with technology with an entirely different set of ideological precepts. “Amish practices are ultimately driven by religious belief: the technological, environmental, social, and cultural consequences are secondary. They often don’t have logical reasons for their policies.” That bit about the illogicality of the Amish is something my childhood self would have readily seconded, but now I’m not so sure. The point is that their logic is different from the teleological positions that our culture espouses; they don’t assume like we do that the development of technology equals social progress. Some technological developments are potentially immiserating and ripe for abuse, creating untenable and exploitative social relations, or worsening such relations that already adhere.

So the Amish adopt a kind of negative dialectic: “In contemporary society our default is set to say yes to new things, and in Old Order Amish societies the default is set to no. When new things come around, the Amish automatically start by refusing them.” This extremely conservative impulse appears at the same time wildly radical, a testament to how habitual is our affirmation of change under capitalism. This affirmative reflex makes inanities like the fashion cycle and planned stylistic obsolescence possible, and it also leads to “early adopters” being regarded as gurus instead of dupes.

Because Amish communities are so tight-knit and patriarchal, change can rejected by a kind of moral brute force, in the name of preserving their way of life, or in less euphemistic terms, their tight-knit patriarchal system.

When cars first appeared at the turn of last century the Amish noticed that drivers would leave the community to go shopping or sight-seeing in other towns, instead of shopping local and visiting friends, family or the sick on Sundays. Therefore the ban on unbridled mobility was aimed to make it hard to travel far, and to keep energy focused in the local community. Some parishes did this with more strictness than others.
A similar communal motivation lies behind the Old Order Amish practice of living without electricity. The Amish noticed that when their homes were electrified with wires from a generator in town, they became more tied to the rhythms, policies and concerns of the town. Amish religious belief is founded on the principle that they should remain ‘in the world, not of it” and so they should remain separate in as many ways possible. Being tied to electricity tied them into the world, so they surrendered its benefits in order to stay outside the world.

The Amish also famously don’t want to call attention to themselves; we of course respond by being fascinated by them, and deploying caricatures of them across documentaries, films and scripted TV shows. What makes the Amish compelling to us is probably the promise of escape they represent, and the way they demonstrate the possibility of unified resistance. But that resistance is grounded in a world view that precludes most of what we recognize as freedom. For the Amish, it’s obviously different, since despite their fabled Rumspringa, most Amish youths choose to remain within Amish communities. (They are not forced to join, as I assumed as a kid.) But it’s also as though we regard the Amish’s minding their own business in our midst as a kind of affront. They may have the right to their weird Luddite religion and their kooky Puritan costumes, but they don’t have the right to be ignored.

We are moving in the direction of less and less privacy, and our ideology is shaping itself to rebrand surveillance as sharing. Self-broadcasting is becoming more and more customary, and for some it is almost mandatory (as when you are forced to get a Facebook page to be invited to things and so on). The Amish regard communications technology as corrosive to communication.

One Amish-man told me that the problem with phones, pagers, and PDAs (yes he knew about them) was that “you got messages rather than conversations.” That’s about as an accurate summation of our times as any. Henry, his long white beard contrasting with his young bright eyes told me, “If I had a TV, I’d watch it.” What could be simpler?

Basically, the ideology guiding the Amish appears to have nothing to do with the knee-jerk individualism, which we tout as an end in itself. An ethic of inconvenience is adopted to inhibit the development of strictly personal goals, and the tools of modern identity formation (media, branded consumer goods, etc.) are apparently kept out of their communities. Here’s how Kelly sums it up:

their manner of slow adoption is instructive.
  * 1) They are selective. They know how to say “no” and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ban more than they adopt.
  * 2) They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.
  * 3) They have criteria by which to select choices: technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
  * 4) The choices are not individual, but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.

He then argues that we need to learn to become better at relinquishing bad technology as a group, though we are good at it at the individual level. I think that’s backward. We adopt technology because it seems to thrust us ahead of the group, and then adopt new technology to try to remain ahead of the pack. We generally prefer technology that makes our lives more convenient, in other words, requiring less face-to-face human interaction. What the Amish reveal to us is that technological development in capitalist society is about achieving exploitable disharmonies, situations where asymmetrical information reigns, opportunities for creative destruction. That is why we don’t pause to assess the effects technology has on society until after the fact; the effects on society are by-products to its real purposes, to create competitive advantages and to accelerate our capability to process information. In Amish society, where the relevant economic unit is the community rather than the individual, there is not asymmetry in adoption; in our atomistic society, adoption is necessarily asymmetrical among individuals all striving for an edge.

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