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Friday, Jan 12, 2007


By 1969, the career of legendary director John Huston was in an unprecedented slump. Since 1964’s Night of the Iguana, he found his name attached to one misguided project after another (The Bible, Casino Royale, A Walk with Love and Death) and it appeared the glory days of his special cinematic gifts were all but gone. But a crucial thing happened along the way to obscurity. Huston vowed to challenge himself, work through the creative drought, and attack projects of varying styles and types, hoping to freshen what had seemingly become stale and stalwart. While he would again find another zenith of sorts in his 1975 adventure The Man Who Would Be King, the Me Decade started out promising for the larger than life director. He followed the current “independent” movement, then in its infancy, with a small, near perfect look at losers at the very outskirts of social, emotional, and physical poverty. The remarkable Fat City was the unpolished and yet spectacular result of an old fashioned Hollywood filmmaker’s newfound experimentalism. Based on Leonard Gardner’s powerful novel of the same name, the film marked a new era in Huston’s career as the former studio player crafted a motion picture that matched nicely with the early ‘70s filmmaking renaissance, when writers and directors conceived cinema as art, not just a profit making business enterprise.


A simple character study of drunks and bums, the naïve and the jaded in personal freefall, Fat City is a film about desperation, about the lengths people will go (and the abuse they will foist upon themselves and others) in the mad desire to break out from the shackles of skid row reality. A small picture in subject but massive in thematic resonance, Fat City explores that lowest of social subsections, visiting (and then staying far beyond) the “wrong side of the tracks” to dwell in the sphere of the truly desolate and downtrodden. This is not a film of sudden epiphanies or life affirming revelations. There is no “big fight” at the end. True, there is a contest between the main character and a washed-up Mexican boxer, a final shot at personal salvation for the more or less useless hero. But this is not Rocky. There is no bag of riches or life-altering resolution at the final sounding of the bell. There is hardly even redemption. Fat City shows us that, even in victory there is potential defeat and that sometimes, in the most horrid and painful of losses, a little human dignity can still be salvaged. The people living on the edge of society aren’t just going through the motions; they are being moved, as life size game pieces, in God’s own private joke game of Life. Unfortunately, they never seem to come up winners.


The themes of rehabilitation and destiny play a huge role in Fat City. Each character at the beginning of the film has gone to seed in some manner or another. Tully is broken, a horrible lush who still carries the body of a prizefighter, if not the mental concentration. Ernie is a neophyte, an untested specimen in the arena of boxing, love and life. Oma is emotionally and mentally void, using alcohol as a means of killing what little feeling and grasp on reality she has left. And while seemingly well adjusted, Ruben too is dispirited, trading on the bodies and brainlessness of his fighters for a few dollars and the dream of the big time. Destiny is always at odds with the players in Fat City. From how they live to the means of pursuing their dreams, the social circumstances preordain their choices, seeming always to lead to failure and unhappiness. The characters are fated to the fringe, a place where righteousness seldom stops to roost. In their Fat City, a date with a naïve virgin spills into a legal and biological arrangement for life; the failure to follow a potentially profitable fighter to Panama means a trip back to the boondocks for the manager and the bottom of a beer barrel for his could-have-been-champion charge; and the personal desire to interact with another, similar minded and mixed drink companion leads to homelessness and heartache. Try as they might, Dame Fortune has passed over the denizens of Fat City, perhaps because even on her own ethereal level, she too can find no hope for them.


This is truly an actor’s movie, and as for the performances, they are flawless. Stacey Keach doesn’t “play” Billy Tully so much as he embodies him, transforming his posture and mannerisms into a rye soaked, borderline punch-drunk lowlife whose will to live (and die) comes from whiskey that all but shatters his simple ideals. Keach has never been a superstar, but it’s not for lack of talent. His Tully is a fully realized icon, a genuine lost soul with the physical stamina to work the migrant vegetable circuit but the emotional scars and damage to dissolve into a stupor as well. He is filled with conflicting desires but seems destined to slip into a fifth of forgetfulness rather than do anything of substance about them. It is a great acting accomplishment, as is Jeff Bridges’ turn as the damned Ernie. In this young idealist you can see how Tully came to this point in his life, and why Ernie seems meant for the same. Not so much a character as a dramatic straight man to the despondency and depravity around him, there is a naïve charm and wistful acceptance in Bridges’ demeanor, using his inexperience and vitality to underwrite a slow walk into the fetid underbelly of life. His distance and thoughtfulness allows the audience to enter and interpret the world that he functions within. While not as showy as the other roles in the film, Bridges still captivates the screen with his interpretation of the soon to be walking wounded.


But at the core of Fat City are two performances, wildly dissimilar in tone but equally powerful and telling in their framing of the story. Anyone who remembers the character of Coach from Cheers will be amazed by the stellar work of Nicholas Colasanto as Ruben, Tully’s onetime (and Ernie’s current) boxing manager. An old time pugilist who wears every fight he’s ever had or been involved in on his open, broken face, Ruben is a realist, the epitome of a diehard, even-as-it-is-slowly-killing-you spirit of those scrapping at the very bottom. Crazily optimistic and trying not to give in to the bleakness and misery of his surroundings, Ruben is convinced that he is just one fighter away from success, but also resigned to make his chump change off the sweat and blood of inexperienced street scufflers willing to sacrifice their bodies for a few dollars. On the opposite end of the sullen spectrum is the amazing work of Academy Award nominee Suzanne Tyrrell (for her role here) as the perpetually pickled Oma. Drunken to the point of incoherence and damaged to almost physical immobility, many may find Tyrrell’s manner over the top and shrill. But in reality, she is phenomenal. Bitter and funny, she paints a portrait of a woman so lost in liquor and its depressive properties (both emotional and chemical) that any doorway out has long since closed. For now she is left abandoned and misplaced in her own private universe, complete with its own moral codes, lunatic logic, and social graces. Oma represents the very bottom, the dead end to where all the characters are potentially headed. Tyrrell’s bravery in making it a very unpleasant, painful place to experience deserves as much credit and recognition as can be given.


While all this may seem too down and out to be entertaining, it’s a credit to Huston’s long perfected directing and narrative style that the film ends up saying something positive, even as it wallows in the seemingly miserable lives of these characters. Ruben is hope. Or at least help. Oma is gloom. In between are Billy and Ernie. Ernie may be good enough to make a go of boxing, even if with Ruben he can only rise to the level of street hustling fights in off circuit venues. Billy is transfixed by Oma, seeing her as a potential drink and soul mate. Until they move in together, that is, and her near infantile dependency loses its charm and becomes a noose. Billy doesn’t want to end up pouring his existence out of a wine jug. But in a stunning shot at the very end of the movie, he has a moment of clarity, a lucid frame in his downward life spiral that indicates exactly where he is and where he will be the rest of his life. Leave it to the old pro Huston to constantly manufacture magic movie moments like that, and always find the proper tone, setting, and performance to underline his themes. From the opening moments where we fly over the urban renovations of the San Francisco/California scenery and slowly arrive in the tenements of Stockton, we understand that we are in the hands of a brilliant, classic filmmaker. Huston explores the landscape, both inner and outer, in Fat City and creates a spellbinding, exceptional motion picture, and a near timeless classic.


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Friday, Jan 12, 2007

In Rob Walker’s article in last Sunday’s NYT Magazine about Freecycle, a Craigslist or Meetup style Internet matching service designed to help you give away stuff you want to get rid of, founder Deron Beal suggests that his organization has been successful because the sacrifice-free generosity it enables makes people feel good.


Whatever attracts people to join, part of what keeps them involved, Beal says, is something they probably didn’t expect: the moment when someone thanks you backward and forward for giving him something you planned to throw away. “There’s a sort of paradigm shift in your brain: ‘Wow, that feels really good,’ ” Beal says. “That’s what I think is fueling this absurd amount of growth we’ve had.”



It seems to me the analysis of this could be pushed a little further. Sure, it’s great to earn approbation for being charitable simply by redirecting your trash pickup. And it’s pleasing to simplify and streamline your belongings, something that can be surprisingly hard to do because of the reponsibility we may feel toward what we buy. Generally we think we are buying stuff with some use in mind, even though the actual motives have more to do with indulging some fantasy about who we want to become or who we might have been. That fantasy is enacted upon purchase, but the purchased object lingers on even after the fantasy fades, cluttering up our apartments—and our consciousness, when that fantasy curdles into disillusionment and we are embarrassed or taunted by what we wished we were or what the object reminds us we are not. It sits waiting to be use in the way we promised ourselves would when we bought it. My Russian-English dictionary, for instance, always annoys me with how quickly I gave up on learning Russian. But I don’t want to throw it away—not only will that seem a waste in the abstract, but it’s an admission of surrender. So I hang on to it, refusing to give up on the utility still entombed within it. That utility, which was the alibi for indulging the fantasy, becomes a trap until we can find some way of dissipating it.


One way is to find some other person to assume that burden, who by taking the object from you is making their own promise to use it in the way you couldn’t. This salvages the whole project, allowing you to part with the good without admitting to yourself complete failure. You’ve just changed one fantasy about yourself (whatever dream was evoked by the object) for another (the pleasure of being a benevolent gift-giver, the pleasure of feeling useful), and it’s no longer your fault if the thing is never really used for its ostensible purpose. Giving things away allows us to use them up without having to consume them in the way they are intended to be used. I use up the squash racket not by playing squash and wearing it out but by giving it to a stranger who now is making an implicit promise to play squash, taking me off the hook. So the gift is not as free as it may seem, it comes with the hidden burden of abandoned dreams and the duty to make good on those dreams for someone else as well as yourself. So the goods exchanged through Freecycle threaten to become freighted with serial failures, all the previous owner’s as well as your incipient own. But this probably doesn’t happen—giving something away for free seems to remove that thing from the money-for-pleasure cycle that renders the abstract notion of utility seem so important. The gesture, the effort to find a home for something rather than merely trash it, springs you from the trap, and that, I think, explains the unexpected elation Freecyclers feel.


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Friday, Jan 12, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

My Teenage Stride
To Live and Die in the Airport Lounge [MP3]
Terror Bends [MP3]


“At just under 40 minutes, Ears Like Golden Bats gathers a collection of captivation guitar pop gems that manage to combine fatalism with not-yet-defeated hope, which seems to be an inherent quality of many of Smith’s compositions. The references to Phil Spector, the Jesus & Mary Chain, and Television Personalities are still present in well-crafted and immediate tracks like “We’ll Meet at Emily’s”, “That Should Stand for Something”, and “Terror Bands”. They’re hook-laden songs that will have you humming all day long—you might clap your hands or snap your fingers too. Songs like “Reversal” or “Genie of New Jersey” and “To Live and Die in the Airport Lounge” expand on those influences, sounding more atmospheric, reminiscent of the Chills and the pop side of John Cale and Brian Eno.”—Becalmed Records

My Teenage Stride—They Are Alone in Their Principles


Softlightes
Girl Kills Bear (Lo-Fi-Fnk) [MP3]


Softlightes—Heart Made of Sound


Born Ruffians
Hedonistic Me [MP3]


Call Me Lightning
Billion Eyes [MP3]


Aerogramme
Dreams and Bridges [MP3]


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Thursday, Jan 11, 2007


Over the next few weeks, we will be revamping our Friday look at the films found on your premium pay cable channels. Our hope here at SE&L is to search beyond the Saturday night showings that tend to dominate these listings and instead broaden the viewing spectrum to include forgotten titles, recent hits, overlooked classics and big dumb guilty pleasures. With hundreds of offerings spread out over dozens of channels (and feeds), it will be a daunting task, but one we hope allows for more choices, and more films to discuss. As it stands, we stick with our old format this time around. But be on the look out. Over the next installments, SE&L will definitely be shaking things up. For 13 January, here’s what you can look forward to:


HBOFirewall
As if we need proof to be nervous about Harrison Ford taking up the Indiana Jones mantle for a fourth time, the 64 year old’s inert performance in this pedestrian thriller will definitely give Raiders fans a reason to recoil. Borrowing from almost every previous Ford action film, this combination of Jack Ryan, Air Force One, and The Fugitive fails on all levels. It is never very exciting, offers up an illogical narrative, and reduces our star to nothing more than a catalyst for various confrontations and stunt setpieces. Not even capable of being a slight, superficial diversion, director Richard Loncraine, whose previous efforts behind the lens (My House in Umbria, Wimbeldon) show little action acumen, creates a dull, derivative techno mess. (Premieres Saturday 13 January, 8PM EST).


Cinemax16 Blocks
Richard Donner returns to the action category, eight years after the last Lethal Weapon film, and the results are uneven but effective. Bruce Willis is an aging cop set to deliver a key witness (Mos Def) to court. The title indicates the distance he must traverse. Naturally, shadow forces want to silence the stoolie, and our hero ends up caught in a crossfire of competing interest. Once the truth is uncovered, the case becomes even harder for our loyal policeman. Released in March 2006 to little fanfare and mediocre studio support, critics actually enjoyed this return to form for the one time creator of box office blockbusters. Home video – or in this case, the pay cable medium – may be the perfect place for fans to discover this genre gem. (Premieres Saturday 13 January, 10pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzThe Shaggy Dog
That noise you just heard was Tim Allen’s already toilet-bound film career being flushed away for good. With a third sloppy Santa Clause film under his belt (featuring that career-killer Martin Short) and the abominable Zoom barely making a dent in the Summer sweepstakes, this disastrous Disney misstep is the inexplicable icing on the comedian’s cinematic cake. Never the best House of Mouse franchise to begin with, the Shaggy series pushes the boundaries of both believability and likeability. There is just something so surreal about a storyline that has an adult male going canine in order to learn some lame life lessons. Kids may cotton to this cutesy crap, but adults will require instant insulin shots the minute this saccharine slop starts. (Premieres Saturday 13 January, 9pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowtimeFour Brothers
Borrowing more than just a bit from The Sons of Katie Elder, this John Singleton success finds a quartet of divergent siblings seeking justice once their beloved adoptive matriarch is found murdered. Of course, their vigilante style of payback reveals closely held secrets among the four, and that complicates the situation considerably. Though the link to the John Wayne western was downplayed upon initial release (similar to the stance Michael Bay took with the whole Island/Clonus circumstances), Singleton strove to make his gritty urban crime drama different. By focusing on the interaction between the characters, and keeping the action amplified and fierce, he delivered a delightful mainstream hit. While no means a work of art, these Brothers definitely excite as they entertain. (Saturday 13 January, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


ZOMBIES!
For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 12/13 January, an unusual Basil Rathbone/Bela Lugosi/Lon Chaney Jr. effort is highlighted:


The Black Sleep
Hoping to cure his wife’s brain tumor, a mad scientist conspires with a cohort to find victims for his evil surgical experiments.
(2am EST)


Independent Eye
A new year signals a new approach for SE&L‘s weekly venture into deciphering the best that pay television has to offer – at least film wise. Going back to basics, each week, Independent Eye will focus on the films featured on two of cable’s more esoteric movie channels – IFC and Sundance. The top three picks (when available) for each will be discussed, hopefully enlightening you on the cinematic possibilities that exist beyond the standard blockbusters and off title releases. For the second week of 2007, the filmic focus finds:



IFC: The Independent Film Channel


14 January 1:50PM EST – Office Space
Mike Judge’s ode to mindless corporate drones, unnecessary flair, and the joke that is a cubicle-based career arc, deserves its crazy cult status. Find out why.


16 January 9PM EST – Amelie
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s gorgeous little fable about a girl who returns beloved lost objects to the forlorn people they once belonged to is a magical movie experience.


19 January 12AM EST – This Night, I’ll Possess Your Corpse
Hoping to find the perfect bride to bear his son, Zé do Caixão – a.k.a Coffin Joe terrorizes the citizens of a small Brazilian village. A masterpiece of macabre.


The Sundance Channel


17 January 12AM EST – Boom!
The famous Burton/Taylor flop, this reworking of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is a bad movie buff’s dream. Choice cheese indeed.


 


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Thursday, Jan 11, 2007

With the usual grace and modesty that he’s know for during a product roll-out, Steve Jobs wowed the Apple Convention on the West Coast, not to mention the whole tech world with his announcement about the new iPhone that his company’s producing- it’s a phone, blackberry, Net surfer, music player, etc.. all in one device.  He predicted that it would be no less revolutionary that the music player his company came out with in 2001.  Sure Steve…  There’s a lot of problems with that claim though and reasons to believe that it might not be the gadget to end all tech gadgets (which is to say that Apple itself may not have invented its own iPod killer).


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