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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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Wednesday, Jun 6, 2007

Having recently had to dispose of a vast amount of stuff (part of an effort to stop being sentimental about objects rather than people and ideas, and restore valence to actual memories and imagination—call it Project Spartan), I chose to leave it on the curb rather than take it to a thrift store. This was out of laziness rather than any particular scruple, but I felt better about it as much of the stuff—books and records and the odd piece of furniture—magically disappeared over the course of a humid afternoon. It surprised me what people were most interested in—travel books from the 1990s, not Oxford paperbacks of Dickens novels; 3m Bookshelf boardgames, not indie rock from the 1980s on vinyl. People had no shame in treating the sidewalk in front of the house as though it were the shoe aisle at Target, throwing things they didn’t want out into the street, turning boxes upside down and leaving piles of debris, and that sort of unruliness, which made me understand why the Sanitation Department is so vigilant in fining homeowners for putting out their trash early (I hope we didn’t get our landlord in trouble.)


But what I found most strange was the moments when I would come back to my place and become momentarily fascinated with my own garbage. An instinct for scavenging would kick in as I’d forget for an instant that I had put it out there and that I was trying to rid myself of things. I would feel almost jealous that I couldn’t root through my own things and be pleased about the stuff I was going to rescue from the landfill, the disposable items whose life I would extend, striking a small guerrilla blow against the consumer economy. My own junk, were it someone else’s, would become treasure to me—booty I was lucky enough to stumble upon. I had to admit to myself that had I come upon the same stuff I had placed on my curb in front of someone else’s place, I would have carted a good deal of it home.


Not buying things is probably a place to start disengaging from consumerism (or more precisely, the mentality that shopping and consuming is the purpose of life—it wouldn’t be possible to cease being a consumer, but one can take pains to assure that it is not one’s primary identity), but it doesn’t do me much good if I still feel a magnetic pull to stuff for its own sake, to be simply fascinated by trash—my own trash!—in the hope that there might be something momentarily diverting in it. Rescuing things is not bad, but indifference to things would be better. It would be nice to get myself to the point where I won’t feel obliged to peer into boxes of trash books and can instead rest assured with the fact that I already have in my apartment many volumes I’ll never actually read as it is.


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Wednesday, Jun 6, 2007

The fact that an ex-Beatle would ditch the major label factory to pact with the world’s biggest coffee shop is definitely a sign o’ the times but as far as McCartney’s recorded legacy itself, that’s another story.


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Tuesday, Jun 5, 2007


The great debate among Godzilla fanatics goes a little something like this. On the one side are the purists, the people who scoff with sour indignation at the very idea of this venerable Japanese kaiju having to suffer through poor English dubbings, badly mangled prints, and edits mandated to make Western audiences more comfortable with the genre. For them, it’s pure untouched Toho or nothing at all. And then there are those on the side of the Saturday matinee, the generations who grew up with the whole man-in-suit ideal and embraced it as a combination of camp and cross culture craziness. In their mind, the mismatched voices and mediocre miniatures give anything Godzilla a true kitsch quality that definitely gets lost when you return to the source material. Unfortunately, DVD has only made the problem worse. Due to its inherent nature as a preservationists medium, the lovers of the original giant lizard have bemoaned the consistent release of poorly framed, faded versions of their favorite movie monster’s oeuvre.


So, how does one appease the persnickety while indulging the memories of those lost in front of a 19” ‘60s TV screen, bag of Cheetos clutched to their chest? Well, if you’re Genius Entertainment and Classic Media, you pow wow with the holders of the Japanese rights, make a deal to deliver the best Godzilla product possible, and come up with a combination disc that holds both the original Toho release as well as the mangled Americanized efforts. Making their first appearance on the digital medium as part of the heralded Master Collection, the fifth and sixth films in the Gojira franchise – Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster and Invasion of the Astro-Monster (later renamed Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) - show the scaly reptile with a prehistoric penchant for kicking creature keister as feisty as ever. They also argue for a clearly defined formulaic approach to this type of monster movie that would, initially, keep audiences clamoring for more. Eventually, such sloppy storytelling would drive the series to ridicule and ruin.


In Ghidorah, the story picks up just after the events of Mothra vs. Godzilla. The larval offspring of the giant insect have defeated our Hellbent hero and have slinked back to Infant Island, Lilliputian tenders (the then famous Japanese singing duo The Peanuts) in tow. A massive meteor shower brings a big interstellar bolder to a mountainous region outside Tokyo. A new beast named King Ghidorah springs forth, determined to wreck his own special brand of three headed menace on the populace. The cosmic anomaly also takes its toll on a potential political assassination. The Princess of some far off fictional country is almost assassinated. She is saved by the spirit of a spaceman from the planet Venus and arrives in time to warn the world about the upcoming creature chaos. Sure enough, Godzilla and Rodan are roused from their slumber, and with the help of the minute minders of Mothra, everyone gangs up to send the nasty newbie back from whence it came.


As for Invasion of the Astro-Monster, a joint American/Japanese space program discovers a new satellite traveling around Jupiter – Planet X. The two man crew of Glen and Fuji go off to explore, and soon find themselves face to face with the sunglass wearing, underground dwelling residents of this weird world. Technologically superior, the aliens have a big problem for which they require the Earthlings help. They are terrorized by an entity known as Monster Zero (actually King Ghidorah given a mistaken extraterrestrial moniker), and want help destroying it. Their plan? They will trade the ability to cure cancer (?) for Godzilla and Rodan. Seems like a win/win situation for all involved. But soon the swindled Earth men learn the truth – the X-men are actually evil, and want to use all three beasts to destroy mankind and take over their terrestrial territories. And without another supersized beastie to battle on their behalf, everyone’s doomed.


Clearly benefiting from the bigger budgets that international popularity can provide, both Ghidorah and Astro-Monster offer up the two major components of successful Godzilla films – surreal storylines and lots of special effects. To many of the uninformed, a cursory explanation of the kaiju film usually states “giant monster is awakened and goes on a destructive rampage”. But the truth is, by this time in the series, the concept of nonstop spectacle was no longer an option. Indeed, almost all the Godzilla films are parables, using current political or social problems to highlight Japan’s inner anxieties and post-war identity crisis. The first film was a clear allegory to the horrors of nuclear technology run amok. The Mothra film that predated these was linked to a heavy handed environmental message. Ghidorah has an unusual combination of peace and politics. By placing the endangered member of an unknown nation’s royal family into the role of chief spokesman for the planet, her predicament and its pro-life focus is even more severe.


Astro-Monster, on the other hand, is all about invasion. It’s the Godzilla series answer to war, about a desire to work with - not against - America this time around and defeat an enemy greater than our own. The Planet X types are pure fashionista fascists, the kind of sinister slicks who easily sway and betray. Their desire to use might (Godzilla, Rodan and Ghidorah) instead of their remarkable scientific advances (why not work those tractor beams over a few nuclear silos, guys?) plays directly into the fear of technology failing in its ultimate goal to protect and serve us, while the underlining subplot involving the inventor who has the potential defensive weapon right under his nerdy nose is another parallel to the ultimate value of knowledge and skill over power and heft. Part of the reason that film fans respond to these movies with such ardent attraction are the rather obvious themes at play. Similar to how horror defines a society and its approach to art, these films are like windows into the uneasy world of ‘50s – ‘70s Asia.


Of course, the fabulous old school rubber and balsa wood F/X are a heck of a lot of fun as well. More money meant more attention to detail, and master craftsman Eiji Tsuburaya really outdoes himself here. While campy and kind of crude, the spaceships and Planet X interiors present in Astro-Monster are pure pop art poetry. In addition, King Ghidorah is an equally impressive creation, its flailing heads looking like death-dealing chaos personified. There will be those who giggle at the model tank/plane/car/truck/ dynamic at play in the action scenes, and our creatures do possess some very odd voices (King G’s is nothing more than vibrating notes on a Hammond organ). But when you consider the near flawless recreations of the surrounding landscape, the massive explosions of dirt and debris, the relatively realistic use of water and other natural elements, the Toho kaiju films are very impressive. So what if the buildings blow apart like badly set up Lincoln logs. The combination of filmmaking and finesse more than compensate for such quibbles.


Even purists can breathe easy thanks to the relative respect these movies are given via these delightful DVDs. Preserved in their original aspect ratios with as close to a pristine print as possible, we are treated to wonderful widescreen images, vibrant colors, crystal clear detail and the original Japanese language soundtracks. In addition, a wealth of entertaining and informative extras is provided, including commentaries, biographies and original trailers. When you consider you get both versions of the title along with all the other goodies, there should be very little to kvetch about.


One would also be remiss for failing to mention what an important undertaking this is. DVDs’ lasting legacy appears to be rescuing marginalized movies from the pigeonholing chasms of popular culture. Prior to embarking on this remastered retrospective, Godzilla and his ilk (Gamera et. al.) were relegated to a kind of entertainment exile, deemed either too infantile for adults or too oddball for the wee ones. As a result, our humungous heroes have been cast aside as a dated dimension of an equally antiquated cinematic aesthetic. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. When viewed through the veil of their original creators’ intentions, when comparable to their effervescent US counterparts, when contextualized by individuals who spent their lives trying to decipher the many layers of meaning buried within these oversized metaphors, any previous discrediting seems petty at best.


Still, the battle wages on. With the help of these amazing digital dossiers, perhaps one day a peace can be brokered. It will be difficult, but not as tough as trying to change 40 years of drive-in b-movie madness. Godzilla in all his forms was always much more than a science fiction schlock jockey. Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster and Invasion of the Space Monster is definitive proof of that.


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Tuesday, Jun 5, 2007

The German word is somehow more effective at conveying the ghastliness of the concept of guest workers, though the phrase in English is not without its chilly air of euphemistic frostiness. Guest workers, however, will not be staying at the Holiday Inn and they won’t likely be enjoying an exhilarating experiences at Six Flags Theme Parks; chances are they won’t even be “guests” at Target, buying designer lampshades and environmentally friendly lightbulbs. Instead, we will be hosting them at our chicken-plucking plants and our lettuce-picking fields, but heaven forbid they try to pass themselves off as real Americans— a real American wouldn’t be could doing such work at this point.


The main problem with a guest worker program is that it creates a permanent underclass with no particular investment in the host society (host society, because so many nativist ingrates see immigrant workers as parasites). This exacerbates tensions between newly arrived immigrants and natives, which has the effect of confirming the prejudices that led immigrants to be cordoned off in the first place. Denied an opportunity to integrate into society if they wanted to, immigrants are expected to accept second-class citizenship without any grudges, as if we are doing them a favor by letting them make the reduced labor costs in our companies’ business models more realistic, more workable.


In the most recent New Yorker, James Surowiecki tries to mount a defense for the recently proposed guest-worker program along these very lines. As illegals, they are second-class citizens anyway, so why not offer them limited rights, which are better than no rights at all.


Guest workers would no longer be tied to a single employer—within certain limits, they’d be able to change jobs if they wanted—and would be guaranteed all the protections that the law extends to native workers, including the freedom to join a union. These protections would not necessarily insure fair treatment, especially given the Bush Administration’s poor record of enforcing labor laws. But guest workers would have more rights than illegal workers, and be better treated. They’d also be paid better—better than they would as illegals, and far better than if they had to stay at home.


Never mind the thorny problem of deciding who the guests will be (and who will remain illegal). The problem is that the separate class created for guest workers makes it very likely that labor protections will be applied differently with regard to them. Otherwise what is the purpose of the subordinate classification. It seems that there should be no half measures when it comes to making provisions for the guarantee of rights to workers; at a certain level of abstraction, it becomes a matter of qualifying the level of a group’s humanity. This may be why immigration is an issue that brooks no compromise, since the logic behind the arguments on either side tend toward absolute, definitional premises. Either labor is permitted to move freely, as all economic factors should have free movement to allow for maximum efficiency, or national prerogatives trump all efficiency arguments and protecting the interests of nationals is more important than whatever suffering is taking place on the other side of the border. Otherwise what’s the point of being an American if it doesn’t guarantee you some inherent advantages?


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