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by tjmHolden

26 Sep 2007

*So, let’s say that your Mom and I asked you if we could smoke marijuana with you and your boyfriend.”
“Well—Nooo. I mean, that completely would not happen.”
“Well, why not?”
“Because . . . you don’t smoke marijuana . . . do you?”
“Yeah, but . . . if we did?”
“Well, then . . . no. . . “
“Why?”
“Because . . .

we

don’t smoke marijuana.”
“So, does that mean that

you

aren’t on the bus and we might be?”
“Well . . . “


 
This year my project is to help grow my kids. After a couple of years in which they toiled in a foreign country on their own (submerged in a different culture, trying to negotiate a radically different set of cultural rules, saddled with an alien set of meanings and expectations), we are together again. And, although, they have done an amazing job—adapting, expanding, persevering, diversifying, blossoming—they are eagerly welcoming my active participation in the next stages of the process.

A major part of that will be rounding out the rougher edges of their education. Yet, within the first few hours into it, I am realizing that this might not be as easy as, say, fielding a lazy fly ball in shallow left. After all, our first conversation has touched on shared marijuana tokes as exemplar, bus rides as metaphor, teens opening up about their private behavior. Life upside down and me adrift inside it.

Ha! This might be much harder lifting than I had anticipated.

Imagine that.

by Rob Horning

26 Sep 2007

Every time I see another one of American Apparel’s ultrasleazy ads, I presumably fall into the trap these ads have set for me and find myself wondering about sleaze’s effectiveness as an promotional strategy. (Angry advertising blogger copyranter has an informative set of posts on the campaign here, if you need a reference point.)The people I know who wear American Apparel’s clothes usually claim to wear them despite the ad campaign, claiming the clothes are exceptionally well-designed, or comfortable, or well-fitting or some other mitigating factor—because they obviously want to disassociate themselves publicly from the implications of the ads, namely that sluts and pervy scumbags wear American Apparel.

It’s fairly well-established that American Apparel founder Dov Charney is a tad skeevy; this NYT story about his selling the company to a private equity group details how employees now sign a sort of sexual harassment waiver: “American Apparel is in the business of designing and manufacturing sexually charged T-shirts and intimate apparel, and uses sexually charged visual and oral communications in its marketing and sales activity.” But he’s also a successful businessman, as the NYT article also makes amply clear, so obviously this ad campaign would have stopped long ago if his skanky predilections would have had any chance of hurting his big payday. Clearly the ads keep coming because they are working; one of the ways they work is that they prompt people like me to fret and complain about them in a public forum, doing word-of-mouth advertising for them gratis. And plus I get the prude’s thrill of being titillated by what I complain about without having to acknowledge fully to myself that it’s so. “These ads are so terrible; just look another one, aren’t they terrible?” But people like me will never support the company by actually buying the clothes.

So these ads must have something for actual fashion-conscious shoppers: They must project an identity that some consumers apparently identify with and find attractive; some people must see these ads and feel a vicarious thrill at the lifestyle they suggest: the possibility of blase sexual exploitation lurking around every urban corner. If you buy into these ads, maybe wearing American Apparel’s clothes makes you feel sexualized as well, makes you believe that wearing a T-shirt is suddenly bold, even risque.

Perhaps the ads, by depicting fetishes unapologetically, tap into something comparably compulsive in consumers, giving sanction to the innate tendencies toward sleaze that we typically suppress. But eventually when we become too conscious of the gratification, we’ll reject the source of the dissonance. We’ll feel as though the advertiser is trying to cheat by circumventing the approved filters, the customary disguises—fashion advertisers may be able to get away with perviness under the guise of brash transgression for a while but eventually it becomes distasteful. Suddenly, depersonalized sex seems not a promise of some kind of transformative freedom (a pretty far-fetched notion the more you think about it) but an illustration of how depersonalizing fashion itself is.

American Apparel’s popularity reminds a bit of the late 1970s power pop band the Knack, who seemed bizarrrely compelled to take something immaculately crafted (pop songs as opposed to T-shirts) and sully it with sexist sleaze: “Good Girls Don’t”, “Frustrated”, etc. Their signature song is like Dov Charney’s interior monolgue: “Never gonna stop give it up such a dirty mind / Always get it up for the touch of the younger kind.” Yet the song is at the same time a clinic in pop craftsmanship; every nook and cranny is filled with an irresistible hook, and the guitar solo is one ear-tugging riff after another. When the Knack first caught on, they were ubiquitous, but soon audiences turned against them—perhaps it was the overdone Beatles imitation of their album design, but it may also have been that the sleaze that was at first edgy and vaguely interesting—making the familiar pop seem daring, hipper thanits popularity would generally allow—suddenly revealed itself as tedious and unimaginative. Their second album proved this to be so. Dov Charney, of course, is in the fortunate position of not having to come up with a second act for his career.

by Jason Gross

26 Sep 2007

After bowing out of their high profile tour because of anxiety, White Stripes drummer Meg White then had to deal with the indignity of being the supposed subject of a sex tape, which turned out to be not true.  Coverage of this ranged from semi-skeptical at best (Brooklyn Vegan , Stereogum) to the more appropriate dissing of any slavering idiot who wanted to believe it was Meg (Pitchfork) and some leg-work that actually exposed the whole story (Daily Swarm).  When it was later revealed that it wasn’t her in the tape, Vegan and Gum at least printed the new info on their site but the damage was done.  So where’s the line being drawn here about what’s actual new to report and what’s tabloid trash that should be treated that way?

by Bill Gibron

25 Sep 2007

While we like to consider ourselves clued in, culturally speaking, it is fairly obvious that most of us spend our lives in sheltered consideration of the unique “underworlds” around us. For example, before comics became an edifying talking point, few people recognized the growing ‘funny book’ constituency. Competitive high school speech and debate has grown from insignificant extracurricular activity to one of the top three considerations used by colleges to determine admissions. From ESPN’s coverage of the National Spelling Bee to schools for teaching Klingon, there is an entire subterranean subculture out there, divided along particular parameters and existing within its own set of strictures and guidelines. All a documentarian has to do is break down the barriers. If he or she is lucky, they can then tap directly into the friendly fringe zeitgeist.

This is exactly what happened to Seth Gordon. When he discovered that old school arcade games – read: the pre-console titles that swept the adolescent demo back in the early ‘80s – had their own regulatory commission in charge of awarding high scores and certifying player status, he was immediately intrigued. When he stumbled across the story of Steve Wiebe (pronounced Wee-bee), an ex-Boeing employee turned school teacher who was battling to secure his status as reigning Donkey Kong champion, he found the catalyst to dig deeper into the dynamic. The result is the marvelous, masterful King of Kong, a film that illustrates one of the universal maximums inherent in competition: for every winner there is a disgruntled loser, and even the friendliest levels of rivalry will be tainted by issues of cheating, cronyism, and unbridled ego.

For those of us long out of the fun zone loop, Gordon sets up the situation. Back in the earliest phase of the Me Decade, just as games like Pac Man and Asteroids were capturing the public consciousness, Life Magazine gathered together a collection of the reigning title champions for a photo op. Among them was Billy Mitchell, a long haired hero with an amazingly high score on Donkey Kong. For decades, the record stood, becoming a bragging right for its holder and, in some ways, a significant section of his overall personal make-up. When we meet Billy in his post-millennial phase, he’s a maxim spouting restaurateur pushing his own brand of hot sauce via a slick, self-styled self-promotion philosophy. He’s an energetic example of a go-getter made good, a man who never backs down from a challenge, be it in life, or on a classic joystick machine.

That is, until Steve Wiebe comes along. Your typical hard luck story, this flummoxed family man is watching his entire life slowly slip away. Jobless, and purposeless, he decides to tackle the Donkey Kong record as a means of outside the box therapy. Perhaps, if he can beat the high score, he can reclaim a direction in life. Before long, Wiebe achieves his aims, and submits the results to the Twin Galaxies organization, an entity started decades before to authenticate video game achievement. Thus begins the battle, as the validity of the score is challenged, and Wiebe learns of the backstabbing, rules violating infighting among the various Galaxy members. Even his own association with a disgruntled nemesis of the organization throws the entire process into question. Before long, Mitchell is made to put up or shut up. His response is remarkable, to say the least.

Whether via luck, fate, or the innate ability to unearth the natural narrative in a situation, Gordon stepped into one of the most hilarious, haunting human dramas to ever be associated with an arcade game. The King of Kong does a sly job of establishing its heroes and villains, painting both Mitchell and Wiebe as admirable and, in some ways, painfully pathetic. We admire and despise them throughout the course of events, wondering how either adult can place so much importance on what is, in essence, a hollow achievement. The obsessive playing of these machines, with their repetitive actions and rote memorization, is not a question of talent as much as will. Both of our main ‘characters’ complain of a lack of respect, but the proof is in the activity, not the public’s perspective. 

Luckily, the ins and outs of Donkey Kong are breezed over to get to the real meat of this story. When Wiebe destroys Mitchell’s record outright, leaving no doubt as to who now warrants respect, the many individuals surrounding Twin Galaxies and their overall lack of transparency and established ethics is just mind blowing. About the only people who come out unscathed are Walter Day, Galaxies’ New Age leader who tries his best to maintain order inside what is, basically, the chaos of individual hubris, and his “record authenticator” Robert Mruczek, who speaks of inscrutable principles and a life spent sitting in front of his TV, screening VHS tapes to verify scores. Everyone else has an obvious agenda, a reason for wanting to keep what they have while striving to be considered fair and friendly. Yet no matter how hard they try to seem just and reasonable, we see through the facade.

Naturally, all this interpersonal angst builds to one of those classic showdowns where, in front of a filmmaker’s camera and away from all the backstage wheeling and dealing, a true determination can be made. In The King of Kong, it happens twice, and the results both times are astonishing. Avoiding spoilers, Wiebe is made to prove his mantle in person. What happens illustrates his desire to reclaim his reputation, as well as other player’s manipulation of the system. When Guinness gets involved, agreeing to use Twin Galaxies’ scores as the benchmark for their book of records, the stakes are raised significantly. And as usual, it brings out the best, and the absolute worst, in human nature - and the accompanying corruptible characteristics.

One of the most astounding aspects of The King of Kong is not the outcome, but the access. There are times when Gordon captures a situation and it is so startling in its naked criticism that you wonder how the participant involved allowed its inclusion. Mitchell gets many of these eye opening moments, and one can’t help but think he was aware of how his reactions would make him appear. It’s either a case of self-assured superiority, or blinkered brazenness. Wiebe walks a fine line as well, especially when his long suffering wife expresses her clueless connection to everything going on in sobbing disbelief. While some of the outside machinations are indeed bizarre (Galaxies’ “officials” arrive, uninvited, at Wiebe’s home and harass his family) and indicative of the perceived stakes of these fanatics, it’s the individual dynamic that speaks the loudest in this stellar documentary.

Which brings us back to the topic of subject matter. The King of Kong is proof that you don’t need Earth shattering events of cosmic import to create a compelling film. Instead, as Gordon proves time and time again, playing bystander to individual’s everyday lives can offer an entire oeuvre’s worth of possibilities. There are dozens of untold stories in this surprisingly effective film, threads that could easily be developed into their own astounding statements (Day’s desire to be a musician, Mitchell’s amazingly devoted parents). But thanks to the perfect blend given the storyline, the careful incorporation of just enough to win us over, The King of Kong doesn’t feel fractured. Instead, it’s flawless. It’s not just proof that fact is more compelling than fiction – it’s an acknowledgement that, buried beneath the standard social fabric is a wealth of untapped material just waiting to be discovered. Audiences will be glad that this director went digging.

by Bill Gibron

25 Sep 2007

When lists are made of the important post-modern movies, Jaws usually gets its due. It’s heralded for its breakout blockbuster novelty, and illustrative of the Tinsel Town transformation from art into artifice. Fans point to its endearing entertainment value and scholars compliment its wise decision to marginalize the monster – in this case, a wonky and unwieldy mechanical shark – for the sake of some solid suspense. But beyond the commercial and the critical, few have noted its cultural significance. While Star Wars and Halloween get all the obsessive, geek glory, Stephen Spielberg’s expert exercise in flawless filmmaking is the popular kid who can’t catch a break when it comes to lasting social and industry significance – until now.

The Shark is Still Working says it all. It’s a double edged announcement, a title reference back to a seminal statement made during Jaws’ tenuous production. It’s also the name of Erik Hollander’s near definitive documentary on the film. A masterful companion piece to the various supplements surrounding the perfect popcorn hit, it’s the smart and insightful sugar coating on three decades of fascinating fish stories. Unlike DVD extras which give us details into every aspect of the production, or a generalized historical overview, what this filmmaker wants to accomplish is something far more esoteric. Instead of focusing on the mechanics of Jaws creation, Hollander hopes to reveal how a simple silver screen adaptation of a bestselling novel became a lynchpin for a greater artistic appreciation.

Now actively seeking a distribution deal, the story behind The Shark is Still Working is divided into two halves – The Impact and The Legacy. Each section states its purpose with amiability and authority, using interviews with all living participants (including Spielberg and his quintessential cast) and testimonials from talent (Kevin Smith, Bryan Singer, Eli Roth) who view Jaws as instrumental in inspiring their passion for film. Interspersed amongst all the accolades and explanations, we meet the devoted, the long time lovers of the movie and its many merchandised variants. Using a first ever Jaws Fest Convention on Martha’s Vineyard as a central staging conceit, Hollander walks us through the initial discussions, the day to day travails, and the lasting import of what many originally feared would be a well meaning fiasco.

The first thing The Shark is Still Working reminds us of is Stephen Spielberg’s then novice status. Throughout the introductory material, meant to give context for those not born during the director’s neophyte reputation, we witness how chutzpah, matched with blind studio faith, fostered a motion picture masterpiece. The iconic filmmaker speaks frankly about his fears and his production nightmares, stating in open terms how the lessons he learned while making Jaws influence him to this day, and occasionally find him waking in a nightmarish cold sweat. Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider second the apprehension, wondering aloud how a ‘kid’ in his mid ‘20s with limited feature film experience could conceivable make a movie filmed in and around the open ocean. It’s the preparation for a series of war stories, but oddly enough, Hollander barely skirts the history.

Instead, he gives us the basics – the shark worked/didn’t work, a three month shoot gets extended to seven, Spielberg escapes to LA while second unit work finishes the film – and then it’s off to the rhetorical races. We learn how the mechanical monster and its notoriously inconsistent functionality were visualized, how Robert Shaw used his own inherent writing skills to polish the famed “Indianapolis” speech, and how a fake head and the editor’s own pool became a celebrated shock moment onscreen. Beyond the hourly battles against tide, weather, exhaustion, incompetence, and filmic fate, Hollander also explores the industry impact. No one thought the film would eventually redefine the business model, though initial test screenings suggested a modest return. Watching the project move from disaster in the making to cultural benchmark is part of The Shark is Still Working’s archeological fun.

Those of us lucky enough to be teenagers when the movie hit screens in 1975 can attest to this section of the film. From the Time Magazine cover story and numerous tie-in publications, to the numerous lampoon references, to the main movie poster, with its oversized beast about to devour an oblivious, skinny dipping female, Jaws went from book to social staple so quickly that to call it a phenomenon would be a massive understatement. Before his pal George Lucas came along to cement the status of big screen spectacle as the next wave in the artform’s advancement, this funky fish story was a clamorous cause celeb. Via montages and displays, anecdote, and actual news reports, Hollander highlights the initial impact, arguing that a kind of symbolic synchronicity between audience and artist was occurring.

As if to emphasize this bond, Carl Gottlieb’s tell all onset diary The Jaws Log is discussed at length. Considered by present filmmakers like Singer and Smith as a kind of movie insider’s Bible, we see how a quick tie-in tome suddenly stands as a constructive confessional for anyone interested in discovering just how difficult it can be to helm a Hollywood production. We are then introduced to other industry insiders like Greg Nicotero (F/X god) and John Williams (soundtrack composer extraordinaire) and listen as they list the ways – both directly and indirectly – that this movie made their careers. To see such influence being acknowledged and defended is heartwarming, especially after all the hand wringing and kvetching over the lack of logistical prowess. But then The Shark is Still Working takes it all a step further. And it’s at this point where Hollander’s point goes from salient to insurmountable. 

At Jaws Fest 2005, thousands of fans descend on the Martha’s Vineyard locations, each one bearing the amiable alms of a lifetime devoted to the film. Many sport tattoos and other celebratory body art, while a few have taken their fascination to the borders of fanaticism. We meet a man who makes a hobby out of imitating Robert Shaw’s salty sea captain character Quint, and witness as he lives out a life long dream – recreating the now infamous “chalkboard” scene from the film on the actual movie backdrop. It’s a sequence that comes dangerously close to idol insanity. Equally intriguing are the collectors, the people who’ve made it their goal to gather as much of the Jaws memorabilia available as possible. For some, a plastic cup or knock off t-shirt is not enough. For these dedicated individuals, years creating their own detailed models or lavish oil canvases remains the only way they can fully connect to Spielberg’s creation.

As sequels are discussed (and dismissed) and child actors chuckle about their place in history (there’s a monumental convention moment when the various Brody progeny from the films are reunited), the sphere of influence exacted by this film is finally understood. While it may not have a regressive recreationist society surrounding its narrative, people dressing up like Hooper and Chief Brody and reenacting their classic confrontations like a certain set of Jedi wannabes, Jaws is still cinematically significant. It stands as an important moment in motion picture history, the time when directors were finally acknowledged as the true guiding spirits of aesthetic truth. It may have been a bumpy road getting their, but as long as Spielberg was functioning, a cranky fake shark was not a big concern. The fact that, three decades later, it manages to still “work” magnificently is all that matters. 

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