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Sunday, Feb 11, 2007


If the Internet is responsible for anything – and there are many divergent (and slightly seedy) concepts it can claim – perhaps the most seismic shock has come in the realm of movie marketing. It used to be that, when a film wanted to tout its potential as either a stellar drama, hilarious comedy, heart-pumping actioner or nail-biting thriller, studios and producers set up carefully considered publicity campaigns, playing to their products strengths while downplaying its potential problems. When the print media made early pronouncements of troubled talent or less than successful results, the mighty Hollywood spin machine was right there, ready to twist the tales in their favor.


Take the films opening in the next few weeks. The Nicholas Cage comic book saga Ghost Rider has been almost omnipresent since production began. Within months, photos of the phantom biker, skull aflame with meticulous CGI conflagration, were “leaked” to fan-favorable sites all along the web. It wasn’t long after that a genre-defining trailer was released, a jump cut driven example of minor exposition mixed with major money shots. By the time the film actually opens on 16 February, audiences will know of Cage’s deal with the Devil, the impressive images of the main character racing up the side of a skyscraper, and the lack of emotional heft possessed by supposed romantic interest Eva Mendes. No wonder the final film won’t be screened for critics prior to release. You can practically review it from the ads alone.


Or what about 300. Ever since it was announced that Zack Snyder was taking on Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. (when tens of thousands of Persians challenged – you guessed it – 300 Spartans), the nerd network went into hyperdrive. Snyder, instrumental in jumpstarting the whole horror remake craze with his excellent work in updating George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, promised a Sin City like respect for the author’s work, and as if to accentuate that fact, early teasers featured signature stylized shots of buff men making war in drama-defining slow motion. Understanding inherently that the new adolescent audience is as devoted to its own idiosyncratic interests as it is with the current pop culture landscape, 300 decided to avoid the standard marketing mechanism and simply go geek.


That’s right, in between online discussions of Doctor Doom’s new look for the Fantastic Four sequel (along with quips about the Silver Surfer’s metallic ‘package’) and the constant consideration of Spider-man 3‘s villain viability (where are those images of Venom!?), dork nation now determines the imagined achievement of a soon to be released film. While it may seem unfair to toss around terms like ‘geek’, ‘nerd’, or ‘dweeb’, the truth is that the web has made the obsessive instrumental in creating the momentum that will make or break a movie. Where once this social stigmatization illustrated one’s unacceptability as a perceived member of the inevitable in-crowd, it’s now a badge of honor, a recognized symbol of status inside the film business’s new advertising strategy.


While consensus has it that Harry Knowles and his Ain’t It Cool News website is the main purveyor of this armchair analyst conceit, the fact remains that, no matter who started it, the new wired mindset is setting the agenda for motion picture marketing. It’s no longer necessary to fashion extensive ad campaigns, hoping your coverage creates the kind of universal interest that generates major box office. No, movies are now like any other prepackaged product from a shrewd and sharp multinational conglomerate. It’s rare that a title will see a theatrical release without international rights, TV and cable contracts, and multiple DVD release strategies sewn up in advance. For a film to actually lose money in this safety net style approach, it has to really be awful – or better yet, lacking a legitimate online champion.


Everyone points to Snakes on a Plane as a perfect example of how the Internet is not that successful a shill, and for that film in particular, those critics have a point. Trying to take an old fashioned action film, highly reminiscent of the 1970s style of disaster and death, and selling it as a slick campy cult classic to a post post-modern audience was the height of salesmanship stupidity. What the geek audience was identifying with – the memory of dateless mid ‘80s evenings sitting in front of the tube with a stack of VHS hackwork – was not actually what the movie was prepared to deliver. Imagine their surprise when New Line actually offered something good. Like expecting something stupid and getting its serious substitute, Snakes of a Plane died because of improper public perception and deadly word of mouth.


Yet this is the very tactic that the new web-based bait and switch approach is hoping to achieve. Certainly there are those movies working on the hope of previously successful formulas (Eddie Murphy + Rick Baker’s amazing make-up = Norbit) and more than a few believing a “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t preview” conceit will confuse a few dollars out of the demographic (The Hitcher, The Messengers). But what the new breed of cinematic carnival barkers are really counting on is the feeb’s fascination with the unknown. When Michael Bay announced his 2007 Summer blockbuster wannabe The Transformers, online speculation went nuclear. It wasn’t long before the base had weighed in on must-have characters, feared directorial missteps, and a genuine curiosity over whether this material would play in a live action format.


Then the first teaser trailer was delivered – adding fuel to the already blazing interest inferno. Prior to the full fledged ad which answered a lot of questions and appeased a lot of panic, the momentary glimpse of the title robots sent messageboards into a tantalized tizzy, which in turn generates the kind of MySpace interest that movie marketers murder for. If a studio can expertly control the release of such iconic information, if they can prevent the kind of collaborative overkill that sunk Snakes chances at wider acceptance, it can guarantee a huge opening weekend and not have to worry about the ultimate value of the product.


Of course, this strategy can backfire – sometimes, tragically – when misapplied. You just know that Cartoon Network and the suits at Time-Warner were wetting themselves when their proposed promotional campaign for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force film (utilizing black boxes that featured a light up illustration of the show’s symbolic Mooninite character) turned into an imagined terrorist plot. Had our post-9/11 mania not kicked in, and the populace panic over something that ‘sort of, could of’ looked like a bomb (in the right light), it would have been fairly obvious what the unusual animated project was attempting. By slyly placing these series symbols around cities in the US, nerds in the know would have their own public private joke. While others looked on at the blocky image, trying to decipher its Atari throwback design, the fanatical would have a shared chuckle and move along.


Indeed that’s the whole point of this new geekdom strategy. Don’t worry what professional critics have to say, don’t screen a movie in advance to allow newspapers and other media sources to set the agenda. Instead, tap into the online cosmos of specific genre categories and hope the devoted fans pull you along. Back when television was the reigning cultural watchdog, such a tactic worked. Shows like Star Trek and Firefly discovered a long life beyond cancellation, while recent efforts like Family Guy and Futurama used the newly discovered populist power of DVD to revive their fortunes. And as the sole significant force setting the agenda for Internet discussion, the wired now work overtime doing the same sort of selling that a carefully choreographed marketing campaign would.


So as the next few months drag on, as film after film arrives without preview press coverage and advanced critical consideration, simply sign on to your favorite world wide website and get the good geek word. Why, even now you can discover how Chow Yun-Fat looks in Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At Worlds End, read a breakdown of how successful a recent focus group screening of the new Simon Pegg and Nick Frost comedy Hot Fuzz was, or just bask in the glow of an onset visit to the still in pre-production Iron Man. And if you don’t think these all knowing nerds matter, consider this: recent reports have Rob Zombie putting a temporary halt on his remake of the John Carpenter classic Halloween. Why? Because early reviews of the script have been brutal in their unified hatred of the project.


What this means for the future of the motion picture marketing machine and its compatriots in the legitimate press may be insignificant – or insurgent. For decades, fans have complained about the lack of a voice in the way in which films are created. They’ve wanted more heart, more head, more meaning; basically, more substance. How letting a bunch of individuals with way too much free time on their hands dictate what does and does not make money (and therefore, catches the eye of those who make the creative decisions) as well as the dialogue on how it is received by the like minded public, doesn’t sound like a sane business practice. But for now, the geek zeitgeist controls the conversation, and there’s not much anyone outside the clique can do about it. 


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Sunday, Feb 11, 2007

If you’re having a hard time figuring out what’s what in the labels vs. Apple war over DRM, don’t feel too bad- it’s a pissing contest that’s still being fought out publicly.  The reason that there’s such harsh rhetoric flying around is because there’s so much at stake here.  Apple doesn’t want to lose its domination over the downloadable music market and sees it threatened not just by the labels jockeying for flexible price plans but also grumpy European governments who don’t like the Apple system that locks down all their music content to their own player (iPod).  For the labels, they don’t just want the ability to raise or lower prices with Apple, they wanna play the market with other companies so that they’re not tied to or limited by Apple’s strategies (which obviously looks out for their own company above all else).


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Saturday, Feb 10, 2007


On an isolated island in the middle of the Caribbean, Dr. Jake Terrell has made a breakthrough in the study of dolphins and interspecies language. His star pupil Fa has not only learned to understand English but he also has a rudimentary ability to speak it. Hoping to avoid exploitation of his special savant sea creatures, he shuns any press and avoids the in-depth inquiries from the Bland Foundation, who is funding his work. But when a seedy reporter named Curtis Mahoney threatens to blow the cover off the experiments, Terrell feels he has no choice but to bring Fa, and his female companion Be, out into the open. The revelation of the mammals’ special skill only makes matters worse, since it turns out that a shadow organization within the government has planted a spy in Terrell’s own staff.


As Fa and Be are being prepared for introduction to the world, they inadvertently become part of a conspiracy to use trained dolphins as assassins. It’s up to Terrrell and his remaining loyal staff, along with an unsuspected ally, to save the salt water sophisticates and prevent the porpoise murder of the President. And without a Jackal in sight, international terrorism has obviously entered a new era. Step aside all you candidates from Manchuria, it’s time for The Day of the Dolphin.


At the time, there was probably no perceived writing/directing team hotter than Mike Nichols and Buck Henry. Their prior two films together (The Graduate and Catch-22) had been embraced as counter culture calling cards, reel responses to bourgeoisie society and the war in Vietnam, respectively. Nichols alone was a wunderkind, having created such additional cinematic benchmarks as the acting triumphs Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. So when Joseph E. Levine came looking to enforce his contract with Nichols (he was required to do one more movie for the producer), the young filmmaker approached his old friend about doing something completely different, something the two had never tried before. And then they went and made this movie instead. Part science fiction, part political thriller, with some ‘Earth First’ environmentalism thrown in for good measure, The Day of the Dolphin became a highly anticipated collaboration between the creative team.


It also complemented the early ‘70s fascination with the future, technology, earth, and the supposedly intelligent sea mammal species. It was considered quite topical, as it was based on an immensely popular bestseller that capitalized on the current craze for studies of dolphin and porpoise behavior. Scientists were, at the time, making advances in the very subject area, both pro (language) and con (mine recovery) the movie addressed. Add the notorious box office sideshow of George C. Scott and his young trophy wife Trish “Who’s Linda McCartney” Van Devere, and it seemed that a can’t-miss combination of talent and material had been discovered. There was no way it could fail. But remember, this is also what Franz Liebkind and Roger De Bris thought about Springtime for Hitler.


Seen in the far more sophisticated light of this new millennium’s mega-technical binary computer complicatedness, this simple underwater weirdness has definitely lost a lot of its sea legs. By today’s standards, The Day of the Dolphin is a goofy premise, made even goofier by the eventual thriller plot and, in the frenzied final moments, is rendered totally and completely into one of the goofiest movies ever made. But this is meant in a good way. Sort of. Like Darwin in SeaQuest DSV or the cyberpunk sea creature in Johnny Mnemonic, the inherent intelligence of the faux Flippers here becomes part of a campy car crash that, while not an all out disaster, plays more like a nonsensical National Geographic Special with ornery Oscar winners.


It’s hard to pinpoint just what does this movie in. Perhaps it’s the notion of the rather barrel-chested and city-slicked C. Scott donning a wet suit and doing the dead man’s float with his creature cast members while he channels Patton’s more “feminine” side. Or how about the substantial lack of lines for any other member of the cast, save for the scene-stealing slimeball Paul Sorvino as the single greasiest black ops agent in the covert government of America. Maybe the rest of the cast was as seemingly pissed as Fritz Weaver, all watching as the blow-holed, fish eating egomaniacs hogged all the single syllabled dialogue? (F.W. would get his revenge though. He went on to act alongside a megalomaniac motherboard in the computer bore Satan’s spawn silliness from 1977 called Demon Seed). Or possibly it was too many days in the tropics, allowing the baking and stroking rays of the Bermuda sun to confuse an otherwise sound and gifted filmmaker and his cinematic choices. Whatever it was, it turned his cautionary tale about tampering in God’s aquatic domain into Hooked on Phonics with Fa and Be.


And yet the movie somehow manages to squeak out an overall entertaining evening at the motion picture aquarium. Nichols has always been a uniquely skilled visual director, and his gorgeous tropical tableaus are wonderful. He does frame the majority of the film in medium two shots, as if to distance his audience from much of the laughable lunacy going on. But that’s only because there’s a lot to loll your head holes over in The Day of the Dolphin. When Georgie C. forces Fa to speak English and request a repast with his Caribbean Queen Be, he initiates the first interspecies booty call, compelling the horny mammal to mouth “Pa. Fa. Want. Be. Now.” Hell, these precognizant porpoises even get all freaked out when some suit suggests there’s a shark in their personal pool (anticipating the reaction to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws by a full two years). There are many scenes of Scottie in short pants, and musical montages of dolphins attempting the Venus Butterfly. By the time we get to the plot to eliminate the President (which comes so completely out of left field you expect Ted Williams to appear chasing after it), we are ready for anything.


But nothing can quite prepare us for the final moments of the movie where the fraught Fa tries to get his portly “Pa” to look back at him, just once more for one last father/fish fin wave. Indeed, the star speak-and-say sea creatures here give better performances than many of their land-lubbing counterparts. The Day of the Dolphin may long be remembered as the first chink in Nichol’s seemingly indestructible suit of creative armor, but all it really represents is a failed experiment in that most difficult of future shock filmmaking: the intelligent animal adventure.


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Friday, Feb 9, 2007


Henri Danglard is a famous Paris nightclub owner known for his fabulous shows and relatively poor business acumen. When he loses at his latest ventures, Henri stumbles upon a brilliant idea for a revival. He will bring back the traditional, risqué dance the Cancan, and build an entire upper-class club to feature this lower-class concept. But first, Henri needs dancers, and his sometimes girlfriend / always headliner Lola De Castro refuses to comply. So Danglard finds a young lady working in a laundry and grooms her to be his next star. Nini is very flattered by all the attention and soon falls in love with her mentor.


As the new theater, the Moulin Rouge, is being constructed, Lola tries to find ways to undermine her wayward lover. She uses her sexuality to lure the backers into pulling out of the deal. But then, a depressed prince, completely infatuated with Nini, comes to the rescue. It’s not long before it’s opening night, and the Moulin Rogue is ready to reintroduce the Cancan to the French people. Only problem is, Danglard is no longer paying attention to his star. And Nini refuses to take the stage, lest she understand where her relationship stands with the showman.


As comparable a color masterpiece as Renoir’s black and white wonder The Rules of the Game, French Cancan is an old-fashioned kiosk poster come to life—a love letter to a Paris of long ago, forged by a remarkable artist with the skill of a painter in the frame of a filmmaker. Simply stunning to look at, engaging from opening snake dance to extravagant stage show finale, this is Renoir at his best. Forged from a foundation of old-style Hollywood movie musicals (the plot borrows heavily from 42nd Street, while the look is pure MGM spectacle) with several inventive strokes that are pure Renoir, French Cancan mixes history and hyper-reality to create a singular story of human devotion and theatrical dedication.


While there are some elements of truth in the tale of how the Moulin Rouge came into existence (Renoir admits borrowing from the real story to create his film), French Cancan is yet another brilliant example of his mastery of the art of cinema. Hilarious and heartwarming with a wicked cynical core about the life of a performer, it is the stuff of mythology in the making. More so than An American in Paris, or any other Tinsel Town take on the fantasy that is France, French Cancan is a countryman’s compliment to the memory of his once-magnificent homeland. Renoir, driven from Paris by World War II (he worked in America for almost a decade), wanted to return to native soil and make an “apology” of sorts for his poorly received criticism of the French bourgeoisie (the aforementioned Game). The result is a movie that celebrates as it sentimentalizes the wild, wounded world of entertainers and their trade.


Jean Gabin, one of France’s all-time great actors, turns nightclub manager Danglard into perhaps the most charismatic cad in his long lineage of such roles. Relying far more on his entire body than just his matinee-idol features (Gabin was only 51 when the movie was made, but he looks and plays it much older), he brings grace and gaiety to a character that is, more or less, a celebration of a life in show business. Though we see Danglard suffer both highs and lows at the hands of the insular world’s backstabbing and competitive nature, we also understand completely why he stays in the game. For Danglard, the real world is a farce, a self-perpetuating cycle of cruelty with no real passion or presence. In the world of the theater, however, it is human endeavor that makes up the market, and as a result, dictates the level of personal commitment. Nothing is more tactile than the stage, according to Renoir, and Gabin is its chief celebrant.


As Nini, Françoise Arnoul is the picture-perfect embodiment of the ingénue: a seemingly helpless young lady who secretly hides a wealth of worldly wisdom—and desires. She matches magnificently with Gabin and holds her own throughout all the strenuous dance material. Other standouts include the walking wantonness of exotic beauty Maria Felix. As the star attraction in Danglard’s productions, she combines unbelievable sensuality with the necessary arrogance of a headliner to create a love/hate relationship with the audience. With Giani Esposito as perhaps the most sullen, depressed nobleman ever to darken a movie screen (his whole ambiance is one of gloom and sadness) and Philippe Clay as the tax collector-turned-clown Casimir (always the center of attention with his commentary style songs), French Cancan rides on the backs of some of the most amazing performances and characters ever created for the French cinema.


Fans of Renoir’s work will also be taken aback by the abject sexuality the director tosses into French Cancan. There are several sequences (Gabin and the fetching Maria Felix in bed, a dancer changing in a back room) that definitely push the limits of skin and the inference of nudity by 1955 standards. Also, Nini is a woman who enjoys many trysts outside the wedding bed (with baker boyfriend Paolo and Gabin) in blatant contravention of the morals of the day. Some could argue that this is merely the filmmaker falling into the trap of cliché, claiming that show people are far more brash in their proclivities and loose in their ethics than the stuffed shirts who come to their performances. But the truth is, Renoir is really celebrating the embracing of life that individuals ensconced in the arts seem to enjoy. Instead of denouncing the bed-hopping and suggestions of flesh, Renoir seems to be saying that those who give their souls to an audience night after night are rewarded with a more free and open spirit, an advantageous ability to see the elemental, emotional aspects of life (of which, of course, sex and sexuality are part and parcel).


Indeed, the distinction between the life of a performer and the world of the average man or woman is at the heart of French Cancan. Nini is given a choice near the end of the film: She can have the “normal” life of a laundry girl, or she can become a trouper, a member of the performing profession who casts off all concepts of normalcy for the chance to strut and fret upon the stage. Her eventual choice is then channeled through a celebratory dance, a 10-minute masterwork of music and maneuvers that ends French Cancan on an amazingly upbeat and infectious note.


Perhaps the slyest bit of direction by Renoir ever, French Cancan is a movie that sneaks up on you with its overwhelming likeability. The director constantly circumvents your expectations, allowing the film to flummox and fool you time and time again. Characters consistently break into song, using the moment to add an exclamation point to a person or problem. Minor, telling details undercut broad strokes of sentiment, and the sets suggest reality while invoking the canvases of the great masters (including Renoir’s own father). Proving he can make even the most anarchic of dances into a true statement of the sublime, Renoir uses the Cancan, with its racy nature and skirt-raising ramifications, as an expression of freedom and joi de vivre. Indeed, the entire film is like a sharpened bottle of champagne just waiting for the cork to pop, releasing its exuberant effervescence. When the ladies dance the French Cancan in a frenzy of glorious gymnastics, the movie finally fulfills its promise.


An amazing film to look at as well as a stirring tribute to the essence of Renoir’s native land, French Cancan represents one of the finest examples of cinematic experimentation ever attempted. Renoir creates his own concept of France in the early 19th century and, with the help of some remarkable and memorable characters, invites us on this glorious trip down the Ruelle De Mémoire. It is, without a doubt, one of the great films in the lexicon of motion pictures.


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Friday, Feb 9, 2007

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