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Tuesday, Mar 13, 2007

First, a great article on hip-hop journalism history: Negritude 2.0: Vibe: Hard to Let it Go.  Also note that the author’s dream of an all-encompassing vision is still waiting to be realized and is important enough for someone to do the honors.


And then a great resource.  Blues Festival Guide which has its own newsletter:
weekly newsletter.  I subscribe to it and recommend it to anyone with any interest in blues.  You learn about great new releases, archives, upcoming festivals and more.


That’s probably it from me until after the madness that is SXSW.  Maybe I’ll see you in Austin.  If not, talk to you when I get back.


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Monday, Mar 12, 2007


I’m in a hotel where a full-length mirrored closet gives me a view of the bed. Do I need to think about the uses of that? Not really. Not, at least on this trip. I’m alone and the Internet cable that enables me to access the server doesn’t seem to work. Since I’m alone, it is the first thing I check, even before checking the fridge, washing my face, or using the toilet. My bladder works better than this cable (and at this stage of my life, that isn’t the condition you want your Internet in), so I have to call down to the front desk to get it fixed. Down there it’s called the “Front” (or “furonto” in Japanese). The concierge (or maybe she’s just the staff – “sutafo” in Japanese) comes upstairs to troubleshoot. She’s fast. I just barely have my jeans zipped and buttoned when her knock comes on the door.

Once inside, she does everything that I did: unplugs all the plugs, reconnects them, moves the table away from the wall, wiggles the connection in back. And, when she wiggles it,


everything

wiggles. But we don’t have to get into that. Except that after the wiggling, the connection mysteriously works. She’s definitely a pro. Her wiggles work.


She also did everything I wouldn’t have done – I mean, if I were her. Or “a her”. Namely, she entered the room – a male guest’s private chamber – and allowed the door to close. The last time this all happened—at an airport at Narita a couple of months back—the male staff (sutafo) made sure he left the door open. I think that was intended as a courtesy to me, although I could have had that wrong. Maybe he just had an inflated view of himself. But, back here in the moment, with this female sutafo with the wiggles,  her potential problems are compounded when she moves farther within the room’s recesses, enabling the male guest to become interposed between her and the door. Then (even more egregious—this ought to be a deposit account at the rate that she is compounding) she turns her back on her guest. Finally (and most egregious of all), she bends over at the waist – and, yes, proceeds to wiggle.


Wasn’t there a story like this involving Kobe Bryant a few years back? Fortunately (or not) I’m not that guy, and she (my wiggler) isn’t that girl. And so the result is all very different – for all hands (and other bodily parts) involved.


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Monday, Mar 12, 2007


It’s almost here – the Summer movie season is just a mere eight weeks away. Time to drop as many of 2006’s late arrival titles on the unsuspecting DVD audience as possible. Once a certain spidered man starts slinging his webs around the 6th of May, the suits inside the studios will be concentrating on how well their would-be blockbusters are doing at the Cineplex, not how many copies of last year’s lamentable romantic comedy they’ve sold. So be wary when traveling to your favorite home theater depot. Interspersed among the timeless classics and new-fangled franchise efforts are a boatload of bullstuff, all aiming to drain away the last of your yet to be determined dollars. So choose wisely as you walk the aisles this 13 March, and try to avoid the elephantine hype surrounding our SE&L selection for this week:


Casino Royale


It seems like, every few years, spy film fans go through the James Bond jitters, Either they’re fed up with Roger Moore’s aging aimlessness, or angry that longtime producer Albert “Chubby” Broccoli can’t keep the one man they feel was perfect for the role (Pierce Brosnan) from bolting to bigger and better things. The latest row was over the casting of British blond himbo Daniel Craig as the new, post-millennial 007. The only glimmer of hope inside this otherwise dismissed bit of hiring was the promise that this version of the classic UK agent would be a “real return to form” (meaning a creative call back to the days of Sean Connery). Sure enough, this kinetic update delivered the best Bond movie in a long time – a legitimate action film with heart and head to match. Craig may still have to win over the Ian Fleming faithful, but at the box offices, he’s more than renewed his character’s license to kill.

Other Titles of Interest


The Burmese Harp: The Criterion Collection


As one of two classics by Kon Ichikawa to be released by DVD’s definitive preservationists, this story of a WWII Japanese platoon who sing to keep their spirits up represents war at its most insidious. Instead of focusing on death and destruction along the battlefield, Ichikawa follows the fallout of battle on man’s inner strength and resolve. The results are dark and devastating.

Fire on the Plain: The Criterion Collection


The second Ichikawa film from Criterion focuses on the ravages of combat from the psychological outward. When a group of Japanese soldiers are trapped in a Philippine’s jungle, the stress of waiting for death drives them insane. Some even resort to murder and cannibalism. As strong an anti-war message as you are likely to find anywhere, this amazing film fits perfectly into the company’s creative dynamic.

The Holiday


It’s a shame that Nancy Meyers isn’t a more skilled filmmaker. She had a great idea here, and a certifiably star-driven cast. Just the thought of Jack Black hooking up with Kate Winslet had stocky guys all across the world celebrating in vicarious triumph. Unfortunately, most critics found this routine romantic comedy to contain more hackwork than humor…or heart…or hope.

Shortbus


Here it is – John Cameron Mitchell’s notorious follow-up to his madcap musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Following the failing fortunes of a bunch of beleaguered New Yorkers, Mitchell made the unprecedented decision to ignore the MPAA and show all the sexual acts in their full blown, X-rated reality. What you wind up with is a surreal cinematic experiment, a character study that suddenly breaks into hardcore porn honesty.

Volver


While other foreign filmmakers seem to mellow and wane with age, Spain’s Pedro Almodovar is only getting feistier and more confrontational. For his latest look at women on the verge of interpersonal freefall, he casts Penelope Cruz in a story of ravaging emotional erosion. So successful was the combination that Ms. Cruz became the first Spanish actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Open Water 2


It’s quite the motion picture pickle – how do you make a sequel to a film where both of the main characters died in the end? Easy - avoid everything that the first movie stood for, and strike out on your own; borrow the name for some instant audience recognizability and hope no one in the fooled fanbase hollers “FOUL!” That’s what the makers of Adrift did when they discovered that the lame-os over at Lionsgate were picking up their effort for direct to DVD release. This German joke of an aquatic horror film is so illogical, so laced with ridiculous decisions by both the characters on screen and the creative team behind the lens that the individuals responsible for the original ‘you are there” sharkfest ought to consider an immediate injunction. The only thing this stupid storyline has in common with the 2003 hit is the vastness of the ocean – that’s it.

 


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Monday, Mar 12, 2007

Having just finished Richard Hofstadter’s essays about Goldwater and pseudo-conservatism in The Paranoid Style in American Politics I feel as though I understand our own political moment much better. The essays are a bit depressing in that they assume a far-right-winger like Barry Goldwater could never be elected, let alone be allowed to actually govern; Hofstatder seemed to have believed that the fact Goldwater was nominated at all was the high water mark for the American forces of reaction. He felt they ran to lose on purpose and become martyrs to their extreme causes and keep them in the public forum. But George W. Bush’s presidency has proven otherwise. The essays provide a litany of descriptions of pseudoconservatism that remind us how little of the Bush agenda is new: “Only in the pseudoconservative movement that man have begun to hint that disobedience to the Court is not merely legitimate but is the essence of conservatism.” “The two=party system ... hangs on the common recognition of loyal opposition: each side accepts the good intentions of the other… But an essential point in the pseudoconservative world view is that our recent Presidents, being men of wholly evil intent, have conspired against the public good.” (This is why the shrill, spasmodic accusation of Bush hatred conservatives often cast at liberals seems pure projection.) Hofstadter quotes Goldwater, who wrote this in Why Not Victory? (which could serve as a motto for Iraq surge supporters): “A craven fear of death is entering the American consciousness, so much so that many recently felt that honoring the chief despot himself was the price to pay to avoid nuclear destruction.” That horrifying logic is the main thing that kept Goldwater far from the White House. But a similar line is often evoked by right-wing reactionaries when talking about the spread of “islamofascism”—we must have the conviction to stop at nothing to eliminate the terrorist threat. The end of the Cold War removed the deterrent threat of nuclear war, allowing Bush to enact psudoconservative/neoconservative fantasies in the Middle East, starting wars of choice without threat of drastic reprisal international enemies.


Just about everything Hofstadter writes about Goldwater’s core constituency holds true for Bush: it’s a fusion of those with ultraconservative economic views (the sort who believe a social safety net breeds weakness) and an aggrieved lower-middle class who see politics as an arena to reclaim lost status (via moral crusading and culture wars) rather than protect their material interests. (The opposition of status and interest politics seems to foreshadow Thomas Frank’s debunking of the red state/blue state myth in What’s the Matter with Kansas?) But whereas Goldwater was regarded skeptically in his time and effectively framed as far outside the mainstream, a complacent media in 2000, intent on lambasting Gore, allowed Bush to pass for a moderate, “compassionate” conservative. Once he won and gained political capital from the events of September 11, he enacted the Goldwater agenda of 1964: heedless economic individualism and impulsively belligerent foreign policy derived from simplistic absolute principles and pursued with religious conviction. (In Goldwater’s famous words: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and .., moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”)


This analysis helps make obvious the tenuousness of the pseudo-conservative coalition: radical free-marketeers and moral prescriptivists have in common a belief that privation is a useful social tool, whether it be culling the herd of its weak members or punishing sinful wastrels. Beyond this is a belief in individual’s ultimate ability to overcome circumstances, which are always in some way deserved—your responsibility. But moral crusaders, in taking a hard-line ascetic view that is uncompromising with respect to the opinions a majority of Americans actually profess, believe their politics rise above greedy selfishness, and that their views are legitimized to the degree that they are impractical and thus apolitical. Their disregard for public opinion seeks to destroy democracy in a fundamentally different way than those with radical economic views, who would prefer that the government atrophy and cease to function (the shrink-government-until-drownable-in-bathtub philosophy). Moral crusaders, instead, want to empower government to the degree where it can legislate and enforce the stringent value system they have placed above politics as non-debatable truths. (Neither want to do the hard work of coalition building in order to arbitrate between the inevitable competing interests in a pluralistic society.) This contradiction, exacerbated by the erosion of civil liberties brought on by fears of terrorism, has led to discussions of a rapprochement between libertarians and liberals. Hofstatder points out that Goldwater did little to forward conservative causes; rather he broke the back of practical conservatism in the Eisenhower mold and enabled Johnson to push through the Great Society reforms. That’s hope the revulsion Bush has inspired in American voters has done the same, and we can look forward to a coming decade of progress on universal health care, the strengthening of unions, and the amelioration of income inequality.


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Sunday, Mar 11, 2007


Something must be terribly wrong with Terry Gilliam. Either that, or he drank the Kool-aid on his own hype a few films ago. Back in 2005, the director was desperate. The Toronto Film Festival trounced all over his latest effort, a queer adult fable based on the book Tideland, and no distributor was willing to take on the impossible task of marketing the movie. With a narrative that focused on a little girl lost in a fatalistic fantasy world of her own making, and disturbing elements that included nods to underage sexuality, brutal drug use, and human fallibility, it appeared as if no one would be willing to stand up for the stranded artist. Gilliam even took to the streets, following the film around during its limited theatrical release to pony up publicity for his orphaned effort.


Now, a mere three weeks after THINKFilm’s released the title on DVD, Gilliam is fuming. Strike that – he’s uncharacteristically livid. The controversy doesn’t center on censorship, or some manner of mandated cuts to the content of the story. No, the ex-pat Python is upset over how the film was transferred over to the digital medium. It’s a gloriously geeky mess, the kind of nerd obsessive nonsense that gives the Internet and its struggling journalistic reputation a wonderfully weird wedgie. You see, Tideland was filmed in Super 35mm, and the resulting image was framed and composed for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio release. But beginning with its pitch for Oscar attention, THINK has purposefully reconfigured the film. The reports vary, from a 1.78:1 Academy screener, to the 1.85:1 version that hit stores 23, February.


Now, if you believe Gilliam, his cinematographer (and good friend) Nicola Pecorini and the investigators over at film ick (your basic UK blog) THINKFilm deceived the auteur. They prepared the DVD version without his consent, ported over most of the bonus material from the Region 2 release (which supposedly maintains the 2.35:1 aspect ratio) and made it appear that the director approved of the new pictorial proportions. In a pair of press releases, Gilliam has gone on record as renouncing the Region 1 DVD, and has even gone so far as to tell his American fans to boycott the disc. Pecorini goes a little further, stating that “nothing” about the THINKFilm release warrants consumer consideration. It all seems so very odd.


Remember, this was a man who, up until the mid-part of last year, couldn’t get a single significant studio to release his fractured fable. Listening to the audio commentary as part of the DVD (as well as his discussion of the post-production problems as part of another bonus feature), you hear a man mad as his status as a cinematic pariah. In truth, almost NONE of the reasons Gilliam is given over to a reputation as “difficult, demanding, excessive and eccentric” have to do with his own actions. Aside from bragging on Brazil (his 1982 masterwork) to the point of pissing off Universal, the rest of his problems stem directly from acts of God, location and forces outside his filmmaking. Indeed, he mentions that his last dust-up – a battle with the Weinsteins over his poorly received Brothers Grimm – had nothing to do with what happened on screen. It was merely part of the package of being in the motion picture business.


But the issue with THINKFilm is different, at least from these rumored reports. This is a matter of principle, pure and simple. Gilliam agreed to have the company release his movie, remembering that they should abide by his creative and aesthetic wishes. Basically, they couldn’t take Tideland and re-edit it, recolor the sky or brighten the darker moments. Back when The Descent hit DVD, fans were flummoxed by the ability to see more of the action in New Line’s remastered transfer. Cries of filmic foul were raised, since many believed director Neil Marshall’s hide and seek suspense conceit was being purposefully played with for a home theater audience. Turns out they were wrong. Marshall always had his visuals lit for ease of visibility. It was the crappy theaters and under-trained projectionists around the country that failed to fully illuminate the film’s many underground fights.


For Tideland, it appears that the only real concern is over aspect ratio. Listen to any of the ardent defenders of Gilliam’s “original vision” and they will tell you that the difference between 2.35:1 and 1.85:1 is top to bottom, as well as side to side. Mathematically speaking, taking a narrower image and broadening it means more information is revealed above and below. In addition, in order to avoid some technical elements that may have existed outside the frame (boom mic, crew or camera shadows, etc.) some companies zoom in on the image, losing a little of the compositional information on all four sides. In the opinion of the fanatical, such a situation undermines Gilliam’s original intent. It also destroys all of the carefully controlled creative strides made by cinematographer Pecorini. What many wondered prior to the recent reports was (a) was 2.35:1 the original aspect ratio?, and (b) was Gilliam aware/did he approve of the change?.


The answers are now obviously “yes” and “Hell No!”. From a purely practical standpoint, THINKFilm’s DVD release of Tideland in Region 1 is incorrect. It offers a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that’s absolutely stunning, but does indeed represent a retrofitting of the film’s OAR. Since it is so based in the symbolic and visual, relying on images to explore many of Mitch Cullin’s more disturbing ideas, fans of the film feel betrayed by such a situation. In fact, some are even suggesting that potential viewers will be put off of the film because, while viewing its complex and occasionally corrupt storyline, they will be missing many of Gilliam’s lush optical nuances. Such a stance fails to take into account the movie’s resounding dismissal at the hands of critics during its THEATRICAL run, or the praise this particular DVD has received from those unaware of the OAR scandal.


In reality, Tideland is a difficult movie to champion or chastise. It sits somewhere between a failed masterpiece and a brilliant bomb. It contains elements both personal and peripheral that threaten to undermine its acceptability (including a Tennessee Williams type turn by Jodelle Freland as an underage antebellum Southern surrogate) and really adds up to very little in the end. Unlike the rest of Gilliam’s creative canon, Tideland represents the director at his most disassociated. Similar to the lead character, Jeliza-Rose, he too is trapped in an unwieldy world of his own making. And now it seems that he’s ready to rebuke yet another studio for screwing with his efforts.


Consider this: THINKFilms was touting Tideland for Oscars back in November. Press releases went out to all critics groups with the standard ‘For Your Consideration’ rot, and free screeners were made available. As part of that DVD, Gilliam gave a surreal ironic introduction (a piece that prompted many an admirer to question his cinematic sanity) and then the full length feature was presented – in a 1.78:1 transfer. Now, if THINK really thought Tideland had a chance at Academy gold, why did they undermine their artist (and, in turn, his hardworking crew) so? Though he probably doesn’t care about such self-congratulatory backslapping, why didn’t Gilliam complain then? Was it because he knew he had no chance at Year End glory? Or was it a case of out of sight, out of mind?


In defense of the DVD, it doesn’t look like Tideland is missing much in the visual department. Only a comparison between the two transfers (Region 1 and Region 2) will settle the story once and for all – and that’s just what we’ll attempt to do in Part 2 of this discussion. In the meantime, we are stuck wondering how something like this can occur, especially in a day and age where every online film fan has a forum to ridicule and rail against a shoddy motion picture package. It worked when Pan and Scan was threatening to turn the digital medium into a graduated VCR. It worked when colorization raised its repugnant head a couple of years back. Studios frequently feel the wrath of the cinematic faithful when films are released minus key scenes, lines of dialogue, or removed musical cues. So, is the Tideland story a legitimate slighting of a moviemaking genius? Or is it just a product pitching ploy. We’ll have to wait for an Air Mail delivery from the UK to find out.


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