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Thursday, Aug 16, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Aesop Rock
Citronella [MP3]
     


None Shall Pass [MP3] both from None Shall Pass (Def Jux) releasing August 28.


     


Aesop Rock - None Shall Pass - EPK


Black Dice
Kokomo [MP3] from Load Blown (Paw Tracks) releasing October 23.
     


The Black Lips
Cold Hands [MP3]
     


Stars
Your Ex-Lover Is Dead (Final Fantasy Mix) [MP3]
     


The Night Starts Here [MP3]
     


Jennifer Gentle
Electric Princess [MP3]
     



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Thursday, Aug 16, 2007

One of the smaller political furors of the past week has centered around a little-known columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Stu Bykofsky, who previous works include “Philly’s Too Gay for Some Tastes” and “Cindy Sheehan’s Sad Form of ADD”, Bykofsky’s latest ran with the headline “To Save America, We Need Another 9/11” – his thought is that another attack on U.S. soil would galvanize the country and its division (“division is weakness”, he intones). People would die, sure, but they’d be holy martyrs in the service of some mythical unity that, Bykofsky feels, would lead to triumph.


This missive got Bykofsky a notoriety that all small-circulation writers crave. He was pilloried in progressive blogs and invited onto Fox News (where John Gibson approvingly said “I think it’s going to take a lot of dead people to wake America up”) and CNN. Roy at Alibublog does a great job of documenting, and making fun of, the manly approval on the right.


Bykofsky, no matter the outlet, maintained a tenuous defense against critics who said he was calling for another attack. It’s a fine technicality, but it’s true, as he pointed out, that his original column did not explicitly use the phrase “we need another 9/11”. He said that phrase was shorthanded in by the editor who wrote the headline. Such things do happen in publishing, and writers rarely get to write their own headlines.


But what Bykofsky said was “I’m thinking another 9/11 would help America.” Logically, “would help” is indeed not equivalent to “need”, true. But inherent in his actual statement, the one he crafted to lovingly and diligently for publication in a work that carries his name, is the idea that a bomb, an attack, dead civilians, would be a Good Thing.


What does Bykovsky really want? He can’t really want dead Americans, patriot that he is. Or, to be clear, he can’t really want them dead just to kill them – it’s still be good if they were dead, but as unwitting participants to his own goal.


Let’s go back to one of his throwaway statements, the axiomatic “division is weakness”. This is a common trope and talking point tossed out by commentators both in and out of the government.


Bykofsky hearkens back to the “community of outrage and national resolve” following the 9/11 attack. “We knew who the enemy was then,” he adds.


(We’ll leave aside the facts that “we” didn’t really, not so much – the administration had ignored briefings about potential attacks, and to this day, a disconcerting number of Americans believe Saddam Hussein had something to do with the attacks.)


But though there was a worldwide sense of unity, a “we are all Americans now” – I saw it first-hand, being in Italy and surrounded by people from around the world who offered me support should I not be able to get back to the States – it was a unity of emotion, an empathy. Not a blank check.


The latter is how the administration took it. Using 9/11 as a club, it beat down any inkling of action that did not hew to its own notions. In the September 2007 issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Green wrote, “After 9/11… the administration could demand – and get – almost anything it wanted, easily flattening Democratic opposition.”


This, to the winner who sees only a zero-sum game of politics, can seem like unity.


This is the kind of “strength” Bykofsky, and those who originated the talking points he has partially digested and regurgitated, are talking about. Argumentation, loyal dissent, all the messy stuff that makes the democracy that they so crow about, is by its nature deflating to authoritarianism. And if you want authority at all costs, this seems like weakness.


I’ll leave it to others to parse the weird psychosexual bases and consequences in this political attitude. Digby has offered some historical context, while Dave and Sara at Orcinus have looked into those dark places.


But the overall idea? The path to strength is submission. Kind of kinky, Stu!


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Thursday, Aug 16, 2007

Stand-up comedian Lewis Black continues to make people laugh with his commentary on contemporary politics and trends. Black has invaded our television sets with his “Back in Black” segment on The Daily Show, one of only two segments that still air on the show since its creation. Starting in 1998, he has had three Comedy Central Presents specials, leading to two HBO specials, Black on Broadway and Red, White, and Screwed. In 2006, Black appeared in three films, Accepted, Man of the Year, and Unaccompanied Minors. Most recently, in February, 2007, he received the Grammy award for “Best Comedy Album” for The Carnegie Hall Performance.


From Black on Broadway:


From Red, White, and Screwed:



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Wednesday, Aug 15, 2007


For a time, he was the bad boy of British filmmaking, a moniker that actually meant something back in the productive, post-modern phase of cinema. A director by whim instead of choice, he turned an obsession with visuals into an iconic, inventive style. His fascination with religion, symbolism, nature, and human frailty became the calling cards of his fractured, sometimes frightening vision. Today, his oeuvre forms a footnote in the ongoing deconstruction of late century consensus, and that’s really a shame. Before all the ballyhooed bandits who supposedly struck substantive blows against the artform’s stodgy empire, Ken Russell was the original rebel. And unlike his current compatriots, there was a slightly ludicrous legitimacy to his creative cacophony.


It was English TV where the former dancer and avid still photographer found his initial infamy. After a series of short films, Russell began creating his impressionistic biographies of famous composers, narratives that would usually avoid the facts to find the metaphysical import of the artist. While many forgave his frequent factual miscues and meshing of period placement with modern sensibilities, not every denizen of the dead was amused. The estate of Richard Strauss withdrew the musical rights to the acclaimed musicians catalog after viewing The Dance of the Seven Veils, an effort described by Russell as a “comic strip in seven parts.”  To this day, they have never allowed the supposedly scandalous work to be shown.


That was 1970. The year before, Russell had caused even greater international controversy with his award winning film Women in Love. Only his third feature (after French Dressing and Billion Dollar Brain), this reimagined D, H. Lawrence adaptation featured robust sexuality and that most taboo of big screen stigmas – full frontal MALE nudity. Of course, no outrage goes unnoticed in the UK’s tabloid mentality, and Women became one of the year’s biggest hits. It was nominated for four Oscars, several BAFTAs (the English equivalent) and three Golden Globes (where it won Best Picture). Russell’s reputation was secured, especially among his fellow countrymen. He quickly became the era’s most important filmmaker. But even that wasn’t good enough for the confrontational creator. He would top the Strauss imbroglio with an even more contentious effort – 1971’s The Devils.


After the issue with Veils, Russell quickly regrouped. He tackled the life of Tchaikovsky, including a confrontation of his horrible childhood and closeted homosexuality, in The Music Lovers. Once again, he was the toast of the critical community. Looking for his next project, the director decided on two. One would be an adaptation of the renowned stage musical The Boy Friend (starring supermodel in transition Twiggy). The other would be a reworking of Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction focus on superstition and religious fanaticism in 17th Century France, The Devils of Loudun. Starring Oliver Reed (in one of many collaborations between the actor and the filmmaker) and Vanessa Redgrave, Russell used the book’s factual foundation to mount a vicious attack on the Church and its brutal, backwards mindset.


The film, rife with sex, purposeful perversion, and uncompromising criticism, was more than an early ‘70s audience could handle. Banned almost immediately in Britain, Russell also fought with Warner Brothers over its decision to further edit the final cut. Similar to the stance taken by fundamentalists when Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ hit theaters, conservative groups and religious proponents responded angrily at the director’s decision to mix dogma with explicit acts of carnality. The story, focusing on Reed’s character, a disillusioned priest targeted by Cardinal Richelieu, was seen as a scathing denouncement of organized religion. Fr. Urbain Grandier is accused of corrupting a local convent, and with the help of the deformed, sexually obsessed Sr. Jeanne, he is found guilty and burned as a heretic. Featuring a notorious sequence where naked nuns molest a statue of Christ, Russell’s inspired insidiousness drove censors, and the cash men, crazy.


Yet his reputation only soared after the motion picture was completed. The Venice Film Festival and the National Board of Review both picked him as their Best Director, and the added attention brought audiences to his genial, jovial Boy Friend. Besides, in less traditionalist countries, Russell’s version of The Devils played unedited, meeting with much acclaim. After 1972’s Savage Messiah (a self financed study of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska) and 1974’s Mahler (nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes), Russell was handed the perfect vehicle for his opulent visual passions. Roger Stigwood was looking to capitalize on the popularity of The Who, and in particular, their groundbreaking 1969 rock opera Tommy. Long a favorite among fans and aficionados, the core concept for the production was simple. Let lead singer Roger Daltrey play the deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a media messiah. Gather together a collection of current popstars for support. Let composer Pete Townsend flesh out the narrative. And then put it all in the hands of England’s foremost motion picture agent provocateur.


Purists initially balked at the changes requested by Russell and the producers, yet the final result remains the most accurate visualization of Townsend’s take on commercialized and manipulated false idolatry ever attempted. Much of the movie’s genius remains in its dead clever casting. Ann-Margaret played Tommy’s mother, a master stroke considering her earlier incarnation as a part of the packaging of Elvis Presley (as the lead in the satire Bye, Bye, Birdie and the King’s actual costar in Viva, Las Vegas). Reed was once again a part of the picture, his atonal squawk a perfect illustration of his character’s corrupt nature. Supporting roles went to noted names in the current pop purview. Eric Clapton played a nefarious preacher, while Tina Turner was the drug wielding Acid Queen. Who bandmate (and noted party boy) Keith Moon was the perverted, pedophilic Uncle Ernie, and UK idol Paul Nicholas became the callous Cousin Kevin.


The two biggest casting coups came when celebrated megastars Jack Nicholson and Elton John agreed to be part of the production. The star of Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown came on for a cameo, singing (!) the part of Tommy’s quack physician. For the all important role of the Pinball Wizard (for those unfamiliar with the work, our hero becomes a cause celeb thanks in part to his unusual adeptness at the classic arcade amusement) Rod Stewart was originally targeted. But the phenomenally popular keyboard player was a much more obvious choice. His 1974 album Caribou had produced two #1 hits (“The Bitch is Back” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) and the release of a Greatest Hits package later that year lead to another chart-topping smash. Decked out in gigantic Doc Marten boots and playing a ‘pinball piano’, John literally stole the show, driving fans to the film for his single scene appearance alone.


Even today, Tommy stands as a remarkable cinematic statement. Russell, working flawlessly within the parameters of the corrupt celebrity spotlight, exacts amazingly nuanced work from his cast. Since there is no dialogue (Tommy is an all singing storyline with additional visual narrative to supplement the songs), everything must be told and sold through performance. Daltrey, having more or less played the lead for the better part of six years, was a perfect golden boy icon. Ann-Margaret is an equally compelling mother Mary (she received a well deserved Oscar nomination or her turn). Even performers unfamiliar with the motion picture format shine in Russell’s revisionist world. Even better, the director’s delirious reliance on visual surreality and symbolism effortlessly matched Townsend’s psychological subtext. Had the movie been a simple, straightforward interpretation of the album, we’d be bored by the time Tommy becomes a quasi-cult leader. But because of its biting social satire, its amazing musical score (given one of the first multichannel Dolby presentations), and the filmmaker’s fascinating vision, it remains a minor masterpiece, and a terrific time encapsulation of the growing Me Decade malaise.


Unfortunately, Tommy would become Russell’s last real meaningful mainstream statement. He tried to copy its anti-fame facets with the blatantly blitzed out Listzomania. Reteaming with Daltrey, the director attempted to turn the life of Franz Liszt into a junk culture jaunt through the wicked world of celebrity excess. Envisioning the classical composer as the world’s first pop star, Russell sets up a rivalry with Richard Wagner. He even depicts Hitler’s favorite musical savant as the bastion of all that is evil (quite literally - he’s a vampire here). His war of ideals – the creative vs. the corrupt, the genuine vs. the false – was overflowing with eccentric and downright bizarre imagery. From an oversized phallus wielded as a weapon, to a last act confrontation including a spaceship (???), this follow-up to the internationally embraced Tommy almost obliterated Russell’s reputation. Viewed as wildly self-indulgent and reckless, it remains one of the director’s most notorious (and unseen) efforts.


Once Listzomania started the ball rolling, Russell never regained his stature. In 1977, he tried to sell a sexed up take on the life and career of silent film star Rudolph Valentino (starring a frequently naked and awkward Rudolph Nureyev), but even three BAFTA nominations couldn’t erase his stained standing. In one fell swoop, he had gone from creator to crackpot. The trouble with his 1980 adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s sci-fi novel Altered States didn’t help matters. Based on the work of scientist John Lilly and his research into sensory-deprivation, the award winning playwright and screen scenarist envisioned a storyline which suggested that, deep inside every human being, was his primordial, prehistoric ancestry, desperate to get out. Tapping into that genetic memory via drug-aided sessions, a sort of biological devolution could take place. Though not an award winning tome by any far stretch of the imagination, Chayefsky believed it made a salient point about the state of mankind.


Russell didn’t really ruin the source material as much as make it his own. Star William Hurt was put through all manner of make-up torture to depict the then novel onscreen physical transformations. The subtext of LSD and other hallucinogens gave the director license to literally create a big screen interpretation of a trip, and the standard Russell obsessions – religion, blood, carnality – came pouring forth. Though surprisingly faithful to the novel’s middle act (Hurt turns into a primitive caveman, wrecking primal havoc in the process), the ending was like an explosion inside the aging filmmaker’s Id. It was quite clear what he was going for (a character trying to reclaim his modern humanity), but the overly stylized and mannered way it attempted to get there caused more confusion than clarity.


Well respected and praised today, Altered States was a decent sized hit at the time. But Chayefsky, furious with the liberties taken with the material (he saw it as a serious speculative effort, not an infantile F/X freak out), asked for his name to be taken off the production (he had also provided the script). Somehow, that translated into Russell being difficult and demanding, and with the cloud of his previous cinematic foibles still in full flower, he was dismissed as part of a sad, hedonistic decade. It was four years before he would make another feature film, and his 1984 take on sex for sale, Crimes of Passion, proved to be his final Hollywood effort. Tapping the then rising Kathleen Turner for the role of prostitute China Blue (who, by day, is a fashion industry employee) and offering Anthony Hopkins the plum role of corrupt preacher Rev. Shayne, the saga of corporeal identity and interpersonal kink caused quite a stir with its frank depictions of fetishism and the erotic. While some praised its frankness, others saw it as a middle aged man’s fantasy fodder.


The next seven years would settle Russell’s reputation as a has-been. His take on Lord Byron and Mary Shelley (including the creation of her seminal work, Frankenstein) became the stagnant and unimaginative Gothic. Whereas his version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome’s Last Dance was novel (the director intercuts the play with sequences set inside a brothel where the production is being helmed) it was Lair of the White Worm that brought him back into the populist arena…if ever so slightly. Featuring a standard horror narrative (Satanic snake charms and disarms a local countryside community) and an early turn by future heartthrob Hugh Grant, it remains a crazy quilt cult hit. But after another trek into D. H. Lawrence territory (1989’s The Rainbow), and 1991’s ‘been there/done that’ Whore (controversial in its NC-17 rating only), his cinematic importance was all but erased. He turned to making music videos, oddly enough working once again with Elton John, and concentrating on television back in Britain.


Today, Russell stands as a well regarded artifact from filmmaking’s wild and wonky past. He is pigeonholed as a man more interested in style over substance, and thanks in part to his eccentric efforts for UK television (including a jaunty take on the English Folk Song), he’s become, at 80, a twee goofball granddad. He’s continued making movies over the last 20 years, little seen efforts with intriguing names like Lion’s Mouth, Revenge of the Elephant Man, and his rock and roll take on Edgar Allan Poe, Fall of the Louse of Usher. Almost all are self-financed, and many are filmed on the fly on his own estate. Granted, remaining active has its advantages, many believe his recent output to be nothing more than an elaborate collection of in-jokes from one of Hell’s more histrionic harlequins.


Just this year, the much maligned maverick announced his newest project – a take on Daniel Dafoe’s Moll Flanders. Whether it sparks renewed interest in the man’s considerable creative canon remains to be seen. The fact that it even requires rediscovering is perhaps the saddest aspect of Russell’s tale. Though he was frequently his own worse enemy, he left behind a legitimate legacy of big screen artistry that’s almost impossible to ignore. One day, the world will once again wake up to this passionate, if problematic cinematic visionary. Until then, Russell remains an enigma, one that should be welcomed back with open, appreciative arms.


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Tuesday, Aug 14, 2007


From time to time, SE&L will step back and let the Tinsel Town marketing machine do what they do best – tantalize and tease us with clever coming attraction previews and trailers. The five films focused on this time around represent some highly anticipated future outings, including the latest from cinematic stalwarts like David Cronenberg, Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson. Every few weeks, we’ll take a break from casting our critical eye over the motion picture artform and let the shill do the talking. And of course, once they do open in theaters, you can guarantee we will be there, deciphering whether the come-on matches the context. In any event, enjoy:


Eastern Promises
David Cronenberg is reunited with his History of Violence star (Viggo Mortensen) for a story of “murder, deceit, and retribution” among the members of London’s Russian mafia.



Lions for Lambs
The War in Iraq gets the soapbox treatment in this multilayered narrative revolving around the people, the politicians, and the policy that serve this senseless conflict.



The Darjeeling Limited
Part mystical journey, part familial non-erotic male bonding, Wes Anderson’s latest looks like it will continue his streak of eccentric yet effective dramedies.



No Country for Old Men
All the rage at Cannes, the Coen Brothers’ new movie takes author of the moment Cormac McCarthy’s New West noir and brings it to startling life.


Be Kind, Rewind
Jack Black and Mos Def star as video store employees who decide to replace their erased VHS inventory with their own homemade versions of classic films.


 


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