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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

“It seems like a big budget remake or our film.”
—Eric Zala, “Belloq” and director of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, commenting on what it’s like to watch the original Raiders of the Lost Ark today
I have been hearing about Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation for years.  (Even name checking it in a totally unrelated review I wrote a few years ago.)  Its story is now legendary in fanboy circles: In 1982, three kids from rural Mississippi become obsessed with arguably the greatest action-adventure movie of their generation, and armed with the innocence of youth and a Betamax recorder, decide to create a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Seven years later, they wrapped on the film, put it away, and moved on with their lives and apart from each other.  In 2003, on the support of such notables as director Eli Roth and Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles, the film “debuted” at the Alamo Draft House in San Antonio.  Now, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb are making the rounds with their masterpiece, and a biopic is in the works to tell their story on the big screen. I had the good fortune to attend a screening and Q&A with two of the three makers of this testament to youth in a near-capacity theater on the campus of the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the movie is exactly as advertised.  All horrible sound and bad picture, the entire first stanza is awash in a yellow-green tint, but by the time Strompolos’ Indy makes his daring escape from Zala’s Belloq and the Hovitos in the opening sequence, your eyes have grown accustomed to the harsh exposure and you are rooting not for the characters, but for the kids putting on this show.  You want them to succeed and you can’t wait to see how they will pull off each subsequent shot that you know is coming next. Very few changes were made to the source material and only one scene is completely omitted, but what liberties the creators have taken are as charming as they are resourceful, like the use of a small motorboat in place of the seaplane (although Jock’s pet snake Reggie in the front of the boat in Indy’s lap remains).  The later omission of the propeller death and the fight scene that precedes it is certainly forgivable and hardly missed in this final cut. The only other change of note is the replacement of the spider monkey with Strompolos’ dog Snickers, who steals every scene he’s in, which undermines the character’s villainy, because the audience is clearly rooting for the mutt.  From his “Sieg Heil!” salute to his ultimate death (both on screen by way of “bad dates” and in real life as noted in the end credits), the dog is a star. Apart from Snickers, one of the surprisingly biggest cheers came from the stop-motion animation of the maps tracking Indy’s flights from California to Nepal, and again from Nepal to Cairo.  The cheers were accompanied by visible disbelief, awe, and head-shaking during the fight and fire sequence in Marion’s bar.  This is also the scene that garners the most attention during Q&A sessions and interviews.  Strompolos’ mom worked at WLOX-TV, where the boys were editing their masterpiece, when footage of Zala on fire was spotted by a responsible adult.  As a direct result, year two of their production summarily halted. The showstopper is most definitely the truck stunt.  You know the scene - Indy is trying to commandeer the truck in which the Nazis have loaded the Ark of the Covenant.  After Indy disposes of most everyone in and on the truck, the driver then throws Indy through the windshield and onto the hood of the moving vehicle.  The cheers are genuine as Strompolos’ Indy descends the front of the truck, but the payoff is how, intentionally or not, the boys brilliantly hold the shot from inside the back of the truck on the ground rushing out from underneath for enough extra beats to really amp up the expectations of the audience before Strompolos shoots out from under the truck.  A perfect money shot, and worthy of the shouts of approval it garners. The credits recognize Mr. Zala for transportation and Ms. Cooper’s work as seamstress, an “in memory of” note for Snickers, and finish with a Jim Morrison quote (“This is the end, my only friend, the end.”).  When asked about the soundtrack that accompanies The Adaptation, the filmmakers cop to lifting John Williams’ original score throughout, and note that their credits actually run longer than the original’s (six minutes total), so they ended up looping themes from Temple of Doom and Last Crusade before circling back to finish up with the Raiders theme in a sort of Indy mega-mix. What’s truly amazing about the boys’ efforts is that these kids worked from memory the first two or three years; there were no home-viewing VHS copies to purchase, or the Internet to find a complete working script of the film.  Raiders was re-released in 1982, which helped, but primarily they relied on collected bits of Raiders info they could gather, including magazines, comic books, long-playing records, a crappy, clandestine audio recording made at the theater, and Zala’s hand-drawn storyboarding. The resourcefulness and originality (which might seem an odd word choice considering they copied a blockbuster frame-for-frame, but trust me, it applies here) of the production itself is a marvel.  And the spirit continues in these boys-turned-men today.  Zala and Strompolos revealed in the Cleveland Q&A session that all the locations used in their movie were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  They hope to work with the governor of Mississippi to have Paramount’s proposed biopic shot in their home state to help pump some much-needed economic life back into the devastated region. Filmed over 21 consecutive days, 23 year-old Kevin Smith’s Clerks launched his career by famously maxing out his credit cards to finance the movie for $27,000 in 1994.  Twelve years earlier, three 12 year-old boys began a shot-for-shot recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It would take them seven years to complete the film, and cost them roughly $5,000.  Granted, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb are not as famous as Smith is, but they just might hit it big yet.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

The Clientele —"Bookshop Cassanova"
From God Save The Clientele on Merge
The band are setting free their inner Monkees; a lovely blend of Big Star twisted power-pop and country achin’, with flashes of the Beatles at their most joyful and upbeat. The ghosts, half-light and uncertainties remain, but I sense a new found optimism in the music. Perhaps born of new love? Definitely a new era for the Clientele.

Shapes and Sizes —"Alone/Alive"
From Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner on Asthmatic Kitty
Split Lips, Winning Hips, A Shiner kicks off with a solid rock march ambitious enough to soundtrack the first 10 miles of any road trip. The opening track is one that Shapes and Sizes could very well have penned during their recent 30 kilometer move from Victoria, where the band members met through the city’s vibrant artistic community, to Vancouver, B.C.

Dinosaur Jr. —"Almost Ready"
From Beyond on Fat Possum
Although always as loud as god, it was easy to convince yourself the music of Dinosaur Jr. was far more passive than aggressive. This myth exploded in a hail of flaming toads in the spring of 1989, when the band’s original trio line-up burst like a ripe sac of pus. In the intervening years there have been various versions of Dinosaur Jr., several of which made use of ur-drummer, Murph; but none of them included prodigal bassist, Lou Barlow. Until now. Until Beyond.

Shannon Wright —"St. Pete"
From Let In The Light on Quarterstick
You might be tempted to compare Shannon Wright to whatever ingénue’s tearing up the internet at the moment or some other gal with a guitar and something to say. That’s missing the point, though. After four solo records on Quarterstick, as well as her earlier work with Florida’s Crowsdell, Shannon’s been around the block a few times, each time growing stronger and more sincere, and that’s what makes her different. She takes the clarity and artistic sensibility of Lou Reed, mixes them with the subdued simplicity of Erik Satie and the explosive abilities of Jimmy Page, and emerges as her own artist.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

At his blog (which is always useful when you need a blast of skepticism about the joyous culture of universal sharing the Internet is alleged to bring) Nicolas Carr, whom I referenced in a previous post for his concerns about “web sharecropping”,  discusses YouTube’s recent decision to set aside a group of contributors who will be paid for what they post with money from banner ads. He links to Om Malik, who calls this good news and sees this as an attempt by YouTube to become more like a TV network (with all the associated production tasks—mainly choosing the most commercial content and promoting it) and less like a generic portal. This will presumably strengthen the brand and inoculate it against threats from other video hosting services by assuring a certain quality level that can attracts repeat visitors who are not looking for something in particular. (I personally can’t imagine doing this—I usually think of something specific and look to see if someone else had the perspicacity to upload it. But presumably there are bored people who go to the site—rather than find links elsewhere—and see what’s popular.)

But this also seems like a rear-guard action against the idea that people might work for free, might suspend financial self-interest in favor of some collective goal. What is so striking is that users didn’t demand pay—it’s not they spontaneous formed a union; instead YouTube has preemptively offered to pay peopl who were content to work for nothing. This strikes me as suspicious. Carr’s belief is the Internet has not revolutionized cultural production; that instead we are merely waiting for a pricing system to catch up to the labor people perform when uploading clips or blogging or tagging posts and so on. He seems to reject out of hand that participants in this nascent labor market could be content to be paid in recognition or attention or vanity or the self-satisfied feeling of altruism or what have you. Here are the key graphs from his post:

YouTube itself doesn’t seem to be under any illusion that its community operates outside the price system. In announcing that it would begin rewarding its “most popular and prolific original content creators” with a bit of the green stuff, it happily dangled the carrot of compensation in front of the rest of its contributors: “So now that you’ve read this, you’re probably wondering, ‘How can I get in on the action?’ This is only available to the initial participants. But if you create original content, have built and maintained an audience on YouTube, and think you might qualify for this program based on what’s above, you can express interest on our partnership lead form. We hope that this program inspires people to keep creating original videos, building audiences and engaging with the YouTube community.” Translation: money talks.

Needless to say, I’m pretty sure that “talented people” will demand compensation (particularly when they see that a site owner - Google, in YouTube’s case - is making good money off their work). That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a lot of people that contribute their work for free (or for a pittance) to gain attention or feel part of a community or whatever. It just means that the price system will in most cases win, and that the exceptions - Wikipedia, notably - will be exceptions. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases even the masses of unpaid volunteers will work within the price system. While the stars make good money, the masses will simply donate the economic value of their work to the site owner. The reason they’ll do that is because, in isolation, their contributions have little economic value. For the successful site owner, however, all those tiny contributions, once aggregated, can turn into a large pile of cash.

Carr sees this as plainly beneficial to small-time proprietors of web content, giving them a chance to make some money from what they do. It also rationalizes the whole system of cultural production for money, as though making culture couldn’t possibly be motivated by any other concern and society owes money to artists in order to entice them to do such work. But the motive of money is also corrosive, it taints the intentions one has when one sets about making and sharing something and alters the process and the product that results. It may discourage some from participation altogether when the rewards they are used to are crowded out or invalidated by the presumption of cash payment, when how much you make doing something comes to popularly signify how important what you are doing is. (We all know, after all, that Spider-Man 3, having earned more money than any other movie, is the most important piece of American culture ever made.) In a more money-saturated climate, you may decide that you must be professional (in other words, become a hack) in order to be regarded seriously, and then you may not bother. Monetizing amateur content has a tendency to make selling out a prerequisite to legitimacy. This in turn rewards ambition as if it were synonymous with talent, and the merely talented vanish altogether, silenced by a culture that ridicules rather than supports their volunteer contributions.

Of course, when corporations inject real money into a certain corner of the online labor pool, people will professionalize in a hurry, and those professionalized will suddenly have an interest in discouraging those who do what they do for free. This discouraging also benefits the larger organizations, who want to control production and extract from it a regular profit. So they give some small fry a stake and get them to fight the corporation’s battles—a divide-and-conquer strategy. What this does also is sustain the hegemonic notion that work is something you must be bribed to do and that we shouldn’t expect it to be fulfilling as an activity. People doing what they enjoy for its own sake sets a bad precedent; it suggests people might want to spend less time working for wages and have more time off working at things they enjoy.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007
by Sam McManis [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

Silly me. I thought cable TV news was beyond mocking. After all, once you’ve watched Nancy Grace in action, parody and satire don’t seem to stand a chance.

But then along comes The Onion to prove that theory wrong. Those masters of subtle snark, who made their mark a decade ago by aping the inanities of newspapers and last year sent up radio news with a hilarious podcast, now are taking aim at CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC.

Easy targets, for sure.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

For a long time I’ve been interested in the relationship between reading, time, and interpretation.  Anyone who’s ever had a conversation with someone, especially while distracted, or read a book, has had the experience of having a fuller awareness of a passage’s meaning open up long after the conversation or book is ostensibly over.  Sometimes you haven’t read enough to fully grasp a book’s import, or you’re just too busy, or, you know, you just missed it. 

I’ve become *particularly* aware of this difficulty over the past year, as I’ve started reviewing books more frequently (some 40-odd books since August 4, 2006).  Generating a reasonable off-the-cuff reaction, one that won’t be wholly embarrassing six weeks later, is a tricky thing.  But, then again, free books . . . .

This problem has been kicking around my brain again, thanks to this Kenyon Review interview with Meghan O’Rourke, whose first book of poems, Halflife, came out last month with Norton.  David Baker is an excellent interviewer, and the conversation is unfailingly interesting.  One exchange in particular has stuck in my mind over the past week.  Baker asks, “Why read lyric poetry?,” to which O’Rourke replies:

A lyric poem delivers its payload efficiently. It doesn’t require an extraordinary investment of time on the reader’s part. So you can figure out quickly whether you like something. More important, the lyric poem is the most powerful embodiment of the paradoxes of life and art. Walter Pater once talked about “the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity,” a phrase I like because it contains both the unutterable depth of perception that living seems to contain and the peculiar corollary—that that depth, those perceptions, are unsustainable because we die. Poems have always seemed to me to be the most crystalline reflection of that sensation of privilege and loss. They mimic life, if you will.

This is a lovely answer, and, really, not enough people talk about Walter Pater on a day-to-day basis.  Having said that, O’Rourke here sounds a bit too optimistic about the investment of time required to read lyric poetry.  Clearly it’s the case that glancing over, say, this Kathryn Maris poem takes less time than does even the most cursory reading of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  But it’s also the case that lyric poetry requires a greater investment of attention than does a novel.  Anyone who’s taught knows this: It can be quite difficult to get students to read poems, because they demand more care than novels do.  (And since Pater’s on the table, this is surely one of his points in that “Conclusion”—that art metaphorically grants us more life by awakening our otherwise sluggish consciousness.)  We could even sharpen O’Rourke’s point a little and note that “that depth, those perceptions” that life offers are only possible “because we die,” and are not “unsustainable” only.

I have yet to figure out a way to recognize quickly whether I will like a book of poems.  (Reading aloud sometimes works, but not always in ways I can explain.)  That’s why I like reviewing them and try to be extraordinarily careful when doing so: Not because poems are more delicate, but the converse: Because they engage consciousness in such an oblique way that I grow less sure of myself as I write. 

How do you know whether you’ll like a book—poetry or anything else?


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