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Monday, Oct 9, 2006

According to the adage, rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel, but in fact the Yankees with their enormous payroll, entirely disporportionate to the rest of the teams in the league, represent, if anything, the triumph of labor over management, earning close to the maximum of their market value for their efforts, for better or for worse. In the game that fans generally don’t care about—the struggle between workers and bosses—the Yankee players are succeeding in unprecedented fashion. In the game we watch on the field, it’s a different story. This weekend the Yankees lost a playoff series to the Detroit Tigers, a team with the best pitching in baseball (and the statisics prove it) and which won 95 games, two fewer than New York. Because of the disparities in the teams’ payroll, though, the Tigers were considered to be underdogs, wildly overmatched, a hopeless longshot to even compete in the series, so their victory was heralded as some kind of karmic triumph, something that had less to do with their efforts than the hubris of the Yankees and the laziness and indifference of the team’s overcompensated players. Commentators have a chance to break out all the ideological notions that go along with big-money athletes: Well-paid players can’t work together as a team, players care more about their pay than the game, the players are arrogant and aloof and unmanagable, they were overconfident in the face of low-profile upstarts, they don’t play for the love of the game. Then there’s the Tigers, who prove that working hard and beating the best is its own sweet reward, no matter what the players’ take-home pay is. By repeating these nostrums, are we dittoing management’s line in undermining unions? True, it’s hard to see guys like Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield as working-class Joes; they tend to be depicted as mercenary “free agents,” even though it required union intervention to allow them to negotiated the contracts they received, which were not extorted but given freely as a response to fair competition, at least as we typically define fairness economically—not having enough money to make a competitive bid doesn’t amount to unfairness, despite the complaints of small-market teams. But such free agents are ultimately wage workers; they don’t own the means of producing baseball games and their talent and notoriety—the only capital they have—requires someone else to build an arena in which to exhibit it. They just happen to be wage workers who have managed to get a much fairer deal—a larger proportion of the MLB enterprise’s profits—for themselves than most workers, because they have rare skills that are not easily replaceable. But because they have won the labor-management game, we for some reason have a strange desire to see them lose the game on the field as recompense. We crave proof that being a successful worker paid an appropriate wage somehow means you are a bad human being, tainted by money. We end up cheering the Tigers’ victory as some kind of victory for the baseball system or because they have a low payroll and have thereby “overachieved”—but isn’t it odd to cheer an organization for its success in suppressing wages? That is like rooting for U.S. Steel.


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Sunday, Oct 8, 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, George A. Romero’s redefinition of the zombie movie.


He didn’t invent the zombie movie, but his entries in the genre have clearly defined and mythologized it. Some would even say that he is the only undead auteur that understands the cinematic category. As important to horror as any filmmaker before or since, advertising executive turned director George Romero single-handled lifted the living dead film from its voodoo roots and reconfigured it as a stunning social comment on the shifting state of America. From 1968 until now, the Pittsburgh icon has forged a unique career, mixing styles and subject matter to touch on almost every aspect of the macabre. He’s taken on vampirism (Martin), madness (The Crazies)  - even a tribute to one of the founding facets of post-modern horror, EC Comics (Creepshow).


Yet it’s his regular return to the flesh eater film that remains a constant in the mind of his followers. Such substantive acclaim – all four Dead films have met with varying degrees of adoration – makes Romero that rarity in the realm of the reanimated human. Naturally, this begs the question, what is it about his approach to the cannibal corpse that makes it so powerful, and why can’t others match his legitimate legacy as a formidable fright filmmaker? It’s a quandary that has sparked hundreds of overheated debates.


It was clear from his first installment of what is now a quartet of quintessential efforts that Romero wasn’t using the classic concept of horror to formulate the fear in Night of the Living Dead. Classic terror, usually defined around the Universal ideal of Gothic monster movies made during the ‘30s and ‘40s, argued against a clear reality as the backdrop to fear. Instead, everything was hyperstylized, from the setting and situations to the players taking part in the terror. From Romero’s point of view, the growing aesthetic advances made during the ‘50s and ‘60s, from the medium mutating French New Wave to the cinema vérité documentaries sweeping the circuit, allowed the introduction of truth and authenticity into motion picture macabre.


Night‘s story was deceptively simple. A brother and sister, visiting a relatives grave, are attacked by what appears to be a madman. It soon turns out that the dead have come back to life, and are killing and consuming the living. Finding a seemingly abandoned farmhouse to hide in, Barbara soon meets up with Ben, a fellow refugee that just so happens to be black. As they try to secure their position, they discover a family in the basement, along with a teenage couple. All are hiding and less than excited about helping. Soon, everyone is working together to battle the growing menace outside. News reports witnessed over the television indicate a situation slowly winding out of control. Even though the reports seem positive, there’s a growing sense that all is lost. All these people can do is hope for the best, and fight to survive.


With this one monochrome masterwork, Romero reconfigured the elements of fright, using recognizable individual types and understandable circumstances to elevate his shocking supernatural splatter. Night invested the scary movie with a new sense of immediacy, its narrative almost unrelenting in the way it paces its zombie attacks. Just enough time passes for the television to deliver another set of sinister warnings before the next deluge of the dead occurs. This then gave the terror that much more relevancy to an audience used to the hustle and bustle of life. The situation therefore didn’t require such a massive suspension of disbelief.


All pointed political grousing aside (each one of his films have a sound social stance at their center), the real advance Romero championed was indeed to connect horror to the everyday life of the audience. Few were familiar with haunted castles, grave robbing, and blood drinking Counts. But show them a mob of viscous, mindless killers pounding at the door, looking for flesh to consume, and suddenly the security of existence seems a little shaky. Toss in a touch of racism, matricide, and a lot of unanswered questions about human foibles and frailties, and you have a major shift in the fright film language.


It continued on a decade later with Romero’s return to the series, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Now capable of tapping into elements unavailable to him at the time of Night‘s creation (color film, advanced F/X and make-up work) and using a far more recognizable space as his frame of everyday reference – the shopping mall – this filmmaker fashioned his new slaughter spectacle as an apocalyptic look at the disintegration of infrastructure and the completely plausible ‘us vs. them’ mentality that arrives whenever an unfathomable act of evil confronts our sensibilities. In this case, a group of professionals (two TV reporters, two government soldiers) hole up in a local shopping center, clearing out the zombies and protecting themselves from the monstrous mob outside to try and recreate their once semi-privileged lives.


All throughout the course of the film’s opening act, we see the foursome battle to reach their consumer sanctuary, fending off all manner of undead obstacles. Once safely inside, they begin to plot. Zombies are destroyed, doors blocked off. A perfect asylum from the atrocities around them allows the group to gorge on the many materialistic pleasures available. We see our heroes hording food, glutting themselves on fancy meals and overindulging in items of extravagance. By the time some like-minded outsiders arrive – in the guise of marauding bikers – our clique has become covetous of their self-made retreat. By contrasting the death of one social structure with the attempted birth of another, Romero made all his points about class and equality. But buried in the heart of the political science was really just an examination of the human desire for comfort and security.


In many ways, Dawn represented the end of the reality-based Romero horror film. His next two efforts in the Dead series would remove most of the recognizable pragmatic aspects of the situation (real world places, interpersonal human interaction) with outrageous scenarios and even odder zombie circumstances. As a result, the director continued to polish his approach, picking and choosing the aspects he really wanted to explore. His follow up, 1986’s Day of the Dead - considered by many to be the lesser of all four films (it’s a highly debatable delineation) - argues from the beginning that the real world is long dead. In a stellar opening setpiece, a lone band of governmental scientists and soldiers try to drum up anything “living” in what appears to be an abandoned town. The minute their presence is known, however, hordes of ravenous zombies begin literally crawling out of the woodwork. As the streets fill with thousands of flesh craving fiends, we see the end of human civilization, reconfigured in the stammering, shuffling walk of a reanimated corpse.


This doesn’t mean that Romero totally avoids reality in this glorious cinematic gross out. Instead of focusing on the social, or the political, the director focuses his attention on personality. We see the simmering divides between people, the hatred the military has for the scientists and visa versa. Both are forced to live and interact with each other, but with their individual purposes being crossed and contradictory, they can literally never see eye to eye on anything. This means the real horror is personal, not apocalyptic. As the world decays outside, humanity’s lost hope are arguing in a bunker over sexual favors, the rounding up of additional zombies for experimentation, and what they will do should the need arise to escape from their underground bunker.


This makes Day a very dark film indeed, the kind of exploration of the fragile human soul that many don’t imagine they’ll ever want to witness. Unrelenting in its horror, featuring the perfect contextual juxtaposition of Tom Savini’s ultra realistic autopsy like effects, it remains a movie arguing that the only way to recapture the purity of existence is a kind of total rejection of the past. Toward the end, when things are going decidedly deranged, the Jamaican helicopter pilot argues for everyone to simply drop their duty and fly off to a deserted island somewhere. There, some manner of life can be restarted, one without the constant threat of the living dead causing chaos and the amplification of human faults. The idea is not so much rejected as reconfigured by many of the things we see later. When a “trained” zombie named Bub proves that he can respond with thought, no matter how simplistic, ‘it’ dooms everything around it. The notion that these “things” can actually reason refutes the feeling that they’re just obstacles to overcome. Instead, they become opponents in a battle for the rest of the planet. 


With such a solid third installment, it’s odd then that it took 20 years for Romero to revisit his zombie mythos. He has been quoted as saying that the failure to fully realize his ideas for Day of the Dead (his original script featured zombie armies, trained by the government, waging all out war against their fellow flesheaters in massive battle scenes) plus the rather uninteresting political landscape left him lost for a way back into his series. Oddly enough, when Land of the Dead finally arrived, it was amazingly well received. Considered a return to form and a furthering of his agenda-based fright facets, the truth is far more complex. In essence, Land is a distillation of all three previous Dead films. It offers Night‘s home as hospice, Dawn‘s man-made oasis, and Day‘s military inspired sense of security. It also illustrates the corruptibility of all three, how each one is a fool’s paradise built on bricks and the backs of those dumb enough to try and fend for themselves.


In Land, years have passed, and zombies now live in quasi-communal packs, easily preyed upon by scavengers looking for goods to barter with in the new quarantined city of Fiddler’s Green. This sectioned off society has a typical structure – fat cats at the top, middle class barely making ends meet, underclass doing all the grunt work – and it reflects the way in which the living dead also organize themselves. When they finally decide to attack the humans, they place the lesser corpses up front, fodder for protecting the so-called “smarter” ones following up behind. The purpose is simple – confront the living on their own terms. The concept is clear – as a repressed majority, they will no longer sit by and let the Establishment minority ignore their existence.


Again, the political ramifications are intense. The zombie leader is a big, beefy black man who was obviously once a gas station attendant. Similarly, the humans capable of defending the Green are all members of the mitigated lower class. Together, they form a conspiratorial element that is destined to topple any arrogant hierarchy. But the main theme of Land of the Dead is the shredding and selling of hope. In a world which seems sorely lacking in any kind of recognizable trust, Romero reiterates that belief in something beyond oneself is only fated to fail. By using the individual instinct to survive, and marrying that with the intelligence to find an escape, the results are either prophetic or predetermined. Land ends on a note of vigilante vindication as well as a possibility of survival. It has de-evolved the genre into a simple screed on Darwin’s ‘only the completely capable endure’ ideal.


Romero will always be remembered for reinstating terror back into the horror movie mix. Where once outrageousness and the fear of the unknown seemed like reason enough to keep the macabre minions at bay, he amplified the angst by directly linking his dread to the things in life that people can instantly identify with. They say that the number one and two fears that most individuals have are their own death, and the death of a loved one. Romero rewired this trepidation into a meditation on mortality, an argument against an afterlife and an easily recognizable relationship between living humans and undead corpses. Keeping the connection physical – via eating – was the final major masterstroke. It gave his Dead films a visceral edge that most fright films just couldn’t compete with. It’s why these four films remain classics of the creature feature genre. It’s why George Romero’s legacy as a fright icon is already secured.


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Saturday, Oct 7, 2006


As the video revolution of the ‘80s proved more profitable than any other facet of the fledging multimedia, distributors were desperate for anything that would make for a viable VHS presentation. Naturally, the simplest genre to jump on was horror. For as long as there was an outlet for motion pictures, macabre has been seen as the easiest way to make a mega-fast buck in the business. Since most home video fans were adolescents, unable to access these slice and dice spectacles theatrically because of the everpresent “R” rating, dumping as many onto the easily rentable VCR arena seemed like a solid idea. As part of Empire Pictures exploitation-oriented production ideals, which included such schlock classics as Ghoulies, Zone Troopers, From Beyond, Creepazoids and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama, a take on what is perhaps the most terrifying place for most people – prison – was commissioned. Written by company scribe C. Courtney Joyner, who himself would give birth to such future cinematic cheese as Puppet Master III, The Class of 1999 and Dr. Mordrid, this latest effort would be another in a long line of potentially profitable titles for the inventive entertainment entity.


Somehow, the filmic fates smiled on the simply named Prison, providing it with a stellar cast that included future stars Viggo Mortensen and Lane Smith, and an inventive novice Finnish director named Renny Harlin. Making his American moviemaking debut, Harlan wanted to impress Western audience with his style and cinematic sparkle. Taking the standard storyline, he added substantial visual panache to a film’s basic vengeful spirit plot. When an old abandoned prison is reopened to accommodate that bureaucratic certainty known as overcrowding, an ancient evil is reawakened. Becoming part of the structure itself, the malevolent force (the remnants of an inmate wrongfully executed years before) manipulates wires, walls and other intimate elements to wield its wicked payback. In the process, guards are garroted, inmates are maimed, and secrets long buried in the prison grounds return from the grave to kick ass and take names. While much of the movie seemed silly, and overloaded with jailhouse jocularity, Harlin hemmed in the more ridiculous aspects to deliver a fascinating piece of horror pop art.


By utilizing a real rundown penitentiary (the brooding Wyoming State Prison) and accenting the acting and effects, Harlin avoided many of the frustrating formulas that fluster your basic scary movie. Thanks to the atmosphere of dread inherent in the backdrop and the gory greatness of various set piece deaths, instead of a typical trip into direct to video drek, Empire ended up with a wonderfully effective fright film. Harlin’s handling of the project was so well-received that he was immediately hired to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Child, which in turn lead to his leap into the big time – helming the Die Hard sequel Die Harder. Sadly, most fright fans have forgotten, or even worse, have yet to see this excellent exercise in terror. Long unavailable in any format – and YET to be released on DVD – this is one lost fright flick that could really benefit from a digital resurrection. Prison may not be the best convict-based creature feature ever made, but it’s certainly worth an aluminum disc revisit. It stands decapitated head and shoulders about its ‘80s overkill brethren.


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Friday, Oct 6, 2006


After spending the better part of the ‘60s on The Andy Griffith Show – and winning five Emmys for his sensational supporting work as the bumbling deputy Barney Fife, Don Knotts was lured by Universal into an exclusive feature film contract. His first effort for the studio was this lightweight horror comedy centering on nervous typesetter named Luther Heggs and a local legend about the ghosts that haunt the sinister Simmon’s house. Tailored to his specific talents, it was a project perfectly suited for Knotts. After all, no one at the time did physical anxiety the way this mannerism master did. He could make an audience antsy just by saying ‘Hello’. Here, Heggs was even jumpier than Mayberry’s less than finest. With a script created specifically by Griffith scribes James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, and solid direction from small screen journeyman Alan Rafkin (responsible for episodes of everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Bewitched) what started out as a standard star vehicle quickly became a family film classic.


At first glance, this all does look like your typical Knotts material – fidgety town joke with a vivid imagination and a reputation for abusing same, gorgeous gal who won’t give our hero the time of day, overbearing bully who finds Luther offensive as a co-worker and a human being, and an ordinary cinematic mystery involving a haunting, an unsolved crime from the past, and the requisite red herrings strewn throughout the sensational supporting cast. While most fans focus on the sensational – and somewhat scary – haunted house set pieces (the blood-riddled pipe organ, the secret stairwell, the portrait with a pair of gardening sheers jammed in its throat) it’s actually the heart that confirms The Ghost and Mr. Chicken‘s consideration as a masterwork. Knotts is such a well meaning mensch, the kind of instantly likeable sad sack that we hope will eventually succeed, that we can’t help but empathize with his plight. The fetching Alma seems to care for our coward, but with the dishonorable Ollie around to interfere with their budding attraction, we wind up with a sensational subplot of love unrequited to go along with all the macabre-based merriment.


As witty as it is wise, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken boasts another element that many post-modern movies can’t even begin to find, and that’s a combination of slapstick and character-based comedy. Most current films try to milk laughs out of ludicrous situations, standard gross out gags and superficial sexual innuendo. But every member of the town is terrifically realized, from the spooky Mr. Kelsey to the Mayor’s paranormally obsessed wife Halcyon. With dialogue strewn with wonderfully memorable lines (“And they used Bon Ami”…“Let me clarify this”…“Attaboy Luther!”) and a wrap up that makes us appreciate just how much we care for these characters, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is a landmark of lovingly crafted cleverness. One should ignore the dismissive tone of the ‘too cool for school’ generation and embrace this movie for the gentle gem it is. Luther may be a variation on the village idiot, but in the end, it’s his courage and conviction that matter. It’s an important message that bolsters what is a mini-masterpiece of a movie.


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Friday, Oct 6, 2006

Reason‘s blog links to this article from the Austin American-Statesman about the abuse of audio compression in contemporary pop music. Compression is a post-production audio-processing effect that eliminates dynamics and makes everything sound equally loud and crisp—and it’s what makes it sound like your radio is going to explode when the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” kicks in. When records were pressed to vinyl, the medium limited the amount of compression that could be used (which part of the reason records sound so warm); but digital technology changed all that. With no physical limitations, engineers have gone over the top with compression. Why? Joe Gross, who wrote the article, calls compression the audi equivelant of MSG. It’s the audio equivelant of boldface type; it makes things “pop”.


But it also seems to make listeners’ ears hurt. The article cites a letter written by an exaperated Sony A&R man:


“The mistaken belief that a ‘super loud’ record will sound better and magically turn a song into a hit has caused most major label releases in the past eight years to be an aural assault on the listener,” Montrone’s letter continued. “Have you ever heard one of those test tones on TV when the station is off the air? Notice how it becomes painfully annoying in a very short time? That’s essentially what you do to a song when you super compress it. You eliminate all dynamics.” For those already confused, Montrone was essentially saying that there are millions of copies of CDs being released that are physically exhausting listeners, most of whom probably don’t know why their ears and brains are feeling worn out.



Another recording engineer concurs:


The brain can’t process sounds that lack a dynamic range for very long. It’s an almost subconscious response. This is what Montrone was talking about when he mentioned the TV test tone. “It’s ear fatigue,” Tubbs says, “After three songs you take it off. There’s no play to give your ears even a few milliseconds of depth and rest.” Alan Bean is a recording/mastering engineer in Harrison, Maine. He’s a former professional musician and a doctor of occupational medicine. “It stinks that this has happened,” he says. “Our brains just can’t handle hearing high average levels of anything very long, whereas we can stand very loud passages, as long as it is not constant. It’s the lack of soft that fatigues the human ear.” This is part of the reason that some people are really fanatical about vinyl. “It’s not necessarily that vinyl sounds ‘better,’ ” Bean says. “It’s that it’s impossible for vinyl to be fatiguing.”


Gross connects this phenomenon to the attention wars that play out in consumer society, with everything competing to be heard. Just as the relentlessly loud record wears us out, the relentlessly nagging media culture, the inexorable progress of ad creep, the invasiveness of entertainment and information access seem to have a tendency to shut our bodies down, and we stumble through life in a state of sensory fatigue. What happens them? Vulnerability? Susceptibility? Depression? Stress? Psychosomatic ailments? While individuals have the opportunity to go Luddite and hole themselves away (with their vinyl record collections), the process seems irreversible at the social level; the causes present themselves as solutions.


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