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Tuesday, Mar 20, 2007


Hero worship is an understandable human trait. After all, life provides us with so many burdens that to revere another who seems to have all the answers, or at least provides hope that there are indeed resolutions out there, gives us the necessary will to continue on with the fight. This is especially true in children. Lacking the experiences that mold and manage maturity, they are almost always lost in a fog of their own naiveté. Like the simpleton satellites they are at first, they tend to gravitate towards those who they feel can protect and guide them. Usually, said individual is a person with a demeanor of authority and reserve. They appear calm and prepared, ready to address any situation that the child feels could literally swallow them whole. As reliance turns into reverence, the preparation begins for the inevitable fall. Sometimes, the tumble is gradual, learned internally over time and interaction. In other circumstances, the plummet is predicated on a single incident or idea—a misunderstanding, a glimpsed lack of control, or some unexplainable deed that defies godliness. It’s in these moments where life delivers its most devastating lessons. It demands one apply some personal perspective, and it suggests that the carefree days of youth are about to end.


Though there is a lovers’ triangle at the center of the storyline, the relationship most important in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol appears initially to be between overworked butler Baines and dotty diplomat’s son Phile. It is hero worship meshed with just a small amount of parental guidance and guardianship. Baines, represented by British legend Ralph Richardson, and Phile, as found in newcomer Bobby Henrey, create a partnership important to understanding the entire unsettled dynamic of this superb suspense-laden thriller. Told almost exclusively from the vantage point of the child and given to moments of haunting beauty, the movie’s narrow focus and streamlined story make Idol an indelible entertainment. We enjoy learning the ins and outs of the French Embassy—the snotty cleaning crew, the haughty assistants to the Ambassador. The set designs are equally remarkable turning a typical multi-story mansion in the swankiest part of London into a labyrinthine maze of mysteries. From the moment we meet Phile, his head thrust between the slats of one of the home’s many elaborate stairwells, we understand immediately that this will be a film about perspective. What we see, what we know, and, more importantly, what we don’t witness and can’t understand will be the cornerstones of everything Reed the director is striving for. And it all is premised on the relationship between servant and master’s son.


Reed goes for a realistic approach in dealing with Phile. Many films cast their narrative around children, but then go on to make the mistake of having the kids be too intelligent or too in tune with the emotions surrounding a situation. Because his parents are so distant, because he has lived in a world surrounded by keepers and intermediaries, Phile has become lost and on his own. In his world, Phile finds solace in freedom, the connection to animals (including a pet snake MacGregor), and the closeness and comfort he senses in Baines. He doesn’t understand that this older man is suffering inside. He only realizes that his best pal’s wife, an insufferable shrew walking close along the borders of madness, hates almost everything he, Phile, stands for. To her, he’s a rotten spoiled brat who has been raised to be disrespectful, demanding, and devil-may-care. Some may argue that the most important adversarial relationship is the predicament between Mr. and Mrs. Baines, or better yet, Mrs. Baines and her husband’s lover Julie. In reality, it’s how the horrible harpy interacts with Phile that marks Idol‘s most important narrative pairing. He is the catalyst for all the confusion in the household, and she is the specter who constantly reminds Phile that adult things are happening throughout his innocent juvenile realm.


It’s the notion of innocent lost, of growing up and understanding the pressures of age that’s the central theme of The Fallen Idol. Even the title suggests the shrugging off of heroes, and the eventual loss of imaginary playmates. Certainly there is an undercurrent involving lies, truth, and cheating, but it too sets inside a grander statement about the end of childhood. There are many moments throughout Idol where Reed lets Phile fall, over and over again. He does so when he sees Julie and Baines in the teashop. It happens again when MacGregor goes “missing.” Another moment has Mrs. Baines sweet-talking the lad into divulging information, while still another has her swaying over his bed, wild-eyed with jealous rage, hoping to get answers to her suspicious questions. As a result, it’s the backwards connection between Phile and Mrs. Baines that makes up the mantle of this masterful movie. What happens between them, from a dinner-table battle of wills to a telling moment of physical abuse that impacts the remaining narrative and sets the eventual tragic gears in motion. It’s not any threat to him that causes Baines to act; it’s the long simmering showdown between his sinister spouse and the household’s only child that forces his more or less emasculated hand.


Ralph Richardson is outstanding here, especially when you consider the complicated role he is required to essay. Baines must be simultaneously alert, genial, alive, dead, disheartened, sad, angry, ineffectual, smitten, lost, and mildly menacing. He has to juggle the authority of the entire household, the constant nagging of his worthless wife, an unrequited love with a gal he cannot possess, and a boy who believes literally everything that comes from his mouth. There’s a wonderful moment when Richardson and Henrey are discussing a murder that Baines supposedly committed while in Africa. As the boy presses for details, living vicariously through his adult friend’s adventure tale, Richardson is resigned and preoccupied, unable to keep the fictional facts straight. Every misstep is met with a question, and Baines manages to repair any damage to his unreal reputation in Phile’s eyes. It illustrates their relationship perfectly—needy, circumstantially abandoned child and faux father figure who can’t quite live up to the status he’s created for himself. It’s a perfect tragic teaming—a boy constantly climbing and a man laying the flimsy foundation from which he will eventually descend. It’s how those events play out that becomes Idol‘s interesting dynamic, and Reed and Greene don’t disappoint.


Reed was definitely a director with an eye for spaces. He allowed his lens to languish over his elaborate sets and locations in order to give the viewer a proper sense of the area before letting his actors exist within it. When Mr. and Mrs. Baines have their stairway confrontation, we’ve been given so many views of the area that we sense how massive—and how dangerous—it really could be. Similarly, when Phile makes his late-night escape to avoid the confrontation between the adults, we’ve already traveled down the fearsome fire escape before. During the day, it looked like an exit to excitement. But in the darkness of a dead English night, it takes on a solid, sinister import. It’s a technique that Reed will employ throughout the rest of Phile’s journey. Shown only as a small shadow against the backdrop of deserted London streets, child actor Henrey is turned into an icon of youth afraid and unsure. When he ends up in a local police station, his tiny stature becomes a perfect point of reference. He gets lost in an oversized coat (and later, a doctor’s blanket) and seeks refuge in the bosom of a blousy prostitute. All the while, we see Phile vanishing into the reality of the world outside the estate, being absorbed by the truth that he never had to deal with—until now.


In the end, what we get is a startling suspense thriller with moments of great joy and harrowing sorrow. We get to witness a world completely foreign and obscure, yet still filled with the kind of kitchen sink intrigue we expect from much lower-class considerations. Reed complicates matters by making all his characters flawed, from Baines’s interpersonal ineptitude and loose temper to Julie’s desire to defend her man at any and all costs. Even Mrs. Baines is a battleaxe with a soul, though it seems vanquished by an internal pain that forces her to brutalize and blame. All of this gets processed through Phile’s unprepared eyes, and the results are disturbing and direct. Locked in his landscape of ascending/descending stairwells, magnificent balcony vistas of London’s old-world wisdom, dark foreboding hallways, and streets loaded with shadows too deep for any child to navigate, he looks up to Baines as his ballast. With a world full of individuals dismissive of such a pesky, precocious brat, Baines represents everything missing in his life—father, strength, honesty, and goodness. All of that is shattered one night when deception drives people unprepared for its consequences to acts both disturbing and defendable. Through the hero-worshiping eyes of a boy, it’s all an unwelcome wake-up call he is ill prepared to participate in. But he must. Now that his Idol has fallen, he has nothing left but himself.


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Tuesday, Mar 20, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Bang Bang
What We Need [MP3]
     


She Came From Outer Space [MP3]
     


“In Chicago, where yesterday’s bands get chewed up and spit out like fingernails, mutation is survival. It’s how Bang! Bang! has hammered away in the stretches of time that eat most bands alive (four years and counting to be exact.) But rather than growing legs and walking on land, this mutation has allowed Bang! Bang! to take a liberating plunge into new waters on their new LP, The Dirt That Makes You Drown (Morphius Records).”—Morphius



Tour dates
03.29 St. Louis, MO @ The Way Out Club
03.30 Springfield, MO @ The Outland
03.31 Little Rock, AR White Water Tavern
04.01 Hot Springs, AR @ Low Key Arts Building
04.02 Denton, TX @ Rubber Gloves
04.03 Houston, TX @ The Proletariat
04.04 Baton Rouge, LA @ Spanish Moon
04.05 Mobile, AL @ Cellblock
04.06 Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
04.07 Charlotte, NC @ The Milestone
04.09 Carrboro, NC @ Reservoir Bar
04.10 Baltimore, MD @ Lo-Fi Social Club
04.11 Brooklyn, NY @ Trash Bar
04.13 Hamtramck, MI @ The Belmont
04.14 Chicago, IL @ The Beat Kitchen
04.19 Oklahoma City, OK @ The Conservatory
04.20 Amarillo, TX @ E.O.S.
04.21 Albuquerque, NM @ The Launchpad
04.22 Juarez, Mexico @ Line Bar
04.23 El Paso, TX @ Zeppelins Pub
04.24 Phoenix, AZ @ The Trunk Space
04.25 Hollywood, CA @ Safari Sam’s
04.26 Long Beach, CA @ Alex’s Bar
04.28 Sacramento, CA @ Old Iron Sides
05.01 Denver, CO @ 15th Street Tavern
05.02 Lawrence, KS @ The Replay
05.04 Burbank, IL @ Champs Rock Room



Bracken
Heathens [MP3] from We Know About the Need on Anticon.
     


We Know About the Need is the debut album from Bracken, the shrouded-in-mystery solo venture of Chris Adams (otherwise voice and co-sound designer of Leeds legends Hood). It’s a blunt introduction, with the first track picking up as if mid-song: the head-nodding beat and aqueous guitar plucks of “Of Athroll Slains” sounding like some lost instrumental transmission from the Wu’s 36 Chambers picked up by CB radio and rebroadcast here. Bloops, beeps and squelches of strings swirl about, as Chris’ voice comes through sounding wonderfully wrecked and world-weary.”—Anticon


Muslimgauze
Fazizi [MP3] from Intifaxa on Extreme Records.
     


“A contemporary vision of world music where western and Arabic rhythms create a chilling seductive state.”—Extreme


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Tuesday, Mar 20, 2007

Economist Thomas Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior is the sort of book that changes the way you think about social situations for as long as you are under its spell; it forces you to consider how your own preferences affect the equilibrium of any particular scenario, making it obvious how the balances struck in society aren’t static or stable. He starts with an example of seating preferences in an empty auditorium and illustrates how individual preferences (not next to anyone; not in the front row; etc.) aggregate to produce strange outcomes, undesired outcomes. He piles on examples of how various unwanted outcomes—empty classes, intemperate rooms, segregated neighborhoods, etc.—nonetheless achieve equilibrium after we factor in the way each individual’s preferences yields behavior that’s affected by everyone else’s, and the way we tend to overshoot our preferred situation. This is a useful corrective to the view, derived from free-market dogma, that whatever equilibrium a situation finds is inherently justified, and it makes clear how dialectic much of our behavior is—it often doesn’t stem so much from conviction (from who we think we are, from our notion of our transcendent, unique self) but from the reactions of those we find ourselves mixing with. We end up having preferences and principles but find they are often frustrated by the presence of other people—this is partly why “convenience” so often means removing the other people or accommodating them so rotely that it is as if they have been disappeared.


Not only does Schelling shed skeptical light on our notions of transcendent, permanent selfhood, and our ability to act in accordance to our preferences, the book makes us question what really drives our friendships and invites us to consider how much of friendship is an arrangement of convenience rather than a true meeting of souls. At the end of a chapter on the sorts of dynamics that lead to segregation by age and income, he offers this passage, which I found equally stunning and dismal:


People who like privacy will associate with people who like privacy, not necessarily because they like the people but because they like the privacy. People who dislike dogs are happier among people who dislike dogs, not because they like the people but because there are no dogs. People who like crowds will be crowded with people who like crowds, without necessarily liking the people who like crowds. People who want to participate in a life-annuity scheme want to participate with short-lived people, without particularly preferring to have friends who are not long for this world.


A pretty devastating judgment on how we live, it seems. If this is true, then we form personal preferences about things and these become a set of dealbreakers, dictating who we can know, and ultimately our petty grievances will keep us in convenient company rather than that which might challenge and stimulate us.


Reading about economics brings up lots of concepts that can be seen as metaphors with ultra-depresssing ramifications. Consider, for instance, the Markov chain in which each state “is conditionally independent of the past states (the path of the process) given the present state.” In other words, what happens next in no way reflects what has happened in the past, and cause and effect no longer seems to apply—it’s the scientific term for the random walk behavior of stocks on Wall Street, but I’ve known people whose behavior has exhibited the Markov property, and have been accused of it myself. And then there’s the Sorities paradox, otherwise known as the problem of the heap—at what point does a pile of sand become a heap if you are piling it one grain at a time? You may be so fixated on the process that you never notice how it has grown up all around you. This seems an apt metaphor for all sorts of things in life, not merely combovers. When do you know you are in or out of love, for instance? How do you know when you’ve wasted too much time in a job or researching a topic? How do you know when to give up when life piles frustrations on you one grain at a time?


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Monday, Mar 19, 2007



It’s a pretty good week for new DVD releases – that is, if you’re not looking for viable family friendly fodder. Among the “all audience” missteps hitting the merchandising shelves are the ‘Christ our Savior is born’ boredom of The Nativity Story, and yet another computer generated cartoon that mistook processing power for entertainment. Even that sadly mis-categorized Ed Wood gets his entire G-rated output overhauled for yet another plucked-from-the-public-domain box set. But if you’re looking for standard Hollywood heft, a popular pugilist taking one more drink from the sequel cistern, and the lamest LOTR cash-in ever, there will be plenty to fleece your finances come next Tuesday. So break out the bread and peruse what’s available this upcoming 20 March, including the sturdy SE&L pick:


Blood Diamond


Here’s an example of a movie that manufactured most of its hype months before it finally hit theaters. Several high profile jewelry merchants, including the infamous industry giant DeBeers, argued that this tripwire drama centering on the illegal diamond trade in South Africa, was bound to harm their business. Unfortunately, so few people saw the final film that any possible positive/negative effects were more or less annulled. There are critics who complained – rather loudly – that Hollywood was once again placing a white protagonist (in this case, a heavily accented Leo DiCaprio) in charge of helping a reluctant black man (a far better Djimon Hounsou) battle a syndicate/rebel desire for a priceless gemstone. As he did in previous productions (The Last Samurai, The Siege) director Edward Zwick amplifies the more melodramatic elements of his narrative to avoid dealing with confrontation or controversy. The result is an ersatz thriller with more character than clarity in its final plotting.

Other Titles of Interest


Eragon


If you ever want proof that a teenager is incapable of writing a literary epic, just feast your eyes on this overwrought adaptation of Christopher Paolini’s paltry Tolkein rip-off. Relying on elements from both sci-fi (lots of sloppy Stars Wars riffing here) and fantasy (dragons away!) the results are a dull, derivative mess. No matter the books puzzling popularity, it is clear we are dealing with a lack of legitimate originality. 

Everyone’s Hero


Another CGI stumble from a year overloaded with them. It takes a lot to mess up a movie dealing with America’s previous favorite pastime – a.k.a. baseball – but somehow, this tale of a talking baseball and Babe Ruth’s favorite bat (that also speaks) makes about as much sense as Barry Bonds’ steroid excuses. All touchy feely sentiments aside, this is proof that no amount of computing power can save a shoddy storyline.

The Naked City: The Criterion Collection


Using a post-World War New York as its sensational, pseudo documentary backdrop, this subtle noir finds Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor as detectives investigating the death of an attractive model. All leads point to a criminal conspiracy involving a string of apartment robberies. With Oscars for its amazing cinematography and expert editing, this is a pristine example of the monochrome movie mystery.

Rocky Balboa


After failing to find box office fortune with efforts outside his standard comfort zone (Get Carter, Driven), Sylvester Stallone returns to the franchise that put him on the cinematic map – and actually delivers something quite special. While not as good as the original film (or as jingoistic as other installments) this is still a nice coda to a time honored character – and a superstar’s sagging career.

Re-Animator


It remains one of horror’s most honored efforts, a film that can still flummox fans with its continued popularity and praise. But one has to admit that director Stuart Gordon took H.P Lovecraft to levels previously unheard of when he created this darkly comic zombie flick. Featuring a stellar performance from Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Herbert West, and lots of goofy gore, it remains an unqualified cult classic.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film


Previously shown on Starz way back during the macabre month of October, this insightful little documentary attempts the impossible. It wants to cover the beginning, middle and leveling off of the slice and dice splatter spectacles of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Paying a little too much attention to Halloween and Friday the 13th (who are, granted, the grand old men of the genre) and not enough on the influence of exploitation (Michael and Roberta Findlay and their benchmark Flesh Trilogy fail to earn a mention) this is still a fun, fact filled romp. Especially interesting are the sequences describing the unusual merchandising that followed the fame of Freddy, Jason and the rest of the mass murderer brigade. Purists may wonder why other facets of the cinematic category aren’t covered (nary a mention of foreign horror films) while completists will complain over the lack of real depth. Still, for such a throwaway genre to receive this sort of attention speaks volumes for the staying power of horror.

 


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Monday, Mar 19, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Self TitledMatt & Kim
All tracks from Self Titled on iheartcomix.
Yea Yeah [MP3]
     


No More Long Years [MP3]
     


“Brooklyn duo/couple Matt and Kim can’t stop exuding energy—they can only hope to contain it, all while gleefully messing with the usual formula in their debut album.”—iheartcomix


SanDj Klock
Theme [MP3]
     


“One of Japan’s most celebrated underground heros, DJ Klock drops his first U.S. recoding. This is art/hip-hop, experiments in minimilism, maximilism and general turntable weirdness.”—Ropeadope


SJ Esau
Cat Track (He Has No Balls) [MP3]
     


“For SJ Esau’s Anticon debut, the Bristol-based bedroom virtuoso continues his masterful balance of sonic manipulation and songcraft across 12 alternately expansive and explosive tracks. You’ll find Wrong Faced Cat Feed Collapse on the rarely tread common ground between Slint, Arab Strap, Fog, Sonic Youth and Mogwai (with Fennesz and Jim O’Rourke lurking in the shadows), which is to say, this is an album that successfully bridges genre-less explorations into sound to detailed composition, solo meanderings to inspired collaboration, a sense of humor to a sense of melancholy, and the listener to a unique world that could only be inhabited and operated by SJ Esau himself.”—Anticon


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