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by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2008

When the Western died, it did so because of two distinct reasons. First, the media had so saturated the audience with as many warmed over oaters as possible that even fervent devotees screamed “enough”. In addition, the Europeans were deconstructing the genre, picking out its more operatic elements and leaving the spaghetti fed horseplay for another day. While filmmakers throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s tried to revive the cinematic category, it wasn’t until a further artistic reevaluation (begun with Clint Eastwood’s amazing Unforgiven) proved that post-modern sensibilities could merge with old school saddle sores. Actor turned filmmaker Ed Harris wants to go back to the days of simple sagebrush storytelling, and with one major exception, everything he does in his adaptation of the novel Appaloosa is nothing short of brilliant.

The tiny Western town of Appaloosa is having a hard time with one of its more menacing citizens - ranch owner and troublemaker Randall Bragg. After killing their sheriff and his deputies, the city fathers see no other choice than to hire professional lawman Virgil Cole and his sharpshooter sidekick Everett Hitch. Within a very short time, the duo restores order and puts Bragg in his place. The arrival of pretty piano player Allison French changes everything once again. While Virgil is instantly smitten, Everett is suspect of her ways. Sure enough, she locks onto Cole, but lets her eye wander toward other men in town. When a witness is willing to testify that Bragg killed the previous sheriff, a trial is held. The arrival of hired guns Ring and Mackie Shelton suggest something is amiss. Sure enough, Bragg is convicted, and the mercenaries use Cole’s emotions to mandate his release. It’s up to the old partners to put things right, or ruin their reputation - and camaraderie - forever.

It’s such a shame that Appaloosa contains a massive, almost irredeemable flaw. It’s heroic and moving, a meditation on personal friendship and professional duty. It contains one of Viggo Mortensen’s most mesmerizing turns. We could follow his enigmatic Everett Hitch for a whole other movie. The way he dresses, the way he holds himself both in and out of conflict, the way he responds to Harris’ characters needs, its non-erotic male bonding at its best. At its core, Appaloosa is a buddy film, albeit one where the heroes are too tired to trade on their bravado. Instead, Hitch and Cole come into a locale, lay down their law, and wait for the bad guys to show off and step in it. A quick bit of gunplay later, and frontier justice is restored.

Some could complain that laidback lawman Cole is as big a problem as the film’s main mistake. He is a reluctant regulator, the kind of man who wears every kill on his worn and wrinkled face. Harris the director gives Harris the actor plenty of time to brood. Some may think it too much, but in a narrative that is trying to take on the mythos of how the West was won, it works wonderfully. Besides, Harris surrounds himself with such an amazing cast that we forgive his frequent indulgences. Jeremy Irons is so ornery and officious that his random acts of extreme violence seem perfectly suited to his stature. B-movie fave Lance Henrickson shows up an hour in as a hateful hired gun, and he rides his weather beaten ways directly to a sensational showdown. From Timothy Spall as a harried city official to Harris’ father Bob as a curmudgeonly judge, the supporting cast is excellent.

That’s why the sudden appearance of the strewn and superfluous Renee Zellweger almost ruins everything. Up until the moment she arrives in the title town, the film is following a standard pattern of standoffs and machismo. We anticipate the arrival of a love interest, a Claudia Cardinale type to bring a little lilac and lace to the proceedings. But with her Dr. 90210 expression and inability to properly position her little lady lost, the Oscar winner becomes a dead-end detriment. Whenever she is onscreen, we cringe at her spun sugar stereotyping. Then she starts throwing herself at anything in pants and the critical gloves come off. There is never an explainable motivation for what Allison French does. Mortensen tries, saying that maybe she just always “needs a man…any man”. By the time she’s trapped Cole and cavorts naked with Henriksen’s callous cowpoke, you start running through the remaining townsfolk, wondering who she’ll cling to next.

It’s not just the sexual speciousness that aids French’s undermining effect on the film. Zellweger’s character is the standard catalyst, someone that comes in and instantly destroys decades of friendship, professionalism, and purpose. Harris goes from cold eyed lawman to weepy school boy in the matter of a single scene, and before we know it, he’s forgotten everything that made him the highly respected lawman he is. Mortensen’s Hitch doesn’t dissuade him, since the soft touch of a non-whore is something quite rare in the Old West. So French is supposed to be something worth dying for, something worth wasting everything that came before to cling to and appreciate. And she shows her dowdy dedication by lunging at anything with a penis.

Some might say this is too harsh, that to blame the actress for Appaloosa‘s staid storytelling and ambitiously long sequences is grasping for easy excuses. But Harris does so many things right here that, with a different female lead, it would all end up a clear contemporary classic. Instead of drawing out the firefights like epic confrontations between able bodied men and ammunition, the gun blasts are quick and efficient. The politics of the town play as much a part in the confrontations with Bragg as the villains need for power. Hitch’s secret honor helps deliver us from many of the more mannered sequences, and when the truth is finally revealed, the matter of fact manner in which Harris treats the romantic treason is wonderful to watch.

Had an evocative foreign femme fatale been inserted into the Allison French role, an actress who could effectively sell modern promiscuity as some kind of clash of cultures, we’d celebrate the performance. But in a movie of palpable pluses, Zellweger proves once again her resemblance to the mathematical null set. She singlehandedly turns something masterful into a well-meaning almost-miss. 

by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2008

Before Star Wars, serious science fiction survived on the allegorical. Take a typical situation, instill it with some sort of out of this world premise, and watch as humanity races toward its own prophetic self-destruction. Children of Men did it with infertility. Soylent Green offered up environmental catastrophe, food shortages, and roundabout cannibalism. And now comes Blindness, offering the title affliction as yet another way of undermining the social order and illustrating the standard dystopic notions of power corrupting basic moral principles. One expects more from City of God/The Constant Gardener filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, and the source material (from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago). Sadly, what we wind up with is a puerile, preachy mess. 

In a nameless metropolis, random citizens begin to go blind. The government’s reaction is swift and uncompromising. While scientists gather to investigate the cause, the afflicted are rounded up and placed in an abandoned asylum. There, they must fend for themselves, creating their own sense of order and means of survival. In Ward One, an optometrist and his wife find themselves caring for a ragtag group of individuals. They have a secret from the others, however. She can still see. As civility devolves into chaos, the patients in Ward Three, led by a power mad bartender, begin demanding servitude from the others. At first, it’s financial. Soon, it’s sexual. As anarchy reigns, it is up to the only person with sight to strategize a way out of this living Hell. If she can’t there may be no hope for humanity after all.

There is a precise moment when Blindness goes wonky, a single sequence that shows how unrealistic Meirelles plans on playing with this metaphoric material. As the asylum slowly fills up, the director dissolves between a shot of a scruffy hallway, and a corridor riddled with urine, feces, and other types of human waste. It’s the before and after, the shocker that provides the first indication that this movie is not going to pussyfoot around the realities of the civilized losing their grip on the basics of being people. As unnamed characters wander in and through their own filth, the notion that all sense of hygiene and propriety would be lost is sledge-hammered over our head relentlessly. By the time a fat lady is shown lounging, pimply body bereft of a single stitch of clothing, we’re supposed to suspect the worse. This is how the world ends - in a river of offal.

And that’s exactly what Blindness delivers - 30 minutes of basic bookend apocalypse followed by a middle 90 of nauseating repugnance. Coping skills cranked down to zero and left to rot by a republic hellbent on playing concentration camp, all allusions are tossed aside for endless sequences of sleaze and self pity. Julianne Moore, relegated to a saint in sighted garb, does all the dimensional duty here, while cast mate Mark Ruffalo (as her eye doctor husband) gets to feel severely sorry for himself. Both Meirelles and author Saramago have stated that the title illness is not meant to be taken literally. Instead, thanks to its described milky whiteness, it’s supposed to suggest the loss of detail and definition, not a plunge into total darkness.

Yet that’s exactly what this movie does, time and time again. Desaturating the image to suggest the sterility of contemporary life as San Paolo steps in for Anywhere Earth, our director begins things with a criminal taking advantage of our first victim. Soon, a hooker is humiliated as her nakedness is ignored by those looking down on her profession. By the time we get to the loony bin, and Gael García Bernal has turned into Jack from Lord of the Flies, everything is dim and grimy. Even the mass rape scene, with the ward women submitting in return for promised food, is photographed in deep shadow - perhaps for ratings reasons, or to heighten the imagined horrors in the mind’s eye. Meirelles clearly wants the audience to experience what his characters are going through. Unlike the controlled artistry of Julian Schnabel’s similarly styled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, however, Blindness has no rationale for its scattered stylistic approach.

Indeed, the entire film reeks of the illogical. No one ever comes to the detainees’ defense. Their quarantine might as well be a human landfill. The rest of the world disappears so rapidly that you wonder why some nation didn’t just nuke everyone else as a precaution. When they finally escape, our refugees face little threat from the outside mayhem, as if only in the closed confines of their camp would power mad people try and control everyone else. And let’s not even discuss the moment when our heroine and her husband discover their home - clean, untouched, and capable of a certain level of creature comforts. You can tell Saramago had a lesson to teach with this material. Blindness may have been a screed against finding meaning through your eyes only. But Meirelles messes it up so badly, we can’t support the sophism.

In truth, it all becomes a matter of acceptance. There will be those who find this film as insightful about the human condition (and its easy of corruptibility) as anything since the aforementioned William Golding masterpiece. Others will sniff out its implausible pretensions and grow aggravated quickly. Perhaps a more subtle hand would have helped sell this literal lesson in the blind leading the blind. Maybe no adaptation could bring to life what Saramago suggested on the page. Whatever it is, Blindness cannot succeed as either entertainment or epiphany. Instead, it’s an unpleasant experience magnified by the arrogance inherent in its sense of self-importance. Currently, there is controversy over the depiction of the sightless in this film. Those who dismiss the claims forget one thing - the most reprehensible character in the entire third ward is someone who was actually born blind. That they ‘overlook’ such symbolism is par for this movie’s preachy, distasteful course.

by Bill Gibron

2 Oct 2008

There are certain unwinnable arguments in life, debates where no one side can claim clear victory. Argue over abortion, and see how staunch either position becomes. Discuss race and prejudice and the majority and minority never see eye to eye. While it’s always been a bit of a hot button, religion has become an even bigger sticking point over the last few decades. Call it the Moral Majority effect, the Neo-Con crusade, or the Islamic fundamentalist backlash, but Christians are chastising the non-believer and taking names - at least politically. Even in the face of clear First Amendment protections, the new faithful want Jesus and those who chronicled his life and time making policy.

There are a few people who find this as morally reprehensible as those on their principled high horses. Journalist Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not great takes a frank and honest look at how, in his words, “religion poisons everything”. And now noted political humorist and TV host Bill Maher is out to back the side of the blasphemer. With Religulous, his new documentary, he teams up with Borat director Larry Charles to travel around the world, interviewing various religious individuals. That’s it - no skits, no spoofing, no fake characterizations or commentary on American values. Just a razor sharp wit sitting around with devout believers, our host letting his subject’s own words systematically undermine their professed positions.

At times, Religulous celebrates the rather obvious. Most Christians don’t understand their Bible, nor have they read it enough to ably defend the reality of what it does and does not contain. Maher proves that most believers function within a kind of pocket of propaganda. A preacher explains the Gospels, loosely interpreting passages or parables, and his listeners legitimize it as truth. When pushed to prove their points, they can’t find the Lord’s supposed words to support them. Naturally, this leads to a few angry attitudes. At a trucker’s chapel somewhere along the highway, a stout driver storms out of the converted trailer. He wants no part of Maher’s “mockery”. Those who stay put and argue, however, are treated to the opportunity to make their case - with just a minor amount of derision from our guide.

Some sequences don’t need commentary. When Maher visits a Creationist Museum in Kentucky, the owner’s illogical statements make the point all too well. Even better, a trip to a religious theme park in Orlando Florida (known as “The Holy Land Experience”) turns the Passion into a daily ritual, including the parading of a blood soaked Jesus before an audience of teary eyed patrons. In each instance, Maher approaches the material with the same mad twinkle he brings to his other projects. By picking on the extremes, however, he underlines the obviousness of the project. Religion will always have a hard time defending itself. By bringing it out into the open, this documentary may only be preaching to the non-converted.

Still, Religulous deserves mention for what it means outside the tenets of certain dogma. Maher’s bigger message is clearly one of critical thinking. He illustrates how most organized belief systems remove curiosity to claim divine intervention into any unexplainable situation. A pair of ex-Mormons sit down with our host as he discusses the just plain bizarre ideals propagated by the followers of Joseph Smith. When asked why more people don’t question the church and their claims of magic underwear and a Missouri based Garden of Eden, the men are quick to answer. “Family and friends” they say, indicating their status as pariahs for leaving their faith. You lose everything when you leave, they continue, because of the cult like ways of the community.

Since Maher was born to a Jewish mother and a staunch Catholic father (his sister and mom are on hand to discuss the past), the Judeo-Christian ethic gets the most ribbing here. Islam is left for a last minute discussion, while other worldwide beliefs such as Buddhism and Hinduism are rendered relatively unscathed. Even the jokefest that is Scientology (at least from an aliens/thetans/e-meter conceit) is relegated to a brief comic rant in London’s Hyde Park Sunday Soap Box. In some ways, Religulous is meant as a reactionary responsorial to the West’s demonization of the Middle East. That Christians tend to be as extreme as the radicals they rail against really comes as no surprise.

Most of Religulous is oblivious in its outrage. That Maher fails to find a single level headed individual might be a product of the production scheme (even a Vatican condemning Catholic priest winds up on the weird side). Indeed, Charles is more singular in his focus. He intercuts scenes from faith based propaganda films and other cinematic efforts to accentuate points, and while they earn their laughs, they also cut the scholarship attempted. Maher, who clearly finds religion one of the reasons for the world’s muddled state, seems eager to peel back the layers of hypocrisy and argue that all belief is just a way of avoid responsibility and advance magic problem solving. Miracles are nothing more than coincidences, the answering of prayers an indirect self-fulfilling prophecy.

He ends the film at the same place he starts it - on Tel Megiddo, the hill where the Second Coming of Christ is predicted to occur. With Jesus’ return will come the Rapture, followed by several Revelation realities. As he explains the path to Armageddon, Maher makes Religulous’ most cogent point: The Bible was written by men who at the time had no knowledge of how to destroy each other completely. The notion of wiping mankind off the face of the planet was reserved for a higher power. Now, third world countries have the ability to predicate the Apocalypse. How much of what was written was foresight, and how much was simply a keen insight into the destructive nature of humanity stands as Religulous’ biggest unwinnable disagreement. Neither side - sacred or profane - can argue their way out of that reality.

by Rob Horning

2 Oct 2008

Considering that Sarah Palin has declared her belief that the right to privacy is guaranteed by the Constitution, this August 2008 Scientific American article by Daniel Solove about how privacy is evolving in the internet age is worth revisiting.

It is still possible to protect privacy, but doing so requires that we rethink outdated understandings of the concept. One such view holds that privacy requires total secrecy: once information is revealed to others, it is no longer private. This notion of privacy is unsuited to an online world. The generation of people growing up today understands privacy in a more nuanced way. They know that personal information is routinely shared with countless others, and they also know that they leave a trail of data wherever they go.
The more subtle understanding of privacy embraced by Generation Google recognizes that a person should retain some control over personal information that becomes publicly available. This generation wants a say in how private details of their lives are disseminated.

Solove suggests that as a result, we need to firm up legal protection of the data we generate through our online activities. I couldn’t agree more, though I don’t get the sense that Generation Google much cares about it. I’m not sure what the nuances are that Solove is pointing to; it’s hard to get the feeling that people are concerned with privacy at a deeper level because they don’t like having online activity broadcast by Facebook.

Rather it seems that when we use the internet, we become blinded by our own self-absorption and too enthralled by narcissism to care about what sort of digital trail we leave behind. If we are casting a wider net than we realize, if marketers find us so important as to publicize us further, then so much the better. We are achieving greater notoriety, registering even more deeply in the public sphere, where selves are now predominantly fashioned. And though we may start out only wanting our friends to know what we want them to know, the lack of reciprocity and face-to-face exchange in online relations begins to make us indiscriminate about who pays attention to us. Online, a page view is a page view, a comment is a comment; in the end it all gives us the same sense of being paid attention to in that realm. So social networks exert a centrifugal force, and the seeds of our identity are sprayed out in ever-widening circles, looking for a place to find purchase.

So privacy concerns have taken a backseat to publicity concerns. We don’t have to use the internet and create a digital record of our lives; we choose to, because it is both convenient and flattering, particularly when personalized ads succeed in making us feel well-understood. In general, we are aware of our digital trail but, encouraged by the design of social networking and the ways it tries to prod us into perpetually applaud and recognize one another, generally think only of how our digital history can aggrandize us. As the private sphere disappeared—as Richard Sennett details in The Fall of Public Man—and public life became a forum for expressing the authentic self, a new imperative to celebrity takes hold: the more publicity one receives, the more established and concrete one’s authentic self begins to seem to oneself. If I wear a clever T-shirt and no one sees me, what have I really accomplished? The idea expressed by the T-shirt has not been affixed to my image; it hasn’t been affirmed and validated. I remain that much more amorphous.

Social networking makes it so I can believe someone is always seeing me wear my clever T-shirt, or listen to a cool band, or come up with a pithy sentence about what I am doing right now.

by Jason Gross

2 Oct 2008

That’s what they want us to believe, according to this CNN article.  Or more precisely, they’re using this threat to convince the Copyright Royalty Board not to raise the amount of money publishers can collect for songs, increasing the price from 9 cents to 15 cents a song (aka 66%).  Apple argues that they can’t keep songs at 99 cents a pop at that new rate and would have to close iTunes.  Publishers are unmoved by this threat but considering that Apple has 85% of the digital music market, there should be some cause for concern.  If Apple’s gone, what will happen to all their customers?  They’re not going to automatically just migrate over to other major-sanctioned services (i.e. Napster, Amazon, Rhapsody) and will more likely go to the free P2P services.  That will mean a lot less money for the publishers, the labels and of course the artists themselves.  So while the publishers would get more money for each song, the total amount will be MUCH less if Apple follows through on their threat.

But would Apple really do that?  As it is, the company makes pennies (literally) for each iTune song sold, with the bulk of their profits coming from iPods instead.  If they were in business with iTunes alone, they’d be losing a lot of money so this just means they’ll be losing a lot more.  But shutting off iTunes would give people less incentive to buy iPods.  Unless Apple is gambling that people will stick with their neat little device with or without iTunes, then this is a ploy to get the Copyright Board to back down and not implement the increase and see if their threat will make them blink.

Then again, Soundexchange was negotiating royalty rates for streaming services (Net and satellite services) recently and thought it more important to raise the rate as they please and not care about how many companies (i.e. Pandora) would be put out of business as a result of that.  Luckily, the recent Webcaster Settlement Act (which passed Congress and is going to Bush) gives the ‘casters the chance to renegotiate the rates.  If only the CPB had enough sense to do the same.

OCTOBER 3rd follow-up: According to this Wired story, the Board decided to keep the price the same so iTunes lives.  One of the publishing company heads bragged there that he didn’t think Jobs and friends really had the guts to kill off iTunes if an increase was agreed upon.  Such chutzpah…

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