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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2006

Part of my trip to Southern California was spent in Palm Desert, one of the “other Desert Cities” referred to on the I-10 exit sign for Highway 111, which runs from Palm Springs out to Indio, before it heads to that environmental disaster area known as the Salton Sea. ON the way there from L.A., you first pass through the wind farms in the mountain pass and the creepy rows of wind turbines that render the landscape alien and forboding. Harvesting wind energy seems a good idea, but still, the hills seems to have been colonized by some relentlessly churning alien life-form—I felt like I understood the concept of visual pollution at a visceral level. The whirring blades are mesmerizing, in a bad way. They create a delirium of planes and angles shifting and changing in a lulling rhythm, making it impossible to see anything else. It’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents on that winding downhill stretch of the freeway, where it seems like the average traveling speed is around 85 miles per hour. Beyond the turbines, you enter Palm Springs, the desert city that is not “other” and is the oldest of the group. It’s an unremarkable town that sits in the shadow of a stupendous mountain. The sublimity of the landscape makes the human doings there seem a bit insignificant, piddling, so it’s suitable that most of what goes on there is golf and tchotchke shopping From there, on 111, you enter Cathedral City, then Rancho Mirage (home to the Betty Ford Clinic, a rehab center), then Palm Desert, where we stayed. From the highway these towns are indistinguishable—just one shopping strip after another, with some hotels interspersed here and there. Streets are named for moribund performers: Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Fred Waring. I could think of no good reason to be there, and that was what made it perfect.

Unlike most touristy places, which garishly try to cajole you into doing and spending, thrusting temptations your way and working to intensify your restlessness, Palm Desert was an oasis of sobriety. No wonder the rehab centers are there. No wonder people talk of going to the desert to dry out. At night—we were there on a Saturday night, and it was quiet as the moon—even the lights were subdued; so much so that most of the stores and restaurants seemed to be closed, seemed indifferent to our business. There were activities imploring us to attend—no bands playing, no limited-run reperatory cinema, no places to see or meet people, no night life of any kind. It seemed like we were so alone. It was beautiful.

Having nothing to do and feeling no pressure to do anything exciting are two very different things. It seem like anything we turned to was going to be fulfilling. We went to the outdoor pool in the warmth of the evening and sat in the hot tub and when we got too hot, we went swimming. We met a few recent graduates of the “program,” which seemed to be a Betty Ford euphemism. We went to eat at an anonymous chain restaurant and recieved pleasant, generic service. We felt like nobodies in nowhere land. I wished we would have booked a longer stay.

I’m always troubled by forced leisure, so much so that vacations rarely feel warranted or comfortable to me; they often seem like an alternate form of work. I feel like I’m trapped in what Baudrillard calls the fun morality, the obligation to treat leisure productively, to use it to manufacture distinction if nothing else. It’s very hard to just waste time, to let yourself destroy it. The pressure can become intense to find something useful to do with the vacation time, made artifically precious by the meaningless work it’s framed with. It can lead to moments of self-consciousness within the vacation—which remove one from the present moment and place in time and sends one to the purgatory of hypotheticals and second guesses: Am I really living up to the time I’ve been alotted? Has this all been worth it? Worth what? What is the point of comparison?

Living in New York, I’m constantly aware of ambitious people, and the pressure they put on themselves and the people around them. It’s in the pace of everything that happens, and I become infected with it—it shows in the way I am ready to run people over on the sidewalks when they aren’t going fast or in the impatience I freely exhibit when the person in front of me dodders around for exact change while I’m anxious for my coffee. Los Angeles has similarly ambitious people, though it seems to exhibit itself there as a kind of desperation to be paid attention to rather than a heedless haste. But when you reach the other Desert cities, ambition seems a million miles away. Urgency is unthinkable there. It dawned on us that this could be the point of the place, to evaporate ambition in the dry heat and leave you adrift in endless expanse of undifferentiated time. The ultimate vacation is from ambition, from the need to score distinctive accomplishments—to remove yourself from the ongoing competitive status game that haunts our every action. In the desert cities, places that don’t especially want tourists so much as retirees, who are beyond ambition and anxious only to fill out the rest of their days with pleasant distraction, that vacation, possibly a permanent one, is always waiting.

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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Press Play
Bad Boy
Download “The Future” (Windows Media)
His moniker may have finally shrunk to Diddy, but Sean Combs has no shortage of things to say on his new single, “The Future”.  Taken from his forthcoming October 17 release, Press Play, “The Future” finds Diddy as bombastic as ever as he “proclaims on the track that he has ‘The potential to be the first Black President / iTunes download me in every residence… This is the man who provided more jobs for Black Men than armed services’. This is Diddy’s statement to the world about his future, our future, and the future of the music biz.” - Bad Boy/Atlantic Records

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Monday, Oct 2, 2006

I just got back from a brief vacation in Southern California. On the flight back we had a layover in Houston, during which I heard an announcement that warned that anyone making jokes about security issues could end up facing imprisonment. At first I thought this was a bit draconian and totalitarian, the TSA was going to dictate my sense of humor to me while I was in the deadness of airport space. But I also thought there was probably no need to be making jokes about security because there’s probably no chance that they would be funny. And anyone making such jokes may very well not be joking. It seems as though many dangerous situations, as they begin to unfold, seem like a joke. A homeless person approaches you, makes a request that slowly becomes a demand, and possibly you think, What are you, joking? A teenager tells you to hand over your iPod as you are walking by; it might even seem like a joke as he’s coming at you. One of my flights out to Los Angeles had to make an emergency landing (which sounds much more dramatic than it wa; it was just an unscheduled stop at the Newark, New Jersey airport) because the passenger across the aisle—a uniformed crew member from the plane’s previous trip—was having trouble breathing and seemed like he was about to die. My thought was initally that it was all some kind of joke, some kind of test, not really happening, not really spontaneous and unintentional. It may be that life is so rationalized and bureaucratized that we must regard anything spontaneous and unintentional as some kind of joke. It starts to become clear, when you travel down that path of reasoning, why you would get on the airport intercom and forbid joking around.

But then, if you were joking, and it didn’t just seem as though you were joking, then theoretically you aren’t serious about what you say, by definition, and you are announcing your harmlessness. What sort of terrorist would joke about his plan in the airport? If it can be identified as a joke, then the harmlessness of the joker is known, and the punishment is just spite for trying to puncture the illusion of protection the TSA veils the airport in. We have all seen the reports of how easy it is to defy the rules at the screening checkpoints and smuggle in contraband fluids or pass through the metal detector without removing our shoes or various other prototerroristic acts. What the TSA relies on is a humorless attitude about security, which plays out in every traveler monitoring every other traveler, studying them for signs of suspiciousness. Catching them joking about bombing a plane is not really the point, of course; sending the message that mutual suspicion and snitching over trivialities is encouraged is what is about. TSA officials perhaps hope this climate can serve a deterrent function. It’s hard to imagine who would be incompetent enough however, to be deterred, by citizens on patrol.

Also, isn’t it terroristic to show disaster films like Poseidon as the in-flight entertainment? Don’t they think passengers can make the simple analogy of air travel with boat travel? And I would like to send a special shoutout to the sadist next to me on the flight from Newark to Los Angeles. United 93 was a great choice for your portable DVD player. After the medical emergency landing and the asphixiated crewmember I had just witnessed, it really was the coup de grace. Thanks for sharing that experience with me.

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Monday, Oct 2, 2006

Though SE&L can certainly understand the anger over that crass commercial concept known as “the double dip” (read: studios endlessly re-releasing favorite films in differing DVD packages and presentations), sometimes a revamp is a clear motion picture mandate. Back when the format first arrived, several companies, clamoring for a piece of that initial product pie, put out anything they could on the digital domain, most times without concern over extras, aspect ratio or picture quality. Sure, something like Scarface has seen multiple merchandising variations, while distributors like Anchor Bay have made a mint over numerous reconfigurations of Dawn of the Dead and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy. But if you look at the list of reissues clogging up this weeks pick’s for brick and mortar highlights, you will see several that deserved their major makeover. That’s not to downplay the importance of the many new releases available, but when one can own a practically pristine version of one of Hollywood’s cinematic standards, a new action hero epic seems a little lame. Anyway, here are our picks for 3, October:

Body Double: Special Edition *
Before he fell completely off track in the ‘80s, Brian DePalma delivered a pair of preeminent motion picture masterworks. Sadly, only Scarface has endured. And it’s a shame, really. Of all his Hitchcock influenced homages, Double has the most devilish combination (Vertigo meets Rear Window) of all the director’s experiments in tension. Thanks to wonderful performances by Craig Wasson, Gregg Henry and a pre-plastic surgery Melanie Griffith, and a script that stays true to most of the Master of Suspense’s subtleties, what could have been a seedy slice of copycat gratuity became a smart and savage commentary on contemporary Hollywood. Too bad a misplaced misogynist assault on the filmmaker lessened the film’s BO appeal. Thanks to this new DVD presentation – and its incredible making-of documentary – one learns of the film’s porn star beginnings, as well as how vicious the attacks on DePalma really were. Sadly, it seems they’d only be worse today.

William H. Macy gives another of his idiosyncratic everyman turns as the title character, a seemingly normal nebbish who is suddenly assaulted by a Dante’s Inferno like New York City. Helmed by horror master Stuart “Re-Animator” Gordon and scripted by none other than Tony titan David Mamet, this adaptation of the playwright’s stage show loses little of its bite in this terrific translation. Similar in conceptualization to Martin Scorsese’s misunderstood ‘80s comedy After Hours, Mamet applies his standard slash and burn dialogue to all manner of shocking personal monologues for his lead. Indeed, some may find Edmond’s homophobic and racist rants a tad hard to take – and for those looking for some manner of redemption or understanding on Macy’s part, this is not that kind of movie.

PopMatters Review

Ganja and Hess*
Call it voodoo done right or exploitation gone all artsy, but true aficionados find this relatively unknown horror film hard to forget once they’ve seen it. Playwright Bill Gunn had high hopes for his literate look at vampirism and ancient curses. Sadly, after a less than impressive play date in the Big Apple, distributors eviscerated Gunn’s original cut within an inch of its artistic life and re-released it as Blood Couple. Even with 30 missing minutes it did no better. Long out of print, Image Entertainment gets substantial genre props for revisiting Gunn’s original cut, including the incorporation of additional footage not found in other DVD versions. With a wealth of supplemental information, including commentaries, making-of documentaries and a look at Gunn’s original script, this presentation practically revives Ganja and Hess to its prerelease glory. During a month which sees all manner of movie macabre clogging the airwaves and retail outlets, this is one unknown quantity worth checking out.

The Little Mermaid: Two Disc Special Edition*
The irony of this release is staggering. Mermaid represents Disney’s mid-‘80s effort to save its sinking animation department – a corporate entity that was recently decimated by the supposed switch to all CGI fare. And yet the House of Mouse is greeting the second DVD dip of this mini-masterpiece like a pen and ink prophecy. Granted, you can’t ask for a more effective use of the artform. Combined with Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman’s Broadway ready score and the perfect compliment of heroine and villain, this resplendent effort marked the moment when Disney realized the full power of its post-modern animation possibilities. Of course, their eventual over reliance on the facets formulated here (epic musical accompaniment, brash characterization, a winking nod to a more cynical social mindset) would bring about Pixar’s digital revolution, and the eventual decision to dump 2-D. Of course, Walt’s way of doing things mandates this package be available for “a limited time only”, so get your copy while you can.


Maltese Falcon: Three Disc Set *
It’s stunning when you think about it. John Huston was 35, and making his first movie ever with this definitive detective tale. He managed to wrangle a cast that consisted of a prime piece of Bogart, a sensational Sidney Greenstreet, a perfect Peter Lorre and a wholly complimentary Mary Astor. Employing a near word for word and scene by scene recreation of Dashiell Hammet’s noted novel, Huston added his own artistic touches to turn a glorified gumshoe story into some manner of metaphysical epic. Many have fawned over the feature in the years since its release, and rightfully so. This is old fashioned Hollywood filmmaking at its highly polished best. This new three disc DVD, completely pimped out with commentaries, documentaries and two other versions of the Hammett classic (from 1931 and 1936) should give Falcon fans more added content than they ever imagined. When combined with the masterpiece of a movie at the center of this set, this easily becomes one of the year’s best preservationist presentations.

Point Break: Pure Adrenalin Edition
As the ‘90s attempted to take the action film in as many different directions as the box office would allow, this X-treme sports version of the typical cops and robbers routine hit a notable novel nerve with audiences. The combination of Patrick Swayze’s stealing surfer swagger and Keanu Reeves’ Valley boy FBI basics created a kind of kitschy cult chemistry, and the dude speak dialogue loaded with Zen like zaniness (“Peace through superior firepower”) still provides untold guilty pleasures - even today. While DVD versions have long been available, this new packaging promises to give us a series of deleted scenes (long a fan Holy Grail) and a collection of newly created featurettes. Sadly, Break would mark director Kathyrn Bigelow’s big budget albatross. With success came Strange Days, and her eventual fall from Tinsel Town grace.

X-Men: The Last Stand*
Okay, so Brett Ratner didn’t step in and completely destroy the mutant magic. In fact, he made Bryan Singer’s more serious minded installments look logistically lax by comparison. Sure, fans wanted to hate every frame of this final chapter in their favorite comic franchise, but Ratner just ratcheted up the action and piled on the principle characters. The result is a scattered summer blockbuster that only seems sensible when stuff is blowing up. While several of the setpieces – Jean Grey’s evil return, Magneto’s manipulation of the Golden Gate Bridge – match well against those in previous X entities, it is obvious that Last Stand‘s filmmaking was forged out of a desire to make money, not memorable motion picture mythology. Still, for the casual X-men maven, or someone not expecting a Singer level of loyalty, this is one of 2006’s better popcorn creations. And the DVD promises a collection of unused endings – just the thing to give the faithful meaningful messageboard fodder.

PopMatters Review

And Now for Something Completely Different

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 3 October:

The Blood Trilogy *
While he may not have invented the concept of gore (his inspiration, the noted Grand Guignol theater in France had been around since 1897), no one before had delivered such devastating, blood slicked scares to the silver screen. Upon realizing that nudity had more or less run its exploitation course, founding filmmakers Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman were looking for another financially viable cinematic approach. Claret became the cash machine for the determined duo, beginning with their seminal scarefest Blood Feast. Revolving around an insane caterer and his desire to create a flesh buffet to the Goddess Ishtar, this vivisection-fest is rife with repugnant imagery. Wanting not to repeat themselves, Lewis and Friedman Southern-fried their next nasty novelty, 2000 Maniacs. A ballsy Brigadoon revamp featuring pissed off Confederate ghosts murdering mindless Yankee tourists, it was another hefty hit. By the time of the Bucket of Blood inspired Color Me Blood Red, however, the bloom was off the grue-covered rose. Not even the still fresh innovation of seeing copious amounts of arterial juices could save the subgenre. As the roughie returned exploitation to its raincoat crowd confines, Lewis and Friedman parted company. Their corporeal collaboration remains a benchmark in the realm of horror, and with Something Weird Video providing the digital goods, you know you’re getting pristine copies of these remarkable movies.

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Monday, Oct 2, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

PopMatters Exclusive

Midlake: The Videos of Van Occupanther Pt. 2

Midlake—“We Gathered in Spring”

Artist Commentary:
The great guys at Make And Do Creative and Nora Sound delivered a very cool video to us for “We Gathered In Spring.” The animation style of Monte Python’s Flying Circus somehow works perfectly with the somber tone of the song. The contrast between the day time and night time shots through the city, overlooking the lone tree on the hill, looks incredible. This song was one of the first songs to be recorded for the album, and really helped set the tone for the rest of the record. The feelings of isolation, timelessness, and sadness are all evident in this video. We have never performed this song with an accompanying video, so I am looking forward to the next tour, where others will get to see what these guys have come up with.—McKenzie Smith

Creative Directors: David Motter and Jeremy Eartell
Animation: Gary Hornstein

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