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Saturday, Dec 9, 2006


Harlan Hollis is known world wide as The Junkman, a humble business bloke turned fabulously wealthy multi-media mogul on the back of his scrap auto business. He makes movies, owns diamond mines and oil wells, and lives a jet setting eccentric lifestyle. A widower whose wife was killed by a drunk driver, he divides his time between his mega-buck empire and his teenage daughter. While readying his latest stunt filled film, he makes time to celebrate his child’s birthday, attend a James Dean festival that he has sponsored, and arrange the world premiere of his near completed masterwork. But gathering forces outside his insular life want Hollis dead, and they send a band of highly trained assassins out in cars and planes to kill the trash heap Trump once and for all. Will our high living, fast driving hero make it to the festival on time? Will he ever get to see his child again? More importantly, will his latest cinematic experiment have a boffo box office weekend? Or is it possible that this will be the time that The Junkman joins the rest of the metal in his yard?


Taken at face value, all one can say is - WOW! Junkman is one weird mamma-jamma of a movie. This möbius film strip motion picture functions like an Escher print come to life, cross and direct referencing itself and its makers so many times, and skittering in and out of reality so often it threatens to turn into Ouroboros and consume itself. It’s a true story told as fiction with most of the real people playing themselves. It’s a car crash fiesta formulated as a Citizen Kane style send-up of filmmaker and stuntman H.B. Halicki. The reference to Welles 1941 classic is not co-incidental. Halicki, here as Hollis, uses the same multi-media style (stills, news reports, flashbacks, and interviews) to tell the pseudo story of his life, except in this case, Rosebud is a tricked out Cadillac Eldorado running a supped up V-8 engine under its shiny hood. And unlike W.R. Hearst’s worst nightmare, the future salesman for Paul Mason wines didn’t load his narrative with an extended 45 minute car chase.


That’s right, forty-five minutes of automobile anarchy: chases, crashes, stunts, and impossible moments. Basically divided into four separate sections, kind of like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons except with larger insurance premiums, we get ten or fifteen minutes of fact filled narrative and set-up and then the pedal and the bumpers start hitting the metal as elaborate vehicular feats are hurled relentlessly at the camera for the sake of excitement. This movie is reportedly listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most destroyed modes of transportation (planes, trucks, and cars) than any other movie in history. And while it seems hard to believe it in light of past (The Blues Brothers) and present (Speed) examples of the genre, one thing is for sure—The Junkman sure does have a lot of Detroit’s finest ramming into each other over and over again.


In some ways, Junkman reminds the viewer of Richard Rush’s exercise in inversion, the classic black Hollywood come-tramedy The Stunt Man. Similar in structure (with the “is it a movie or is it real?” ideal in full flower), it differs in that there are no performers the like of Peter O’Toole or Steve Railsback to sell the satire. Instead, Halicki casts himself in the lead, and then wisely as both director and writer, gives most of the dialogue and emoting to the one or two professionals (Hoyt Axton, Christopher Stone) in the cast. Still, there is nothing wrong with the amateur acting antics of the mostly playing themselves persons. Indeed, the natural charm and realistic line readings create an aura of authenticity that helps save The Junkman from sinking under the weight of its lofty ambitions. Sure, Halicki is interested in featuring metal on engine block action, but he also wants to work myth, murder and intrigue into the mix. Frankly, from what we see of Halicki/Hollis real life, a biopic of the eccentric entrepreneur would be an equally intriguing cinematic prospect. In love with all cars, he owned a huge warehouse “office” (the size of a football field) where he housed his mad collection. He also loved toys and had hundreds of thousands of rare and vintage examples.


He was also responsible for the drive-in cult classic, the original 1974 Gone in Sixty Seconds. And he truly started life in the junk business. And yet all of this takes a colorful backseat to the non-stop, no special effects stunt driving and crashing that makes up the vast majority of this movie. And while said action footage is first rate in a kind of late ‘70s early ‘80s shot as it happened fashion, adding more of the bizarre business life of Halicki/Hollis would have moved the entire movie beyond its B-movie roots into something a little more special. But as it stands, The Junkman is unlike any car crash movie you’ve ever experienced. It has to be seen to be believed.


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Saturday, Dec 9, 2006

Even though there’s something artificial and reifying about these kind of packages, I still recommend reading the entire special section on the year in ideas in this week’s NY Times Magazine. It’s essentially a list of insights and memes and piquant research findings from the past 12 months, the sorts of things you probably are already half familiar with if you spend much time reading blogs, only cataloged and alphabetized. Here’s a sampling:


1. Cohabitation can harm women’s health: The gist of this is that women adopt unhealthy male eating habits over the long run. Is this evidence of how deeply our culture inculcates the female imperative to submit? It seems to suggest how women compromise by default in order to sustain traditional relationships.


2. “Digital Maoism”—this is a phrase coined by computer scientist named Jaron Lanier, who from the illustration looks to be a white guy with dreadlocks (This, I must admit, makes me question his judgment and discount his theory.) He is skeptical about the power of the Internet to aggregate the wisdom of users into infallible products and predictions, which would seem to make him a skeptic of markets and hayekian spontaneous order. But because things like Wikipedia tout their open format but are actually managed by a small group of contributors, this phenomenon is presumed to resemble China’s approach: talk about collectives while concentrating power in the hands of a few. But those who maintain Wikipedia are self-selecting, they don’t hold on to what dubious power they may have by anything other than their own effort. They aren’t oppressing or silencing other people who want to contribute. Yes the propaganda surrounding “the wisdom of crowds” can be overstated, but it seems we are in little danger of forgetting the contribution of the individual—if anything, capitalist society fetishizes individualism and propagates the “great man” theory of causation and history (cf, the fundamental attribution error). There are two different processes at work—the first process has individuals coming up with ideas they think may be useful, which prompts the second process, using the Internet to distribute the idea and subject it to the collective modification of those out there with any investment in the idea. The Internet expedites the aggregation of useful ideas, and the knowledge that one’s ideas will much more likely become useful for a greater number of people much more rapidly provides individuals with incentive to concentrate more on innovation. It matches thinkers with the audience capable of helping them sharpen that thinking. If this is Maoism, I’m for it.


3. Eyes of Honesty: the title the editors devised for this one is a little portentous, but it refers to psychology researchers in England finding that even a picture of watching eyes was enough to encourage people to obey the honor system at a beverage stand. Perhaps they might have called it the Big Brother effect, or the pretend panopticon or something. With the ubiquity of surveillance cameras and whatnot out there, someone virtually is watching us all the time. But with the newfangled attention economy, perhaps in our eagerness to display ourselves in hopes of being watched, we forget this. It seems as though our awareness of surveillance is always shifting dialectically in relation to our exhibitionism; the more we want to be seen, the less we realize we are already being observed and vice versa. This would allow rampant narcissism to coincide with conformity without the ideas necessarily colliding. A related idea from the list: “sousveillance”—being watched from below, using cell-phone cameras to capture truth and speak it to power, as the saying goes.


4. The Hidden-Fee Economy: I blogged about this before but I can’t find the link. A paper by Laibson and Gabaix offered an explanation for the sort of hidden fees that are encrusted to rental cars and hotel rooms and electronics products and cell phones and whatnot. Because this kind of pricing selects for shortsighted customers who supply the fattest profit margin for services, there’s little to gain by trying to educate how competitors are taking advantage of them. If you educate the customers, the profit margins go down for everyone in the sector. This helps explain why advertising cannot be considered to be more informative than misleading, and why heightened skepticism is always warranted: It’s in a business sector’s best interest to embark on a de facto collaboration to befuddle us.


5. Hyperopia: A word coined to describe our being too preoccupied with long run consequences and thus neglecting our urge to indulge in the moment. In the long run, we’ll actually look back fondly on our hedonism as peak experiences. It’s the short run impact of guilt (which doesn’t last long) that makes us err on the side of prudence and circumspection. This corresponds with the gist of happiness research that suggests risk aversion and endowment effects makes us overly conservative to our own detriment. It’s actually hard work being impulsive, which suggests useful life skills can be learned from occasional casual gambling.


6. Negativity Friendships: I’m a pretty negative person, so this cheered me—social psychologists found that its the negative opinions that friends share that make them close. This may be why people are loath to express negative opinions; they want to preserve boundaries and not let people into that sphere of intimacy where “real” opinions are shared. This has a reinforcing effect; negative opinions likely seem more real as they are relatively rarer and riskier, they yield no immediate benefits (no one likes to network and hobnob with cynics and naysayers) and suggest a long-term strategy of deep friendship. A negative opinion about someone else has no use value other than inviting a conspiracy of intimacy.


7. Smart elevators: I know these are supposed to save energy and all, but entering a buttonless elevator seems creepy to me. It reminds you how dependent you are when you’re commuting into the sky and reminds us of the disturbing trade-off of autonomy for efficiency. It’s wasteful when individuals have full control of how they transport themselves (see Northern Virginia traffic, for example) but few would voluntarily surrender the convenience of control for a gain in public good.



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Saturday, Dec 9, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

The Klezmatics
Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah


“Hanukah Tree”
“Spin Dreydl Spin”


 


“The Klezmatics play soul-stirring Jewish roots music for our time, recreating klezmer in arrangements and compositions that combine Jewish identity and mysticism with a contemporary zeitgeist and a postmodern aesthetic.  Since their founding in New York City’s East Village in 1986, the Klezmatics have celebrated the ecstatic nature of Yiddish music with works which are by turns wild, spiritual, provocative, reflective and danceable.”—Jewish Music Group



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Friday, Dec 8, 2006


Film has always been a visual medium. In the days before sound, the image was all we had. It told our story, established our characters, and accentuated the drama or comedy. Visual flair is as old as movies themselves, and yet so few directors today seem to rely on and relish in the imaginative or outrageous. Since the early ‘60s, Hollywood and its filmmakers have de-evolved style in a vicious cycle real world recreation for the hyper-stylized universe of the big screen, exploiting small events to find the hidden theatrics. Instead of broad canvases of color or rich, dense imagery, we witness the mundane or maudlin. Even those epic dreamscapes woven by complex computers and deranged art designers usually have one foot firmly planted in the easy to recognize and rationalize. But not The City of Lost Children. It harkens back to a more old-fashioned pictographic mindset. In many significant and indirect ways, the wild world of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet is art come to life. As in their previous film together, 1991’s Delicatessen, it is a fairy tale presentation of pure unbridled, wonderfully wicked imagination. It’s the Brothers Grimm as envisioned by Salvador Dali and filmed by Fritz Lang.


This is a lost classic, a film not often discussed when visionary works of imaginative cinema are mentioned. Part of this may be due to its foreign film roots. Or perhaps, for many, the film is too dark, not your typical sweet Saturday morning matinee. There are very disturbing subtexts to City that do not exist in other flights of fancy. The children here are indeed lost, either captured and tormented by a character known as Krank, or forced into a life of juvenile crime by the manipulative twins who run an orphanage. We do not see mothers or fathers. There are no caregivers or guardians, nor do we see orphans or outcasts longing for them. This lack of unconditional love creates youths who are vastly more mature, discussing subjects like love and fear with ferocious intensity and sly maturity. The strongman known as One is the closest we have to any type of parental figure, and even he is not really the older, bigger brother. “No parents” does not equal “no worries” in City. This is also a film that wallows in the subtle beauty of the grotesque, amplifying ugliness to illustrate unbridled absurdity. From Jean Paul Gautier’s Marquis de Sade meets Moby Dick fashion statements to the walleyed, demon-like faces of the child-napping zealot Cyclops, the film takes the long lost look of the circus sideshow and melds it to a nightmarish world of technological and emotional freaks.


Jean-Pierre and Marc are obviously obsessed with the carnival. The entire color scheme seems lifted from a tattooed man’s body illustrations. Like Fellini’s La Strada, which sought to tell a simple tale of love and the human spirit within the unreal realm of the circus, the filmmakers use the fantastical festival setting as a means of expressing their themes. Within its pandemonium pallet are the purity of youth, the pain of age, the wickedness of greed, and the comfort of love. There are also religious philosophies at play, battles with God both figuratively and literally. Krank and his army of clones fight and argue amongst themselves, all in the hope that, one day, the Creator will return to right his genetic missteps. The twins lord over their orphan charges like devils at the seat of Satan’s cloven hoof, waiting for instruction and brimstone beatitudes. Even the Cyclops proclaim their undying faith by blinding themselves, hoping that God will see that through both their devotion and their evangelism how truly gifted with sight (both internal and external) they are. Just like the wistful notion of running off to join the traveling show, The City of Lost Children is a chance not taken, a place where the oppression of maturity, of the stark reality of mortality and responsibility turn adults into monsters, and children into commodities.


The viewer can see many divergent ideals and inspirations at work here. But the most interesting influence to wind its way throughout the entire film is American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg. Goldberg’s ingenious drawings illustrated incredibly complicated and multi-stepped procedures to achieve the most basic of results. Several set pieces in the film apply his principles and influences, and there is a giddy joy when their cause and effect logic draws to its ultimate conclusion. One sequence, involving the animal kingdom and a call to arms, is as beautiful as it is ridiculously complex. Like all other special, unnerving aspects of this movie, from the twisted fable at the core of its narrative, to the subtle pronouncements on love and family, The City of Lost Children is indeed like one of Goldberg’s wildest inventions. It’s a film that hitches its humor to the stinger of a flea, rides it on the heads of circus strongmen, and brings its heartfelt conclusion to rest in the bubbling tank of a talking, sarcastic brain. Yet the movie never gets lost itself. There is a perverse logic in its over symbolic and stylized storytelling.


No discussion of City would be complete without a word or two about the film’s music and its wonderful performances. As he has done in so many other films for auteurs like David Lynch and Paul Schrader, Angelo Badalamenti creates the perfect score, adding the clarion call of the calliope and the lonesome moan of the strings to underscore the strangeness and the sadness. This is a town under fire from within (the gangs of mercenary urchins) and without (the abductions), and Badalamenti creates a theme and an aural presence for every ideal. Sonically, The City of Lost Children is a near seamless matching of music to moving image. As for the actors, Ron Perlman has always seemed like a stunt waiting to be cast. Usually unrecognizable in face altering or obliterating make-up, he normally essays roles as unreal as the location in this film. But interestingly enough, he is the very human core of the film, a strong, faithful muscleman whose basic needs match his simpleton intellect. His is a perfectly modulated, understated performance. Among the child actors, little Judith Vittet stands out as Miette, a child who carries an incredible amount of adult soul and beauty within her delicate, French bisque features. And as usual, Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon applies his elastic facial features to the creation of six distinct characters, all out of minimal dialogue and elegant pantomime.


A movie like The City of Lost Children doesn’t really want to show us where the secrets of youth are hidden. It buries its message of adulthood and its perils in elaborate sets and visually arresting images. It symbolizes the dead end of avarice, the importance of familial bonds, and the painful loss of innocence through dreams in wonderful, paint box strokes. But it still leaves us wondering if such a place actually exists. For some, the manufactured wonders of Disney World or Universal Studios theme parks offer a glimpse into the sacred village of eternal childhood. Still others find it in the magic of their offspring at play, in their riotous laughter. Many see it in the eyes of their son or daughter as they light up in loving response. And there are those who, no matter how hard they try or how long they look, will never find the City. It will pass them by, or they will look over or through it in pursuit of a more complicated, unimportant goal. Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro have at least provided a roadmap to the mythological place in their film La Cité des Enfants Perdus. Just turn right at your dreams, be on the lookout for your heartstrings, and ride your imagination all the way to where the sea meets the sky.


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Friday, Dec 8, 2006

Yesterday’s WSJ A-hed silly story was about a new “viral” kind of consumerist porn proliferating on the Internet: people watching videos of other people opening high-tech toys, such as PS3s and Palm Treos.


The videos are every bit as prosaic as you might imagine. Typical is one made by Vincent Nguyen, who launched unbox.it. He opens a box containing the highly coveted Nintendo Wii videogame console. After tearing away red and white snowflake gift-wrap to reveal the box, he slowly examines it and then pulls out every cable, remote control and instructional manual. Finally, he gets to the console itself. “Let’s unveil it, let’s take our time here on the big baby that we just now are getting in,” he says.


George Harrison, a Nintendo executive who is presumably not also the dead Beatle, though the article maakes no effort to clarify this point, is not impressed (“It doesn’t strike me, as a marketer, that it would be fascinating for someone to open the packaging,” he says), but also cited is some designy type talking about what an adventure it is to open an iPod Shuffle package. Here’s a thought: Rafting down the Amazon through the jungles of equatorial Peru is an adventure. Riding across the forbidding steppes of Russia’s far east on the Trans-Siberian railroad is an adventure. Opening an iPod box is not.


It’s probably wise not to read much into this pseudo-phenomenon, which mainly proftis from having a holiday season news-peg. But I’ll ignore my own advice and speculate that not only does this suggests how infantile consumerist culture is, regressing us back to the primal pleasures of the fort-da game, but it exemplifies how the thrill of possession, the excitement and anticipation of owning some new thing that’s been deemed exciting and unprecedented, has nothing to do with an object’s function and everything to do with a brief, elusive moment of fulfillment, of having caught up to the cutting edge, that we can now consume vicariously, thanks to these videos, in its purest form.  I don’t doubt that packaging is of critical importance for gadgetry, that the moment of pleasure that comes in the first blush of ownership as you remove the wrapping—the proof that the object is unsullied and the symbol that reminds you that you are the first and only person who will discover this object, which has been laboriously made just for you—stands out far more in most owners’ minds than any subsequent utility he might derive, which is, after all, taken for granted.We can return to the climactic moment of the shopping ritual, when the object is new and unblemished, completely at one with all our fantasies of its potential to change us, before the inevitable falling away to disappointment when we learn that a Wii doesn’t really make us existentially complete (and that, in fact, shadow-boxing the air in your living room with a electronic stick in your hand doesn’t especially fill you with self-worth either).


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