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by Bill Gibron

9 Aug 2008

When we think of classic comedy, especially from the era before sound, slapstick stands as the main significant form. Sure, there were works with witty rejoinders and filmed plays piled high with clever dialogue, but sans the title cards, the power of pantomime and the purity of physical shtick argued for its viability in a wholly visual medium. Naturally, within such subsets lie the considered kings - Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd - but among their cinematic court were jesters of equal aplomb, if not fame. Thanks to the archivists at All Day Entertainment, and digital distributors Facets, we are treated to a wonderful second volume of forgotten figures and farces, shorts and features that prove there was more to onscreen pratfalls than little tramps and great stone faces.

Compiled over three loaded DVDs, American Slapstick Vol. 2 is then divided into sections. On Disc 1, we are treated to a look at Harold Lloyd, his brother Gaylord and the latter’s brief career, including his take on his sibling’s ‘Luke” character. Next up is an overview of Hal Roach’s remarkable studios and several of its b-players. Finally, we witness the birth of Educational Pictures, a brand that had very little to do with learning and everything to do with lunacy. Disc 2 offers the sole feature film, a look at Charlie Chaplin’s brother Syd and his turn in the classic satire Charlie’s Aunt. A few of his ‘Gussie’ shorts are offered as well. Equally interesting here is a chance to see Chaplin imitator Billy West. The final DVD presents a true piece of history as famous ladies of slapstick are discussed. Their importance is accented by takes on Billy Bevin as well as the talkies attempt to incorporate the ideas of old with the technology of the new.

All in all, it’s over seven hours of silent silliness and casual insights. Each section is introduced by a pleasant female voice, the information she passes along instrumental in understanding the context of each area. In addition, a handy insert outlines the stars being surveyed as well as the films on each DVD. Granted, much of this material is incomplete. As a matter of fact, historians argue that as much as 85% of pre-World War II cinema is lost forever. So the fact that we have access to any of these rarities is really special. Naturally, video purists will balk at the condition and visual variables, but if that’s all they care about, they are missing the bigger picture. Physical comedy didn’t begin with Moe, Larry, and Curly, and there was much more to the genre than Chaplin’s sentimentality and Keaton’s technical advances. The more we know about slapstick, the more we come to truly appreciate it as an art.

In a compendium loaded with intriguing elements, three items stick out specifically. The first deals with Chaplin and his mystique (the focus of Disc 2). Learning that his popularity created a series of imitators and impersonators is nothing surprising. Yet watching as West tries to emulate the Little Tramp, or seeing how brother Syd strived to create his own classic character is worth the price of admission alone. “The Hobo” is hilarious, West really doing a dandy bit of buffoonery. The snippets from animated takes on the Chaplin mystique are also excellent. But it’s Syd who steals the show. His work as Gussie, a haughty halfwit whose main attribute appears to be a rather ample rump is quite compelling and - dare it be said - equal to his brother’s subtlety and skill. “Caught in the Park” and “Gussie’s Wayward Path” stand as ready to be rediscovered gems, and thanks to American Slapstick Vol. 2, modern generations get a chance to witness the other Chaplin’s brilliance and personality acumen.

The second most significant contribution this collection makes is in the feminine side of show business. We always here about the men, both celebrated and infamous, but when was the last time you heard scholars reference Louise Fazenda, Anne Cornwall, or most importantly, Alice Howell. These three remarkable women are the focus of Disc 3, and their short films and sequences are absolutely fantastic. Beyond that, they are eye opening. We are used to seeing silent screen actresses as damsels in distress, clumsy dowagers, or sad, slightly soiled ladies. Here, our trio introduces us to amazing moments from “Cinderalla Cinders”, “Hold Still”, “A Hash House Fraud”, and “Faro Nell” and in each one they more than hold their own. It’s just too bad we can’t see more of these incredibly important individuals. A set of female slapstick stars is probably long overdue.

Finally, even though it’s part of the Syd Chaplin section, seeing Charlie’s Aunt here is quite stunning. Granted, the performances and the storyline are major selling points, but the chance to see a full fledged costumed comedy, complete with elaborate sets, faked locations, and other classic Hollywood hullabaloo is too good to pass up. Representing a near perfect time capsule of the industry of the era, we see that oversized ambitions, overacting, and larger than life spectacle are not a contemporary fault. This is also true of forlorn funnyman Billy Bevins. His almost epic “Be Respectable” goes from a clever character piece to a full blown citywide chase, complete with more Keystone style cops than modern day Los Angeles has policemen. It makes for a wonderfully thrilling addition.

Indeed, everything about American Slapstick Vol. 2 is spellbinding, even if some of it is in minor, mere footnote ways only. We enjoy the reckless ethnic stereotyping, as it provides insights into the social structure of the past. We champion those brave gals who orchestrated their onscreen gags with the precision of their far more renowned (and better paid) male counterparts. We wonder why certain names are no longer remembered while realizing that some actors were mere fading fads in a consumer driven entertainment marketplace. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this anthology, aside from the wealth of historical context and pure performance bliss, is how accurately it preserves the truth. While we may never see the likes of this style of humor ever again, the ability to revisit it in such a significant, substantive manner is a joy to behold. American Slapstick Vol. 2 is mandatory viewing for any functioning film fan. 

by Rob Horning

9 Aug 2008

In a riposte to tech pessimists like Nicholas Carr, media blogger Jeff Jarvis argues that “the myth of the creative class” is in the process of being extinguished by the internet.

The internet doesn’t make us more creative, I don’t think. But it does enable what we create to be seen, heard, and used. It enables every creator to find a public, the public he or she merits. And that takes creation out of the proprietary hands of the supposed creative class.

Pretty to think so. This is internet ideology at its most inspirational: the Web allows us to be individuals rather than part of a mass addressed by media monoliths, and it allows meritocracy to at last become a reality, and no one will be any more famous than he or she deserves.

The playing field is flat and to stand out one must now do so on merit - as defined by the public rather than the priests - which will be rewarded with links and attention. This is our link economy, our culture of links. It is a meritocracy, only now there are many definitions of merit and each must be earned.

A look back at the history of internet fads makes one skeptical though. And it seems that the power networks of the offline media replicate themselves online—the commercial media has a more vested interest in drumming up traffic and integrating content production with advertising support, so they invest money and effort accordingly, with the effect of reproducing the offline mode of production online. Independent bloggers are adopted by national publications, and their content is branded by the big media companies, and the power of branding to confer authority begins to exert itself over the once-wide-open sphere of communication. It becomes harder to be some random person with a blogger account and still get discovered and linked to—it can happen, but then so could my letter to the editor be published as a column on the NYT opinion page. It’s just not very likely.

As Jarvis would have it, Web space has replaced the hip urban centers celebrated by Richard Florida as the site where inspired minds congregate to inspire one another.

This link ecology does potentially change the nature of creativity. It makes it more collaborative, not just in the act but in the inspiration. Coelho’s Witch of Portobello is the spark that leads to a movie made by its readers. Same with Stern, LonelyGirl, Colbert. Perhaps the role of the creative class is not so much to make finished products but to inspire more to be made. It is the flint of creativity. It’s the internet - Google, Flickr, YouTube, and old, mass media as their accessories - that bring flint and spark together.

This sort of thing plays out as the much heralded “remix culture”—consumers become producers by using digital cultural products as a language for their own creative expressions. This undermines the old allegiances that paved the way for subcultures anchored in various nexuses of music and fashion and zines and so on, and introduces a more motley pastiche form of culture that is at the same time more homogeneous than ever. The internet—the link economy, the amateur parodies and homages of culture industry product, etc.—becomes a hegemonic form for cultural expression even as it become more heterogeneous in its composite parts. You might make a steampunk rap video with snippets of sitcoms mixed in, but it will still be posted on YouTube in the end. It has become so much easier to publish samizdat that samizdat now no longer has any meaning as a form.

I’m not sure this more democratic access to the means of distribution ultimately frees up an abundance of heretofore suppressed talent or shifts anything away from the established creative class—the anointed ones who shape the culture that consumers remix. Yes, the internet provides uncolonized space for cultural activity, a space that is ever expanding. You never reach the Western shore. There is always more room for “creative” pioneers to stake claims. But the majority of cultural consumers aren’t interested in lighting out for the territories, and the creative class continues to run what is recognized socially as the civilized portion of that vast online space, and it is slowly expanding its control assimilating the more promising outliers. This seems no different from how things have always worked in the culture industries; if anything the dependence on the law-giving creative class strengthens with so much chaos lurking at the fringes.

by tjmHolden

9 Aug 2008

The bang and boom having receded—the flare of fireworks, the wash of color, the bold pageantry, the synchronization of thousands of bodies in motion. Yes, Beijing 2008 has officially begun. And for most of us, all we know of Beijing 2008 is what we witness via the TV feed.

For me, Beijing 2008 is summed up in two lay-overs in capital airport this past fortnight; a total of eight hours strolling through one of the most spacious, spotless, sparkling-est airports our world currently knows.

If you haven’t been there—and especially to the newly-opened Terminal 3—it might be worth trolling around below the jump for a few minutes, to give it a visual canvas.



by Bill Gibron

8 Aug 2008

According to the reports, it was a rather surreal Comic-con for the members of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mythos. With almost everyone involved in the show participating in a panel discussion in association with the show’s 20th anniversary (and upcoming DVD releases from new distributor Shout! Factory), hope sprang eternal (and internal) that some major announcement would be made - perhaps a fan-mandated and prayed for coming together of the so-far divergent Cinematic Titanic/RiffTrax crews. On the one side is Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, larger than life talents who carried on the in-theater mockery motif long after others gave up on the concept. On the opposite end sits the CT crew - Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl, flush with success from their own self-promoted releases and collective critical acceptance.

Yet aside from Patton Oswalt’s genuine geekdom and some rather uncomfortable stares, it was clear that, at least for the time being, the geniuses behind the classic cowtown puppet show won’t be having a meeting of the minds anytime soon. Nelson seem content to add their smart alecky attacks to recent releases (via their audio only offerings) while Hodgson and his cohorts crank out original DVD titles in the old, silhouettes against the screen format. Prior to attending the notorious nerd herding in San Diego, the group even offered up a salvo for those desperate for more Cinematic Titanic goodness. Unlike the release of The Doomsday Machine, which took almost six months to materialize, their next effort, the Roger Corman retardation from 1959, The Wasp Woman, would be out in a matter of weeks. Sure enough, 8 August saw the release of the downloadable version of the project, and as usual, it’s another dose of daffy satiric goodness.

For those unfamiliar with the ultimate ‘b’ movie, Susan Cabot plays Janice Starling, the aging magnate of a major cosmetics firm. Where once she was the spry and youthful face of her product, her advancing years (she’s all of 38!) have meant a significant lag in sales. When a weirdly accented doctor named “Mr.” Eric Zintrop writes to her, explaining his rejuvenation techniques using the royal jelly from wasps, she’s instantly intrigued. She sets up a lab for the potential madman, and allows him to experiment on her. After nearly a month of no results, Janice takes matters into her own hands. She shoots up a significant amount of the bug enzyme, and sure enough, she becomes instantly younger. Of course, Zinthrop fails to fully inform his patient of the side effects. Apparently, along with headaches and occasional moodiness, Janice will intermittently turn into a giant insect - one that craves human flesh and plenty of it!

While previous Cinematic Titanic wonders like The Oozing Skull really delivered on the new series’ promise, Wasp Woman finally feels like home. As a matter of fact, if one closed their eyes, they could easily envision a late night rerun of a first year Comedy Channel episode of the old MST. With its barely there cast and certified Corman corner cutting, what starts out schlocky turns tacky in a matter of minutes. Cabot, whose career was cut short when her dwarf of a son bludgeoned her to death (no, we are not making this up), has to play dour and depressed for most of the movie, her fading beauty an evidently painful subject for the high powered and excessively rich CEO. Of course, since this is the ‘50s, our heroine must be surrounded by piggish chauvinists who smirk at her concern with crowsfeet over constantly puffing pipes and liquor laced breath.

Clearly influenced by the massive success of 1958’s The Fly, one has to give Wasp Woman credit for attempted ingenuity. Corman could have easily gone for the “man mutates” formula that made the Al Hedison horror show a hit. Instead, this narrative goes gaga for entomology, providing us with a precursory prologue where the benefits of royal jelly and all other bug butt extracts are explored. Zintrop even gives a little speech about respecting nature - of course, he’s addressing the insects he apparently confides in on a regular basis. As the story moves along to its standard spookshow sequences, we also see some patented Filmgroup falderal. Two obvious typing pool ‘broads’, whose names could be Mavis and Trixie for all their Brooklyn bar maid mannerisms, discuss their lagging love lives in a way that would make even the most desperate gent run in easy pickings paranoia.

Of course, all of this is prime material for the CT staff, and they come up with one of their most satisfying slam dunks yet. Thematically, it’s all heroin and insect riffs, the quintet taking every opportunity to mock anthropods and ridicule those who ride the white horse. The quips get so intense that J. Elvis begins a kind of comedy withdraw, arguing that if he doesn’t come up with another smack joke soon, he’ll die. It’s brilliant stuff, as is the pun-demonium over the word “bee” (sadly, no shout out to everyone’s favorite ambiguously asexual music sprite fro years past). Frank even references the unusual way in which Cabot died, starting everything off with a strikingly off comment that had this critic running to Google for confirmation. Of course, finding the origin of a Joel or Trace take is part and parcel of the overall MST/CT experience.

Elsewhere, the series is really coming into its own, concept wise. The time tube, explained in more depth last time, gets its status reaffirmed again, while the notion of a backstory (living pods? plasma beds?) also receives a mention. As for skit or scripted material, Wasp Woman doesn’t really lend itself to easy associations. Still, Mary Jo grinds things to a halt so she can get a boardroom power fix, while Frank brings back his ‘controversial’ variety spot so he can showcase an abusive and belligerent Buddy Rich. One of the things that fans have argued over here is the lack of the old Mystery Science sketch comedy. Even the Rifftrax offshoot, The Film Crew, were less than successful in recapturing that retro humor magic. Part of the problem is that everyone involved in these new projects are playing themselves - not characters trapped in space or working in an underground lab. And second, budget restrictions limit the amount of material they can generate. No funds = no additional funny business. 

Still, with a schedule that promises a more robust release strategy, and a growing appreciation for their efforts (EZTakes, who provides the downloadable versions of the CT discs, typically find their website swamped with retail requests) it looks like this latest attempt to recapture the old Mystery magic will finally get the mainstream acceptance the TV show failed to find. Of course, everything could change tomorrow, what with Shout! Factory promising an aggressive model for their upcoming DVD releases of the original series. And with three viable reminders of all the talent pooled for these projects, only the most cynical fan would complain. Cinematic Titanic continues to put out the amazing attractions, and The Wasp Woman truly lives up to their standards.

by John G. Nettles

8 Aug 2008

One of the most heartbreaking moments of my life in the last few years was the day that I discovered I was no longer in love with Angelina Jolie. This may not seem like much to most people, but I was a full-on altar boy in the Church of Angie, back when she was disastrously married to Billy Bob Thornton, carrying his blood around with her and sharing her love of knife-play and backseat coitus with a tongue-clucking world, the very soul of dangerously hot. Then she had to go and trade up, and her tabloid life became all about baby bumps and real estate and imaginary feuds with Jennifer Aniston while making three lousy movies for every one good one. The dangerously hot Angie is now guarded and conservative and, well, ordinary. She’s become Julia Roberts with better lips and the occasional ability to act.

The point is that while we may crave security, home and hearth, such things carry with them a life sentence in Dullsville. Some of us are fine with that tradeoff, some of us chafe at it, and some of us reject it altogether. The last group are the ones we want to read about: the people who wade into the situations the rest of us only wish we had the balls to face, and then come back with the scars and prizes that make us green with envy. Because of this, Mike Edison is my new hero. Punk drummer, amateur wrestler, pothead and smut peddler, Edison is a wiseassed and wickedly funny road warrior whose memoir I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World (Faber & Faber, 2008) is some of the most fun reading I’ve had since Hunter Thompson capped himself.

Beginning with the moment in his dysfunctional teens when he scored his first joint and never looked back, Edison drags us along on the demented hayride of his life. While dropping out of NYU film school because they looked askance at his proposed zombie epic, Edison began to make his bones as a writer for third-tier pro wrestling magazines and hardcore porn publishers, learning his craft (and yes, good porn takes craft) and eking out a living while pursuing his other passion, very loud drumming. Over the years Edison pounded cans for his band Sharky’s Machine, the Lunachicks, the semi-legendary Raunch Hands, and the hardest-working punk band in Spain, the Pleasure Fuckers, all the while getting into all the alcohol- and drug-fueled hijinks a single boy with a screw-you attitude and a high tolerance for pain can encounter. Edison describes going on a Vegas drunk with Evel Knievel, opening for the Ramones, and barbecuing (!) with the late great GG Allin.

Upon his return to America, burnt out and without a future, Edison discovered that he had somehow become an in-demand journalist on the below-the-radar magazine circuit, and after learning the business side of the publishing industry and renewing his ties with old connections, was hired as the publisher of High Times. Long a bastion of the ’60s counterculture and staffed by inveterate hippie holdovers, the place saw Edison bring a unique combination of business savvy and punk recalcitrance to the job, turning a perpetual punchline of a publication into a real magazine with edge and funk (and profit) by doing daily pitched battle with his employees. As Edison describes the Sisyphean task of trying to motivate a motley crew of pot casualties into doing their damn jobs, even Deadheads will feel the urge to kick the patchouli out of some of these people.

Edison’s book is brash, irreverent, funny as hell and beautifully written, proof positive that one can be both edgy and erudite, lowbrow and literate, and take joy in the unbridled pleasures of the id without sacrificing the higher mind. Mike Edison is my hero, and I’d love to send his book to Angelina. Maybe it’ll inspire her to scrub off the Brad Pitt stink and go back to being dangerously hot. She’s so much more interesting that way.

This article was originally published at Flagpole.

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Blindspot: Season 1, Episode 3 - "Eight Slim Grins"

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"Secret codes, shadowy organizations: is Blindspot piecing together the riddle wrapped in the mystery of the enigma that is Jane Doe?

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