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Thursday, Feb 1, 2007

As was widely reported, a stealth/guerilla ad campaign for the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim went “haywire” in Boston. (Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog has lots of interesting coverage.) People mistook the ads—which look like Lite-Brites with a cartoon character giving the finger—for bombs, as they were placed in semi-surreptitious manner on bridges, overpasses and subway stations. This seems like a pretty bad idea, and you might wonder what the ad agency, the aptly named Interference Inc., was thinking, though arresting ad henchmen over it seems extreme. They may as well throw those clowns who talk loudly about products on the subway in the klink. I guess I might feel differently if I had been sitting in a traffic jam in Boston, but then again when am I ever driving in Boston and not in a traffic jam? 
But it seems like this is the inevitable destination of “ad creep”—ads seeking new places to garner attention as targets learn to filter out their omnipresence elsewhere. What could garner more attention than something that looks like a suspicious package? It’s not called guerilla marketing for nothing. In the video showing how these boxes were installed, it seems like they were taking their revolutionary marketing practices pretty seriously, as though it was something truly subversive. (Fitting, as adults who watch cartoons seem to suspect their is soemthing radical in their praxis.) And their surrealist bantering with the media after being released on bail reinforces that impression: “Outside, they met reporters and television cameras and launched into a nonsensical discussion of hair styles of the 1970s. ‘What we really want to talk about today — it’s kind of important to some people — it’s haircuts of the 1970s,’ Berdovsky said.” Ha, ha ha. Is there anything these irreverent zanies won’t do in their quest to liberate us from staid boredom?


These pseudosubversive practices certainly seem to undermine the political potential of DeBordian detournement strategies and other similar cultural “interventions”—what’s so dastardly about advertising is that it’s an industry organized to systematically co-opt any interesting, innovative, or aresting way to communicate, such that now all forms of rhetoric seem diseased with inauthenticity, even the most radical forms of anti-social activity can now seem staged and phony. The very act of getting someone’s attention has itself become suspect; it tends always to feel like a hoax.


In my early-morning fugue state I seem to recall hearing on NPR a discussion of whether this hullaballoo over a terror scare constitutes success for the ad campaign. If the goal is to attract attention with no heed for the comfort or willingness of individuals to see it, then it seems to have been pretty successful to me. Perhaps Interference Inc. can come up with ads embedded in buildings’ fire alarms or in the sirens of ambulances. Perhaps they can kidnap people from in front of ATM machines and make them listen to speeches about proprietary fruit juices. The act of stealing someone’s attention has been decriminalized and to a large extent normalized (this is perhaps why people in cities besides Boston paid no mind to these boxes) and now there’s no obvious limit beyond which advertisers should not go.


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Wednesday, Jan 31, 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: Doris Wishman redefines “the roughie”.

Bad Girls Go to Hell



It’s the lure of the city that calls them, the bright lights matching the twinkle in their eyes and the sparkle of their high hopes. Sensible shoes wear a groove into the pavement as deep as the despair in their hearts as they learn that their fantasy easy street is actually a bleak boulevard of broken dreams. Few survive, and even fewer stay. For those with drive and determination, something close to a living can be squeezed out from in between the hustle and bustle. For others, it’s back alleys and underground clubs filled with sleazy users just waiting for the new crop to rotate in.


And it’s these lost, lonely and desperate women that become the focus of the urban roughie movies of Doris Wishman. In a career that fluctuated between innocent nudist colony films and all-out hardcore pornography, no one understood the metropolitan landscape and its ability to steamroll one’s soul better than Doris did. Her bleak, brave tales of big city seduction and violent passions reflected the times and tenure of America circa 1965-66 better than any mainstream movie or filmmaker. Bad Girls Go to Hell is a masterwork of miscreant behavior and a lost love letter to a social era where men feared the sexual power of women and would do anything to keep it neatly in check.


In the film, our heroine Meg Kelton goes about her daily chores. As she is cleaning the kitchen and taking out the garbage, she is attacked and savaged by the brutish landlord of her apartment building. When he later threatens to tell her husband about the incident, she meets him at his apartment, where she is again assaulted. But this time she bludgeons the bully to death. Frightened and alone, she heads to New York, where she encounters a series of good Samaritans, each with seemingly innocent offers of help. But sooner or later, each situation turns indecent and Meg finds the lecherous landlord’s murder catching up with her.


The creation of the so-called “roughie” is a complicated and critical step in the forward momentum of drive-in and grindhouse adult entertainment. Prior to its appearance as part of the exploitation oeuvre, sex on film was either naughty or nice and usually a little of both. The nudist camp saga showed skin as part of an imagined scientific examination of the lifestyle (mixed with a little tabloid titillation). The nudie took it one step further, making the location insignificant and the amount of body bared ample.


Later, tease would turn into flat-out fornication, where no one shed their clothes unless they meant to press and prod the flesh. These soft-core sexcapades would even veer off into wild and warped “ghoulies,” where gore and murder were added to spice up the sordidness. The roughie, however, existed in that strange middle zone between the tame and the tawdry, in an arena both twisted and tantalizing. The formula was simple enough: feature the man/woman or woman/woman dynamic as a seedy balance of lust and violence, where a man would slug a woman as soon as kiss her, and the woman would sheepishly respond to both.


In these urban decay dramas, sex was power, used to control and contain. Women who understood or flaunted this knowledge were shown the back of a hand or a belt. Only men were allowed to exploit the act for any interpersonal gain. But sex was also seen as comfort, a means for lost souls to find that temporary moment of connection, where loneliness concedes to lingering caresses under the sheets. However, these acts of sensual salvation were always punished. Men did not want women comprehending the power and the glory that existed as part of their physical make-up, aspects never to be explored together.


Socially, it is understandable where this cinematic philosophy comes from. The ‘60s were a time of great sexual and personal liberation, where women came into their own as sensual and political beings. Gone were the meek mousy housewives of the ‘50s. In their place were ripe, passionate pieces of erotic fruit. Before the games of suburban roulette, where husbands took back control and traded vows (and wives) for keys to the kinky kingdom, the roughie marked a time when men attempted payback for the loss of sexual and gender power. And in the soiled, soggy streets of the metropolis, within the walls of its catacomb like apartments, the battle of the bruised sexes played out.


There is no denying that director Doris Wishman understands this metropolitan landscape, aware as to how to translate its power and pulse into a raw cinematic sensation. She focuses on the little moments, the small slices of the city that exemplify and accurately paint a portrait of life in New York. She refrains from long shots of Manhattan, or perfectly framed compositions of tall buildings scraping the sky. Instead, she leads us down back streets and into tiny neighborhoods and boroughs where people struggle to exist. We linger in the city’s few remaining open spaces, desolate and serene as large monolithic apartment blocks overlook the fertile land like greedy developers. In these sequences she captures the city as simultaneously oppressive and infinite, the cell structure living rooms opening onto streets of endless seduction and sin. And like the magic that only the movies can provide, the monochromatic color scheme creates the only sense of black and white that will exist in this world filled with gray areas. There are no winners or losers in this Gotham, just the walking wounded, waiting for someone to dress their battered bodies and shattered lives.


As a director, Wishman never cast for beauty or good looks. She wanted her actors to embody the desire, the defects, and the destinies of their characters. She picked men who exuded Scotch and cigarettes, wearing their wounded male pride on rolled up shirtsleeves stained with blood, nicotine, and lipstick. As for the women, they all had hair piled high on their head like a bouffant crown or frame, and bodies bound under fishnet unitards and undersized brassieres. Their aura silently screamed desire and fertility from beneath their weathered unusual attractiveness, their glamour and good looks offset by the sharp edges of a life unfulfilled and the severe vogue of the current fashion. Everyone seems exhausted, as if beaten down so hard by the world that Hell was still somewhere high above. Acting talent or temperament was of no concern. As long as they looked the part on screen, Doris would find a way to make the performance work. It has been noted that, like Fellini, Wishman never recorded live sound with her films. Everything, from effects to dialogue, was dubbed in later during post. While this is not always true, it does exist here and it adds another layer of foggy, depersonalized confusion as to who and what we are watching. Characters become moral enigmas, too astray to speak in their own voices, too dulled and sullied by life to own a distinct, individual personality.


In her films, Wishman employs standard melodramatic plot lines and then inverts the parameters to impose illicit acts and criminal vice into the fray. Bad Girls casts our heroine as a carnal Candide, living from one sexual misadventure and debasement to the next. No circumstance is safe for her, not the kindly couple with the room for rent, not the lesbian hooker with a gold plated dime store heart. For Meg, men and women are a constant threat, one looming over and ogling her in ripe desire for defilement. She finds herself caught in a never-ending pool of prurience that comes when one forsakes their virtue for a life of vice. While this may be reading too much into what should be a standard exploitation narrative, Bad Girls does have something to say about the social and biological politics between man and woman, between the so-called weaker sex and the caveman king of the castle. There is no courting, no sweet talk or handholding. It’s a story of men looting women like sexual candy stores, stuffing their mouths and grabbing goodies by the fistful. And all these unlucky ladies can do is grind and bear it for another vanished day.


Newcomers to the genre may wonder what all the amateurish fuss is about. After all, there are probably 75 shots of shoes in Bad Girls Go to Hell alone. Wishman loves to move away from the action, from the groping and humping and onto inanimate objects like a fruit basket or a clown wall hanging. Some will argue that this is done to avoid the decency and censorship laws, but a trained eye looks deeper, and sees a message. These are not acts of love. This is not an erotic exchange. This is violent, rough sex play for authority, and no one needs to see it directly. Wanting to watch means acceptance and compliance. The extended shot of a desk set symbolizes the deplorable nature of what is going on. But what about the continuity errors, the bad dubbing, and the horrendous under/over acting? Again, all of it exists to set a tone and tarnish the tales being told. Doris Wishman was a woman making movies about the corruption of woman. Her celluloid crime scene is riddled with the evidence of honor usurped, of dignity fouled.


 


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Wednesday, Jan 31, 2007

Often when income inequality is debated, the focus is fixed on individual happiness—one’s income is conceived primariy as a proxy for one’s personal pleasure. Thus if you are happy with what you make, it should make no difference to you if your boss makes in a day what it takes you all year to make. If you were troubled by such comparisons, you will have fallen prey to the insidious politics of envy. This TNR piece by Brad Plumer does a good job refuting that notion. Income inequality is not a problem merely because it invites invidious comparisons and provokes questions about society’s basic fairness; the overriding problem is that it undermines the way democracy functions, allowing the rich to fashion a stealth oligarchy. Plumer notes how most legislators are rich (as you’d expect in the absence of publically financed elections) and they listen primarily to rich constituents (who they can relate to and who generally support their campaigns and who are far more likely to vote than the poor). The consequences? The government’s power is used to accelerate the redistribution of wealth upward—Plumer directs us to CEPR economist Dean Baker’s highly readable book The Conservative Nanny State (available free here) for an explanation of the various tools used for this—bankruptcy laws, protectionism for white-collar professionals, tort reform, subsidies, tax loopholes, etc. And thus a feedback loop is fashioned and the wealthy get wealthier and more politically powerful—the recent income data seems to bear this out.


So what do we do? Despair? As Scott Lemieux explains, “The most important means of redressing the problem (given current First Amendment law) is robust public financing of campaigns—but the pre-existing structural inequalities essentially make this virtually impossible.” Julian Sanchez notes that he has argued that “the best response was to have a government too limited in its economic power to merit buying, though there’s surely something of a chicken-and-egg problem there.” He wonders also if income isn’t a proxy for education. It may be that highly educated people (like the not-so-wealthy writers working for political journals, perhaps) influence politics disproportionately. It seems to me that at a certain point political involvement becomes a sociological question, a matter of having the accumulated influence, connections, and know how to participate and truly affect the process in a way that goes beyond voting—having cash to contribute to a campaign or hire lobbyists is just the most obvious way of acquiring political capital; belonging to a union that serves as a counterveiling power representing your interests might be the most feasible alternative for those with less cashflow. Of course then the union itself becomes subject to questions about whose interests its leadership really represents as well.


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Wednesday, Jan 31, 2007

After struggling with an intro essay for weeks and culling together articles for the last 12 months, my article on the best music journalism of ‘06 is now up on the rockcritics.com website.  I don’t have much to add because I think I spilled all my thoughts about the subject there!  I hope you enjoy it and feel free to let me know if you think I missed anything.


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Tuesday, Jan 30, 2007


Up until now, it’s been relatively easy to dismiss Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. Oh, he’s just a glorified genre director, some might say, pointing to his initial forays into fear with such works as Cronos and Mimic. Others look directly to his comic book efforts, from the only decent installment in the Blade series (#2) to his magnificent makeover of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and deny his inherent ability. Even his defiant history lesson from 2001, Espinazo del Diablo, El (The Devil’s Backbone) is viewed as more of a ghost story than a grand artistic statement.


But with the release of Laberinto del Fauno, El (Pan’s Labyrinth) and the surrounding critical clamor, Del Toro is finally finding the respect that his films have long mandated. And there’s a good reason for all the accolades. Without modifying his cinematic approach, and staying true to his vibrant vision of a world constantly weakened by elements both fantastical and fatal, this fascinating fable of a little girl’s hellish existence amongst the Post-war Fascists of Franco’s Spain is simply stunning. It’s a testament to human will and the power of the mind to make substitutes and sacrifices for the horrors all around us.


When we first meet Ofelia, our world-weary juvenile heroine, we immediately see the toll this national uprising has taken on its people. It is written all across her wrinkled brow. She’s a tired child, her face formed into an almost constant state of sorrow. In her hands she carries several books, her only escape from an existence without security, without love, and most recently, without a father. All of these factors will play an important part in Del Toro’s designs. He will take this innocent’s fears, amplify them via an alternative narrative based in classic Brother’s Grimm-like fairytales, and create a kind of commentary on the harsh realities of life during wartime.


Moving from the city to the country, Ofelia is at the whim of her situation. Upon arrival, she meets a friendly face in Mercedes, one of the few adults who actually considers Ofelia more than merely an under-aged nuisance. At this point, we expect the movie to be a kind of indirect parent and child partnership, a desperate rebel sympathizer and an impressionable kid trying to stay safe inside a realm of deception, despair and death. Ofelia’s actual mother is pregnant, the suggestion being that she sold out her husband and carried on with the corrupt Captain Vidal, resulting in the spouse’s death and her current delicate condition. Indeed, the subsequent marriage and move to a more secure rural location is killing her, making Ofelia even more fearful of her status.


Within this setting, Del Toro then subverts the story. Instead of focusing solely on Mercedes and Ofelia, both characters take off in different directions. As the maid with radical motives helps the freedom fighters in the hills, Ofelia explores the garden maze just off the primary path to the Captain’s headquarters. There, she finds the fairies of her books, and an earthen spiral staircase that leads to the realm of the title faun - a half man, half beast who holds the keys to the child’s chance of survival. He will provide her with three challenges, each one testing a specific mantle. If she passes each one, there’s a promise of passage into a realm of happiness and hope.


It’s here inside this rather complicated set-up, battles with fantastic creatures juxtaposed against real life combat, the gaining of magical objects and powers presented alongside the spilling of actual blood, where the movie finds its focus. But surprisingly enough, Del Toro is not trying to spin a simultaneous allegory – Ofelia’s trials vs. those of Spain in general. No, in each one of the little girl’s tests, choice is a key component. In essence, Del Toro is attempting to describe and define conviction, to show how opportunity meshed with option creates decisiveness, and with it, purpose and assurance. Indeed, Ofelia’s adventures are all about defiance and discovery, centering on confrontation with hope the ultimate prize.


Take her journey into the lair of the Pale Man. She has been warned by the faun Pan not to eat or drink anything found on the disturbing figure’s table. She is to pursue her goal and nothing else. Yet the little girl, given over to feelings of being left out and ignored, can’t refuse the inviting items spread out along this baneful banquet. She makes a minor decision, one she thought was meaningless since it was so insignificant in the grand scheme of her quest. Yet the repercussions are truly terrifying, and the long term ramifications lead to one of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s most important points. Del Toro is showing how one small decision can snowball into a life or death disaster – and how we never consider the consequences at the time we make the choice.


A lot of Pan’s Labyrinth plays on such subtexts. When we learn that the house doctor is also a rebel sympathizer, that Captain Vidal is a tripwire psychopath that can kill a man as easily as he can order a meal, that an unborn child can become a bargaining chip in the ongoing clash between people and politics, we recognize the director’s complicated designs. He is showing us how most people parlay their everyday existence into a series of conflicts and compromises, living with the judgments they make and suffering in silence with the secret strategies they find important. By giving us the little girl’s learning curve, and placing it alongside people who have already discovered these lessons, Del Toro is piecing together his own puzzle – and the images it shows are unsettling indeed.


There will be those put off by the brutality of Franco’s soldiers, their mindless destruction of their fellow Spaniards all in the name of “winning and losing”. Vidal even states that the reason behind the genocide is really just a matter of supporting the proper position. “They just don’t recognize who won” he says, and he wants to make sure that the individuals plotting their resistance pay the price for such ignorance. Unlike The Devil’s Backbone, which was more supernatural in its tone, Pan’s Labyrinth is a bloodier, more visceral experience. While not obsessed with gore, Del Toro does not shy away from the grotesque that accompanies hostilities. Torture is not downplayed – its physically corrupting consequences are shown in sickening, shocking realism.


But it’s the fantasy facets that really astonish us. Bringing an unbridled imagination to the movie’s main setpieces, Del Toro delivers amazingly memorable entities, from the insect like fairies to the giant toad who holds a magic key in its mucus-lined mouth. Pan himself is a combination of the seductive and the sinister. We can never truly decipher his motives, and there are moments when we wonder if he too is manipulating Ofelia for some other ominous purpose. From a purely visual standpoint, Pan’s Labyrinth stands alongside the works of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam for unbelievable optical flair, and just like these amazing auteurs, Del Toro’s incorporation of such material is seamless. We never once doubt that what we see is being experienced by Ofelia, or the other characters in the film.


With its flawless performances, amazing combination of exquisiteness and cruelty, and careful narrative construction that builds to one of the more superb endings in recent memory, Guillermo Del Toro has finally delivered his mainstream missive, a film that argues so effectively for his abilities that it can’t be easily dismissed as the ravings of a horror nut or a superhero scenarist’s filmic fluke. No, when the history of foreign film is finally written, Del Toro and his fellow Mexican filmmakers (Alfonso Cuoran, Alejandro Iñárritu) will argue that, in 2007, they illustrated that, as a language, cinema is both international and insular, a product of both the artform and the individual working within it. And no one has more inner demons to deal with and defend than fantasy’s new agent provocateur.


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