Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 11, 2007

Like millions of other pop culture fans, I watched the final episode of TV icon The Sopranos, breathlessly waiting for a big finale.  And we all got it but not the one we were expecting.


All the lead-up talk to the final episode led to two expectations.  First of all, there was the idea of redemption.  Would our great anti-hero Tony Soprano finally mend his wicked ways somehow and become a mensch.  To me though, that seemed like a false projection of reality.  The real reason many of us were captivated by a character like Tony was that he was such a bad-ass mother, even with the doubt he expressed in therapy.  To have his somehow redeem himself at the last minute would have been the worst kind of vapid ending for the series.  After all, one of the models for the show was Public Enemy where James Cagney plays another great gangster cad who never redeems himself.


Tagged as: hbo, sopranos
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Jun 11, 2007

Ronald Reagan was known as the great communicator and is famous for his “Morning in America” slogan. George W. Bush won people over with his compassionate conservative approach and his faith-based initiatives. However, the current crop of republican contenders for ’08 have not inspired that kind of reverence, and the media is desperately searching for the next Reagan-esque candidate. Enter: Fred Thompson.


When Senator Fred Thompson announced his intentions to run for President there was a brief flurry of media excitement. The Law and Order star comes with a pedigree of both social and fiscally conservative positions on taxes, immigration, abortion and guns. He is currently at a financial disadvantage, compared to the Giuliani/McCain/Romney machine, but he is courting high profile staff members and just may well become the dark horse in this ridiculous race.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Jun 10, 2007


I’m sure he expected vitriol. Maybe he even welcomed a little of it. Controversy sure spins the turnstiles. But nothing could have prepared Eli Roth for the advanced word on his recently released sequel to the successful horror film Hostel. One critic questioned his humanity, even going so far as to state publicly that, upon finally meeting the man, he would refuse the offer to shake his hand. Ouch! Then there are the neo-con calls for boycotts and censorship, arguing that “trash” like this only glorifies the death and defilement of young women. Granted, it’s a shortsighted argument, but a very effective one in our touchy feely mindset. You see, it’s all about the chicks, man. That’s what’s got everyone in an uproar. Stick a bunch of horny teen boys in a slice and dice slasher flick centering around an Eastern European hostel from Hell and no one screams. But change the gender dynamic, and it’s the latest example of filmmaking excess.


For many Hostel: Part II is a non-issue. It’s a horror film, fulfilling the questionable thrill seeking needs of a particularly narrow dynamic. To them, the genre itself has very little going for it artistically, and those rare films that break out of the categories mold of mediocrity to become certified cinematic classics – the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, etc. – are the anomalies in a field overflowing with filmic offal. As a result, most mainstream critics avoid it, while the marketing makes it clear that the adolescent teen demo is the target for such shock value. All in all, it is easy to dismiss, the typical carnival barking of an otherwise pointless motion picture ideal. But there is another facet to this film’s outright rejection – and it has very little to do with its effectiveness as a shocker, a splatter fest, or a social commentary. No, this aspect of the argument goes to the very heart of how people interact with their entertainment media of choice.


Looking over the isolated discussions of Roth’s return to his previous success, two main complaints arise. The first is also the most ridiculous – that all he offers in Hostel: Part II is more of the same. Anyone with half a brain and a real knowledge of what this filmmaker did in his original film would instantly deride such a preposterous suggestion. Still, by viewing both efforts back to back, we will see how incredibly sloppy such a suggestion is. The second disparagement is equally ludicrous, but goes to an issue much more culturally complex. To listen to the pundits and self-described purveyors of taste, Roth has offered up the most misogynistic film ever. He degrades women in ways that few, if any, have done before, and mixes the sexual with the sickening to further his gangrenous goals of sensationalism. Sadly, such a view ignores 50 years of moviemaking and illustrates that, in many cases, these objections are based on the source’s own desire for glory, not a realistic grasp of motion picture reality.


Let’s take the first point, shall we - that Roth is merely repeating himself. Again, that’s a completely bogus attack. The first Hostel centered on a group of teenage
boys backpacking across Europe looking for sex, drugs…and more sex. They find themselves in Amsterdam partaking of cheap booze and readily available marijuana. When the female element fails them, a Slovakian student suggests they head to an inn in his homeland. There, he says, there are hundreds of willing women, and, as Americans, they can do pretty much anything they want to them. The lure of easy companionship sends the boys to the Eastern Bloc. There, they check into the youth accommodations, meet some incredibly hot to trot honeys, and begin their descent into debauchery. Now, for those who have not seen the film, and may be eager to do so some time in the future, a SPOILER ALERT is now offered. From this point on, we will be dealing with major plot points and scare reveals.


Our three men are separated one night, with two (Josh and Paxton) waking up to wonder where their friend has gone. Turns out, he has become the first victim of something called The Elite Hunting Club. A rich person’s permutation of The Most Dangerous Game, it’s an organization that allows the wealthy to spend obscene amounts of cash in pursuit of the ultimate taboo – the taking of another human life. The factory facilities that house this horror show offer the clientele any number of death dealing options – power tools, surgical equipment, firearms, old fashioned torture devices. All the paying customer has to do is choose his personal ‘poison’ and start the slaying. Soon, Josh is kidnapped and killed, his body used by a wannabe doctor as a kind of fresh cut cadaver. Paxton investigates his pal’s disappearance, and it’s not long before he’s being sliced up by a nervous German with a chainsaw. Managing to escape, he saves an Asian girl, gets out of Slovakia, and even manages some revenge on the deviant who vivisected his friend.


Arguing the merits over the movie is one thing (this critic happens to believe it’s an important horror classic), but to say that Hostel: Part II is exactly the same is pure and utter crap. The differences are so painfully obvious that you have to believe Eli Roth sat down with his original script and decided to fashion a completely contradictory take. Sure, this time around we focus on three girls instead of three boys, but this is not where the differences end. No, this movie is purposefully out to fill in the gaps left by the original narrative, plus provide some incredibly novel twists on the whole women in peril dynamic (more on this later). Our Hostel: Part II leads are not really looking for sex and pharmaceutical thrills – they’re students studying abroad. Looking for a little relaxation outside their Rome routine, they take the advice of an attractive artist’s model named Axelle and head to a Slovakian spa. Naturally, their accommodations are the title tenement. 


Our trio is like sketches out of an archetypal coed guidebook. Beth is rich, so much so that she keeps her Dad on an allowance. Whitney is an international skank, but she also seems centered and sensitive to her raucous reputation. Lorna is the Sylvia Plath of the bunch, lost in her own world of wounded self-doubt, but capable of bursting out of her carefully crafted cocoon now and again. That we know more about these ladies is one of Roth’s new conceits. In the first film, our heroes are differentiated by size (tall, medium, muscular) and appearance (light, medium, and dark). We learn very little about their lives save for Paxton’s discussion of a young girl’s drowning and Josh’s mending of his recently broken heart. The guys have goals (lawyer and writer) but we don’t get much more meat than this. Before long, they’re ‘under the knife’, so to speak.


Similarly, before the girls are served up for their sickening purpose, we are introduced to the behind the scenes situations of the Elite Hunting Club. We learn of Sacha, the principle organizer and his connections to the corporate world. When our heroines check in, their image is immediately flashed across PDAs, cellphones and laptops worldwide. Rich individuals with a decidedly depraved outlook start a manic bidding frenzy, using the lives of these young girls like so much highly prized commodities. The winners are beyond excited. The losers are downcast and depressed. Unlike the original Hostel, which showed this killer’s club as a kind of underground den of unspeakable inequity, Roth revamps the idea, turning it into the ultimate escape for the overworked, overstressed CEO.


In this regard, we are also introduced to Stuart and Ben. The former is a slightly sheepish man with family issues. The latter is a pumped up powerbroker who believes that murder makes a man more threatening – even if only ephemerally. They have won two of the gals in our story, and are traveling to Slovakia to meet their manifest destiny. All of this material is new to the Hostel mythology. The original movie had the psychotic surgeon in training and nothing else. We learned a little about him (his love of things tactile, as well as his daughter) but there is not as big a backstory. No, Stuart and Ben come to represent two very intriguing concepts in Hostel: Part II. Without giving it all away, it boils down to what makes a man, and what eventually emasculates him.


This all leads to the most talked about element in Hostel: Part II – the death of our leads. Again, to avoid ruining the movie for those still interested, here’s another SPOILER WARNING. Unlike the first film, which offered at least a dozen on screen kills (some in very gruesome and graphic detail), this time around Roth gives us only three. Granted, another four (or five) occur, but they happen mostly off screen, without so much as a simple special effect to illustrate their dread. Only Lorna, Stuart and Axelle are shown being horrifically tortured and killed, and even then, only the first two have particularly nauseating deaths. In the case of our snooty model, she’s beheaded in a last act in-joke. Stuart has his gender literally removed when his penis is cut off. Lorna, on the other hand, becomes our first female victim, and it’s her disturbing death that’s causing all the clamor.


Quite clearly, these two movies are not “exactly” alike. They both take different routes to reach similar ends, and both are derivative of their creator’s desire to explore the premise he perfected in the first film. Indeed, the notion of a 180 degree reimagining of the original Hostel is so obvious as to be more than crystal clear. In the first, male machismo leads to hormonally charged happenstance – and death. In the sequel, female intuition constantly wins, but only as far as the dominating male Id will allow it. In the end of the original Hostel, brawn and bravery triumph. At the conclusion of the revisit, sensitivity and female cunning allow the tables to be turned. When meshed together, both Hostels become a complete whole, a look at both sides of the sexism coin and how it affects dread. If it weren’t for all the false bravado and public policy kvetching from the wannabe watchdogs, these films would be celebrated as such. In the future, perhaps they will be.


In Part Two, (scheduled for Wednesday, 13 June) we will discuss the death of Lorna, the entire “violence against women” angle, and how complaints about its blatant brutality fail to take into consideration the entire history of horror – or the other half of gender humanity.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Jun 10, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Ryan Adams
Everybody Knows [MP3]
     


Everybody Knows [Video]
MySpace


The Lodger
Kicking Sand [MP3]
     


Jangly UK pop reminscent of the Bluetones and a poppier Libertines.  Yep, the NME loves them too.


Justice
D.A.N.C.E. [MP3]
     


Christy and Emily
Noah [MP3]
     



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Jun 9, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: A pair of low rent exposés try to out shock everyone’s favorite suburban sleaze fiend, the amazing Joe Sarno.

The ‘60s were a literal godsend for the exploitation business. Thanks to a liberated libido, and a social acceptability to explore same, the demographic that kept the grindhouse going was sampling the twisted taboos that the genre was designed to explore. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the growing swingers scene that seemed to define the era. Beginning as part of the white flight colonization of the suburbs, the notion of bored marrieds trading spouses for the sake of forbidden pleasures had all the makings of considered cosmopolitan cool. It was a sign of sophistication as much as sexual revolt, and the overriding mantra of “if it feels good, do it” became a carnal clarion call for an entire meat and martini generation.


Perhaps the best cinematic explorer of this ribald realm was, and remains, Joe Sarno. Before moving on to softcore pseudo-porn (where he made his biggest impact), the king of conservative kink made several outstanding films, naughty narratives providing as much social commentary as abundant bared flesh. With titles like Sin in the Suburbs, The Swap and How They Make It, Passion in Hot Hollows and Flesh and Lace Sarno’s efforts saw everyday people exploring the outer regions of erotic acceptability for the thrill of something new and nasty. In addition, his distinctive style, filled with static tableaus, evocative dialogue, and languid scenes of inferred desire, became a benchmark for those hoping to match his highly charged efforts. Sadly, few could follow in his footsteps, not only because they lacked Sarno’s talent. In fact, the problem was much more complicated than mere mediocrity.


Case in point – the Something Weird Video release for June 2006. A dandy double feature, both Unholy Matrimony (1966) and My Third Wife, George (1968) want to blow the lid off the entire multi-partner paradigm of those successful explorers of the arousing. Matrimony actually uses the swinger underworld as the basis for its investigative journalism storyline, while George is merely a comedy of couplings. All digital context aside – and here we get wonderful archival and educational shorts, a collection of terrific trailers, even a sneak peek at the Florida film industry of the time – these films generally fail to fully explore the potential sizzle of the scenes they are reflecting. But what they lack in wanton wickedness they more than make up for in delightfully dated diversions.


Unholy Matrimony

After getting his behind handed to him by a hired goon, magazine editor Jim Bremmer decides that there must be more to the whole ‘wife swapping’ idea than meets the eye. He determines that there’s blackmail involved, and where there’s extortion, the ‘syndicate’ can’t be too far behind. He convinces his ace reporter Al Gentry to take on the story (with the help of a healthy $5K bonus). Bremmer wants the dirt on the couples who let boredom beget even stranger bedfellows. Of course, he’ll need a gal to go along with the ruse and, ever the gentleman, Al offers up his apparently willing paramour Janice. Things start out fine as the newly named ‘swingers’ pose for provocative photos (with Bremmer acting as position coach!), but when the first couple they contact takes things a little too far, Jan wants out! It takes a weekend at the beach before she’s willing to move on to the next perverted pair. Eventually, all risqué roads lead to an overweight Texan who uses his various inside sources to prove that your typical husband
and wife are involved in some very Unholy Matrimony.


Taking itself more seriously as a story than a skin flick, Unholy Matrimony is like a late comer to an orgy already well past its date stamp. It acts shocked at risqué antics that have long been explored (voyeurism, group gropes) and feels the need to justify its actions in the name of journalistic integrity and the people’s right to know. Granted, the blackmail angle is something rather original – more of an outgrowth of the entire notion of sex as a secret shame than actual reality - but once Al and Janice hit the road as our carnal couple, each set up is like a limp low rent rationale. Besides, there has to be a better way to flush out the criminal element in a nationwide muscle racket than getting an oily middle aged reporter and his bosomy babe to play sleaze seekers. Remember – all of this was supposed to seem novel, perhaps even disturbing, to the regular raincoat crowd. Unfortunately, like those long ago talks about the birds and the bees with your parents, the patrons probably knew a Helluva lot more than the players on the screen.


Then there’s the issue of the performances. Allan Delay, who essays our intrepid newshound, is like a bottle of vodka-laced Vitalis come to life. Hair slicked in a strange cake frosting coiffure and face apparently carved out of near-beer cheese, his smile resembles an eel’s slimy surface. More times than not, he looks more perverted than the people he’s investigating. On the other hand, the actress playing Janice is given a one note performance pattern – complain while playing extremely hard to get. At first, we figure she’s going to be a nice nubile edition to the story. Pendulous in all the right ways, the minute she drops blou we’re in mammary heaven. But she then starts the uncomfortable whining, and it’s not long before we never want to see her topless again. Besides, she signed up for a job playing swinger with a man she regularly rogers. What part of the set-up didn’t she understand? In the hands of unknown auteur Arthur John, there’s a freakish flatness to the entire proceedings. The only inventive element is a series of underwater shots during a nude poolside cavalcade. It helps to mask the mostly mediocre dialogue. As a look at elicit loving between consenting couples, Unholy Matrimony has its moments. As a pure proto-porn extravaganza, it’s missing some important bawdy beats.


My Third Wife, George

Ralph Higbee is a real sexual mess. Repressed by his domineering mother until his mid-‘40s, he’s a novice in the ways of guy/girl groovin’. When his wealthy mater finally passes, leaving him her massive estate and Florida mansion, Ralph decides to make up for all his non-erotic indiscretions. But things just haven’t turned out right. Sitting at a bar late one night, drowning his obvious sorrows, Ralph tells a couple of interested listeners about his sexual woes. First, while desperate to wet his wick, he ended up the main course in an all girl hippy pot/pill party. It really blew his mind – among other things. Then, in a stab at respectability, he married his former maid, Josephine. The only problem – she’d rather play around with her swimming instructor, and some dude dressed up like a gorilla. After her ‘accidental’ death, Ralph hitched up with his second spouse. But she was so sure he was having an affair that she hired a private eye to catch him in the act. Now on his third significant other, Ralph is miserable. His latest live-in lover is a green eyed monster. And if he’s not careful, our hero is convinced he’ll truly suffer at the hands of his Third Wife, George(?).


A real staple of the exploitation scene, William Kerwin (who plays the horny, henpecked Ralph) was a unique presence in the ‘50s and ’60s. Balancing a career as a legitimate actor with his gratuitous grindhouse efforts, he could play straight (Blood Feast) or seedy (the nudist romp Sweet Bird of Aquarius) with ease. Working frequently with the legendary Herschell Gordon Lewis, he remains the perfect illustration of the leering, longing Establishment male. Even when he tried to act cool or overly sophisticated, he came across like a cartoon cocktail napkin come to life. So his presence here is a perfect panacea for what is, in essence, rather half-baked bawdiness. Helping out his brother Harry (and, from the credits, what appears to be the entire Kerwin clan), wild Willy gives the kind of bug-eyed goofball performance that’s more vaudeville than viable. Indeed, we are witness to one sloppy slapstick sequence after another. If Ralph isn’t getting hit in this hinder with a saber (during his daily fencing lesson), he’s running around like an idiot trying to capture his companions in compromising positions. In between, there’s lot of double entendres, suggestive repartee, and outright carnal come-ons. Indeed, the script could be studied for ways of suggesting sex without actually calling it same.


Too bad the rest of the movie is so routine. The minute Ralph steps into the hippie chicks den, we know we’re in for one overlong bout of fake fornication – no matter if its one girl or three. Apparently recorded without sound, we are left with Kerwin’s incessant narration to drain all the sizzle out of the sequence. There’s plenty of perky pulchritude on display, but everything in My Third Wife, George is played for laughs, not lewdness. Similarly, the sections with Josephine are all tease and very little sleaze. Actress Erika Von Zaros is capable, but the filmmaking foils her at every erotic avenue. By the time we get to the title twist, we’ve decided that it really doesn’t matter. We’d prefer to see more of slick private dick Brad Grinter (the notorious mastermind behind the killer turkey treasure Blood Freak) relaxing at the bar with an everpresent Kool in his mitts. As a comedy, My Third Wife, George is occasionally funny, but it’s diddling is far from definitive. Indeed, as with its companion piece in double feature presentation, there is more excitement in the premise than in the eventual follow through. Perhaps in the hands of big bad Joe Sarno, these movies would moan as good as they groan. But for the most part Unholy Matrimony/My Third Wife, George are second tier pseudo-smut at best.


 


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.