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Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007

One reason why we love movies is to watch people who will enact our fantasies.  The Tough Guy is the male counterpart of the Sex Goddess; he’s the Mars to her Venus. While she is pleasure incarnate, he’s the embodiment of violence, just and deserved. The Tough Guy pulls off the deeds we’re forced to suppress for the sake of daily expediency, and he’s uninhibited enough not to wait for natural justice, which is seldom reliable. Born out of the collective disappointment and anger of bleak times, Tough Guys provide us with a relished sense of comeuppance.

The Bollywood Tough Guys share all the qualities of their Hollywood counterparts, they’re brusque machismo serves as a cathartic release for all our pent-up aggression. Indians live for melodrama and when they want to see violence they want the flame-burning, blood-splattering kind. The archetypal Indian Tough Guy took shape from the ancient Vedic epics of wars and fallen kingdoms and evolved into the post-Partition movie stars. 

But oddly enough, the movie Tough Guy didn’t become big till well into the late ‘60s. From 1947 to 1966, all audiences wanted were romantic matinee idols. The entrenched class system, leftover from the colonial days, was still strong and working-class characters weren’t embraced as leading men. By the time Indira Gandhi came to power in the late ‘60s, the system began to break down and populist heroes were the rage in India (as they were in Europe). The workforce wanted stars who they could relate to and through whom they could vicariously live.  And these actors all exuded the menace and hustle of the Bombay streets.

Amitabh Bachan is the most well known, most beloved out of all the movie Tough Guys. His looming stature, well over 6 feet (which in ‘60s India was a staggering anomaly) and his rich baritone are iconic. His physicality and grace call to mind Burt Lancaster and his penchant for playing the introspective cynic is reminiscent of Bogart. His screen persona has become a representation of all that India believes itself to be, imposing, resilient, and unabashedly vocal and patriotic. Vinod Khanna was Bachan’s angry wingman during the ‘70s. Khanna reveled in old-fashioned masculinity playing either tough, tender cops or wily S.O.B.s.  There was dewy-eyed remorse to his excessive machismo, a hybrid between the Matinee Idol and the Tough Guy that was so appealing to audiences. Soon everyone from Feroz Khan to Akshay Kumar adopted it as part of their style.

By the 80s, the Tough Guys of the ‘60s and ‘70s - traditional brawny working-class rakes - evolved into grim, hard-bodied nihilists of the Bombay Underworld. Cars, guns, drugs, and all the hedonistic pleasures of alpha-manhood motivated the anti-heroes of this consumerist decade. Sanjay Dutt, son of ‘40s and ‘50s legend Nargis, emerged as the number one action star. With his cartoonishly muscular physique and bloodshot eyes, he was an Amitabh Bachan for an age with less innocence. While Bachan played lovable rogues small-time con men, Dutt mastered the role of the Bombay gangster in its elusive complexity: the vicious killer, the defender of oppressed minorities, the amoral opportunist,  the prince of the mohallas.*

Then there’s Sunil Shetty, the dark horse. A true thespian in a B-movie star’s cover. This Burt Reynolds look-alike is one of the best actors in this group.  Don’t let the gratuitous motorcycle stunts and kickboxing fool you. Look closer and you’ll see a startling inwardness and depth of feeling to his performances that comes across even in his tawdriest movies. Salman Khan, the youngest of the group, is the quicksilver personality—golden-boy leading man, bawdy screwball comedian, and avenging action hero. But years of fast living, brawls, and shady mob affiliations have sucked the vitality out of performances. He’s still a celebrity force to be reckoned with, but haunted by scandal.

It will be interesting to see who’ll step into the role of Tough Guy in the years to come. Ambitious young men from the arid provinces flock to Bombay daily, slaving through grueling workout regimens, queuing for hours for a screen test, waiting to be the next Salman Khan or Sanjay Dutt. Which one of them will bring something new to the screen persona?

*mohallas—a district or neighborhood; In Indian cities like Bombay and Delhi, they’re the equivalent to Manhattan’s Lower East Side—crowded, vibrant ethnic communities.

Amitabh, circa ‘70s

Vinod, circa ‘70s

Sanjay, circa ‘80s



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Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Fountains of Wayne
Someone to Love [Streaming]

The View
Superstar Tradesman [Streaming]

Dogg Pound, featuring Snoop Dogg
Vibe with a Pimp [Streaming]

Jon McLaughlin
Beautiful Disaster [Streaming]

David Wells
Strawberry Letter #23 [Streaming]

Joel Ortiz
Hip Hop [MP3]

The Morning Pages
With the Lord [MP3]

The Feeling
Sewn [Streaming]

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Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007

The Sunday NYT ran a story about a sorority house at Depauw University in Indiana that threw out most of its members in an effort to shed the chapter of its reputation of being for “socially awkward”. Apparently that’s code for not being white and emaciated:

Worried that a negative stereotype of the sorority was contributing to a decline in membership that had left its Greek-columned house here half empty, Delta Zeta’s national officers interviewed 35 DePauw members in November, quizzing them about their dedication to recruitment. They judged 23 of the women insufficiently committed and later told them to vacate the sorority house. The 23 members included every woman who was overweight. They also included the only black, Korean and Vietnamese members. The dozen students allowed to stay were slender and popular with fraternity men — conventionally pretty women the sorority hoped could attract new recruits. Six of the 12 were so infuriated they quit.

Especially mortifying is the account of a recruiting event where “national representatives took over the house” and “asked most members to stay upstairs in their rooms”—basically because they felt the actual members would scare away new prospects. You think these members would have resigned in disgust and contempt right then.

This whole incident seems terrible and unfair and all that, but what kind of organization did these women think they were joining? We’re not talking about NOW; this is a sorority, part of the Greek system, which is a cog in the machine perpetuating all the traditional entitlements and conventional arrangements that have been passed down through the upper middle classes. The Greek system? Biased? Of course it is; that’s it’s raison d’etre by and large. By entering in to the system you confess your wish to have your social life bureaucratically arranged and subjected to conformist codes. “Socially awkward sorority” is thus an oxymoron—sororities are about purging awkwardness and making social life work mechanically. You are looking for official sanction on your choice of friends and activities, so by consenting to that, you have to admit of the possibility that the officials in charge might withdraw their blessing, otherwise it meant nothing in the first place—which it does for everyone outside of the system. Unfortunately, the social networks the Greek system sustains has real power in the world beyond college; so the whole thing is not merely submissiveness and hierarchy for its own sake, but for the sake of anchoring yourself in the broader post-collegiate hierarchy. (I chose to live in darkness, pretending that by rejecting hierarchical systems in college I could somehow deny their existence in the world beyond; this shows I learned almost nothing while in college about the real world.) Is it lame that sororities judge members by their potential attractiveness to men? Absolutely. Is this sort of thing unprecedented in the real world? Not exactly. The nice thing about the Greek system is that, unlike patriarchy at large, women are not forced to participate in it, so they need not endorse a by-and-large sexist arrangement by collaborating with it for tactical gains within a seemingly inescapable system of oppression.

Why this sad story merits coverage in the New York Times‘s front section is worth considering: That this particular chapter, where women were apparently giving each other solace rather than orchestrating ways to attract male attention, has been effectively shut down is presented as a representative example, though I’m not sure how much can really be concluded from one ripe example. Perhaps more significant is how the article gives us a good pretense to exercise our facility for righteous indignation as we consider the callousness of Delta Zeta’s national officers and breathe a sigh of relief that our own lives are not beset by such shallowness (and then we flip to Sunday Styles). But also the story lets us experience the vicarious thrill of humiliation, our secret pleasure in seeing these kinds of codes of comparison being upheld (at a safe distance from ourselves, of course). I was thinking about this while watching the Acadamy Awards show and how comfortable I was in denouncing various celebrities as “ugly”, as if I really cared and as if my opinion mattered in the least. But this is the purpose of the red-carpet show, isn’t it? To give people a chance to pass judgment at home? We all collude in this kind of superficiality when it seems safe to, because we have learned so well its collective power and would love to indulge the fantasy of exercising that power personally. Not to be too trite, but in those fleeting moments of judgment we become convinced that we escape observation ourselves.

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Monday, Feb 26, 2007

That slight electrical buzz you sense in the air is the remnants of an Academy Awards ceremony that went slightly off kilter. With Paramount probably producing brand new stickers to announce The Departed‘s major Oscar wins (screenplay, editing, director AND picture) and the Babel: Special Edition disc more than likely on indefinite hold, the repercussions of Hollywood’s yearly attempt to regain a bit of artistic integrity will be short and succinct – unlike the telecast itself. So as we wait for the final three nominees to make their way onto the preferred home theater format, the divergent choices available this week will have to satisfy your cinematic jones. They may not make up for the Pan’s Labyrinth debacle, but at least a couple will remind you why movies are indeed magic. So, for 27 February, feast your eyes on these motion picture possibilities: 


It’s been a tough couple of years for Terry Gilliam. The one time God of the film geek world has seen his filmic fortunes wane substantially. Part of the problem was his misguided mash-up with Miramax, a problematic collaboration that resulted in The Brothers Grimm. While fighting over final cut with a certain member of the Weinstein Family, the ex-pat Python went out and made this movie, based on the book by Mitch Cullin. And it was critics, this time, that caused the commotion. Resoundingly booed at its Toronto Film Festival premiere, the filmmaker has since launched a one-man campaign to save his cinematic reputation – and, in conjunction, the fate of this so-called adult fairy tale. As with most of his movies, it’s a love it or loathe it affair, with more votes coming down on the negative. Maybe this DVD release will finally settle the argument one way or another.

Other Titles of Interest

Alexander: Revisited

Oliver Stone must rue the day he ever decided to take on the story of this famed ancient great one. All production problems and budget issues aside, the whole bi-sexual angle (or lack thereof in the final cut) has brought this movie more notoriety than box office. Now, in it’s THIRD DVD incarnation, the filmmaker adds 40 minutes of material and declares himself done. Sounds more like a surrender.

A Good Year

In an obvious attempt to recapture the cinematic glory they achieved with Gladiator, director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe came together to make this supposed romanticized look at redemption. Granted, the idea of a high powered money man getting all moist over his idyllic past showed some slight promise, but the final film was a cloying bit of claptrap without a lick of likeability or real world legitimacy.

The Return

After the shocking success of The Grudge on these shores (who would have thought that high concept Americans would cotton to the causal terrors that comprise most J-Horror?), star Sarah Michelle Gellar decided to revisit the Asian fright film dynamic one more time. Sadly, the result was this ridiculously routine thriller. Remove the rural setting and you’ve got the same old girl ghost goofiness.

Stranger than Fiction

His performance with Jack Black and John C. Reilly was one of the legitimate highlights of an otherwise dull as dishwater Oscar ceremony. That doesn’t make this semi-serious comedy any more compelling. With a premise that practically screams Charlie Kaufman and weirdly wicked turns from Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, this should have been a cinematic slam dunk. Sadly, it misses the basket by a few unfunny furlongs.

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

Farrell’s Academy musical partner also has a DVD out this week, and for fans of his previous incarnation as part of the world’s greatest rock band, this is the movie of the century. Unfortunately, cult does not easily translate into commercial, and no matter his building box office appeal, Black couldn’t put enough butts in theater seats. For true devotees and those looking for a mainstream movie alternative.

And Now for Something Completely Different
Deep Red/ Inferno

Over the past couple of years there’s been a real renaissance in Dario Argento’s cinematic fortunes. His contributions to the Showtime series Masters of Horror have given him a much higher public profile, and after decades of speculation, he is now in the process of filming the final chapter of his Three Mothers trilogy. It’s convenient then that Blue Underground is re-releasing some of the maestro’s best films, including his breakthrough giallo and part two of the aforementioned terror triumvirate. Of the titles coming back to DVD, Red is the best, a deliciously disturbed exercise in murder mystery macabre that deserves to be ranked right up there with some of the greatest movies ever made. Inferno is more frustrating, a clear example of significant style over far too subtle substance. Yet the visuals are so powerful, their effect so overpowering, that we forgive the film its little minor narrative misgivings. Here’s hoping the rest of his considerable canon – including the lost in limbo Four Flies on Grey Velvet – make it back to the digital domain sometime soon.


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Monday, Feb 26, 2007

Please pardon the explosion of audiovisual content into this blog, but I was forwarded this clip, and I couldn’t let it pass without comment. If you don’t remember this from 1984, it’s Billy Squier’s video for “Rock Me Tonite.” Yes, that’s t-o-n-i-t-e, tonite, not to be confused with the pedestrian g-h-t variety. Can’t you feel the exc-i-t-e-ment? More semiotic analysis to come, but first some background: Squier first rose to prominance as singer for the above-average but commercially unsuccessful power-pop band Piper. He went solo and eventually released Don’t Say No, a vaguely sleazy proto-poodle-rock record which ruled AOR radio in 1981 along with J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame and REO Speedwagon’s immortal Hi Infidelity.

With “The Stroke”, Squier managed to find a sound simultaneously stripped down and bombastic; it had all the idiocy (and irresistiblity) of a band like Slade (of “Cum on Feel the Noize” fame) without being entirely juvenile and devoid of conceivable sex appeal. The record’s other hits—“My Kinda Lover”, “Lonely Is the Night”—were similarly loud and stupid in the best possible way. Def Leppard would later appropriate this formula for its Pyromania record, tour with Squier in the U.S. and steal his audience after upstaging him night after night. Perhaps this set off the desperation which led to the catastrophe you see above in the video. (Ironically, Squier had opened for Kiss while in Piper and should have learned the cardinal lesson of always getting underwhelming bands to open for you on your arena tour. This is how I came to see the band Third Eye Blind open for the Stones.)

At first Squier was working a journeyman rocker/prisonhouse-chic look, which this album cover epitomizes. Note the denim shirt and bare feet and the fact that he seems to be sprawled on the floor of a bus station lavatory: “All I got—and all I need—is this here Telecaster.” But for the follow up to Don’t Say No, the far inferior Emotions in Motion, pastel creep had begun to set in.  The bedraggled rocker look has morphed into an effeminate quasi-Eddie Van Halen thing (though arguably Squier looks more like Asylum-era Paul Stanley here); one can only presume that he was being encouraged to consolidate his fleeting grip over the Tiger Beat demographic by softening his image. The music too was a little softer—more synths, more power ballads. Then with his next album, with MTV in full swing and music videos at their first apex of cultural significance, came Signs of Life (produced by Meat Loaf Svengali Jim Steinman) and the abomination we see above. I’m guessing the idea here was to push Squier’s androgyny to the next level and make him into the hair-metal Prince or something: hence the satin-swathed bed (straight out of the risible jacket photography from 1999) and the uninhibited “dancing”, which seems a weird cross between aerobicizing and particularly outré masturbation.

The video begins with some jazz-hands finger-snapping on the soundtrack, and Squier writhing in the satin sheets as though it were an alarm clock. He scratches his head sleepily, pulls on a pair of pajama pants, and we get our first look at the weird set-up I’m guessing we’re supposed to pretend is his loft apartment—giant scrims with close ups of his own eyeball on them, big windows opening out onto red skies at night, a few lamps that seem to have mauve lightbulbs in them, dressing screens back-lit purple that shield our view of a brick wall, some cheap-looking armchairs with clothes draped over them, etc. Then he pulls on a shirt that has one sleeve cut off and the other barely attached so that it ends up looking like a wristband around his bicep. Why are his clothes in tatters? we wonder. Perhaps the red skies at night indicate that we are in postapocalyptic times. This is the height, remember, of nuclear-war hysteria and fears of the Evil Soviet Empire; it was common place to set videos in nuclear wastelands to make them seem more emotionally urgent. Maybe only something like nuclear holocaust had any real potency as a free-floating signifier within a nonnarrative music-video context; maybe directors felt they had to at least gesture toward it, since it seemed an inescapable part of the era’s visual vocabulary, like pastel and oversize graphic elements on ludicrously large posters.

Anyway, we don’t have much time to mull any of this over, because Squier inexplicably begins dancing, as if that’s just what he always does after rolling out of the sack. When my alarm goes off and music is playing, I generally don’t get up and start doing an interpretive routine around my living room, but maybe that’s just because I don’t have as much space as Squier seems to have in his fictional apartment. But then, what he’s doing is less dancing than spasming—he looks like a mannequin whose strings have become tangled. Or maybe the puppeteer’s quaaludes just kicked in or something, for then he’s lurching around the apartment in his sweat socks (or are they wrestling booties? It’s hard to tell at this resolution.) Apparently he was searching for a mirror in which to complete his morning ablutions—but wait, then his mirror suddenly opens up on to what looks like the mouth of hell, and Squier recoils and begins crawling on the floor and having some kind of epilepti-erotic episode with himself on the painted concrete. And then, after a freeze frame on his arching his back in ecstasy dissolves into him humping the floor at the foot of his bed, it really starts getting weird.
Some notable moments:

1:07—What is that in his hand? Is that a pink camisole? After what we’ve seen, how can anyone conclude it’s not part of his own wardrobe?

1:15—The size of his fantasy loft apartment is much larger than we realized, larger than a few racquetball courts placed end to end. This, I imagine the director believed, emphasizes the loneliness of his bed.

1:20—Squier’s jump-rope dance move seems especially awkward, even worse then his skipping around the loft, until he resolves it in a spank-the-pony/air guitar flourish.

1:26—The lingering freeze-frame of Squier tearing his shirt off somehow fails to make this would-be climactic moment more dramatic—perhaps because the shirt was already so shredded, it seemed he had an unfair head start.

1:29—Is he now wearing the same camisole he threw at the hanging lamp?

1:40 to 1:55—An Elizabeth Berkeley-esque routine on the firetruck-red stripper pole and the windowsill.

2:03—Air guitar is one thing, but air microphone?

2:13—The papier-mâché crane hook? Mario Brothers has more realistic looking heavy equipment. And what is this doing in his apartment? Is he supposed to be living in a dockside warehouse?

2:43—I try to imagine what’s going through Squier’s head as he collapses on his face into the satin sheets. Was he filled with shame and self-loathing? Or did he have a moment there where he truly forgot he wasn’t eight years old? And how is he not laughing when he rolls himself upright and sings, “Times are all and all in time, / I stepped beyond the borderline / Of who we are and where we long to be”?

At last, he grabs the guitar that has been teasing us in the corner all along, plugs it in, and magically he joins his band—sort of Loverboy gone new wave—in an even more sterile environment, with more giant posters of himself and ugly pseudo pop art suspended from the ceiling. Even though they all make jackasses out of themselves by jumping around and pretending to play instruments despite the absence of any amps or patchcords or wires of any kind, every member of this band calls out for specially tailored derision: I’m content, though, to call your attention to the drummer’s Panama Jack hat and the studded Gary Glitter guitar strap on that Stray Cats reject playing bass. I’m guessing his unbuttoned Chams shirt did not distract anyone from the lameness of his greased-out Kenickie hairdo, even when he takes his bass off at the end to throw the shirt off his shoulder to expose more of his chest. The keyboardist dive-bombing his fingers to play the one-note synth “lick” of this outro is pretty great, but nothing can top the Rockette kicks Squier and the drummer trade off toward the end.

I’ve gone into much greater detail than I planned to, but I think you get the point: The argument that this video ended Squier’s career is entirely plausible. It was right around this time when the sheer existence and novelty of videos was no longer enough: you couldn’t do an unchoreographed dance around a half-assed set anymore and expect to get away with it. Million-dollar video budgets were not too far off in the distance. And journeyman retreads like Squier would no longer get second chances when so much more was riding on image rather than songwriting talent or musical charisma. The awfulness of 1980s music obviously has much to do with this purging of the talent pool.

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