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Monday, Mar 12, 2007

Having just finished Richard Hofstadter’s essays about Goldwater and pseudo-conservatism in The Paranoid Style in American Politics I feel as though I understand our own political moment much better. The essays are a bit depressing in that they assume a far-right-winger like Barry Goldwater could never be elected, let alone be allowed to actually govern; Hofstatder seemed to have believed that the fact Goldwater was nominated at all was the high water mark for the American forces of reaction. He felt they ran to lose on purpose and become martyrs to their extreme causes and keep them in the public forum. But George W. Bush’s presidency has proven otherwise. The essays provide a litany of descriptions of pseudoconservatism that remind us how little of the Bush agenda is new: “Only in the pseudoconservative movement that man have begun to hint that disobedience to the Court is not merely legitimate but is the essence of conservatism.” “The two=party system ... hangs on the common recognition of loyal opposition: each side accepts the good intentions of the other… But an essential point in the pseudoconservative world view is that our recent Presidents, being men of wholly evil intent, have conspired against the public good.” (This is why the shrill, spasmodic accusation of Bush hatred conservatives often cast at liberals seems pure projection.) Hofstadter quotes Goldwater, who wrote this in Why Not Victory? (which could serve as a motto for Iraq surge supporters): “A craven fear of death is entering the American consciousness, so much so that many recently felt that honoring the chief despot himself was the price to pay to avoid nuclear destruction.” That horrifying logic is the main thing that kept Goldwater far from the White House. But a similar line is often evoked by right-wing reactionaries when talking about the spread of “islamofascism”—we must have the conviction to stop at nothing to eliminate the terrorist threat. The end of the Cold War removed the deterrent threat of nuclear war, allowing Bush to enact psudoconservative/neoconservative fantasies in the Middle East, starting wars of choice without threat of drastic reprisal international enemies.

Just about everything Hofstadter writes about Goldwater’s core constituency holds true for Bush: it’s a fusion of those with ultraconservative economic views (the sort who believe a social safety net breeds weakness) and an aggrieved lower-middle class who see politics as an arena to reclaim lost status (via moral crusading and culture wars) rather than protect their material interests. (The opposition of status and interest politics seems to foreshadow Thomas Frank’s debunking of the red state/blue state myth in What’s the Matter with Kansas?) But whereas Goldwater was regarded skeptically in his time and effectively framed as far outside the mainstream, a complacent media in 2000, intent on lambasting Gore, allowed Bush to pass for a moderate, “compassionate” conservative. Once he won and gained political capital from the events of September 11, he enacted the Goldwater agenda of 1964: heedless economic individualism and impulsively belligerent foreign policy derived from simplistic absolute principles and pursued with religious conviction. (In Goldwater’s famous words: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and .., moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”)

This analysis helps make obvious the tenuousness of the pseudo-conservative coalition: radical free-marketeers and moral prescriptivists have in common a belief that privation is a useful social tool, whether it be culling the herd of its weak members or punishing sinful wastrels. Beyond this is a belief in individual’s ultimate ability to overcome circumstances, which are always in some way deserved—your responsibility. But moral crusaders, in taking a hard-line ascetic view that is uncompromising with respect to the opinions a majority of Americans actually profess, believe their politics rise above greedy selfishness, and that their views are legitimized to the degree that they are impractical and thus apolitical. Their disregard for public opinion seeks to destroy democracy in a fundamentally different way than those with radical economic views, who would prefer that the government atrophy and cease to function (the shrink-government-until-drownable-in-bathtub philosophy). Moral crusaders, instead, want to empower government to the degree where it can legislate and enforce the stringent value system they have placed above politics as non-debatable truths. (Neither want to do the hard work of coalition building in order to arbitrate between the inevitable competing interests in a pluralistic society.) This contradiction, exacerbated by the erosion of civil liberties brought on by fears of terrorism, has led to discussions of a rapprochement between libertarians and liberals. Hofstatder points out that Goldwater did little to forward conservative causes; rather he broke the back of practical conservatism in the Eisenhower mold and enabled Johnson to push through the Great Society reforms. That’s hope the revulsion Bush has inspired in American voters has done the same, and we can look forward to a coming decade of progress on universal health care, the strengthening of unions, and the amelioration of income inequality.

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Sunday, Mar 11, 2007

Something must be terribly wrong with Terry Gilliam. Either that, or he drank the Kool-aid on his own hype a few films ago. Back in 2005, the director was desperate. The Toronto Film Festival trounced all over his latest effort, a queer adult fable based on the book Tideland, and no distributor was willing to take on the impossible task of marketing the movie. With a narrative that focused on a little girl lost in a fatalistic fantasy world of her own making, and disturbing elements that included nods to underage sexuality, brutal drug use, and human fallibility, it appeared as if no one would be willing to stand up for the stranded artist. Gilliam even took to the streets, following the film around during its limited theatrical release to pony up publicity for his orphaned effort.

Now, a mere three weeks after THINKFilm’s released the title on DVD, Gilliam is fuming. Strike that – he’s uncharacteristically livid. The controversy doesn’t center on censorship, or some manner of mandated cuts to the content of the story. No, the ex-pat Python is upset over how the film was transferred over to the digital medium. It’s a gloriously geeky mess, the kind of nerd obsessive nonsense that gives the Internet and its struggling journalistic reputation a wonderfully weird wedgie. You see, Tideland was filmed in Super 35mm, and the resulting image was framed and composed for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio release. But beginning with its pitch for Oscar attention, THINK has purposefully reconfigured the film. The reports vary, from a 1.78:1 Academy screener, to the 1.85:1 version that hit stores 23, February.

Now, if you believe Gilliam, his cinematographer (and good friend) Nicola Pecorini and the investigators over at film ick (your basic UK blog) THINKFilm deceived the auteur. They prepared the DVD version without his consent, ported over most of the bonus material from the Region 2 release (which supposedly maintains the 2.35:1 aspect ratio) and made it appear that the director approved of the new pictorial proportions. In a pair of press releases, Gilliam has gone on record as renouncing the Region 1 DVD, and has even gone so far as to tell his American fans to boycott the disc. Pecorini goes a little further, stating that “nothing” about the THINKFilm release warrants consumer consideration. It all seems so very odd.

Remember, this was a man who, up until the mid-part of last year, couldn’t get a single significant studio to release his fractured fable. Listening to the audio commentary as part of the DVD (as well as his discussion of the post-production problems as part of another bonus feature), you hear a man mad as his status as a cinematic pariah. In truth, almost NONE of the reasons Gilliam is given over to a reputation as “difficult, demanding, excessive and eccentric” have to do with his own actions. Aside from bragging on Brazil (his 1982 masterwork) to the point of pissing off Universal, the rest of his problems stem directly from acts of God, location and forces outside his filmmaking. Indeed, he mentions that his last dust-up – a battle with the Weinsteins over his poorly received Brothers Grimm – had nothing to do with what happened on screen. It was merely part of the package of being in the motion picture business.

But the issue with THINKFilm is different, at least from these rumored reports. This is a matter of principle, pure and simple. Gilliam agreed to have the company release his movie, remembering that they should abide by his creative and aesthetic wishes. Basically, they couldn’t take Tideland and re-edit it, recolor the sky or brighten the darker moments. Back when The Descent hit DVD, fans were flummoxed by the ability to see more of the action in New Line’s remastered transfer. Cries of filmic foul were raised, since many believed director Neil Marshall’s hide and seek suspense conceit was being purposefully played with for a home theater audience. Turns out they were wrong. Marshall always had his visuals lit for ease of visibility. It was the crappy theaters and under-trained projectionists around the country that failed to fully illuminate the film’s many underground fights.

For Tideland, it appears that the only real concern is over aspect ratio. Listen to any of the ardent defenders of Gilliam’s “original vision” and they will tell you that the difference between 2.35:1 and 1.85:1 is top to bottom, as well as side to side. Mathematically speaking, taking a narrower image and broadening it means more information is revealed above and below. In addition, in order to avoid some technical elements that may have existed outside the frame (boom mic, crew or camera shadows, etc.) some companies zoom in on the image, losing a little of the compositional information on all four sides. In the opinion of the fanatical, such a situation undermines Gilliam’s original intent. It also destroys all of the carefully controlled creative strides made by cinematographer Pecorini. What many wondered prior to the recent reports was (a) was 2.35:1 the original aspect ratio?, and (b) was Gilliam aware/did he approve of the change?.

The answers are now obviously “yes” and “Hell No!”. From a purely practical standpoint, THINKFilm’s DVD release of Tideland in Region 1 is incorrect. It offers a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that’s absolutely stunning, but does indeed represent a retrofitting of the film’s OAR. Since it is so based in the symbolic and visual, relying on images to explore many of Mitch Cullin’s more disturbing ideas, fans of the film feel betrayed by such a situation. In fact, some are even suggesting that potential viewers will be put off of the film because, while viewing its complex and occasionally corrupt storyline, they will be missing many of Gilliam’s lush optical nuances. Such a stance fails to take into account the movie’s resounding dismissal at the hands of critics during its THEATRICAL run, or the praise this particular DVD has received from those unaware of the OAR scandal.

In reality, Tideland is a difficult movie to champion or chastise. It sits somewhere between a failed masterpiece and a brilliant bomb. It contains elements both personal and peripheral that threaten to undermine its acceptability (including a Tennessee Williams type turn by Jodelle Freland as an underage antebellum Southern surrogate) and really adds up to very little in the end. Unlike the rest of Gilliam’s creative canon, Tideland represents the director at his most disassociated. Similar to the lead character, Jeliza-Rose, he too is trapped in an unwieldy world of his own making. And now it seems that he’s ready to rebuke yet another studio for screwing with his efforts.

Consider this: THINKFilms was touting Tideland for Oscars back in November. Press releases went out to all critics groups with the standard ‘For Your Consideration’ rot, and free screeners were made available. As part of that DVD, Gilliam gave a surreal ironic introduction (a piece that prompted many an admirer to question his cinematic sanity) and then the full length feature was presented – in a 1.78:1 transfer. Now, if THINK really thought Tideland had a chance at Academy gold, why did they undermine their artist (and, in turn, his hardworking crew) so? Though he probably doesn’t care about such self-congratulatory backslapping, why didn’t Gilliam complain then? Was it because he knew he had no chance at Year End glory? Or was it a case of out of sight, out of mind?

In defense of the DVD, it doesn’t look like Tideland is missing much in the visual department. Only a comparison between the two transfers (Region 1 and Region 2) will settle the story once and for all – and that’s just what we’ll attempt to do in Part 2 of this discussion. In the meantime, we are stuck wondering how something like this can occur, especially in a day and age where every online film fan has a forum to ridicule and rail against a shoddy motion picture package. It worked when Pan and Scan was threatening to turn the digital medium into a graduated VCR. It worked when colorization raised its repugnant head a couple of years back. Studios frequently feel the wrath of the cinematic faithful when films are released minus key scenes, lines of dialogue, or removed musical cues. So, is the Tideland story a legitimate slighting of a moviemaking genius? Or is it just a product pitching ploy. We’ll have to wait for an Air Mail delivery from the UK to find out.

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Sunday, Mar 11, 2007

I’ve had some fun today trying to figure out what this somewhat enigmatic picture by Ryan McGinley

has to do with the article about “generation next” that it accompanies in today’s NYT Magazine. It looks like this fun trio is staying at the vertiginous Orlando Holiday Inn I stayed at last March, that was all in drab monochrome like this room. I can’t tell what the guy standing up is doing with his hands: extinguishing a roach? flicking a booger? picking a hangnail? Hmm. Very mysterious. And the couple on the bed—are they lovers or models? Is she hiding her face or picking sleep out of her eye? Are we supposed to assume that they’re waiting for hangnail man to jump in the sack with them? I guess we know they are from the privacy-indifferent generation because they haven’t bothered to close the curtain before they get down to whatever business we’re supposed to pretend they are contemplating. Feel free to offer your theories in the comments.

In the article itself, Ann Hulber scratches her chin and wonders about 18 to 25 year olds and their alleged struggle to escape from the shadow of their baby boomer parents. Citing poll data that shows them approving of gay marriage and disapproving of abortion more than their parents, she wonders if they are bringing into being some new pro-family political synthesis.

On one level, Gen Nexters sound impatient with a strident stalemate between entrenched judgments of behavior; after all, experience tells them that in the case of both abortion and gay rights, life is complicated and intransigence has only impeded useful social and political compromises. At the same time, Gen Nexters give every indication of being attentive to the moral issues at stake: they aren’t willing to ignore what is troubling about abortion and what is equally troubling about intolerant exclusion. A hardheadedness, but also a high-mindedness and softheartedness, seems to be at work.

And to risk what might be truly wishful thinking, maybe there are signs here that Gen Nexters are primed to do in the years ahead what their elders have so signally failed to manage: actually think beyond their own welfare to worry about — of all things — the next generation. For when you stop to consider it, at the core of Gen Nexters’ seemingly discordant views on these hot-button issues could be an insistence on giving priority to children’s interests. Take seriously the lives you could be creating: the Gen Next wariness of abortion sends that message. Don’t rule out for any kid who is born the advantage of being reared by two legally wedded parents: that is at least one way to read the endorsement of gay marriage.

Yes, this sounds like wishful thinking to me. I guess I’d be more convinced if this was actually one of their number offering this interpretation of their generation rather than a journalist speculating from the wings and trying to wish tepid political moderation into being. Hulber, though, explicitly tells us to ignore what they say about themselves—but if we do that, why interpret what they tell pollsters, which would certainly be as distorted as the way they choose to represent their generation? Their professed beliefs may be only so much sentimentality about the family, or a naive idealism about the cosntraints and choices adults face when they truly settle into raising a family or avoiding such a situation. Maybe they exhibit a stronger disapproval of abortion because they are better educated about sex or because presume the morning-after pill is available as an alternative. Who knows? Hulbert doesn’t any more than you or I do: she ends with a shrug: “However you end up sorting out the data, fun or crazy wouldn’t be how I would describe the Gen Next mix. Judged against the boomers’ own past or present, though, the outlook definitely looks unique.”

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Sunday, Mar 11, 2007

This is something that many travelers have to contend with. How about you?

You return to a city where you’ve stayed before and where do you choose to hole up? A place that you have lodged and dined before? Or somewhere else different? Sure, I know that should depend on the quality of times past. And some other factors such as money in your pockets or proximity to those things you have planned this go-round. But, all things being equal – say it was a fine stay before and the place is close to where you will now be gigging – then what? You up for a new experience? Or would you prefer to fall back on what is known, what is safe? What will cause points of least resistance. After all, now you know the route to and from the station, you know the layout of the streets, the location of the convenience stores and the neighborhood noodle shops. You know which dog’s bark to avoid at just which house along the way.

In short, you have sunk time and resources sufficient to now produce economies of scale. Are you now up for capitalizing on the benefits?


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Saturday, Mar 10, 2007

There are a couple of distinct advantages to being a homemade moviemaker – that is, someone guiding their own cinematic career with a group of friends, a camcorder, and an unquestioned desire to create. The first, naturally, is pure aesthetic liberty. Basically, you can do whatever the Hell you want, however the Hell you want. Feel like combining genres in contravention to everything they teach about narrative and tone in film school? Go right ahead. Need to have slapstick humor combine with slimy scare tactics? Be my – or make that, your own – guest. In essence, want to follow your own merry muse wherever and however it takes you to the land of inferred entertainment? Like the old sports shoe slogan said – GO FOR IT!

The second benefit is a little more elusive. It only appears when someone with a significant point of view, or clear artistic conceit, takes a chance behind the viewfinder. You see, with most wholly independent films, there is more copycatting and past film referencing than wholly spontaneous and original ideas. If our basement Bertolucci fancies himself a horror maestro, you can bet that zombies, vampires or serial killers – the triumvirate of terrors for novice auteurs – will play a major part. On the other hand, if this so-called low rent Renoir wants to explore the realm of comedy, it’s more than a safe bet that the humor will be less analytical and far more anal – both literally and figuratively. So it takes a rare talent to traipse around inside such a potential set of pitfalls, knowing how to avoid said dangers as well as how to save yourself once you do slip and succumb.

Justin Channell is such a moviemaking anomaly. Born in 1987 (making him a whopping 20 years old) and currently serving as the webmaster for the Troma Films fansite, Tromatized!, this knowing neophyte wanted to find a way to turning his love of horror and humor into a successful narrative combo. Along with his partners in motion picture crime, Joshua Lively and Zane Crosby (Channell writes and directs, while his buddies act onscreen and occasionally contribute to the scripts) he has turned the world of the living dead and the bloodsucking basics of Dracula’s domain into the post-modern equivalent of an Abbott and Costello romp. With Lively and Crosby as his cinematic comedians, and working within the clear confines of a classic old school team (Josh is the straight man, Zane is Mr. Zinger), Channell proves that, with motivation, and some hands-on moxie, you too can create cinematic gold.

The trio’s first film together, the incredibly effective Raising the Stakes, found Lively and Crosby taking on teen angst and inhuman immortality. The storyline featured the pair as two unhappy nerds who mistakenly believe that, by becoming vampires, they will instantly achieve campus coolness – and looks from the ladies. Naturally, the plan backfires (they still get their asses kicked, even as members of the undead) and all manner of hilarious hackneyed hijinx ensue. With an obvious love for all things South Park (the dialogue cribs quite a few catchphrases from the classic TV series) and a reliance on the retarded to amplify the anarchy, this genial jokefest helped put Channell and his chums on the outsider map.

After providing a segment for the hilarious scare spoof Faces of Schlock Volume 2 (the zombie baby lark A Fetal Mistake), Channell immediately leapt into his next project, the cannibal comedy Die and Let Live. This time, Lively and Crosby play college age slackers who enjoy intellectual repasts at the local coffee house. It also offers them the opportunity to ogle the brainy babes who stop by for the occasional hot cupper. Lively’s character, Benny Rodriguez, has the hots for a gal named Stephanie, and he’s desperate to impress her. He goes so far as to beg Crosby’s Scotty Smalls to hold a poolside keg party in hopes of getting a hook up. Never one to reject a liquor-based soiree, Scotty makes the mistake of telling a few unwelcome buddies, and before you know it, Benny’s plans for an intimate evening have turned into a typical adolescent booze binge.

Even worse, there’s been an outbreak at the local medical testing facility, and a virus with the ability to raise the dead has been released. As Benny, Scotty and their pals pour down the pints, the local corpse population is stirring from their graves, and looking for people to munch on. Naturally, a series of confrontations occurs, with Benny trying to ward off Stephanie’s old boyfriend (a jock joke lummox named Andrew) while the zombies discover the smorgasbord of inebriated idiots to satisfy their corrupt cravings. It will take a miracle – or the unbridled bonding power of some dolphin-shaped ‘best friend’ necklaces – to save the day.

Expanding on the formula he founded for Stakes, Channell chooses the best elements of the time-honored teen comedy and fuses them into a sly Shaun of the Dead dynamic. He never tries to oversell the scares, and indeed, frequently uses the homemade gore to wonderful comic effect. His ease with the material, the excellent conceptualizing of how to handle both the casual conversations and the blood and guts set pieces argues for a filmmaker wise beyond his meager years. Channell also understands his macabre, and enjoys the outright referencing of previous fright flicks as part of his production design. He even casts Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman and former company creative mind Trent Haaga in successful cameo roles.

But the movie really belongs to Lively and Crosby. In fact, Channell could simply dump the amiable arterial spray and use the duo as the next generation of rib tickling comedy teams. Borrowing less from their media influences, and creating a wonderfully wittiness that’s all their own, these chums and collaborators off camera come across as lifelong companions on. Crosby alone has some amazing comic timing, never flinching or failing a joke. Lively is also adept at turning his occasional ironic quips into stellar asides. You can see how good they are when compared to the rest of the amateur cast. While the costars’ lack of performance grade is nobody’s fault (this is no budget filmmaking after all), Lively and Crosby could become indie film icons, the Clerks for a post post-Kevin Smith generation.

So, with all this talent on tap, and a few fine features under their belt, what’s the downside to all this craft and creativity? Well, Die and Let Live has yet to find distribution on DVD (at least, as of this date) and both Raising the Stakes and Faces of Schlock Volume 2 are both self-circulated titles. Channell continues to play the festival circuit, hoping audience reaction – which is almost always favorable – will drive up interest in a legitimate release. Such is the tradeoff in the wonderful world of filmmaking beyond the fringe. You can make or do whatever you want, with the final product representing the best that you and your friends have to offer. But the question then becomes, will anyone ever see it? In the case of Justin Channell, Josh Lively and Zane Crosby, it’s just a matter of time before they’re outsider idols. Until then, they get the benefits, and detriments, of being homemade heroes.

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