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Saturday, Aug 26, 2006

For anyone who thinks that all Goona Goona movies are alike, a trip through this particular Cannibal Holocaust should quiet those concerns once and for all. Far more graphic than other jungle jive, but with an actual message method to its miscreant madness, this is one of the best Italian horror films ever—all for reasons that have nothing to do with terror or the macabre. Ruggerio Deodato has made a geek show as Greek chorus, a strident social commentary on the state of the news media glossed over with gore and gratuitous animal slaughter. While it is truly tainted, sickening stuff, one does not feel as filthy as say the experience of watching the last few minutes of Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox. Both movies trade in the same sort of revolting imagery, but one film wants to play with the parameters of cinema. The other is just out for a splattery good time.

But Cannibal Holocaust isn’t just a gut-munching gross out. Though it may seem odd to say it, Cannibal Holocaust is really a disgustingly dark comedy, a savage satire on the media and the methods it would stoop to in selling a story. Deodato was way ahead of his time here, attempting a Network-like denouncement of filmmakers and journalists who would rather “create” news than simply report it. We laugh at the moments surrounding the fictional Alan Yates and his team of intrepid psychos. It is hilarious how quickly they revert to rape, murder, and disgustingly deviant behavior, all in an attempt to “go native” and have the locals provide them with some sensationalized footage. Sure, the entire last act of the film (where the Blair Witch-style material from their final “adventure” is screened by the TV executives) is laughable, a kind of perverted pantheon of over-the-top elements. But Deodato uses this approach to both condemn and codify his characters. We need villains in this kind of film, and Alan and his pals make the perfect cannibal bait.

That is why Cannibal Holocaust is a much better film than its imitators and inspiration. It is still repugnant and sordid, but most of the misguided grotesquery is in service of a very sound message. The truth is that Cannibal Holocaust is a good movie gunked up by elements that are either unnecessary (monkey brain eating? Please…) or unexplained (the way in which the natives function among themselves is left to a lot of confusing speculation), a true milestone of moviemaking that is sadly slandered for issues far outside the main purpose of the narrative. As long as you are prepared for the repugnance, you will more or less enjoy this graphic, gritty cinematic experiment. Its reputation is well deserved.

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Friday, Aug 25, 2006

Clint Eastwood as the “master director” is sort of a new concept thanks, largely, to his recent box-office and award-circuit triumphs with Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. While Eastwood’s first major critical success came with 1992’s unlikely Oscar winner Unforgiven, the veteran Hollywood star’s 1988 gem, Bird is the film in his canon that best represents the scope of his talents.

Charlie Parker was one of our greatest musicians. “Yardbird” was one of the true jazz pioneers, blending vision, skill and creativity perfectly. Unfortunately, he was plagued by a terrible drug habit, bad business decisions and bleeding ulcers. Eastwood explores the mind of a creator, which is fascinating considering the director’s own gifts and his love of jazz, and it is obvious he can relate to the struggle of having to be the best, even when you don’t feel like it. When the possibility of electric shock therapy is tossed around as a possibly cure for the musician’s ailments, it is just as quickly dismissed. No matter the demons involved, changing the mind and chemistry of a great artist is always detrimental.

What we then witness is a thrilling, career-best performance from Forest Whitaker, a turn which took the male acting prize at Cannes that year. He not only captures the grandeur of a music firebrand working with a heavy heart, he somehow also finds the kindness, the wit and the humanity inside the fast living man. The actor is fearless: he doesn’t go for cheap sentimentality and plays Parker as incredibly flawed, to the point of being incapacitated by his own bad behavior. He expects those that surround him to blindly tolerate his addictions without really thinking through the consequences. While Whitaker blazes through the narrative with an unlikable abandon, one of my favorite is also one of the most simple. After playing wherever he could, to little or no acclaim, Bird visits Paris and is welcomed with open, adoring arms. After a particularly intense performance he is rewarded with a hail of accolades and a storm of roses thrown at the stage. It is a glorious moment, especially when one views Whitaker’s reaction. His gratitude, his humbleness and his pure happiness at seeing his real love connect in the way he wants it to is startling.

Bird also intimately examines the performer’s partnership with dancer Chan Parker (played with vigor by Diane Venora). The scenes between the concerned common-law spouse and her disturbed, creative partner crackle with a rare energy and sharpness. Venora delivers an unexpected performance, in every sense. It may be “the thankless wife” role, but Venora elevates her character above the rut most women who play the quietly supportive type fall into. Chan is sublimely devoted to her husband, to his music and his creativity. She is tolerant of his habits, sometimes despite the welfare of their children. She sees his problems as being intertwined with his gifts and allows him to continue on his path with little interruption, even if it means she will eventually lose him to the grip of these vices. She deals with the tricky subject of being romantically affiliated with a black man and having his children - which in itself was a pioneering effort in those times - with a sense of pride and love that is a refreshing twist on the relatively stock role. The film is in fact based on the memoirs of Parker’s widow and Eastwood managed to not only gain her blessing on the venture, but also received access to a slew of unreleased recordings that were previously locked in a bank vault thanks to her involvement.

Eastwood manages to lift his tidy little story into another dimension by putting the music at the forefront, something that is clumsily absent from the slew of recent films with similar topics. While musician bios like Ray and Walk the Line seem like elaborate showcases for rising talent to posture about, imitating their subjects, Bird is a more artistic and more thoughtful effort. It lets its actors’ characterizations unfold at a sumptuous, un-rushed pace around the music. Though Bird’s physical struggles and his relationship with those closest to him are intrinsic plot elements, the vigorous musical sequences (where Whitaker avoids a stock imitation, meticulously re-creating not only the artist’s techniques, but also his inner fire) are the real draw, proving Eastwood can’t really be placed in a box when it comes to his directorial choices

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Friday, Aug 25, 2006

Nobody should be looking for a “cool job”—maybe this is just semantics, but jobs aren’t “cool”. They might be rewarding to varying degrees and offer varying levels of autonomy, but it seems wrong to think about their fashionability (being gainfully employed never goes out of fashion).  The Fonzie approach to work seems pretty self-defeating to me. If you are doing something to be cool rather than to simply do whatever it is—making art to seem like a cool artist rather than because you enjoy making art—then you are always at one remove from your own activity, self-alienated. (I doubt both can be done simultaneously; the self-regarding pursuit of cool detracts from the pleasures of pure immersion in a task.) Plus the harder you try to establish your cool, the less cool you are. And the degree to which people think your job is cool is often the degree to which you are being undercompensated for doing it. A cool job is usually a matter of someone else insisting how cool it is to be associated with some company or industry, while you slog through the same administrative or managerial tasks you’d do at any job. You end up getting paid in cool instead of cold hard cash, and I know which currency I’d prefer. (No amount of cool is going to pay my electric bill when I’m 64.) Better to never let “cool” come into your thinking and just try to find ways to get paid for doing things you like to do.

Of course that might be what you think of when you hear “cool”—I just hate to let it stand as a synomym for satisfying or interesting as the following writers do. Nevertheless, via Jane Galt comes some good job-seeking advice from Timothy Burke that readers—particularly those pursuing liberal arts degrees in hope of landing cool jobs—may find useful.

The bad news, and I’m not sure liberal arts institutions are always as forthright about saying this as they could be to their current undergraduates, is that the significant majority of immediately post-graduate employment experiences are going to suck. Dilbert’s office would be an improvement over quite a few of the ones I’ve heard about. I think my favorite job experience I’ve heard about in the last six years was the non-profit community group that paid $15,000 a year for a 55/hr week with no benefits or vacation time and was run by a near-psychotic incompetent. But there’s lots like that to go around. I do think we promise payoffs in the longer term from “critical thinking” and the like, so any student who’s listening carefully probably understands the implicit point being made when that’s said.
Thinking about people I know with Cool Jobs who are not academics, broadly speaking I can identify a couple of ways that they got there.
Route 1 to a Cool Job is applying to a Nasty Leftover job and then proving yourself with diligence and creativity to be a Cool Person and being promoted upwards to the stuff in the same workplace or organization that’s satisfying and interesting.
Route 2 to a Cool Job is going to graduate school but in a specific professional field, aimed at very specific technical proficiencies, skills and credentials, NOT a doctoral program aimed at becoming an academic. You’re looking for something that goes straight into a profession or field of employment outside of academia, preferably a program with a strong, proven track record of placing its graduates in employment. The shorter the program, the better.
Route 3 to a Cool Job is making a nuisance out of yourself in a way that feels very very difficult for a lot of folks (including myself)–basically exploiting your family and social networks, writing to strangers, showing up at lots of events and aggrandizing yourself in various ways, brownnosing if necessary, being gutsy and unafraid, jumping into strange situations without looking. The problem with this is not just that it is difficult to do, but that it takes a certain kind of personality and judicious ability to size up social situations to do it successfully. Somebody with the wrong personality or with a consistent inability to judge when and how the moment has arrived is going to do themselves way more harm than good following this strategy.
Route 4 is hanging out your own shingle in some fashion–if you’ve got a serious technical skill, some special area of knowledge, some ability to do creative writing, anything of that kind, you go into business or do consulting or sit down and write. Anything that either produces a concrete output (artwork, writing, programming, technology, a successful small business) or that serves as an effective entree to some larger institution by proving yourself is a good thing. That is, providing what you’re doing doesn’t suck–bad art, lame writing, or technically incompetent independent work isn’t going to help you any, and parasitic just-one-step-above-confidence-man kinds of consulting work may alienate rather than ingratiate. May require a significant other and/or parents you can sponge off of for a while.
Route 5 is basically paying lots and lots of dues, about ten to fifteen years of painfully bad or frustrating jobs where the next job is somewhat higher paying or more responsible than the last job, but not really a Cool Job or even a particularly good one–and then taking the accumulated reputational and professional capital from that and cashing it in to grab a Cool Job.

I think I was so seduced by the fiction of democratic meritocracy that I didn’t think making connections and networking was all that important. One could get by on sheer ability. What I didn’t understand is that, unless you are specialized in something extremely technical (i.e. you do something “not cool”), the ability to get along with other people is ability—more important than any other kind of knowledge or skill for most jobs in most bureaucratic organizations. Having an extensive social network is a good proxy for that ability to blend in organizationally. Judging by my experience in publishing, the easiest way to get a job somewhere is to know someone who already works there. I guess that is Burke’s route 3.

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Thursday, Aug 24, 2006

As the summer blockbuster carnival slowly “slithers” away from your local Multiplex, the major pay cable channels think its award season circa 2005. Two of the four offerings premiering this week were considered shoe-ins for Oscar nods once the nominations hit in February. They were even bolstered by some helpful pre-Academy nods. Not surprisingly, they were left wanting when the names were finally read. This doesn’t mean they’re not worth checking out, though. As a matter of fact, compared to the action-oriented dreck one channel is passing off as entertainment, and the dearth of new titles elsewhere, this pair of potential prestige pictures may be your best bet for a little Saturday night small screen fun. Here’s what’s on tap for the weekend of 25, August:

HBOIn Her Shoes

When is a chick flick not your typical chick flick? When it’s directed by LA Confidential helmer Curtis Hanson. Sure, there are formulaic elements to this odd couple sister combo, but Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette manage to move beyond the archetype, turning what could have been a conventional comedy into more of a carefully realized character study. With the arrival of Shirley MacLaine as a disgruntle grandmother who holds some secrets of her own, this is not your typical Lifetime-like melodrama. Thanks to Hanson and his cast, the syrupy saccharine levels are kept to a manageable minimum. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 8:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

CinemaxThe Transporter 2

It’s more bare-chested and knuckled fun for everyone’s favorite UK himbo, Jason Statham. In this sequel to the famously unclothed one’s previous action packed DVD hit from 2002, Statham’s Frank Martin is in Miami, and implicated in a kidnapping. Naturally, this means he’s must kick ass, take names, and strip down to his skivvies every now and again to clear his name. As the stunt work and set pieces practice their physics-defying magic, our only choice is to turn off our brains and enjoy the superficial thrills and antihero chills. Otherwise, the logic leaps and lapses become far too obvious to ignore. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 10:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review


Why it took so long to bring Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award winning musical to the silver screen, especially with the cinematic conceit of employing the original cast, is anyone’s guest. Why it failed to fulfill the promise of this rock show remix of La Boheme is a little more self-evident. Director Chris Columbus may be a lot of things, but a filmmaker in tune with the mandates of the song and dance format he is not. Also, the narrative’s AIDS oriented storyline is definitely dated, particularly in light of our current sense of empowerment over the disease. Still, the music and the performances remind us of the power inherent in the wholly American artform. Too bad the translation failed to capture it correctly. (Premieres Saturday 26 August, 9:00pm EST).

PopMatters Review

ShowtimeThe Passion of the Christ

While he waits the frightening fall out from his undeniably Anti-Semitic remarks, here’s a chance to see Mel Gibson practice what he apparently preaches. This is a gorgeous, visually stunning film, despite its splatter/snuff reputation and heavy headed religiosity. While the Jews definitely get it in the far too literal Bible belting, it’s the Romans that actually come across as slobbering, sadistic animals. Carrying too much personal baggage to exist exclusively as iconography, what we have here is still an evocative and inflammatory motion picture. (Saturday 26 August, 10pm EST)

PopMatters Review


Turner Classic Movies: August: Summer Under the Stars Month

Leave it to the classic film channel to find novel ways of constantly recycling its catalog of amazing Tinsel Town artifacts. In August, the station will salute several celebrated names from Hollywood’s Golden Age upward, using each daylong promotion as an excuse to screen numerous offerings from the specific star’s catalog. A few of the highlights for the week of 25 August to 31 August are:

26 August – Cary Grant

No one, before or since, matched his delicate air of suave sophistication. Sadly, many thought such a style came naturally and never gave him the acting credit he so richly deserved. Let the performance reevaluation begin with these fine films:

6:00 AM Monkey Business (1952)* 
7:45 AM She Done Him Wrong (1933)* 
9:00 AM Cary Grant: A Class Apart (2004)* 
10:30 AM Operation Petticoat (1959) 
12:45 PM Bachelor And The Bobby-Soxer, The (1947) 
2:30 PM Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)* 
4:15 PM Dream Wife (1953) 
6:00 PM Father Goose (1964)* 
8:00 PM Gunga Din (1939)* 
10:00 PM Arsenic And Old Lace (1944)* 
12:15 AM North By Northwest (1959)* 
2:45 AM Suspicion (1941)* 
4:30 AM Every Girl Should Be Married (1949) 

29 August – Ingrid Bergman

While she may always be remembered as fragile femme fatale alongside Bogart’s magnificent ex-pat machismo in Casablanca, there was much more to this Swedish beauty than her ravishing looks and a scandalous affair with director Roberto Rossellini. Here’s proof:

6:00 AM Rage In Heaven (1941) 
8:00 AM Stromboli (1950)* 
10:00 AM Europa ‘51 (1952) 
12:00 PM Yellow Rolls-Royce, The (1964) 
2:15 PM Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1941)* 
4:15 PM Gaslight (1944)* 
6:15 PM Casablanca (1942)* 
8:00 PM For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943)* 
11:00 PM Cactus Flower (1969)* 
1:00 AM Adam Had Four Sons (1941) 
3:00 AM Saratoga Trunk (1945) 

30 August – Sidney Poitier

In an era when racial divides were unrelenting in both their cruelty and illogic, he towered above them, both in talent and tolerance. As the first performer of color ever to win the Oscar for Best Actor, here’s several reasons why he’s remembered as much for his acting as his activism: 

6:00 AM Blackboard Jungle (1955)*
8:00 AM Patch Of Blue, A (1965) * 
10:00 AM Edge of the City (1957) 
11:30 AM Red Ball Express (1952) 
1:00 PM Defiant Ones, The (1958) * 
2:45 PM Band Of Angels (1957) 
5:00 PM Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light (2000) 
6:00 PM Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) * 
8:00 PM For Love of Ivy (1968) 
10:00 PM In The Heat Of The Night (1967) * 
12:00 AM They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) 
2:00 AM Wilby Conspiracy, The (1975) 
4:00 AM Something Of Value (1957) 

* = PopMatters Picks

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Thursday, Aug 24, 2006

Echidne makes a good point in this post, where she indulges in some counterfactual thinking and posits a plausible evo-psych explanation for the opposite of what this widely reported study found, namely that women want sex less as a relationship progresses. The hypothetical narratives constructed to justify findings and tie them to traditional assumptions about gender remain fairly arbitrary, even if they are paraded beneath the cloak of evolutionary psychology, which more often than not is evoked in the popular press as a plank in the fatalistic platform that holds gender behavior to be immutable and tacitly urges us to make no effort to change anything about it, regardless of whatever inequalities stem from it. As many of Echidne’s commenters point out, popular evo psych seems to work backward—it takes a pre-existing narrative and atempts to conform findings to it rather than vice versa, and its reductive storyline (all human behavior is about propagating the species) seems to conform to no one’s experience of actual consciousness. (This Skeptic article, by David Buller, questions the evidence behind some of evo psych’s more-popularized findings.) It garners so much press attention not merely because it aids the antifeminist backlash but because it seems to present a Rosetta Stone for our actions, appealing to the Casaubonian desire many have for a universal grammar, a master explanation for everything that anyone with a free couple of hours can come to master—hence the fads for phrenology and astrology and all manner of pseudosciences over the centuries. Not to say that evo psych is a pseudoscience, but its all-purpose explanatory logic does seem ripe for abuse by agenda-wielding reactionaries.

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