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Monday, May 7, 2007

Grant McCracken, an academic who went over to the dark side to become a marketing consultant, had a post about how brands could profit from working in some ambiguity and interpretative possibility into its advertising. After citing 15th-century courtier Castiglione’s notion of sprezzatura (cultivating the air of naturalness; a bit of a paradox) and fop forerunner Beau Brummel’s happy fashion accidents, McCracken encourages marketers to make brands into something like “round characters” from a fiction workshop:


What we want are brands that invite our involvement and then reward it.  Involvement takes complexity and the willingness to open the brand to a variety of interpretations and the possibility that some of these interpretations will prove a little insipid.  What we are doing here is buying sublime brand moments at the cost of some that are ill formed and unsuccessful.  Let us try out Castiglione’s and Brummel’s advice. I mean, we keep saying that marketing is a conversation.  Perhaps its time to make brands creatures worthy of talking to.


Sprezzatura means not getting caught trying too hard; McCracken wants brand builders to seem not to be trying—he wants them to act as if what the brand becomes is a matter of indifference to them: “Sales? Who cares. The brand must become what it wants to be.” The brand will manage itself spontaneously in the minds of eager consumers, who will make it into what it must be to survive. McCracken never questions the benevolence of branding, never doubts that they enrich our lives and that brand equity is manna from heaven, not value expropriated from elsewhere.


The argument McCracken makes seems like an argument in the same mold as Steven Johnson’s case that TV is more sophisticated and its viewers are performing all sorts of high level mental operations in parsing the plot of 24. The complexity engages consumers rather than puts them off, and their brains are so adapted as to not regard this complexity as difficulty; instead they process it as pleasure. McCracken is also advocating a less instrumental approach to marketing, to make campaigns rich with detail and emotive potential but to not have a precise goal—in other words, to make them like character studies.
But brands are not characters; they are not sentient beings, and they can’t hold up their end of a conversation. I’m highly skeptical that marketing is a conversation—it’s a one-way conversation at best and it’s not a very sophisticated one: “Use our crap, it’s cool!” Marketing is a medium for a communication between buyers and sellers, and its purpose is generally to mask asymmetries in information that make buyers generally wary.


Whatever subtleties come out of marketing usually come from marketers’ attempts to adapt to the ways consumers actually use their products in spite of how they are marketed. But this in turn undermines the usefulness to the consumer, who (if he is pursuing cool) is trying to distinguish himself and stand apart from what advertisers hype. Perhaps this is what McCracken means: advertising should be deliberately misleading so that users of the product can more easily feel as though they have outwitted the marketing to penetrate to some authentic usage of a product that reveals the user’s uniqueness in the face of the mass market object.


Anyway, the main objection I have to all this is the idea that brands can come to stand in as people, that we might forget that brands are mediums and anthropomorphize them. That’s why adding brands to friends lists on MySpace seems so creepy to me. Once brands could be indicators of specific qualities, but now they are so fluid in meaning that they obfuscate the nature of the products they represent, and signal something altogether independent of the goods. When brands are ascribed human traits, it masks their true function (signaling that makes status concrete, makes class more impermeable) and gives them a phony agency that conceals the actual operators behind them.


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Monday, May 7, 2007

If the term “citizen journalist” immediately brings to mind Wolf Blitzer in the Situation Room calling on viewers to send in their hurricane footage, then think again.


The Sunlight Foundation is tapping public expertise and enthusiasm to investigate federal government waste and corruption. It’s part of a trend toward using the Internet to make a variety of technologies available to the public, and then inviting people to use these tools to participate in an investigation.


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Sunday, May 6, 2007


It used to be a pure Memorial Day kind of thing. Teens, fresh out of classes and ready to spend, would line up all over this great land of ours, celebrating the memory of those who died to keep us free by going to see a major studio popcorn pic. Like Jerry Lewis’ arrival every Labor Day, or the traditional distended credit card bill come Christmas, the Summer Blockbuster season was anticipated and planned for like the exaggerated entertainment D-Day it is. Preview ads would start popping up around mid-Fall, while a teaser would almost always arrive come Super Bowl. Then, just when the marketers thought the masses were growing tired of the title, a full blown trailer would appear, usually formulated to give away as many of the well-kept plotpoints as possible. By the time the end of May rolled around, it felt like you had already seen the overexposed hit. All that was left was to wonder what Will Smith would deliver come 4 July.


Naturally, this commercial course of action needed an accomplice, and for the most part, the co-conspirator was the horribly lackluster spring movie season. For four months (and a few weeks), audiences were expected to attend – and enjoy – studio run-off, bad buzz catastrophes, poorly timed Oscar bait (and switch), and various incarnations of crap cinema. On rare occasions, a good film would actually sneak in, making itself an amiable nuisance for those waiting on the snow and sleet to melt before they’d make their way to the Multiplex again. But more times than not, Hollywood larded its annual landfill with brazen bottom line/feeder fodder. Oddly, all that changed a few years ago. Now, among the slop and stupidity, Tinsel Town occasionally tosses film fans a big fat helping of masterful motion picture.


To be fair, the beginning of 2007 was still pretty pathetic. Ghost Rider proved that Nicholas Cage and comic book super-heroism really don’t mesh, while Oscar winner Hillary Swank battled the Apocalypse, and inner city educational malaise – either one, a daunting proposition. We got a few more horror remakes (The HitcherThe Hills Have Eyes 2Epic Movie) and some less than appealing family fare, including Arthur and the Invisibles and The Last Mimzy. Amidst all the hokum and hackwork, sophomore slumps and high concept crud, a few films actually managed to distinguish themselves. In fact, some of the Spring’s best may end up holding on to that title come the end of December – they were just that strong. And of course, with every stroke of genius, there must come an equal and opposite atrocity – and this year, there were some doozies. In fact, SE&L‘s picks for the Best and Worst of Spring 2007 expertly illustrate the massive chasm between the great and the god-awful quite well.


The Best
5. Black Snake Moan


Trying to top his breakout film about the ‘hard’ life of a pimp (2005’s Hustle and Flow) writer/director Craig Brewer tapped into the forgotten world of Tobacco Road potboilers to tell the tale of a local skank (the fabulous Christina Ricci) saved by the blues-soaked soul of a proud older man (Samuel L. Jackson). The results reminded audiences of the days when Tennessee Williams inspired hundreds of Southern Gothic copycats combined with those sleazoid drive-in delights that promised promiscuousness, but only ended up delivering tons of tease. While some critics complained over Brewer’s reach for smut style over social substance (as in his previous hip hop culture creation), he continued to prove that his is a cinematic voice worth paying attention to.

4. Grindhouse


It’s a shame that audiences didn’t cotton to this clever take on motion picture history. It remains the artform’s dirty little secret that, post Hays and pre MPAA, the exploitation game rewrote the rules on cinematic subject matter – and by indirect design, created post-modern moviemaking. It’s not like this badass ride on the wild and wicked side didn’t have entertainment appeal. Co-creators Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez delivered the gory, gratuitous goods in big fat sticky globs of fun. It was another cabal, that rabid and ready to pounce group known as the media, that destroyed this dandy double feature’s chance of gaining major mass market momentum. Years from now, revisionist history will hail this thrill and chill throwback as a masterpiece. For now, it will remain 2007’s most unfairly categorized ‘flop’.

3. 300


Talk about your testosterone laced treats! Frank Miller delivers the epic goods via Zach Snyder’s amazing CG cinematic scope, resulting in one of the biggest, brashest spectacles of the last ten years. A near perfect amalgamation of form and function, this tale of the Spartan stance against Persian insurgency circa 480 BC argues for the aesthetic benefits of technology – not only in the creation of visual splendor, but also in the realization of fiscally restrictive ideas. If Gladiator took home a misguided Oscar back in 2000, this movie should rake in the awards. As much a phenomenon as a feat of pure imagination, it may not reinvent the language of film as we know it, but it sure does provide a pristine new translation.

2. Zodiac


Nothing short of stunning. Rarely, in any period piece, does a director get both the details and the drama correct. One usually overpowers the other, leading to a substantial case of motion picture disconnect. But in taking on the still unsolved case of the ‘70s serial killer of the title, director David Fincher amplified the art of era recreation. Not only did he capture Me Decade San Francisco perfectly, he got the defeated, post-peace generation vibe down pat. Thanks to brilliant acting from Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal, and a narrative device that splits the story into three separate, equally compelling acts, we end up with is a dense deconstruction of the pre-CSI crime game, and a look at how obsession leads to loss – both familial and professional.

1. Hot Fuzz


The comedy team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg is clearly comprised of drop dead brilliance. After the magnificent horror spoof Shaun of the Dead (much more than a zombie lampoon, really), they turned their attentions toward the overwrought action blockbusters of the last three decades and came up with Spring 2007’s best film. With the equally astounding Nick Frost along for the ride, this satiric shoot-em up is so engaging, so completely and wholly entertaining, that it reminds you of how exciting a trip to the Cineplex can be. And buried inside the manic montages, the false endings, and the typical stunt sequence clichés, is a clever take on the British way of…being. Fuzz is so good, it makes the wait for whatever Wright, Pegg and Frost do next seem excruciating.

The Worst
5. Wild Hogs


Paunchy old men play biker dudes. Nothing particularly novel occurs. And in the meantime, both John Travolta and William H. Macy destroy whatever remaining star turn screen cred they had built up over the years (Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence were already treading water).  While crowds lined up to give this mediocre middle-aged comedy some unbelievable box office heft, here’s hoping cooler heads prevail come mandatory sequel time.

4. Norbit


Remember the look on Eddie Murphy’s face when the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was announced – and his name was NOT read? That’s the same reaction audiences had to this bumbling, borderline racist affair. There’s no problem trying to recapture the comic flavor and fun of the Nutty Professor films, but does it have to be done at the expense of raging stereotypes and dimensionless characterization? Apparently so.

3. Hannibal Rising


In which Thomas Harris pisses away any remaining semblance of a serious literary career. Apparently, everyone’s favorite cannibal gained his taste for flesh after seeing his sister devoured by Nazis. As if Germany didn’t have enough to be sorry for already. Now they have to take the blame for destroying this once viable horror franchise. Either them or the failed filmmaking.


2. Code Name: The Cleaner


Cedric the Entertainer doesn’t need to fire his agent – he needs to SHOOT him. Looking over the last five films he’s made (from Man of the House to that horrid remake of Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners), the stench of sloppy scripting and equally atrocious approach seems to follow him everywhere. This incredibly funny man deserves better.

1.  Are We Done Yet?


Yes, Ice Cube, your career as a serious actor is pretty much finished. The irony over how one of the ‘80s most defiant rappers turned into a kid vid scapegoat is incredibly rich, but if he continues to milk these lame retreads of the same slapstick silliness, he’s bound to hit a worn out his welcome wall. This Mr. Blanding‘s bastardization may actually be it.

 


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Sunday, May 6, 2007
by Alex Rose

I first came across the writing of Charles D’Ambrosio in the waiting room at Cornell Medical Hospital. I was sitting in one of those demoralizing paper-towel gowns, thumbing through an outdated copy of The New Yorker, when I came across a lengthy story called “Up North.” With some reluctance, I inched my way into D’Ambrosio’s icy, ashy world only to emerge a half an hour later transformed—my own world refreshed and enriched.


The story (first person/past tense) begins with the protagonist, Daly, and his wife, Caroline, driving North to visit her parents in their remote, winter cabin. There, we’re introduced to the rest of the cast—the in-laws, their friends, one of whom, we do not know which, may have raped Caroline a decade prior. Caroline has hidden the truth from her beloved father to spare him the agony, but her continued silence has bred its own agony, a poisonous secret that rears itself in other, destructive ways.


Having read her diary, Daly is aware that his wife has been having affairs; indiscretions about which he must remain as tight-lipped as she, lest he reveal that he’s violated her privacy. Perhaps as a result of her assault, she has been and remains unable to equate sex with love. The paradox of their relationship, then, is that each day, “I lost more and more of my status as a stranger, and our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance without ever arriving at the moment in time when, utterly familiar, I’d vanish.”


Daly’s disclosures are similarly frank: “In defeat I came to feel weak and ashamed,” and amplified through his observations, each a sour reminder of something from the past, not completely gone. The taxidermy flanking the fireplace “suggested souvenirs from some gone, legendary time;” the sweater Caroline borrows from her father retains its girth, “a ghostly, orotund presence in the stiff wool.” Does this imply, perhaps, a pregnancy?


The major events in the story, however, are actually non-events. The first is the hunt. Daly, who finds it “effortful” to be around men with weapons, accompanies the grunting old-timers into the snowy woods to claim their nightly feast, only, when he gets the bird in his crosshairs, he squeezes the trigger to discover that the safety catch has vetoed the shot. Who could forget such a pungent image of impotence?


The second is the feast itself, whose awkwardness is intensified by the fact that Daly is struggling to hear the dialogue through the ringing in his ears, the auditory aftershock of his neighbor’s shotgun. All the while, a mirror in the corner of the dining room is canted in such a way as to reflect everyone but the narrator.


What is clear by the end is that D’Ambrosio is not a dramatist but a holder of oblique mirrors himself, a painter of haunting portraits. Drama, to paraphrase Aristotle, is a sequence of escalating power shifts—events which challenge its characters to make decisions that, in turn, alter the course of future events. Rather, D’Ambrosio feeds us a timeline whose constituent moments form a single snapshot indicative of things as they are. There are no revelations or catharses, simply a masterful rendering of an excruciating silence, the waterlogged weight of unspoken things, which press upon the apparently humdrum present with a dreadful and mighty force, forever unrelieved, unresolved.


But even this doesn’t capture what it is that makes “Up North” extraordinary. There’s something musical about the particular network of contrasts—the muffled, protected cabin vs. the expansive, perilous outdoors—something deliciously peculiar in the laid-backness of the language, his words crisp and exact. At the same time, D’Ambrosio is careful not to tip his hand: his virtuosity is subtle, unassuming and tempered, not ecstatic and splendiferous like Nabokov’s.


I later wondered if perhaps I was too quick to trust him. That in my enfeebled state, sitting there apprehensive and barely clothed in that cold hospital waiting room, I’d allowed a certain obsequiousness to color my impression of the work. Shortly thereafter I picked up a copy of D’Ambrosio’s debut collection, The Dead Fish Museum (in which “Up North” is collected), and was struck to discover the same level of power and precision, the same faint irony and sober lament woven into each piece.


Someone recently told me that, for all its beauty, she couldn’t get through the book because it was too depressing. All due respect, this person was not reading. She was simply taking the D’Ambrosio world at face value—mental hospitals and recovery wards, failing businesses, porno sets—a world which, on the surface, appears to resemble that of William Vollman. But in comparison, Vollman buckles. His bleakness is a fey spectacle, which bullies its readers into a pre-fab discomfort.


Rather, D’Ambrosio does a far harder thing, which is to achieve compassion without sentiment, yearning without nostalgia, understatement without self-consciousness, and in doing so succeeds at everything Vollman fails at.


I doff my hat.


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Saturday, May 5, 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: David F. Friedman and Peter Perry explore Satan, Sin and S-E-X!

It’s clear that, in the eyes of many mainstream film fans, exploitation is an idea spawned of the Devil. By taking on taboos and fleshing out fetishes, it was and remains a genre that stated its sinful purpose time and time again. Among the frequent challenges the grindhouse producer faced were government censorship, regional arrest, and a universal reputation as a smut peddler or purveyor of pornography – and each and every dispute decried the immoral nature of their efforts. So discussing these films in terms of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong is not a new idea. In fact, it’s been around since the first roadshow pictures pushed the limits of common decency by showing live birth footage and/or images of sexually transmitted diseases.


So naturally the writers and directors of these frequently explicit epics thought it wise to make fun of their own supposed lack of ethics. And they did so by literally giving the Devil his due. All throughout the history of the exploitation film, Satan and his transgression-laden underworld have been the setting for scenes, subplots, and sometimes, entire storylines. In fact, demons and the supernatural have a way of turning standard sleaze into a kind of pulchritudinous Pilgrim’s Progress. Though concepts like neverending nookie and an infinite amount of skin usually substituted for the customary Hades happenings of damnation and eternal torment, the core element of virtue vs. vice was always front and center. Besides, it made the movies seem like veiled morality plays.


For their sole May DVD release, Something Weird Video is revisiting the days when Legion left the Inferno for a little raincoat crowd limelight. The two films offered - The Joys of Jezebel/My Tale Is Hot – are nothing more than loose, lame comedies covered over with sloppy softcore (in the case of Jezebel) and endless minutes of mundane T&A (as in Tale). Both are hilariously bad, and represent a kind of cautionary example about using stunts to sell your smut. Each movie here could have easily existed without the hack histrionics of its Belial channeling thespians – but then that would kind of ruin the point, wouldn’t it. Accented by a crazy collection of added content (including some sensational trailers, a Harlem era feature about salvation, a weirdo jazzbo cartoon mocking the Church, and a Candy Barr peep reel) and what we end up with is something that will titillate as well as test your tolerances for all things tacky and threadbare. 


The Joys of Jezebel (1970)

The famed Biblical biz-nitch, noted for her wanton, wicked ways, has just found herself as number one with a bullet on Satan’s Top Ten Sex Partner list, and the mangoat isn’t taking “No” for an answer. Desperate to avoid the Devil’s touch, she enters into a pact with Ol’ Scratch. In exchange for the ability to right some wrongs back on Earth, Jez will trick her virginal buddy Rachel into swapping souls with her. This will give Beelzebub a chance at the untouched flesh he’s been perpetually pining for. Once the switch is made, our harlot heroine gets to work. First up on her list – preventing her gal pal from marrying the overweight wart Jeremiah. She does this by suggesting that Rachel is more slut than saint. Then it’s time to get back at Joshua, the man who sent her to Hell in the first place. She pretends to be a man, and then seduces him, causing a nice same sex scandal. All the while, Moloch is hunting around Hades for his ultrapure poon. After all, if he can’t partake of The Joys of Jezebel, he’ll have to get his demonic jollies from someone.


At this point in their respective careers, Producer David F. Friedman and director Bethel Buckalew were growing tired of the same old skin flick. They had worked their way through a rather ribald version of a classic Shakespeare play (The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet) and taken on famous femmes like Fanny Hill and Cleopatra. With each entry, the explicitness was accented, pushing the pair ever closer to actual X rated material. For this clothesline creation, the duo came up with a simple story. They would use the character of Jezebel (whose name is notorious for suggesting sleaze and sin), place her in situations where she can use her physical skills to payback some bad karmic bills, and then let her copulate her way to victory. With the fiery redhead Christine Murray as the title tart, and Dixie Donovan as the well endowed Rachel, we end up with a pair of potential powerhouses. But Friedman and Buckalew don’t stop there. They overload the film with naked babes, stopping the narrative now and then to offer up overlong sequences of fake fornication. It’s the movie’s main flaw. One scene in particular – a visit to the oddly named Pit of Nymphs - seems to literally go on forever.


Anyone who’s seen this pair’s previous efforts will instantly recognize the production scheme at play. Friedman and Buckalew preferred bright primary colors - an almost cartoon aesthetic - when it comes to art design and lighting. There is a heavy emphasis on reds and blues, and a clever use of gels and shadows to avoid the action sliding into hardcore. Most of the humor is Jokes for the John level lewdness, the kind of so-called ‘sophisticated wit’ that really felt seedy even back in the ‘60s. Perhaps the most amazing element of this entire presentation is how good it looks some 37 years later. Something Weird strives to provide the best transfers of their titles as possible, and with access to original elements (thanks to Friedman), this movie looks great. You know you’re in pristine picture territory when an actress’s embarrassing facial hair is easily distinguishable. It’s just a shame that The Joys of Jezebel isn’t better. It has all the slap and tickle one could ever want, but it also avoids much of the camp and kitsch that makes the exploitation genre so enjoyable.


My Tale is Hot (1964)

You think you’ve got it bad, average married American male? Imagine what it would be like to be Lucifer, and have your Hellspawn housefrau berating you every day over the lackluster job you do in bringing home the brimstone. Sick of the nagging and desperate to earn back his good bad name, he takes on the topside challenge of turning ‘the world’s most faithful husband’, Ben-Hur Ova, into an adulterer. He plans on doing this by providing the goofy goody two shoes with as many chances to cheat as possible. Once on Earth, he offers Ben some gratuity in the garden, a little booty in the local bar, a sampling of honey in a nearby hotel, and even a sequence of Candy Barr doing her pasties and panties burlesque routine. But nothing can persuade our honorable he-man – and why should it? After all, he’s a Saudi Arabian sheik, and has a harem loaded with 364 girls. With a different doll a day, who needs additional amorousness? You can just hear the Devil muttering to himself, “And I thought My Tale Is Hot.”


If you ever needed proof that the grindhouse and the goofball just don’t get along, here is the perfect piece of cinematic evidence. Like watching one of those late ‘50s/early ‘60s cocktail napkins come to life – you know the ones, the flimsy squares of absorbent paper that house arcane innuendo laced gags about sailors, doctors and three martini businessmen – this excruciatingly repetitive yarn about a virtuous Arab and the Fallen Angel who tries to tempt him is really rather stupid. Part of the problem is the fact that some of the film is missing – like each and every punchline. It often appears as if some comedy hating editor stepped in with a pair of pinking sheers and purposefully trimmed out each and every joke from the film. The character of Ben-Hur Ova will start a quip, and before you know it, Satan is responding to something we didn’t get a chance to hear. Equally, the Devil will try to make a funny, and in the blink of the eye, Ben has already rejected his suggestion and moved on. This creates a very disturbing sense of disassociation. You want to enjoy the vaudeville level of laughs, but the movie just won’t let you.


And when paired with the much more daring Jezebel, the men’s magazine dynamic of the nudity of Tale gets lost in the sexual shuffle. Since the movie was made in 1964, years before the ‘crotch shot’ barrier was broken, we are dealing with a nudist colony conceit when it comes to posing. The women are forced to maintain unusual positions, props like towels, beach balls, and various throws and shawls everpresent to keep the pubis in check. In addition, there is no attempt at giving the gals character or personality. They are merely eye candy of the most casual yet carnal kind. As stated before, one could enjoy this movie a lot more if Something Weird had found a decent print. The version here is faded, scratchy, and clearly edited with a collection of prehistoric sledgehammers. The company has frequently said that while they strive for technical perfection, they feel such transfers give their artifacts the appropriate “authenticity”. Apparently, that’s a new definition for “almost unwatchable”. Somewhere, in its original form, My Tale is Hot was probably a hoot. Here, it’s a collection of cutting room floor flaws accented by bare boobs.


Flip Wilson, the wildly successful ‘60s/‘70s comedian, had a catchphrase that he used whenever he played the drag queen character Geraldine, a massively popular pitch that explained his/her frequently outrageous behavior – “the Devil made me do it!” The same could be said for the movies featured here. For many, it would require a mandate from Hades to get past some of the production/performance/personal pitfalls these efforts provide. Others will simply laugh out loud and enjoy the eros. The Joys of Jezebel/ My Tale is Hot may represent two divergent sides of the overall grindhouse grouping, but they’re more promise than payoff. Kind of like every deal with the cloven hoofed one, right?


 


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