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Sunday, Jul 22, 2007

Not that they care at all, but I’ve occasionally made jokes at hippie jam bands’ expense—use them as shorthand for lameness in record reviews, for example—and mock their fans as being zealously devoted to something blatantly and intentionally insubstantial, but I’ve started to feel pretty lame myself for doing it. What’s always been plain, what’s almost been the threat that has prompted my mockery perhaps, is that jam bands don’t operate within the parameters of cool and mediated identity that, say, indie rock or mainstream top 40 (which are symbiotic genres) operates in. Jam bands instead earnestly promote communal feeling as a means for transcending individual angst, and as someone with a heaping helping of angst, my instinct is to deride it as phony in a very, very distant echo of the impulse that leads conservatives to denounce socialism as impossibly naive and socialists as unwitting hypocrites embedding all sorts of “perverse incentives” all over the place in the social body.

Even when I was in high school, I think I was a little jealous of the kids who could let it all go and become full-fledged out-of-the-closet Deadheads. I didn’t care much for the music. (I probably like the Dead’s often-aimless roots-rock jams a lot more now, since I don’t care so much about the lyrics meaning anything in particular to me. The Dead makes for good musical wallpaper, somehow less obtrusive than silence.) But the detachment that scene promised was attractive. It wasn’t just that kids who went on Dead tour styled themselves as contemporary gypsies and spent the bulk of their time getting high and brokering small-time drug deals. Romantic as that might have seemed, it was easy for me to imagine the squalor, the venereal disease and the bummed-out bad vibes that went along with all that—I had read “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” after all.

What I envied about the people getting into the Dead in the mid 1980s, right before the band that improbable resurgence from “Touch of Grey,” was that they seemed to escape the suburban condition at one stroke—suddenly their folk culture wasn’t limited to Brady Bunch reruns, fast-food restaurants and Wiffle Ball; suddenly, by rejecting musical variety altogether and eschewing a concern with cool for something I couldn’t even identify at the time but would now tentatively call a feeling for community, their horizons were broader than MTV’s 120 minutes and whatever was being promoted in Rolling Stone. In suburban America, isolation, atomization, sprawl paternalistic safeguards, and unmitigated monotony all contribute to annihilating any sort of community spirit or traditional folk culture that a kid might find himself drawn into involuntarily, as he might in a smaller community with more interconnection among members and more permeable barriers. If you want to participate in anything that crosses generational barriers or looks backward to ethic roots or anything like that in suburbia—a locale that functions to obliterate tradition and foment the belief that every family springs sui generis from the newly raised housing subdivisions—you have to put yourself forward awkwardly, volunteer to get involved in a culture that most of your peers will have rejected in lieu of synthetic pop culture—the glossy world of celebrities and ersatz celebrities like the Real World habitues, of manufactured excitement about performers and films who are famous on an international scale.

This is a bit of a cranky anti-mass-culture argument that people have been making probably since radio was invented, but the densely mediated world suburban kids live in invite them to build identity through an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture (see any Facebook, MySpace, etc. page, with the boilerplate list of interests), and they interact with one another through pop culture references. Friendships struggle to deepen beyond the superficial level of swapping lists and trading the names of things, showing one another objects, posturing or complimenting the other’s posturing. Pop culture invites its adherents to revel in poseurdom, mainly because it celebrates knowing arbitrary things while putting no particular value on actually doing anything.

To recapitulate: growing up suburban seems to orient an isolated, individualistic youth toward pop culture and toward trying to be cool, toward cataloging facts and possessions and trivia rather than developing craft skills and participating in hard-to-find and decidedly uncool communities. Haunted by anomie, such youths feel vaguely discontented, at which point the jam-band scene seems a pretty enticing alternative. With names like the String Cheese Incident and the Disco Biscuits, these groups have obviously left any pretensions of seeming cool far behind. And the community that supports them seem to take all comers at face value, with a minimum of prejudice, as long as they continue to participate and show up at concerts and, at least back in the Dead tour days, hang out in parking lots from city to city. They have to assent to the music but they needn’t necessarily forward an elaborate critique or defense of it—you just have to accept it, the way you’d accept the menu at a vegan restaurant or something—these are the options and these are all you really need.

On the surface, forming communities around nationally-touring bands seems just a radically limited version of using pop culture to articulate a superficial, arbitrary social place for oneself. And maybe that’s all it is. But I’m always wondering if that scene illustrates the difference between pop culture and the folk culture it has occluded since mass-media forms were invented. Pop culture seems always animated by the commercial values that generate it—competition, uncompromised individuality, exploitation, profit, amassing capital (in this case cultural capital of knowing trivia or having huge collections of pop-culture product)—whereas folk culture (the participants in it, not the bands themselves perhaps) seems indifferent to a lot of that, emphasizing instead cooperation and collective experience as being more significant and more constitutive of identity than personal, private experience. This escape from the onus of self is always what makes folk culture seem so alluring—it holds out the promise that you can escape self-consciousness by devoting yourself to something larger. But of course, that sounds a lot like going to church, or joining a cult.

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Saturday, Jul 21, 2007

The monster movie has certainly changed a lot over the last 70 years – especially when it comes to special effects. Where once creatures had to be cast out of clay and maneuvered frame by frame to create a static sense of stop motion, or real live lizards festooned with fake fins were utilized amongst miniaturized backdrops, our current crop of film imagineers can simply call on their computer to create eye-popping examples of otherworldly terror. Jurassic Park more or less proved that such a strategy could result in box office gold, and now Gwoemul (The Host, in English) is aiming for the same dollar-rich demographic. Granted, it’s nothing more than The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms assisted by lots of motherboard manipulation, but it’s a wonderful reminder of the genre’s potential and effectiveness.

After the Han River is polluted by a premeditated chemical spill (thank you very much, United States!), a strange sea creature, about the size of a city bus, starts stalking the sewers (and streets) of Seoul, South Korea. An attack on a riverside retreat affects Park Gang-Du, a lazy freeloader who helps his dad run a local snack stand. In an instant, the slacker’s daughter Hyun-seo is taken, and the rest of the family – including an ex-social activist and a beloved female athlete - are in a panic. They also end up on the run from the law. Seems the beast is considered the “host” for a nasty virus, and a major quarantine is in place. Because of their interaction with the monster, the Parks become wanted fugitives. Things get even more complicated when Gang-Du discovers that Hyun-seo may still be alive. He and his siblings must find her before the Americans use something called “Agent Yellow” to kill the creature – effectively wiping out everything and anyone within close proximity of the bio-weapon’s path.

It’s the set up for a standard search and rescue narrative – something lost having to be regained under the auspices of personal gumption and an impending threat. But because this movie was made in Korea, and not inside Hollywood’s focus group fancying mandates, The Host (new to DVD from Mangnolia Home Entertainment) tends to avoid most of the genre’s obvious pitfalls. Indeed, it generates a great deal more interest in areas your typical studio blockbuster avoids, while sticking rather closely to the formula of your standard Bert I. Gordon ‘beast on the loose’ B-picture. With the added weight of CGI (this movie just would not work with some other kind of F/X) and the excellent use of Seoul’s gleaming post-modern metropolis backdrop, we end up with something unique. While the action/adventure aspects of The Host may seem familiar, it has major distinctions that make it wholly original.

The first is the level of sentiment employed to enhance the storyline. It is manipulation at its most enjoyable – direct, unfettered and completely shameless. When deadbeat daddy Park Gang-Du (actor Kang-ho Song looking like a chunky skate rat) looses his daughter in the opening monster melee, we really feel for him. Similarly, when the rest of the family shows up to share their (and give him) grief, the outpouring of pain is exaggerated and majestic. It is obvious that director Joon-ho Bong is elevating the sequence to increase its comic value, but the performances from his actors really sell a sense of sorrow and sadness. Later on, when Gang-Du learns that his daughter, Hyun-seo, may still be alive, his drive to discover the truth and set things straight carries the film past many of its more problematic points.

All of this is purposefully designed on the director’s part. In a genial and informative commentary included on the DVD, Bong explains that he wanted to intentionally thwart convention, to show the beast early on, to make the family fragile and dysfunctional, to emphasize the heart and not the horror. To him, the genre is already submerged in stereotypical concepts and run of the mill approaches. That is why The Host seems so fresh and invigorating. Unlike other recent examples of this kind of movie – mostly found late at night on the Sci-Fi Channel - this is a fright fest more interested in the spaces in between the spectacle than the set pieces themselves. Almost from the first frames, you can see an entirely different cultural mindset at work.

Indeed, the differences can be night and day staggering at times. The police are portrayed as totally corrupt, ignoring the pleas of a plaintive father as the ravings of a lunatic. To make matters worse, they appear capable of action only when a bribe is involved. Similarly, the US is painted as a country of brash, international thugs. They roll over the Koreans, giving orders while simultaneously hiding crucial information in a conspiratorial X-Files like manner. And Bong bobbles things a bit as well. Some of the ancillary characters never pay off, or worse, feel included to complement an eventual popcorn movie action showdown (like Gang-Du’s sister, the Olympic medalist…in archery…wink, wink). We keep waiting for the time spent on them to deliver some manner of denouement. In the end, they are merely cogs in a well-meaning genre effort.

Still, The Host has a lot going for it. It is absolutely side-splitting at times. Like the best Bollywood cinema which has no problem incorporating cinematic styles for the sake of a storyline, it uses spoof, slapstick, some pointed political commentary, and a lot of sunny schlock value to keep the entertainment factor lively and up front. This is not a deep thinking film, not a real environmentalist mandate like some of Japan’s Godzilla films can be. On the other hand, this is not a scary film. Not at all. Sure, we experience some minor dread during the rescue sequences, but Bong is too upfront with his fright ideals to trick us into terror. This is also not an action packed epic. The overall filmmaking tends to be more subtle than spectacular in dealing with the monster attacks. According to the DVD’s bonus material, this is exactly the way the director wanted it.

All minor quibbles aside, this is still an excellent example of how foreign filmmakers are taking Western cinema and deconstructing it point by motion picture point. First, the Chinese literally reinvented the crime drama, the Hong Kong style of operatic gunplay eventually giving way to a more metaphysical approach. Then the Japanese stepped in and explored the old fashioned eeriness of ghosts and spirits with the now evaporating J-horror craze. Korea is currently coming up with intriguing combinations, with everything from The Tale of Two Sisters to The Host collapsing categories while dealing with concrete cinematic staples. Call it Leviathan Goes Nutzoid or The Terror of the Truck-Sized Tadpole, but this entertaining monster movie will definitely satisfy your creature feature needs.

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Friday, Jul 20, 2007

It’s intriguing how certain topics remain elusive cinematic subject matter. The Civil War, for example, has yet to be translated into the epic struggle for national identity that the conflict highlighted. Instead, it’s a well loved Ken Burns documentary, with lots of minor motion picture pick-ups along the way. Similarly, the end of the world – Bible style – has a stifled creative history. Unless you’re a televangelist looking to craft more direct to DVD donation fodder, most filmmakers won’t touch the idea with a set of seven seals. And then there is Andy Warhol’s Factory. A veritable hotbed of pop culture karma in the 1960s, this workspace wonderland was the famed contemporary artist’s haven. It was also a hang out for such iconic entities as the Velvet Underground, Paul Morrissey, and multiple underground ‘superstars’. Yet all attempts to capture the man and his mythos have been borderline caricatures, turning the complicated craftsman into a shill in a shabby wig.

Factory Girl hopes to change all that. Focusing on Warhol’s most infamous ‘discovery’, the poor little rich girl Edie Sedgwick, and her rapid rise and even more dramatic fall, director George Hickenlooper wisely avoids sensation to grab a glimpse behind the pair’s infamous façade. Hobbled by issues both premade and unexpected (Bob Dylan threatened a lawsuit to have his name and music removed from the film), what started out as some manner of period fantasy was reduced to a better than average biopic – one that happily avoids many of the genre’s more formulaic facets. On the new Unrated DVD offered by the Weinstein Company, Hickenlooper gets one last chance at commercial and critical redemption. Presenting what he considers as close to the “director’s cut” as audiences are liable to see, there’s also a commentary that completes the overview of a production both mired in controversy and bubbling over with amazing personal talent.

When we first meet Edie, played perfectly by Sienna Miller, we sense something is wrong. Perhaps the least practical gal ever to dream in dimensions, the brown haired beauty believed herself destined to be part of the burgeoning New York post-modern art scene. Running away to the Big Apple, she’s spotted by new craze on the block (the chameleon like Guy Pearce is dead on as Warhol) and soon, the two are collaborating on several of the artist’s notorious underground films. As her profile increases, so do her problems. Cut off financially by her snobby, well to do family, Edie’s party girl persona tends to both cheer up and chafe her brittle mentor. When a famous folksinger takes a likening to the perky pixie, things start falling apart. Warhol grows petty and jealous, while the confused feelings she has leads Edie deeper into drug abuse.

At this moment, that big cinematic spoiler known as melodrama could have seeped in, giving Hickenlooper his mandatory material ending. We’d watch as Warhol’s star rises while Edie continues her self-destructive ways. In a phony final shot, the wildly successful art revolutionary would hold his throne, while our faded heroine lies dead in a gutter, needle jutting out of her arm or empty pill bottle by her side. But the filmmaker refuses to supply such well worn pretense. Instead, he lets Factory Girl fully develop its symbiotic/suicidal attachment the unusual couple possessed, and within that dynamic, gives us clear indication of who these people really were.

Warhol’s posthumous world, built as much on his reputation as his reality, fails to really explain what drove this aesthetic deconstructionist. Factory Girl suggests that, as a gay man veiled behind social norms and personal problems, Warhol was a creator incapable of properly channeling his talents. He needed an almost constant stream of stimulation to bring his ideas to life. His was an art of slapdash successes, a never-ending experimentation to see what would cause a stir. His love for Edie was partly based in such interchangeable conceits. But unlike other cogs in his manipulating machine, the sunny socialite really got to him. She touched a part inside Warhol that few women – perhaps only his mother – ever really connected to. That’s why his apparent rejection (for Dylan) turned so spiteful. It was really nothing more than the pathetic misplaced pain of a confused manchild.

Similarly, Edie is viewed as a damaged individual looking for someone to care for her. She doesn’t want to set trends as much as find someone who will simply let her be herself. The constant inference of sexual abuse from family members (her father Fuzzy) and friends suggests this core of wanting. Her inconsistent actions – never good with money, always asking for help, rejecting responsibility for her hedonistic aims – makes her the perfect target for fame’s traps. The lure of the limelight is what draws her in. The emptiness in what she finds inside is what leads her toward more extreme escapes. This is why she takes Warhol’s rejection so hard – she needs the security and hates being accountable for her indiscretions. The relationship with Dylan would never have worked. He is portrayed as wanting her to take blame as much as give it. All Edie wanted was a cocoon to crawl into. There she could manage the metamorphosis she wanted to achieve. And for a while, Warhol provided that.

To capture this subtle shift between characters on film requires actors of great skill, and in at least two of his three leads, Hickenlooper discovered some amazing talent. Guy Pearce plays Warhol in a way that seems inconsequential at first. He’s got the look, and the lost wandering gaze, but we initially feel this will be a performance geared in kabuki instead of practicality. But then our director drops the iconography and lets us see the anemic artist for who he really is. Pearce pulls off the fragile, flawed persona brilliantly, turning Warhol into a three dimensional, less opaque individual. Similarly, Sienna Miller really surprises as Edie. This kind of loopy, misplaced character would be easy to overplay. She’d be so much larger than life that we’d never once believe her hopes or her horrors. But thanks to a desire to both mimic and expand on who Edie Sedgwick was, as well as some interesting directorial choices, Miller makes us experience who this broken babe really was. It may not be the tour de force Hickenlooper believes it is, but it remains a solid piece of interpretation.

The weakest link here is Hayden Christensen as a character known only as “the Folksinger” (though we do hear Edie call him “Billy” more than once). Cast because of his obvious resemblance – when properly made-up – to Dylan circa 1965, the actor forever tied to George Lucas’ horrendous Star Wars prequels can’t find the proper balance between caricature and clarity. His put-on voice sounds like a bad imitation half the time, and he plays this important man as bursting with nervous frustration, not poetic ideals. Even when he’s waxing philosophically about following your own path, he sounds irritated not inspired. Had a way been found to keep Dylan happy and out of the courthouse over this project, it’s possible that Christensen would have more to work with here. As it is, his minor time on screen distracts us from the real relationships at hand.

Still, the draw between Warhol and Sedgwick is so strong and handled so well that Factory Girl manages to easily overcome its other minor flaws. We don’t really get to know the whole Factory scene, especially important elements like the other iconic leeches who made the warehouse space their home away from home. The Velvet Underground is lightly touched on (apparently, Lou Reed is none too happy with this movie as well) and some of the more important films to feature Sedgwick (Chelsea Girls, ****) are barely mentioned. True, the interpersonal element is the draw, and thanks to Pearce and Miller, it works incredibly well. But the backdrop is still one of the most intriguing aspects of pop culture’s past. Even on a small budget, some of the significant signposts need to be featured. Of course, Hickenlooper has an answer for why he made the creative choices he did. His DVD commentary is a snarky slam on everyone who doesn’t get his approach.

But there is also an inherent flaw in such motion picture narrow-mindedness. Warhol, like the Civil War and the End of Days is a subject so large in scope and significance that an insular ideal robs the material of its meaning.  Unless it can resonate beyond the myopic, we literally loose the big picture. Factory Girl is still an effective, well made dissection of two flawed personalities playing each other for the ultimate ends. It may not be the whole story, but it’s a good one told very well. Too bad it couldn’t broaden beyond its self-imposed horizons to show us the prominence of pop art in the overall ‘60s revolution. Maybe Hickenlooper believes that by illustrating Warhol and Sedgwick’s volatile time together he’s done that. In his defense, he’s made a fine film.  Unfortunately, there is more to the tale than this. 

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Friday, Jul 20, 2007

I’ve been traveling Korean Air for two decades on a regular basis and, for all that fealty I was made a member of their Morning Calm club years ago. My bags get marked “Elite” – bold black lettering on a glossy sky blue, bullet-shaped tag— which means they generally come out first and occasionally, if I look forlorn enough to just the right mothering type behind the check-in counter, I can luck into being bumped up into Business.

I know it’s straying into that grey area of human action, but as one grows into their lives, they learn to push their advantages, since those are so few and come so seldom (not to mention that everyone else is doing the same). Thus, if I don’t ask for that spare seat (with my forlorn, little-boy-lost-drooping-eyelid-look) you can be damned certain that someone else will.

A pause in the program while we salute the fine, lost art of rationalization (and get thqt disappointed expression off your face—certainly you didn’t think you would locate any artistic insights here!)


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Friday, Jul 20, 2007

Ordinarily I would have ignored this, but it seemed relevant to points I was trying to get at in the post about sprezzatura. A dubious trend piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day charted the return of the preppy look. This sort of story has a boilerplate feel to it, and you probably know without even having to click through how it reads—a list of consumer goods that have been marketed heavily recently are rattled off to establish the appearance of a trend, and then some fashion industry flacks are quoted to produce the illusion of substantiation. Let me tell you, if a retailer or an industry analyst confirms an “important” trend , then it must really be happening. This article cites John Murray, co-owner of Murray’s Toggery Shop, veteran rap-video director Julien “Little X” Lutz (who proclaims ““Hip-hop is rapping about money and power and women, which is perfect for preps”), and Susanna Salk, the author of A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style.

Anyway, what caught my attention was this paradoxical statement by Salk: “Preppy fashion is so iconic now. There’s a nostalgia element to it. It’s certainly a privilege to live in a manner that doesn’t evolve, doesn’t change.” Put aside for a moment the fact that this makes no sense on the face of it—how can something that doesn’t change come in and out of fashion? And it’s very easy to adopt a wardrobe that doesn’t change; wear a uniform—put on a gray-flannel suit. This requires no particular privilege, except that which supplies the strength of mind to transcend trends, the allure of belonging to the zeitgeist—the bonuses of being alive in this particular time. Perhaps we fantasize of such transcendence while realizing we don’t really want it—we want to buy a consumer good that just evokes it for us, gives a chance to daydream about long summer months, year after year in Nantucket, without having to live out the tedium and the coruscating snobbery.

But in the sense that preppy fashion offers the opportunity to purchase the illusion of permanence without the rigor that comes with upholding a standard, it makes sense. The statement is true not merely of preppy fashion but of all fashion which often attempts to sell timelessness as a transient, thrilling experience—the exciting thrill of partcipation in the present moment and the fleeting sense that this moment is the most important moment and will last forever. Through nostalgia fashion, you get the thrill of participating in something with an ersatz tradition without actually having to do something as boring as adhere to a rigid code. Via well-marketed products—iconic nostalgia for the now—you can dupe yourself into believing you can get style without propriety—you can be like Castiglione’s courtiers without actually having talent or ethics.

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