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Saturday, Mar 10, 2007


There are a couple of distinct advantages to being a homemade moviemaker – that is, someone guiding their own cinematic career with a group of friends, a camcorder, and an unquestioned desire to create. The first, naturally, is pure aesthetic liberty. Basically, you can do whatever the Hell you want, however the Hell you want. Feel like combining genres in contravention to everything they teach about narrative and tone in film school? Go right ahead. Need to have slapstick humor combine with slimy scare tactics? Be my – or make that, your own – guest. In essence, want to follow your own merry muse wherever and however it takes you to the land of inferred entertainment? Like the old sports shoe slogan said – GO FOR IT!


The second benefit is a little more elusive. It only appears when someone with a significant point of view, or clear artistic conceit, takes a chance behind the viewfinder. You see, with most wholly independent films, there is more copycatting and past film referencing than wholly spontaneous and original ideas. If our basement Bertolucci fancies himself a horror maestro, you can bet that zombies, vampires or serial killers – the triumvirate of terrors for novice auteurs – will play a major part. On the other hand, if this so-called low rent Renoir wants to explore the realm of comedy, it’s more than a safe bet that the humor will be less analytical and far more anal – both literally and figuratively. So it takes a rare talent to traipse around inside such a potential set of pitfalls, knowing how to avoid said dangers as well as how to save yourself once you do slip and succumb.


Justin Channell is such a moviemaking anomaly. Born in 1987 (making him a whopping 20 years old) and currently serving as the webmaster for the Troma Films fansite, Tromatized!, this knowing neophyte wanted to find a way to turning his love of horror and humor into a successful narrative combo. Along with his partners in motion picture crime, Joshua Lively and Zane Crosby (Channell writes and directs, while his buddies act onscreen and occasionally contribute to the scripts) he has turned the world of the living dead and the bloodsucking basics of Dracula’s domain into the post-modern equivalent of an Abbott and Costello romp. With Lively and Crosby as his cinematic comedians, and working within the clear confines of a classic old school team (Josh is the straight man, Zane is Mr. Zinger), Channell proves that, with motivation, and some hands-on moxie, you too can create cinematic gold.


The trio’s first film together, the incredibly effective Raising the Stakes, found Lively and Crosby taking on teen angst and inhuman immortality. The storyline featured the pair as two unhappy nerds who mistakenly believe that, by becoming vampires, they will instantly achieve campus coolness – and looks from the ladies. Naturally, the plan backfires (they still get their asses kicked, even as members of the undead) and all manner of hilarious hackneyed hijinx ensue. With an obvious love for all things South Park (the dialogue cribs quite a few catchphrases from the classic TV series) and a reliance on the retarded to amplify the anarchy, this genial jokefest helped put Channell and his chums on the outsider map.


After providing a segment for the hilarious scare spoof Faces of Schlock Volume 2 (the zombie baby lark A Fetal Mistake), Channell immediately leapt into his next project, the cannibal comedy Die and Let Live. This time, Lively and Crosby play college age slackers who enjoy intellectual repasts at the local coffee house. It also offers them the opportunity to ogle the brainy babes who stop by for the occasional hot cupper. Lively’s character, Benny Rodriguez, has the hots for a gal named Stephanie, and he’s desperate to impress her. He goes so far as to beg Crosby’s Scotty Smalls to hold a poolside keg party in hopes of getting a hook up. Never one to reject a liquor-based soiree, Scotty makes the mistake of telling a few unwelcome buddies, and before you know it, Benny’s plans for an intimate evening have turned into a typical adolescent booze binge.


Even worse, there’s been an outbreak at the local medical testing facility, and a virus with the ability to raise the dead has been released. As Benny, Scotty and their pals pour down the pints, the local corpse population is stirring from their graves, and looking for people to munch on. Naturally, a series of confrontations occurs, with Benny trying to ward off Stephanie’s old boyfriend (a jock joke lummox named Andrew) while the zombies discover the smorgasbord of inebriated idiots to satisfy their corrupt cravings. It will take a miracle – or the unbridled bonding power of some dolphin-shaped ‘best friend’ necklaces – to save the day.


Expanding on the formula he founded for Stakes, Channell chooses the best elements of the time-honored teen comedy and fuses them into a sly Shaun of the Dead dynamic. He never tries to oversell the scares, and indeed, frequently uses the homemade gore to wonderful comic effect. His ease with the material, the excellent conceptualizing of how to handle both the casual conversations and the blood and guts set pieces argues for a filmmaker wise beyond his meager years. Channell also understands his macabre, and enjoys the outright referencing of previous fright flicks as part of his production design. He even casts Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman and former company creative mind Trent Haaga in successful cameo roles.


But the movie really belongs to Lively and Crosby. In fact, Channell could simply dump the amiable arterial spray and use the duo as the next generation of rib tickling comedy teams. Borrowing less from their media influences, and creating a wonderfully wittiness that’s all their own, these chums and collaborators off camera come across as lifelong companions on. Crosby alone has some amazing comic timing, never flinching or failing a joke. Lively is also adept at turning his occasional ironic quips into stellar asides. You can see how good they are when compared to the rest of the amateur cast. While the costars’ lack of performance grade is nobody’s fault (this is no budget filmmaking after all), Lively and Crosby could become indie film icons, the Clerks for a post post-Kevin Smith generation.


So, with all this talent on tap, and a few fine features under their belt, what’s the downside to all this craft and creativity? Well, Die and Let Live has yet to find distribution on DVD (at least, as of this date) and both Raising the Stakes and Faces of Schlock Volume 2 are both self-circulated titles. Channell continues to play the festival circuit, hoping audience reaction – which is almost always favorable – will drive up interest in a legitimate release. Such is the tradeoff in the wonderful world of filmmaking beyond the fringe. You can make or do whatever you want, with the final product representing the best that you and your friends have to offer. But the question then becomes, will anyone ever see it? In the case of Justin Channell, Josh Lively and Zane Crosby, it’s just a matter of time before they’re outsider idols. Until then, they get the benefits, and detriments, of being homemade heroes.


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Friday, Mar 9, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: the kiddie matinee turns moneymaker for the grindhouse gang.

The Wonderful Land of Oz/ Jack and the Beanstalk


You have to remember – exploitation was all about money. Any notions of art or appeal were a slim, shady second. If you could film it, and find an audience willing to watch it – or be tastefully tricked into doing same – your coffers could be clinking with curiosity-inspired coinage. Short of sneaking over into hardcore pornography (still a major Constitutional no-no at the time) or delving into areas even more disturbing (snuff, anyone?), producers had to plunder the depths of all potential profit zones, going from fright to foreign to get the greenback dollar done. And then once they struck grindhouse gold, they would tap and re-tap said monetary mine until it was almost ready to implode.


Perhaps the oddest revenue stream came from the pre-teen crowd. Too young to pet up the passion pit, but still cognizant of film as a form of entertainment, they were a fledgling fanbase that the major studios failed to sufficiently market to (wow – how times have changed). While it may seem strange for a business that based most of its earnings on eros, nudity and scandal to venture into kid-friendly fare, anyone who knew the genre’s cinematic con game realized such a strategy was a long standing element of exploitation. When the roadshow proved successful – selling sex education epics loaded with “live birth footage” along with an in-person hygiene lecture – other combinations of cinema and theatrics were conceived. Magicians, capable of creating magic without the need of celluloid, were quickly reconfigured into horror hosts. The next thing you know, the spook show was born.


It was a killer combination. A cornball carnival act was out-fitted with Grand Guignol blood and gore effects, a rotten old scary movie was picked out of the public domain pile, and almost instantaneously, ads announcing the upcoming fright fest were filling papers all around the standard exploitation circuit. Summer-weary youngsters, looking for something to stifle the sweltering heat (or in Fall, to prepare them for All Hallow’s Eve) would line up outside the local Bijou, ready for a mind-boggling multimedia event. Traveling from city to city, these potent profit generators became an annual rite of passage for many of the nation’s most easily impressionable. But just as the spook show was burning up the beltway, Congress began its unprecedented hearings into comic books and juvenile delinquency. In one fell swoop, the selling of violence to children was tantamount to a crime.


Quickly needing to regroup, the exploitationers hit upon a radical idea – pander to the parents. Instead of shocking their offspring, perhaps they should provide a sort of cinematic panacea (and indirectly, a few hours out of Mon and Dad’s harried household). The answer was obvious – link into the large library of fairytales, apply the same lo-fi no budget approach to their production as they do in the skin and sin department, and railroad them through as many small market screens as possible. Thus the kiddie matinee was born, an afternoon long celebration of good clean fun merged with buck-based babysitting. A perfect example of this approach are the efforts of Barry Mahon. A director who dabbled in almost every genre of sleazoid cinema, his late ‘60s/early ‘70s adolescent epics defy easy description. These amazingly misguided movies prove that, when it comes to famous fables from the past, familiarity breeds a kind of commercial contempt.

When it comes to wonderful wizards, it figures that as soon as Dorothy and Toto travel somewhere back over the rainbow to Kansas, Oz instantly becomes a backlot at some failed Florida funpark. It is here where we meet Tiperarious, an off-key cretin, who is ready to help bastardize L. Frank Baum’s beatitudes. Apparently, “Tip” is a metaphysical princess trapped in a talentless male child star’s body, enslaved to a wax-chinned witch. Typical of your enchanted land manservant, little Lord Boredleroy carves a pumpkinhead and calls him Jack (somewhere in the great beyond, the future imagination of Timothy Burton smiles). Mombi, his magical “massa,” sprinkles her broth of vigor all over the squash and he turns into a walking, talking gourd with no ass and Jackie Vernon’s voice.


Overhearing that his hag housemother plans on turning him into a marble garden gnome, Tip takes Jack to the Emerald City to visit the Scarecrow. Along the way, the dumb duo runs into General Ginjur and her all-female marching band. They are set to overthrow the forward-thinking Oz government for granting them suffrage. Seems our young ladies would rather sleep late and money grub after all (screw the ERA!). In a desperate attempt to breathe life into this tired child’s chestnut, they introduce the timeless, treasured literary characters of the flying sofa Gump and the walleyed Cuddlebug/Pollywog/Wiggleworm/Wogglebug/Whatever. It doesn’t work. So then everyone sings!


Meanwhile, in another far more single warehouse set fantasy world, Jack and his fiduciarily strapped family lament their late father. Or a better explanation would be that they sing pathetic show tunes about how stupid he was at not being able to recreate his famed, money making inventions, or how many of their now malnourished ribs they can count. Mom decides that instead of slaughtering the cow and serving flank steak for a month, she’d rather turn over the wise financial decisions to her wispy loafered son Jack. He immediately trades the potential ground round for a handful of lentils, then tosses them into the backyard, thereby avoiding the alimentary middleman.


A huge beanstalk grows, Jack traverses it, and runs into the sloppiest giant (with the loveliest castrati voice) in all of Cloud City. Our light fingered fig climber commits acts of larceny while the crumb laden colossus eats his weight in skunk soup and then falls into incredibly well timed cases of narcolepsy. Eventually, Jack discovers he is stealing to supply his sister with a dowry. Seems a hard-up mutt ugly 16-year old miss has a difficult time getting hitched to swarthy suitors without cash on the salt pork barrel head, or at least a harp that plays by itself. Eventually there is some manner of “happily ever after” since the movie ends.


For those who find the Rankin-Bass school of brat bewilderment jerky and unnerving, or Sid and Marty Krofft’s sebaceous cartoons on crack like kissing Billy Hayes, just wait until you get a load of what nudie entrepreneur Barry Mahon thought wee ones would be willing to sit through on a hot Saturday afternoon. Unless your name was K. Gordon Murray and you set about importing all manner of Mexican merriment to fuel your moneymaking matinees, you had to grow some junk of your own. And films like The Wonderful Land of Oz and Jack and the Beanstalk were the homemade horse hockey result. These movies share a great deal with the entire R-B/ S&MK school of juvenilia with their Puffnstuff/Bugaloos/Lidsville weirdness; awkward, in puberty flux teen boys with bad Beatle hair and even worse singing voices cooing about magic wands and enchanted pixies; overly bright and oddly angled sets attempting to pass for far-out imaginary locations, and charmless adults in ill-fitting costumes and pounds of pancake makeup prancing and posing, passing time until happy hour.


Oddly enough, Oz is rather faithful to the original book upon which it is based (The Magical Land of Oz), even using some of the same dialogue and scenes. And that’s good, because when left to his own devices, Mahon gives us action, actors, and musical numbers that take the whole notion of nonchalance to a new, near comatose level. Even when they’re singing the saccharine, silly songs inserted into the show, everyone in the cast seems barely awake. You start to wonder how something this outrageously awful could be made. And fret it could get worse.


And then it does. Jack and the Beanstalk starts to play. So stagy and talky that David Mamet watches it annually just to remember how best to cram the maximum amount of dialogue within the minimal amount of scene changes, this vexingly verbal version of the classic Fe-Fi-Fo-Fooey should be called Jack Beany / Jackstalk. You half expect Kevin Spacey to show up three-quarters of the way through (in a wizard’s hat of course) and yell at the cast to “go to lunch.” Anything to enliven this by the fast food franchise coloring book rendition of the bedtime standby. Every time the hairy, seemingly hung-over giant goes into his high pitched “Fe-Fi” aria, you actually feel your individual skin cells quivering in nucleic failure. Jack’s mother sounds like she just came over on the boat (from where? Perhaps…Lithuania?) and his sister is so obsessed with that damn dowry that you’d swear she was Indira Gandhi in another life.


The direction subdivides the film into three separate, bowel challenging movements, each one starting and ending with Jack climbing his green leafed rope ladder and shuffling along the dry ice stage setting like he’s tripping the cumulus fantastic. Then, via the magic of atrocious rear projection, he steals cardboard items while we witness the gross gob of our elephantine enemy in all his mouth corner salt sickness. It’s just too bad that even with his lack of musculature, Jack never once stumbles and tumbles to his upper atmospheric death. Nothing or no one so deserves to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere more than this grimy Grimm’s flimsy tale.


Oddly enough, both movies were very successful. They lead Mahon to make a version of Thumbelina (1970) and a pair of corrupt classics with Christmas as a backdrop (Santa and the Three Bears, 1970 and Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, 1972). And it wasn’t even off-title exploitation auteurs that were betting on brats to rake in the dough. Even Herschell Gordon Lewis, the originator of the gore film, tried his hand at it, making the insane fantasy flop Jimmy the Boy Wonder. He would even go so far as to film a local amusement park’s stage show and release it under the title The Magical Land of Mother Goose. In both cases, the movies were good for a couple week run before fading into the entertainment ether. It all ended when TV realized the desperate demographic available, and began purposefully programming cartoons and other kid fare during the afternoon hours. In an instant, the kiddie matinee died. The films were relegated to rerun status on local UHF channels, and the producers went back to pushing softcore smut as their ballyhoo bread and butter. After all, exploitation was all about money. Still, it’s interesting to remember a brief period when the piggy bank drove as many movies as the private parts.


 


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Friday, Mar 9, 2007

What is your favorite Boston song?


I don’t mean songs


about Boston. Songs like the Dropkick Murphy’s “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” or Dave Loggins’ “Please Come Back to Boston” or “The Boston Tea Party” by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. No, I mean songs by

Boston. The group. The band. Songs like “More Than a Feeling” or “Foreplay/Long Time” or “Smokin’”. So many more.


Because whichever song it might be, that song will never sound the same. The guitars might. The rhythm, sure. But the voice. No, that sound won’t quite be the same. Not now. Because today, that voice was silenced.


“Hitch a Ride”? Never again with quite the same mix of breathless optimism. “Rock and Roll Band”? Not quite that same unrestrained enthusiasm. “A Man I’ll Never Be”? No one will ever inject the same sense of desperate recognition.  No one will sing it better than Brad Delp. The man who passed today.


Photo by Ron Pownall, courtesy Boston

 


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Friday, Mar 9, 2007

I’m not one who misses the record store. I don’t worry that they are disappearing or miss serendipitous moments of discovery while flipping through the racks or the helpful recommendations from my friendly and knowledgeable record-store clerk or any of that. Because I grew up in the suburbs, my early record store experiences took place not at some indie store out of High Fidelity but in Listening Booth and Wall to Wall Sound, mall stores where the cashiers were no more knowledgeable about music than the sweater folders at the Gap. These stores had a sparse, random stock once you moved beyond whatever the big record companies were paying the chains to promote, so you had to dig pretty deep into the store, past the promo posters and mock album covers and cut-outs (like the Debbie Harry Koo-Koo stand-up in the mall scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High) to find anything out of the ordinary, and then you would have to buy it typically with absolutely no idea of what it would sound like. Now, of course, you don’t have to put up any money to take that kind of chance on new music. I can’t decide if this lack of investment makes it easier or harder to get into new music. It does mean that I generally have a better reason to make the effort than “I just bought this, I have to get my money’s worth.” I think I heed friends’ recommendations and the general buzz a little more than I used to, but that might just be a product of being older and having less ego invested in being a listening pioneer, in fancying myself the Magellan of music or something.


Anyway, this WSJ article, about how the iTunes store brokers the space on its homepage, starting me thinking about this. With iTunes selling upwards of 5 million songs a day (!) what it chooses to promote on its page can drive sales, and record companies want a piece of that action. Record stores used to charge labels for favorable placement, which led to the annoying displays and the annoying music you would hear played there. But iTunes alleges not to play that game:


Apple says it shunned pay-for-placement—as have online rivals including RealNetworks’ Rhapsody—to provide unbiased music recommendations. Eddy Cue, the Apple vice president who oversees iTunes, says the company hopes to recapture some of the spirit of independent record stores, when clerks would give uncompromised tips on promising performers. “That for us was kind of gone in the new retail environment,” Mr. Cue says. Customers used to believe that advice on music “was coming from someone who really liked it versus someone who was paid to say they liked it.”


Accordingly iTunes has “music editors” on staff to curate the store’s main page, and they limit the use of their retail clout to get exclusive material from prominently featured artists or to drive prices down on artists they’d like to feature.


That may sound pretty progressive of Apple until you realize that unlike the Listening Booths of yore, it doesn’t need to make money selling music—it sells DRM’d songs to force you to keep buying iPods, which have become the company’s cash cow. And the fact that iTunes is a virtual monopoly as far as legit online-music sources go, they have a concentrated amount of influence that can only be abused. It’s the exact opposite of the local music markets that once flourished and spawned idiosyncratic regional hits, the sort of stuff that ended up on the Nuggets compilation. Instead iTunes can break whoever it wants globally. Of course, iTunes has an advantage that traditional retailers could only garner through the laborious construction of outlets across wide geographical areas: it can manage the scale on which it operates on almost a real-time basis, targeting its homepage to different demographics depending on other data it can collect or apply as you log in. So the store can be local to the tastes exhibited in your own iTunes library or can be international or it can blend these in any number of ways, changing to suit trends in retailing as they evolve. It can be a mom-and-pop store, a hipster enclave (with its “editors” playing the role of record-store denizens, supplying cutting edge content), or a mall chain or a big-box store, depending on your mood or its prerogative.


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Friday, Mar 9, 2007

While it’s understandably a source of celebration that major radio conglomerates are paying up for their pay-offs, for some reason, I’m not too optimistic that they’re going to play clean from now on, especially given their track record.  Start with these stories detailing the settlements:


Broadcasters Agree To Fine Over Payola


Payola pact could boost airplay for indie music


Even there, you’ll notice some skepticism that the broadcasters will find some way around this by not giving indie music prime time slots or loosely defining what “indie” means.  It’s kind of the same problem that the FCC busted Univision over recently when they played fast and loose with what constituted “educational television” that they were required to broadcast- they showed cartoons to fill in this gap and obviously, that doesn’t cut it.  Like I said, don’t be surprised to see this repeated again with the payola settlement.


And then there’s the very troubling rate increase that might shut down internet radio as we know it.  Soundexchange, the RIAA’s (and by proxy, the major label’s) company to set rate made an six to twelve percent increase in the cost that they charge per listener for the music the stations are allowed to play:  Royalty Hike Panics Webcasters.  That can add up to so much money (and be retroactive for years) that stations won’t have the funds to cover it anymore.  The end result would be that the stations won’t be able to afford to play music anymore.  And here we have yet another example of a greedy industry stupidly trying to squeeze money from other sources and managing to quietly kill off support of legitimate product (just like the lawsuits and DRM have managed).  A chilling prediction from the Wire article linked above: “If the new rates stick, online music fans may come to expect far less innovation, variety and quality when it comes to internet radio. Some industry experts fear that even more users could be driven to illicit services that pay no royalties or those that operate from other countries.”


Though congressional hearings are pending, you can also make your own voice heard about this tragic idiocy: Save Internet Radio petition.


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