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Monday, Jul 23, 2007

Where I am today. And so should you be, too!






Everyone should come to Paris. For some time—the longer the better. For Paris is . . . so many things. Wonderful things. Dreamy things. Undreamable things. Lyrical things. Things never before seen—or smelled or thought (or done!). Everything. At once.


Of course, there certainly must be dark things, uncomfortable things, things to grouse about and things one would wish to improve. But, that is (generally) not to think about today. Not in this space. For us, the peripatetic touristes who are simply busy thinking and viewing and talking about Paris in a positive light. And even as we encounter one or more things less light along the way, well—that can be revealing in a way not altogether so awful (since revelation is good!)


 


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Sunday, Jul 22, 2007


Finally, in five days, we’ll know. After 18 seasons, almost as many years, and over 400 fabulous episodes, fans and the curious alike will learn if The Simpsons can make the translation to the big screen. It’s been a long hard road for America’s favorite family, one that began back with a classic Christmas Special in 1989. Of course, true believers have followed the adventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie since their inception as bumper material for Tracey Ullman’s variety/sketch show. Back then, Matt Groening was an underground cartoonist whose Life in Hell panel effort drew on the more acerbic, cynical side of humor. Indeed, no one really thought his brand of pop culture deconstruction would work. Now, two decades later, he’s built an empire that stands as one of the most popular – and profitable – in all of broadcast television.


Oddly enough, a movie version of the show has been brewing as far back as the third season. About that time, The Simpsons went from cult concern to full blown phenomenon, and Fox was anxious to do what networks do best – cash in. The creative team behind the show – Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon – was approached about a celluloid version, yet negotiations broke down almost immediately. The reason? The trio wanted the ability to develop a script, and yet reject any possible production if they felt the results would be no good. The studio balked, and that has been the basic reason why the familiar faces living on Evergreen Terrace have, until now, been a boob tube only enterprise. Aided by other minor issues – talent contracts, behind the scenes staff drama – the whole “play and pass” facet of the agreement kept The Simpsons Movie dormant.


Then a major announcement came in the Summer of 2006. Apparently, after years of speculation and numerous rumors surrounding possible storylines and release dates, a full fledged Simpsons film was finally in the works. The opening was set – 27 July, 2007 - and a teaser was offered, featuring Homer cluelessly wondering what he was supposed to do next. It got the devotees nice and worked up. As the newest version of the old employee’s water cooler – the Internet – went ballistic over casting (which guest stars, if any, would make an appearance) and potential plots (Marge and Homer spilt! Bart becomes a movie star!), the team behind the series started gathering together its crew. As the months moved along, the buzz built and died, each new version of the slick scattered trailer bringing new questions (what’s with all the nuclear warheads???) and quotables (Spider Pig…Spider Pig…) to the discussion.


And yet, amazingly enough, Fox has managed the unthinkable. Somehow, in a domain that loves to have its efforts leaked to maximize publicity and exaggerate hype, The Simpsons Movie’s main ingredient – the storyline – has yet to be revealed. Even J. K. Rowling couldn’t keep her pleaded for embargo in place until Harry Potter 7 hit bookstores on 21 July. Yet in the recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, a first tidbit about the narrative has been exposed. According to the magazine, the plot revolves around Homer adopting a pig. Having a hard time dealing with the waste, he dumps the hog sewage in nearby Lake Springfield as a solution. The resulting natural disaster (???) threatens the town, and as a result, the entire planet. Thus – extrapolated out from the trailer – the whole town moves, the government gets involved in solving the pollution problem, and everyone learns a lesson about the environment and ecology. Maybe.


Whatever the case, it’s clear that, as a big screen project, The Simpsons Movie will be an opening weekend wonder. Everyone, from the faithful to the dejected, the still supporting to the long since forgotten will queue up to see what’s become of the yellow brood with the nonstop support of the entire encyclopedia of pop culture. One things for sure – they won’t have critics to guide them. Fox has taken the unfathomably cautious steps of having their sole press screenings either the Tuesday before release (therefore thwarting many print publication deadlines) or Thursday, one day before opening. This latter move was meant to keep the online community, capable of releasing their thoughts within hours of viewing, from supposedly spoiling the film. While some have questioned the marketing savvy of such a strategy, the studio feels it is being reasonable. It’s a battle – and a story - best saved for another day.


No, the focus here remains The Simpsons, and the question over whether a series some feel has ‘jumped the shark’ (to use an equally overdone phrase) can remain a viable cinematic experience. The war between the “rules” and “drools”, the “sucks” and “rocks” has raged on newsgroups and messageboards for years. Those who still adore the show have played apologist and acolyte, while others who felt the show lost its edge somewhere in the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House have argued for its quick and painless cancellation. As animation tastes have varied from King of the Hill to Family Guy, South Park to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, it’s clear the film has its work cut out for it. In fact, these latter two examples provide the perfect illustration of what can go right, and very wrong, when bringing an established TV toon to the cinema.


On the plus side is South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. As part of their deal with Comedy Central and its subsidiary company Viacom (owner of Paramount), series savants Trey Parker and Matt Stone were required to come up with a big screen version of their corrupt kiddie cartoon – a nice little knock-off in the vein of Beavis and Butthead Do America, meant to maintain product placement while hopefully maximizing market share. Of course, what no one could have expected was the raging genius inside Parker and Stone’s twisted brains. They didn’t want to settle for something cold and familiar. They wanted to expand the South Park concept while bringing in familiar facets that viewers of the show would easily recognize. So what was meant as a minor effort, a way of bringing both the TV series and the film fanbase into a kind of symbolic synergy, ended up as one of the best, brightest, and ballsiest comedies of the last 20 years. From its free speech mantra to memorable musical numbers, the South Park film remains a pen and ink masterpiece.


And then there’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie for Theaters. Now, it’s obvious to anyone whose ever seen this strangely surreal Adult Swim offering (part of the Cartoon Network’s overnight programming) that ATHF is an acquired taste – kind of like caviar dipped in depilatory cream. The show features a talking mensch milkshake, a science oriented order of French fries, and a childlike wad of meat. Supposedly set up for fighting crime and solving mysteries, the Aqua Teen team really does little except argue and abuse each other. They’re like the Three Stooges on donkey tranquilizers or a middle schoolers imagination on a Ritalin and Slurpee bender. Each 10 minute installment is jammed packed with non-sequitors, inside jokes, running gags, and crude characterization, and no matter how funny these episodes can be, expanding them by eight into a standard mainstream movie running time seemed antithetical to what the series stood for. It’s a short attention span show.


Yet that’s exactly what Aqua Teen did. Thanks to a failed street beat publicity campaign that had the citizens of Boston seeing Al-Qaeda instead of animated characters, and a critical response that was less than impressed, the movie blew in and out of theaters in less than two weeks. Instead of expanding the name brand value beyond its limited late night demographic, the failure of the film proved that not every cartoon cavalcade can make the jump to celluloid. While The Simpsons is light years away from Aqua Teen in reputation and recognition, there is still that unhappy faction who would probably be happy if the movie failed to live up to its lofty, laugh riot ambitions. In fact, it’s safe to say that as many people are pulling for Groening and the gang to succeed as are hoping they crash and burn like the series ruining bastards that they are.


From what we know (and that’s still very little) there are signs that point to both possibilities. Many of the people involved in the show’s heralded past – Brooks, Al Jean, John Schwartzwelder, etc – are back to work on the film. Reports have them going over gags dozens of times to make sure they are polished and potent. In addition, the flat look of TV animation has been replaced by a combination of CGI (for big effects set pieces) and more meticulous and detailed drawing. This gives the characters a new found fullness that many find pleasing. Finally, the previews themselves have been hilarious, a collection of classic jokes with very few of the head scratching asides recent years have offered. Working against it, of course, is the impenetrable veil of secrecy, something that suggests less than excellent results. Tie that into the lack of advanced press screenings (at least ones not limiting a journalist’s ability to report) and the flop sweat appears to be flowing.


In addition, there’s the whole 90 minute time frame. In standard Simpsons terms, that’s the equivalent of four episodes tied together. Even the funniest film made by meticulous comedic craftsman can’t sustain a consistent level of humor for an hour and a half. From recent examples like Knocked Up to past classics like Blazing Saddles, only the most rarefied cinematic satires (the original Producers, for example) can maintain the merriment for the long haul. Granted, South Park managed, but that seems to be the exception that still bends the rule. No, The Simpsons faces having to fill time it never needed to worry about before. Some have even speculated that the film took 18 years to be realized because the writers were hording material during each and every production run. After all this time, they finally had enough quality material to make a movie.


Of course, we’ll have to wait until 27 July to find out. There will be no torrent posted on the web waiting to be downloaded and bootlegged ala SiCKO, and only the most ardent, workaholic critic will have a review ready to post prior to the first legitimate tickets being sold (for our part, SE&L is shooting for Friday at Noon to post its thoughts). If it flies, it could mean more films in a franchise that could go on indefinitely. If it fails, there’s still the TV series, renewed up and through 2008 (and more than likely, even further) to fall back on. Of course, neither outcome will stop the debate. In fact, The Simpsons Movie may even start its own tangential attacks (“they should stick with films”, “the movie ruined the small screen series”). Fox isn’t letting us in on the answer until the moment the credits finally roll. After 18 years, a few more days of waiting doesn’t seem so bad after all. 


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Sunday, Jul 22, 2007
by Kembrew McLeod
Love Is a Mix TapeLife and Loss, One Song at a Timeby Rob SheffieldCrownJanuary 2007, 224 pages, $22.95

Love Is a Mix Tape
Life and Loss, One Song at a Time
by Rob Sheffield
Crown
January 2007, 224 pages, $22.95


“I met Renée in Charlottesville, Va., when we were both 23,” Rob Sheffield writes. “When the bartender at the Eastern Standard put on a tape, Big Star’s “Radio City,” she was the only other person in the room to perk up. So we drank bourbon and talked about music.”


The tall, skinny, geeky grad student soon found himself at her doorstep, sputtering, “I don’t know what your type is. I don’t know what your deal is. I don’t even know if you have a boyfriend. I know I like you and I want to be in your life, that’s it, and if you have any room for a boyfriend, I would like to be your boyfriend, and if you don’t have any room, I would like to be your friend. Any room you have for me in your life is great.”


Before long, he was making her mix tapes, a rite of passage shared by most music-obsessed lovers. Almost as quickly, she reciprocated.


Love Is a Mix Tape is a new memoir by Sheffield, whose smart, witty “Pop Life” music column is one of the saving graces of Rolling Stone magazine. Chronicling his romance with fellow rock critic Renée Crist, a woman I knew, Sheffield’s book is a moving meditation on love and loss—and the (musical) ties that bind us.


“Before I met her, I was just another hermit wolfboy, scared of life, hiding in my room with my records and my fanzines,” Sheffield writes. “Suddenly, I got all tangled up in this girl’s noisy, juicy, sparkly life.”


A noisy, juicy, and sparkly life, yes—but a brief one.


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Sunday, Jul 22, 2007

Not that they care at all, but I’ve occasionally made jokes at hippie jam bands’ expense—use them as shorthand for lameness in record reviews, for example—and mock their fans as being zealously devoted to something blatantly and intentionally insubstantial, but I’ve started to feel pretty lame myself for doing it. What’s always been plain, what’s almost been the threat that has prompted my mockery perhaps, is that jam bands don’t operate within the parameters of cool and mediated identity that, say, indie rock or mainstream top 40 (which are symbiotic genres) operates in. Jam bands instead earnestly promote communal feeling as a means for transcending individual angst, and as someone with a heaping helping of angst, my instinct is to deride it as phony in a very, very distant echo of the impulse that leads conservatives to denounce socialism as impossibly naive and socialists as unwitting hypocrites embedding all sorts of “perverse incentives” all over the place in the social body.


Even when I was in high school, I think I was a little jealous of the kids who could let it all go and become full-fledged out-of-the-closet Deadheads. I didn’t care much for the music. (I probably like the Dead’s often-aimless roots-rock jams a lot more now, since I don’t care so much about the lyrics meaning anything in particular to me. The Dead makes for good musical wallpaper, somehow less obtrusive than silence.) But the detachment that scene promised was attractive. It wasn’t just that kids who went on Dead tour styled themselves as contemporary gypsies and spent the bulk of their time getting high and brokering small-time drug deals. Romantic as that might have seemed, it was easy for me to imagine the squalor, the venereal disease and the bummed-out bad vibes that went along with all that—I had read “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” after all.


What I envied about the people getting into the Dead in the mid 1980s, right before the band that improbable resurgence from “Touch of Grey,” was that they seemed to escape the suburban condition at one stroke—suddenly their folk culture wasn’t limited to Brady Bunch reruns, fast-food restaurants and Wiffle Ball; suddenly, by rejecting musical variety altogether and eschewing a concern with cool for something I couldn’t even identify at the time but would now tentatively call a feeling for community, their horizons were broader than MTV’s 120 minutes and whatever was being promoted in Rolling Stone. In suburban America, isolation, atomization, sprawl paternalistic safeguards, and unmitigated monotony all contribute to annihilating any sort of community spirit or traditional folk culture that a kid might find himself drawn into involuntarily, as he might in a smaller community with more interconnection among members and more permeable barriers. If you want to participate in anything that crosses generational barriers or looks backward to ethic roots or anything like that in suburbia—a locale that functions to obliterate tradition and foment the belief that every family springs sui generis from the newly raised housing subdivisions—you have to put yourself forward awkwardly, volunteer to get involved in a culture that most of your peers will have rejected in lieu of synthetic pop culture—the glossy world of celebrities and ersatz celebrities like the Real World habitues, of manufactured excitement about performers and films who are famous on an international scale.


This is a bit of a cranky anti-mass-culture argument that people have been making probably since radio was invented, but the densely mediated world suburban kids live in invite them to build identity through an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture (see any Facebook, MySpace, etc. page, with the boilerplate list of interests), and they interact with one another through pop culture references. Friendships struggle to deepen beyond the superficial level of swapping lists and trading the names of things, showing one another objects, posturing or complimenting the other’s posturing. Pop culture invites its adherents to revel in poseurdom, mainly because it celebrates knowing arbitrary things while putting no particular value on actually doing anything.


To recapitulate: growing up suburban seems to orient an isolated, individualistic youth toward pop culture and toward trying to be cool, toward cataloging facts and possessions and trivia rather than developing craft skills and participating in hard-to-find and decidedly uncool communities. Haunted by anomie, such youths feel vaguely discontented, at which point the jam-band scene seems a pretty enticing alternative. With names like the String Cheese Incident and the Disco Biscuits, these groups have obviously left any pretensions of seeming cool far behind. And the community that supports them seem to take all comers at face value, with a minimum of prejudice, as long as they continue to participate and show up at concerts and, at least back in the Dead tour days, hang out in parking lots from city to city. They have to assent to the music but they needn’t necessarily forward an elaborate critique or defense of it—you just have to accept it, the way you’d accept the menu at a vegan restaurant or something—these are the options and these are all you really need.


On the surface, forming communities around nationally-touring bands seems just a radically limited version of using pop culture to articulate a superficial, arbitrary social place for oneself. And maybe that’s all it is. But I’m always wondering if that scene illustrates the difference between pop culture and the folk culture it has occluded since mass-media forms were invented. Pop culture seems always animated by the commercial values that generate it—competition, uncompromised individuality, exploitation, profit, amassing capital (in this case cultural capital of knowing trivia or having huge collections of pop-culture product)—whereas folk culture (the participants in it, not the bands themselves perhaps) seems indifferent to a lot of that, emphasizing instead cooperation and collective experience as being more significant and more constitutive of identity than personal, private experience. This escape from the onus of self is always what makes folk culture seem so alluring—it holds out the promise that you can escape self-consciousness by devoting yourself to something larger. But of course, that sounds a lot like going to church, or joining a cult.


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Saturday, Jul 21, 2007


The monster movie has certainly changed a lot over the last 70 years – especially when it comes to special effects. Where once creatures had to be cast out of clay and maneuvered frame by frame to create a static sense of stop motion, or real live lizards festooned with fake fins were utilized amongst miniaturized backdrops, our current crop of film imagineers can simply call on their computer to create eye-popping examples of otherworldly terror. Jurassic Park more or less proved that such a strategy could result in box office gold, and now Gwoemul (The Host, in English) is aiming for the same dollar-rich demographic. Granted, it’s nothing more than The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms assisted by lots of motherboard manipulation, but it’s a wonderful reminder of the genre’s potential and effectiveness.


After the Han River is polluted by a premeditated chemical spill (thank you very much, United States!), a strange sea creature, about the size of a city bus, starts stalking the sewers (and streets) of Seoul, South Korea. An attack on a riverside retreat affects Park Gang-Du, a lazy freeloader who helps his dad run a local snack stand. In an instant, the slacker’s daughter Hyun-seo is taken, and the rest of the family – including an ex-social activist and a beloved female athlete - are in a panic. They also end up on the run from the law. Seems the beast is considered the “host” for a nasty virus, and a major quarantine is in place. Because of their interaction with the monster, the Parks become wanted fugitives. Things get even more complicated when Gang-Du discovers that Hyun-seo may still be alive. He and his siblings must find her before the Americans use something called “Agent Yellow” to kill the creature – effectively wiping out everything and anyone within close proximity of the bio-weapon’s path.


It’s the set up for a standard search and rescue narrative – something lost having to be regained under the auspices of personal gumption and an impending threat. But because this movie was made in Korea, and not inside Hollywood’s focus group fancying mandates, The Host (new to DVD from Mangnolia Home Entertainment) tends to avoid most of the genre’s obvious pitfalls. Indeed, it generates a great deal more interest in areas your typical studio blockbuster avoids, while sticking rather closely to the formula of your standard Bert I. Gordon ‘beast on the loose’ B-picture. With the added weight of CGI (this movie just would not work with some other kind of F/X) and the excellent use of Seoul’s gleaming post-modern metropolis backdrop, we end up with something unique. While the action/adventure aspects of The Host may seem familiar, it has major distinctions that make it wholly original.


The first is the level of sentiment employed to enhance the storyline. It is manipulation at its most enjoyable – direct, unfettered and completely shameless. When deadbeat daddy Park Gang-Du (actor Kang-ho Song looking like a chunky skate rat) looses his daughter in the opening monster melee, we really feel for him. Similarly, when the rest of the family shows up to share their (and give him) grief, the outpouring of pain is exaggerated and majestic. It is obvious that director Joon-ho Bong is elevating the sequence to increase its comic value, but the performances from his actors really sell a sense of sorrow and sadness. Later on, when Gang-Du learns that his daughter, Hyun-seo, may still be alive, his drive to discover the truth and set things straight carries the film past many of its more problematic points.


All of this is purposefully designed on the director’s part. In a genial and informative commentary included on the DVD, Bong explains that he wanted to intentionally thwart convention, to show the beast early on, to make the family fragile and dysfunctional, to emphasize the heart and not the horror. To him, the genre is already submerged in stereotypical concepts and run of the mill approaches. That is why The Host seems so fresh and invigorating. Unlike other recent examples of this kind of movie – mostly found late at night on the Sci-Fi Channel - this is a fright fest more interested in the spaces in between the spectacle than the set pieces themselves. Almost from the first frames, you can see an entirely different cultural mindset at work.


Indeed, the differences can be night and day staggering at times. The police are portrayed as totally corrupt, ignoring the pleas of a plaintive father as the ravings of a lunatic. To make matters worse, they appear capable of action only when a bribe is involved. Similarly, the US is painted as a country of brash, international thugs. They roll over the Koreans, giving orders while simultaneously hiding crucial information in a conspiratorial X-Files like manner. And Bong bobbles things a bit as well. Some of the ancillary characters never pay off, or worse, feel included to complement an eventual popcorn movie action showdown (like Gang-Du’s sister, the Olympic medalist…in archery…wink, wink). We keep waiting for the time spent on them to deliver some manner of denouement. In the end, they are merely cogs in a well-meaning genre effort.


Still, The Host has a lot going for it. It is absolutely side-splitting at times. Like the best Bollywood cinema which has no problem incorporating cinematic styles for the sake of a storyline, it uses spoof, slapstick, some pointed political commentary, and a lot of sunny schlock value to keep the entertainment factor lively and up front. This is not a deep thinking film, not a real environmentalist mandate like some of Japan’s Godzilla films can be. On the other hand, this is not a scary film. Not at all. Sure, we experience some minor dread during the rescue sequences, but Bong is too upfront with his fright ideals to trick us into terror. This is also not an action packed epic. The overall filmmaking tends to be more subtle than spectacular in dealing with the monster attacks. According to the DVD’s bonus material, this is exactly the way the director wanted it.


All minor quibbles aside, this is still an excellent example of how foreign filmmakers are taking Western cinema and deconstructing it point by motion picture point. First, the Chinese literally reinvented the crime drama, the Hong Kong style of operatic gunplay eventually giving way to a more metaphysical approach. Then the Japanese stepped in and explored the old fashioned eeriness of ghosts and spirits with the now evaporating J-horror craze. Korea is currently coming up with intriguing combinations, with everything from The Tale of Two Sisters to The Host collapsing categories while dealing with concrete cinematic staples. Call it Leviathan Goes Nutzoid or The Terror of the Truck-Sized Tadpole, but this entertaining monster movie will definitely satisfy your creature feature needs.


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