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by Bill Gibron

24 Jul 2008

Embarrassing as it may seem, we’ve all been there - laughing when the fat man splits his pants, fighting off hysterics after an old lady farts. Even the most erudite among us can’t deny that, on occasion, an expletive suits a situation far better then a calmly thought out rejoinder. Let’s face it - buried deep within all of us is a primordial appreciation of the infantile. Whether it is monkeys flinging their own poo or babies whizzing in their parents’ somehow shocked faces, the scatological and the sophomoric twinge an ancient aspect of our genetic make-up.

Perhaps that’s why, in spite of our own civilized better judgment, the newest Will Ferrell/Adam McKay effort, Step Brothers, is so funny. Not only does it take foulness to a whole new level of arrested adolescence, but it actually banks on our love of such untenable tastelessness. The storyline is deceptively simple. While at a medical convention, Dr. Robert Doback meets Nancy Huff. Since both are single, they fall into an easy relationship. Fast forward a few months, and they are getting married. This really cramps the style of their sons - both of whom are middle-aged and still living at home.

Brennan Huff is a wannabe singer who refuses to accept his Mom’s new man. He also hates that his younger brother Derek consistently undermines his station and self-esteem. Uber-slacker Dale despises his Dad’s decision. After all, this means that a lady will be part of the Doback design, and this means much less musk-scented machismo. When they are forced to live together as step-brothers, sibling rivalries instantly come crashing to the fore. The result is 80 minutes of profanity, pranks, and the kind of over the top physical shtick that hasn’t been seen since Inspector Clouseau battled his manservant Kato for dominance over their Parisian apartment.

It’s hard to deny how absolutely hilarious Step Brothers really is. You may feel guilty as Hell for laughing at it, but it definitely does earn its cheap and childish giggles. Like a lewd, later day classic comedy team, Ferrell and symbiotic performance partner John C. Reilly make a terrific post-modern mess. They play off each other in ways that signal their same wavelength wantonness, and it’s clear that neither man is a hostage to current trends in male body typing. Though clearly created as a vehicle for both, it’s equally hard to imagine two other actors who could fit as easily into Brennan and Dale’s skid-marked shorts.

Step Brothers is, in essence, cinematic stand-up, all set-ups and payoffs. There is no real narrative nuance on display, the closest we get to reality being the foulmouthed fight between the four members of this cobbled together clan. Even the inclusion of Brennan’s self-aggrandizing brother Derek (a nicely nauseating turn by Adam Scott) is just the fuel for more prurient punchlines. While actual adults Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins definitely get to flex their foul mouthed muscles, it’s purely Ferrell and Reilly’s show - and they make the most of it. As they did in the delightful Talladega Nights, the pair swaps specialties, giving each other the opportunity to shine in ways that feel unique and unusual even if they are merely the same old scatology.

Of course, films like this need nasty set pieces to manufacture return adolescent word of mouth, and Step Brothers has plenty. Ferrell is beaten up and forced to lick a petrified dog turd…by a bunch of grade schoolers. Reilly gets the hand banana treatment from Derek’s wife. Perhaps most memorably, a conflict between the ‘boys’ results in Ferrell wiping a particularly private area all over Reilly’s drum kit…and the camera never flinches. Some might call it repulsive, but McKay understands the allure of such repugnance. In a world where Jackass frequently reminds us that our greatest comedic asset is ourselves, such gonzo groin antics are to be expected. Making them anything other than nauseating takes a certain cinematic skill, something the cast here completely understands.

Ferrell is always getting ribbed for playing the same stunted adult, a manchild incapable of reacting to situations in a grown-up, non-goofy manner. Here, he stands accused, but also adds a nice layer of pathos to his overgrown teen’s social IQ. We expect this from him and he doesn’t disappoint. Reilly is the real revelation however, if only because he moves so effortlessly from serious actor (The Aviator, Magnolia) to roles of outright idiocy. Here, Dale is the more defensive element of the pairing, the midlife crisis kid that fails to understand exactly why he has to conform to a life mandated set of rules. Together, they spark the kind of interest that gets us past the lax story designs and last act upheaval.

As a director, McKay doesn’t get a lot of credit. This happens a lot in motion picture comedy. Everyone points to Judd Apatow as some sort of cinematic savior, but this fails to take into consideration how adept he is behind the camera. The same goes for the man responsible for such broad scoped efforts as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and Talladega Nights. Here, the avenues are much smaller, but this doesn’t mean McKay lowers his aim. There is an ambition here that’s hard to shake, a sense that the filmmaker, in conjunction with his leads, wants to stretch old school slapstick into something almost surreal. Step Brothers is indeed a mind boggler, the kind of laughfest experience that has you shaking your head in dumbfounded disbelief at what has you giggling.

Naturally, any viewer offended by the notion of 40 year old men acting like they’re 14, including all the summer camp crudeness that accompanies the prospect, will despise Step Brothers. To them, it will be yet another example of bodily fluids replacing wit as a means of getting already shell shocked and desensitized audiences to laugh. But that would miss many of the film’s undeniable pleasures. Sure, there is something inherently sick about seeing a balding buffoon kicking the crap out of little kids, and nothing defensible can be found in a grown man groveling like a grounded middle schooler. But Step Brothers is a pristine example of vulgarity taken to endearing extremes. Check your sense of propriety at the door and simply go with the foul flow. Save the shame for another.

by Bill Gibron

24 Jul 2008

While some may consider it blasphemous, The X-Files was really nothing more than somber serious science fiction in an era overrun by otherwise slapdash space operatics. It channeled V, various conspiracy theories, and just enough Night Gallery ghoulishness to keep geeks glued to the set. When it failed to fully deliver on its multi-layered mythology (are you listening, Lost?) viewers began packing up and leaving the speculation to the likes of nerds like Whedon. Now, a TV lifetime since it’s last legitimate episode (and a previous film that filled in some midpoint alien invasion blanks), agents Mulder and Scully are back…except they no longer work for the FBI…and they no longer oversee the investigation of the X-Files…and this latest sequel has nothing to do with the show’s previous extraterrestrial cabal. Huh?

When a bureau agent goes missing, the Washington bigwigs decide to track down former FBI agent Dana Scully, now working in her previous profession as a doctor. They hope she will lead them to the infamous (and disgraced) Fox Mulder. Seems a convicted pedophile, a former priest named Fr. Joe, claims to have a psychic link to the victim, and the current agency has no time for such supernatural falderal. Under the guidance of agents Whitney and Drummy, the former X-Filers head out into the cold West Virginia wilderness, defrocked clergyman in tow. There, they begin to unravel a sinister plot involving missing persons, incomplete visions, and severed limbs. Meanwhile, this return to ‘darkness’ has Scully questioning her connection to Mulder. It doesn’t help that she has a terminally ill patient to contend with…and a hospital administration who wants to merely give up on the boy.

In a summer that’s seen its fair share of outsized spectacle, everything about X-Files: I Want to Believe is somber, subdued, and in the end rather minor. After witnessing the Shakespearean angst of a masked vigilante battling a clown faced psychopath, or the reinvented spy superlatives of a literal ‘iron’ man, a standard serial killer procedural is just not that significant. It’s not that head honcho Chris Carter doesn’t try to artificially load his film with significance. The subtext surrounding this latest stand alone installment (in line with the ‘monster of the week’ work the series initially traded in) deals with several current hot button topics - stem cell research, black market organ transplants, pedophilic priests, gay marriage…even George Bush gets a gentle, sound cue tweaking. Yet all of this social sturm and drang can’t compensate for a narrative that’s made-for-TV friendly, and decidedly out of its medium.

Carter seems convinced that this less showy Silence of the Lambs will truly resonate with audiences. He treats every confrontation - either between Mulder and Scully, Scully and Fr. Joe, Mulder and anyone within earshot - as if the fate of the free world rests on the very next syllable. He keeps his clues close to the vest, making it almost impossible for viewers to follow along (or eventually foil) his dénouement. He gets a lot of mileage out of the bleak Vancouver landscape, and yet the snow-covered vistas hide more than just the film’s muddled motives. I Want To Believe seems locked in a kind of entertainment permafrost, feeling that elements that made heads spin and tongues wag 15 years ago will still seem intriguing in these days of torture porn and gorehound gratuity.

Indeed, the best material here ignores the mystery fully, and instead focuses on the complicated and moralistic relationship between Mulder and Scully. Since this film takes place AFTER the end of the series (Fight the Future was set between seasons five and six), there are lots of references to certain interpersonal cliffhangers. The fate of William, the trumped up charges against our hero, the need to stay in hiding, and the reason behind Scully’s reluctance to rejoin the cause are all addressed, and stalwarts Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are so familiar with these characters that they nail every emotional beat. Sure, these scenes stop the narratives formulaic forward motion, but without them, I Want to Believe would be nothing more than a run of the mill, slightly more macabre CSI.

The rest of the cast confirm this. Amanda Peet is given the thankless job of playing the agent still willing to give Mulder and Scully a chance, while Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner is reduced to slowburning as the surly ‘bad cop’. Bill Connolly’s boy buggering cleric is all fright wig gray and Scottish brogue, lacking the depth needed to make Fr. Joe anything other than a plot point. Perhaps the biggest mistake a movie like this makes is turning the terror into an unseen item. Since we don’t know who or what is behind the disappearances, and don’t get enough information to connect the uncovered body parts, we have to wait to the final 15 minutes before anything clicks. When it does, we see an intriguing potential in the premise - and recognize how it was more or less scuttled for other storyline significance.

Oddly enough, all would have been forgiven had co-writer/director Carter (who redeems himself in both behind the scenes arenas) simply renamed this project and cast Lance Henriksen as prophet/profiler Frank Black. This is much more a Millennium movie (the horribly underrated X-Files follow up from 1996) than something Scully and Mulder look comfortable in. And in our current political clime, the dour face of a man who’s tuned into the approaching Apocalypse makes for a much better shock conduit. While some fans have longed for the return of the more horror-tinged side of the series’ set-up, the alien invasion conspiracy - and its inconsistent folklore - is what drives most memories of (and messageboard showdowns over) the show.

As a stand alone title, something to remind fans of how chilling The X-Files used to be, I Want to Believe does a decent job. And when compared to other similarly styled thrillers, including recent rejects like Untraceable and 88 Minutes, it is definitely a clear cut above. But in a season where a sort of creative classicism rules, resting on one’s laurels just won’t do. X-Files: I Want to Believe, for all its interpersonal intrigue and controversial context, feels like the proverbial little fish in a very, very big cinematic sea. No matter its many strengths, it just can’t compete. 

by Mike Schiller

24 Jul 2008

If I were a gaming publisher, I would absolutely hate (hate!) E3.  Sure, it’s a high-profile chance to tout the latest breakthroughs in technology and the biggest splashes in software, but how in the world do you deal with the expectations?

Who wants to play pre-recorded songs via air guitar pantomime? Anyone?

Who wants to play pre-recorded songs via air guitar pantomime?

On one hand, if you simply go about your business as usual and simply treat E3 as a place to announce things that you’ve been working on with the general public, chances are all of your news is going to be old news by the time E3 comes around.  Netflix integration in the Xbox 360, Wii Music, God of War III...these are all things that were all but common knowledge before E3 happened, so the “announcements” that happened at E3 were anticlimactic at best, and painfully awkward at worst (Wii Music, particularly, has yet to offer anything resembling an absorbing play experience, particularly in an age run rampant with music and rhythm games).

On the other hand, if you play your cards close to the vest in order to make a big splash at E3, as Nintendo tried to do with their Wii Motion Plus add-on, you risk alienating a large segment of rather important people as well; third-party developers are now upset at Nintendo for not offering their technology sooner, though doing so would very likely have resulted in a leak to an all-too-anxious gaming press.

Of course, the result of all of this negativity are countless articles yelling about how “dead” E3 is, how awful Nintendo and Sony did in their presentations (making a so-so presentation from Microsoft look like a standout), and how boring it is in its new, journos-only, two-years-and-running private party form.

What gets lost in all of this crying and gnashing of teeth is the fact that E3 2008 actually had a few moments that made us sit up and say “Wow!”, or “whoa, cool!”, or “WTF?!”.  As one to try to focus on the positive, I’d like to offer five moments that made E3 not quite as bad as everyone says it was.  Of course, what better announcement to start with than…

by Rob Horning

24 Jul 2008

I have read Pierre Macherey’s Theory of Literary Production several times now, and I still don’t think I understand what he’s talking about. Either that, or I can’t grasp why it matters. But while re-reading it this time, I was also reading what seems to me a highly “produced” text, an Agatha Christie murder mystery, Evil Under the Sun, and this helped illustrate for me what I think Macherey is getting at.

Macherey is at pains to point out certain critical fallacies, which in his view obscure the literary object and prevent critics from generating “objective” or “scientific” observations about it. (Why deriving such knowledge is important remains unclear to me, but I may be an irredeemable philistine when it comes to “scientific” cultural analysis of the Althusserian school. Seems part and parcel of the dream of breaking through “spontaneous ideology.”) One of these fallacies (the “normative fallacy”—if I were Macherey I would be sure to italicize it) involves critics trying to restate the message of a text in their own boiled-down formulations. “Criticism proposes to modify the work in order to assimiliate it more thoroughly, denying its factual reality as being merely the provisional version of an unfulfilled intention.” Such critics are intent on replacing the literary work with what Macherey characterizes as an idealized (and falsifying) version—one that has decoded the literary text and rendered it in unambiguous language, into crystalline commentary. But no language is ultimately unambiguous; every new formulation is subject to interpretation and so on, so this is a fruitless process (“critical works which attempt to put questions about the nature of discourse when they themselves are really discourse in disguise,” writes Macherey), but nevertheless a seductive one, as it places the critic closer to the truth, mediating between the author and the true essence of the ideas that the author was trying to communicate.

From the point of view of the normative fallacy, literature is a matter of stalling the reader’s recognition of the message, staging a bunch of distractions and transpositions and using elliptical or periphrastic ways of expressing things so as to make a text out of something that the critic, after the fact, expresses in its essence. Literary works are just belabored or cryptic ways of getting ideas across.

Of course, mysteries are structured like this—the author stages a bunch of delaying tactics to prevent our seeing who committed the crime, and our pleasure comes from that protraction, from the sinkhole of time opened up within the simple details of a crime. “The detective story offers the best example of this disappearance of narrative,” Macherey explains. “It is constructed entirely around the possibility of this prophetic reading which completes the story at the moment of its abolition.” In a sense, the detective is the critic, who retells the whole story in succinct form at the end, replacing the version we just experienced before as we read. So in Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot explains away the entire book in the last two chapters and the function of all the clues Christie had so carefully planted earlier. He tells the story straight, while Christie had wound in all these distractions, detours, and misleading feints and red herrings. It gets very meta, because Christie has Poirot seem to criticize the ineffectiveness of her own imaginative conceptions earlier in the book. What we thought were just lame, lazy plot and character devices were actually clues—they were unconvincing because they were the inventions of the failed criminals, not of Christie, and Poirot was able to deduce the criminal intent from these cliches that we could only ascribe to Christie herself (a neat trick that would seem to insulate Christie from being judged for her own literary merits). “First of all there were certain preliminary scenes,” Poirot says, describing how the criminals prepared their crime. “A conventional jealous wife dialogue between her and her husband, Later she played the same part with me. At the time, I remember a vague feeling of having read it all in a book. It did not seem real. Because, of course, it was not real.” So what are we, reading a book of fiction ourselves, supposed to make of that evidence? Everything in the book reads like something you’d only encounter in a mystery novel. How can we distinguish? We can’t share the ground from which Poirot judges what is real and what is not.

Mysteries fit the theory of composition Poe put forward in “The Philosophy of Composition,” which Macherey wants to expose as being absurd, if not an actual joke Poe was playing in inviting readers to take it seriously. Poe argues for a teleology in literary works—the end is preconceived and all of a texts elements are designed to produce that end—“every element should contribute to the conclusion.” Poe claims that “it is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequences of a mathematical problem.” So, Macherey notes, the artist is supposed transcending spontaneity, only the reader is experiencing spontaneous responses—the reader experiences ideology, the writer orchestrates it. And the critic who translates the work into its intentions stands even further outside ideology, exposing how ideological discourse works.

If you buy into Poe, everything in a work is intentional, and good critics can presumably read out the intention of every detail by working backwards from the achieved effect. That is what Poirot does at the end of the novel, collecting all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and placing them properly, as the hackneyed metaphor Christie works into the text would have it. A character doing a jigsaw puzzle tells Poirot, “I do think the people who make puzzles are kind of mean. They just go out of their way to deceive you.” Obviously Christie is venting some criticism she must have heard often. Poirot replies the his crime solving “is a little like your puzzle. One assembles the pieces. It is like a mosaic—many colors and patterns—and every strange-shaped little piece must be fitted into its own place.” By analogy, the text is conceived as a complete picture, and Poirot’s assemblage of the pieces is the narrative we experience in reading. 

But what Macherey argues is that it would be silly for literary critics to proceed in the same way as Poirot, deducing the proper meaning of every piece. He argues that this would be a “radical misunderstanding of the writer’s work,” and that a text is “never a coherent and unified whole”—there are always multiple things being suggested at every moment in the text, by every analyzable aspect, and these things are often moving us in different directions simultaneously.

If I understand Macherey correctly, he is saying that what is interesting or significant about a book like Evil Under the Sun is the stuff that Poirot can’t explain in his summation, the aspects of the book that aren’t integrated into his construction of the completed jigsaw puzzle. The excess, so to speak. These are details that prolonged the narrative but had nothing to do with the crime; they just helped perpetrate the novel itself—give it character types, make the motives plausible, provide the backdrop of normality on which the relevant anomalies in the criminals could be registered. In this excess, we can catch a glimpse of ideology, which Macherey, following Althusser, suggests is otherwise inarticulable. As they see it, ideology is lived in, a habitus—tangible, not merely a characteristic of certain statements or positions. Rather it enables ideas to be formulated and expressed, and can’t be expressed directly in language without again being masked or distorted. But literary texts, in their roundabout approach to rendering lived experience, capture something of it, pin enough of it down to make it subject to analysis: “The spontaneous ideology in which men live (it is not produced spontaneously, although men believe that they acquire it spontaneously) is not simply reflected by the mirror of the book; ideology is broken, and turned inside out in so far as it is transformed in the text from being a state of consciousness. Art, or at least literature, because it naturally scorns the credulous view of the world, establishes myth and illusion as visible objects.” It manages to “present ideology in a non-ideological form,” in what ideology enables it to say and what it inhibits.

So what is left over in Evil Under the Sun after Poirot is finished giving the official solution to the book? Quite a lot, actually. What’s particularly jarring are the superfluous suspects, who are given reasons to kill that are convincing enough within the context of the novel but then are dropped as irrelevant red herrings once the real killer is revealed. But if one of these alternate suspects was the guilty party, the novel wouldn’t change much at all. The motives are purely on the level of surface, one as significant as any other. Whether the woman was murdered by her stepdaughter or a drug-smuggling ring makes no difference in the world of Evil Under the Sun. The suspects are perfectly interchangeable, like the cards in a game of Clue. The implication of this is that there is always a superfluous amount of evil, that crime in the culture she depicts is overdetermined, but at the same time utterly arbitrary. No deeper implications can be inferred from the occurrence of any crime; each is isolated from larger social problems or deeper psychological insights.

But the main thing is the sexism—after the crime is solved, Christie is at pains to deprive the working woman character of her job, marrying her off to the husband of the dead woman, who was killed basically because she was a vain and pathetic attention-seeker. (Christie basically leads us to believe that she deserved to die.) This betrothal was utterly unnecessary to the mystery aspect of the novel, but it ties together other assumptions animating the plot about a woman’s place and her proper aspirations. Working women are essentially no different than criminals, cold-bloodedly calculating how they can prey on the world for gain. They should instead be at leisure, prettified trophies for the vacationing men to ogle at their own leisure (their attention should not be co-opted by ostentatious female vanity). If they become ornaments, they might be spared the unpleasant business of having murderous motives assigned to them.

by David Pullar

24 Jul 2008

We were nothing like the quirky characters in the BBC TV series The Book Group, but we did meet every month or two to discuss a book we’d all planned to read.  The key difference with the TV show was that we weren’t all sleeping together.  The main similarity was that often a whole night would pass with us barely mentioning the book of the month.

Back in 2004, I was invited along to a group by my then-housemate and my overactive sense of responsibility quickly made me one of the “reliables”, the three or four who would turn up every time and have read the book without fail.  The rest of the group was made up of semi-regulars who mostly just wanted to hang out for a beer.  It was a great group.

If you’ve ever been a member of a book group, you will likely have encountered the same issues that we did.  How do you keep everyone interested?  How do you pick a book that everyone wants to read?  Do you bother rescheduling for people who never turn up anyway?

Picking books was definitely the biggest challenge.  The two men in the group weren’t so keen on some of the more Oprah’s Book Club-type selections.  No one was especially keen on books over 400 pages long—who has time?  Finding enough copies for everyone was always a challenge, especially for anything left-of-centre.

There’s something to be said for book-choice-by-committee, though.  That group and its democratic selection process were responsible for me reading a dozen books that I never would have picked up otherwise.  Sometimes this only confirmed my initial impression of the book (My Sister’s Keeper was compulsive but very superficial) and other times it blew my preconceptions away.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton was the biggest surprise.  It’s a phenomenally popular book and one of the biggest landmarks in recent Australian fiction.  For some reason, I figured it would be dull and very middle-of-the-road.  Instead, it was engaging and beautifully told.  Rather than relying on the worn clichés of Australiana, it dug deep into the world of post-war Perth and turned up all sorts of unique characters and situations.

Being in a book group and reviewing books are similar in a few ways.  Firstly, you have to read to a deadline and somehow fit a book in with all your normal activities.  The deadlines for our group weren’t too strict—every meeting was delayed at least two weeks—but once you factored in sourcing a copy and the rest of modern life, it could be difficult.

The other similarity is being forced to verbalise your opinion on a book.  Once we’ve finished with the rigours of High School English Lit, most of us are more than happy to just enjoy a book and leave any analysing to our subconscious.  But talking about a book in a group takes you away from vague feelings and impressions and requires you to put boundaries around those feelings.  Once you’ve expressed an opinion out loud, it feels more fixed but also more dubious.

This is a mixed blessing.  Some books open up under that kind of analysis and you find yourself loving them in a deeper way.  Other times you realise that your positive feelings evaporate once they’re aired, especially when you have to defend them.  My good feelings regarding Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised didn’t survive the questioning.

It doesn’t matter, really.  Some books will change your life, others will amuse you briefly and others will let you down.  But talking about a book over a beer in warm pub on a frosty winter with good people, well it’s one of life’s little pleasures.

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