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Tuesday, Aug 7, 2007

George Stephanopoulos’ Sunday morning GOP debate saw the candidates spar over abortion rights and immigration policy. Stephanopoulos, for the most part, did a decent job trying to get the candidates to distinguish themselves from each other, but talking points and partisan rhetoric conveniently got in the way. One candidate who has got a lot of coverage following the debate has been the old-school conservative candidate Ron Paul.

Texas congressman Ron Paul has made waves from his staunchly anti-war stance, from the right. He boldly states that we should bring the troops home because it’s unconstitutional and against our national interest. Although most admit Paul is a long shot, he has gotten a lot of attention for his frank assessment of the President’s policies.

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Monday, Aug 6, 2007

Here’s a warning, well in advance. According to those on the inside, the Fourth Quarter of 2007, the three months leading up and through Christmas, are promising to be one of the biggest ever in terms of DVD product. Not just standard releases of the Summer’s biggest hits, mind you, but epic box sets for long awaited Holy Grails like Blade Runner and 2001. Apparently, packaging is the new marketing tactic, with elaborate presentations and add-ons taking the place of standard audience interest. So start saving those important pennies now. You don’t want to be the only one on your block without a Hogwart’s School Trunk loaded with the first five Harry Potter films, do you? Actually, you need to manage all your money wisely, especially with the blockbuster season about to end. The studios are gearing up with more and more first run releases, meaning you’ll need to figure how to deal those dollars effectively, beginning with SE&L’s selection of 07 August:


Who would have thought that an adolescent Rear Window would be Spring 2007’s surprise sleeper hit? After all, star Shia La Beouf wasn’t (at the time) a major league star and director DJ Caruso was a TV mostly moviemaker with a few unimpressive feature films. Yet somehow, the combination of knack and novelty worked, resulting in a Generation Next take on the old school thriller. In fact, most critics point to the effective pacing, genial characterization, and drum tight narrative as reasons for its success. Granted, not everything here is Hitchcock flawless. The “is he or isn’t he” angle on the suspected serial killer is pretty obvious, and the ‘misunderstood teen’ material can grow grating at times. Still, for some good old fashioned goosebumps accentuated with lots of post-millennial tech tweaks, you could do a lot worse. In fact, if this effort leads more young people to the works of the true Master of Suspense, it will all be worth it.

Other Titles of Interest

Bubba Ho-Tep: The King’s Jumpsuit Edition

Bruce Campbell deserved an Oscar nomination (no, seriously) for his sensational turn as an aging Elvis in this brilliant Don Coscarelli genre-bender. Bloated, ornery, and a clear casualty of his unwieldy fame, he’s so amazing that we want more of his fried peanut butter and banana sandwich sloth. Long available on DVD, this unnecessary double dip changes nothing about the previous special edition, and adds a mock King jumpsuit as packaging. Great film. Needless rerelease.

Crime Story

Right before he made it big in America with 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx, fans of Hong Kong action were praising Jackie Chan’s work in this standard Asian police actioner. While some will point to his Police Story films as better examples of the man’s amazing stunt skills and physical acumen, there are enough death defying fireworks here to warrant attention. While you may find the lack of laughs a little disconcerting (this is one of Chan’s more serious roles), it’s still a great ride.

The First Films of Sam Fuller

If a film fan was looking for a literal, visual translation of the term ‘maverick’, a portrait of Sam Fuller would do quite nicely. As a young journalist, he covered the European theater during World War II, and he used that experience as the basis for much of his moviemaking aesthetic. Working in the standard machismo mannerisms – westerns, crime – he developed a determined cult following. Here, Criterion’s Eclipse series celebrates three of his earliest efforts.

I Think I Love My Wife

Chris Rock is an inherently funny guy. Give him a subject and he can riff away with devastating abandon. So why has his onscreen work been so mediocre, including this unnecessary remake of Eric Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon (yes, you read that right). Maybe it has something to do with trying to wedge an acerbic social satirist into the role of nerdy nebbish. Could be the lack of motivational insight. Whatever the case, don’t waste your time on this derivative mess.


The rumors seemed too good to be true. Hong Kong action master John Woo was considering bringing the famed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back to the big screen in a serious, inspired by the original comics, CGI spectacle. Dork universe wet themselves. Turned out, the reports were false. The computer generated angle was all that remained once the newly minted TMNT arrived. Fans found it decent. Others just ignored it. DVD will let you decide.

And Now for Something Completely Different
The Film Crew: Killers from Space

It’s enough to make fans of the brazen television treat Mystery Science Theater 3000 stand up and cheer. After years without new in-theater riffing from Mike Nelson and his robot pals, Legend Films and Shout Factory! have decided to team up and produce some MST inspired mayhem. Recruiting Nelson and his automaton’s human counterparts – Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett – a new spoof situation was created. They are renamed The Film Crew, and work for an insane CEO who wants every movie ever made – no matter how crappy – to have a commentary track. Last time out, Rue McClanahan’s stripper epic Hollywood After Dark was the target. Now, it’s grade-Z schlock stuff Killers from Space. Maintaining their deft comic touch, these new direct to DVD installments remind one of the delirious days on the Satellite of Love. While it may never match the original quip-fests frenzied funny business, this is a fine substitute.


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Monday, Aug 6, 2007

Paris, being the seat of fashion and style, a working hypothesis comes quickly to mind: turn the camera anywhere—liberally, licentiously, laconically—and locate design.  So I do. A challenge being that which I can’t resist. The thing I always rise to.

And, consistent with expections . . . design is what I find.

Design spews out of storefront windows:


Design slides down the slope of a handrail inside the Sorbonne:


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Monday, Aug 6, 2007

This past weekend I went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, to see a Joseph Cornell retrospective, which I found extremely inspirational. In the galleries, I was torn by competing impulses: I wanted to absorb as much of Cornell’s metier as I possible could, but I also wanted to get out of the museum as soon as possible to get started on my own imitations of what he had done because his techniques—collage, rudimentary carpentry, cutting and pasting—seem so simple, approachable and accessible that seeing his work makes it seem easy to translate moments of artistic perception immediately into compelling pieces of art: just slap a few cool pictures cut out of magazines together in a little wooden box with some found objects—some sand, some watch faces, a few marbles and a some broken shot glasses—and then scratch some lines on them with a compass and a ruler, and voila! Semi-surreal mystery, an box that opens onto the imagination.

Of course, it is not as simple as all that: His work so carefully conceals the refinement involved that it makes it seem as though there isn’t any craft required, and that a meticulous apprenticeship in artistic technique may in fact stifle the conveyance of whatever aesthetic notion one has had. And those notions don’t come as easy as they seem to have come to Cornell. Looking at any retrospective makes it seem like a coherent body of ideas are just there to be seized, eliding over the time it takes for artists to grasp them, to know they are on to something. All the false starts and the stretches without inspiration become invisible.

A museum show—especially for an artist like Cornell, who is fixated on and works with everyday materials we are all familiar with—makes the barriers between conception and execution seem to disappear. A retrospective show also makes it seem second-nature to have absolute fixations on certain patterns of images, certain ideas: Cornell was interested in maps and ballerinas and penny arcade toys and the like, and the show makes it clear how fruitful those obsessions were for him artistically, but it only gives the faintest sense of what it’s like to be truly obsessed, to be cutting pictures of dancers out of magazines and collecting a garage’s worth of scrap metal and discarded machine parts, to be rummaging continually at second hand shops not with a mind to make art so much as a predilection to be haunted by vague connections you sense in the refuse and that you long to tease out but can only begin to by perpetual accumulation, by making oneself the sole point of contiguity between a vast array of disparate quotidian flotsam and jetsam and bearing that enormous burden while trying to formulate and maintain the connections in your head. Cornell’s work seems to be the output from that process, and it’s all alive with the energy of that peculiarly focused curiosity.

At the museum, I felt as though it was a cinch that I could go out and experience that same curiosity in how I look at the humdrum stuff around me. I could just start taking pictures of stuff with my digital camera, and the underlying strangeness in the world would just automatically manifest itself, and reason that things that catch my attention would suddenly become palpable and my excitement immediately transferable to other people. Intriguing juxtapositions would just occur to me in the process of putting together pieces to show people, a process which would of course bring about no anxiety and would go as smoothly as breathing or getting laughs out of watching Trailer Park Boys, and require as much conscious deliberation. At the museum, it seemed impossible that I wouldn’t leave and begin that process, begin making that effort to make tangible, powerful, enduring records of my passing curiosities.

But that sort of excitement and eagerness may just be the experiential good of being at the show, the fantasy it evokes so powerfully in spectators. Consuming Cornell’s work inspires the satisfying notion that making art can seem almost inevitable, a by-product of a life lived well. But this pleasant notion is an illusion, an effect achieved by the finished product about the process that yielded it. Looking at his pieces, one consumes an idealized notion of how it is to live as an artist without having to experience any of the arduousness of creation, or having to acknowledge that it exists. And as a bonus, it vindicates everyday life, making it seem as though its mysteriousness is self-evident, that it requires no effort to find the mystery, when in fact discovering mystery in the ordinary is hard work, requiring total commitment to one’s idiosyncrasies to the point where one become inscrutable to one’s acquaintances.

Still, one of the most impressive things in the show (for me, anyway) was a series of homemade faux newsletters about poultry farming Cornell made to amuse his siblings or cousins (I should have taken some notes while I was there). We don’t know if they were actually amused, but it was impossible to miss the sense of humor on display there—a delight in the good-natured fatuousness of those with extremely narrow interests combined with an appreciation for the pretentiousness inherent in print publication. There was probably some condescension toward rural life, as well, but nothing malicious, just a sense that poultry farming could be used as a focal point to organize as many mysteries of the universe as avant-garde painting or academic philosophizing, and in a way that makes you laugh. So perhaps his idiosyncrasies didn’t make him entirely antisocial and inscrutable; one still imagines, though, that he must have spent a lot of time alone, a lot of time compensating for that loneliness by trying to understand social phenomena (the fame of actresses and their specific sexual allure; the invention of nostalgia) drawing only on the intensity of his solitary experience and reaction to such things, and on what he could imagine and infer.

Most people’s obsessions tend not to haunt them so, and a desire to be like Cornell won’t suddenly give them that transformative intensity. Ordinary people tend not to have the same quotient of desperation in their curiosity. But people like to think that curiosity doesn’t have that dark, obsessional side to it, and that it’s waiting for them if they would choose to indulge in it. After the Cornell show, I had this strong feeling that interesting images and ideas were just lying around everywhere, and all I needed to do was stoop to notice, and I could feel creative. It gave the impression that it was simply a matter of focusing, that being an artist was mainly a matter of identifying the mysteriousness of what already exists. Another of the shows at the museum, “Accidental Mysteries,” an exhibit of snapshots that accidentally captured something interesting or supernatural-seeming, extended that notion to its logical conclusion, removing the artist’s intentionality from the equation altogether in favor of “vernacular photography”:

Vernacular photography refers to images taken for personal use: family portraits, travel albums, holiday photos and more. Many of the photographs contain accidental double exposures or other darkroom mistakes, creating unintentionally idiosyncratic compositions. Viewed outside their intended context, the snapshots take on the reflections of the viewer, who is left to ponder the mysterious circumstances in which these photographs came to be.

Thus you, the spectator, become the real artist, the one with the aesthetic vision and intention. And all you have to do is look, because (through the clever machinations of the curator and the museum) you transcend the ordinary and vernacular yourself, having been wrenched out of everyday in order to perceive its magic. (Found magazine works on the same premise.) These photos are not art objects until we (well, curators anyway) bring our advanced viewpoint to them—which is extremely flattering for audiences. And it’s comforting for us too because there’s no possible way we can be accused of misunderstanding what the artist meant. There’s no way we can get it wrong.

Does that mean that it’s merely pseudo-art, giving lazy audiences an easy and merely superficial aesthetic experience, one that consumes itself quickly and leaves no lasting impression? It does allow audiences to elude the problem of worrying about artists in bad faith—those making ego art or “selling out.” Artists can’t have bad intentions if they had no intentions. And it isolates an elusive thing—a pure accident—and makes it unmistakably present, and that’s a satisfying thing to behold. And we can learn something about what curators and others find interesting in an accidental photo—they get to convey an aesthetic vision (what compositions are interesting, what subjects and framing effects are compelling, etc.) by an editing process rather than constructive, creative process. It vindicates the view of art as being essentially editorial (or conceptual), a matter of recognizing cool stuff and filtering given material down rather than a matter of rigorously building up some particular technique or approach, of ceaseless revising and refining until one has got something right, whatever “right” may happen to be.

But other artists can’t evaluate the work in terms of the choices someone made, so it offers them virtually nothing: They can’t take anything away from such art without falling into bad faith; one can’t plan for the effect of accidentalness without presenting audiences with something substantially different that the true vernacular pieces give. They would just be faking it, like pretend folk or outsider artists. So vernacular art is art for people who refuse to “give in” to artists’ calculated manipulations, who want no sense that someone else can plan something in advance to make them feel something specific and predictable. Vernacular art has the effect of seeming to preserve the audience’s sense of its own spontaneity—safe from an artist’s machinations and intentions. But then, the curators already had that planned, which is why they organized the exhibit in the first place.

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Monday, Aug 6, 2007

Critically acclaimed Curb Your Enthusiasm continues to make audiences laugh and is far from over. Based on Larry David’s life, the show maintains the “show about nothing” theme of Seinfeld, but turns the focus on David, a character similar to Seinfeld’s George. With a great cast, consisting of Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, and Susie Essman, Curb has been nominated for twenty Emmy Awards and has won a Golden Globe. New episodes from season 6 will air early September, 2007.

Some clips from the show:

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