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Friday, Oct 27, 2006

Via BPS Digest (and Marginal Revolution) comes this report that claims reading novels will make a person more empathetic. In the test the researchers conducted, “The more authors of fiction that a participant recognised, the higher they tended to score on measures of social awareness and tests of empathy – for example being able to recognise a person’s emotions from a picture showing their eyes only, or being able to take another person’s perspective. Recognising more non-fiction authors showed the opposite association.”


The BPS Digest also notes of the study: “However, a weakness of the study is that the direction of causation has not been established – it might simply be that more-empathic people prefer reading novels.” Having recently turned away from fiction to read nonfiction almost exclusively, I wonder if this means I’ve become more callous, and my disgruntlement with fiction is indicative of empathy fatigue or something—novels are a means to try to experience empathy on an artificial, preplanned basis. Or perhaps my turn to nonfiction, if I really thought about it, is a potentially pathological means to blunt emotional connection I’m subconsciously trying to ward off. Maybe I’m using the arid world of facts—the dry, detatched prose of The Economist, for instance—as a buffer from the warmth of human contact, which, frankly, can often seem like a hassle and a threat and a call to action when I’m much more comfortable planted on my couch reading.


That’s not a good thing. So as a therapeutic measure, I’ve stayed planted on the couch, and started to read The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells. Something Walter Benn Michaels wrote about it in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism stuck with me—something about how Howells is trying to figure a return to a precapitalist mode of relationships and how the novel delineates zero-sum social status games. (Even when I’m picking novels, I need some hyperpragmatic reason to read them.) I’m about halfway through it, and I can’t say I feel any more empathic, but I’m trying to pay special attention to how the novelist wants to keep my attention focused on minute shiftings of his characters’ attitude, and the means he uses to describe them. What novels do obviously—the raison d’etre, probably for the study—is teach readers ways to think the emotion of others, put it into words that can serve as a comprehensible substitute for something we can never access directly. Our own emotion is often inarticulate, too immediate, and we often don’t bother to analyze it and think it rather than experience it. One of the reasons novels of past centuries continue to be read is that they provide tools for verbalizing emotion and for modelling its recognition. This line of thinking would seem to run counter to the evolutionary psychologists’ beliefs that apprehension of emotion is inborn and immediate (a la Darwin’s study of facial expressions, for instance). From this point of view emotional comprehensioin is hard-wired and verges on instinct—one psychologist even argues that changing your expression can change your mood to suit it. But what novels want to do is slow down the instantaneous instinctual process of reaction to others’ emotional expressions and make it a subject for gratifying intellectual mastery. We derive a grammar of emotion and learn to experience tracing its fine movements as a species of pleasure. We are encouraged to become connoisseurs in emotion—the way Sterne’s narrator is in A Sentimental Journey.


Does this then objectify emotion, trivialize it, or commodify it? Is it wrong to perceive the feelings of others as a kind of delicacy, like a rare cheese or bottle of port? Is being overly concerned with the emotions others are experiencing simply a way of consuming other people? Novels serve to commercialize otherwise intangible emotional experiences; in the process they likely make empathy into something more akin to a shopper’s discernment.


The question of whether altruism exists comes into play in this as well—what motives are ultimately served in our efforts to feel another’s pain? It seems a pertinent question to ask, because perhaps a deeper empathy can be achieved once the more self-serving level is interrogated a bit. Ultimately, I guess I would need to know more about how the study measure empathy to know whether there might be differences between that kind of empathy and some other preferable kind that isn’t instrumentalized through entertainment product. Until then I’ll keep reading Howells and hope things work out for “sly” Penelope.


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Friday, Oct 27, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

“Having worked for years in a hinterland between obscurity and popularity, Andy Partridge has finally hit the fulcrum as he’s gained his artistic freedom, and recognition of his band XTC’s influence on pop history has suddenly blossomed. This fall’s completion of his odds-and-sods Fuzzy Warbles solo series offers a chance to reflect back on a tumultuous career and give a master craftsman of pop his due.”
—Patrick Schabe, PopMatters interview with Andy Partridge.


Listen to the full Andy Partridge interview podcast.
Download “Sonic Boom” (MP3, 192kbps)


Fuzzy Warbles promo video


Andy Partridge- I Wonder Why the Wonder Falls


“A Brief History of XTC Puppet Show”: The Road to Oranges and Lemons


XTC - Dear God”


XTC - Mayor of Simpleton


XTC - Burning With Optimism’s Flames [Live on German TV’s Rockpalast show, February 1982]


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Thursday, Oct 26, 2006


For the second week in a row, the premium pay channels on your local cable server are offering up nothing worth watching. You’d think that with Halloween just three days away, and industry film vaults bulging with possible tie-in terror titles, we’d be seeing something scarier on the small screen than a bad X-mas comedy and further proof of how far a former funny man has fallen. Where’s the non-stop splatter marathons? The groovy ghoulie epics involving blood and body parts? How about a hint of horror from decades past, a full blown three day long b-movie orgy of giant insects, nuclear mutants, and everyone’s favorite flesh fiends, the incredibly put upon zombie? Nope, apparently that will all be arriving just before Trick or Treat time. In the meanwhile, call up some friends and rent one of the newer cinematic scarefests – sensational new titles like Slither, Silent Hill or Hostel. Only the biggest cinematic sadist would waste a moment of their valuable viewing time on the ordinary offerings this week. For those still interested, here’s what the coaxial calls entertainment for the weekend of 28 October:


HBOJust Friends

Maybe it’s the unconvincing fat suit that actor Ryan Reynolds sports during this dull RomCom’s setup. Maybe it’s the horrid fright wig perm he dons as well. It could be the lackadaisical approach to love that seems to suggest that people only fully self-actualize when they drop the pounds, rake in the dinero and start screwing everything in sight. Whatever the case may be, this minor blip on the Tinsel Town radar actual sold itself as a Gen X holiday romp during last year’s Noel. Credit director and friend of Friend David Schwimmer, Roger Kumble for managing to parlay his perfectly ordinary credits (the first two Cruel Intention films and the sloppy girl groaner The Sweetest Thing) into a continuing career behind the lens. Several significantly more talented men are forced to fight for the chance to make a movie, and yet Kumble can churn out the crap and still get a job. In fact, said reality is probably the only interesting thing about this otherwise dull as a doormat diversion. (Premieres Saturday 28 October, 8:00pm EST).


CinemaxThe 40 Year Old Virgin*

This may be going against the commonly held opinion of this so called ‘classic’, but SE&L just didn’t get this unrealistic look at a middle-aged man whose intact virtue supposedly makes him hilarious. All minor laughs aside, the biggest problem with the slightly surreal story is how unrealistic it is. Steve Carell lives like the ultimate dork (call him Pee Wee Herman with better career goals) and has more support than anyone lacking a sex life should. That he manages, through the typical series of setpiece sequences, to discover the reasons behind his rejection and finally find an outlet for his libido makes the story even more shallow. This is basically a one joke film (Carell as horndog without a human hydrant to provide relief) and the infrequent moments of all out comedy (many provided by co-star Seth Rogen) don’t remove the undercurrent of cruelness from the narrative. Basically, Virgin argues that individuality only works when karma carves out a soul mate for you – not necessarily the most apropos foundation for funny. (Premieres Saturday 28 October, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzFun with Dick and Jane

For anyone wondering why Jim Carrey has fallen out of the public eye recently, a look over his last few films will answer the question easily enough. Beginning with The Majestic, and moving along through Bruce Almighty (good, but gimmicky) the sensational Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the spotty Lemony Snicket, his box office mantle has been pretty paltry as of late. Granted, his turn as God was an unexpected hit, but the rest of his efforts were seen as disappointments. Under this theory, Fun with Dick and Jane, another pointless Hollywood remake, had no chance. It didn’t help matters much that the overall tone of the film was flawed, moving between realism and ridiculousness with plot plodding difficulty, but Carrey ended up having very little to do except turn on the mannered mugging and hope for the best. Seen as one of several reasons why Carrey recently dumped his professional representatives, this film definitely feels lost in a morass of focus group fog. (Premieres Saturday 28 October, 9:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


ShowCaseBeyond the Sea

With all the chat fest showboating over his ability to mimic famous faces, it seemed inevitable that two time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey would find a biopic that would suit his unusual talent perfectly. Sadly, this look at Bobby Darin’s life and times is not that story. Perhaps it has something to do with the odd way in which director Spacey presents the facts. Instead of a typical tale, he manipulates the material in weird, almost idiotic ways. Heartfelt moments crash into comedy, career highpoints slip effortlessly into dark, dour melodrama. But beyond the stylized presentation, the casting is of equal concern. Mr. American Beauty almost pulls off his part (though he just looks too old to successfully sell himself as Darin), but Kate Bosworth is a cipher as Sandra Dee, and even worse, John Goodman looks literally uncomfortable as Darin’s manager. There are moments of magic peaking out from behind the arcane approach and lackluster performances, but in the end, we only learn one thing: Darin deserves better. (Saturday 21 October, 9:00pm EST)


PopMatters Review


 


ZOMBIES!

For those of you who still don’t know it, Turner Classic Movies has started a new Friday night/Saturday morning feature entitled “The TCM Underground”, a collection of cult and bad b-movies hosted by none other than rad rocker turned atrocity auteur Rob Zombie. From time to time, when SE&L feels Mr. Devil’s Rejects is offering up something nice and sleazy, we will make sure to put you on notice. For 27/28 October, the choices are one horrific hit, and another macabre miss:


Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George Romero’s timeless zombie film has been called everything from an erudite social commentary to a taut political polemic. What is frequently forgotten is how downright creepy it really is. Tis the perfect season to rediscover its famous fear factors. (1:00am EST)


The Crazies
With his third feature film (after Season of the Witch) Romero returned to familiar ground – too familiar for some fright fans. Similar to 28 Days Later in that these are nutjobs, not the undead, that the military are after, this is one of the master’s lesser efforts. (2:45am EST)


 


Seven Films, Seven Days

For October, the off title idea is simple – pick a different cable channel each and every day, and then find a film worth watching. While it sounds a little like an exercise in entertainment archeology, you’d be surprised at the broad range of potential motion picture repasts in the offing. Therefore, the fourth installment of acceptable selections for this week include:



28 October - The Omen (1976)
Forget the horrendous remake that came out in 2006 and revisit this timeless classic, featuring impressive performances from Gregory Peck and Lee Remick.
(Encore – 8PM EST)


29 October - So I Married an Axe Murderer
Before Shrek made him more or less untouchable, Mike Meyers actually tried to make funny movies. Here’s one of his more oddball attempts.
(Flix – 6:25PM EST)


30 October - Radio Days
Woody Allen revisits his youth in this wistful, and genuinely comic look at life during wartime, when the wireless was the universal link to everything that was important.
(Movieplex – 6:45PM EST)


31 October -Masque of the Red Death
Roger Corman often gets ridiculed for his lesser monster movies. But there’s nothing but respect for his Poe adaptations, with this visionary example being his best.
(Tuner Classic Movies – 7PM EST)


1 November - National Lampoon’s Vacation
A new month, a new attitude – one perfectly encompassed by this wildly wicked comedy about one man’s attempt at having a real family holiday.
(AMC – 8PM EST)


2 November - The Ballad of Jack and Rose
Many missed this unique take on the inherent connection between father and daughter. While not wholly successful, it deserves a look just the same.
(The Movie Channel – 9:30PM EST)


3 November -Drumline
Far from original, this formulaic take on one youth’s desire to join a nationally recognized show-style band is still an entertaining, even inspiring film.
(TNT – 8PM EST)


 


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Thursday, Oct 26, 2006

Like any sane person, I was sickened over Powell Jr’s pathetic pampering of the major media companies he was supposed to regulate and how his successor wants to follow down the same path.  Luckily, there are at least two sane voices on the FCC board now, including Michael Copps (though he’s one to support crackdowns on “obscenity” too) and Juan Gonzalez.  See what they had to say when they came to Gotham.


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Wednesday, Oct 25, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, how Italian horror maestro Dario Argento made his name in two competing concepts of fear.


Dark and mysterious are the twin paths Italian director Dario Argento travels on. It’s a duality that has come to define, and in some cases, confine, one of macabre’s most meaningful artisans. Down one road lies the realm of the human soul, a place easily perverted by the notion of man as the most monstrous, destructive force in all the world. It is here where his giallo efforts exist, films based on the famous Italian pulp paperbacks known for their yellow – or ‘giallo’ – covers. From the animal trilogy The Bird with Crystal Plummage, Cat O’ Nine Tales and Four Flies on Flies on Grey Velvet to efforts like Tenebre, The Stendhal Syndrome and The Card Player, these reality-based thrillers have used the cat and mouse game of killer and cop to completely reinvent the notion of crime and punishment. His cinematic specifics have gone on to influence filmmakers the world over. 


Down the other trail, however, is a place even more enigmatic and disturbing. It is here where you will find the surreal supernatural efforts that have come to form the foundation of Argento’s sizable legend. While there are those who swear by his crackerjack murder mysteries, citing their power as both inventive narratives and examples of nuanced craftsmanship, it is his jarring juxtaposition of light and dark, real and unreal, good and evil that has had the true lasting effect for the filmmaker. Using the central theme of Thomas DeQuincey’s Three Mothers (Tears, Sighs, and Darkness) and mixing elements both actual and avant-garde, Argento strove to give horror a vibrant, visual representation. He didn’t just want knives and blood to be the basis for all fear. No, along this motion picture pathway, the recognizable and the dreamlike exist in a near incestual bond, unholy and slathered in sin.


Discounting his efforts for Italian television, it is amazing to note that the ratio between Argento’s tripwire whodunits and his paranormal pictures is almost three to one. He has only made three wholly supernatural cinematic statements – Suspira, Inferno and Phenomena (released in the US as Creepers) while the rest of this oeuvre is overwhelmed with death, dismemberment and detectives. When fans and scholars discuss his films, they too diverge along predisposed conduits, some certain that its his giallos that will live on long after his spook shows have faded, while others champion the challenges raised by the auteur’s otherworldly epics. To the fans of films like Inferno or Phenomena, Argento represents a real leap in style incorporating substance. He manages to make the macabre both beautiful and baneful, luring in audiences with his gorgeous visuals while simultaneously scaring them to their very core. It also helps that, with only three real examples to go on, the horror hits far outweigh the murder mystery missteps.


Indeed, when viewed linearly, Argento has gone from exciting to erratic when it comes to his signature serial killer sagas. Recent efforts like The Card Player and Sleepless have been considered inconsistent among critics and fans alike, and many feel the need to go back as far as Tenebre to find a pure examples of his hyperstylized human horror show. This, unfortunately, leaves out one of the director’s best efforts – 1987’s Opera. Using the majesty of the classical music format as an amazing backdrop for his slasher like leanings, this story of a cursed production, and the murderer enforcing the fear, is seen by many as Argento’s last legitimate stab at giallo excellence. Everything that’s come since – his American thriller Trauma, his Black Cat part of the Poe piece Two Evil Eyes, even the sensationally sick and somewhat sloppy Stendhal Syndrome – is viewed as lesser examples of his one-time artistic acumen.


But perhaps the most telling argument against his later works is the abject brilliance of the movies he made in the past. It is usually difficult for a trendsetter to stay ahead of the fad or frenzy they have created. The most popular superstar or commercially viable format only need to overstay its cultural welcome a month or two too long and it’s a trip into oblivion or outright hatred. Many artists faced with this dilemma simply give up, or revisit the circuit of golden oldies, recycling their greatest successes until there is no longer a paying audience. Reinvention, sometimes viewed as the key to continued longevity, can help, unless your experimentation is so wild and uncharacteristic that you lose the core audience who followed you up until this point.


Such was the case with Argento in 1975. He had created one of the most successful strings of films in the history of Italian cinema: the unintentional Animal Trilogy. With achievement came the deluge of copycats and imitators, each taking Argento’s use of the camera and convention breaking to try to repeat his success. His career sat at a crossroads, in more ways than one. An attempt at a comic western (The Five Days of Milan) had failed, leaving the reigning king in a dangerous state of audience languor. He needed something both to challenge his skills and to regain his crown as the king of the thriller.


As usual, it was a dream—about a medium reading the mind of a psychopath—that brought about the idea for another terror tale. But this would be a crime story like none other before or after, a gruesome saga of a disturbed mind on a murderous spree to cover up the past. The screen would be filled with blood, deep red rivers of gore. Style would be heightened and the experimentation with angles, techniques, color, and sound would be as important as the emphasis on story and acting. This would be the birth of a new style of giallo, one filled with artistic as well as criminal elements. And it would mean the reawakening of Argento, not just as a commercial director, but as an important cinematic visionary. In reality, the film did indeed mark a turning point for the director. It bridged the gap between previous real world based movies and began the ascent into the realm of the fantastic and the frantic. Profondo Rosso, otherwise known as Deep Red, would mark the true origins of his style and the sense of horror that would herald and haunt Argento the rest of his career.


Frankly, there is no better Italian thriller, giallo, detective, horror, or slasher style film than Deep Red. It resonates with all the visual excesses and subliminal undercurrents that Argento would later explore to their maximum capacity. It is a tour de force of camera, composition, and film craft skills. It is such a benchmark of smart, passionate film construction that it surpasses expectations and thwarts potential imitations. In his rethinking of the psycho killer genre, he focuses less on the slayer and more on the climate of fear. He wants the threat to come from the unknown, not some clear-cut origin. Because Argento is one of only a handful of horror directors who appreciates and uses the apprehension of the unfamiliar to provide mood for his movies and motivation for audience dread, his films are viewed as disturbing and uncomfortable. But this does not mean they are unsuccessful. Indeed, Deep Red is a terrific thriller, and finally confirmed Argento’s genius to those outside the foreign film market.


Success drove the director to push even further. He had even greater ambitions. Since he first read about them in a collection of essays entitled Suspiria De Profundis, Dario Argento had been fascinated with the Three Mothers, the imaginary rulers over the dominion of pain and suffering. Conceived as a complement to the entire Graces/Furies/Muses notion of mystical, powerful women, their origins do not derive from some ancient teachings or cultural folklore, but from the hallucinatory mind of an opium addict. Seeking inspiration and a chance to move away from the genre that made him a superstar, Argento took the tale of the Maters Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum, and Lachrymarum as the logical components to a trilogy. Each film would deal with a different Sorrow. Each would focus on a different location. Inferno, Argento’s equally artistic and brilliantly confusing 1980 follow-up to Suspiria, focused on Death herself, the Mother of Darkness. But with the success and acceptance of his experimentation within the conventional mystery drama of Deep Red, Argento wanted to branch out and tackle true supernatural horror. Suspiria is that startling starting point.

Understand this is Dario Argento’s version of the supernatural we are discussing, one rooted deep in European manners and superstition. In Argento’s world, ghosts do not kill people, knives do. As he views the paranormal, it manifests itself in everyday, mundane brutality. Possession may lead to illness, or even death, but more times than not a victim will be cut, or hung, as a means of quenching paranormal bloodlust. Suspiria is a horror film unlike any other in that it ventures far away from the standard “old dark house” or “living creature” notions of terror to invent a world where setting, style, and sound are more frightening than the bloody victim on the floor. In Dario’s realm, death is a release, an explosion of bound tension and a surrender of will. His work is the natural link between classical, gothic horror and the existential terror of post-modern cinema. Argento is truly one of Italy’s best, most misunderstood, and underappreciated directors. His influence on American horror is evident. Just look at any film by John Carpenter, for example, and you will see the trademark frequencies found in Argento’s cinematic stockpile.


It’s more than his avant-garde style that confuses and angers people. He is not willing to play fair and is more interested in how a film makes you feel than how it resolves its plotline. Something can be beautiful, and confusing as hell, but as long as you see the grace in its presentation, the meaning is unimportant. Argento confounds the fan looking for cold-blooded killing (though he does provide many sequences of graphic mutilation) or expecting the conventions of a standard horror ideal. Suspiria is the best example of this conundrum. While it is a film about witches, we hardly see any of their activities or rituals until the end. While it is a film about the power of black magic, the death is all common and realistic (except for a demonically inspired animal attack). Indeed, Suspiria is its own self-contained universe, a place where palatial settings mask hordes of meat-rotting maggots, or beautiful stained glass becomes a deadly pointed weapon of destruction. Viewed as a trip in to Argento’s private realm, it is easy to see why many call it a masterpiece. Suspiria takes convention and tosses it into a room filled with barbed wire fencing, letting it struggle to survive the oncoming visual and aural onslaught.


With this one two punch, Argento cemented his moviemaking mythos, and forged the dueling avenues that his erratic career has had to maneuver. Every proceeding film now had a major tour de force benchmark to be held up against. Whenever he tried another crime thriller, Deep Red became the critical focus of the comments. If he branched back out again into pure horror, the hallucinatory genius of Suspiria cast a shadow over the entire enterprise. Interesting enough, said film would also follow any giallo effort, arguing that Argento should stop wasting his time with such procedural parlor tricks and get back to finalizing the Mothers Trilogy (fans will be happy to know that he has plans to make the third and final film, hopefully for a 2007 release). Like the burden that any artist carries when they are compared with their past, Italy’s premiere fright master has been both lauded and lamented for his choices, unable to escape the opinions of fans, and fellow filmmakers, when it comes to his often confusing career moves


So now that our corridors have names, now that Via Suspiria and Via Profundo Rosso are labeled and legitimized by the numerous viewers who’ve traveled down their complicated and occasionally confusing logistics, it is safe to say that Dario Argento remains a true motion picture enigma. He is one of the few remaining filmmakers from decades gone by that can still rely on their reputation to sell a story. He is one of the few directors who still gets fans in a frenzy when a new project is announced, providing them with instant recall of journeys both grand and grating on the twin roads of his aesthetic’s twofold directions. Though his track record has been anything but flawless, he does have more classic cobblestones and masterpiece mortar than many creators can claim in several lifetimes.


Perhaps this is why we are willing to accept his bifurcated approach to the art of cinema and leave it at that. Though he hasn’t always definitively delivered, he’s proof that the voyage is sometimes as important, and more interesting, than the final destination. It’s what makes Argento stand out in an arena filled with pure motion picture pretenders. It’s what keeps him vital, and viable, in the ever changing world of fear. And with two distinct ways in which to achieve his ends, it’s clear why he remains so important. While said dualism may be disturbing to those looking to easily classify their creative icons, it sets Argento apart from his Italian brethren. It’s what makes him the true maestro he has managed to become today.


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