Call for Music Writers... Rock, Indie, Urban, Electronic, Americana, Metal, World and More

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Sep 17, 2006


Going back to the days when Beta battled VHS for market dominance, film fans have had a veritable love/hate relationship with the concept of home video. At first, machines were sold on their ability to record. In an era of limited broadcast options and inadequate cable coverage, the notion of being able to ‘tape’ and then playback a favorite program or sporting event held an overpowering mystique. Audiences accustomed to suffering through the summer subjected to untold reruns and failed replacement series could now rummage through their own collection and create their own entertainment experience. In fact, most of the original video retailers used the “why let others tell you what to watch when you can choose your own viewing” ideal to interest buyers. It was hailed as a revolution. Thirty years later, it’s had a far more regressive, radical effect.


Now, before you get the wrong idea, this is not going to be yet another rant about how watching films in the comfort of your home has ruined the in theater experience. You won’t find links being made to the leisurely, living room approach to entertainment and the frequent social slip-ups that fill up the local Cineplex. Granted, home video has forged a lax sense of acceptable behavior, especially from children who are used to the television playing the role of chief babysitter, friend, sidekick, etiquette instructor and background noise. So naturally they transfer their jittery juvenile energy to the stadium seat experience. We shouldn’t be surprised when kids clamor for attention, run up and down the aisles and treat the cinema as their home. For most, there is no difference – except for the lowered lights and gathering of unidentifiable strangers. It’s the reason restaurants once “discouraged” family dining and pointed to protocol as their explanation. Children are still learning the proper decorum.


Does this excuse the adults who talk during the significant plot points, field cell phone calls during the drama and basically conduct all manner of interpersonal and professional business as the rest of the audience adjusts, or simply joins in? Is that really home theater’s fault? In truth, the answer is no. Blame other technology - in fact, we should be afraid of such scientific shunts in our necessary social interaction. For eons, the main reason people went to the movies was to mingle with their fellow film fans and experience something communal; to connect with the outside by sharing something with like minded individuals. Now, while it’s true that the VCR put a dent in such a design (more on this in a moment), it’s the computer age that really flummoxed such a mutual mission.


For ages, only doctors and important business types demanded unqualified access to communication. They needed to be and required being in touch with their employment or office not out of convenience, but out of necessity. A missed call and a patient could be hospitalized or deceased, a deal dying or dead. So limited access to entertainment events became part of the job. You suffered through a concert knowing that your oversized beeper would go off at any moment, and purposefully avoided situations – like sold out showings of the recent hit film – out of courtesy for others, and consideration for your career. But not today. People are married to their personal contact devices, divorcing themselves from reality as they text-message a random thought during the second act denouement, complete with an attached camera-phone image to prove they really are “at the movies”. In the realm of viscous cycling, the wireless industry has the world brainwashed. You didn’t need a pocket organizer with Internet access until they said you did, and now you’ve become so reliant on it’s level of novel interactivity, you can’t be without it.


No, if you want to point an appropriate finger at the home video craze and lionize it for some adverse effect on the art of cinema, the accusation is painfully simple: the VCR created a nation of amateur film scholars and critics. In fact, it’s so hard to remember what it was like even at the outset of the video revolution that many would laugh at such a sentiment. Yet the truth is evident from the current culture of the web. As recently as the 1970’s film was considered an artform, right up there with the novel, music and the rest of the humanities. In order to study it though, to really get to know it, you had to do what most people do to gain such knowledge – you had to go to school. Most people prior to VHS didn’t have revival houses in their neighborhood, and almost all were exposed to classic films during the Late Late Movie, weekend afternoons and the occasional network television premiere. No one saw original edits of their favorites – they witnessed censored prints cut for time and subject matter.


Cable was the first alternative to change the viewing dynamic of the public. Via a pay channel, you could see Hollywood films the way they were presented in the theater. You could consider the violence, explore the erotica and hear all the expletives that the FCC and MPAA tried to protect you from. But better yet, you got a chance to revisit a favorite title without the burden of waiting for the actual moviemaking business to reintroduce it to you. Through the wonder of a coaxial wire – and then a plastic cassette loaded with magnetic tape – you could start your own curriculum in film appreciation. While it was slow going at first (many titles were not released for purchase, but for rental), the windfall derived from the sell-through model of home video marketing meant that, a scant few months after you saw something on the big screen, you could purchase a quasi-permanent version of it for yourself.


Better yet, once the first run film market was saturated, studios went back into their vaults and released all manner of material. Some was classic. Some was crap. But it represented the kind of exposure to cinema that many before the ‘80s seldom received, even in college. In essence, decades of research and study could be repeated in a matter of months, as long as you had a TV, a VCR, and a decent video rental/retailer in your area. Thus, the amateur training began. Masterworks only read about were optioned and absorbed. Cult films were finally found, and confirmed as true kitsch or misguided camp. Genres were fleshed out and reformed, while previously uncelebrated talent was placed into the pantheon of cinematic history. In essence, the entire legacy of film was opened up to the public – and with that, naturally, came the public opinion.


Harlan Ellison once wrote that people aren’t entitled to their opinion, just their own learned one, and the same is true about film. It is literally impossible to absorb the whole of cinema via a steady diet of videocassettes (and today, DVDs). Even the most dedicated student can’t digest the whole of motion picture making – a concept that runs from silents to moderns, familiar to foreign and all places in between. Yet the exposure to the technology of home video over the last three decades has made experts out of mere fans, and archivists out of the most casual of viewer. One surf of the Internet confirms this concept. YouTube is loaded with would be Eberts, pontificating in poorly scripted and presented clips about the recent releases. MySpace is packed with ‘best of’ lists and pages devoted exclusively to some of the most obscure filmic efforts ever created. Even worse, such resources are viewed as authoritative by fans looking for instant feedback, empowering an entire generation to avoid conventional thinking and determine their own Wikipedia fed aesthetic fate.


Now, this seems like a good idea, until you realize its substantial downside. Without consensus, nothing can be truly considered archetypal. By its very definition, something is representative because it holds the majority of the meaningful opinions. But in this focus group/test screening/Ain’t It Cool News-ing of cinema, everyone believes their belief actually matters – not counts, MATTERS. It’s the message they’ve been fed, and have self proscribed, since the VCR showed them how good/bad Ed Wood’s Plan 9 really was, or how brave/boring Kubrick’s 2001 could be. Over the decades, audiences have been brainwashed into believing that experience is the same as expertise. They know about film because they’ve seen so many. But without accompanying context, without thinking and analyzing and revising, perception is perverted. Response is not the same as consideration. Entertainment – or the lack thereof – is only part of a film’s facets, or flaws.


Yet that’s the mob mentality monster we’ve created. Aided by the sudden surge in box office performance, especially over the initial weekend (something also contributable to home video’s volatility as an indicator) and the studio’s persistent desire to endlessly fine tune a project via public opinion, the movies have moved in the direction the technology first dictated. Except, in this case, instead of telling the audience what to watch – as cinema did from it’s infancy through the ‘80s – it’s the public pushing the buttons. So before you blame Hollywood for the latest hack job, or curse a director for dropping the ball on a long beloved project, just remember this: you asked for it. Maybe not directly, but vicariously through home video. Your superficial study of film has led an entire industry to cater to your self-supported whims. It may be worse now that the Internet has upped the profile, but don’t ever forget its simple seeds. A while back, someone thought a private video taping system was a good idea. Unfortunately, the post-millennial cinematic stasis was the outcome. 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Sunday, Sep 17, 2006

New quiz.  Is it worse for the FCC to deceive the public it’s supposed to serve or for blogs to deceive their readership?  Time for the obvious joke- since we expect it from both, maybe it isn’t that much of a shock.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Sep 16, 2006


Something is dangerously wrong with filmmaker Damon Packard. Just clicking on his official website leads to a plea for financial help and a list of purchasable cinematic oddities, all accompanied by an eerily reverberating version of The Carpenter’s “Rainy Days and Mondays”. Lost somewhere within his own unsettled mind and a fatalistic love of the ‘70s, Packard has produced dozens of short films, motion picture experiments and long form features. Perhaps his most notorious – for reasons both artistic and legal – is Reflections of Evil. In it’s original format, this stream of crackpot consciousness masterwork used found footage, bootlegged film clips, material recorded off television and a healthy homage to the ABC Movie of the Week to craft a totally surreal supernatural mystery. Unfortunately, when Go-Kart Films tried to release a DVD version of Packard’s perturbed vision, massive edits had to be made. The result was an equally brilliant, if substantially different look at one man’s battle for persona, and professional redemption.


The narrative – if there is one to mention – centers on an angry, morbidly obese street vendor (played by Packard) who’s haunted by the death of his sister. Roaming the sidewalks of LA, screaming at himself in animalist grunts, Packard’s camera catches real people panicked over his obvious psychotic ranting. His curse-laden tirades seem aimed more at the cosmos, however than the surrounding modern world. Buried in between these slapdash sideshow antics are reenactments of Steven Spielberg shooting the genre gem Something Evil, sequences from the Universal Studios tour, and ethereal inserts featuring a near perfect capturing of the slow motion depiction of television terror. But this is just part of the story. Behind the scenes, after completing the project, Packard made more than 20,000 DVD copies. He proceeded to distribute them all, free of charge. He left them around the city (in stores and at ATMs) and mailed many directly to celebrities. He got the occasional response (several messages, both good and very bad, have been catalogued on Packard’s Web site), and found a champion in Sylvester Stallone’s son Sage. But most of the response was vile and hateful.


Of course, for this decidedly disturbed director, such rejection was a sign of the social significance in his work. Packard perceives Hollywood, and those bound to its influences, as a disease overloaded with conspiracy and cabals. To him, modern movies are forged out of a Free Mason sense of secrecy with the studios purposefully setting out to subvert the efforts of those wanting to make a difference. Reflections of Evil is a stuttering shock treatment approach to understanding this indecipherable design, a movie masquerading as a madman’s mission statement. No one said the truth would be comfortable or easy. No one said the past was pain-free. Packard understands this all too well, and just like his motion picture protagonist, he also suffers with the obvious oppression of everyday life. This is an amazing cinematic shriek, a primal scream in the face of aesthetic helplessness. It is also one of the finest experimental films ever made.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Sep 16, 2006

Apart from being an unconvincing defense of Benthamite utilitarianism, economist Richard Layard’s Happiness is little more than a compendium of hedonics studies and some general conclusions about their implications—it is useful as a bibliography if nothing else. One group of studies he cites has to do with performance-related pay, which he is anxious to reveal as a source of stress and hedonic ineffiency. (He also optimistically suggests we should celebrate the income tax as a wonderful way of encouraging a healthy work-life balance.) But what I found most interesting was this: “Economists and politicians have tended to assume that when financial motives for performace are increased, other motives remain the same. In fact, these motives can change.” Layard then cites studies that demonstrate that financial motives tend to compromise pre-existing motivations; it erodes what impulses we might have had to perform an action for its own sake: one found that people paid to solve puzzles will work at them less than those encouraged them to solve them merely for the satisfaction of solving them. Apparently once we are paid to do something, we begin to believe that the pay compels us to do it, and the activity takes on the qualities of disutility economists associate with jobs in general—that we must be compensated financially to waste our time working rather than enjoying leisure. It seems that being paid is good way to destroy whatever pleasure we take in something; so strong is the alienating tendency of money and profit-tallying that when it intervenes we begin to separate from our involvement in what we are doing in the moment and revert to position of calculation—thinking about the future, thinking about theoretical maximation ratehr than actualizing any of that potential in the present moment. This would seem to have the effect of keeping work and leisure unfortunately opposed to each other, a separation that seems to begin with the compulsion to sell one’s labor on the open market for wages.


So as long as we remain dilettantish about our hobbies, we can enjoy them; when we professionalize, we turn them into chores. This explains part of my failure to pivot from researching a dissertation to defending one—I enjoyed learning as long as it was a hobby of mine to understand trends in 18th century cultural production, but when it became a matter of packaging and selling that knowledge, I balked. This is what makes me something of a loser as far as our economy goes; I lack the willpower to be able to stomach the loss in pleasure that comes with professionalization—another word for that ability to power through that hedonic loss? Ambition, which may be a desciption of the internal quality of finding pleasure in professionalization rather than tumult and combat and compromise and self-reification. I feel the same way about making music: As long as I have no ambition other than to get together with my friends and make music, I enjoy the pleasures of creation; but if we begin to try to market our band as cultural producers, we’re likely to enjoy it less and see it as yet another job, a set of imposed responsibilities from without. But I still perceive these feelings as a kind of failure in myself, balking at the moment when “reality” requires me to summon up ambition and confront the world as it is and integrate the product of my creativity with it in the only apparent way possible: commercially. This is probably why I resent certain bands who are on the brink—because their music suddenly seems about making those compromises and finding the wellspring of ambition to be more than dilettantes, to be content with more than just their own pleasure.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Sep 15, 2006


I think that, in this day and age, you must have more than just a simple pair of good performances in order to make a movie. Georgia, however, represents, for me one of the best examples of how two unique, totally left-field performances manage to carry an innately weak film and create a completely character-driven drama that succeeds wholly because of the work of the actors involved. Clearly a labor of love for those who made it, the narrative harkens back to the days when movies were made as an exploration of people’s lives rather than as an exhibition of their super-powers or their privileged internships for big, bad magazine editors (or any other big-budget, high concept extravaganza is gracing your local cinema each summer).

Jennifer Jason Leigh (the most under-appreciated actress of her generation) plays Sadie Flood, a dirty loser who has a single dream: to be a famous singer. She has the ambition. She has the desire. She even gets some gigs. The most important thing that she is missing, though, is huge: she cannot sing to save her life. Sadie is so deluded into believing that she’s talented that her drive and blind ambition lead her into a host of really weird places. She’s managed by a junkie-creep and sings backup for with a volatile blues singer while also sleeping with him. Add Sadie’s problem with drinking and heroin into the tragic reality of her lack of vocal skills and what you have is the slow-burning saga of a young woman sliding into a devastating downward spiral. Sadie never learns from her mistakes and this makes her a danger to herself and everyone else who knows her.


Another large problem that figures into the story is the title character Georgia. She’s a famous folk singer, who just so happens to be Sadie’s sister (much to her talentless sibling’s chagrin). Played with subtlety and grace by Mare Winningham in a soft, motherly tour-de-force, Georgia is a marvelous creation. Where Sadie is fire mixed with bare, grating nerves, Georgia is ice and calmness personified. She is a working mother who never really had the aspirations of her desperate sister, a star who handles her fame coolly. Winningham’s gentle, canny performance compliments Leigh’s less subtle turn perfectly and she uses her natural musical skills to great effect.


The film explores the dynamics of the sisters’ relationship believably and totally. The burden of having such a train wreck for a relative, of having to watch out for her and bail her out constantly, wears on Georgia. Naturally, jealousy is Sadie’s main problem with her sister. What the actresses end up creating is a dynamic portrait of familial devotion that is heartbreaking, frustrating and true. One of the film’s best scenes involves a benefit concert, in which Georgia has arranged a spot for Sadie to sing: Sadie, who uses her time pre-show to get sloshed, stumbles onstage and pummels her way through a Van Morrison song for eight very hard minutes. This scene shows why Leigh is among the best actors of her generation. She conveys Sadie’s desperation, her hunger for love and fame, her raw ambition, her devotion to her sister, and her own personal confusion all in one fell swoop. Another thing that’s painfully evident is that Sadie is truly untalented. Her singing is astoundingly bad and very hard to watch. It’s a dynamic sequence that by the end has the horrified Georgia coming out onstage to bail her sister out yet again.

The film is based on Leigh’s real life experiences with her own sister’s substance abuse problems, and I believe putting herself into her shoes is a brave and special form of flattery. There is also no doubt that the great deal of her own private grief is expressed expertly in Winningham’s touching performance. Georgia was written by Leigh’s mother, Barbara Turner, which makes it even more obvious that the film was made with care and love.


Leigh (who in real life is married to The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach, and will star opposite Nicole Kidman in his next film), had a miraculous run of interesting character parts in the early to mid nineties: some of her most stellar work during this period includes playing legendary wit Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle; two vastly different hookers with hearts of gold in Miami Blues and Last Exit to Brooklyn; two outings with Robert Altman (Short Cuts and Kansas City) and shows up as “the roommate from hell” opposite Bridget Fonda in Single White Female. The actresses’ work in Georgia only cements her as inventive, courageous and fiercely committed. Hopefully, her upcoming collaboration with her husband will put her back on the mainstream map.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.