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Sunday, Dec 10, 2006


When did moviegoers, including those in the so-called critical class, get so stupid? When, exactly, did they decide to turn off their brains, sitting back mindlessly and demanding that everything in an entertainment be explained to them? Was it when marketing became master of the cinematic domain, when test screenings and focus groups stole creativity out of the hands of the artist? Maybe it was during the days of the high concept, when narrative didn’t need to be deep or intricate - it just needed to connect instantly with an audience. Home video definitely drove a stake in the heart of cinematic intellectualism. Once everyone had access to the world’s wealth of film, the backseat scholarship began, and as a result, the creation of false perception.


Granted, viewing a masterpiece like 2001 on a 13” screen is not the proper way of determining Kubrick’s overall approach to science fiction, yet such an aesthetic has long since become the norm. As a result, all of these factors have fooled faux cinephiles into believing they understand the nature of movies. Unfortunately, every once in a while, they prove that, deep down inside, they’re insolent little scholars unable to think their way out of a plausible motion picture bag. Take Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, The Fountain. True, the Requiem for a Dream director fought hard to realize his vision of mortality acceptance set inside a surreal speculative fiction/period piece format. And it’s clear that, once first superstar lead Brad Pitt pulled out, Aronofsky had to substantially diminish his vision. But from the reviews being written, both in print and on the web, you’d swear the director had made his own arcane Inland Empire.


In case you missed it – and you probably have, since its flying out of theaters faster than a non-Pixar CGI cartoon – The Fountain centers on Izzy, played by Rachel Weisz, and Tommy, played by Hugh Jackman. She’s a writer. He’s a research scientist/doctor. She is dying of an inoperable brain tumor. He is experimenting with exotic plant life to find a potential cure. As their last days together become insular and unhappy, Izzy presents her husband with a present – it’s her most recent effort, an epic romance/adventure called The Fountain. In the book, a Conquistador is sent to find the Tree of Life by the Queen of Spain. She will use the existence of the mythical symbol as a way of stopping the Grand Inquisitor from usurping her throne – and condemning her to death as a heretic. Charged with his royal mission, the warrior travels abroad, where a Mayan temple supposedly holds the secret location for this holy relic.


The parallels are pretty obvious: a lady being undermined by a “cancerous” force inside her own domain; a dedicated lover intent on finding the “cure”; a battle being waged both internally and externally; faith being destroyed and reconfigured on highly personal and prophetic levels. The story within a story format is so stereotypical – and thus avoided by many modern filmmakers – that Aronofsky’s use is disconcerting at first. It therefore makes some manner of sense that overstuffed film critics, bombarded with every level of moviemaking formula in the motion picture pantheon, would react with some suspicion. Indeed, one doesn’t expect such obvious analogies in the ‘oh so clever’ current artform – and especially from Aronofsky. Even with his dedication to style over subtlety, such an apparent narrative ruse would seem beneath his talents.


As a matter of fact, it is. There is more to the ancient empire storyline than a simple metaphor for Izzy and Tommy’s trials. Clearly, these scenes are meant to forge a fascination with immortality, a question of what cheating death actually means. This is high stakes stuff, material moving at a level beyond most normal human’s hampered thinking capacity. Without going into massive spoilers, the Conquistador’s efforts expose the arrogance of battling transience. Similarly, the fate of the Queen seems certain. She can send all the soldiers she wants out into the New World, hoping to find a remedy for what ails her ‘dying’ regime. But the truth is, such solutions are many miles – and months – away. Anyone who thinks they can hold off the rollercoaster of religion for that period of time is simply foolish. In essence, the actions of the past participants in the story are predestined to fail. That’s the main message of the movie – death cannot be stopped, no matter how hard you fight against it.


So then, what’s the next step? Where does a story like this go from here? It’s at this juncture where many reviewers jumped the sensibility ship. Aranofksy does make a bold choice here – something many miss upon an initial viewing. Izzy explains to her husband that she couldn’t complete her manuscript. The last chapter has been left blank, and she gives her spouse pen and ink, telling him he must finish the story. The sentiment is crystal clear. She’s doing the hard part – dying. He has the second most challenging choice – how to respond to it. The book’s conclusion will reflect his feelings on the subject, and signal how he intends to approach her departing. When viewed in this more than likely light, the futuristic material that has thrown so many moviegoers for an illogical loop is suddenly self-evident.


Tommy is a man of science, someone constantly throwing aside the pragmatic and the emotional for complicated trials on untested treatments. He views the world in a way that most physicians/healers do – that is, they are demigods determining life and death with little interference from the spiritual. His is not a quest for inner peace. He is battling the almighty forces of nature, and he is determined to win. When he does pick up the literary mantle for his dying bride, he envisions an interstellar trip, Tree of Life in tow, to the novel’s otherworldly afterlife, a mythic realm of rebirth entitled Xibalba. There, he will cure the ailing icon, restore balance to his broken existence, and hopefully, resurrect his lost love. This is not some real time trip into another part of the galaxy, a 2001-style symbol of evolution or an A.I.-esque lesson in humanness. As much as the Conquistador material reflects the battle for life, the space bubble ride is a metaphor for the journey toward accepting death.


Since it’s presented in a continuum-tripping manner, certain sequences breathing into and breaking apparent existing scenarios, Aronofsky purposely perverts what is basically a pair of dream sequences supporting a disease of the week romance. It’s so clearly observable – the Conquistador’s tale ends like any good fable would, and the space story is the cathartic conclusion the plotline craves. Naturally, many critics have complained that, when you remove all the gloss and gimmicks, you are stuck with two rather dimensionless characters at the center, and while this may or may not be true, it strikes one as far more insightful than most of the complaints leveled against the film. A few writers have referenced Kubrick’s serious speculative masterpiece – always in an annoyingly inappropriate negative light – as a way of explaining how unexplainable The Fountain is, while others name check nonsense like Zardoz as a way of comparative contrast (frankly, the link is so tenuous as to be truly laughable).


Yet what’s obvious about most of the negative reviews is that intelligence is being systematically switched off the minute the screening starts. Part of the problem is something called CCC – cinematic catalog consciousness. Many in the film commenting community have been involved in the process for a very long time, and have seen so many movies in as many varying genres that their gray matters has been literally rewired to draw instant, often shortsighted conclusions. A music writer once opined that they could tell a hit record within the first 10 seconds of the needle hitting the vinyl. Movie reviewers suffer from something similar. Because of how their minds are bombarded with all manner of aesthetic elements, pro and con, puzzle pieces of perception start systematically falling into place from the opening frames. Many a cinematic scholar has lamented how a potentially good movie is more or less given up for dead by a mindset predetermined to instantly encode and appraise what’s being seen.


So maybe a few of these flummoxed critics gave up on The Fountain within the first five minutes, and ground their teeth until Aronofsky was through with his non-CGI sky show. But in far too many cases, it appears that usually sane cinephiles have simply missed crucial parts of the plot. Izzy makes it very clear that the characters of the Conquistador and the Queen come from her book. She mentions it at least three times, and Tommy never “sees” these scenes until he has her manuscript in hand. Anyone who argues that the period piece material is real and that the present day couple are the old ones reincarnated (or worse, made immortal by the Tree) is just plain stupid. The movie provides the clues to what these sequences represent. Not catching on is sheer cinematic laziness.


Even worse, the interpretations of the outer space material border on the retarded. Reincarnation is given another airing, while others have offered a bizarre combination of immortality and technological advancement as an explanation. One of the most outrageous examples argues that Tommy, devastated by Izzy’s passing, goes on a journey – like the Conquistador – to find the Tree. Once successful, he lives off it for 1000 years until, almost spent, he must enclose it in an interstellar vehicle and send it off to a kind of cosmic clearinghouse. There, some kind of extraterrestrial mumbo jumbo will occur, and everything will be right with the world. Of course, none of this addresses the absence of Izzy, why she only appears as a ghost-like vision during the trip, and why her disembodied voice keeps telling her husband to “Finish It”. When she gives her husband the writing set, she wants him to complete her book. The galaxy quest is that tale envisioned, nothing more or less.


After reading pieces rife with confusion, contempt and callous dismals, it’s clear that Aronofsky’s take on the Kubler-Ross conceits of death and dying did not resonate with most reviewers. And there is nothing wrong with disliking a film. People’s opinions are to be treasured, not trashed. It’s the very foundation of all criticism. But to go the extra mile and categorize The Fountain as unfathomable and incomprehensible is like rubbing salt in an undeserving wound. Is the movie creatively complicated? Yes. Does it hold on to many of its mysteries until long after the final credits have rolled and you’ve had a chance to sit back and consider them? Indeed. Is this just some motion picture masturbation about star-crossed lovers lost over three different millennia? Absolutely not. Such interpretations are proof that, when it comes to cinematic scholarship, many writers got in on their looks, not their knowledge. The reaction to Aronofsky’s The Fountain confirms what many in the movie community already believe. Film criticism is a dying art. In fact, from the looks of things, it may already be dead.


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Sunday, Dec 10, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Various Artists
Kill Rock Stars Winter Holiday Album


Imaad Wasif: “The New Year”
The Robot Ate Me: “Wonderland”
Mary Timony Band “Hapi Holidaze”


 


“Joy to the World, The Kill Rock Stars Winter Holiday Album is here! Thirteen tracks from Kill Rock Stars friends both old and new playing playing holiday standards and original songs inspired by the season.”—Kill Rock Stars



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Sunday, Dec 10, 2006

In the latest move to garner hatred from the public, my dear friends at the RIAA are now setting their sites against songwriters and publishers, asking a group of judges to pay the artists involved LESS money for their efforts in newer electronic media (i.e. ring tones).  An IGN article appropriately tags a roll of toilet paper with the term “RIAA” while Slashdot uses search terms for this story like “greed,” “asshole” and (my personal favorite) MAFIAA, which they should change their name to just to stay honest (for a change, I mean…).  Still, they haven’t gone as far as suing the artists to blame them for their troubles, at least yet.


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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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