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Saturday, May 26, 2007


Reality TV really doesn’t need help making fun of itself, what with the preening man whores and street beat skanks of shows like I Love New York and Bad Girls, respectively. Like a satiric version of a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing the limits of plausibility has caused the medium to manipulate the product into more and more perplexing – and preposterous – positions. At one time, all we cared about was survival and self reliance. Now, it’s a combination of egomaniacal exaggerations of excellence meshed with worthless wish fulfillment. So if someone told you that the latest exercises in televised authenticity will revolve around finding the best pirate, the newest superhero, or the most talented handicapped person, you probably wouldn’t flinch. Oddly enough, two of those three are actually on their way to a boob tube near you. The third forms the foundation for one of the funniest, most critical comedies about the business of show ever conceived.


Like Lollilove before, Special Needs is an amazing new mock documentary by the multitalented Isaak James. Centering on a TV wunderkind named Warren Piece (James) and his American Idol like cast of critical cohorts – former A-lister Laura Wilcox (Eva James) and confused corrections officer David Smith (Michael C. Kricfalusi) – we are thrown into a world that, at first, looks shockingly familiar. Piece and his posse are self-centered schmoes, each one working through their own set of aggressively inconsiderate issues. Smith wants to be taken seriously as part of the entertainment industry. Wilcox is working off a ‘fat actress’ reputation. And Piece needs to make up for a previous reality show disaster. When desperate network CNT puts a newbie in charge of production, the trio thinks they’ve found a friendly ear. All that’s left is to pitch their latest project.


And it’s a dozy. Piece wants to find a group of photogenic, engaging ‘retards, psychos, and freaks’ to star in his latest reality brainstorm – Handicaps. That’s right, He plans on picking individuals with differing physical and/or mental issues and force them to live together in a swanky Addams Family-like Victorian house of humors. Then he can monitor their behavior and manipulate the playback in order to discover what it’s really like when mongoloids and misfits stop being polite, and start being…well, he hasn’t quite gotten that far yet. Noted for his outrageous ideas and Simon Cowell on steroids critiques, Piece has to find a hook to keep audiences intrigued, and with the help of some stoned production assistants, the final facet is put in place – TALENT!


Now all he needs are the weirdoes. At first, it looks like Special Needs is going to be the same old sloppy spoofery. James – who wrote, directed, stars and probably prepared the craft services – appears overly eager to roll out a combination of actual and ‘artificial’ human oddities and get us to laugh at what makes us uncomfortable and antsy. We expect the thwarting of convention, the tweaking of PC paradigms, and some good old fashioned vulgar funny business at the expense of someone else’s predicament. Yes, it will all be in bad taste, but the current envelope pushing conceit of motion picture comedy readily supports such obvious offensiveness. Just ask the Farrelly Brothers.


But this is not where James and his clever cast actually go. Not at all. Instead, we are wrapped up in an engaging and intricate world of high maintenance histrionics, battling bravado, cockeyed creativity, and just enough sideshow shock value to transcend the potentially tacky. Special Needs does employ the services of several handi-capable individuals, and all of them single-handedly steal the show. During an open audition for potential participants, we are introduced to a paranoid schizophrenic lounge singer, a determined deaf actor, a genial blind man, a wheelchair bond vixen, and a no bullshit dwarf. Initially, they remain on the fringes. But once the callbacks come, James gives each individual their three dimensional setpiece moment to shine. 


The clear breakout star here is someone called Killer P. A bad ass gansta rapper with cerebral palsy, if he’s not the future of urban culture, no one is. Using an aggressive thug life stance to shelter criticism over his obvious physical limitations, he’s a foul mouthed masterwork, a tripwire Tupac locked in an equally potent personal fortress. He’s a classic character (or a great find) and almost instantly demands the making of a solo feature all his own. Every moment he’s on screen is worth savoring and repeating. He’s gutbustingly great. He also illustrates part of Special Needs’ motion picture mystery. If he was discovered by James and brought to the project, then this filmmaker has a clear eye for flawless idiosyncratic talent. On the other hand, if he’s merely a handicapped actor putting on a front, then James is a genius for creating such a character, and P (real name, Keith Jones) is equally brilliant at bringing him to life. For this one element alone, Special Needs deserves unlimited praise.


But there is more to what’s going on here than outlandish personalities and a sly spoof of reality TV. In fact, it’s safe to say that this film really isn’t ‘about’ a potential series centering on the handicapped. Instead, it’s about the individuals involved, from Piece’s high-strung hubris to Laura Wilcox’s self loathing meanness. While the entire team behind Handicaps comes across as vain, angry, bitter and unlikable, James takes his time and opens up each and every character. We learn enough about each one to care (if only a little), and by the end we’re almost happy that the show appears to be a winner. And it’s not just the players that get fleshed out. The story is solid with an amazing amount of social commentary and depth.  Scenes are densely packed with multilayered material and James manages to find meaning in even the most scatological scene (as when the P.A.s lace the stars’ lattes with laxative).


Yet none of this touches on what really makes Special Needs shine – its brave sense of humor. Allowing the handicapped actors onscreen to hold their own, to be both the brunt and providers of many of the jokes, keeps the comedy fresh and honorable. Even when Killer P is hit with the N-word, his hilarious reactions take the sting out of the sentiment. In fact, that’s this film’s major motion picture contribution. In recent years, off balance disasters like The Ringer have tried to temper the mentally and physically challenged with something akin to soiled saintliness. Sure, they’re crude and rude, but they also have a built-in buttress against such standard human behavior that gives them a moralistic pass. Here, James simply let’s them be people. They are not defined by their malady anymore than Piece is hindered by his closet gayness, or as Laura is trapped in a shame cycle of body image issues.


This makes Special Needs a certified cinematic home run, an instant candidate for independent comedy of the year, and another terrific title in Troma’s growing collection of outsider gems (the company will release their DVD version sometime this year). Those expecting a mean-spirited marginalizing of the disabled will be greatly disappointed, while others wanting the mindless purveyors of reality rot to really get theirs will be doubled over in sidesplitting delight. That he managed to salvage something that could have been a disaster is not Isaak James’ greatest accomplishment here. No, the real revelation is his ability to thwart convention while carefully walking across all the formulaic necessities mandated to make a clever motion picture. Along with proving yet again that mainstream moviemakers have completely forgotten how to handle humor, Special Needs argues that the future of film lies somewhere beyond the fringe. Any cinephile who visits there will be wonderfully rewarded. 


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Saturday, May 26, 2007

I have a naive faith in the transparency of numbers, trusting that they have no significance in themselves but allow us to see directly through to the importance of the amount they have measured. Numbers are truly floating signifiers, with no meaning until they are given a context, something to count. I naively believe that everyone else fundamentally feels the same way, in the abstract. This seems a cornerstone principle of what it means to be rational, and it draws the boundaries that mark off the territory of superstition. The incantations of economic data or earnings reports, with their endless litany of percentage gains and year-over-year comparisons and moving averages, seem in part an elaborate ritual to testify to the neutrality and clarity of numbers, so solemnly are they invoked to give meaning not to themselves but to large intractable phenomena in the economy. Few reading these stories about economic indicators or market performance reports care about the specific numbers, only the justification and the argument that the numbers allows to be built around them. They anchor the ongoing narrative of capitalist practice without usurping it. The efficient transparency of numbers facilitates the smooth series of exchanges and calibrations capitalism requires—the price system works because no one presumably fetishizes the price itself but rather allows it to shift freely according to conditions.


That’s why a story like this one from the Wall Street Journal a few days ago is so disturbing: it relates how numerology contributes to driving the Chinese stock markets.


Part superstition and part self-fulfilling prophecy, numerology is a basic trading strategy in China. The philosophy reflects the widespread belief in Chinese society that numbers contain clues to good fortune.
It is a little noticed force adding fuel to a roaring market in the world’s fourth-biggest economy. The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index is up 56% this year and quadruple its level at mid-2005, a spike that is raising concerns about an investment bubble.
Investors’ zeal to base decisions in numerology also helps explain why Beijing has been unable to temper enthusiasm in the stock market through conventional measures, like credit tightening last week.
To professional observers, the Chinese investing public’s trust in the predictive power of numbers—rather than fundamentals like business prospects or profit—is one of many reminders of how buying on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges looks like gambling.
Brokerages are set up like casinos. Investors drink tea, smoke and chat as they make trades on computers lined up like slot machines. Instead of dropping in coins, they swipe bank cards to pay for shares.


What makes this so flabbergasting, I think, is the enormous effort made in business discourse to make stock markets not seem like gambling. a great deal of emphasis is placed on providing information that justifies stock prices, connecting them to earnings in elaborate ways. But if the stock prices have more to do with the numbers themselves, then it’s just roulette. Then it’s predictable only in the sense of self-fulfilling prophecy mentioned above, which scuttles the idea that economic growth and the stock market are connected, that stock market bubbles are producing real progress or change in the society at large.


And then an article like this one, from last week’s Economist seems scarier.


For the government the situation poses quite a challenge, particularly as anecdotal reports indicate that the stock buying craze is rampant both among the urban middle class and less well off sections of society like taxi drivers, pensioners and students. Should the market suffer a downturn these people could vent their fury, as investors did in the late 1990s when stock price crashes occurred, threatening political stability. The government will want to avoid such scenes in 2007 and 2008, as the Chinese Communist Party holds its five-yearly congress and the Olympics kick off in Beijing.


Inducing novice investors with possibly numerologically based investing strategies into an overheated market seems like a recipe for catastrophe.


Hence, from this week‘s Economist:


The Chinese consider four to be a very unlucky number (because in Mandarin it sounds like the word death). The number 4444 is thus presumably as bad as it gets. So suppose the Shanghai A-share index closes during the next week at 4,444 (it stood at 4,375 on May 23rd), which is quite possible given its 258% gain since the beginning of 2006; might that frighten investors enough to cause the share-price bubble to burst?


It just seems terrifying to me that stock markets can aggregate people’s superstition and give it agency in the nonbelieving world at large.


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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Riding cabs is the mode of the realm for travelers in any city not their own. Rental cars and trains and trams work, with more money or a bit of initiative, still, cabs are probably the cheapest means of purchasing mobility and possibly even scoring quick information about the local bests in eats, attractions, edification, and sundry merry-making.


Or not . . . depending on whose back seat you end up occupying.


Of course, it isn’t always a back seat. Since, in certain venues, custom dictates taking the shotgun seat. However, without a guidebook in hand (and then why pay for the cabbie for those choice informational tidbits?), it is not always clear which seat to take. It seems to me that once in Dresden when I took up the seat in the back of a cab, the driver did a double-take. Like: “who do you think I am, pal? Your chauffeur?”


Some people adopt the weirdest points of view.


 


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Friday, May 25, 2007


For those unfamiliar with geek lore, yesterday, 25 May, 2007, was a true nerd milestone. On said date, 30 years ago, an unknown sci-fi spectacle with very little advance buzz opened on movie screens across America. It starred nobody famous, was created by a filmmaker best known for his nostalgic nod to the 1950s, and confused critics with its jumbled genre crossing designs. Granted, the new fangled special effects looked mighty cool, but would audiences really queue up to see a bunch of basic eye candy wrapped around an obviously allegorical narrative? After all, three of the main characters were a pair of bumbling robots and an interstellar first mate who looked like Bigfoot. How could this possibly succeed?


Well, two sequels, three god-awful prequels, and umpteen billions of dollars later, its eventual conquest is now a glorified given. Indeed, Star Wars has come to mean more than just a novel 1977 popcorn flick that carried its creator George Lucas to both the zenith and nadir of fan obsession. It’s a corporate tag, a merchandising behemoth, a licensing label that has expanded across all marketing paradigms to prove its value as a type, a logo and a motion picture mission statement. Anyone who sat in the theaters some three decades past and thought they would see characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Darth Vader mythologized into fictional keepers of the science fiction faith would have been declared insane. But thanks to rampant fandom, the rise of recordable home video, and the arrival of the Internet as a new form of implied community, all speculative fiction now finds itself compared to the worlds of Wars.


Granted, there was nothing wrong with Lucas’ lucky lament. Upon a first viewing, the original Star Wars was like a stick of imagination imploding TNT. As you sat in your seat, whisked away to planetoids never dreamed of, with characters you couldn’t have conceived, the cinematic scales fell from your eyes. In their place remained indelible images that still stand strong today – the figure of our hero, Luke Skywalker, standing against the backdrop of a multi-mooned sky; the devious orb of destruction known as the Death Star; the black hooded Darth Vader commanding respect from his easily replaceable crew; Han Solo saving the day, blaster blazing away in a flurry of laser light glory. From the initial space shot to the final interstellar dogfight, Star Wars stands a singular work of inspired genius. Like all exceptional art, it taps into many elements at once, combining to easily transcend and transform them all.


The sequels remain the first step in ruining all that. No matter how great you think Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi are, they destroyed the initial aesthetic generated by Lucas and their team. They took what was probably a one-off experiment (though Georgie constantly disagrees with such claims) and expanded it far beyond anyone’s ability to control. No longer a personal or private vision, the new films had to be retrofitted to meet the demands of a blockbuster craving public. Thankfully, Lucas understood his own lame limits and turned the projects over to others (Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand) to fulfill their newly compromised promise. He went on to make fledgling F/X house Industrial Light and Magic a definitive dream machine. The hope was to provide an outlet to secure any and all filmmaker’s wildest vision. And as said business plan resoundingly succeeded, Star Wars continued to become more and more culturally relevant.


This didn’t mean it mattered cinematically or artistically. Instead of finding a way of making his spin-offs feel organic and original, Lucas continually rehashed the same old storylines (Skywalker’s in trouble, Vader is mad, Solo is suave, Leah is lost) and accessorizing their similarities with new characters (Yoda, Jabba the Hut) and ever expanding vistas. What he had initially was something very special, something that spoke to a generation eager to experience imagery and imagination unbridled and unfettered. In it’s place, Lucas simply created a cottage industry (and, eventually, a major motion picture force), one that forgot that fun was also part of the motion picture mix. Near the end of Jedi, with familial connections revealed, loyalties tested and tried, and every last manipulated emotion employed, our filmmaker let his cuddly duddly Ewok characters announce last call. Slightly satisfied, the crowds disbanded and went on their way.


It’s important to note that all of this occurred in an era with no reliable home theater construct. VCRs had been around since the early ‘70s, but few owned them and studios basically balked at the idea of releasing first run films onto a magnetic tape format (they had just caved on cable a couple of years previous). When movies finally started arriving on both Beta and VHS, they were incredibly expensive (well over $100 dollars) and limited in their reproduction quality. So for most of us, memory – and the occasional revival at the local arthouse – was all we had. And inside such wistful thoughts, Star Wars became something much more than its inauspicious origins. It became a phenomenon, a rite of passage, a part of everyone’s collective memory and any other lame metaphysical cliché you can clamp to it. Reality remained far off in the distance. In its place was the new religion – with new cathedrals built to its amusement immortality.


The first church eventually evolved from said videocassette. When Lucas finally put his War films out on the market, they were pan and scan shadows of their former big screen selves. Holding back as long as he arrogantly could, he turned each and every release into an epiphany. When the devoted demanded widescreen versions, mimicking the larger than life theatrical experience, he eventually complied. Soon, the digital technology that ILM helped found was firm enough to allow Lucas to tinker with his titles. The outrage was, initially, overwhelming, but with the promise of additional sequences and improved interstellar opulence, the whiners soon quieted. All three original movies were tweaked, and 1997 saw a 20th anniversary celebration of all things spacey. And like new prophecies from up on high, the faithful drank them in and learned their slightly different dogma.


The next logistical place of worship was the Internet. While continuously stereotyped as a place where freaks and dweebs tend to meet and greet, there is no denying the support group mentality inside the Information Superhighway. There, individuals who believe their obsessions are wholly and completely their own learn that others exist outside their sphere of experience and – believe it or not – their fetishism was the same as everyone else’s. It was here where Lucas’s sovereign state went nuclear. Fellow Warlords used bulletin boards, free Geocities webpages, and college computer lab time to outline their defense of the subtext strewn Skywalker realm. They opined on minutia, imagined plotlines of their own, and coalesced the entire Lucas empire (books, movies, video games, TV shows, comics, trading cards) into a doctrine drenched in exaggerated meaning and overhyped worth.


Naturally, their loose canon L. Ron had to respond, and Lucas solidified the sorry state of Star Wars’ artistic merits by delivering three of the stupidest space operas ever. The perfunctory prequels – movies predating the events in the original trilogy – did an amazing job of hallowing out everything that had come before. Darth Vader, an icon of imposing evil, was turned into a pitter-patter bratling with a tendency to express his joy in diaper wetting shouts. Even worse, as the films moved along, adolescence found the future Sith sulking like a paperboy who just been bitten by a teacup Chihuahua. By the end of the turgid third film, a lava-pruned Vader was reduced to an archetype – that is, a love lorn loser whose emotional depth is, again, reduced to monosyllabic shouts.


Failing to see how he pissed on perspective, Lucas did what any self-determined god does, and declared his works to be “good”. Then, he went on to deliver his final Soviet state revisionist sentence. The original Star Wars, he said, was never to exist again. Instead, it would only be available in the CGI revamped Special Edition. Those who didn’t like the decision needed to get with the times, he insisted, and stop living in the past. The problem was, the past was decidedly better. Forgetting the dated look of the fantasy for a moment, the spirit imbued throughout the original film was lost in a gloss of fake fictional creatures and overdone sci-fi cityscapes. Sure, the story remained the same – sort of (No, the whole Greedo episode will not be discussed here), but the heart of the narrative had been ripped out and replaced by something that looked like shameless self-promotion.


There is a bigger picture problem involved here as well. By purposefully thwarting art’s inherent element of timelessness, Lucas and others open up the entire category to unnecessary interference. For example, an owner of Picasso’s “Guernica” who believes it would look better in full color, or a studio convinced that a movie’s box office appeal was limited by a director’s choice of subplot are now supported in their frequently misguided notions of reconfiguration. And before you toss out the typical “they’re his films” mantra, remember two things. One day, they won’t be (no one lives forever) and Lucas didn’t make these movies just for himself. He put them out into the marketplace to be accepted and/or rejected. Once taken, a creative contract is implied. He can pragmatically retrieve and rewrite the original entertainment agreement, but by doing so, he opens himself to claims of fraud and falsehood. It may not hold up legally, but it sure stinks ethically.


And the worst was yet to come. Last year, among much hoopla and hand wringing, Lucas reneged on his ‘no original versions’ dicta and provided long suffering fans with a chance to own the initial ‘70s standards canoodling free. Of course, there was a catch, and DVD lovers soon learned that these transfers would be non-anamorphic and non-remastered. Amid rumors of a 30th Anniversary HD release, the shilling appeared shameless. Yet even this latest laugh in the face of the fanbase couldn’t dampen Star Wars’ freakish faithful. Many lined up this week to sit through all six films in this over-inflated franchise, and here’s hoping that mental health officials were standing by to treat the traumatized. To anyone who stood for hours to see the 1977 original – sometimes more than once – the irony is caustic. Today, there are dozens of ways to enjoy Lucas’ lumbering legacy. Back then, there was only the Bijou. We had no choice but to wait. Perhaps that’s why so many of us are Star worn today.


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Friday, May 25, 2007

The question of whether pop musicians have sold out never seems to get old, even though it seems as though no argument is possible: these are professional musicians, who intend to make money by selling their product. Perhaps our joy in music is feels so direct that we can’t imagine calculation in its making; we presume the musicians feel as straightforward and unguarded as we do toward the music. We don’t want to imagine them calculating just how to manipulate our emotions and coax dollars out of our wallets.


So it’s perfectly understandable that we would want to mythologize pop music “artists” and regard them as being true to some autonomous purpose (as Yglesias highlights) other then selling more Coke (though the history of pop-music Coke themes is long). And the listener’s vicarious appreciation of a song is radically diminished when a product is shouldering in to claim some of the song’s signifying potential, to colonize some of the space for fantasy a good pop song evokes. It feels like theft when you’ve bought a song hoping to make it about yourself, only to discover that the band’s sold it elsewhere to make it about jeans or cars. Of course, there are probably many who feel validated in having something they like be adopted by advertisers—it suggests maybe they too could make it as musical supervisors. But typiclly we feel some blend of the two: for example, until a month ago the name Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich meant nothing to me other than that they sang the idiotic “Zabadak” in the 1960s. Then I saw Grindhouse in which their song “Hold Tight” is used. I think the song’s pretty great, and I’m grateful to Tarantino for using it, but I’m also annoyed that every time I hear the song I have to think about Tarantino and that idiotic film. I can’t form my own mental picture for a song I’d probably never have heard in the first place if not for Tarantino’s strong intention to use it to convey his mental picture.


Anyway, I agree wholly with Scott Lemieux, who points out that authenticity is an absurd criterion, since there is not a way of convincingly conveying it without becoming wholly inauthentic in the attempt. Authenticity doesn’t sounds like anything in particular; instead we apply it to sounds we like as a way of bolstering them ideologically and enhancing our enjoyment. So I would argue that only listeners can be authentic or not—working musicians can not be in bad faith. Listeners can knowingly begin listening to music to accomplish something other than aural enjoyment. (It gets more complicated when you admit the possibility that these extra-musical motives could be subconscious.)


And Amanda Marcotte is right that filesharing has permanently altered the terms of conditions of being a professional musician. Without being able to rely on the music companies for a steady income stream, musicians have take money where they find it, and probably need to be open to alternative ways of garnering publicity. I think this is why its harder for musicians to claim to be above commercialization—they no longer have an effective and powerful music industry to run interference for them and promote the fact that the bands are not selling out.


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