Though at first glance it may not appear to be true, it really is a celebration of foreign films this weekend on your favorite movie channel. Three of the four entries discussed in this installment of Viewer Discretion Advised come from people and places outside our own broad borders. Granted, two were made by Canadians and one is an Aussie export, but the outsider mentality is still strong in this interesting creative collection. As a matter of fact, when placed up against the sole bit of America motion picture making on the schedule, us Yankees look pretty pathetic. Between terse looks at the horrors of human hostility and the ways in which stardom breeds contempt and corruption, a dopey little actioner about genetic engineering doesn’t stand much of an aesthetic chance. Perhaps it’s proof that, when it comes to exploring the extremes of cinema, international contingents have a better handle on the difference between art and artifice. For those interested in what’s cooking on those preeminent pay stations for the week of 14 October, here are the choices:
One of 2005’s biggest debacles, here was a typical high concept action movie that didn’t really live up to expectations. Godfather of the gauche epic, Michael Bay, may have thought he could fool film fans with his high tech retread of Parts: The Clonus Horror, but by casting the frequently flat Ewen McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, this sterile sci-fi film was guaranteed never to quite take off. If you can get through the cheesy first hour, filled with way too much sloppy future shock speculation and Big Brother bullshit, you may actually enjoy yourself. Heck, there are worse ways to spend a Saturday night than with a superficial serving of speculative silliness. Besides, no one knows action better than Bay. Sister station Cinemax has had this flawed, bloated pseudo-blockbuster plastered all over its channels for the last couple of months. Now its time for those only privy to Home Box Office to experience this serving of entertainment entropy.(Premieres Saturday 14 October, 8:00pm EST).
One of last years’ best films came from one of the industry’s most unusual cinematic sources – Canadian horror hero David Cronenberg. Who would have thought that the man behind such philosophical splatter fests as Rabid, Scanners and Videodrome would take some graphic novel source material and turn out a searing crime drama featuring fascinating performances by Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, William Hurt and Maria Bello. This is a movie that’s as brutal in its emotions as it is in its title bloodshed, with secrets revealed, true selves unmasked and homespun wholesomeness soiled and sullied. Though never as flashy or flamboyant as his work in films like The Fly, eXistenZ, or his adaptation of William Burroughs’ classic novel Naked Lunch, Cronenberg’s camera is still stellar, painting a near perfect portrait of the potential evil lurching inside the heart of Middle America. Not since David Lynch’s masterful Blue Velvet has small town life seemed so sinister. (Premieres Saturday 14 October, 10:00pm EST).
Heavily hyped upon its release to theaters, this Australian horror film never quite connected with audiences. Granted, it’s gritty low budget leanings may have turned off fright fans used to the gloss of the mainstream movie macabre, and the narrative does borrow liberally from other cruel classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Hostel. But with its “based on true events” tagline, and gratuitous influx of gore, what should have been a sleeper hit instead just calmly came and went. As part of Starz’s 24 hour terror marathon (starting on Friday 13 October with the channel’s documentary on the slasher film) the small screen may be the perfect place for this overlooked effort. In the comfort of your own home, the intense atmosphere of dismay and eventual unrelenting violence may seem less shocking. One thing’s for sure – the Down Under tourist boards can’t be happy about the impression this film offers. (Premieres Saturday 14 October, 9:00pm EST).
What if the break up between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, history’s most famous and popular entertainment duo, was driven by elements other than ego? What if there was a nasty secret between the pair, a secret shrouded in murder, and a massive cover-up? This is part of the premise for Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Rupert Holmes’ novel centering on the ominous reasons behind the split of a fictional comedy act. With Kevin Bacon assuming the Lewis role and Colin Firth essaying a real Rat Pack composite, the acting is excellent. Unfortunately, many found Egoyan’s tone at odds with the narrative’s more darkly comic elements. And some may still be put off by the film’s unrelenting reliance of sex to sell its sleaze and subtext (the movie was originally rated NC-17, before edits). Still, for a drama with a decidedly different bent, this is one of last year’s lost treasures. (Saturday 14 October, 10:00pm 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 third sequence of seven films featured this week includes:
14 October - Mystery Train
Jim Jarmusch’s triptych take on the King is both boldly original and oddly effecting. Besides, any film featuring Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is all right in SE&L’s book.
(Flix – 10PM EST)
15 October - Primer
Four friends develop a device which may or may not be some sort of time machine. The implications, or the lack thereof, become the basis for this fine low budget effort.
(Movie Channel – 9:45PM EST)
16 October - Basic Instinct (Edited Version)
Another entertaining exercise in editing courtesy of those crackpots over at American Movie Classics. Only slightly better than the CGI bikini and bottoms of VH-1’s censored Showgirls.
(AMC – 8PM EST)
17 October -The Misfits
Clark Cable. Marilyn Monroe. Eli Wallach. Montgomery Clift. Arthur Miller. John Huston. Enough said.
(Encore Westerns – 8PM EST)
18 October - The Magnificent Ambersons
If you failed to catch this flawed Orson Welles masterwork when it was part of a day long celebration of star Joseph Cotton, now’s the time to take a look.
(Turner Classic Movies – 8PM EST)
19 October - Dune
David Lynch takes on one of sci fi’s most beloved novels, and delivers his own unique take of speculative fiction. Not to be missed.
(Movie Plex – 8:45PM EST)
20 October -Deep Blue Sea
Want proof that Samuel L. Jackson can elevate even the lamest cinematic premise. Along with LL. Cool J, our man Sam saves this ‘Smart Sharks in an Underwater Laboratory” lunacy.
(TNT – 11PM EST)
“The Waylon Jennings boxset Nashville Rebel gives reason to consider Jennings as not just a country-music outlaw, but a Wurlitzer Prize winner, whose voice from a jukebox can erase all the pain in the world just by giving voice to it.”
—Dave Heaton, PopMatters review of Nashville Rebel
Waylon Jennings - “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”
Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson—“Good Hearted Woman”
Waylon Jennings—“Me & Bobby Mcgee”
Waylon Jennings—“Lonesome On’ry and Mean”
Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash—“There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang”
Waylon Jennings on Austin City Limits
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 considerable career drop off of one-time horror maestro John Carpenter.
While he’s not the most historically important horror meister to fall from genre grace in recent years (that title belongs to Tobe Hooper) John Carpenter is still considered by many cinematic scholars as the best example of hit or miss moviemaking that macabre has to offer. After a sensational start with Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, his homage to Hitchcock, a sensational slice and dicer entitled Halloween, put him at the forefront of the fright flick community. So successful was his reinvention of the slasher film (which would later go on to dominate the latter part of the ‘70s and most of the ‘80s) that his next films were anticipated as heavily as a rock star’s next album. But when those titles finally arrived, they appeared to betray Carpenter’s considered creative start.
The Fog (1980) was the first indication that something was wrong with the newly named Post-Modern Master of Suspense. After a TV thriller entitled Someone’s Watching Me! (a starring vehicle for the director’s then significant other, actress Adrienne Barbeau) and the equally evocative Elvis biopic (featuring the filmmaker’s first collaboration with Kurt Russell) a New England ghost story that tried to mix folklore, atmosphere and gory killings just didn’t come together as a solid cinematic whole. While certain moments shined, other aspects felt silly and superficial. This concept of incompleteness continued with the director’s next two films – the action epic Escape from New York and the October 31st revist Halloween II. Though only a producer and writer on the Michael Myers misstep, it was an example of the sort of sequel that almost destroys the source material from which it was derived. With New York, the ideas were more engaging than the execution, with some of Carpenter’s more novel inventions lost inside some sloppy speculative fictionalizing.
With 1982’s The Thing, Carpenter seemed reinvigorated and ready to pile on the blood bathing. This seminal scare fest, complete with some of the ‘80s best geek show effects, proved that the fear facets of the director’s dynamic were still in place. Even after a string of genre-defying efforts – the killer car coming of age flick Christine, the intergalactic romance of Starman, the chop suey surrealism of Big Trouble in Little China – it appeared the faltering of a few years back was mostly over with. Unfortunately, the studios didn’t see it that way. Looking at the basic box office returns for his last few films (and not their noticeable artistic merits) Carpenter was set adrift. He would have to get independent financing to film his last legitimate masterpiece, 1987’s Prince of Darkness off the ground, before then slipping into a kind of befuddled b-movie bog.
Like The Fog before, They Live (1988) marked the second, and sadly, final fall from grace for the filmmaker. As a political commentary, Carpenter struck a chord that was wickedly witty and scathingly satiric. Unfortunately, he saw fit to place the perfectly pedestrian wrestler turned actor Rowdy Roddy Piper in the lead. Instead of finding a legitimate actor to imbue his alien invasion narrative with the proper combination of brains and brawn, he let the acting amateur attempt to carry the entire film on his matt flattened shoulders. It didn’t work. Soon, Carpenter was slipping further. While the effects were sensational, Memoirs of an Invisible Man was another incredible stumble. Another failed performer – in this case, a no longer ready for ANY time Chevy Chase – destroyed the quasi-clever take on the classic unseen fiend film.
It was definitely all downhill from there. Aside from the made for cable TV macabre of Body Bags, Carpenter helmed no less than five full blown failures over the last 15 years. In the Mouth of Madness was an attempt to recapture some of his Prince of Darkness pride, but it ended up being so confusing that it turned off audiences. His remake of the seminal ‘60s British horror film Village of the Damned also had its moments, but never really came together in any of the ways the original did. Escape from L.A., Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars were all good ideas (Snake Plissken returns, James Woods as a cynical beast buster, and spectral possession on an interplanetary level, respectively) but none made a major splash with fright fans. With the exception of two installments of Showtime’s weak Masters of Horror series, Carpenter hasn’t been behind the lens of a major motion picture in the last five years.
With such a rollercoaster ride in popularity, as well as with his lax presence within the horror realm, one has to ask why Carpenter has fallen victim to such a seemingly fickle fear fanbase. Granted, his newest movies are much more anticipated than those of Tobe Hooper, or even someone still viable like Wes Craven. In addition, his resume reads rather well, with the now considered classics The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness vying for space between cult favorites like Escape from New York. But there must be more to the lack of respect his recent efforts have received, as well as his continuing creative downward spiral than Internet arrogance and the rabid reconsideration of his canon.
Truth be told, Carpenter’s problems begin internally. He is one of the few horror directors who must also be completely hands-on in most of his movie’s production aspects. He usually composes the scores, and always takes part in the screenplay. This may be his artistic Achilles Heel. Worrying over the musical backing for a particular scene or how a character or situation will develop over the course of a film may end up spreading his aesthetic too thin, especially when you consider he must then direct the material he’s been busy overseeing. Even his heralded predecessor Hitchcock only handled one aspect of a movie’s making – the mise-en-scene. No one is complaining about his hyphenated happenstance in efforts like Halloween or Prince of Darkness. But it seems strange that grand concepts like They Live can come across so limp onscreen.
Another possible problem stems from something called the Entertainment Extremes. Carpenter’s good movies are so good, and his bad films are so horrible, that his status becomes a clear case of what the aficionados remember best. Such a lasting impression can definitely stain an overall reputation, and when viewed in this light, Carpenter’s successes are seen as several decades old. His latest run of films have all underperformed both creatively and commercially, so that when someone does consider the director, they tend to view his better days as far behind him. As the horror history books continue to be rewritten, Carpenter becomes more and more of a founding father and less of a current component of modern macabre.
It doesn’t look like things will be getting better anytime soon. The 58 year old is next scheduled to take on a project called Psychopath, which is supposedly based on a video game (strike one) and purports to be another in a long line of lame serial killer/FBI profiler films (strike two). With the messageboards already a buzz that this is a bad move for a favored filmmaker, and a Rob Zombie helmed revisit of Halloween in the works (an indirect strike three) we may be looking at the last vestiges of a once vital movie magician. No one is writing Carpenter off completely – his oeuvre is too overpacked with potential to toss it aside forever – but it does look like a once prominent personality is falling further and further down the horror hierarchy. Here’s hoping he recovers before reaching rock bottom. After all, Tobe Hooper has the utter has-been angle covered quite well.
Though I’m an occasional practitioner, I’m generally turned off by pop music criticism. Usually the critic must strain to establish the reliability and authority of his own tastes, when these are often arbitrary or determined by extra-musical considerations. The critic’s need to sound authoritative often becomes an end in itself, so that informing the audience about a piece of music becomes subordinated to the critic’s establishing her cultural capital through allusive flourishes and headlong rhetorical rushes and crafty phrasemaking. Many reviewers are extremely creative, but the creativity seems misplaced if not parasitical. It’s a bait and switch: you begin the review wanting to learn about a band or an album and end up regaled with the reviewer’s diaristic ramblings. The reviewer uses the review as a ruse to get you to pay attention to his raconteur performance. Often this is entertaining and informative, but it feels as if that happens by accident. When I was a teenager, access to music and music opinion writing was so limited that I would consume whatever I got my hands on, and probably gave it more credit than it deserved: the scarcity of column space made it seem that those who had it had some privileged insight into the workings of pop, that they had oracular wisdom. There’s no scarcity of column space now; now there’s a scarcity of attention that readers can pay to all the reviewing that’s out there. This superfluity, paradoxically, has produced the monopoly Matt Yglesias argues that Pitchfork now has over indie-rock taste formation. I suspect that the long tail of Internet opinion writing makes those few “hits” at the narrow head seem that much more important; the more options there are the less consumers want to experiment—a “paradox of choice” scenario. Yglesias explains it differently, citing the decline of local alternative weeklies:
Most categories of media used to rely on a handful of big players that dominated the scene. The Internet, by lowering the barriers to entry, lets more voices get at least some audience and you see a lot of fragmentation. But indie music was very fragmented back in the day thanks to alternative weekly papers. That particular brand of media has, however, been very hurt by the Internet. On the one hand, there’s less need for each town to have its own record critic and movie critic when the Web can distribute reviews nationwide at very low cost. At the same time, Craigslist has really undercut the classified advertising market. So we’ve seen the emergence of a single website with enormous market power—Pitchfork.
The barriers to entry, of course, are still low. But to prevent a rival from emerging, Pitchfork doesn’t need to be perfect—it just needs to be good enough. Which it is. Their taste is generally reliable. What’s more, however, there’s an assymetry to what kind of reliability matters. A website that regularly recommended bands that turned out to suck would be a real problem. You’d waste money on albums and shows that you didn’t enjoy. But if the website merely fails to recommend albums that are, in fact, good you won’t notice. You just won’t buy them. Instead, you’ll buy other things that they do recommend. And as long as those things are non-terrible, your life will proceed just fine—you’ll still have plenty of good music to listen to and there won’t be an incentive to seek out alternative opinions.
I don’t know if Pitchfork has this kind of hegemonic power or not, and I’m not sure there’s greater incentive to write negative reviews than positive ones, though perhaps the unlimited space and the emphaisis on a reviewer’s raconteurship, though, has made preliminary filtering—the selection of only interesting things to review—less significant and customary. Still, people turn to reviews for recommendations; they don’t need to be told what not to listen to. And there’s no pleasure in writing negative reviews. I’ve written plenty of them, but usually out of misguided sense that what I was doing was some kind of radical truth-telling about the nature of the culture industry. But truth has nothing to do with it. I thought it made me seem credible and uncompromised to be negative; but record reviews are no place to make the case that commercial music altogether should be stopped.
Writers, knowing that a positive review will be read more than a negative one and will likely be featured more prominiently on a site or on a metafilter-type aggregrator, have more incentive to review everything glowingly and manufacture hype. And I don’t think it hurts Pitchfork or Spin or anyone else to hype bad bands. People are quick to forgive misleading hype because they get a temporary joy from the excitement it infects them with and because it is so universally prevelant that they probably don’t bother to hold anyone in particular accountable for it. In fact, it seems Pitchfork rose to prominence on the strength of its breathless hype of bands that succeeded in becoming semipopular. A pop critics’ power may seem to come from piggybacking on some high-profile trends and being regarded as the herald of things that have brought pleasure. But because music’s ability to give pleasure is so arbitrary, I wonder if a critic’s power ultimately has nothing to do with predictive power and everything to do with how entertaining a raconteur he is on a consistent basis. In other words, Pitchfork is widely read because the reviews are funny, not because they are accurate. Trends in indie-rock popularity are likely driven more by TV music supervisors selecting songs for shows or perhaps MySpace momentum than by Internet critics. And most of all they are driven by the word-of-mouth maestros that Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point, who differ from writers, I think, in the amount of ego invested in the taste-making process.
In an interesting post at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell picks up on Yglesias’s observation of distorted incentives to make a slightly different point about the source of pop critics’ alleged power. Farrell cites Diego Gambetta’s work on the Sicilian Mafia in an effort to relate the arbitrarity of pop music criticism to the Mafia’s racketeering methods. Just as the Mafia must broker negative outcomes to chosen victims to demonstrate their power, so must critics advocate dubious art to assert their ineffable powers of discernment:
Critics serve to guarantee to the public that certain artists, certain music, is ‘good’ (there are a whole bunch of sociological questions about what constitutes ‘good’ in this sense that I don’t want to get into). But they also want to preserve their own role as critical intermediaries and arbiters of taste – in other words, they don’t want consumers to feel sufficiently secure in their own tastes that they can bypass the critic and formulate their own tastes about artists. Therefore, one could make a plausible case that critics have an incentive to inject certain amounts of aesthetic uncertainty into the marketplace, by deliberately writing reviews which suggest that bad artists are good, or that good artists are bad, so as to screw with the heads of the listening public.
I think critics lack the kind of leverage with consumers to make this work, but for those who have fallen into the trap of looking to “established” critics to foster their own taste’s legitimacy, this sort of strategy will keep them ensnared. I doubt critics consciously embark on such a nefarious plan—it’s not as organized as organized crime—but they probably excuse their abstruse choices as demonstrating their versatility or flexibility or personal growth as a critic rather than an effort to keep readers guessing. But it’s probably right that the motive lurking behind all pop-critic discourse is the need to justify the need for pop critics at all—they are always threatened by the fact that pop culture is made to be directly accessible by a mass audience without intermediaries, that its aim generally is to cater to broad, simple tastes. The pop critic wants always to obfuscate that if he wants to do anything other than filter.
Eric Bachmann —"Carrboro Woman"
From To The Races on Saddle Creek.
Returning home from tour to no commonly-defined home, Eric Bachmann largely wrote his new album, To The Races, in June and July of 2005 while voluntarily living in the back of his van. Bachmann made the best of the hospitable Northwestern summer by setting up home and shop in his vehicle, and found that living like a makeshift Siddhartha worked well for him: he used the time to craft the unadorned and unapologetically forthright collection of songs that compose his first Saddle Creek release.
The Awkward Stage —"The Morons Are Winning"
From Heaven Is For Easy Girls on Mint.
In a musical climate that has never been more artificial, commercialized, and commoditized, what with television commercials replacing record stores, radios, and live venues as the new medium by which new artists get discovered along with the whole American Idol phenomenon wherein we are shown the card trick, taught how it is done, shown how empty and vacuous the industry has become, and yet we still line up for more. For those of us feeling the cultural atrophy, and yet who enjoy good pop culture, The Awkward Stage is at the forefront of that return to quality and, quite simply, pop artistry.
Chin Up Chin Up —"This Harness Can’t Ride Anything"
From This Harness Can’t Ride Anything on Suicide Squeeze.
As anyone who’s lived there can tell you, the Midwest can be an unforgiving place. The winters are freezing, the summers are humid and it’s easy to feel landlocked by the vastness of earth in every direction. Chicago’s Chin Up Chin Up have successfully embodied that feeling with their second full-length, This Harness Can’t Ride Anything; yet as bleak as things may appear, there’s a pervasive feeling of hope inherent in the band’s brand of avant pop which stretches further than the Windy City’s skyline.
From 10 Songs on Asthmatic Kitty.
All the day-in-day-out experience of working with every conceivable genre/instrument/taste has created a Frankenstein richness that Rafter employs to grand effect. Electro-keyboard chug and gurgle is matched with wind/string flourish, raw drum melded with toy piano plink and banjo plunk. The wire that runs through and connects these disparate structures is a wide-openmindedness when it comes to style and sound, and a lyrical essence that more often than not trades the circuitous metaphor for the straightforward communique.
Jeremy Enigk—"Been Here Before"
From World Waits on Lewis Hollow.
The last time Jeremy Enigk, the singer and songwriter for emo-core pioneers Sunny Day Real Estate and The Fire Theft, released a solo album, Hilary was testifying about Whitewater, Dolly was being cloned, and the Ramones were about to play their last gig. It’s been awhile. If World Waits has more rock and less chamber texture than its predecessor, they both share a timelessness in sound that has roots in Enigk’s lifelong love for The Beatles, The Who and vintage U2.