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by Bill Gibron

15 Jul 2007

Back in the ‘80s, when the War on Drugs was defiantly attempting to rid the US of recreational pharmaceuticals by means both laughable (rock star PSAs???) and outrageous (excessive sentencing guidelines for offenders), First Lady Nancy Reagan came up with the lamest of Prohibition era propositions. Administrations before had preached tolerance (Carter) and rehabilitation (Ford), but the new conservative movement believed that brainwashing, followed by incessant rote repetition, was all the nation’s youth needed to stay on the straight and non-narcotic narrow. Of course, the ‘Just Say No” slogan was a monumental failure, about as successful at stopping teen ‘experimentation’ as abstinence policies effect on pre-marital monkeyshines. While it remains a nice sentiment, the psychological and physiological lure of senses numbing solutions – and the resulting addiction – are just too strong.

Don’t think so? Just ask Tinsel Town. Hopelessly dependant on less and less successful cinematic stances like tre-quels, prequels, and comic book/CGI franchises, the constantly jonesing studios are always looking for new and noxious ways of increasing its strung out bottom line. Since box office returns (always up) and critical responses (consistently down) don’t seem to matter, it’s time for a Greed era intervention. Yet this revisit of the ‘Just Say No’ shout out won’t focus on the already dying trends of J-Horror, gorno, or the gross out comedy. It won’t attack the proclivity toward letting Robin Williams make (and therefore, ruin) every project he wants, or the flummoxing decision to abandon two dimensional animation for more computerized monstrosities. No, this version of the no mas mantra is meant to ward the obviously obsessed suits off their new drug of choice – hiring horribly inappropriate musical icons as potential serious actors.

Case in point – Ms. Beyoncé Knowles. Disney has just announced that it wants to go ahead with a big screen version of its Great White Way success (?) Aida. Written by Elton John and Sir Tim Rice (the team behind the ungodly popular Lion King) the recent surge in the movie musicals has spurred the House of Mouse to bring this former classical opera to mainstream audiences everywhere – and yep, they want Ms. Knowles to star in it. Granted, she’s never helmed an entire project by herself – she has always played second fiddle to other above the marquee names – but the individuals who manage Mickey’s monetary kingdom would like to see the chanteuse vamping it up, ancient Egypt style, before the end of 2008.

Now it has to be said that, as a singer/songwriter/symbol, Jay-Z’s main squeeze is mighty fine indeed. Either solo or as part of her girl power ensemble Destiny’s Child, she’s been ‘crazy’, ‘bootylicious’, and a real ‘survivor’.  Her combination of glamorous good looks, expert media manipulation, and high profile profitability has made her a formidable music biz commodity. Among the many nameless and lookalike ladies of new millennial soul, Beyoncé is the best. She is culturally compliant, easily embraced by black, white, rich, poor, and capable of generating interest beyond her tween/adolescent demographic. So naturally, the hacks over in Hollywood figured she could become a bankable actress, following in a long line of African American singers turned stars like Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, and…Mariah Carrey???

Granted, those aren’t the mightiest footsteps to fill. Ross does have an Oscar nomination (for Lady Sings the Blues) and Houston has the commercial success (The Bodyguard made big money), but if you match Ms. Knowles against the canon of these formidable divas, she’d only be a single baby step away from Mariah’s unbelievable blunder (the horrendous Glitter). You see, try as she might, Beyoncé is not an actress. She may indeed be some manner of superstar – a debatable reclassification that has more to do with draw and onscreen presence than pure performance chops – but she’s unqualified at carrying a motion picture by herself, or in conjunction with far more accomplished co-stars. In some ways, she’s like a talent vacuum. Individuals who appear alongside her appear to suddenly suffer from the same lack of effectiveness as their multi-platinum participant.

A good starting point for proving this position remains the first project the wannabe thespian ever attempted – a bizarre revamp of the opus Carmen costarring Mekhi Phifer and Mos Def. Relabeled a “Hip Hopera” to draw in the MTV crowd (it was a production of the one time music video channel), this melodramatic mish mosh of rap and rewritten baroque motifs offers a lightweight and lumbering Ms. Knowles. She’s a vixen as void, a seductress as all snarl and very little substance. Since she’s a product of the post-modern music industry, a business model that values looks and appearance over talent and artistry, she can be excused for all her preening and posing. In fact, when she does that in a five minute TRL clip or interview spot, the demographic goes doughy. But in a movie, where there is more to creating a character than shaking your hips and striking a defiant stance, Beyoncé is inert.

Someone, however, thought differently, since it wasn’t long before our half-baked honey was ruining the reputation of blaxpolitation actresses everywhere with her ludicrously awful turn as Foxxy Cleopatra in the Austin Powers tre-quel, Goldmember. Now, the notion that, somehow, Ms. Knowles could match legitimate ghetto goddesses like Tamara Dobson, Teresa Graves, and the biggest, baddest mother of them all, Pam Grier, is laughable. But there she was, horrible afro covering up a lack of gumption and gravitas, trying desperately to be cool and kick ass. Unfortunately, there’s an inherent elegance and overall banal quality that keeps her from being ballsy and bodacious. Instead, Beyoncé frequently comes across as a society matron trying to ‘get down’ with the essential elements of her heritage – and it’s highly embarrassing.

It looked like her equally ineffectual turn in the universally hated Fighting Temptations (she played Lily, a blank as a fart love interest for a slumming Cuba Gooding, Jr.) would finally put a hold on any future acting options for the pop star. Most critics noted that, when she sings, there seems to be some validity to her celluloid status. But ask her to recite dialogue, or express an emotion beyond fashion plate facility and she literally disappears into the entertainment ephemera. Still, for nearly three years, no one considered Ms. Knowles for a leading part. Then, as part of the miserable and misguided Pink Panther remake, she was again forced into the role of romantic lead. Perhaps because she was situated against a decidedly asexual Steve Martin, her lack of onscreen sizzle didn’t matter.

Whatever the case, her performance (or lack thereof) paved the way for what should have been her true breakout success. After all, a woman walking in Diana Ross’ self-righteous shoes would be perfectly typecast as Deena Jones, haughty pop princess of the dynamite ‘70s showstopper Dreamgirls. While many theater fans knew that Effie was the flashier part, the character of Deena has the more substantive narrative impact. The first sign that things weren’t going to play out properly came when rumors started swirling that Beyoncé wanted a powerhouse solo piece on par with the memorable “And I am Telling You (I’m Not Going)”. Even though she was no Jennifer Holiday (who owns the song as part of her Tony winning turn), ex-American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson was supposedly so good, it was making the quintessential Queen of Pop jealous.

The next rift came when the movie was released. Buzz built quickly and convincingly, but somewhere along the line, Ms. Knowles was left out of the hype. Ms. Hudson and their male co-starts were pushed for awards (eventually Jennifer and Eddie Murphy would reap trophies) but the leading lady was – surprise, surprise - left out of the critical discussion. Even when Oscar time arrived, and the Best Song category revealed three Dreamgirls tracks in the running, Beyoncé’s lack of convincing passion proved fatal to the material’s overall chances (the film was shut out by Melissa Etheridge’s A Inconvenient Truth track). Not since Madonna mangled Stephen Sondheim did a singer subvert a talent’s chances of victory. At least Mr. Norbit had a reason for losing out on Academy gold.

Now Disney is betting that, somewhere amongst all the journalistic musings and critical pans, that outside of her rock solid turns on the concert stage, Ms. Knowles has what it takes to play the Ethiopian Princess who finds herself a slave in ancient Egypt. The John/Rice show shifts some of the story to the modern era, and many of the classic convolutions that come with opera have been smoothed out for story stifled contemporary audiences. Yet the role of Aida is the lead, something Beyoncé has never had to take on before, and she will be required to port the entire production on those nicely rounded shoulders of hers. It’s not impossible, and this could be the project that finally helps her find the movie muse, but history indicates a definite disaster in the making.

And here’s the worst part of all of this – Beyoncé was never meant to be an actress. She’s been forced into it by a media machine that wants as much cross promotion and multifaceted marketing opportunities as possible. Making matters worse, she is taking away roles from far more talented (and much less noteworthy, unfortunately) women of color. In an arena where roles for minorities are metered out like rations on a lifeboat, to have one uniquely talentless performer monopolizing the discussion is harmful to any real advances. Those who scoff at such suggestions are merely fans, incapable of seeing beyond Beyoncé’s music video iconography. Place her against Angela Bassett or Jada Pinkett Smith and there’s really no comparison. Still, the weak minded over at Uncle Walt’s world are gambling that more audience members buy Ms. Knowles publicity than her paltry silver screen talents.

This is why Disney should just say NO! Since Aida has no real name value beyond the cultured and considered (the musical closed in 2004 after a 1,852 performance run) it will be interesting to see how they sell it. Obviously, the former child of destiny will be a big part of the push, and when the rest of the casting is announced, another bombardment of big names will hit the headlines. But if the House of Mouse learned anything from its pro-PC production of Cinderella (featuring Ms. Knowles Jr. in the form of all but forgotten R&B brat Brandy), it should be that musicians can mess up even the most well intentioned productions. While they may be able to sell a song, they can’t be guaranteed to provide a performance. This ongoing addiction is not doing anyone any good. 

by tjmHolden

15 Jul 2007

photo: Pedro Simões

Residing in Japan, one gets used to living on a time lag. For instance, baseball and (non-American) football are still working into the concept of free agency over here. The idea of private health insurance—in the form of AFLAC—hit it big on these shores about 4 years ago. And QVC-style teleshopping arrived in 2000, with the 24-hour variant hitting the airwaves in 2004. Speaking of “24”, its inaugural season just debuted on Japanese cable—as replacement for the just-completed third season of “The West Wing”.

I am not sure that such cultural lag really ends up impoverishing anyone. And if one subscribes to the notion that any culture is good culture, then (since we’re swimming in so much of it) life in the ReDot is simply ducky. On the other hand, there are certain topics that ought to be avoided during trans-continental correspondence (like: “hey, hey! Did you see the conclusion of The Sopranos last night?”) if one doesn’t wish to lose a friend or estrange a family member.

Given these longue delays it comes as no surprise that magazine hard copies tend to arrive weeks—even months—in arrears.  I know, I should just get with the times and subscribe on-line, thereby living life virtually, but there is still something about holding paper in hand and flipping pages. No kidding. You might contend that this just betrays my conditioning as a ‘60s grade-schooler. But truly—there’s that tactile component that can’t be discounted. Not to mention the sense of accomplishment and control that turning pages give off. And so, too, it’s hard to websurf when sitting at a red light or on the commode.

One takes their sense of control where they can find it.

by Chauncey Mabe

15 Jul 2007

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—Nearly a decade ago, Eileen McNally caught an NPR interview with an obscure writer named J.K. Rowling. The book being discussed, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, sounded like fun, so McNally picked it up for her 9-year-old niece.

“I bought it for her to read on the plane home to Buffalo,” said McNally, now director of the Florida Center for the Book at the Broward County Library. “But Shannon read the entire thing standing in line at Disney World. I was flabbergasted. That’s when I knew this was something special.”

Special, indeed. The six Harry Potter books published since 1997 have so far sold more than 325 million copies in 65 languages. They’ve spawned a blockbuster movie franchise and a merchandising empire, and made Rowling, by some reports, richer than the Queen of England.

Scholastic, Rowling’s American publisher, reports the most recent volume, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, sold a stratospheric 6.9 million copies in its first 24 hours, making it the fastest-selling book in history.

by Jason Gross

15 Jul 2007

Here’s an article from back in May that I really enjoyed: Kevin J.H. Dettmar’s Earbuds and Mosh Pits.  Most articles written by middle-age people about music today stinks of fogeyism: they’re confused and angered by it, forgetting how foreign and threatening the music they loved was when their own parents heard it.  Dettmar is different in that he enters the realm of modern pop/rock music with a truly open mind and comes out of it the better for his experience.  What’s really interesting to me is his idea of music as a public spectacle.

by Bill Gibron

14 Jul 2007

As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.

This week: The powerful partnership of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman dissolves, resulting in two groundbreaking grindhouse classics.


The Defilers/ Scum of the Earth


“All you kids…MAKE ME SICK!”

Carl and Jameison are two bored brats who can’t seem to settle into their growing adult responsibilities. While the later would like to get on with his life, the former is fierce in his aggressive anti-social stance. So when the standard kicks – alcohol, cheap dates, hot rodding - just can’t provide the necessary post-adolescent relief, the boys concoct a sure-fire plan of amoral action. They decide to use an abandoned warehouse as their own private sex club. Then, they will kidnap less than willing wenches to be their own personal porn sluts. They will rape and beat them, whip and degrade them, all in the name of aimless, alienated thrills. When they happen upon the demure Jane Collins, a beautiful blond who is eros incarnate, the debauched dudes spin into overdrive. But as the games become more and more violent, Jameison has second thoughts. He doesn’t want to be one of The Defilers anymore, but Carl will stop at nothing – including death – to get his repugnant rocks off.

Meanwhile, little Kim Sherwood is desperate to get into modeling. She hears there are lots of opportunities over at Mr. Harmon’s studio, but when she arrives, she is stunned to find a ‘dirty pictures’ operation. Yep, our photographer is a closet smut peddler, working for the nefarious Mr. Lang, a local mobster. He needs the sexy snapshots to keep his juvenile delinquent picture pushers in available product. At first, Kim acquiesces, believing that she will be protected from any sin or exploitation. Besides, Harmon appears nice enough. But as she gets in deeper, our heroine soon learns that no one is looking out for her best interests, and when she wants to quit, Mr. Lang harangues her into further ruination. Besides, if she doesn’t give in, the hood’s goon squad will step in and show her whose boss. It’s a foul fate worse than death for this inexperienced babe in the woods. When she started, she was just a dumb kid. Now, she’s part of the Scum of the Earth.

If exploitation had a pair of founding fathers, individuals almost exclusively responsible for the fate of the entire film genre, it would be David F. Friedman and his partner in perversion, the amazing Herschell Gordon Lewis. Together, they traipsed through all manner of original grindhouse fodder. They worked within the nudist colony romp and offered up their own take on its offshoot, the nudie cutie. They more or less invented the gonzo gore film with their bold Blood Trilogy (Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red), and formed the foundation for the combination of the carnal and the craven known as the ‘roughie’. Their affiliation ended over an issue fairly typical in the skin and sin business (read; $$$) and by the time the rest of the cinematic artform were catching up with their efforts, the two were off making movies separately.

Friedman had the most immediate success, his 1965’s The Defilers acting as the kind of wanton wake-up call the industry definitely needed. Lewis would go on to explore the outer reaches of the splatter film, eventually turning his back on all things celluloid for a stint as a successful marketing consultant. Still, his 1963 Scum of the Earth stands as a benchmark for the merging of the sexual and the sick. Without this look at sleazy stag photography, other filmmakers (like Friedman find Lee Frost) wouldn’t have envisioned a meshing of the arousing with the atrocious.

The Defilers remains the definitive statement on such subgenres, with the wicked works of mid-‘60s Doris Wishman a very close second. Like a prototypical profiler for future serial killers, this incredibly twisted take on the bored adolescent ideal takes seediness to a whole new level. As our lead lothario, the unbelievably abusive Bryon Mabe actually makes you uncomfortable, what with his mealy-mouthed manhandling and tendency toward misogynistic rants. This is one incredibly cracked dirtbag, a human hormone strung out on his own sense of inconsequential power. Obviously, Friedman felt that the soft and sensual side of sex had been amply explored inside the exploitation arena, and thought that men now wanted to see a more domination-oriented angle.

Always fond of whippings and hostility, he personally wrote the repugnant script, amplifying everything taboo and tawdry for the growing depraved demographic. There are scenes in this otherwise average drama that are awfully distressing, especially for today’s placated PC audiences. Scandinavian sex bomb Mia Jannson is a far too convincing victim – so demoralized and traumatized that you half believe she’s really being beaten. It’s no wonder then that the rumor mill has her leaving a possible film career shortly after appearing here. Far nastier than it is naughty, The Defilers defines the limits producers would go to reach the raincoat crowd. It also signaled the beginning of the end for the entire drive-in dynamic of filmmaking. 

Every finale has to have a starting point, and in retrospect, Scum of the Earth is as good as any. Lewis, never one to ride trends, was already growing tired of the gore fest when he was approached for this project. In his typical hired gun happenstance, the director promised a picture based on a distributor’s demand, and along with pal Friedman, fleshed out a tale centering on the controversial concept of naked photography. With the Supreme Court still a decade away from declaring that nudity was not in and of itself obscene, anyone taking on such a tabloid style exposé of said subject was asking for trouble. That’s why the various photo shoots of topless talent are so incredibly tame by today’s standards. But insinuation could be as crude as necessary, and Scum of the Earth gives great allusion.

There are hints of horror behind the backdrop, suggestions of prostitution, promiscuousness and pain. Even the characters get into the act, with the most famous example being actor Laurence Aberwood’s famous “dirty, dirty!” speech. Forming the basis for Something Weird Video’s standard product title montage, our deranged doughy guy with a mouth full of metal crowns spits out a venomous tirade at a helpless young lass, his assertion that reality is “a fire sale, and (she’s) damaged goods” becoming a readily quotable classic. But within the context of the film, it fits perfectly. Lewis and Friedman were suggesting that anyone who’d disrobe for dollars was obviously suffering from some misguided perception of propriety.

It was a radical stance for exploitation, one destined to destroy the cinematic category from the inside out. For the longest time, flesh filmmakers fought to give their movies a modicum of legitimacy, in hopes it would keep the censors and self-ascribed moralists at bay. But as the variations on vice grew more and more hackneyed, new naughtiness had to be explored. Soon, pseudo-sex movies were merging with every genre conceivable, yet audiences were less than impressed. But when violence was added to the mix, receipts went through the roof. What that says about the average exploitation fan is something for scholars and psychiatrists to debate. But the bottom line doesn’t lie, and all throughout the rest of the ‘60s, the ‘roughie’ became the new pulchritude paradigm. Eventually, the whole concept would mutate into the ‘ghoulie’, and then the ‘grossie’, but by then hardcore was already knocking at the door. While it’s true that Friedman and Lewis didn’t start the whole vice and violence movement, they definitely helped cemented its significance. The Defilers and Scum of the Earth are proof of their endearing importance.

In today’s world of ‘anything for a dollar’ dirtiness, it seems like girls AND guys will willingly degrade themselves for a buck. It doesn’t matter if there’s a fanbase for it – post-modern smut peddlers simply assume that there is. But back in exploitation’s heyday, producers actually catered to the nauseating needs of their very vocal clientele. One need look no further than the roughie, and its premiere examples of The Defilers/Scum of the Earth to support such sentiments.

 

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