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Thursday, Jan 25, 2007


As the more athletic-minded members of the home audience prepare for next week’s Super Bowl, and American Idol continues to woo the schaudenfreuda set, the motion picture choices this week are actually pretty decent. Between a marvelous ‘70s scare film, a brilliant mid-‘90s documentary, and an overlooked gem from an Oscar winning director, the possibility exists for some quality small screen viewing. Even some of the ancillary picks can and do provide a wealth of watchability. For the week starting 27 January, here are your viewing options:


Premiere Pick


Jarhead


Sam Mendes must have done something in his past to deserve such a rollercoaster ride. When American Beauty hit, it was immediately embraced as a sensational, satiric skewering of strangled suburban sexual politics. What a difference a few years, and dozens of messageboard debates, makes. Mendes is now condemned for helming one of the worst Best Picture winners ever and his own award is dismissed as the result of standard Oscar overkill. All of this undermined his fine follow-up, the Gulf War epic Jarhead. Instead of embracing this latest effort as a visually stunning experiment in storytelling, it was cast aside as another example of Mendes’ cinematic meaninglessness. As a result, what should have been an acknowledged minor masterwork was poisoned by the Internet’s inane ability to turn everyone into a critic. (27 January, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices


Grandma’s Boy


The Farrelly Brothers should be flayed for what they have wrought. The gross out comedy sinks to the lowest possible denominator ever with this tale of a video game tester forced to live in his aging relative’s basement. (20 January, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio


Here’s a little independent oddity – a period piece (the ‘50s) about a woman who supports her 10 kids by writing commercial jingles. Though it’s got chick flick written all over it, the presence of Juliann Moore helps soften the saccharine blow. (27 January, Starz, 9PM EST)


Dark Water


As one of the less successful adaptations of the one time fright fad known as J-Horror, there is still some wonderfully evocative filmmaking to be experienced here, thanks in part to Brazilian director Walter Salles’ deft touch behind the lens.  (27 January, ShowCase, 8PM EST)


Indie Pick


Hoop Dreams


When Steve James and Frederick Clark stumbled upon the story of basketball phenoms William Gates and Arthur Agee, little did they know their decision to follow them throughout the trial and tribulations of high school would result in pure motion picture art. But that’s exactly what happened with Hoop Dreams, one of 1994’s best films, and a definitive argument for narrative fact over fiction. As the boys are recruited to various campuses both in and outside the city of Chicago, we see the beginnings of the kind of inflated entitlement that’s destroying modern professional sports. While the outcome is more or less a given, especially in light of what we know about basketball in 2007, the way in which the duo survive their time in the spotlight is mesmerizing – and very meaningful. (27 January, Sundance, 9:30PM EST)

Additional Choices


Mona Lisa


It’s the film that brought director Neil Jordan and actor Bob Hoskins to the attention of American audiences, and with good reason. This moody thriller is a brilliant deconstruction of character and crime. (27 January, IFC, 10:55PM EST)

Series 7: The Contenders


Way, WAY ahead of its time, this look at the ridiculous extremes the reality TV genre would go to in capturing audience attention is a stinging social commentary. Looks even more prophetic today than it did back in 2001. (30 January, Sundance, 7:30PM EST)

Monster


The usually stunning Charlize Theron goes the dirty and dowdy route to play notorious female serial killer Aileen Wuornos in this strangely atypical drama. There’s as much heart as homicide in this Oscar winning character study. (31 January, Sundance, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option


The Other


It is safe to say that, among the movies made in that defining cinematic decade of the ‘70s, The Other is one of the best—a near-flawless example of tone and storytelling melded with wonderfully effective material and meaning. In the hands of Academy Award nominee Robert Mulligan (responsible for To Kill a Mockingbird) and adapted by actor-turned-writer Thomas Tyron from his own best-selling novel, this paranormal period piece about psychologically unsound twins takes elements of The Bad Seed and twists them into an amazing American Gothic. It utilizes the recognizable realities of an old-fashioned family in the middle of a picturesque, pastoral setting and then scans the surfaces for the ugly underneath. Eventually, we start to see the horrors hiding behind the antique old-world gentility. (29 January, Fox Movie Channel, 6PM EST)

Additional Choices


Billy the Kid vs. Dracula


John Carradine is the Count, and someone named Chuck Courtney is the famous outlaw in this bad movie bedlam from director William Beaudine. Featured as part of Rob Zombie’s TCM Underground presentations. (27 January, TCM, 2AM EST)

High Tension


Before taking over the reigns of the well-received Hills Have Eyes remake, French fright master Alexandre Aja delivered this stylish take on the old fashioned slasher film. A brilliant bit of violent cinematic slight of hand. (30 January, Showtime, 10PM EST)

May


To hear the web geeks tell it, this Frankenstein homage from The Woods director Lucky McKee has adolescent angst to spare. The simple storyline, about a girl who builds a friend out of spare people parts, should make gorehounds happy. (31 January, IFC, 10:55PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Jan 25, 2007

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen has a few posts about his skepticism regarding the significance of income inequality. The first is a link to his NYT column that wants to exonerate politicians and businesses of most of the responsibility for the fact that income inequality is worsening (it’s 75 percent demographics—people who have lived longer have had a longer time to have their fortunes go separate ways, and as the populace becomes more educated it is more likely to show the income effects of different lifestyle choices). Inequality is pretty much inevitable if we want to respect the differences in individual motivation, a fact bourne out in Cowen’s opinion by the fact that measured inequality in happiness among different classes hasn’t worsened. Some people are made happy by money, some are made happy by being “relaxed bohemians.” Who isn’t happy? Only the destitute, who are essentially exempted from consideration in the inequality comparisons Cowen pursues here because inequality is not worsening for them—perhaps this is because their bare-subsistence situation can become no worse.


That’s where his other post comes in, which is a tentative defense of making comparisons of what people consume rather than what they earn. Usually, free marketeers will point to a statistic that shows poor people buying a lot of some inessential good (big TVs, PlayStations, etc.) and declare income inequality insignificant, while implicitly suggesting the hypocrisy of these people with their luxury goods who pretend to be poor and cry for government handouts and lifestyle subsidies from hardworking taxpayers. Thus those people at the bottom, regardless of alleged inequality, are having their lives improved because their purchasing power is increasing with the falling prices of goods, and bare subsistence—the minimum quality-of-life expectations in America—now includes many things that were once considered luxuries. (We all have running water and refrigerators now, and the richest of our great-great-grandmothers didn’t, this argument goes, so why are we complaining?) In the post linked above Cowen responds to the outrage at this libertarian argument expressed by John Quiggin and Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber. Quiggin’s contention is that cherrypicking certain consumer goods for this kind of argument ignores the relative prices of all the goods a household needs to survive and perhaps better itself, if it is so fortunate. The fall in TV prices doesn’t really compensate for the explosion in health and college education costs, to use Quiggin’s example. You could throw in the cost of credit, housing and transportation, too. So the purchasing power of the poor doesn’t necessary increase when flat-screen TVs and cell-phone plans become cheaper, and it certainly doesn’t imply an equality with middle-class suburbanites who share an appetite for these things. Cowen points out that “it can be argued that ‘TVs are not enough,’ but that is not reason to reject consumption data out of hand.  It is a reason to look at more categories of consumption.” This still won’t capture the experience of class difference, though, or the impact of inequality—subjective qualities that always escape quantification in economic statistics. It may be that as you move down ithe class ladder, such consumer goods go from being taken for granted and requiring no compromises to being crucial aspirational symbols requiring a great deal of sacrifice. The PlayStation3 may possibly hold a greater significance beyond its function for the poor than for the middle-class, but I’m guessing that doesn’t really compensate for the class differences. The goods are necessary in fundamentally different ways, too, that cement class differences and limit mobility—the way the urban poor wear brand-name clothes will not be mistaken for the way the upper classes wear the same brands, and in this distinction serves as a tangible marker that helps keep classes separated. This is true of most conusmption goods; the manner in which these goods shared among the classes are consumed seems to define and illustrate class boundaries rather than erode them as the libertarian argument implies.


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Thursday, Jan 25, 2007

A story like this usually raises eyebrows: Amplifier Magazine Allegedly Trades Reviews for Ad Buys.  But as you see in the readers’ responses, it’s old news by now and it doesn’t seem like people are surprised by this.  What that says is 1) it’s an old dirty secret and 2) the opinion of the media is so low that it doesn’t even get a shrug nowadays.  Which isn’t to say that the bad rap isn’t partially earned- this kind of graft happens a lot though it doesn’t get reported or found out as explicitly as this case- a few years ago, New York Rock publicly implemented a policy of pay-for-review and drew some heavy criticism for that too.  Mind you, in the case of NYR, they didn’t guarantee a GOOD review if you forked over cash.  Do we now need a payola (pay-for-review) law to cover music mags?  Granted, the mag market is in desperate shape but if pubs have to resort to this, can we or should we trust ‘em anymore?


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Wednesday, Jan 24, 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: A pair of perverted takes on technology and extortion.

Electronic Lover (1966)



Buried somewhere deep in the heart of Manhattan, a sadistic voyeur named “The Master” sends his sibling slave (who he refers to as “Brother”) out to spy on the ladies of New York. Hoping to catch them in flagrante delicto – in other words, naked and naughty as the day is long – Brother stumbles around the city with what looks like a vacuum cleaner attachment in his hands. Turns out, it’s a high tech camera, allowing the perv to pry into the privacy of the numerous nasty girls Master has his erotica eye on. As he aims his plastic probe into the windows of his prey, our technological Peeping Tom sits back in his burlap-covered bungalow and monitors the collection of lady lumps from a screen on his room-sized computer. When Brother mucks up and messes with the image, Master shouts out long, laborious monologues, peppering his rants with various demands for more, MORE, MORE!!! When the women get wise and confront him, Master goes all moist, proving that his dysfunction is more emotional than erectile. Indeed, he is an Electronic Lover, only potent when transistors and a ‘motherboard’ are involved.


In the annals of exploitation, it is hard to find a film as outrageously bizarre as Electronic Lover. Granted, it’s not as surreal as The Godmonster of Indian Flats, and can barely hold a craven candle to Confessions of a Psycho Cat or foreign freak-outs like My Baby is Black or When Men Carried Clubs and Women Played Ding Dong, but in contrast to the rest of the raincoat canon, this creepy peeper exercise is mighty malfeasant. Besides, any movie which features a man making out with himself (thanks to a well placed wall mirror) and relying on some simulated self-service to get his repugnant rocks off is already illustrating its grand depraved delusions. The sickeningly incestual conceit between Master and Brother – he of the wealthy erotic eccentricity, the other a mute doormat who prowls around town looking for lewdness – is accentuated by the random bits of babe burlesque, each of our well-known sleaze screen queens (including Uta Erickson and Linda Boyce) exposing their epidermis for the sake of some slick exhibitionist’s wet daydream. Since most of the movie follows along the thinnest clothesline of a plot – Master wants Brother to find the realistic replicas of his nightmarish fantasy fodder – director Jesse Berger does little more than offer up various vignettes of simulated slap and tickle.


Indeed, the best parts of Electronic Lover aren’t the groovy grindhouse gals going gonzo in their bare ass brazenness. No, the moments that will have your cinematic synapses in an uproar arrive whenever Master has one of his certified nutty nervous breakdowns. Desperate to find the vice in his icky internal visions, he yells at Brother in long, hilarious harangues that sound like outtakes from a pervert’s primal scream sessions. Face scrunched up like it’s smashed against a window, eyes wide open (the better to catch the profuse sweat flowing off the loathsome lothario’s face) and mouth mimicking a grimace, Master (played by nobody Mike Atkinson) could give Rev. Jim Jones a run for his Messianic madman money. So convinced he owns the world that he feels free to spy on it, Master makes the crucial mistake that most deviants do – he lets his lust dement and destroy his life. That’s why we buy the odd living arrangements, the frequent hallucinations, and the ending that twists everything onto itself until the narrative shouts “Uncle” and finally falls apart. One of those heralded “has to be seen to be believed” efforts, Electronic Lover is a brazen bit of binary ballyhoo.


The Spy Who Came (1969)



Harry Harris is one of New York’s finest – and slimiest – vice cops. When he’s not wowing his superiors with his evidence tampering skills, he’s “pumping” his suspects for potential information. One day, after several long hours of framing hookers, Harry heads off to a local bar to drown his sorrows. There he meets a very odd young lady, so robotic in her expressions that automatons are jealous of her rigidity. Turns out she’s a plant, a way to get Harry into the hands of a drug addled Arab sheik who wants to blackmail most of the UN. Seems they have pictures of Harry humping the citizenry, and will show them to the lawman’s future bride if he doesn’t cooperate. With the fuzz on his side, the Middle Eastern madman has that much more extortion emphasis on his possible targets. Naturally, Harry agrees, and soon discovers the unholy horrors of the operation’s white slave situation. Luckily, his boss finds out about the set-up and sends in a French detective from Interpol to help break up this cabal. The rest of the movie is made up of shots of women being whipped, stripped and clipped, all in hopes of being the bait for The Spy Who Came


Unlike Electronic Lover, a film that constantly wants to remind you of the entire Master/Brother dynamic, The Spy Who Came sets up its storyline, and then quickly abandons it for more garish girlie gawking. Once we’ve established that Harry is a letch, that the Arab is insane, and that the broken down castle that acts as a hideout is really nothing more than Olga’s House of Shame minus Audrey Campbell, we settle in to enjoy what director Ron Wertheim has to offer. Sadly, it’s more of the scripted strip show routine, women baring it all for the sake of some salacious skin flicking. It starts when our entranced tart shows up at Harry’s favorite dive bar and begins seducing him. Her vacant stare must have some sort of aphrodisiacal powers, since our hero hops into bed with her PDQ. It’s only later than we learn that this is Harry’s miscreant MO. A funny scene has our villainous Arab presenting the police officer with photos of his dalliances, and actual film of his faux fornicating. No wonder he’s so willing to help out the criminal cause. Harry’s seed has been spread from one end of the Big Apple to the other.


Thankfully, the film fails to follow up on the whole UN/diplomatic immunity/international scandal plotting and instead turns into your typical episodic erotica. One of the highlights here is a sequence where a ‘sex slave in training’ is educated on how to pleasure a man. Practicing various positions – doggy, reverse cowgirl – to an instructional recording seems strange enough. Now add in her partner, a particularly bizarre looking male mannequin (complete with absent eyes and dislocated arms) and you’ve got some of the most hilarious sensual slapstick ever caught on celluloid. Our unknown actress deserves some kind of amorous acknowledgment for making feigned frigging with a wooden doll seem totally plausible. As for the rest of the narrative, it’s a deranged downward spiral into more nudity, more nonsensical plot turns, and a final action sequence that features our Arab antagonist naked, the worst armed guards in the history of criminality, and a bunch of toga wearing girls chasing a topless temptress as she tries to escape. Wow! Though the title is a tad too clever to actually link directly to the story, The Spy Who Came is still a sensational head scratcher of a film. Its purpose is as cloudy as its morals.


As they do every so often, Something Weird Video (via their distributor, Image Entertainment) unleashes these unknown exploitation gems on an already jaded fan base. Including lots of interesting supplements (trailers, archival short subjects, educational films and groovy grindhouse galleries) and the best tech specs available (in this case, 1.33:1 monochrome images and Dolby Digital Mono mixes) the leading company in taboo-busting temptations really delivers this time. Even the jaw dropping late ‘60s look at science (a surreal slice of Americana called “The Philosophy of Computing”) adds to the overall success of this strange presentation. While there are far more definitive examples of what made the skin and sin genre famous, Electronic Lover/ The Spy Who Came are two terrific bawdy brain busters. Each example of freakish flesh peddling is as crazy as it is carnal – for better and for worse.



Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD of Electronic Lover/The Spy Who Came was released on 23 January, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here


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Wednesday, Jan 24, 2007

“Pathologies of Hope,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s editorial in the most recent Harper’s, seeks to throw some cold water on the budding positive psychology movement (detailed in this NYT magazine piece), which she argues is basically a call to narcissistic selfishness, if not more useless self-blaming advice along the lines of Who Moved My Cheese? The “insight” of that slim pernicious volume is that change in business is inevitable and unstoppable (the dumbed-down version of what Schumpeter called “creative destruction”) and it is incumbent upon you not to ask why things are changing as they are but to meekly adapt to whatever they happen to be. Essentially you are powerless, the book reminds you, just a rat in a maze, so you should accept the fact that your betters are experimenting on you rather than seek an end to the cruelty. If you accept the inevitablility of the situation, you might just be happy within it.


It’s no accident that Martin Seligman, the guru of the positive psychology movement, is also credited with formulating the theory of learned helplessness, wherein subjects internalize conditions in which they are deprived of agency and come to feel they are incapable of doing anything meaningful. They blame themselves for things out of their control and think any action they will take will compound failure. This is basically the flip side of positive psychology, which also encourages you to see personal agency where you have none, but rather than developing negative momentum by assuming false reponsibility for bad things, you try to develop positive momentum by spuriously assuming unwarranted responsibility for good things. Some of the same misattributions that cause depression can also cause inexplicable baseless happiness (i.e. optimism); basically, emotional cause and effect are presumed to be reversible—we feel depressed or happy, and derive rationalizations for this afterward.


Of course, that is not how positive psychology is sold to its practictioners. Telling someone to simply pretend to be happy no matter what the circumstances is unlikely to be convincing. Instead happiness gurus emphasize doing good deeds (sending letters of gratitude, aggressively smiling at people) as these promote a feeling of positive agency—they give the fundamental attribution error something to work with. And you should discover what you are good at and shape your personality around that, to enhance the likelihood of flow experiences, of being “in the zone” and experiencing “mindfulness.”


Ehrenrich, a cancer survivor who was infuriated at the constant injunction that she needed to have a positive attitude about her situation to get better, is having none of this. Pretending that positive thinking can magically make miracles happen and remove all obstacles from life seems to her a dangerous illusion, not merely because it detaches a person from reality (“should I assume, positively, that no one is going to cut in front of me or, more negatively, be prepared to brake?”) but because “it seems to reduce our tolerance of other people’s suffering…. If no one will listen to my problems, I won’t listen to theirs: ‘no whining’ as the popular bumper stickers and wall plaques warn.” In other words, positive psychology undermines the effects of sympathy that Adam Smith, et. al., found so fundamental to the healthy functioning of a society otherwise fixated on self-interest. If Ehrenreich is right,  positive psychology instructs people to ignore the impulse to understand other’s feelings and instead impose on them your positive mood by force—like Rousseau suggested, you will force them to be free. As a more-contemporary philosopher bitterly noted, “Mellow out or you will pay.”


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