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Friday, Oct 20, 2006
by Jennifer O'Connor

Jennifer O’Connor Tour Diary, Entry #1
Wed, Oct 18, 2006

Jennifer O'Connor

Jennifer O’Connor

Hello People! Welcome to the Jennifer O’Connor Tour Diary written by me, Jennifer O’Connor.

I just put out a new album a couple of months ago on Matador Records called Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars and I’m in the midst of some major full-band tour action — in September I was with Mason Jennings, right now I’m with Portastatic, and soon I’ll join Mountain Goats.

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Thursday, Oct 19, 2006

Just turn off the set. Skip it. Go out and get a life, or find a local book club that will actually accept your multimedia made illiteracy as a personality quirk, but don’t make a date with your beloved pay movie channels this weekend. With four films that stink like a dead skunk drowned in dung, it’s impossible to recommend anything that your hard earned premium cable dollars are paying for. Between the tepid tripe of another paranormal romance to a ridiculous remake of a fright film that didn’t get it right the first time around, you’d be better served by staying up late tonight and taking in a pair of Russ Meyer’s mammary-enhanced masterworks (see below). Or better yet, turn off the tube and simply settle in with a good DVD. Even something as hackneyed as a full on Friday the 13th marathon (from the original to Freddy vs. Jason) would provide more moviemaking acumen than the dire dregs being tossed out here. For those of you still not convinced, here is what’s showing this Saturday, 21 October:

HBOJust Like Heaven

Who knew the dead were so – spunky? In this tired retread of the ridiculous RomCom subsection – the supernatural love story, Reese Witherspoon is Legally Deceased, and yet still manages to woo and win the afterlife affection of her barely alive new beau, the ragged Mark Ruffalo. Though some might consider this approach to relationships (ghost of a dead doctor falls for the dude who rents out her now vacant apartment) as something quite novel, it’s just the same old superficial spook show. If you want real invention in the tired filmic format, avoid this frazzled fluff and check out Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Once you’ve seen how truly original and affecting a romantic comedy can be, you’ll never again settle for such syrupy, saccharine slop. Here’s hoping her recent Oscar win helps Ms. Witherspoon avoid such subpar product in the future. (Premieres Saturday 21 October, 8:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review


What has happened to the science fiction film of late? With examples as appalling as the Robin Williams waste of time The Final Cut to that lame Michael Bay boogie The Island, it seems like the speculative side of genre cinema just can’t get no respect. Further proof is provided by this excruciating Ewan McGregor effort. Playing a psychiatrist trying to decipher the rationale behind a gifted artist’s recent declaration of suicidal intent, this failed future schlock is all the more stunning when you consider Mark Foster, responsible for Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, was behind this fiasco. Call it Imitation Vanilla Sky or a drab David Lynch daydream, but this meshing of fantasy with fact is just an excuse for more motion picture masturbation from what many consider to be a gifted filmmaker. (Premieres Saturday 21 October, 10:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review


Steve Martin needs to retire. Just look at the last five films this one time cutting edge comedian has made – Bringing Down the House, Cheaper by the Dozen (and it’s even dopier sequel), the pathetic Pink Panther revamp and this stab at middle aged male menopause passing itself off as a standard romantic comedy. Responsible for the script, as well as the source material at the center of this lame love triangle, Martin makes many of the same mistakes that other wannabe old coot Casanovas commit – he actually thinks people will care about his aged character’s need for human companionship. With relationships too difficult for the average viewer to navigate successfully, the interpersonal dynamics of fictional people better be fresh or fascinating. Otherwise, it’s all heartbreak and old hat. Sadly, Martin makes it seem rather rote as well. (Premieres Saturday 21 October, 9:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

ShowtimeThe Amityville Horror (2005)

It was the book that spawned a dozen schoolyard debates. Hailed as a true, nonfiction account of one family’s battle with the forces of darkness, the legend of Amityville (and the bestseller that resulted) fueled many a ‘70s teen’s sleepless night. The original film version, starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder was marred by a blatant disregard for the narrative’s best elements, and instead, focused on things that many fans found irritating, or downright foolish. Well, in a clear case of failing the second time around, producer Michael Bay equally eviscerates the storyline, keeping only the chills for this exercise in excess. First time filmmaker Andrew Douglas makes the fatal mistake of believing that non-stop scares make for a masterpiece of macabre. Instead, he churns out a meandering mess with various haunted house histrionics that appear to have no real point. (Saturday 21 October, 9:00pm EST)

PopMatters Review



For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 20/21 October, the choices are sensational:

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Russ Meyer’s emblematic exploitation film is far more interested in violence than vice, but that doesn’t mean its any less effective. With one of the best girl gangs ever put on film – including the sultry Tura Satana and the ‘healthy’ Haji – you can’t beat this film for full out gal against guy gratuity. The result is a true cult gem. (2:00am EST)

Made the same year as Pussycat, Meyer’s trashy Tobacco Road take is far more typical of his overall canon – an oeuvre that was more social commentary than all out skin flick. Safely within the limits of acceptable mid-‘60s censorship standards (it will be interesting to see how TNT handles the nudity), this is also one of the director’s best.  (3:30am EST)


Seven Films, Seven Days

For October, the off title idea is simple – pick a different cable channel each and every day, and then find a film worth watching. While it sounds a little like an exercise in entertainment archeology, you’d be surprised at the broad range of potential motion picture repasts in the offing. Therefore, the fourth installment of acceptable selections for this week include:

21 October - The Game
David Fincher fooled everyone by showing that the tired twist ending could still be surprising – and thought provoking – in this inventive clockwork thriller.
(Flix – 8PM EST)

22 October - Dolores Claiborne
Kathy Bates takes on another classic Stephen King character in Taylor Hackford’s excellent adaptation of the terror maestro’s experimental novel.
(Encore Mystery – 9:30PM EST)

23 October - Halloween II (Edited Version)
Edit out all the blood and guts and what do you have? Another American Movie Classics excuse for entertainment – not that this shoddy sequel needs help sucking.

24 October -Leviathan
Right at the end of the ‘80s, sea creatures made a minor run at genre box office gold. The better of the two is this combination of Alien and aquatics.
(Encore – 8PM EST)

25 October - The Haunting
Want to see the film that killed Jan de Bont’s directorial career? Then check out this overwrought, CGI heavy version of the Shirley Jackson classic.
(TBS – 11:20PM EST)

26 October - Better Off Dead
Considered by many ‘80s film fans as one of the era’s definitive teen romps, this jaunty John Cusak starring vehicle deserves all of its aficionado affections.
(The Movie Channel – 11:35PM EST)

27 October -Strange Invaders
Both a throwback to the sci-fi of the ‘50s and a celebration of the F/X heavy horrors of the ‘80s, this forgotten film is a true forgotten classic.
(MoviePlex – 7:20PM EST)

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Thursday, Oct 19, 2006

Yesterday The Wall Street Journal reported on a new record-industry ploy to make file sharing work in their favor by flooding LimeWire, et. al., with dummy decoy files that are actually ads. You search for Audioslave or Dashboard Confessional (why you would do this, frankly, I don’t know) and you end up with advertisements and possibly teasers to spread the advertising “virally” in order to unlock the song you wanted in the first place. Or it’s a rare two-for-one treat for the would-be pirate who thought he was getting the new Jay-Z tracks; not only does he get something bogus, he also gets an ad cajoling him to drink Coca-Cola.

I’m not sure why Coke would want to associate itself with such a negative experience for the target audience. Wouldn’t the person who recieves this particular advertising message think, “Fuck you, Coca-Cola, and the bullshit DRM you rode in on”? Is the faith in the razzle-dazzle of new technologies for delivering ads so great that companies fail to imagine the more mundane matters of context? (Maybe they crossed this line long ago when they started running cheerful liquor ads alongside pictures of starving and maimed children in news magazines—which reminds me of my favorite moment in the TV version of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, when he shows of few of these juxtapositions and declares that Western culture had officially gone insane.)

It was only a matter of time before ads rode to the rescue of intellectual-property thieves. Our society couldn’t go on having more and more consumers unrepentantly embracing criminality. Something had to change to reincorporate them. It’s impossible to remain an outlaw once ads find you—what the presence of ads proves is that your deviousness has already been expected and accounted for—thereby neutralizing it. For a while, with its futile lawsuits against its own customers, it seemed the record industry was going the way of the war on drugs, but this latest turn makes much more sense. There’s a nice symmetry to ads and file-sharing; you steal someone else’s intellectual property, ads steal some of your intellect right back.

Anyway, the further blurring of ads and content in the pop-music realm is reminiscent of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s pioneering effort in the 1980s, when the band put ads between the songs on their album Flaunt It (featuring “Love Missile F1-11”) This idea, needless to say, did not catch on—maybe foregrounding the band’s crass cynicism wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe people, even in the 1980s, didn’t find that kind of hollow greed appealing. You didn’t have that vicarious pull that pop music typically provides; you didn’t think, Gee, I wish I could be a smug, hack, makeup-wearing phony who revels in commercialism and played-out disco beats. But perhaps the time for ads merged with music files has come. SSS probably wasn’t wrong about ads and pop songs being essentially interchangable; they were prescient in predicting their growing symbiosis. Perhaps we’re now ready for product placements within pop songs: Just imagine a R&B diva getting all melismatic with brand names: “Aaaa-berr-cro-oh-oh-ah-ah-ohm-bie-eee-aye-eee!”.

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Wednesday, Oct 18, 2006

As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the biology-based terror of David Cronenberg, Canada’s premier horror maestro.

For many, sex and sexuality is an issue best left private. It involves so many idiosyncratic and deeply personal aspects that it can cause considerable individual angst. But in the mind of Canadian macabre maestro David Cronenberg, the physical act of intercourse, and the ancillary essentials that make up eros, can be more terrifying than any monster, more horrific than any visit from a violent slasher. It all has to do with the body – as a temple and temptation, a place easily violated and poisoned by facets from without and within. In a career that has spanned three decades, several sensational films, and a genre-defying approach to narrative, Cronenberg has managed to locate the fear inside the most fundamental aspect of existence – life itself – and as a result he created a canon where being human is the most potentially precarious thing a person can do.

For some, he is a difficult auteur. His work is overloaded with ideas, plagued by invention that both amplifies and occasionally addles, his efforts. Because of his background – Cronenberg studied both science and literature in college, taking a degree in the latter from the University of Toronto before dabbling in film – his themes usually clash, creating cinematic chaos before coming together at the end. After several strange and unique independent efforts (and more than a couple of TV films for Canadian broadcasting) in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Cronenberg was desperate to explore the unnatural ideas rolling around in his head. He finally got the chance in 1975 with Shivers (released in the US and better known as They Came From Within).

With a narrative that would come to exemplify much of the director’s works – a parasite overruns an apartment building, turning the residents into lust-crazed maniacs whose goal is to infect each other – Shivers started Cronenberg’s career long march toward discovering the mysteries of sex. Acknowledging that for many, the physical act of love (or without emotion, pure carnal copulation) can be a daunting, even devastating act, the director designed his cinema to symbolize such an internal struggle via brash external means. In the case of Shivers, it was the loss of intimacy as represented by a small, squishy slug that brings on uncontrolled desire. Seen by many today as an AIDS metaphor as well as a comment on the disease spreading revolution that marked most of the Me Decade, the movie was an auspicious start to a soon to be impressive career. 

Next up was Rabid, which took the whole pornography of fear (and visa versa) element one step further by featuring real life adult film star Marilyn Chambers in the lead role. She played a woman whose botched plastic surgery leads to an insatiable desire for blood, and a small penis-like appendage jutting from her armpit. Never one to shy away from the more graphic aspects of imagery, many fright fans were repulsed by the decidedly disturbing nature of Cronenberg’s visuals. Still, Rabid was well received and after the one-off car cult action pic Fast Company, Cronenberg was back in biological territory. Using children as the source of all evil, he fashioned The Brood. Noted for taking the concept of psychosomatic illnesses to an all new, literary level, the director dissected birth, and the legacy of procreation, and inserted them into the closest thing to a condemnation of offspring this side of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.

Though he was now a considered cult filmmaker, Cronenberg had yet to matter to the mainstream. All of that would change with his next effort, 1980’s Scanners. Completing a kind of queer quadrilogy that followed terror from creation, to birth, to a kind of mutated maturity, the filmmaker established the perfect way of meshing physicality with fear, while also tapping into areas revolving around power and purpose. In this popular hit (which used the explosion of a man’s head from the film’s first act as a decided gore selling point), two adult ‘scanners’ battle for a kind of metaphysical supremacy, one arguing that the telekinetic skills he was genetically engineered with are a curse. The other, of course, sees nothing but superiority. Thanks to the bloodletting and special effects which accented Cronenberg’s complex screenplay, what could have been a geek show turned into a brave, bravura statement.

But he wasn’t done manipulating both mind and body. In his minor masterpiece Videodrome, Cronenberg considered the meddlesome effects of the media on human nature, and personal physicality, all with devastating results. Predating many of the symptoms post-modern punditry would imply were destroying the human race (TV, violence, sex, cults, religion) the director melded technology, terror and temptation to produce a kind of arch acid flashback, compete with living televisions, torso vaginas, and guns that were an actual extension of one’s anatomy. Some consider the last act where star James Woods has become a bio-sexual assassin (all thanks to a brainwashing signal implanted in a pirate satellite transmission) to be a meandering mess that looses much of what Cronenberg was commenting on. While definitely gruesome, the finale is a flawless wrap up to a story that’s surrealism sets up all the symbolism to come.

At this point, Cronenberg had arrived and was presented with his choice of projects. Scanners was a hit, and Videodrome proved he could match wits with even the wildest industry innovators. His next step threw the fanbase a substantial cinematic curve when he agreed to film an adaptation of Stephen King’s paranormal political thriller The Dead Zone. Antithetical to his whole corporeal creep show concepts, he still delivered a searing socio-political drama that resonates as realistically today as it did three decades before. It so impressed the individuals holding the option for a remake of the ‘50s insect schlock The Fly that Cronenberg was given the job of bringing the troubled project to the screen. Perhaps the perfect match of material and maker, the resulting effort would become one of horror cinema’s greatest achievements.

The Fly functions on many magnificent levels – love story, splatterfest, acting tutorial, monster movie – that to try and narrow its success to one or the other is futile. With a remarkable Jeff Goldblum giving life to one of the most difficult roles in all of fright filmmaking (man turning into a creature) and effects that added emphasis to the horror this human was experiencing, the sci-fi aspects of the narrative function perfectly as an analogy to how love impacts and changes a person. Before his relationship with Veronica, Goldblum’s character Seth Brundle was an insular and introverted man. Passion, and physical love transform the sullen scientist into a man eager to explore the possibilities of the world. Sadly one said adventure involved his teleportation device, an errant insect, and a gradual transformation into something quite grotesque.

An unquestionable achievement, Cronenberg’s creation touched a substantial genre nerve. Fright fans found it almost impossible to ignore the depth of emotion that existed between the characters, and saw the ending, a Grand Guignol spectacle of violence and loss, as one of Cronenberg’s most powerful. Few thought he could do better, but again, he baffled his devotees by delivering another amazing movie, the dualistic thriller Dead Ringers. It was a narrative that brought all his obsessions full circle. More psychological than physiological and using the almost telepathic connection between twins to tell a tale of obsession and possession, the narrative seemed like a response to all the critics who commented on the director’s own fascination with the human body and all its amniotic aspects.

At this point, Cronenberg could have merely coasted. Numerous projects came his way, many of which were Hollywood’s way of “rewarding” him for years of outsider excellence. But instead of bowing to blockbuster pressures, the filmmaker followed his heart, and attempted the near impossible – an adaptation of William Burrough’s notorious novel Naked Lunch. Instead of coming to terms with the demented descriptions in the author’s stream of consciousness screed of drugs and their use/abuse, Cronenberg fused a fictional Burroughs’ biopic with an interpretation of how such haunting, harrowing passages were prepared, and created a kind of mental Molotov cocktail. Fans hoping for a quixotic slice of pure Burroughs felt betrayed. Others argued that there were vast, varied differences between Croneberg’s Lunch and the ersatz story on the page. While celebrated today, Naked Lunch was lamented at the time of its initial release, considered disappointing in both cinematic and literary camps. 

It didn’t stop the auteur from continuing to court controversy. He brought the Broadway hit M. Butterfly to the silver screen, amplifying the homosexual angle of an already scandalous story of a French diplomat who fell in love and lived with an Asian transvestite. Next, he pushed the acceptability envelope even further by retrofitting J. G. Ballard’s brave book, Crash to fit his filmmaking ideals. So scandalous that it barely got released, the story of sexual deviants who get physical thrills from accident scenes and injury, put a preemptive halt to the director’s ascent into universal adoration. Arguably one of his best films, Crash can also be seen as penance for all the peculiarity Cronenberg placed upon his audiences.

Instead of a retreat, however, the filmmaker merely pressed on. His next big screen effort, eXistenZ was a weird, wooly trip into virtual reality, and proved a professional disappointment. Viewers apparently weren’t ready to see a motion picture mindfuck that actually was mindfucking itself. Then came the criminally underrated Spider with Ralph Fiennes delivering a devastating turn as a mentally unhinged man whose past and present seem to coexist simultaneously. In 2005, Cronenberg stunned everyone, from film critic to fervent supporter, with his Oscar caliber comment on the brutal nature of the human race, A History of Violence.

For a filmmaker used to accolades, the love this masterpiece received was outrageous. Nominated for numerous awards, and high on almost all film critic’s year end ‘best of’ lists, the story of small town America shaken by murder, and mistrust violates almost every single aspect of the filmmaker’s venereal style. Gone are the multiple references to the human form – in there place are stellar statements about the nature of evil, and how a loved one can hide their true self from even those they profess to care about. In fact, many reviewers responded favorably to the film for the very reason that Cronenberg appeared to be giving up his biological fascinations once and for all.

In fact, when looking at his upcoming projects (including a comedy -??? – and another graphic novel adaptation ala Violence) it does indeed look like he has abandoned his genre roots for good. While it wouldn’t be surprising if he never made another horror movie, fans of the creature feature art form would have a real reason to be upset. When he was part of post-modern macabre’s making, there was no one better than this crafty Canadian. The cinematic category surely misses his cruel, considered tone as well as his outstanding ‘body’ of work. 

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Wednesday, Oct 18, 2006

Everybody’s getting in on banning trans fats: New York City, Chicago, Disney, Pepsi, Wendy’s. But why impose a ban when you could generate some revenue with a tax?

On his and fellow conservative Richard Posner’s blog, (which is totally bizarre from a rhetorical point of view; it seems as though it were written by Spock), Gary Becker, an economist famous for treating human beings as a commodity (human capital), and performing economic analyses on drug addiction (it’s rational) and domestic life (it’s a factory), mulled over the implications of a tax on fat, which would be a less paternalistic way of ridding the world of trans fats (a.k.a. hyrdogenated oils) that clog arteries and cause obesity. (Some health officials go so far to compare hydrogenated oils to the threat posed by lead paint, but I think I’d feel substantially more comfortable with children eating doughnuts than paint chips.) Becker is skeptical that the danger outweighs the social pleasure afforded by hamburger sandwiches and french-fried potatoes, and suspects that obesity is more attributable to kids’ propensity for such “sedentary activities” as “listening to music on iPods and other devices.” Kids spend too much time in front of computers, he suggests, and we wouldn’t want to start imposing Pigovian taxes on Internet usage, would we? This seems like a red herring to me—to find something more appealing to substitute for fat in order to make the argument against social engineering through taxes seem more salient. The same goes for when Becker, evoking the idea that obese citizens may stress the publically-financed health care system and should therefore be taxed to compensate for that (a la one of the rationales for cigarette taxes), shifts the subject to health-care savings accounts and consumer-driven health care, the preferred conservative nostrums for America’s healh care crisis.

Posner, in his reply to Becker, seems more cogent on the subject. He raises the point that obesity is correlated with poverty, so a fat tax would likely be regressive and would possibly fail to achieve its intended effect.

Indeed, high-caloric “junk food” might conceivably though improbably turn out to be the first real-world example of a “Giffen good,” a good the demand for which rises when the price rises because the income effect dominates the substitution effect. A heavy tax on high-caloric food might so reduce the disposable income of the poor that they substituted such food for healthful food, since fatty foods tend to be very cheap and satisfying, and often nutritious as well.

But his main contention is that the rationale for a fat tax relies on the belief that people who eat fatty food are making informed rational choices and revelaing a preference for Ho-Hos and Doritos over broccoli. Posner, somewhat surprisingly, is willing to throw rational choice out the window here:

I don’t think the fact that obesity is correlated with poverty is due entirely to the fact that fatty foods tend to be cheap as well as tasty and satisfying. I suspect that many of the people who become obese as a result of what they eat do not understand how, for example, something as innocuous as a soft drink can produce obesity. I also suspect that producers of soft drinks and other fatty foods are ingenious in setting biological traps—designing foods that trigger intense pleasure reactions caused by brain structures formed in our ancestral environment (the prehistoric environment in which human beings attained approximately their current biological structure), when a taste for fatty foods had significant survival value.

Because of these biological traps, and the imperviousness of poor neighborhoods to nutrition education, Posner is willing to consider a ban of deceptively innocuous products like soft drinks: “And while generally parents know better than government what is good for their children, many parents who permit their children to drink soft drinks do not.”

As much as I don’t think the government should be telling people what they can and can’t eat, it’s hard to see the harm in disincentivizing food that makes for fat children. But the problem seems larger than the junk-food industry, which arises in response to generalized time crunch and the devaluation of time spent sharing a meal. I don’t think the poor are necessarily ignorant about the ill effects of junk food, but they don’t have the time to put into policing these questions or pursuing the frequently labor-intensive alternatives. We have developed a food infrastructure premised on the idea of delivering filling calories quickly to serve the need for convenience rather than nutrition. What may be needed is a proposal that could provide incentives for convenience, which is almost impossible to imagine, seeing how convenience virtually has become the definition of incentive.

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