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Friday, Oct 20, 2006


The Frighteners is Peter Jackson’s lost masterpiece, an important cinematic cog linking his genre work of the past with the monumental achievements in fantasy filmmaking he would attain with the Lord of the Rings. Coming right after the personal, praised Heavenly Creatures, Jackson had wanted to make a more mainstream film. Robert Zemeckis stepped in and offered the director a chance to make a full-blown Hollywood hit. With longtime partner Fran Walsh, Jackson had been kicking around the idea of a Ghostbusters-style psychic who conned people out of money by pretending to purge spirits from their home. The only catch was that Frank Bannister could actually see specters, and was using the otherworldly agents as his grifting partners. Agreeing to let the director film in his native New Zealand (which more or less passes for the Pacific Northwest) and also allowing all the post-production work to be done by Kiwi craftsman, The Frighteners suddenly had full U.S. studio support.


Though it failed to become the blockbuster everyone had hoped for, The Frighteners still became a real stepping-stone in its creator’s canon. Beyond its import to his career, Jackson’s film is also important in the ongoing evolution of CGI. Before WETA’s work in The Frighteners (they also helmed a few scenes in Creatures), computer-generated imagery was seen as the exclusive domain of the Americans—and ILM in particular. While Jurassic Park will always be seen as a monumental step forward, The Frighteners was a formidable attempt at the seamless incorporation of motherboard rendered visuals into a narrative. The main monster here, a wonderfully fluid and fierce figure known as The Reaper, may seem a tad dated in light of our post-millennial management of CGI elements, but for its time, the callous cloak with a deadly sickle was quite a quantum leap.


Jackson also pushed the basic boundaries of the new effects format in his film. For him, it wasn’t just eye candy or a visual set piece. The CGI characters in The Frighteners had to live and breath, acting with emotional resonance and believable authenticity. Though he would have much more success in this department with Rings (and now King Kong), the ghosts created for the film really do live up to their spectral specifics. Thanks to the added footage included in the new director’s cut, we get to see Jackson having more fun with his phantoms, putting them through their physics-defying paces to increase the crazy cartoon-like anarchy of the film. Jackson enjoys giving the Judge character a less-than-complete corpse, and has fun fooling with some attempted splatter effects as well. The entire movie feels like a resume reel for a man who would one day create the most consistently artistic and accomplished trilogy in the history of motion pictures.


But it’s the amazing acting that really sells The Frighteners. Michael J. Fox—near the end of his reign as a box-office champ and ready to challenge himself with different, difficult roles—finds a lot of heart and horror in the backstory of his bogus psychic detective. Frank Bannister is supposed to be a scarred man, more figuratively than literally, and Fox wears such wounding across his still cherubic face. But when asked to dig deep and play the depths of despair, he really delivers the goods. Trini Alvardo, Dee Wallace Stone, Jake Busey, and the ghostly trio of John Astin, Jim Fyfe, and Chi McBride are all excellent. But if the movie truly belongs to one individual, it would have to be everyone’s favorite Re-Animator, Jeffrey Combs. As messed-up FBI flatfoot Milton Dammers, Combs creates a character so unique, so unbelievably idiosyncratic and iconic that he truly deserved Oscar recognition for this work. Every line reading is like an adventure, every reaction a study in sensational strangeness. By the time he’s reduced to a near-routine villain, spitting out his threats with varying vileness, we want as much Milton as we can get.


One of the best things about The Frighteners, though, is that Jackson never overstays his cinematic welcome. We receive just enough Dammers to satisfy our sentiments, not so much that we grow weary of his weirdness. The same with the spooks. Had Jackson turned them into the poltergeist version of the Three Stooges, all slapstick and joking jive, we’d want less of their ethereal lunacy. Indeed, everything about The Frighteners is measured and metered out in sly, successful segments. The film has the real feeling of a completed, complementary work, where narrative ends are tied up and tossed together with other cinematic specialness to create a solid, satisfying whole. There are those who believe that the film is still missing a key entertainment element (and they will probably feel the same after viewing the long-dormant director’s cut), but the truth is that, for its time, The Frighteners was one masterful movie. It deserved more credit than it got during its initial release


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Friday, Oct 20, 2006

It’s not a surprise that former Village Voice editor/writer/columnist Robert Christgau (hell, he build up the whole music scribbing community there) would find work after the new Voice owners stupidly fired him.  It was just a matter of where he would wind up.  He’s now found a good home at National Public Radio where he’ll be working as a contributing critic: more details from the NPR press release.  Now the only question is, will he bring his grading system to the airwaves?


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Friday, Oct 20, 2006

Via Mark Thoma comes this essay by economist and frequent NY Times contributor Hal Varian about the effects the ease of video production and distribution will have on entrenched old-media interests. Obviously YouTube makes it easy to distribute videos, made with increasingly cheap DV technology, to anyone who might be interested, and the fact that Google now owns YouTube implies that searching the morass of clips will only become easier. Such clips are at the far, far end of the long tail, sometimes produced and distributed for an audience of friends and family. Those who make these clips of themselves lip synching or of family birthday parties or what have you probably don’t expect to make a living doing it, so the practice wouldn’t seem to have any impact on commercial video producers. But Varian explains the impact in terms of Ricardo’s notion of economic rents: He points out that the salary of such stars as Tom Cruise “depend on the fact that large numbers of people will pay to see his movies. If, in the future, these people spend more time on YouTube and less time going to movies, Mr. Cruise’s compensation will probably fall.” In other words, Cruise’s salary doesn’t determine the cost of producing movies any more than land rent determines the cost of producing agricultural products; its vice versa. And what YouTube does is provide an easily accessed alternative that redirects some of our attention away from Hollywood and toward (for better or worse) videos of our friends’ children and pets, or toward amateur filmmakers doing things so outrageous or clever that our friends forward them to us. Writes Varian: “Economic rent comes from scarcity. It is true that there is only one Tom Cruise, but it is equally true that there are only 24 hours in a day. The more time young people spend watching Lonelygirl15, the less time they will have to watch Mr. Cruise.”


The same seems to apply to music—the easier it is to make music with computer recording and editing software and distribute it via social networking tools like MySpace, the less pressing it is to consume Vivendi Universal’s product. Social networks among youth are often knit by shared tastes in mass-media product, but the technological infrastructure is falling into place to permit them to become self-sustaining communities in terms of culture, to become virtual equivelants of what you used to see with small-town hardcore scenes (the kind of thing Maximum Rock and Roll once chronicled).


That’s not likely to happen, however, since particpation in mass events seems to provide a vicarious satisfaction of the yearning for massive amounts of attention—the same function that network reality TV seems to serve. (We also seem to want to belong to a zeitgeist that transcends our small communities; perhaps this could change.) Varian suggests something similar when he echoes the prediction that the effects long-tail distribution will ultimately squeeze semipopular, middling culture: “Those actors, writers and directors who do not command the big audiences may well find it hard to compete for attention with the video blogs. True, the videos available there are often sophomoric. But there will always be sophomores to watch them.”


What this may indicate is that the middlebrow, not-quite-popular stuff had been serving a placeholder function, it served to replace the community feeling that was decimated with the spread of television and the atomization of suburban America. In other words, semicommercial indie rock, independent film, literary fiction, little magazines and the bookstores and concert halls and coffeeshops which supported and distributed such materials were the product of alienation within a specific sociohistorical formation. The niche such stuff served may be vanishing, as niches themselves become so specific as to dissolve into wholly sui generis idiosyncratic scenes made up of friends connected technologically. The Internet (perhaps only in my Utopian fantasies, and in the face of the reality that in consigns individuals to sit alone facing a screen) is militating against that isolation, offering people sophisticated means to connect and to produce the kind of cultural material with which to facilitate bonds unique to the group they are in the process of creating with one another. Bands, writers, directors who might have broken out to small-time success may now never escape from the small group of personal friends they work to please, unless they manage to convince mass marketers that they can take their productions to that level, and make the sacrifices and compromises of impersonality and ideological conformity that such a leap requires.


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Friday, Oct 20, 2006
by PopMatters Staff


The Baldwin Brothers
Return of the Golden Rhodes [TVT Records]


“While Chicago’s Baldwin Brothers readily admit their love of the Flaming Lips, the Avalanches, 60s jazz, Kraftwerk and house music, their new album is hardly just a pastiche of their influences. Most importantly, the Baldwins bring the groove.”—TVT Records

Download “Leave the Past Behind” (MP3, 192kbps)
Download “The Party’s Over” (MP3, 192kbps)



Bing Ji Ling
Fire & Ice Cream [Kreme Kul Records]
Download “Forever” (MP3, 192kbps)
Download “What Went Wrong” (MP3, 192kbps)
Download “Can’t We Be Friends” (MP3, 192kbps)


“Equal parts Prince, Steve Wonder and Sly Stone, San Francisco’s favorite ice cream man churns out 11 servings of the smoothest white-boy funk and soul.”—Kreme Kul Records

Buy at iTunes Music Store



So Percussion
Amid The Noise [Cantaloupe Music]


“Four Tet and Tortoise meet Aphex Twin and Brian Eno in So Percussion’s breakout indie-electronica project, “Amid the Noise.” To be released alongside So Percussion’s national tour with (Bjork collaborators) Matmos this October, and represented by the publicist of Sufjan Stevens and Sigur Ros, this disc pushes So Percussion into the limelight as a one-of-a kind band of 4 drummers.”—Cantaloupe Music

Download “Work Slow Life” (MP3, 192kbps)
Buy at iTunes Music Store


Simon Dawes
Salute the Institution [MP3]


Cibelle
Phoenix [MP3]


Cut Copy
Going Nowhere (Whitey Remix) [MP3]


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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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