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Thursday, Apr 5, 2007

Vivien Goldman is quite a restless soul.  In addition to being an author (including the recent Book of Exodus about Bob Marley’s classic album), musician (who’s recently re-started up her musical career with kindred spirits Chicks on Speed) and professor at NYU (teaching courses in reggae and punk, where she’s witnessed a lot of first-hand history), she’s now returned to her work as a columnist, schooling virtual students online in a BBC America column.  What I want to know now is what ISN’T she doing in the music realm?  All that’s left is for her to become a Jay Z-like mogul and I wouldn’t bet against her getting there someday.


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Wednesday, Apr 4, 2007

As part of SE&L’s tribute to the late Bob Clark, we republish this career overview piece from December 2006.



If it were possible for one filmmaker to represent both the best and the worst that film has to offer, if one director can be both an artist and a hack, brilliant and unbelievably bad, that man would be Bob Clark. For nearly four decades, this amiable auteur (or faux-teur, depending on your interpretation of his canon) has made both exemplary examples of cinematic excellent and movies so mind-bogglingly poor that Ed Wood and Dr. Uwe Boll should sue for bad film copyright infringement. It’s an interesting dynamic to consider, especially if you believe in the notion that talent trumps ancillary elements like acting, scripting and viability of material. Even in the course of his stumbles, Steven Spielberg’s unmistakable style notoriously shows through. But in Clark’s case, his efforts are like motion picture multiple personality disorder. You never know which version of the man - talented or intolerable – you’re going to get.


So, the real issue becomes - is Clark a good filmmaker occasionally falling into an abyss of artistic atrocity, or a major league motion picture bungler who turns luckily lucid on occasion. It’s a comparison that’s fraught with several sizable creative caveats. You see, aside from his 1983 take of Jean Shepherd’s hilarious short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (reconfigured and retitled A Christmas Story), Clark’s recent legacy is overwhelmingly negative, from remarkably mediocre efforts like Turk 182, Now and Forever and It Runs in the Family to out and out outrages like Rhinestone, Loose Cannons, and the squalid Baby Geniuses films. There’s also the belief of time tempering critical consideration – both pro and con. Clark’s Porky’s, seen by many as a likeable lowbrow coming of age comedy upon its initial release (1982) now gets mentioned along with other known examples of excrement like The Karate Dog. On the opposite end, a one off exploitation effort like She-Man (1967) has found a new life (and respect) thanks to grindhouse preservationists Something Weird Video.


Black Christmas is a perfect example of this two-pronged dilemma. In 1974, no one was quite ready for a holiday-themed slasher film where an unseen killer stalks and slays a group of sorority girls, all the while spewing insane, schizophrenic ramblings. Dark, sinister and incredibly disturbed, Clark’s Christmas remains the natural link between Michael and Roberta Findlay’s slice and dice sex films (highlighted by the fabulous Flesh trilogy) and John Carpenter’s genre rejuvenating Halloween. Yet thanks to a marketing campaign that made the movie look like a blasphemous spree-killing First Noel sleazefest (the narrative occurs over the holiday season, but that’s where the Yuletide significance ends) and the lack of significant star power (John Saxon and Margot Kidder where the film’s known names), Christmas came and went without much more consideration.


Now, three decades later, it is finally acknowledged as a pure post-modern masterpiece, a weird and wicked exercise in terror by a man who (believe it or not) made his initial cinematic splash in the horror genre. Unlike the hippies vs. zombies zip of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, or the Monkey’s Paw via Vietnam thrills of Deathdream, Clark’s clever Xmas creature feature fascinates the notoriously picky macabre fan because of everything it fails to do. After decades under the splatter spell of Freddy, Jason, Michael and others, it’s hard to imagine this sort of film without an identifiable killer at the center of the story. But Clark purposefully eschews showing us “Billy”, the babbling bad guy with no internal monologue whatsoever. Using an inventive, first-person POV whenever Bill is up to his life-taking tricks, the director keeps his villain invisible. All we see – or better yet, hear – are the horrific imaginary confrontations occurring in Billy’s head. Sometimes spoken out loud (in truly terrifying obscene phone calls to the sorority girls) and sometimes reserved for our killer’s demented thoughts, there is more inherent fear in this aspect of the film than in a dozen, derivative deaths.


But Clark doesn’t stop there. By providing no clear motive or connect to the victims, and never resolving the issue of identity, even at the end, Black Christmas balks at being an open and shut scare film. Instead, it uses the purposeful happenstance of Billy’s “arrival” at the sorority (it is just a random place to hide from a previous, perverted crime) and the indiscriminate way in which life is tripped up and taken to deliver unheard of suspense in a mid-70s movie. In many ways, Christmas stands right along side such well-known terror titles as The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Carpenter’s Hitchcock homage. Yet because of his incredibly uneven track record, Clark and Black Christmas can’t get the respect they deserve. Instead, a seemingly unending stream of subpar efforts blot out the occasional positives in the man’s varied oeuvre.


Indeed, just like a massive pendulum, Clark’s critical favor always seems to do a deserved about face, moving from ‘easily celebrated’ to ‘undeniably shitty’. Loose Cannons illustrates just how low his reputation can go. Much worse than the Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton pariah Rhinestone (which could have never worked, considering the casting and the concept – singer must turn cabby into crooner) and easily usurping the intelligent infant idiocy of the Baby Geniuses films, Cannons is cause for concern from the minute the movie announces its premise. In this dim crime comedy, Hitler made a porn film and it has fallen into the hands of some underground nogoodnicks. Two detectives – Gene Hackman and Dan Ackryroyd - must buddy up and figure out the shady pseudo-pornographic doings before the 90 minute running time expires. Oh, and Danny boy suffers from a surreal psychological disorder which causes him to impersonate famous characters from cartoons and TV shows. 


Yes, it’s as baffling - and BAD - as it sounds, which is shocking when you consider that the screenplay was written by the Mathesons – famed father Richard (I am Legend) and his son Richard Christian. Obviously formulated as a starring vehicle for the rapidly receding power of the former SNLer, Cannons can’t decide if its plot, or its peculiar idea of comedy (Ackryroyd ad-libbing and riffing through a painful parade of “alternate” personalities) is its most important element. It’s literally a movie making up its cinematic rules as it goes along. Oscar winner Hackman seems flummoxed by everything around him, from Danny’s vile voices to Dom Deluise as the most sexually suspect flesh peddler in the entire adult industry. Even worse, the whole Fuhrer f*ck film angle is so shockingly out of character for the narrative – Cannon‘s constantly positions itself as a simple cop/buddy actioner – that its justifiably jarring, and along with the uncompromising amount of onscreen violence, Clark seems to forget the first rule of film – consistent tone is everything.


In fact, that appears to be the problem with many of the man’s movies. When a supposed family film about super smart bratlings hangs the majority of its so-called humor on the suggestion of severe child endangerment, when the schmaltz of a heavyweight Hollywood melodrama – in this case, the legendary Jack Lemmon weeper Tribute – gets lost in a journeymen like lack of staging and emotional substance, overall atmosphere begins messing with your movie. In something like Deathdream, or Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Clark finds ways to invest his fear with infrequent funny stuff, yet he never once undermines the general mood. But in uneven efforts like From the Hip or the Porky’s films, Clark’s concept of continuity appears to be set on ‘random’. He will introduce uncomfortable sexuality one moment, absolutely uncalled-for slapstick another.


Yet none of this addresses the question of why Clark’s career is so sporadic. It doesn’t explain Black Christmas (or his sensational Sherlock Holmes effort, Murder by Decree), or unravel the mysteries of Rhinestone‘s repugnance. It would be easy to say that Clark is a “personal” filmmaker and be done with it, suggesting that he succeeds when he’s personally interested in a project, and tapers off when his dedication wanes. Maybe there is something to the whole ‘source material’ argument. After all, how could a movie about Nazi nudie films possibly be good? Truth be told, when one pays close attention to Clark’s career, he really is just a lucky stiff whose many missteps fail to fully destroy his irregular reputation. Heck, even A Christmas Story was initially dismissed as a soft, silly seasonal effort and more or less failed at the box office. It took a few years away from the spotlight, and millions of reruns on Ted Turner’s cable networks, to reestablish the film’s family classic stance.


What’s clear from all this filmic archeology is that Bob Clark makes bad movies. His 40 years in the business are riddled with them. Fortunately, he’s also delivered a couple of major (and minor) masterworks. Instead of viewing him like a series of peaks and valleys, it’s best to imagine him as lying in an endless ravine of rot, floundering around like a wayward cinematic soul, only capable of occasionally seeing the light of legitimacy. Time will not rescue him. It is hard to imagine that, decades from now, people will be comparing Loose Cannons or Baby Geniuses to other important artifacts. In fact, it’s safe to say that Clark will be less heralded, and more hated, for his numerous works of noxious nausea. But oh those amazing mountains. It is clear that many a genre maven would gladly trade a gargantuan gorge of Porky’s just to view the summit of something like Black Christmas one more time. Perhaps this justifies Clark’s entertainment existence. Or maybe it makes it that much more confusing. One thing’s for sure – such a puzzling quandary will definitely be Bob Clark’s true lasting legacy.


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Wednesday, Apr 4, 2007

No doubt that it’s big news when one of the last majors standing (EMI) gets in bed with Steve Jobs and friends to provide DRM-free music.  On the surface, this seems to be the breakthrough in onlinie music that Jobs had been asking for but the devil is in the details.


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Wednesday, Apr 4, 2007

Time magazine recently conducted a poll that asked prospective voters what candidate would make the best high school principal; who’d be a better babysitter; and even, which one they’d like to see on the reality TV show Dancing with the Stars. I’m sure there is some cultural significance attached to these questions; some sociological statement as to what character traits we’d like to see in our leaders and what images we project onto them. I am also sure that some writer, with a greater intellect, will pick apart these polls to summarize what effect these unorthodox perceptions will have on the presidential race. This, however, is not what I will attempt to do here. This column will overcome the trivial and meaningless banter that the media focus on during an elongated presidential contest and attempt to focus on the issues at hand.

There are a lot of so-called “second tier” candidates who don’t get the media coverage they need or deserve. This is mainly due to their lack of fundraising capacities. (Senator Hillary Clinton has reportedly added $26 million to her presidential war chest.) Without a significant bankroll, these “second tier” candidates are written off by the major media players as irrelevant because they aren’t able to saturate the public with advertising in early primary states.


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Tuesday, Apr 3, 2007


At a recent shareholders meeting, current President and CEO of the Walt Disney Compnay, Bob Iger, dared suggest what many film fans have long considered impossible. Though no specific plans were announced, the House of Mouse big wig seemed to indicate that after a long stay in unacceptable entertainment exile, 1946’s live action fantasy feature Song of the South MAY finally see a DVD release. Amid much hemming and a great deal of hawing, Iger stated that “the question of ‘Song of the South’ comes up periodically, in fact it was raised at last year’s annual meeting. And since that time, we’ve decided to take a look at it again because we’ve had numerous requests about bringing it out.” But the product path is not cleared just yet. “Our concern was that a film that was made so many decades ago being brought out today perhaps could be either misinterpreted”, he continued, “or that it would be somewhat challenging in terms of providing the appropriate context.”


For those unfamiliar with the pro-PC stink surrounding the film (even though it’s been shown as part of the standard Disney re-release theatrical schedule in 1956, 1972, 1980 and 1986), the main complaint stems from something that stains most pre-‘60s cinema – obvious awkward racial stereotyping. At the center of the narrative is kindly literary figure Uncle Remus, a happy go lucky slave seemingly oblivious to life as part of his Master’s post-War plantation. He regales the coy white children of the house with his mischievous tales of Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Rabbit. Using their patented pen and ink skills, Uncle Walt’s animators created a kind of seamless branching between the character of Remus (played by James Baskett) and the cartoon trickster tales he spun. With the entire feel good enterprise wrapped up in an Oscar winning tune (the immortal “Zip-Pa-Dee-Do-Dah!”) Song of the South appears innocent enough.


But once you look below the surface and examine all aspects of the South story, you begin to see why the film remains missing in action. To begin with, the Remus books, written by post-Reconstruction journalist Joel Chandler Harris, have not held up over time. Using a horribly inappropriate dialect slang to realize his narration, and portraying slavery as almost idyllic, Harris’ tomes suffer from good intentions couched in basic bad judgment trappings. No one is suggesting that the actual plotlines he presented are racist – indeed, like all good fables, they offer up life lessons that little ones can relate to and appreciate. Yet it’s the exterior aspects of the Remus issue that taint and trump the inner motives. While many can forgive some of the more misguided ideas, there is an overriding feeling of frivolity that just doesn’t mix with American’s historically harmful treatment of minorities.


The film doesn’t lessen the impact. In fact, many argue that by visualizing the patronizing ‘pie in the sky’ ideal of Remus’ reality, what could be almost forgiven on the printed page becomes undeniable in Technicolor reality. Critics championed Baskett’s portrayal, claiming he brought humanity and dignity to a role that required very little of same. And since Disney was creating this during Hollywood’s shameful treatment towards people of color, many appreciated the fact that Remus wasn’t copying the “Stepin Fetchit” style of slow, lumbering black man. Still, nothing can remove the humilation associated with having a subservient African American character kowtowing to the whims of some spoiled little white children (there’s even a token slave child just to maintain some kind of corrupt cinematic balance).


It’s clear then where the problems lie. In the 60 years since Walt Disney envisioned bringing Harris’ heartwarming tales to the silver screen, race has become a solid social undercurrent in the United States. Where once it was an unspoken scourge, a misguided communal corruption that found no problem in separating individuals (and the services to same) based on the color of their skin, it’s now a given facet of any interpersonal interaction. For as many strides that have been made to equalize the scales, to take ethnicity out of the equation and keep bias against individuals based solely on their own actions/attitudes, we still live in highly prejudicial times. No matter the positives achieved during the ‘60s, or the setbacks suffered in the ‘80s, one cannot deny that race remains a weeping wound on the American dream.


So any film that wants to champion a perplexing pitch of revisionist history should definitely be discussed before returning to the cultural marketplace of ideas. But there seems to be a higher benchmark towards potential family fare than entertainment geared more toward adults. For the longest time, film fans and cinematic scholars feared that 1936’s Green Pastures would never see an official home video release. Based on a novel by Roark Bradford (another 19th Century Southerner) with the troubling title Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun’, and adapted for stage by another white man, Mark Connelly, this all black cast retelling of the Old Testament was long considered unreleaseable. For starters, the Good Book narrative featured the broadest ethnic archetypes around, with various characters called “shiftless”, “trifling” and “wicked”. God is seen as serene and subjugated, while his angels speak in jargon-based buffoonery that saps them of all pride.


But perhaps the worst part of the production is the over reliance on so-called modern euphemisms – in essence, obvious intolerant depictions of African American traditions and customs as a short cut to three dimensional characterization. In heaven, every day is a fish fry, and watermelon is plentiful. On earth, juke joints become the primary focal points and Biblical figures like Noah and Moses are taunted by jive spewing no-accounts with loose dice, switchblades and ever present bottles of liquor by their side. For all of Remus’ mindless ‘Massa’ merriment, Green Pastures is nothing short of a primer on prejudice. So how did Warner Brothers finally manage a recent DVD release with all this potential controversy in play? Why, they let the film speak for itself, and offered up clear scholarly support for the narratives many positives and negatives via an in-depth audio commentary


Disney’s movie doesn’t have such luxuries. You see, at its core, Green Pastures is a film about faith. It wants to depict matters of the soul in ways that will emphasize and support the way religion and belief uplifts and binds us. No matter how stupefyingly stereotypical they may seem, the depictions of the Archangel Gabriel and ‘Da Lawd’ himself are housed in an undeniable coating of spiritual joy. They are so open and genuine with their conviction, so single minded and celebratory in the devotion, that one cannot help but feel their strength. Such a hefty foundation helps overcome many of the movie’s more troubling elements, and allows stateliness and solemnity to trump intolerance again and again.


Song of the South seems incapable of this kind of subtext. Instead, it flounders amid a full blown fantasy illustration of Antebellum benefice. It’s hard to imagine times being this good for any black man before or after the Civil War, but Remus is shown as carefree and oblivious to any sort of suffering. True, this could form the basis of an argument that, just like Green Pastures, Song of the South exists in a world wholly its own, made up and modified to look like reality – well, the majority’s version of the real world. But unlike Gone with the Wind, which stretches its Hollywood classicism to legitimate breaking points, or Birth of a Nation, which is significantly sunk by its mean-spirited minstrel show ideals (not to mention the pro Klu Klux Klan conceits), Song of the South wants to be forgiven for its flagrant disregard for the facts. In fact, it asks that innocence be substituted for all the clear contextual problems.


The most compelling argument for maintaining the reissue boycott however centers on the status of video – and now DVD – in the lives of children. When Disney discovered that parents would pay through the teeth to provide their wee ones with a non-stop supply of surrogate babysitter fodder, they marched out every title in their canon, purchased a few more to continue the commercialization, and even went so far as to draft new direct to market merchandise. While the bottom line was served and served well, the repercussions of such a decision were never questioned. Neither was the impact all this unattended viewing was having on pre-adolescent brains. It is clear that, without a host of supplementary support, Song of the South could cause impressionable minds to become confused about race. Since parents rarely take the lead in educating their kids, Uncle Walt’s view of slavery would have to suffice.


That being said, Song of the South will indeed be released on DVD one day – if not now, definitely within the foreseeable future. There is too much money at stake, and if the House of Mouse can find the proper presentation, and select the right explanatory bonus features, the initial uproar will be masked by the sound of ringing cash registers. There will always be people who automatically feel disrespected and/or demeaned by the kind of craven characterization offered in this film, and they have an absolute right to complain. For almost a full century, Tinsel Town treated minorities like laughing stocks in a crass Caucasian view of acceptability. But other studios have found a way to avoid the stigma while standing by their less than likeable output. Disney’s dilemma is a little deeper though. No matter how many apologetic bells and whistles they surround it with, Song of the South still carries a disturbing disrespect that’s hard to hide.


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