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Friday, Jun 8, 2007


What do you do when the sensation of sex no longer satisfies? What are your options when the adrenaline rush and power of money (and making same) no longer fill the void? Do you simply sit back and wait for the inevitable heart attack, stress striking all viable organs until your Type-A lifestyle eventually kills you? Or do your take matters of life and death into your own hands and use all that pent up aggression as an excuse for dabbling in the darker side of life? If you’re the super-successful business types prowling around the edges of international legality and human morality in Eli Roth’s amazing Hostel Part II, you join an exclusive social club that caters in human flesh as the way to fulfill those fiendish fetishes. And Heaven help the young people being bid on as the murderous means of such psycho-erotic release. 


Roth’s original Hostel, a vision of Europe as one big urban legend and Americans as the ugly within it, continues to stand as one of the most important horror films of the last ten years. Brutal in its vision while equally effective in its subtext, it woke up a waning genre and proved that gore could be both viable and visceral. It even created its own categorical catchphrase – “violence porn” – that has come to define any film where innocents are horrifically used and abused for their value as medical commodities (Turistas) or entertainment (Live Feed). Now mutated into all manner of sensationalized labels – ‘smut snuff’, ‘gorno’ – the inherent worth of Roth’s film has been superseded by media and public perception of a young, cocky filmmaker flaunting the mainstream to make his own craven, cruel statements.


Well thank GOD for that. It’s one thing to play nice in order to keep the PC thugs in check. It’s another to offer up nonstop brutality merely for the sake of shock. The original Hostel did neither, and the new film is even better at tempting taste while staying safely in the realm of reasonable dread dynamics. You’ll be hearing a lot of outcry over the next few weeks about this so-called cinematic abomination. There will be pundits and persons directly linked to the business of show who will argue for Roth’s lack of humanity and inner childishness, but those voices will be self-serving and self-congratulating. When it comes down to it, Hostel Part II is the near perfect sequel, a money mandated continuation that actually works as a companion piece to the original effort.


After wrapping up the last loose end from the previous picture, we are introduced to three young coeds studying abroad – rich girl Beth, spoiled skank Whitney, and depressed loner Lorna. Lured to a Slovakian spa by visiting artist’s model Axelle, the girls soon travel to the far ends of the Easter block, check in to the infamous title inn, and prepare to party and relax. Of course, the audience knows much, much better, and it’s not long before the gals are being bid on like sick corporeal commodities. Two participants in such depravity are Todd and his sheepish buddy Stuart. Traveling the world looking for the ultimate kicks, the pals have shared many deplorable experiences. But this one may be the icing on their desperately distorted cake. Todd sees committing murder as a way of improving your potential business acumen and ‘aura of danger’. Stuart has a far more suspect reason for this descent into murderous madness.


Still as shocking as ever, but more polished and perceptive this time around, Hostel Part II does a rather remarkable thing. Saddled with creating a follow-up to his first film, Roth avoids an actual redo. Instead, he obviously sat down with his original script and decided to fashion a 180 degree opposite take on the subject matter. Gone are the madcap moments of sex, drugs and gore-drenched debauchery. In their place are moments of real tension, suspense amplified by a better knowledge of the sinister circumstances, and killings that are quick, aggressive and highly disturbing. While the female angle is the most obvious twist (more on this in a moment), the real revelation is the creation of the Elite Hunting Club and its collection of corrupt membership. In Hostel, we got a fleeting glimpse of the creepy clientele, most notably an American with more moxie than manners. Here, we are introduced to a network of fiends, and head honcho Sacha who can easily be bought and sold, as long as the price is right.


Even better, Roth delves much deeper into the motives of his victims. Granted, he presents the trio as supersized stereotypes from the Big Book of Female Archetypes, but our wealthy woman isn’t some mean spirited snob, nor is our happy go lucky whore completely without moral fortitude. No, it’s Lorna (essayed by Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Heather Matarazzo) who lamentably plays the role of needy loner to its typically fatalistic ends, and it is here where Hostel Part II makes its first significant statement. In an attempt to keep the spoilers to a minimum, the infamous legend of ‘Countess Dracula’ (the Hungarian “blood queen” Elizabeth Báthory) gets the kind of horrifying update that will keep tongues wagging for weeks. Combining the worst elements of male fantasy and fright film referencing (there’s a noticeable nod to Angel Heart as well) this first major murder scene is destined to go down in movie macabre as the one of the most notorious – and to some, the most noxious.


Of course, said repulsed reaction is only coming from one place, and it’s not as well meaning and high minded as the critics would have you believe. Far worse things happened to the characters in the initial Hostel, and the outcry was not this intense or outrageous. In essence, the notion of gender equity doesn’t exist in the realm of cinematic reality. Kill a beer-swilling dude with his passion in his penis and you’ll get a minor murmur. Cut the throat of a sad, depressed female adult and everyone’s inner parent comes crying. It’s a concept inherent in Roth’s redesign of the film franchise, and you know he has to love all the hand wringing and kvetching. Back in the ‘80s, girls were the notorious targets of all manner of slice and dice serial killer, and except for Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, everyone took it as a gratuitous given. Now, with decades of deconstruction and pro-PC protocols, you just can’t torture and kill young women without accepting some kind of sociological payback.


Roth is way ahead of the game, giving us only one major drawn out damsel in distress sequence. The rest of the time, events happen off screen, or within a unique twist on the aggressor/victim paradigm. Indeed, all of Hostel Part II is about bucking trends. Don’t listen to the messageboards that lament that this is more of the same thing. It’s not. The gore is limited and hardly as excessive as the first time around. The terror isn’t tied to the torture scenes themselves, but what happens in and around them. The characters are more clearly drawn, developed far beyond their archetypal façade. And Roth’s direction has improved by leaps and bounds. Where once he seemed like a homemade movie maven lucky to get his basic b-movie ideas up on the big screen, he now comes across like the beaming bastard son of a dozen equally diabolical cinematic stalwarts.


Still, it will be hard to hear your own thoughts over the media din about to accompany this film. Grassroots campaigns will start, backlash will begin, and Roth will be labeled everything from a slick charlatan trading arterial spray for actual talent to a chauvinist shilling his perverted perspective to a desperately under-educated fanbase. Of course, none of this is true. If do-gooders want a collection of movies to grumble over, this critic could give them a laundry list – Scrapbook, Murder-Set-Pieces, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, plus many, many more – of deplorable efforts. While it’s true that in our current mainstream perspective, violence against women is a rightfully taboo subject, in the context of a FICTIONAL horror storyline, it’s desperately old hat. Leave it to Eli Roth to make the ancient seem appalling once again. It’s just one of Hostel Part II’s many unconventional conventions. It’s the reason why this sequel is as successful as its precursor.


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Friday, Jun 8, 2007

A few days ago, Amanda Marcotte wrote an astute entry regarding this BusinessWeek story about subprime lending and other poverty exploiting rackets. The general gist of the article is that the poor are often in tenuous and desperate situations that make them easy to exploit with usurious interest rates, rent-to-own ripoffs, exorbitant mark-ups and other opportunistic schemes. Just go into a ghetto “grocery store” or check the storefronts in a rundown shopping center on the wrong side of town and you’ll get the picture. Paycheck loans, rent-to-own outfits, dollar stores, Chinese takeout, etc—businesses that set high margins on small-ticket transactions. As Marcotte points out, desperation is an opportunity, as long as you lack the requisite scruples. You can take advantage of the lack of social capital in poor neighborhoods and present your exploitative behavior as a service. Without social capital, without the education to understand complex financial transactions, without legal protections being enforced for them or the political clout to see their interests protected, without the potentially powerful word-of-mouth networks or plain old money to smooth over life’s frictions, the poor have no leverage over the businesses that deign to serve them, and the result is they are served only on vulturous terms. (One of the many ways disparate power among participants distorts the workings of the market, one of the heterodox views of the economists Chris Hayes considers in this Nation story.)


Insecurity in general is the basis of a lot of retail business, which is why so many ads are designed to generate feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. The poor, of course, don’t need ads to make them feel insecure, which makes them a cost-effective target —though ads are part of the discourse that establishes what is culturally normal, defining what it means to be impoverished. The bogus premise of equal opportunity is widely enough held in America that the poor must keep up appearances lest it seem that their poverty is their own personal fault. Of course, to keep up, they must take on risks and terms that sink them in debt traps and assure their continued failure to achieve the bourgeoisdom the signals normalcy—that allows you to feel that you are the target of so much of the media’s messages. The added bonus is that the working poor assume responsibility for their poverty as a kind of personal, moral failure—this is what The Hidden Injuries of Class, by Sennett and Cobb, is all about.


We can fault business for following their incentives to profit at the expense of those with little defense and no social safety net, but it seems the counterveiling power of government is more likely to correct the problem then a sudden and complete change of heart among competitive firms. But politicians rely on business contributions to finance their campaigns, which leads to legislation that rewards business (the recent bankruptcy bill exemplifies this). So without any institutional power, the working poor has no reason not to seize the only form of power left to them. From Marcotte’s entry:


Charles H. Green points out that this untenable exploitation of the working poor has become such a morally troubling issue that up-and-coming capitalists are beginning to turn on the system.


  “One healthy sign: my 30th reunion at Harvard Business School last fall. The most heavily attended lecture was by Professor Bruce Scott, who spoke about the global trend toward concentration of wealth. We’re moving toward looking like Rio de Janeiro—armed gated communities surrounded by violent gangs. Scott’s lecture got a standing ovation—both in his lecture room, and in the audio-connected overflow room, hastily put together to accommodate the crowd. This from the old school crowd at HBS—the West Point of capitalism. There is hope.”


It’s an interesting dilemma, from the capitalist point of view. Keeping the poor living from paycheck to paycheck and in constant debt serves two purposes. From the article, you can see that it’s actually quite profitable, especially in a deregulated era like ours. Second of all, desperation breeds complacency, to a degree. Workers who are constantly treading water and robbing Peter to pay Paul are likely to suffer all sorts of indignities to keep their jobs, including taking lower pay than they’re really worth if it means securing the jobs that much more quickly. But it has to be controlled desperation—there’s a tipping point where the poor are so much in debt to the rich that they simply can’t pay it all back and the system could collapse on itself. It’s happened before in history, many times, and it can happen again. Opposition to usury isn’t just about morals, but protecting a system that ultimately benefits the rich by keeping a check on the excesses that threaten the entire situation.


 


Very depressing, that, and the classic dilemma of all ameliorating, incrementalist approaches to social change: You end up perpetuating systems of oppression, making them more tolerable for the oppressed. But then you consider how much misery, chaos, and evil the typical revolution unleashes, and it’s hard to think of any course of action worth advocating.


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Thursday, Jun 7, 2007


Unfunny comedies. Pathetic popcorn flicks. Feel good sports flops and forgotten gems from filmmakers better known for their blockbuster efforts. That’s what’s on tap this week for those of you curious about the potential pay cable choices. As summer starts to swelter, as the theatrical release continues to dominate the entertainment dialogue, the premium pay channels are resting on their overpriced laurels, providing the barest in legitimate fair before returning to their previous position of junk, junk, and more junk. Some networks, like Showtime, have even abandoned the whole “weekly premiere” ideal to focus on their far more successful series (said channel is practically a 24 hour love letter to The Tudors right now). So if your social life is such that Saturday Night means a bowl of corn in front of the flat screen, here’s what’s waiting to perplex your pixels on 09 June, including another reluctant SE&L selection: 


Premiere Pick
You, Me and Dupree


We hear at SE&L have, for a while now, lamented the lack of decent mainstream motion picture comedy. While fans can point to the horrible hackwork of someone like Sacha Baron Cohen (can we all agree now that Borat is not groundbreaking, just occasionally funny?) or the overdone dopiness of Will Farrell (more like Clichés of Glory), the truth is that they just don’t make big screen laughfests like they used to. Case in point, this slacker shuck and jive posing as viable cinematic wit. Kate Hudson, Matt Dillon and Owen Wilson all should have known better. Indeed, spoofs about misfits and their inability to fit in only work where there is an audience able to either identify with, or root against, the problematic protagonist. In this case, Dupree is sort of a post-millennial poster boy, a man so in touch with his raging inner child that it’s like some new kind of metaphysical pedophilia. The film itself is equally uncomfortable. (09 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Poseidon


It should have been so much better. A series of stereotypical characters climb aboard a big boat. Boat gets hit by rogue wave. Boat flips over. Things go boom. People try to survive. So why is Wolfgang Peterson’s CGI heavy take on Irwin Allen’s ‘70s disaster classic so crappy? Perhaps because we could care less who lives and who dies. That’s never a successful cinematic formula. (09 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Invincible


Mark Wahlberg stars in the supposedly uplifting story of Vince Papale, a 30 year old bartender who became part of Coach Dick Vermeil’s revamp of the late ‘70s Philadelphia Eagles. While the notion of fulfilling one’s lifelong athletic ambitions can and does make for riveting big screen storytelling, this overly sentimentalized (and sensationalized) version of the tale is more ra-ra than dra-ma. (09 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


The Weather Man


Many moviegoers overlooked this excellent Gore Verbinski film (didn’t know he made films sans pirates, did ya?) for one very poor reason – the shortsighted suits at Paramount couldn’t figure out how to promote it. They tried the screwball comedy approach. They even went the way of sentimentalized schlock. But the truth is, this desperate dark satire sits somewhere in the middle of crazy and considered. It deserved better than to be marginalized by misguided marketing. (09 June, ShowCASE, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2


As part of a big fat celebration of the many martial arts, the Independent Film Channel is offering up both halves of Quentin Tarantino’s amazing homage to all things Shaw Brothers. Combining the three elements he does best – dialogue, story strategy, and directorial showmanship, the bad boy of Indie auteurism delivered on his long simmering desire to bring wild world cinema to the Western mainstream. With the unbelievable Uma Thurman in the lead (Ms. T deserved an Oscar for her tremendous work here) and a veritable who’s who of US and Asian acting names (Michael Madsen, Sonny Chiba, Lucy Liu, Darryl Hannah), Tarantino combined action with arch emotional content to weave a complex narrative of revenge, honor and motherly love. Part two is often cited as the more subtle or the pair, but that’s just because the action is amped down in favor of a conversational confrontation between Thurman’s Bride and the title icon (played perfectly by David Carradine). Some can complain about this filmmaker’s decision to cannibalize an entire culture’s movies for his own artistic ends, but when the results are this spectacular, who cares. Besides, IFC has enough examples of the real chopsocky genre on view to override the sense of filmic colonialism. (09 & 10 June, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Corporation


It’s a terrible given within the business world, but everyone knows that corporations are wholly and significantly corrupt. What this amazing documentary does is argue that direct dishonesty has been part of the overall business plan for centuries. Perhaps its most memorable conceit? When profiled as a “person”, these nefarious multinational entities are labeled as antisocial psychotics in their actions. (11 June, Sundance, 10:30PM EST)

Lorenzo’s Oil


George Miller, who made his name giving Max his madness, and a group of CGI penguins their happy feet, is actually a real life physician. Perhaps that’s why this unique medical drama has such a heartfelt, personal perspective. Nick Nolte’s questionable Italian accent aside, this stunner delves deep into a mysterious illness, the child challenged by it, and the parents who never give up hope. The result is both gut wrenching and spirit soaring. (12 June, Sundance Channel, 6:45PM EST)


Outsider Option
The Sadist/ Wild Guitar


It’s the Cabbage Patch Elvis himself, Arch Hall, Jr., stirring up things in a repeat from last November’s TCM Underground entry. As the featured atrocity, the boy with a thorn in his side first stars as a quick tempered killer out for standard crime spree kicks. Talk about your suspension of disbelief. Arch is hard to buy as a homicidal maniac ala Charles Starkweather. But it’s the second feature that pushes the limits of legitimate believability even further. As part of an actual push by his film producer father to make Arch both a music and movie star (both on screen and off) our pie-faced putz suddenly shoots up the charts as an overnight pop sensation. Of course, he has a hard time living the rock star celebrity lifestyle. Yeesh. While we here at SE&L would normally scoff at such a regular rerun ideal, you can never have enough Hall in one’s retro retard film diet. (08 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Humongous


Like the baffling Beast Within, this is another tale of a gal getting diddled by some manner of monstrous fiend and eventually giving birth to a murderous maniac freak baby. Naturally, a group of teens runs into the creature several years later, and few survive to tell the tale. While there are much better versions of this kind of ‘dirty little secret’ scare film, this one takes the human oddity cake. (12 June, Drive-In Classics, Canada, 7PM EST)

Gozu


Friend of both Tarantino and Roth, Takashi Miike has come to symbolize the splatter facet of Japanese cinema with his bold and bloody motion pictures. For this slightly surreal effort, the director mixes comedy, craziness, and a vanishing corpse to tell an equally strange tale of Yakuza criminals at a moralistic crossroads. Some may see it as a lesser Miike, but it plays directly into the filmmaker’s foul domain. (13 June, Showtime Extreme, 2:05AM EST)

The End of Violence


There are those who believe that it takes an outsider to accurately reflect America’s obsession with certain suspect ideas – be it sex, power or violence. But Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) may not have been the best candidate to take on big screen brutality. This overdone tale of an action movie producer whose run in with real hostility provides a late in life change of heart is heavy-handed and hokey. While the intentions are good, the follow through it significantly flawed. (14 June, Indieplex, 10:50PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Jun 7, 2007

When I taught college classes, nearly every paper my students turned in was in printed in the same font, Times New Roman. Of course, this was not because they were all serif lovers or because they were actually following the instructions supplied on my syllabus; it was because at the time, that was the default on Microsoft Word, which was the default word processor on the university’s computers. (In fact, a paper in a different font was often enough to raise suspicions of plagiarism or, more likely, that the student was gaming the specifications to conceal a skimpy word count. Were I teaching today, I’d assign essays with a word count—not a useless page count—and I would ask that the count to be listed in the header with the student’s name. Of course, few probably would follow these instructions anyway, so it wouldn’t get me very far.)


Why this anecdote? To reinforce the main point I took away from Cass Susstein and Richard Thaler’s paper on libertarian paternalism, namely that defaults are extremely sticky. Because of inertia, endowment effects, and the general sense that they are chosen benevolently, defaults tend to shape the behavior of many users, who can’t be bothered to change them. Or alternatively, they enjoy the freedom from having to choose. Libertarians worry about this sort of thing, because it means, in many cases, that some bureaucrat in Redmond, Washington, has decided what your documents will look like, not you. In order to see what you really wanted your documents to look like, you’d have to be forced to choose a font every time you create a new document. Then we’d have a purer revealed preference.


But often, the point of defaults is to liberate people from choices, which is why a definition of freedom as choice is a bit problematic (unless you want to get all recursive and contemplate choosing not to choose). People rely on defaults when they are essentially indifferent—when the effort required to choose isn’t sufficiently rewarded by satisfaction in whatever choice is eventually made. No font other than Times New Roman will give enough pleasure to make up for the time wasted picking it (unless you are procrastinating, in which case the pointless font picking has a different sort of utility).


A problem may arise, however, in how your acceptance of the default will be understood. The danger is that it might be seen as an active preference for, in this case, the font itself, rather than for sheer indifference. If the default is widely recognized as a nonchoice, then there’s little danger. But if it isn’t, then you’ve lost the ability to be neutral on a subject—to escape being judged for your aesthetics or style regarding typefaces. And the ability to be neutral, to be above judgment and avoid being judged, is becoming more and more valuable as more and more of everyday life is infected with style, and more and more purely aesthetic decisions are forced on us, say, in Target, with its aestheticized toilet brushes. When we can publicly and unequivocally opt for the default, we can escape this trap, preserve a little privacy for ourselves about our tastes, avoid displaying personality in something inane and conserve it for more important matters, the aspects of life we’d actively choose to invest ourselves in. This desire to be left alone is frustrated when no clear default is supplied, and the anxiety created by default-free scenarios may present a business opportunity so compelling that defaultlessness may itself become a default. (It opens up a whole service industry—spawning advisers and counselors and image consultants and whatnot—every time consumers are brought to confront unfamiliar choices that will say something about who they are to the world.) Defaults allow us to evade responsibility for choices we don’t want responsibility for, even as commercial interests try to thrust that responsibility on us. It has become very hard to evade signaling opportunities, and at some point signaling fatigue must begin to set in and we get sick of having to project our identity at all times and in all things. There is luxury in feeling like it doesn’t matter; that you can be the guy who doesn’t worry about dressing up for work or having the coolest gadgets or the most up-to-date and exotic music collection or what have you. Freedom from the onus of signaling seems to promise a return to the freedom to actually experience things, as they are—to enjoy Times New Roman as Times New Roman, even.


So defaults are potentially a force for good, helping stem fashion’s creeping into everything. (Would that I had a default option for my wardrobe.) They are so good, it’s easy to imagine it coming to pass that we’d have to customarily pay for the privilege of having defaults set for us, to pay for the permission not to choose. The proliferation of services that do your shopping for you are an intermediate stage toward this, I think. Outsourcing decision making might be the next wave of conspicuous consumption; there just needs to be clear ways to signal that you aren’t behind the wheel of your lifestyle. At that point, we will have come full circle, and the desire to wish to avoid signalling will have itself become something that we signal to accrue status.


You don’t have to be a postmodernist to realize that some sort of default setup is impossible to avoid. The terms are always already given in some way that shapes the resulting circumstances, so there’s no transcendental signified of defaults—nothing that can stand outside the realm of influence and connotation. There is no neutral way to present things so as to not already embed possibly coercive interpretations or default settings or implications or emphases. Susstein and Thaler are especially clear about this.


If the entitlement-granting rules seem invisible, and to be a simple way of protecting freedom of choice, it is because they appear so sensible and natural that they are not taken to be a legal allocation at all. But this is a mistake. What we add here is that when a default rule affects preferences and behavior, it is having the same effect as employer presumptions about savings plans. This effect is often significant.


So monetizing defaults isn’t about withholding them so much as making them as undesirable as possible and charging to make them less undesirable. (Maybe Microsoft could make Comic Sans the default and charge for an explanation of how to change it.) With regard to Susstein and Thaler’s concern with opt-in 401(k)‘s, that’s what employers are already doing. It’s no accident that you have to enroll in savings programs in America—the failure of many employees to do so on account of the default effect means they are leaving money on the table for the employer to keep. The defaults are arranged to benefit employers rather than employees, thus employers will resist any changes to this system and would likely lobby to preserve the status quo. As long as a default effect exists in consumers (and short of radical psychological breakthroughs, it will continue to exist), whoever controls the defaults, controls a source of revenue—somewhere a long the line they can be rigged to someone’s benefit. “Free market” boosters would like to see control of this revenue source remain in the hands of private business—usually this argument is presented as protecting consumers from “paternalism,” from someone making choices for them, which sounds bad only until you think about all the choices you are too lazy to make. (Incidentally, one of the main reasons I am still without a cell phone—I’m too lazy to figure out the best deal and haven’t convinced myself that the benefits outweigh the effort required to get over this hurdle. This may be the true definition of fogeydom. Lots of old-timers out there probably feel the same way about computers and such.) The government could also regulate defaults in more circumstances, beyond the “defaults” of our legal environment, with the idea being it has less reason not to put the public’s interest first (by making 401(k)‘s opt-out by law, say). But politicians are corruptible, and lousy defaults embedded at the government level may be harder to root out than others.


Exploiting default settings ultimately has to do with capitalizing on how we habitually process information, something advertisers and marketers have been exploiting for years. Since advertisers have staked a claim to these methods, and have honed them through testing them in the battle for market share, it may be harder for the government to use them in the public interest and pass them off as neutral (even though the are just subtle modes of manipulation) or benevolent. Instead, these manipulative techniques—Vance Packard’s “hidden persuaders”—bear the disreputable stigma of being employed primarily to bilk us and have it be our fault, as it derives from our ill-considered thinking or our lazily accepting things as they are. Rather than adopt these methods itself, the government might more constructively work to educate individuals away from their inherent behavioral tendencies—but this kind of social cognitive therapy might be the most paternalistic approach of all.


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Wednesday, Jun 6, 2007


He is, perhaps, the single most important voice in post-modern minority moviemaking. Sick and tired of the way blacks were portrayed in Hollywood’s lamentable history, he set out to make his own statement about the viability of putting people of color in something other than the role of a servant or criminal. In the process, he reinvented urban cinema, starting a wave that would later be known as blaxploitation. He also gave rise to a fresh and vibrant voice – a decidedly non-Caucasian voice – within the standard cinematic ideal. And what did he get for this innovation? Was he celebrated and kept as part of the legitimate legacy of the motion picture artform? Was he rewarded with more opportunities to prove his creative and philosophical mantle? Is he currently in demand as a past master still worthy of appreciation? The answer for maverick Melvin Van Peebles is cruel and very cutting. Instead of being a celebrated star in the world of film, he’s a fading force best known almost exclusively for his usual named singular breakout hit.


Thanks to the brilliant new documentary by first time filmmaker Joe Angio, provocatively titled How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) – new to DVD from Image Entertainment - all that just might change. At the very least, individuals who only know his name because of his famous son Mario, said child’s amazing motion picture Baadasssss! or the movie that actually put Melvin on the map – 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song – will learn that there remains much more to this multitalented Renaissance rebel than a simple stint behind the camera. After spending 90 mersmerizing minutes inside his individual sphere of influence, we learn of previous careers as a French satirist, a foreign filmmaker, an unlikely Tinsel Town token, a self-made musician, self taught poet, pilot, Broadway showman, impresario, porn lover, stock trader, and cabaret act. Easily a Jack-of-all-Trades and a master of many, Melvin made his name by breaking the rules and challenging convention. Sometimes, he even ignored logic and common sense to achieve his amplified ambitions.


Now nearly 75 – and looking as fierce and determined as ever – this international icon to grit and resolve is not necessarily looking to rest on his laurels. If anything, this glimpse into his personal and professional life is meant to breathe context into his career both as an important cinematic artist and an influential racial pioneer. Melvin is often considered the Black Panther movement of moviemaking, and when a former member of the radical black organization steps up to confirm how important Sweetback was to the party, the connection is crystal clear. Recognizing that son Mario did a remarkable job of explaining how and why said seminal blaxploitation pic became a cultural phenomenon, Watermelon doesn’t go overboard addressing the subject. Instead, it becomes part of an overall whole where one project or personal obsession becomes a piece in the neverending (and puzzling) myth of this incredibly complex man.


It would be easy to argue that Melvin is a master at undermining his own aims. After convincing the studio suits that he was the right man to make the race baiting comedy Watermelon Man (a slick satire starring Godfrey Cambridge as a white man who suddenly turns black overnight) he quickly became difficult, demanding certain creative controls while wasting whatever leverage he had. Then, when Sweetback went on to change the face of ethnic filmmaking, he basically gave up on cinema, arguing that he only wanted to make the movies ‘he felt like’ making. In truth, his success without the studio saw the industry purposefully avoid him. When his musical muse no longer spoke (Melvin’s sing-speak style is often cited, along with the equally influential Last Poets, as the precursor to rap), he went on to write shows for the Great White Way. Never one to compromise, his confrontational efforts were respected and praised, but acted like box office poison to the typically snobby New York theater crowd. 


Angio also argues that Melvin occasionally expected too much from those who championed his cases. While desperate and destitute in Holland (where he went after a stint in Korea as part of his ROTC scholarship commitment), he finds his short films being celebrated in France. But when a well-attended screening failed to deliver financially, he felt hurt and humiliated. It’s clear from several of the insightful interviews presented that Mr. Van Peebles has a 40 acres and a mule sized chip on his shoulder, and logically, he should. After all, as a well spoken artist who was capable of great creative leaps in any medium he choose, he had to live with the concept that skin color consistently blocked his all-important options. Whether rightly or wrongly, he chose to wear those rejections like a brash badge of dire dishonor. It made his often entertaining work seem difficult and unapproachable.  It’s to this film’s massive credit that we can crawl underneath the blustery bravado to see a thoughtful performer perplexed as to the ongoing prejudice in a supposedly rational world.


He gets a lot of help in that regard. Angio has rounded up a nice selection of connected talking heads, people who can easily speak about working with, living around and admiring the man. Children and ex-lovers, colleagues and brothers in arms do their best job of backseat psychiatry, refusing to fully categorize Melvin as a troublemaker, a troubadour, or an acquired taste. Spike Lee does an astonishing job of insinuating his influence, while several French cartoonists call their former co-worker a brilliant force of nature. If Van Peebles was looking for accolades, he certainly finds them throughout the film. But there is also a subtext of skepticism in Watermelon that really works to broaden the subjective scope. While trying to record a new song, we see Melvin in the studio. Cursing up a storm and chomping on his ever-present cigar, he is part egotist, part asshole, and all intensity. He wants to get things right, and doesn’t want to waste time goofing off.


In fact, one could argue that this enigmatic individual has been like an imaginative shark, constantly moving forward and around to avoid the death of his talent – or capture by the roving band of great white hunters looking to land him. It was a clear theme in Sweetback, and it runs like a thread throughout the entire documentary. We even see the spry septuagenarian on his morning jog, bounding around Manhattan like a man several decades younger. Similarly, during a shoot on his last full length feature Bellyful (2000), we witness Melvin rushing from set up to set up, hoping to complete his filming before some unseen force decides to close him down. Whether he is standing on the stage delivering a dopey version of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” or poised in the trading pit, battling it out with other stock exchange employees, Melvin always looks like a criminal about to get caught. He’s dead convinced that somehow the Establishment will eventually find him guilty and throw the karmic book at him.


Thankfully, Angio was around to catch him before he finally went AWOL, and while the director takes some strange stylistic chances (he wraps up Melvin’s early life as a young Chicago geek and angry ex-patriot in a surreal Citizen Kane inspired mock newsreel), he ends up delivering a nicely rounded portrait of the man. Certainly this is a slightly single-minded love letter, a blemish and all attempt at reestablishing Van Peebles name as part of the legitimate history of film. But all is not kid glove and kisses. Mario himself makes a strong case for his continued exile simply be being irascible and unshakable in his convictions and beliefs. As a matter of fact, he may be the only remaining legitimate element of the counterculture underground left standing some 40 years after the fact.


It’s great to see someone finally stepping up and giving this American original the due he so richly deserves. There is a wealth of information in How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) as well as a lot of serious and substantive food for thought. The impression one takes away from this amazingly dense documentary is that, given a different Hollywood mentality – say the pro-auteur era we are currently residing in – Van Peebles would be more important than Gordon Parks, more successful than John Singleton, and more pissed off than Spike Lee. While he was indeed his own worst enemy, he also never shirked on his perceived responsibilities or sold out to a situation that saw nothing in him but stereotypes. Like the title argues, Melvin wanted to embrace his heritage and be respected for it. He desired consideration for his basic humanity, not for what he could bring to the bottom line. He never really struggled, but he never really succeeded either. This highly recommended documentary should stand as the start of his eventual reward.


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