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Monday, Oct 30, 2006

Maybe I’m missing the point, and I know it’s just a dumb article about marketing, but it seems like this NY Times article seriously wants us to consider the inclusion of women in shopping focus groups as “the first step to a matriarchal society.” The article’s opening gambit is about how women were able to bring their domestic sensibility to revise a Calgary builder’s home plans with such touches as a better laundry room and kitchens with windows that permit maximum surveillance of children. Bravo! It’s woman’s world after all! Men design and build the houses and make the money from selling them, but because women have been asked what they think of these houses, we’re supposed to herald the fruits of the female-centric revolution.


Never mind the insuting propositon that purchasing power is an equivalent to social power (the organizing ideological tenet of the consumer society that consigns a populace to perpetual fits of fruitless desire and ceaseless identity-building lifestyle projects.) The idea that women do the shopping—that “women are running their households like purchasing managers”—is an old one, is one of the pillars of the home economics conceit that would segregate women from “real” economics and entrepreneurial activity. The time-honored stereotype is that men earn the money and women spend it, and this article only tweaks that narrative slightly: The women now earn money (fancy that!) and they may be involved with buying some traditionally male products like electronics gear. But the overriding tone remains one of mild astonishment at women’s presence in the economic realm. “Market researchers are now embracing women as much more than domestic divas. They recognize them as buyers with their own careers and fattened pocketbooks, who are finding plenty to do and plenty to buy outside the home. Over the last several years, a cottage industry of consultants and authors, all offering advice and analysis, has sprung up around the pervasiveness of women in the marketplace.” (Note “much more than”—because all women are at their root “domestic divas,” hypersensitive shrews preoccupied with inconsequential household trivia to boost their self-importance. And note the pejorative “fattened pocketbooks,” and women’s “pervasiveness” in marketplaces, as if stores were just clotted with women.) We’re still expected to react as if this were a radical departure from their accustomed place in the home, sheltered from the hugger-mugger world of commerce.


With the ultimate aim of arguing that hotels are becoming more amenable to crucial women’s needs (like storing jewelry and having better places to put their makeup in the bathroom) the article offers an anecdotes of women giving stereotypically male behavior the feminine touch: “When they arrived, the hotel gave them gift bags containing OPI nail polish that they swapped among themselves, based on their color preferences. They dined in the hotel’s restaurant and then returned to their suite for a private Texas Hold ’Em lesson from a poker expert, while the hotel sent up a steady flow of cocktails and snacks. ‘We really had a good time,’ Ms. Krause said. ‘We played a round of blackjack, and craps, too.’ ” A whole round of blackjack. Very exciting, very matriarchal, not at all patronizing.


Also shoehorned into the piece is the tenuously related concept of special tourist packages designed for women to allow them to get together and shop unimpeded by men and thereby bond.


Ms. Biringer also arranges travel shopping trips for small groups of women to places like Los Angeles and New York. “Some of us end up in Prada, some of us in Century 21, but we always have a blast and, yes, ring up the purchases,” said Barbara Travers, who also attended a Crave Party in Seattle in August. “I’m usually the one dragging us into four-star restaurants and wine shops; they’re usually dragging me into Henri Bendel and Saks.”
Group events like these are tailored to women’s interests, Ms. Biringer said. “We need to get away from it all and be with our trusted friends,” she said. “Despite what people think, we don’t really pamper ourselves that much. When we do, we’re really happy, and men appreciate that.”


Women’s interests: shopping, conspicuous luxury spending, “trusted” friends, but not too much self-pampering, not that much. This article is truly breaking new ground in discovering what women “really” want.


The article wraps up by returning to the home-builder anecdote, and lays the emphasis not on how women produced award-winning designs, but on how women’s nagging bogs the process down: “Mr. Wenzel says that Shane Homes now takes about five times longer to design a home than it did just a few years ago. ‘It’s critiqued once, twice, three times,” he said. “It’s a longer process, but we end up with better designs.’ “


In all the article is a fine example of how journalists lean on gender stereotypes to structure their evergreen lifestyle articles, to make them smoothly familiar for readers, reinforcing comfortable but slightly outmoded stereotypes while pretending to challenge them. Readers can have their fears of the real threat (actual feminist progress; shifting responsibilities among gender lines) assuaged by the phony narrative the story supplies interstitially, wherein the yearned-for past is presented as the oncoming inevitable future.


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Monday, Oct 30, 2006

... and other body parts.  An interesting story crept up from the Drudge Report about how NBC and CW turned down ads for a documentary about the fallout from the Dixie Chicks’ dissing of Bush, Shut Up & Sing: see the Dixie Chicks’ coup.  As the Alternet article notes, it turns out to be a good publicity move for the film, stirring up yet more controversy and getting more recognition.  Also, as the article notes, it provides more fuel to the film’s argument that the media does indeed fearfully frown upon Bush-bashing.  As the leaked NBC memo says, the network “Cannot Accept These Spots as They are Disparaging to President Bush.”  But is that the whole story?


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Sunday, Oct 29, 2006


Dead Alive


It’s really ironic, when you think about it. Very few of the so-called post-modern horror films celebrated by critics and audiences actually strive to be different from the classic Gothic companions that they pretend to separate themselves from. Sure, many re-envision their stalwart subjects in various newfangled lights, and try to contemporize such graduated folktales. But in the end, the results are still the same. Vampires continue to suck blood, monsters are made out of grave-robbed body parts, and a full moon produces a plethora of wolfmen, each one wearing their joyless gypsy curse on their hirsute human pelts. Maybe this is why Bill Gunn’s esoteric exercise in terror, the sadly forgotten Ganja and Hess, is so striking. When we hear it was supposed to be a combination of blaxploitation and bloodsucker, we settle in and expect the worse – or perhaps Blackula Part 2. Instead, we get a devastating art film that raises more intriguing philosophical questions than hairs on the back of one’s neck.

Part of the reason for the movie’s minor present day status stems directly from the reaction it received when first viewed by distributors, and then completely unprepared New York audiences. When they hired the off-Broadway actor and accomplished screenwriter Bill Gunn to helm their horror film, newly formed Kelly-Jordan Enterprises were looking to break into the urban market, a seemingly endless cash cow triggered by Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. With the success of black-themed horror, an idea was hatched. Combining the elements of exploitation being used to foster the ghetto films with a bit of Bram Stoker, Gunn’s instructions were simple. Meld the two concepts and deliver a commercial script. What the company got instead was a surreal story about a rich doctor whose stabbed with an ancient blood cult’s ceremonial dagger. It leaves him immortal, indestructible, and addicted to blood.


Much to Dr. Hess Green’s horror, his stature in life allows him the almost legal, leisurely pursuit of his particular natural narcotic. When potential victims aren’t merely inviting themselves into his house, they proposition him in bars or on street corners. Once fed, the high minded scholar with an erudition beyond his urges looks for ways to curb his cravings. When the wife of one of his supply sources turns up asking questions, Hess senses someone capable of sharing his secret with. But this means he will have to turn Ganja Meda into what he’s become. In the interim, a battle of wills ensues, with Ganja’s money grubbing ways running roughshod over almost everything in Hess’s life. He seems to love her, but this could also be a cautionary move to keep her close – and confined. She, on the other hand, has never once fended for herself. Instead, she relies on the kindness of suckers – and Hess has got the closet skeletons to settle her accounts quite nicely.


Reluctantly, Kelly-Jordan approved the storyline, and soon Gunn was helming his first feature. But, as a bad Borscht Belt comic might say, a final thing happened on the way to the final cut. Inspired by the collaborative process he was experiencing with Producer Chiz Schultz, actors Duane Jones and Marlene Clark, Director of Photography James E. Hinton and Editor Victor Kanefsky, Gunn decided to completely reimagine his movie. Gone were long passages of exposition, unnecessary moments of clichéd horror, and anything obvious or overt. In their place, Gunn imagined a “Ingmar Bergman” style experience, with arcane symbolism and complex themes. He would twist certain subjects – sexuality, addiction, religion – into intricate statements of subtle surreal purpose. He would then add to the context by purposefully messing with the rigid requirements of cinema. Not only would he deliver a fright film unlike any ‘70s audiences had seen before, he would attempt to rewrite the language of film as well.


For the most part, he succeeded. Ganja and Hess is more a meditation on spirit and suffering than a sinister sampling of some notorious neckbiters. Gunn made his movie a crisis of conscious rather than a full blown exercise in fear. There are no big scenes of bloodletting, no moments of cryptic commentary about “the children of the night” or fluttering fake bats. Certainly, the sensuality surrounding the vampire legend is more or less intact, given a daring homo/hetero sexual connotation all throughout the film. There was even a suggestion, mentioned by both Victor Kanefsky and Chiz Schultz on the recent DVD bonus features (a very fine release from the always reliable Image Entertainment) that this was really a ménage a trios gone grisly. Hess entertains both Ganja and her psychologically fragile husband George, and there are moments where the men seem more than mere co-workers. Still, in keeping with this movie’s motives, nothing is spelled out or explained.


Gunn also included a couple of creative elements that keep the audience constantly off guard. Hess has a butler named Archie, and when he’s not storming around the estate in a series of ritualistic maneuvers, he’s giving and getting a hard time from his employer’s new live-in lady. Similarly, Hess also employs a local minister as his chauffer, a right minded man named Reverend Williams who is constantly calling on God to right the wrongs of the world and support the righteous while smiting the wicked. We keep waiting for the stereotypical moment where the man of the cloth uncovers the evil right underneath his eyes and does his Christian quack voodoo to set everything right. Oddly enough, this doesn’t happen. Instead, both Archie and the preacher play their parts perfectly, merely minor catalysts in the film’s final, flummoxing denouement.


Without the fright formulas in place – the standard cheap shocks, the nods to cinematic scares from decades past – Gunn created a true post-modern masterwork. And like any artistic effort, it was embraced by some and slighted by all the rest. Indeed, upon witnessing the commercially worthless effort Gunn gave them, Kelly-Jordan halted the release (the movie played for less than a week in one NYC theater), hired a new editor and savaged the director’s vision. Utilizing material from the original script that Gunn shot and then rejected, the resulting revamp was indeed more like the concept the company had contracted for. But the newly named Blood Couple was equally unliked by audiences, left to play the dying drive-in circuit to earn back its budget. Gunn would sort of have the last laugh. Taking his original version to Cannes (it is this delightful director’s cut that Image now offers, thanks to the efforts of All Day Entertainment), Ganja and Hess won a standing ovation – and a great deal of critical respect – from the French film aficionados.


It definitely does deserve the praise. In an era (the ‘70s) known for cinematic invention and motion picture experimentation, the avant-garde nature of Ganja and Hess makes it an initially off-putting experience. Sadly, this is our fault as an audience, not that of the film itself. Indeed, one needs to wipe away all preconceived notions before entering this movie, and it’s not just the ideas about blood sucking vampires and supernatural shivers. No, a new pair of eyes and a reconfigured eerie ethos are needed to really appreciate what Gunn was doing. He is making a movie of thoughts instead of plots, visualizing his meaning in stark, surprisingly passionate particulars. He wants you to feel the disconnect of the characters, to sense Hess’s growing hatred of his personal predicament as well as the spiritual battle for his soul. In addition, he attempts to mimic the way in which true macabre would function in the modern world. That’s why scenes seem half completed, conversations merely overheard or lacking clear context.


The result is a real surprise, one of the genre’s fiercest forgotten gems. Taking so many unexpected twists and turns that it literally leaves the viewer breathless, Gunn gives the Nosferatu notion the contemporary tweaking that so many well meaning moviemakers simply avoid. By purposefully placing his narrative in a minority arena, the director delivers a more human and heartfelt aura to his approach, and the acting by Dwayne Jones and Marlene Carter is incredible, pushing the possibilities even further. When she tells Dr. Green that his driver can’t possible miss her – she’s the ‘most evil’ lady around, it’s not just a threat, it’s a promise. And at the end of the story, we sense our good doctor was played from the moment Ganja arrived. Sadly, Gunn’s desire to see his original resonate with an audience had to go mostly unfilled. He died before work on this DVD even began. Still, for a storyline so strongly attached to both the supernatural and the soul, the newfound affinity for Ganja and Hess is probably making its creator very proud. Even posthumously, he and his film deserve it.


 


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Sunday, Oct 29, 2006


Gut Level


Slither simultaneously symbolizes everything that’s right and wrong with the current trends in post-modern horror. On the positive side, this minor masterpiece’s deconstruction of the entire ‘80s idea of terror is so flawlessly fashioned and perfectly executed that writer/director James Gunn ought to be celebrated (or in some fright fans minds, shot) for how accurately he skewers the era’s many mediocre monster movies. The film frequently feels like a fanboy’s final exam. In addition, Gunn gives gorehounds a real reason to rejoice. Unlike the current concept of over the top bloodletting that thinks the sequence is more important than the sluice, this inspired auteur gets his groovy grue just right. As he piles on the pus and unleashes the organs, those of us longing for this kind of craven creature feature can’t help but smile from ear to ear.

The setup is deceptively simple. After a meteor crashes outside the small town of Wesley, South Carolina, one of the local bigwigs, a rich jerk named Grant Grant, gets infected by a space spore. Seeking someone to help him hatch his slug like servants, Grant kidnaps a former fling, kills several head of livestock and dozens of neighborhood pets, and sets up his brooder outside the city limits. Before you know it, Wesley is overrun by killer creepy crawlies, all looking for orifices to invade. Worming their way into their victim’s brains, the townsfolk are soon resurrected as living dead members of Grant’s growing invasion force. It will take a nice guy sheriff, a suddenly orphaned teen, and Grant’s wife Starla to hopefully save the day. Unfortunately, killing these ‘critters’ will be a lot harder than everyone thinks.


So where’s the negative, you ask? What could possibly be wrong with a movie so easily praised and smashingly entertaining? Well, for one thing, it was a flop. For reasons only a macabre Mensa scholar could understand, the demographic preferred such alternative terror offerings as Eli Roth’s Hostel (good) and the recent Omen remake (bad…very, very bad) to Gunn’s goofball gross out. Second, and far more troubling, people were actually put off by the notion – created as kind of a critical shortcut for the genre addled element of the press – that this was some kind of mainstream Troma movie. Instead of embracing the name of the world’s leading Indie icon as a badge of dynamite dishonor, audiences actually responded by purposefully avoiding the film. If they didn’t like what Lloyd Kaufman and his ilk were doing before, why would they enjoy a big budget version of the same?


Well, for one thing, Slither is not a Troma film. The connection between the two stops at Gunn’s previous career as a company executive and scriptwriter (he was responsible for the equally engaging and enigmatic Tromeo and Juliet). The fact is, for anyone looking for logical links between past and present efforts, films like Night of the Creeps, Robot Holocaust and Bad Taste provide far more credible creative starting points. Slither is obviously the effort of someone who’s studied horror, looking at everything from the bad, the bumbling, and the brazen as inspiration for his ideas. Many similarly styled flicks with familiar titles like The Deadly Spawn, Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Critters use the invasion idea to turn normal society sinisterly askew. What Gunn adds is his own mythology (gotta love the mind-meld moment were a CGI creature goes on an intergalactic killing spree) and a child-like glee when it comes to glop. 


Similar to the sensational Shaun of the Dead, Slither also understands that humor goes a long way toward preparing the foundation for your outrageous frights. A legion of devotees, raised on Freddy’s wounded wise-cracks, the Leprechaun’s lame one-liners, and the inherent hilarity in seeing Jason do away with clueless copulators, don’t really like their terror straight up. They want some moments of merriment, a little boo breather, so to speak, before heading out into flesh-eating zombie territory. With a keen comic sense that shows through in almost everything he does (a perfect example of which is his collaboration with wife Jenna Fisher on her fabulous mock doc Lollilove), Gunn gives Slither the kind of wink and a nod irony that should have made this movie an unqualified youth culture hit. Sadly, the current craze for ‘violence porn’, best exemplified by the Saw series and Roth’s tainted travelogue, apparently provides no room for something both funny and frightening.


And yet, Gunn doesn’t stop there. This is a movie loaded with in-jokes, nods to famous horror heroes, and constant references to films past and present. Almost everyone in the cast is named after a celebrated genre writer, director, producer or actor, and locations like ‘Henelotters’ act as less than subtle cinematic shout outs. Certainly Slither can seem insular at times, trying too be a tad too cute for its own limited means, but that doesn’t begin to destroy the amazing work done here by Gunn and company. From the impressive cast (including former serial killer Henry – a.k.a. Michael Rooker - as Grant) to the refreshing use of physical as well as computer generated effects, the filmmaking is first rate. Yet unlike previous attempts to make a purposefully bad b-movie, Slither is too smart to be so easily dismissed. Instead, it radiates a pure love of horror language, and never stumbles along the way toward its silly scares.


Still, one is shocked by the poor box office performance. That’s not to say that every film like Slither steals away multiple megabucks from their time at the Cineplex (Shaun of the Dead and John Carpenter’s The Thing were both less than boffo upon initial release), but when nothing else out there comes close to this movie’s invention and charm, ignoring it seems downright dumb. Here’s predicting that a few years from now, once the latest fear fad fades from view, joining J-Horror and Blair Witch rip-offs on the Island of Misfit Movie Ideas, Gunn will be vindicated and Slither will soar in popularity. The obsessives will discover every obscurity, the devoted will pen numerous weblog entries on the film’s sexual themes and obvious inspirations (everyone from Spielberg to Cronenberg will be cited). But none of this will make-up for the fact that, when they had the chance to champion the first truly great horror film of 2006, they waited instead to celebrate a bunch of spelunking dames and their run-in with some underground albinos.


Slither will survive. But there’s a bigger issue at play. Gunn probably used up all his blockbuster clout delivering his deliciously fun film to the big screen, and it’s probably a safe bet that a major studio won’t be bankrolling his next low-budget laughathon anytime soon. And that’s a shame. For all its tricks and gimmicks, it’s easily recognizable references and excessive use of entrails, Gunn actually makes a great bit of schlock. It reminds us of a time when terror could encompass any and all ideas, when it didn’t have to be micromanaged down to a recognizable trend or taken apart and rearranged to earn an easy PG-13. Now more than ever the suffering category of scares needs jaded jesters like James Gunn. Slither is the perfect cure for such cinematic stagnancy.


 


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Saturday, Oct 28, 2006


Before its release in 1988, Dead Heat was a hotly anticipated horror title. Written up numerous times in Fangoria magazine and rumored about by knowledgeable fans eager to see what sick, twisted special effects makeup artist Steve Johnson would come up with, it seemed like a can’t miss prospect. Johnson was a young gun of prosthetics who had quickly become a fright flick favorite with such spectacle-filled titles under his belt as Videodrome, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Howling II. And the premise was ripe for a few quickie sequels, the continued stories of the living-dead law enforcement friends. It seemed as though the scene was set for another potential hit terror title. Then Dead Heat knocked into theaters and flopped, vanishing to video shelves everywhere. It became a forgotten film, a mere blip on the radar of well-regarded scary movies from the 1980s.


And that’s too bad, because Dead Heat is an inventive, inviting horror comedy that avoids formulas while it deconstructs clichés to make what has to be the first action-adventure-living-dead comedy ever conceived. Utilizing a wonderful idea and presenting it with all the creativity a barebones budget would allow, director Mark Goldblatt perverted the buddy cop prescription into a zombified geek show of bloodletting, corpses, and plenty of jocularity. Toss in the graphic (for its time) snuff stuff and some self-deprecating wit, and what you have is something very special; a movie that should have been a creepy crawly contender. Instead, it’s just a fond memory for those who discovered it initially, and a “What the heck is this?” moment for a few formerly famous faces.


Treat Williams is wonderful here, tossing aside all his gruff, anxious high drama seriousness and letting loose with a cool, collected performance. He brings the right amount of anarchic authority to the film, helping to sell the over-the-top foundation. When he becomes a walking corpse cop, you can see Williams relishing the renegade antics of his character the more he decays and rots. Joe Piscopo, occasionally appearing as nothing more than an ad for anabolic alteration, does manage to get in a couple of zesty zingers before it’s time to flex his non-hilarious pythons again. Frankly, this is one of the few times where the ex-SNLer’s bulking routine actually fits his character. Detective Bigelow seems a couple of protein shakes away from a health regime, and Piscopo’s radically altered physique logically illustrates this pumped-up personality choice.


Such cult icons as Vincent Price (still spry and sinister in one of his last roles), Darren McGavin (giving his criminal coroner a real peppy persona), and Keye Luke (actually playing a cutthroat villain) bring another level of star polish to the independent terror tale. Indeed, between the acting and direction, a solid little scarefest is created. But Johnson’s novel—and unnerving—special effects work is the film’s most memorable asset. From reanimated corpses in various “stitched together” configurations to the set-piece gross-out in the Chinese butcher shop (where cuts of meat and other “processed” animals come back to life to get revenge), this effects wiz really excels here. Lindsay Frost undergoes one of the best onscreen makeup meltdowns ever. It’s because of the glorious grue that Dead Heat, even with all its help, rises above other routine terrors from the MTV decade.


Frankly, it’s surprising that in the rush to remake any old horror film, no one has thought about giving this tantalizing tale a little redux action. One can easily see a successful mainstream movie of the macabre being fashioned out of the successful shell of this stellar work. Jazz up the effects, increase the blood, and infuse the story with lots of A-name star power, and boffo box office is some studio’s for the taking. Bigger than life on a Cineplex screen or loaded onto your home theater setup, Dead Heat can and does work. It’s mainly because scriptwriter Terry Black (brother of Lethal Weapon‘s Shane Black) has crafted a well-conceived film. Dead Heat never lets its premise get so out of hand as to destroy the dimensions of dread, and all the comic elements help to magnify, not minimize, the shocks and slaughter. Zombies are always good for some gore and terrorizing, but here they are walking, talking, thinking ex-humans with a capacity for immortality (unlike typical living dead gospel, they seem near-impossible to kill).


Limiting the craven creeps to a chosen few and giving them distinct visual personalities (the two-faced fiend, the walking-dead weasel, etc) helps us handle the more implausible elements. Black also gives the typical cop team-up dialogue a little added vitality by making Roger a dull, drone-like officer with a penchant for interpersonal insincerity. This gives Williams’s scenes with both Frost and Clare Kirkconnell as morgue assistant Rebecca Smythers a kind of human emotional resonance that many monster movies lack. Black’s script, combined with Mark Goldblatt’s crackerjack direction and sense of tension, enables Dead Heat to surpass its small-time trappings and become a big-idea film in a petite independent package.


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