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by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2008

There are certain unwinnable arguments in life, debates where no one side can claim clear victory. Argue over abortion, and see how staunch either position becomes. Discuss race and prejudice and the majority and minority never see eye to eye. While it’s always been a bit of a hot button, religion has become an even bigger sticking point over the last few decades. Call it the Moral Majority effect, the Neo-Con crusade, or the Islamic fundamentalist backlash, but Christians are chastising the non-believer and taking names - at least politically. Even in the face of clear First Amendment protections, the new faithful want Jesus and those who chronicled his life and time making policy.

There are a few people who find this as morally reprehensible as those on their principled high horses. Journalist Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not great takes a frank and honest look at how, in his words, “religion poisons everything”. And now noted political humorist and TV host Bill Maher is out to back the side of the blasphemer. With Religulous, his new documentary, he teams up with Borat director Larry Charles to travel around the world, interviewing various religious individuals. That’s it - no skits, no spoofing, no fake characterizations or commentary on American values. Just a razor sharp wit sitting around with devout believers, our host letting his subject’s own words systematically undermine their professed positions.

At times, Religulous celebrates the rather obvious. Most Christians don’t understand their Bible, nor have they read it enough to ably defend the reality of what it does and does not contain. Maher proves that most believers function within a kind of pocket of propaganda. A preacher explains the Gospels, loosely interpreting passages or parables, and his listeners legitimize it as truth. When pushed to prove their points, they can’t find the Lord’s supposed words to support them. Naturally, this leads to a few angry attitudes. At a trucker’s chapel somewhere along the highway, a stout driver storms out of the converted trailer. He wants no part of Maher’s “mockery”. Those who stay put and argue, however, are treated to the opportunity to make their case - with just a minor amount of derision from our guide.

Some sequences don’t need commentary. When Maher visits a Creationist Museum in Kentucky, the owner’s illogical statements make the point all too well. Even better, a trip to a religious theme park in Orlando Florida (known as “The Holy Land Experience”) turns the Passion into a daily ritual, including the parading of a blood soaked Jesus before an audience of teary eyed patrons. In each instance, Maher approaches the material with the same mad twinkle he brings to his other projects. By picking on the extremes, however, he underlines the obviousness of the project. Religion will always have a hard time defending itself. By bringing it out into the open, this documentary may only be preaching to the non-converted.

Still, Religulous deserves mention for what it means outside the tenets of certain dogma. Maher’s bigger message is clearly one of critical thinking. He illustrates how most organized belief systems remove curiosity to claim divine intervention into any unexplainable situation. A pair of ex-Mormons sit down with our host as he discusses the just plain bizarre ideals propagated by the followers of Joseph Smith. When asked why more people don’t question the church and their claims of magic underwear and a Missouri based Garden of Eden, the men are quick to answer. “Family and friends” they say, indicating their status as pariahs for leaving their faith. You lose everything when you leave, they continue, because of the cult like ways of the community.

Since Maher was born to a Jewish mother and a staunch Catholic father (his sister and mom are on hand to discuss the past), the Judeo-Christian ethic gets the most ribbing here. Islam is left for a last minute discussion, while other worldwide beliefs such as Buddhism and Hinduism are rendered relatively unscathed. Even the jokefest that is Scientology (at least from an aliens/thetans/e-meter conceit) is relegated to a brief comic rant in London’s Hyde Park Sunday Soap Box. In some ways, Religulous is meant as a reactionary responsorial to the West’s demonization of the Middle East. That Christians tend to be as extreme as the radicals they rail against really comes as no surprise.

Most of Religulous is oblivious in its outrage. That Maher fails to find a single level headed individual might be a product of the production scheme (even a Vatican condemning Catholic priest winds up on the weird side). Indeed, Charles is more singular in his focus. He intercuts scenes from faith based propaganda films and other cinematic efforts to accentuate points, and while they earn their laughs, they also cut the scholarship attempted. Maher, who clearly finds religion one of the reasons for the world’s muddled state, seems eager to peel back the layers of hypocrisy and argue that all belief is just a way of avoid responsibility and advance magic problem solving. Miracles are nothing more than coincidences, the answering of prayers an indirect self-fulfilling prophecy.

He ends the film at the same place he starts it - on Tel Megiddo, the hill where the Second Coming of Christ is predicted to occur. With Jesus’ return will come the Rapture, followed by several Revelation realities. As he explains the path to Armageddon, Maher makes Religulous’ most cogent point: The Bible was written by men who at the time had no knowledge of how to destroy each other completely. The notion of wiping mankind off the face of the planet was reserved for a higher power. Now, third world countries have the ability to predicate the Apocalypse. How much of what was written was foresight, and how much was simply a keen insight into the destructive nature of humanity stands as Religulous’ biggest unwinnable disagreement. Neither side - sacred or profane - can argue their way out of that reality.

by Rob Horning

2 Oct 2008

Considering that Sarah Palin has declared her belief that the right to privacy is guaranteed by the Constitution, this August 2008 Scientific American article by Daniel Solove about how privacy is evolving in the internet age is worth revisiting.

It is still possible to protect privacy, but doing so requires that we rethink outdated understandings of the concept. One such view holds that privacy requires total secrecy: once information is revealed to others, it is no longer private. This notion of privacy is unsuited to an online world. The generation of people growing up today understands privacy in a more nuanced way. They know that personal information is routinely shared with countless others, and they also know that they leave a trail of data wherever they go.
The more subtle understanding of privacy embraced by Generation Google recognizes that a person should retain some control over personal information that becomes publicly available. This generation wants a say in how private details of their lives are disseminated.

Solove suggests that as a result, we need to firm up legal protection of the data we generate through our online activities. I couldn’t agree more, though I don’t get the sense that Generation Google much cares about it. I’m not sure what the nuances are that Solove is pointing to; it’s hard to get the feeling that people are concerned with privacy at a deeper level because they don’t like having online activity broadcast by Facebook.

Rather it seems that when we use the internet, we become blinded by our own self-absorption and too enthralled by narcissism to care about what sort of digital trail we leave behind. If we are casting a wider net than we realize, if marketers find us so important as to publicize us further, then so much the better. We are achieving greater notoriety, registering even more deeply in the public sphere, where selves are now predominantly fashioned. And though we may start out only wanting our friends to know what we want them to know, the lack of reciprocity and face-to-face exchange in online relations begins to make us indiscriminate about who pays attention to us. Online, a page view is a page view, a comment is a comment; in the end it all gives us the same sense of being paid attention to in that realm. So social networks exert a centrifugal force, and the seeds of our identity are sprayed out in ever-widening circles, looking for a place to find purchase.

So privacy concerns have taken a backseat to publicity concerns. We don’t have to use the internet and create a digital record of our lives; we choose to, because it is both convenient and flattering, particularly when personalized ads succeed in making us feel well-understood. In general, we are aware of our digital trail but, encouraged by the design of social networking and the ways it tries to prod us into perpetually applaud and recognize one another, generally think only of how our digital history can aggrandize us. As the private sphere disappeared—as Richard Sennett details in The Fall of Public Man—and public life became a forum for expressing the authentic self, a new imperative to celebrity takes hold: the more publicity one receives, the more established and concrete one’s authentic self begins to seem to oneself. If I wear a clever T-shirt and no one sees me, what have I really accomplished? The idea expressed by the T-shirt has not been affixed to my image; it hasn’t been affirmed and validated. I remain that much more amorphous.

Social networking makes it so I can believe someone is always seeing me wear my clever T-shirt, or listen to a cool band, or come up with a pithy sentence about what I am doing right now.

by Jason Gross

2 Oct 2008

That’s what they want us to believe, according to this CNN article.  Or more precisely, they’re using this threat to convince the Copyright Royalty Board not to raise the amount of money publishers can collect for songs, increasing the price from 9 cents to 15 cents a song (aka 66%).  Apple argues that they can’t keep songs at 99 cents a pop at that new rate and would have to close iTunes.  Publishers are unmoved by this threat but considering that Apple has 85% of the digital music market, there should be some cause for concern.  If Apple’s gone, what will happen to all their customers?  They’re not going to automatically just migrate over to other major-sanctioned services (i.e. Napster, Amazon, Rhapsody) and will more likely go to the free P2P services.  That will mean a lot less money for the publishers, the labels and of course the artists themselves.  So while the publishers would get more money for each song, the total amount will be MUCH less if Apple follows through on their threat.

But would Apple really do that?  As it is, the company makes pennies (literally) for each iTune song sold, with the bulk of their profits coming from iPods instead.  If they were in business with iTunes alone, they’d be losing a lot of money so this just means they’ll be losing a lot more.  But shutting off iTunes would give people less incentive to buy iPods.  Unless Apple is gambling that people will stick with their neat little device with or without iTunes, then this is a ploy to get the Copyright Board to back down and not implement the increase and see if their threat will make them blink.

Then again, Soundexchange was negotiating royalty rates for streaming services (Net and satellite services) recently and thought it more important to raise the rate as they please and not care about how many companies (i.e. Pandora) would be put out of business as a result of that.  Luckily, the recent Webcaster Settlement Act (which passed Congress and is going to Bush) gives the ‘casters the chance to renegotiate the rates.  If only the CPB had enough sense to do the same.

OCTOBER 3rd follow-up: According to this Wired story, the Board decided to keep the price the same so iTunes lives.  One of the publishing company heads bragged there that he didn’t think Jobs and friends really had the guts to kill off iTunes if an increase was agreed upon.  Such chutzpah…

by Jason Gross

2 Oct 2008

Just as we’re mourning the possible collapse of Creative Loafing (and Washington City Paper along with it), another title finally gets resurrected on the web.  It’s been brewing for a few months now but No Depression has now relaunched online at nodepression.com.  If you care about alt-country/Americana music and you want to help it thrive with a sterling publication that supports it, then you should support ND.

by Bill Gibron

1 Oct 2008

In Hollywood, they say a good movie is only a solid script away. Put a decent director and a somewhat salable cast in an excellent screenplay and the resulting quasi-classic will reap plenty of motion picture dividends…at least, that must have been the bag of magic beans Ed Harris bought when he brought the human bubble head Renee Zellweger on to co-star in his formal horse opera Appaloosa. The actor turned filmmaker did have some mighty good source material (a novel by Spencer scribe Robert B. Parker) and he oversaw the story-lining with another performer turned penman, Robert Knott. And with a company of costars including Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henricksen, Jeremy Irons, and Timonty Spall, what could possible go wrong.

The answer is the unworthy Oscar winner (for Cold Mountain) herself. As she did with Leatherheads six months before, Ms. Zellweger has the uncanny ability to instantly suck all the life out of any project she appears in. With Jerry Maguire the sole exception, she is a perfect example of what Tinsel Town would call a “substitute star”. She’s the actress you place in a role when someone better fails to audition, or can’t clear their already project-heavy calendar. Having done little to suggest her A-list consideration (was Bridget Jones’ Diary really that popular? Or good?), she acts as a kind of excellence demolisher. Things can be going along swimmingly, and suddenly her plastic surgery disaster face makes a puffy appearance, and everything goes to Hell.

Thankfully, Appaloosa has so much more going for it that the infamous ruddy Z can’t completely undermine its charms. Leatherheads wasn’t so lucky - then again, it also offered up The Office‘s king of anti-charisma, John Krasinski, as a lead. Indeed, there have been many movies, going back to the days of jaw-dropping contract player contemplation, where bad personnel choices on the part of the production have undermined otherwise decent efforts. Just in the last forty years alone, several worthwhile movies have found themselves floundering under the weight of incompatible casting and the soiled suspension of disbelief that’s comes from same.

During the ‘70s, The Wiz was considered one of Broadway’s true cross culture successes. The African American take on The Wizard of Oz was a toe-tapping, hand clapping delight, and studio suits were anxious to see it translated to the big screen. Higher drama ace Sidney Lumet may have been the first hiring mistake, but moving the famed magical land to a fantasy fueled Manhattan was actually a stroke of genius. And when it was announced that a pre-Thriller Michael Jackson was playing the Scarecrow and Ted Ross was playing the Lion (a role which won him a Tony on the Great White Way), things seemed solid.

Then the role of Dorothy was awarded, and with it, much of the movie’s hoped for success was dashed. Diana Ross had received some decent notices for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, and Motown sugar daddy Berry Gordy had managed to finagle an Oscar nomination for the former Supreme. But by 1978, the dime store diva was 34, far too old to play the adventurous Kansas teen. A few rewrites later, and the new Dorothy was a dowdy teacher, in her late 20s and still as naïve as a young gal from the Midwest (by way of the Five Boroughs) was supposed to be. While diehards complained, at least she could sing. When the Tinman and Wizard were cast, Lumet turned to comedy for his caterwauling. Nipsey Russell, of game show fame, became the metal head without a heart, and Richard Pryor was implausibly placed as the ruler of the fictional land. As a result, both roles had their songs significantly cut.

While it wasn’t a disaster the size of Paint Your Wagon (in which noted non-crooners Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood warbled off key), it proved that proper casting was necessary to make something as already uneasy as a big screen musical circa the Me Decade work. Twenty years later, something similar would happen to noted speculative fiction author Richard Matheson and the long dormant adaptation of his novel What Dreams May Come. One of those classic “unproducible” screenplays that Hollywood likes to rumor about, several famed filmmakers had tried to conquer the complex visual and metaphoric meanings in the story of a man who travels into the afterlife to save his suicidal wife. With the advent of CGI, and the big screen buzz earned by Map of the Human Heart director Vincent Ward, it seemed like Dreams was finally a go.

All that was needed was a cast. Fresh from his Academy Award for Jerry Maguire, Cuba Gooding Jr. signed on. Soon afterward, noted Swedish star Max Von Sydow agreed to appear. But when it came time to create the perfect married couple, the duo that would literally die to save each others souls, Ward picked the improbable pair of Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra. The “He” had just walked away with his own gold statue for Good Will Hunting. The “She” showed promise alongside Wesley Snipes in Spike Lee’s interracial romance Jungle Fever. Together, however, they were like oil and asphalt, absorbing each other’s potential talents and rendering them flat and lifeless. Dour and depressed is not Williams’ strong suit. His lost looks often seem like the suppression of a laugh, and when forced to emote beyond basic disbelief, he’s inert. Sciorra complements him note for absent note.

And the sad thing is, What Dreams May Come is a beautifully written and rendered experience.  Ward went out of his way to render his versions of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in unforgettable imagery, and with the help of some major memory boarding, earned some warranted Oscar love. The rest of the movie should have been equally celebrated - except Williams and Sciorra destroyed that possibility. It was something the stream of consciousness comic would do to other projects with potential like Bicentennial Man and Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia. Oddly enough, it was Ward who paid the price. It would be seven years before his unsung gem River Queen saw a small, limited theatrical release.

Recently, Bryan Singer tried to revive the Superman franchise with his cracked continuation of Richard Donner’s spurned sequel from 1980. Locking in Kevin Spacey as a pitch perfect Lex Luthor, and discovering the unsung talents of Brandon Routh as his above-expectations Man of Steel, all the Usual Suspects director needed was a proper Lois Lane to fill out the fabled trio. His choice challenged all expectations - 23 year old Kate Bosworth. With a decent resume that included turns in The Rules of Attraction, Wonderland, and the Spacey led Bobby Darrin biopic Beyond the Sea, she seemed capable of carrying the part - that is, until the overwrought script saddled her with a young kid, a bad case of self importance, and a Pulitzer Prize.

It was clearly too much for Kate, who decided the best way to respond to said character dimension was to act as if everything she saw was boring as Hell. Her non-reactions reduced much of the heroics to moments of arch anticlimax. While Singer was struggling to bring something epic to the material, his Lois was losing the likability battle with the audience. While not as big a snafu as turning Darth Vader into a broken boy band member with a lox’s acting chops, it argued for a creative cluelessness that seems to permeate many Hollywood hires. Ability means nothing when a name - preferably from a known TV series - can be utilized instead. And if you can catch pop culture currency at the same time, all the better.

Clearly, Ms. Zellweger is considered something of a sure thing - bad Botox or not. Otherwise, why would both Clooney and Harris cast her? Her obvious shortcomings are evident in every scene she sullies (she’s a bit better defined in Leatherheads, if that’s any solace), and yet IMDb has her featured in four future releases. Call it the byproduct of an excellent agent or the blinding glimmer from her (minor) array of awards, but she clearly gets the jobs.  Trophies should never gauge talent - or even better, suggest chemistry. Still, twice this year, a perfectly good film was flummoxed by the appearance of someone who should never have been considered for the part in the first place. Substitute or not, casting can definitely kill a worthwhile effort. One imagines Mr. Harris and Clooney agreeing on that. Audiences certainly will. 

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