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Tuesday, Jan 23, 2007

Via BoingBoing comes this fairly elaborate attempt by Keith Martin to make all six Star Wars films make sense as a complete, seamless epic. Martin’s ingenious thesis is that R2D2 abd Chewbacca are the pivotal figures in the original three films; we just couldn’t see it because they were hiding behind their respective frontmen, C3PO and Han Solo. His explanation is far more interesting than the first three films deserve.

This effort demonstrates how an audience can go to great lengths to salvage the integrity of a product that its makers have compromised, whether out of complacency or laziness, or in Lucas’s case, to millk more money out of it. Certain consumers will view inconsistency or inadequacy as an oppotunity, for filling in the blanks, for reimagining, or even for comprehensive criticism. This audience ends up rationalizing weak efforts, because the makers of it see an audience engaged with the product and contributing to its bottom line. Of course, audiences won’t put this kind of effort into any lousy cultural product; they won’t give unknown quantites the benefit of the doubt. But it seems as though that once an audience does grant this leeway, once its hope is invested in certain artists, there is almost no level of failure that will cause it to be rescinded. After all, I went to see Return of the Clones or whatever even after I saw the utterly abysmal Phantom Menace. People kept buying Liz Phair albums even though it was clear her songwriting muse was spent after her first album. I kept listening to Neil Young records even after hearing Landing on Water and Old Ways. I’ve even argued that Landing on Water is not actually bad; I’ve rationalized its terrible sound and reactionary lyrics as a kind of sophisticated, conceptual statement.

How do we become invested in certain artists’ failure? Force of habit? Perhaps the cult of personality is at work, or the fundamental attribution error (which gives credit to people for things beyond their control). Also, network effects kick in with popular artists that makes attention to their crap worthwhile because you can guarantee you will have fellow sufferers to share your feelings with—this is how Dylanophiles made it through the 1980s, perhaps. We may enjoy these failures because they through the successful works into relief while humanizing their creators, deepening what we understand of their character and making it easier for us to vicariously enter into their works.

I wonder if there is a certain level of exposure that can be counted on to kindle this kind of residual hope—perhaps that ratio is part of the way small differences in talent are leveraged into huge increases in earning power for celebrities, along the lines Sherwin Rosen argued in “The Economics of Superstars.” Our hope and faith are transformed into their outsize incomes.

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Tuesday, Jan 23, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

IntifaxaDownload “Fazisi” (mp3)
from “Intifaxa”
by Muslimgauze

“A contemporary vision of world music where western and Arabic rhythms create a chilling seductive state.”—Extreme

Lon Gisland EPDownload “Elephant Gun” (mp3)
from “Lon Gisland EP”
by Beirut
Ba Da Bing!

“The first Beirut release with Zach Condon and his full 12-piece orkestar, Lon Gisland is a must-listen for fans of Neutral Milk Hotel, Islands, Belle and Sebastian and the Magnetic Fields.”—Ba Da Bing!

Yes Yes To YouDownload “Left At the Party” (mp3)
from “Yes Yes To You”
by The Affair
Absolutely Kosher

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Monday, Jan 22, 2007


It’s a battle between fact, fiction and the forgotten this week. A pair of excellent documentaries deconstruct their contentious subject matter while an Asian master battles an experimental icon for symbolic old school supremacy. Toss in a decent indie drama, a blood-drenched horror sequel, and an attempted return to action/adventure prominence by a couple of former A-listers and you’ve got the best that 23 January has to offer. To start things off, here is our clear SE&L Pick:

This Film is Not Yet Rated

It requires a certain amount of unbridled chutzpah to take on what is arguably the most powerful independent entity in all of show business, but that’s exactly what filmmaker Kirby Dick set out to do when he conceived this look behind the secret society known as the MPAA. The ratings board, supposedly ‘guiding parents in their concerns over film content’ has actually grown into a de facto censorship guild, mandating material changes to movies before providing their stamp of approval. What started out as an investigation to uncover the makeup of its membership soon became a kind of crusade – and it must have worked. New President Dan Glickman is vowing to revisit the whole G thru NC-17 dynamic, in direct response to Dick’s findings.

Other Titles of Interest

The Guardian

Kevin Costner tries to regain a little of his lost action hero sheen, and he brings Mr. Demi Moore (Ashton Kutcher) along for the derivative ride. Former frontline filmmaker Andrew Davis, he of The Fugitive fame, also tries to reclaim some critical consideration. He almost succeeds with this Coast Guard take on An Officer and a Gentleman.

Jesus Camp

How strange it is that yet another influential documentary arrives on DVD today. This mesmerizing and troubling look at Betty Fischer’s Youth Bible Camp called Kids on Fire actually resulted in the Christian indoctrination organization closing its doors. Between the near abusive brainwashing and the Crusades-like Go with God message, it’s not hard to see why.


A rousing installment of the unlikely fright franchise, this third exercise in excess dismisses most of the first film’s twisty plot points to focus, again, on cruelly clever killing devices. The results are far gorier than anything either previous episode provided. How this level of bloodshed got an “R” is something for Kirby Dick to explain.


In what many are calling a career defining turn, Secretary/World Trade Center star Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an ex-con trying to reconnect with her young daughter. With the cloud of drugs and abuse constantly shadowing her efforts, the story becomes more than a mere formulaic melodrama. Thanks to her performance, Gyllenhaal finds the truth inside her character’s torment.

Yojimbo/Sanjuro: The Criterion Collection

After the near definitive reissue last year of his Seven Samurai, another pair of auteur Akira Kurosawa’s feudal Japan epics get a second look. Previously available from the industry’s leading preservationists, these new versions get revamped tech specs and more of that sensational supplemental splendor that keeps Criterion on the cutting edge of definitive DVD packaging.

And Now for Something Completely Different

The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 1

Many may know him for his classic Tinsel Town take down, the Grand Guignol gossip Bible Hollywood Babylon. But there is actually more to Kenneth Anger than stories about sex and scandal. A former child star, he grew up in the glare of the industry, and made his first film at the age of nine. Considered one of the gods of underground, independent cinema (along with the Kuchar Brothers), his sensationally scandalous shorts have long been unavailable to the viewing public. Thanks to Fantoma, however, this first volume in a proposed set of Anger collections promises to open his avant-garde vision to a whole new generation of fans.


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Monday, Jan 22, 2007

It’s typical to see media critics discuss how we’ve “disintegrated” into a niche society recently, from some peak cultural moment of homogeneity twenty or thirty years in the past. Since it’s become so cheap to publish and disseminate your own work, since independent and DIY product now competes with industry-built entertainment product, since the sector is now an on-demand rather than an appointment-driven affair, since virtually every entertainment product ever made (along with an ever-widening pool of new material being made by the largest cohort of cultural producers in history) is always available for consumption at any given instant and so on, culture has lost the overarching unity once provided by shared reference points—say, Johnny Carson. What will we say to each other at the water cooler if we are all lost in our own private maze of references? (Chuck Klosterman had a column in Esquire a few years back making this case.) We’ll be trapped in our niches, or we’ll have to embrace a new medium for friendship online, where we can filter out people until we hit upon those who share our particular taste peculiarities. Even worse, such a plurality might lead to a widespread relativism that says anything or everything should be tolerated or can be enjoyed or can warrant attention, and this attitude threatens to leak from culture into ethics and “family values.”

It was strange to see critics lament this loss, since before so many railed against the soul-stifling horror of conformity and the tyranny of mass culture. Early in the 20th century, doomsaying cultural theorists—people like Ortega y Gassett, the Leavises, Dwight MacDonald, Adorno, etc.— were generally dismayed at the rise of mass culture, which seemed inexorable, and each innovation in media technology seemed only to consolidate a centralized grip on society’s imagination. The studios, the networks, the big imprints, national magazines, the consortiums of radio stations and newspapers and so on, all of these seemed to have a greater share of the public’s attention, and the public itself for the most part was seen as unified in its passivity and willing to be molded by whatever entertainment the industry found it convenient to provide. It seems obvious now that this analysis was backward. Were it to exist, the mass audience would provide an irresistibly desirable target for big business and political propagandists alike, and perhaps seduced by the implications of what a mass audience would mean for them, they argued it into existance. Moral dogmatists in America have always tended to lament the impossibility of imposing a unified national culture from above through a media they control to solidify their grips on the “mass” imagination—on the “hearts and minds”—and thus on power. (The conservative mind especially warms to themes that limit choice in the name of social rectitude. Limiting choice is a sure way of maintaining control; only recently have the advantages of a surfeit of choice as a means for social control—the overconsumption/addiction model—begun to be explored.) And economies of scale once may have implied a mass audience would be easiest to extract profit from, but the graveyard of failed shows and songs and novels and such demonstrates how fickle and recalcitrant that mass can be. In its beginnings, mass media hadn’t the means to diversify in order to reach all the disperate audience blocs that have always naturally existed and fully exploit their commercial potential, yet it longed for an easily manipulable mass audience that could be uniformly gratified by its limited offerings and trained to expect more of the same, once marginal costs were reduced and the same crap with the same talent could be turned out. So a tension between the centralization of the means of entertainment and the inherent tendency of people to generate local scenes, if not wholly personal, individual frames of cultural reference became more and more pronounced as media’s reach developed and extended, both undermining and enhancing the power of industry and the consumer alike. One result of this dialectic? The Captain and Tennille show.

I’m not sure I can explain why, but I spent the better part of Saturday night watching highlights from the first season of Captain and Tennille, which aired on ABC in 1976-1977. In case you don’t know, the Captain and Tennille were Toni Tennille, a singer from Alabama who looked a little like Karen Carpenter crossed with a chipmunk, and Daryl Dragon, an arranger and synthesizer specialist who prior to becoming famous with Toni worked with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys on his spooky ballads for the Carl and the Passions album. As the Captain and Tennille, they scored a string of hits by taking established songs and giving them a sheen of gizmo electronica—barf-bag effects and stray oscillator noises mixed in with some light funk arrangements, of such songs as Smokey Robinson’s “Shop Around” and Neil Sedaka’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” (They also did a version of America’s “Muskrat Love,” the tenderest ballad about rodent copulation that I know of.) Perhaps envisioning another Sonny and Cher, ABC gave them their own variety show and stocked it with guests from its own sitcoms and musicians from the L.A. soft-rock scene: I saw “performances” by the likes of Englebert Humperdinck, Leo Sayer (“You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”), Bread (“Lost Without Your Love”), and England Dan and John Ford Coley (“Nights are Forever”). Watching the show now, I found it nearly impossible to imagine how anyone could have watched it then (even though I have vague memories of having been subjected to it as a small child), but as an exercise in historical imagination it was pretty compelling.

It seems important to remember that the show would have been one of essentially three choices viewers would have had for TV watching—there were no VCRs, no cable channels; you watched what was on the networks or you didn’t watch at all. Networks couldn’t cater to niches—they wanted the largest audience possible to choose TV (people may have been less inclined to watch it by default then, have it on as an constant companion, as happens now). Hence the variety show: some singing and dancing, some comedy, and some showcases for performers trying to break out to a larger audience. It’s tempting to see the lack of any alternative as leading to TV-production decadence; writers were sloppy, settling for half-baked ideas; costumers seemed to evaluate their work by the budget it required; guest stars acted as though unpreparedness would always come off as breezy charm; musicians faked their way through lip-synched performances; everyone was presumably high out of their mind on coke. But there was a kind of desperation to it as well, a striving for an impossible synthesis that no amount of money or writing or casting could ever supply. Captain and Tennille seemed especially ill-suited to the format—they were no Donny and Marie, that’s for sure. Tennille tried hard to manufacture cheerfulness and commit herself unflinchingly to the unbelievably hackneyed material, but Dragon—at times indifferent, half-hearted, and palpably uncomfortable wih the contrived aspects of the show, barely bothering to mime his parts on the stack of keyboards he was typically parked behind—looked like he was pioneering a kind of contemptuous irony about 15 years too early for popular audiences. The show’s producers labored hard to build him a palatable personality, giving him an ersatz trademark (his variety of captain’s hats, about which he was forced to make unfunny “hat jokes” in one running segment ) and trying to pitch him as a lovable curmudgeon, but he seemed to delight too much in the stubborness scripted for him. The show’s formula tried to give a little something for everyone in a family—dopey comedy for kids (an awful, awful segment called “Masterjoke Theater” that reeked of lazy writing); a sultry number from Tennille, often accompanied by a troupe of ludicrously costumed dancers; a rendition of a song from the current pop charts; some celebrity appearances; something old-timey, like a song with tack piano or a big-band arrangement; all stitched together with weak banter meant to convey the couple’s chemistry and comfort with each other.

In short, it was a miscellaneous mess that has to feel pretty misguided to any modern audience, accustomed to shows that target their audience much more minutely. Slipping into moralist mode, I wondered if such shows taught those watching a useful kind of tolerance, a patience, a willingness to be exposed to material meant for others and take it in stride. I wondered if these shows could actually have brought families together (it was late, and I had been drinking). Perhaps it modeled respect for traditional culture, for practiced skills (like singing and dancing, like performing qua performing) whereas now all of that respect has been supplanted with a preoccupation with trend spotting and intentionally disposable youth culture. This line of thinking smacks a bit of technophobia similar to what this Economist editorial identifies, where new forms of entertainment such as video games are demonized simply because they are novel. In their own way, variety shows struggled with the legitimacy of novelty for its own sake: Not only did they attempt to balance mass and heterogeneous culture, the shows tried to tame novelty with a rigorous format and familiar show-biz routines. But the most striking thing about the Captain and Tennille was how it seemed blithely ignorant of youth culture and treated AOR as though it were hegemonic. It made me weirdly envious those who were adults in the 1970s, the last time culture at large respected them. Now 30- and 40-year-olds are expected to try to hang on and keep up with stuff made for teenagers, to pretend or fantasize about being forever 21. Otherwise they must retreat entirely into whatever specific niche they’ve marked out for themselves. Is it better to be in a culturally irrelevant niche than to belong to a dominant but moribund mass culture? Which is more responsible for the extinguishing of local scenes? Mass culture of the big-three-networks variety or hyperindividualistic culture that renders community activities irksome?

I don’t know. I do know that I never again want to see a braless Toni Tennille wearing a satin pant suit and singing “Boogie Fever.”

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Sunday, Jan 21, 2007

Last week, James Cameron announced that after 10 years in post-Titanic exile (where, granted, he did produce a great many personal projects including Aliens of the Deep), he was smack dab in the middle of his next production, an ambitious sci-fi epic entitled Avatar. The storyline, rumored to center around a US solider sent to a far away planet to participate in its war, will be an ambitious undertaking, with live action elements mixing effortlessly with something the director calls “photo-realistic” CGI. In an interview with ‘Ain’t It Cool News’ honcho Harry Knowles, Cameron indicated that filming had already begun, and that he should have the initial elements wrapped up and completed by the end of this year.

Sounds like a sensational Summer of 2008 release, right? Wrong. In his talk with Knowles, Cameron went on to say that Avatar will not be arriving at your local Cineplex until sometime in 2009, if then. Apparently, the technology being used to render these amazing digital visions – extraterrestrials, space landscapes, intense battle sequences – will take that long to plan, perfect and render (they are being handled by Peter Jackson’s company Weta). Unlike other CGI, Cameron warns, the material in Avatar will be the next generation in visual effects, lifting the medium from its sloppy, Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie level leanings and more toward a successful melding of life with virtual reality. 

As the geek contingency self-flagellates over the possibilities, and the inevitable sniping starts over carefully leaked storyline and character elements, the rest of the moviegoing public will have to wait another 24 months before discovering if Cameron is the next Stanley Kubrick, or just another run of the mill George Lucas. It’s a dazzling, daunting possibility. More than anyone else, the aforementioned 2001 titan brought serious science fiction to the realm of cinematic artistry. On the other hand, Mr. Star Wars has proven that CGI can be both a boon and a burden. From using the technology to revamp his original Trilogy, to relying on it exclusively to visualize his noxious prequels, Lucas, more than anyone else (with perhaps a little help from Jackson) has illustrated the main weakness inherent in the artform.

You see, when done right, CGI is a brilliant cinematic supplement. It presses out the creative creases in complicated sequences and adds an otherworldly pizzazz that standard cinema has a hard time replicating. When used in conjunction with other elements – set design, directorial flair, narrative complexity – it can lift a film into a realm where fantasy truly meets reality and easily co-exists. But when done incorrectly, when over-utilized and brutalized for the sake of some silly desire for more, more, more (read: the Lucas technique), you end up with…well, you end up with animation. Instead of something that resembles the world around us, the artificial nature of the medium pushes us out of the experience. Our eyes and our brain know it, even if the people behind the production don’t.

One of the biggest flaws in old George’s Vader-redefining films is the reliance on digital to create all the filmic facets – sets, props, creatures, action. No matter the attention to detail provided by Industrial Light and Magic and the talented artists employed, the human mind still responds with suspicion when images look too good, when they announce their intention to trick. Take the cityscapes used throughout the prequels. They look amazing with their gravity, physics and pragmatics defying dimensions. Buildings rise miles into the air, landing platforms jutting out like impractical parking ramps. The skylines shimmer with a paradoxical presentation of awe and ambiguity. We enjoy the eye candy treat, but take very little of cinematic sustenance away. Similarly, when all manner of mind-blowing creatures are carted out over and over again, sometimes for the sake of mere variety, we feel the need to disavow the dynamic. 

That’s the problem with most current CGI efforts. From clunky beings that look worse than the earliest computer rendered experiments to obvious attempts to expand a normally nominal vista, the digital domain has turned the art of optical effects into a glorified ruse. It’s all smoke and mirrors, carefully crafted software and proprietary technology twisted into the most synthetic of cinematic styles. There are excellent examples of intricate incorporation. There are also models of meaningless modification. But the simple fact remains that a computer just cannot create the tactile, textural experience of well done physical effects.

A perfect example of a director who makes/made such an old school circumstance work, and work brilliantly, is Terry Gilliam. All throughout his breathtaking Ages Trilogy (Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) the ex-Monty Python animator and true creative genius forged fantastical wonders with puppets, perspective, miniatures, green-screen, and all manner of make-up and animatronic magic. From figuring out a way to feature star Jonathan Pryce in full atmospheric flight to rendering Python pal Eric Idle the fastest man on the planet, Gilliam conspired with his crew to create the impossible out of the practical. Students of the medium know all the tricks – the cotton matting clouds, the use of camera speed to suggest weight and heft, the application of motion control and intricate detailing to give items size and merit. In Gilliam’s talented hands, well crafted F/X aren’t fake or phony. Instead, they effortlessly merge with the overall vision the filmmaker follows, working to keep the audience locked well within the otherwise obtuse ideals.

The same goes for someone like Ridley Scott and his magnificent set of late ‘70s/early ‘80s epics; Alien, Blade Runner and Legend. As close to a perfect combination of movie and mannerisms ever created, Scott’s simple designs – to take viewers to places they’d never dreamed possible – are executed not with computers and programs, but with painstaking interaction between artists and the motion picture medium. From H. R. Giger’s definitive interstellar villain to the look of L.A. circa sometime in the far off future, the reliance on the real, not the bitmap and binary, gives these movies a richness and a realism that technology has yet to capture. Sure, Tim Curry had to go through Hell to take on the persona of The Lord of Darkness, his hours in the make-up chair challenging his patience and his health. But when the results are so resplendent as they are in Legend, when he is flawlessly lost inside the demonic dimensions of his character, it’s easy to excuse the sacrifice.

Other filmmakers like Tim Burton (with his effects style clinic called Beetlejuice) and Sam Raimi (delivering his demented Dead films without a single CGI supplement) equally established that even the cheesiest physical effect could work as long as the elements surrounding it matched the filmmaker’s motives perfectly. Even Cameron proved this with his stellar sequel Aliens. It’s impossible to imagine the movie’s climactic moment rendered digitally. It would seem silly for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character to gear up for her battle with the Queen Mother in a totally CGI robotic forklift suit. Call it reverse rejection. With physical effects, the eye sees the stunt, and starts scanning the image for imperfections. With CGI, the vision is so slick that we initially overlook its misdirection. But then the less than real aspects announce themselves, and we loose interest in the subterfuge. 

It’s the biggest problem with modern computer graphics. Unless a great deal of time and care is taken in how a sequence is staged and rendered, the difference between a cosmic clash between warring interstellar factions and a Saturday morning cartoon become almost negligible. The mind can only register so much detail before the brain is boggled and begins to turn off. Sadly, individuals in charge of today’s slick science creations forget this, and try to pack as much intricate specificity into each scene as possible. That’s why Lucas’ arguments about “improving” his original Trilogy can’t stand. We believed the films when they first arrived in theaters, their sense of optical splendor a solid emotional memory for anyone who was lucky enough to see them back then. Now, they look tinkered with, taken to unrealistic lengths by a man who believes obsessively in the power of his microprocessors.

Hopefully, Cameron won’t fall into the same self-indulgent trap. He practically wrote the book on merging the physical with the computerized in his Terminator 2 and Titanic. But with this new mandate to dump the practical and move toward the totally digital, we could be witnessing another creative crash and burn from a filmmaker who should know better. Just because audiences bought the mostly IBM made Middle Earth and all its CG creations doesn’t mean that Peter Jackson’s auteur input should be diminished. After all, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a semi-realistic rendering of sci-fi/ fantasy reality and you don’t hear fans harping over its filmmakers lack of an Oscar. No, cinematic skill needs to accompany the new tendency toward super computer creativity. The two F/X forms can live together in a kind of motion picture bliss, each one supporting and complementing the other. Maybe James Cameron is correct in taking the next two years to make sure his Avatar sets the standard for all computer graphics to come. If he fails, it will be another example of the invention usurping imagination for no good reason.

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