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Thursday, Feb 8, 2007


Now that the NFL has finished having its way with the populace, paltry Pro Bowl the only thing left on the pigskin schedule before six months of football-free entertainment, it’s a good time to turn back to the premium pay movie channels. Indeed, this week, there’s a decent amount of cinematic goodness to spare. Between a powerful family drama, a glorious drive-in delight from one Tom Laughlin, and a sneak peek at Alfonso Cuarón’s early directorial genius, the main movies featured themselves will provide a tantalizing trio of palpable motion picture possibilities. Toss in a few of the additional choices, and the week beginning 10 February is looking mighty fine. Let’s begin with SE&L’s top selection:


Premiere Pick
The Squid and the Whale


In one of the more intriguing moves of 2006, Entertainment Weekly columnist Stephen King (yes, THAT Stephen King) picked this film to top his year end best-of list. But this is not some Kaiju inspired monster movie. Instead, writer/director Noah Baumbach drew on his own childhood and the divorce of his literary minded parents as the foundation for this deeply heartfelt film. With its perfect performances from Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels, and the unapologetic way it deals with familial strife and subtext, Baumbach has resurrected the kind of interdependent drama that hasn’t been relevant since Ordinary People took home the 1980 Best Picture Oscar. Baumbach even snatched his own nomination, proving that there was more to this movie than one man’s memories. (10 February, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Final Destination 3


The third time is definitely not the charm for this initially inventive horror franchise. While the bloodshed and body count is still very high, the series has definitely moved from suspenseful to schlock. After the opening rollercoaster gag, it’s more of the same old ‘cheating death’ dopiness that actually made the first two films feel fresh. (10 February, HBO, 8PM EST)

ATL


It’s urban crime and violence, Southern style. Shifting the typical hood histrionics to Atlanta, and hoping that the casting of Outkast’s Big Boi would spur some box office interest, this guns and gang gratuity never found an audience beyond its bullets and bodies demographic. Still, music video director Chris Robinson shows great poise behind the lens. (10 February, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Saw II


For those wondering what happened to the original Saw‘s perfectly planned puzzle box conceits, the answer is director Darren Lynn Bousman. Arriving with his own designs, and a craving to concentrate on murderous machinery instead of intricate storylines, he almost destroyed a brilliant horror legacy. Thankfully, the original Saw guys were around to set the circumstances straight. (10 February, Showtime, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
Y Tu Mama Tambien


Those interested in experiencing more amazing cine-magic at the hands of Mexican moviemaker Alfonso “Children of Men” Cuarón need look no further than this 2001 masterwork. What sounds like an incredibly tawdry premise (two young men meet up with a promiscuous older woman for a sex-soaked road trip of self discovery) actually turns into an intelligent look at life, commitment and compassion. So overloaded with energy and vitality that the film practically glows with effervescent sensuality, Cuarón creates a beautiful comedy of character, avoiding the clichéd while tapping directly into the raging hormones of his unbridled machismo males. More importantly, he turns the coming of age catalyst Louisa into a full blown, three dimensional individual. It’s a move we don’t expect from such a storyline, and confirms the genius that would carry Cuarón to bigger and better things. (11 February, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Elephant


Gus Van Zant’s reflection on the massacre at Columbine takes its own sweet time building up to the deadly firefight, but during the long, languid tracking shots, we see how high school frustrations turn into slow burn homicidal rage. With his amateur cast and non-judgmental position, what could have been exploitative is merely masterful. (12 February, IFC, 9PM EST)

Open City


More or less the start of the Neo-realism movement in Italian cinema, Roberto Rossellini used his emerging cinema véité style to capture Rome under Nazi occupation. With its bleak black and white cinematography, ‘us vs. them’ storyline, and emphasis on life during wartime, Rossellini proved that fact supplemented by fiction could create a devastating cinematic statement. (13 February, Sundance, 7PM EST)

Wishing Stairs


The J-horror fad from a few years back brought much of Asia’s obsession with dark-haired ghosts and young girl innocence to the fore. In this Korean scarefest, the students at a private school learn that a set of haunted stairs can be the answer to your prayers – or the beginning of an unending nightmare. (12 February, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Outsider Option
Born Losers


Before Billy Jack, his Trial and his trip to Washington, filmmaker Tom Laughlin introduced the famous half-breed hero in this biker gang gone gonzo exploitation classic. Using the same revenge-oriented narrative he would employ throughout his turn as the titular character, Laughlin imbues his emotionally wounded Vietnam vet (this guy has a chip on his soldier the size of Montana) with enough martial arts moxie to overcome some of the story’s sloppier aspects. Thanks to a stellar supporting cast including Jeremy Slate as the head motorcycle maniac and a group of bad guys with names like Gangrene and Speechless, Laughlin shows his ease with this material. It’s gratuitous gold that would serve him well in the ‘70s, when his Mr. Jack became an enigmatic cultural icon. (15 February, Flix, 5PM EST)

Additional Choices
Cactus Flower


It’s incredibly dated, what with its forced free love mantra, and offers the unusual sight of Walter Matthau as a swinging, sex-obsessed dentist. But there is more to Gene Saks adaptation of the silly French farce than meets the idea. It won Laugh-In loon Goldie Hawn an Oscar, more or less legitimizing the creative value of the counterculture. (13 February, TCM, 8PM EST)

The Hand


Leave it to Oliver Stone to make the B-movie standard reanimated limb formula viable again. In this case, cartoonist Michael Caine looses his drawing hand, and his mind, after a particularly nasty car accident. Soon, his vivisected paw comes crawling back for revenge – though the purpose behind its murderous motives are never quite clear. (14 February, ThrilllerMax, 6PM EST)

Creepshow


In a flawless homage to the twist-ending eeriness of the old EC Comics, Stephen King and George Romero deliver one of their best collaborations. Spread out amongst the five excellent examples of storytelling and scares, look for early fright flick turns from Ed Harris, Ted Danson, Leslie Nielsen and Hal Holbrook (14 February, ThrillerMax, 7:50PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Feb 8, 2007

At academic blog the Valve, Joseph Kugelmass has a post that seems relevant to what I was trying to get at yesterday—the problem of having to seem unaware of your calculating signalling in order to for these signals to seem authentic and succeed. For this, Kugelmass cites master semiotician Björk (emphasis below is mine):


“I don’t really know why I’m obsessed with swans but, as I said, everything about my new album is about winter and they’re a white, sort of winter, bird. And obviously very romantic, being monogamous. It’s one of those things that maybe I’m too much in the middle of to describe. When you’re obsessed with something, you can explain it five years later, but in the moment, you don’t know exactly why. Right now, swans seem to sort of stand for a lot of things. I see a picture of a swan now and I go [takes a deep gasping breath], but two years ago it didn’t do that to me.” —from an interview with Bjork by Donna Karan, Interview, Sept. 2001
Bjork contradicts herself remarkably here. She begins by giving a series of revealing, thoughtful interpretations of her own decision to wear an ungainly swan dress to the Oscars, after decorating her album Vespertine with images of swans. She then immediately disowns these interpretations by claiming that she’s “too much in the middle of” the phenomenon to describe it. In other words, she does what she can to preserve the aura of the symbol of the swan, by protecting it against the corrosive process of becoming conscious of its meanings. However, by doing this, she is actually giving in to us. As everybody knows, the dress Bjork wore to the Oscars was criticized far and wide for being incredibly ugly. It did not look like a dress—it looked like a ridiculous swan costume.


If I interpret this right, Kugelmass argues that we demand a dog-and-pony show from artists in which they disavow their own awareness of what they are doing so that we can all believe they are doing it for reasons both we and the artists would like to assume are real. We want them all to fit the stereotype of outsider artists, working from an untutored and ambition-free impetus. This keeps the artist’s ego and career investments from spoiling our aesthetic experience.


Kugelmass cites this in response to a debate amid academic blogs about the invocation of theory in blogging, and his post nicely performs the method it simultaneously intends to scrutinize. (He invokes some pop culture references—Björk and Daniel Johnston—to elucidate some high-theory-like insights about praxis.) I like it when the form an argument takes reinforces its content, even though it can sometimes seem like a flashy trick—which brings us back to the question of how calculation and spontaneity play into the perception of sincerity. Should academics work like Daniel Johnston, whose mental instablility frees him from the accusation that he is being too calculating in his choice of motifs and topics, and allows us to appreciate them without fretting about how clever Johnston must think he is for coming up with them? (Kugelmass seems to argue that just as we don’t discredit Johnston for logical inconsistency, heterodox use of tropes or choosing ideas that don’t entirely cohere, so we should not dismiss theory for similar sins but seize such criticism as opportunity for clarification. That he can imagine a comparison between what he does and the art Johnston makes implies an equation of criticism with art itself, another can of worms.) I found Kugelmass’s conclusion a bit unhelpful: “As somebody who does theory, I’m obliged to respond that the success of the performance is the truth of the author’s faith.” But what about when the success is being measured in terms of how truthful it seems? The nature of the problem is that we have a hard time separating success from the good or bad faith of the performer—this has been true since moral virtue became a spectator sport in the 18th century. Maybe I’m misunderstanding.


Something other than the ideas themselves always seem to be at stake in discussions of capital-T theory, namely what it is that humanities study is supposed to accomplish. Upon coming across an lit-crit article that foregrounds “trendy” social or literary theory, some reactionaries (me included, at times) assume that it has been forced in to show what a smarty-pants the author thinks he is, that it is not organic to the argument, and thus the writer is making a “bad-faith” argument and is engaged in an intellectual exercise rather than a sincere, impassioned argument. But trying to assess how organic the rhetorical elements of an argument are seems impossible to determine, if not beside the point—it’s applying a piece of critical dogma (literary works should be unified and “organic”; evaulating organic beauty is what we should do in English class) to something it’s not equipped to process. If that line of attack seems too facile, a skeptic will perhaps provoke a definitional skirmish (e.g. what “real” feminism is, what counts as a novel, when the consumer revolution really occurred, etc.) that is less about the subject of the paper than it is about policing academic turf and perpetuating the professional viability of a particular interpretive approach. Perhaps the scariest thing that every graduate student in literature must confront is that, given how subjective the parameters and goals of the field are, every disagreement can be seen as a kind of ego-bruising, academic turf war—how one continues to fight the good fight after having stared into that abyss is the mystery that separates PhDs from ABDs.


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Thursday, Feb 8, 2007

In what’s already become a blog favorite, our dear friends at the RIAA seem to have flunked math and economics when they went to school, basically arguing that we the public should be grateful to the major labels for offering CD’s so cheaply- they say that in fact, CD’s should cost much more than they do now.  The problem with that is that actual facts don’t back that up: they’re not fooling anyone and basically, they’re just showing how out of touch they remain with the market.  Rather than taking the time here to blow holes into another specious argument from the RIAA, the good folks at Techdirt have done a fine job documenting all the falsehoods there.  One interesting thing I notice about the original RIAA article is that it’s from 2003 and if you go to the rest of their “Must Reads” section, nothing is updated after that year- it’s only appropriate since their thinking is always years behind the present-day reality anyway…


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Thursday, Feb 8, 2007
by PopMatters Staff
Peter Bjorn and John

Peter Bjorn and John


Peter Bjorn and John
Let’s Call It Off (Single Mix) [MP3]
PopMatters review coming tomorrow on this great release… stay tuned.


Loney, Dear
I Am John [MP3]


Busdriver
Less Yes’s. More No’s. [MP3]


The Stooges
My Idea of Fun [MP3]


The Postmarks
Goodbye [MP3]


Secret Mommy
Kool Aid River [MP3]


Future of the Left
Fingers Become Thumbs [MP3]


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Wednesday, Feb 7, 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: Producer Harry Novak moves flesh out of the nudist camp and into the realm of mainstream comedy.

Kiss Me Quick



During the late 50s and early 60s, nudity was forbidden on American movie screens. The Hays Code, an offshoot of the MPAA’s battle with trade unions over how best to manage Hollywood’s talent, had set up strict limitations on what could and could not be shown in the country’s theaters. Along with the typical strictures – hardcore sex, extreme violence, etc. – former Postmaster Will Hayes and his confab of censors took the notions of motion picture morality to ridiculous extremes. Couples could not be shown sleeping in the same bed. Illegal drug use of any type could not be shown. And most importantly, the exposing of the body – specifically, the FEMALE body – could not be featured. To challenge these or any other “indecency” determination was to run the risk of being blacklisted…or even worse.


Of course, there were those in the cinematic underground who made their living attacking these Puritanical pronouncements. The pornographers, the makers of stag and smoker reels who worked in shady back alleys far off the path of legitimacy, taunted the treatment of taboo material at the hand of Hays, though they never really considered themselves part of mainstream moviemaking. And since the MPAA more or less buttered their daily bread, the conventional artists of Hollywood gladly accepted the rules and went about their sexually illogical business. But those looking for a compromise between vice and va-va-va voom wanted a way to show the human body and not end up on a wrong side of the celluloid – or the law. For these pioneers, there had to be an answer to the perception of skin as indignity.


Said solution came in the package of the nudist camp film. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling which made it clear that nudity, by its very nature, was not inherently pornographic (especially when it was featured as part of a “medical or health” ideal), members of the exploitation racket hit upon a novel inspiration. Since nudist camps were considered private spas for wellbeing and fitness, abiding by principles proposed by their European medical counterparts, a nice fat fleshly loophole was discovered. Filmmakers flocked to the nation’s sun worshipper facilities, bringing with them willing models, mediocre storylines, and more than enough ‘exposable’ film. Before long, the circuit was overloaded with scantily clad volleyball players and shuffleboard sharks, each one sporting a carefully positioned towel or accessory (to blot out the still scandalous groin area).


It wasn’t long before the novelty of nudity set within an amiable, outdoorsy location – along with the obvious dichotomy between the professional models and the rather wrinkled, sometimes repugnant actual nudists – took a toll on the rapidly fading nudism fad. If the financial aspect of flesh was going to prosper, someone had to move it into a whole new realm. Luckily, producer Harry Novak knew just what to do. Recognizing that horror films held as much sway over the drive-in crowd as the suggestion of sin, he decided to combine the two. Even better, he would employ comedy as part of his ploy to avoid suspicion and keep his efforts from raising the reservations of the nation’s ethical watchdogs.


Thus the nudie was born, a combination of vaudeville level humor and burlesque oriented bodkin bearing. Though others had employed a similar stance within this new found gimmick guided gratuity – such surreal set-ups as magic cameras that saw its subject naked, special glasses that provided a similar scintillating view, etc. – Kiss Me Quick remains a milestone, since it pushed the limits of lewdness while simultaneously showing that there was nothing really ‘dirty’ about ladies bouncing around, bare-assed. Employing exploitation expert Bethel Buckalew (under his ‘Peter Perry’ nom de plume) and casting strippers from LA’s best nightclubs, the result was a sparkling slap in the face for those who felt nudity was naughty, or worst still, personally depraved.


The storyline was, by nature, desperately simple. In a lonely cardboard cutout of a castle, during a strobe light storm, Dr. Breedlove (actor Max Gardens in a bad fake nose, eyeliner pencil wrinkles, and hip John Lennon granny glasses) attempts to perfect his Sex Fizz, giving portions to his Sex Bombs in order to get them gyrating and undulating. Enter Sterilox (actor Frank A. Coe doing an impression of Stan Laurel on Quaaludes), an alien from the planet Droopeter in the Buttless Galaxy, who engages the doctor in a quest for the perfect female specimen. After giving the Sex Bombs (Boobra, Barebra, and Hotty Totty – otherwise known as Natasha, Bibi, and Claudia Banks) a sip of his Fizz, they begin a wigged out dance to some rather scathing proto-punk surf rock music.


Nonplused, Sterilox asks to see more women, and Dr. Breedlove cheerfully agrees by switching on his Closed Circuit Television Tom Peeper Device. We are then treated to 66 minutes of women undressing, undressed, and cavorting in exercise rooms and swimming pools, all the while making sure that their best features are front and center. Frankenstein, Dracula, and a strange Grand-Mummy kind of thing round out the cast in a nod to the time period (‘64 was a huge year for movie monsters in US popular culture). In between the men’s magazine style sequences, incredibly bad jokes are delivered by professional pratfallers who, in essence, should know better.


Devoid of anything remotely disgusting, and barely reaching the heavy breathing level of vulgarity, what we have here is an extended Burly-Q act made even more memorable by the outrageous acting and backdrop. Buckalew, who would go on to work with Novak on several sensational skin flicks including The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet and The Dirty Mind of Young Sally, does a brilliant job of staging the nakedness, using an unusual approach to his considered camerawork. During the Sex Bombs marvelous dance numbers, he simply sets up the lens and lets the ladies shimmy and shake. Occasionally, he will move in to get a close-up of a fawning face or wide-eyed gaze. But mostly, it’s point and shoot time.


Then there are moments where, in a more private setting, he will let the viewfinder slowly pan up and down a gyrating lass, developing a kind of carnal intimacy that XXX movies would learn to utilize – and abuse - a decade later. It’s fair to say that the level of wit, with its T&A tendency toward the tawdry and tasteless would make grade-schoolers wince in acknowledged juvenilia. In addition, if you’re interested in something beyond exposed breasts and retarded sexual references, Kiss Me Quick fails to deliver much of anything else. But as a monument to the moment when filmmakers found the chutzpah to challenge the wildly unconstitutional claims that kept movies in the decency Dark Ages for several decades, Harry Novak’s horror hijinx were instrumental in paving the way for greater cinematic openness. In essence, he moved nudity out of the camp and into the realm of ordinary comedy. As entertaining as Kiss Me Quick remains, its industry significance cannot be understated. Indeed, it was monsters that helped make nakedness a non-issue for the grindhouse gang. 


 


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