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Tuesday, Oct 17, 2006

In a consumer society, shopping is never strictly about the goods themselves. Because we by and large define ourselves through consumer choice rather than what we do, we use shopping as a means to answer larger questions than “What can I clean my dishes with?” and “How many pairs of socks do I need to get me through to laundry day?” We try to get at things like “Why I am I here?” “Who am I supposed to be?” and “How can I make sure I seem more important than him?” In other words, shopping becomes the field in which we pursue not just utility but meaning, we pursue objects that anchor reality, give it shape, remind us of our place within it while making us feel as though we have the power to shape it. (When I buy that new widescreen flat-panel monitor for my computer at home, I have in a very tangible way changed the shape of reality as I experience it.) We seek to access the wellspring of authenticity; we want triggers that remind us we are having a real experience.


N+1 editor Mark Greif, in an essay reprinted in the most recent Harper’s, suggests that we collectively locate that fountain of authentic experience in sexualized children. He argues that we are socialized to regard our first sexual experiences as our first real experiences—fumbling and awkward as they often are at the time, they become the core of all our nostalgic yearnings as we grow older, and advertising’s efficacy derives from exploiting those forever-lost moments of pure possibility. “The lure of a permanent childhood in America” (and here I think of postcollegiate enclaves like Williamsburg, Brooklyn) “springs from the overwhelming feeling that one hasn’t achieved one’s true youth, because true youth would be defined by a sexual freedom so total that no one can attain it.” Though we never know this kind of libidinal bliss, we acclimate ourselves to the notion we could have had it if only we weren’t so stupid when we were young, and by having fleeting images of the erotic elysium repeatedly thrust before our eyes, we can’t bring ourselves to let it go. Instead we let these images represent to ourselves what we should have been, what we were in our chrysalis, what we still might be now underneath the wear and tear of age. “From the desire to repossess what has been lost (or was never taken advantage of) comes the ceaseless extension of competition”—competition for commodified youthfulness, now identified with desirability and authenticity, and conveniently enough, impossible to ever truly possess. In Greif’s view, this leads to sexualizing children, the bearers of youthful sexuality (the lodestone for our fantasies of recapturing authenticity) in its most pungent, concentrated form. “One fears our cultural preoccupation with pedophilia is not really about valuing childhood but about overvaluing child sex”—the specter of pedophilia occults the images of youth used for marketing and sharpens their appeal. And even a cursory glimpse at Star or In Touch Weekly is enough to confirm the unsavory obsession with teenage celebrities and their budding sexuality. Even if we don’t know their names or recognize their specific faces, they are the centrifuges capable of enriching inert consumer commodities with explosive energy. They serve as the matrix from which desires are manufactured and refreshed. They are humans as pure objects, without self-awareness but supercharged with the attention of others, they seem to promise that all the human qualities we yearn for can simply be possessed as objects—purchased, even, from indifferent vendors—rather than laboriously and tentatively teased out of rare fortuitous moments of existence after fraught, fragile interactions with those we care about.


This may explain why pedophilia waspointedly invoked with regard to the Foley scandal, which involved pages who were past the age of consent. Some argued this was a way to tar homosexuality, as though it was always a perversion like pedophilia; it may also be an expression of how our culture’s instinct is to wish to expand the boundaries of youth, extend its domain and aura and enchant more of our shared experience. Because sexuality has become so bound up with the marketing of youth, it has become, in Greif’s term, “a new kind of unfreedom”—echoing Foucault’s argument in the first volume of his History of Sexuality Greif argues that we are compelled to a sexual “liberation” that plays out as a compulsion to confess and be evaluated in terms of sexual standards not entirely our own but the social products of fashionability and novelty (the correlative of youthfulness). We are forbidden from not thinking about it. Wisely, Harper’s pairs Greif’s essay with Chinese personal ads from people who aspire to asexuality yet seek the companionship of marriage. I wonder if it represents a specifically Chinese reaction to the encroachment of sexualized marketing that comes with consumer capitalism, or whether similar enclaves exist in America. Has it gotten so bad that asexuality could be the new distinction, the latest way to be cool?


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Monday, Oct 16, 2006

Wait a moment – isn’t it October? The pseudo-official start of fall? The time when the leaves are changing and Halloween-inspired horror movies are king? Well, by the looks of the local brick and mortar, the standard ploy of flooding the marketplace with as much macabre as possible seems to have stalled, at least for the moment. Sure, there are a number of no-name terror titles making their way to shelves all across the country, but the usual glut of gore and gratuity has definitely tapered off. As a matter of fact, the only fear feature worth noting this week is the otherwise awful Omen remake that significantly stunk up the Cineplex this past summer. So pure film fans, rejoice. It looks like, in a deliberate move to counter-program the kind of DVDs available for sale, more interesting examples of non-genre filmmaking are replacing the routine fear factors. It’s enough to make you believe it’s December, or sometime in mid-March. On that note, let’s look at the product waiting for your hard earned dollars this 17, October:


Billy Wilder Speaks!

*
He is responsible for many of the masterpieces that make up Hollywood’s greatest hits – films with titles like Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Sabrina, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Now, thanks to a two day interview with German journalist Volker Schlondorff, we have this telling testimonial by the filmmaker himself, describing in detail the reasons behind his decision to direct (to protect his screenplays) and how each of his many amazing efforts came about. Sure, the nuggets of information may seem slight and sort of bite size, but we rarely get to hear the masters weighing in on their oeuvre, and for those unfamiliar with Wilder’s work, this career-spanning sit-down, complete with a constant stream of clips, is an excellent primer on one of Tinsel Town’s true titans. This DVD release also contains its own digital treasure trove – almost all of Wilder’s film trailers are included.



The Break-Up

We here at SE&L don’t like Jennifer Aniston. It has nothing to do with her talent – a statement which presumes she has some – or her long running stint on that undeniably popular sitcom Friends. No, our anti-Aniston sentiments derive directly from her film catalog. A view of her IMDb resume highlights a creative canon so superficial that it threatens to be blown away by the slightest cyber-breeze. Here, she is paired with that professional pin-up for arrested adolescence, Vince Vaughn, in a tragedy that was billed as the perfect summer RomCom. Helmed by inventive director Peyton Reed, responsible for the randy retro Down with Love and cheerleader challenge hit Bring It On, what was sold as the ditzy dissolution of a perky if unhappy relationship was really a mean spirited wannabe War of the Roses. It didn’t help matters that Ms. Aniston was suffering from a bad case of post-Pitt love life syndrome. It made her hook up with Vaughn – and the movie itself – seem all the more desperate.



PopMatters Review


Clean, Shaven: The Criterion Collection

*
One of the great lost films of the last twenty years, Lodge Kerrigan’s searing and insightful look at one man’s battle with schizophrenia deserves to find an audience outside the few who’ve seen it at festivals or on long out of print VHS/DVDs. Thankfully, those prophetic preservationists at Criterion have agreed to give this experimental effort the full blown special edition treatment. Kerrigan’s approach to this subject matter is indeed unique, attempting to actually visualize the way in which the world looks and sounds to a person struggling with such a debilitating mental affliction. Unflinching in its personal and social views, highly disturbing, and stoked by an astonishing performance by Peter Greene (perhaps best known as that hillbilly rapist Zed in Pulp Fiction) this haunting, harrowing drama is not your typical Hollywood take on insanity. There’s no Best Actor bravado here, just truth in all its painful paradigms.



The Omen (2006)


Piles of dreary cinematic dung don’t come any larger than this completely misguided remake of the 1976 classic. Released at the height of the public’s fascination with all things diabolical, Richard Donner’s original is a pitch perfect exercise in tone and storytelling. Yet when you consider that this is a note for note duplication of the Gregory Peck/Lee Remick thriller, it makes you wonder about the source material itself. Luckily, the real reasons for this updated debacle are easily identified. Aside from making Damien a pesky, proactive demon – not a simple little kid with a hidden Satanic streak at his core – journeyman director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines) miscasts this movie miserably. Both Liv Schreiber and Julia Stiles are far too young for their power couple roles, and when the sulfur starts hitting the fan, both appear to be looking for the nearest adult for help. Sadly, that turns out to be a scenery scarfing Mia Farrow…and let’s face, she gave birth to Beelzebub’s baby back in the ‘60s. This nominal effort is not worth any true horror fan’s time.


 


PopMatters Review


Over the Hedge
Need further proof that computer animation has more or less run its course after only a decade and a half as a vital cinematic art form? Take a gander at this demographically correct quasi-comedy and decide for yourself. Guilty of each and every cinematic pitfall that currently plagues the genre (stunt voice casting, overly simplistic storyline, far too many puerile pop culture references), this sometime clever take on suburban sprawl and the many facets of friendship just can’t overcome its highly commercialized gloss. Unlike Pixar films that always seem to find the proper note between precocious and perfection, Hedge (based on a far cleverer comic strip by Michael Fry and T Lewis) appears designed deliberately to force Moms and Dads to dig deep into their pockets for endless items of tie-in merchandising (and those ads featuring our characters cavorting in Wal-Mart can’t be helping the wallets much).  While not as bad as Open Season or The Wild, this CGI candy is decidedly sour.



PopMatters Review


Reds*
Only ‘70s superstud Warren Beatty could be this overly ambitious and get away with it. Taking the true story of American journalist John Reed, Western witness to the Russian Revolution in 1917 and tying it to an epic underscoring of political change and challenge in the equally erratic United States, this ersatz celebration of free-thinking and racialism was lauded upon its initial release. Believe it or not, Beatty even beat out Steven Spielberg (for a little something called Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Louis Malle (for his superb Atlantic City) for the Academy Award for Best Director. Today, what felt sweeping and romantic comes across as a little naïve and somewhat soft, and even with the stellar acting of Jack Nicholson, Maureen Stapleton (snagging an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) and Diane Keaton, Beatty is still required to carry the entire project. Thanks to the numerous hats he was wearing, it appears he may have bitten off a little more than he could artistically or pragmatically chew.


They All Laughed*
After the disastrous ‘70s streak that included Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon (Saint Jack was a quiet surprise) filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was looking for something to re-ignite his creative spark. He thought he found it in 1979 Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten. Hired as part of this light and breezy comic caper, the director and Dorothy soon became fast friends. Fate, however, would deal both a fatal blow when a jealous Paul Snider, Stratton’s sleazy manager and spouse, killed the 20 year old just after filming wrapped. This cursed the film commercially, and no studio would touch it. After a limited initial release, it sank into oblivion, leaving Bogdanovich grief stricken and exiled from Hollywood for the next four years (he would return with the well-received Mask in 1985). Thanks to DVD, this well-meaning movie now has a second chance to connect with audiences.



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 17 October:


Frankenhooker*
After Basket Case, his love letter to 42nd Street and the glorious grindhouse cinema that fueled the exploitation genre, and Brain Damage, a cutting edge commentary on drug use and culture, long time cult craftsman Frank Henenlotter was looking for another sure-fire schlock concept. After seeing James Lorinz hilarious turn as a sarcastic mafia doorman in Street Trash, the director got the idea to fashion a Frankenstein style film around his cynical, snide persona. The result was this half-comedy, half-horror farce that farts in the face of Mary Shelly’s modern Prometheus. Granted, the movie grows grating when Lorinz’s “creation” - the decent looking but acting challenged Patty Mullen - starts shuffling around and eating up endless amounts of screen time, but Henenlotter’s sense of humor always shines through. While not on par with the other movies mentioned, this is still required viewing for anyone smitten with this director’s creepy crackpot camp.



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Monday, Oct 16, 2006
by PopMatters Staff
PopMatters Sponsor Pepper

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Kona, Hawaii’s favorite sons make their long-awaited Atlantic/East West Records debut with their fourth studio album, No Shame. It’s a bold artistic leap forward for the Island-born-and-bred trio. No Shame defines what Pepper (Singer/Guitarist Kaleo Wassman, Bassist/Vocalists Bret Bollinger and Drummer/Vocalist Yesod Williams) is all about.

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Sunday, Oct 15, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the Good vs. Evil aesthetic of Brazil’s Jose Mojica Marins.


There probably isn’t a more unique filmmaker in the genre of horror than Jose Mojica Marins. This Brazilian eccentric, a true multimedia giant in his homeland, crosses all boundaries with his films, his television work, his books, and his comics. Over the course of his nearly five decades in the limelight, he has directed dozens of movies, acting in several more, and has turned his unique approach to terror into a solid cottage industry. He’s even dabbled in art, costume and set design, special effects, and has composed the music for his films. Having created a national sensation with his first horror effort (the first true horror film in Brazil’s cinematic legacy) and its seminal character Zé Do Caixão (or as he is called in America, Coffin Joe), Marins has made Zé and his ideology into the closest thing to a god that South American cinema has ever seen.


He is either loved or hated in his mother country, viewed as a truly gifted artist or merely the man-incarnation of the onscreen demon he portrays. Theologians attack his anti-religion stance and the heretical simply don’t buy his pagan leanings. In retrospect, Marins has devised a kind of career self-fulfilling prophecy, a character so associated with him that, through osmosis or karma, he has literally become Coffin Joe. He even has taken to wearing the outrageously long and sharpened fingernails of the fictional entity and styling his beard, hair, and eyebrows after same.


True, living in a country divided by conservative censorship (the likes of which kept Awakening of the Beast from ever being shown in theaters) and intense sexuality (nude beaches, Carnivale, the obsession with plastic surgery and beauty) makes for a truly schizophrenic sensibility. And Coffin Joe is so successful because he rides the balance between both brilliantly. This is especially true in the few films we in the West have been able to view. All throughout At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967) The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968) Awakening of the Beast (1970) The Black Exorcism of Coffin Joe (1974) and Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (1978), Marins weaves his distinct ideas about dread into a magnificent phantasm of fear and faith. 


While he may be many things—philosopher, writer, scholar—Marins is first and foremost a filmmaker, one who draws inspiration directly from the history of the macabre. Marins does not work in the usual terror trademarks of monsters and the supernatural, nor is he only interested in death and dismemberment. His thematic palette revolves around ethical and religious principles, in the universal rhetoric of absolute good versus true evil. In the world of Marin’s Coffin Joe, there is only God and Satan. Ghosts and demons are a manifestation of the will of either or both. Man is the only corruptible being; there are no zombie blood drinkers or human wolves, and all slaughter is based in the sacred or the sacrilegious.


Taken at its fundamentalist foundation, Marins then develops an entire element, in this case the alter ego of Coffin Joe, who flaunts wickedness in the name of good and the desire to perfect man’s place in the hierarchy between heaven and hell. Coffin Joe terrorizes people because he confronts their belief system, challenges the powerful entity of the church, and dares to undermine conformity with his self-absorbed, autonomous mindset. Yes, he does relish the devil and his works of earthly pleasure, but the ultimate goal for Joe is man’s superiority over both God and Satan: the creation of a superbeing whose immortality will challenge the authority of the spirits. We don’t just get blood and guts, killings, or deformed beasts. We get theological discussion and battles between the primal forces of morality and sin. In fact, this is the main narrative theme that connects almost every movie this maverick has ever made. It is a testament to Marins’ ability behind the camera, as well as the bravura performance he gives before it, that these treatises somehow turn into terrifying works of horror.


Marins is also a maverick cinematic visionary, one of the few pure film artists working in the realm of the supernatural. Unencumbered by the world of films in Brazil and admittedly a complete student of the Hollywood/American motion picture ideal, Marins implicitly understands the camera’s ability to tell a story. He is obsessed with the visuals’ important place in the creation of dread and suspense. From the handwritten animated credit sequences that seem to suggest the calligraphy of a long banned book of evil, to the old-fashioned gothic garb Coffin Joe wears as an undertaker, we have striking images that immediately suggest the sinister and unnatural. Then include the fever dream depictions of hell and hallucinations (brought to broad life in vivid, virulent color), the sinister set pieces, the wild juxtaposition of metaphors, and you have a singular, specific voice - an over-the-top talent that rivals Fellini or Joderowsky.


Marins’ visual surrealism also creates breathtaking images, powerful pictures that his camera holds on until they resonate fully with the audience. Sound too is important. His movies usually contain a cacophonous chorus of music, voices, effects, screams, and dialogue to recreate the chaos when one confronts the very forces of nature and the underworld firsthand. Marins isn’t afraid to experiment, to glue glitter around ghostly images to give them an otherworldly effect, or treat his negative chemically to affect its appearance. While monochrome and color switch off within the vast majority of the visual palette offered in his films, there is also plenty of eye candy craziness. Marins knows it’s all well and good to discuss the terrors of the human heart. It is much better to see them directly, however, to understand their visceral power.


Marins also creates a truly lasting horror icon with Joe. Like Freddy Krueger, he is a three-dimensional character with a detailed backstory and plenty of individualized distinctions to make him work even outside the realm of a motion picture. Coffin Joe, Zé Do Caixão, is a complete package, a man who wears his beliefs firmly on his vest and lives them in every action/reaction to things around him. Unlike Wes Craven’s creation of the dream world boogeyman, Joe has never degenerated into a slapstick spoof spook, a stand-up comedian of cruelty. Joe is deadly serious in his beliefs and in his ways, and his abuses are all the more startling because of it. As Freddy’s deaths became more and more based around the one-liner, Zé is merely ruthless and heartless, killing for the great cause of his intellectual and moral superiority. Murder is all in the advancement of his humanistic theories. Torture is a test, not only of physical stamina, but also of character and emotional/spiritual strength.


There is also no trepidation in Coffin Joe’s actions. He is the one who inspires menace. However, deep within his mind is a subconscious cowardice, a fear of being undone by forces beyond his control. And while the movies that surround his persona can either be straightforward narratives about procreation or psychedelic dissertations on the status of society in a more permissive time, Jose Mojica Marins and his grave digging demon stand at the center, cursing God and spitting at the Devil. For Coffin Joe there is only one true ruler of the world: man. In his mind, there is only one truly superior man: himself, Zé Do Caixão.


This is why Zé is such a superior image of dread. The great theological battles are all built on the philosophical foundations of ethics. Wars between man, nature, God, and Satan make up the system under which so much of our religious morality is defined. For eons, those who challenged these belief codas were considered criminal, profane beings that didn’t understand the need for an afterlife-based dogma. After all, to admit that this world is all there is would doom everyone to a finalized death that’s really worth fearing. But if there was a greater reward on the other side, some manner of continued creation where we all go to spend our infinite soul days, then let’s protect that notion at all costs and condemn those who dare challenge it.


Jose Mojica Marins is one such deviant. He dares to look death in the face and spit on its limits. Through his character of Zé Do Caixão, or Coffin Joe, he has taken on the old-fashioned pious value ideals and argued around and against them. In man, Zé argues, is the ultimate power over nature. There is no God. Satan is a buffoon. The only true force of will in the world is the individual. Neatly wrapped up in outstanding fright films of visual magnificence and intellectual stimulation, the work of Marins proves that one of the best ways to defeat the fear of death is to challenge it head on, to tackle its twisted mysticism and to try and determine one’s own spiritual fate. The truth is, in the end, we all will pass from this realm and into something else, be it emptiness or the glowing love/hate of God’s/Satan’s grace/damnation. While his films may not save your mortal soul, they will heal and lighten your entertainment essence. That is why Jose Mojica Marins is an unheralded genius.


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Sunday, Oct 15, 2006

Since I’m usually so damn serious here, I thought it’d be nice to have a good laugh about something for a change.  I really enjoyed this Indie Life-O-Meter posting. “Your garden variety, moderately successful indie band lasts an average of five years. Chances are, if you’re not already on Matador or Sub Pop, yours won’t even last that long.  What will break your band up, you ask? Well, if it isn’t the oft-cited ‘creative differences,’ or the excruciating tedium of touring the United States, it’ll most likely have something to do with sex or drugs. It’s anyone’s guess, but don’t wait for anyone to, because no one cares.”  Then again, if you’re an indie band, maybe this ain’t so funny…


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