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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 I was sitting in one of those demoralizing paper-towel gowns, thumbing through an outdated copy of The New Yorker, when I came across a lengthy story called “Up North.”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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Saturday, May 5, 2007
by John Ellis [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

FRENSO, Calif. - A well-known Fresno author and journalist is waging a heated battle with his boss at the Los Angeles Times - a very public struggle that has outraged many in Southern California’s large Armenian community.


It’s also reverberating in Fresno, not only because of the sizable local Armenian population, but because Times staffer Mark Arax lives here and is of Armenian descent.


“People I talked to locally are really upset,” said Varoujan Der Simonian, executive director of the Armenian Technology Group, a Fresno-based nonprofit that provides support for Armenian farmers.


The dispute revolves around an article Arax wrote - but the paper refused to publish - to mark April 24, the 92nd anniversary of the Armenian genocide. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians died between 1915 and 1923 at the hands of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.


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Friday, May 4, 2007


It’s the night of the big interstellar star show, and poor Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) has to work. Holed up at the local movie house (where she’s an usher), she calls her sister to let her know she’ll be home a little later than usual. Sam (Kelli Maroney) is equally upset. She is being forced to spend the evening kowtowing to her stepmother’s mindless friends. As the big event finally arrives—Earth is passing through the tail of a massive, mysterious comet—something strange happens. Everyone on the planet just disappears—everyone except Regina and Sam, apparently.


At first, they figure they’re alone. Then Regina runs into an angry zombie with murder on his mind. Eventually the sisters make their way to a local radio station, where they confront Hector (Robert Beltran), a truck driver who’s also running from the fiends. Together they decide to look for others. Unfortunately, there are more than monsters posing a potential threat. A group of scientists is seeking human subjects for evil experiments, and Regina, Sam, and Hector will make terrific blood banks. Seems that after this Night of the Comet, no one is safe—not even the ones who managed to survive.


Night of the Comet is such an amiable ‘80s artifact that you can almost visualize Cindy Lauper making out with Duran Duran while Naked Eyes sings “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me.” Playing on several still-fresh genre types from the time period—the zombie movie, the post-apocalyptic survival epic, the quirky teen coming-of-age title—writer/director Thom Eberhardt (kind of a forgotten filmmaker, even with credits like Without a Clue and Captain Ron to his name) decided to approach each and every element in his motion picture mash-up with a fair amount of ironic humor and a sense of sly subversion.


Sure, there are members of the living dead present, but they are articulate, mobile, and very, very pissed. Yes, the planet will be instantly de-populated when it passes through the tale of an obscure comet. But this is L.A., baby, a locale with endless shopping and lots of creature comforts. And, granted, our heroines seem like a couple of kids just looking to get laid and have a little fun. Yet in Regina and Sam, Eberhardt finds character first, classification second. They may look like runners-up in the ersatz valley girl competition of 1984, but they really stand out as complex, confused personalities.


Better still, Night of the Comet knows what to do with each and every one of these cinematic scenarios. The first 30 minutes of the movie are masterful, setting us up for the pseudo-horror humor to come. Eberhardt establishes Regina’s stubbornness, her desire to determine her own life. Similarly, Sam seems ditzy and devil may care, but once her stepmother literally slaps her down, we witness a limited lifetime of disappointment in her fiery eyes. Both Catherine Mary Stewart (Reg) and Kelli Maroney (Sam) are sensational, walking a fine line between being too smart and resorting to adolescent irrationality. Their scenes together have a nice comic crackle and, when we witness the implied end of their time together, it’s a stunning, shocking moment.


Eberhardt makes an intriguing choice here—he keeps Sam dressed in her pep club cheerleader-like outfit throughout the entire first half of the film, suggesting her archetype on the surface while disavowing its reality within. Reg, all big hair, sharp shoulders, and even larger attitude, is more enigmatic. We never get a hard bead on what she’s supposed to represent but, in Eberhardt’s mind, she’s a standard action hero given a girly makeover. While the rest of the cast sits around staring, Reg is the first one in, dealing with issues and applying her Army brat training with gusto.


From a plot perspective, Night of the Comet is really divided up into three separate acts. The first, prior to the precarious cosmic event, has the feel of a John Hughes comedy gone gallows. There are bitter feelings all throughout the subtext of these scenes and we really get to know our leads very well. Part two presents us with our metropolitan Mad Max meat. We’re introduced to the zombies, the well-meaning trucker (Eating Raoul‘s Robert Beltran) who wants to help the girls, and the City Limits-like band of fey gang members who threaten our ladies’ trip to the local mall. This is the action portion of the film, Eberhardt’s attempt to set up all the possible situations that can occur come Act III.


With the arrival of this final section, Night of the Comet unfortunately goes a tad catawampus. There’s an attempt to mix in some science-gone-sinister overtones while fooling us into feeling our heroines are in actual danger. It’s perhaps the only weak element in an otherwise strong genre effort. Perhaps due to budget limitations or a lack of imagination, we don’t get the fierce fireworks we’ve come to expect from this final confrontation. Instead, it’s a couple of quips, a run through a hallway or two, and a minor car explosion.


Still, Night of the Comet deserves its current status as a forgotten cult classic. In an era when terror was decidedly slice and dice, when sci-fi smelled like Ewoks, and the end of the world was draped in as many mind-blowing car chases as possible, Thomas Eberhardt and his incredibly talented company (including interesting turns by Mary Woronov and Geoffrey Lewis as maniacal medicos) wanted to shake things up. Indeed, when the first draft of your script is entitled Teenage Mutant Horror Comet Zombies, you’re not trying to make a totally serious speculative scarefest.


Though it may not be the most influential film or the best example of how the cultural conceits of the ‘80s seeped into every aspect of the pop landscape (including film), Night of the Comet manages to make its many diverse and delightful points in increasingly inventive and entertaining ways. Go in expecting too much and you’ll be pretty disappointed. If you enter remembering the time and the place evoked and recognizing the skill in selling all the varying ideas, you’ll really enjoy the ride. Night of the Comet is the kind of movie that recalls the wide-eyed optimism of the initial phases of the Greed Decade. It’s a surefire schlock sensation.


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Friday, May 4, 2007

In recent posts I’ve been complaining about the difficulties of using pop-music for any purpose other than identity construction and signaling. I realize that I’m being somewhat hyperbolic about it—obviously the uses we make of music are much more diverse and complicated than that. My main concern is that the identity use overwhelms the others, that self-consciousness about cultural consumption obviates the specificity of the culture consumed.


So perhaps I should be encouraged by this study, summarized by BPS Digest here, which identifies three main uses for music: as background to other activity, as a mood regulator (here are seven ways that happens, at least for Finnish teens), and to provide intellectual stimulation in the contemplation of the performance or the substance of what’s heard (this is strongly correlated with high IQ). So that’s good; no mention of identity at all. But that may be a consequence of the study’s method, which seems to be simply asking people how they use music. It’s likely that few people would confess to using music to make people think they are cool, because most people refuse in general to cop to the synthetic nature of their identity, to the various ruses we use to build up the pretense of ourselves.


This study, about using music to meet people, is more in line with my fears. The researchers correlated adolescents’ song preferences with their judgments about personality types.


What some music preferences mean for personality:
  * Likes vocals: extraverted
  * Likes country: emotionally stable. On the face of it, this is bizarre really because country music is all about heartache. Either the emotionally stable are attracted to country music or it has a calming effect on the unstable!
  * Likes jazz: intellectual


But I have to say, I’m rather skeptical about these inferences. I strongly doubt it’s sufficient to match genres to types; more likely it’s entirely driven by context, by where a genre is perceived to fall on a continuum of respectability within a certain community. In fact, the whole gist of my suspicion is that genre has no meaning independent of such interpersonal contexts.


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