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by Rob Horning

13 Feb 2009

I went to see Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her last night and left fairly perplexed. His films are frustratingly discursive that they seem haphazard (and half-assed) to me while I’m watching, but then afterward, I usually find that there was something to it after all if I can force myself to think it through.

In 2 or 3 Things, as in many other of his 1960s films, Godard starts with the idea that being an attractive woman in the city is a very mysterious proposition. He can’t bring himself to then demystify femininity; instead he intensifies the mystery, revels in it, seems to honor it, which makes his films seem sexist. A specific type of young Parisian woman becomes the generalized Other that is longed for but impossible to apprehend. If I were a woman, this would probably irritate the hell out of me. But Godard, to his credit, seems interested in further questions the derive from this ideal he can’t quite relinquish: What if you are that Other? What is the other for the Other? Are women their own other, doomed to spiral into narcissism? Or do they withdraw into some deeply inaccessible inner space within urban modernity that can only be caught in oblique, accidental glimpses, in the interstices of everyday life.

That idea warrants Godard’s strategy of just sort of following women around town rather than fashioning a plot. Of course, he’s adopting Brechtian techniques, eschewing tried-and-true methods for drawing viewers in (making us like characters and care about a suspenseful story) and instead making efforts to heighten our discomfort and our awareness of conventions. So 2 or 3 Things begins with the actress Marina Vlady introducing herself to the camera as herself, quoting Brecht on how to read dialogue as if it were being quoted, and then introducing herself again as the character she is supposed to be in the film. But she is never wholly one or the other; she is both playing herself and a role at all times, both the subject specified in the script (assuming there was one) and her objective self. So it is for women in cities generally. They are intensely objectified by the attention they attract in quotidian urban life and serve as fantasy objects, occasions for dreams of escape, akin ultimately to consumer goods, with which Godard juxtaposes them, especially in 2 or 3 Things. (The film closes with lights dimming on an array of branded products laid out in a kind of graveyard.) Living with that burden, women must at the same time fashion their own means of escape, in part to preserve their own subjectivity. So in the film, Vlady is often speaking out existential riddles and philosophical speculations in the midst of pursuing stereotypical female activities—washing dishes, shopping for a dress, putting on cosmetics, getting a haircut at the hairdresser’s, taking care of children, and so on. Frequently these question the role of language in framing desire and limiting our ability to know ourselves, as Godard cuts to advertisements, and other signs with words printed on them, cropped to be meaningless and without context. The language through which we know ourselves is being denatured, afflicted with unsettling meanings by its commercial use. And women, the implication seems to be, are acutely aware of being both signifier and signified, of being the subject and object of discourse, with their essential being strewn between these dichotomies, impossible to resolve.

Godard ups the ante considerably on this female subject/object problem by making the women in the film prostitutes (more sexism), seeming to suggest that all women are confronted with the issue of whether to exploit their objectified femininity. Through their scrutinizing gaze, men have turned women they see in the city, on the street or in the cafes (where someone is inevitably playing pinball), into consumer goods. To make the connections explicit Godard has the women sell sex, which seems to stand in for feminine mystery, and escape generally, for the men who purchase it. Godard memorably illustrates this in a ham-fisted (yet awesome) scene in 2 or 3 Things when a john (wearing an American flag T-shirt) has the women he’s hired wear airline-issued carry-on bags on their heads. In an earlier scene, the rooms of a brothel hotel all have cheery travel posters on the walls. Sex and travel are brought together in the commercial exchange for a woman’s time and attention, and thereby made into manifestations of the same male desire for novelty and mystery.  (In one telling non sequitur, a man in a cafe—named Bouvard, one of the clownish autodidacts in Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet—calls out an order for mystery-flavored ice cream.)

If sex is the degree zero of desire in Godard films—the essence or representation of all the other forms desire takes—then prostitution is emblematic of the general corruption and exploitation of desire in general by social institutions, by capitalism as a system. It’s a somewhat hackneyed metaphor for what consumerism does to desire, how consumerism “solves” the problem of desire. It sells us inadequate substitutes for that fulfillment while convincing us we don’t want the entanglements that go along with pursuing true desire. Desire requires our full vitality and presence; consumerism tells us we can’t live up to that standard and it’s easier and just as well to have prostitutes, tourism, brand-name goods, etc., instead. It’s fun to visit jouissance, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

So the real subject of the film is how to preserve true desire and find it within the quotidian in modern city life. Women, he seems to suggest, have an inside track on this. But alongside that theme is some inchoate material about Vietnam and something about suburbanization—the film charts Vlady’s journey from the banlieu on the outskirts to Paris and back, and frequently the camera lingers on highway construction sites and brutalist apartment towers. The city as a technology for facilitating social exchange, a whispered voice-over tells us, is being replaced by new media—television, telephones. We would now add, the internet. But in these films, is the city the last hope for nurturing real desire—a place where spontaneous social interaction can be fruitful; where we are not stuck permanently in predetermined ruts that make desire beside the point—or is it one of the earliest first technologies for replacing desire with alienation and convenience, one that is now being supplanted and perfected in new media? Maybe I need to watch Weekend to get to the bottom of that.

by Bill Gibron

13 Feb 2009

Do few genre filmmakers “get it” that when a true artisan comes along, their presence can be initially perplexing - especially when he or she is being asked to reinvent a classic of macabre cinema. So many fail - David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s awful The Eye, for example - that anyone managing to survive said re-imagining is rare indeed. That’s why Marcus Nispel is such a welcome anomaly. Not only has he been charged with reviving the fortunes of two “archetypal” motion picture monster franchises - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th - but he’s managed to make the recognized classics all his own. In fact, some might argue that his updates are just as good (or better) than the originals.

Nispel is an interesting career case. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, he came to America at age 20 to start a production company. Concentrating on commercials and music videos, he worked for artists as diverse as Faith No More, Simply Red, Elton John, and No Doubt. He won four MTV Video Music Awards and saw his Portfolio Artists Network expand their advertising reach with clients like Coca-Cola, Nike, Mercedes and UPS.  In 2003, Michael Bay was looking for a new face to take on his planned redux of Tobe Hooper’s grindhouse epic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nispel, who had first tried to get into feature film directing with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s End of Days (he left the project over “creative differences”), was initially seen as an odd choice. Instead of going with a recognized horror name, Bay and company thought the cinematic novice would do the material justice.

They were absolutely right. With his trademark de-saturated color schemes, emphasis on atmosphere and tone, and a gore-drench brutality that the original completely lacked, Nispel made the story of Leatherface, his cannibal clan, and the unlucky teens that dared tread into his personal slaughterhouse domain an electrifying, terrifying experience. While paying homage to what Hooper and his beer-swilling buddies accomplished back in the Me Decade, he updated the premise for a blood and guts oriented post-modern crowd. Even cynical critics who normally dismissed fright flicks as the bastard step-children of the motion picture artform couldn’t deny that Nispel had forged something powerful and slightly sadistic out of what could have been a campy bit of nostalgia. The film became one of the Summer’s surprise hits and led to a less than successful origin story prequel.

For his part, Nispel went on to a pet project of his -Pathfinder, an adaptation of Nils Gaup’s 1987 film Ofelas. A contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, the original’s narrative was moved Westward, with Native Americans and Vikings taking the place of the Tjuder and Lapp tribes. With lead Karl Urban fresh from his turn as Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a directorial dedication to authenticity and history, studios clearly thought Nispel could deliver something spectacular. As the April 2007 release date came and went however, it was clear that this tale of murder, revenge, and cross culture clashing would do little but die at the box office. For his part, Nispel took the failure in stride, sitting back and studying his options (like the long rumored adaptation of American McGee’s Alice for horror heavy Wes Craven).

So it was quite shocking to see Nispel’s name featured in the initial teaser material for the proposed update of the Jason Voorhees legacy. It appeared like a step backward, a desperation move by a filmmaker who failed when moving outside the fear factory. In addition, the Friday the 13th franchise, while fun and very much tied to the introduction and explosion of home video in the 1980s, was not the kind of “classic” that Chainsaw was. Perhaps from a purely cultural standpoint, but Sean Cunningham’s crude slice and dice definitely wasn’t finding a spot in the Museum of Modern Art (where Hooper’s film now sits). Indeed, it looked like for all intents and purposes that Nispel, finding no success to separate himself from murder and mayhem, came crawling back to the scary movie to save his career.

In truth, bringing this director back was a godsend. Of all the films that need careful reconstructing, Friday the 13th is definitely high on the list. It’s an oddball mystery, a tawdry take on And Then There Were None where we don’t get the joy of figuring out the killer’s ID until the fiend shows up and says “Hello.” Betsy Palmer is brilliant as cook turned psycho Pamela Voorhees, and her machete battle with last girl Alice is amazing in its broad scoped camp cravenness. But before that, we have to suffer through endless minutes of stalk and shock, with little suspense preparing us for Tom Savini’s autopsy level make-up F/X. Today, the hockey masked hacker known as Jason is considered a true horror icon. But that status definitely comes from the other 10 films the character has starred in. At first, Friday the 13th was not about the deformed boy. It was about his batshit mother.

Nispel’s decision to redefine Jason as an animalistic predator is just one of the new film’s novel approaches to the material. This new Friday the 13th thwarts convention as easily as it embraces the standard slasher formulas. The opening 25 minutes are all film craft and corpses, Nispel showing off in ways that both shiver the spine and tweak the brain. By the time the title shows up, we’ve already experienced the death of his mother, the rise of Jason, and the set-up for the next part of the plot. Nispel’s greatest asset, and the one element that differentiates him from all other post post-modern horror filmmakers is his level of seriousness. He never treats the genre like a joke, or a lesser level of cinematic artistry. He sets up his scenes like old school masters would and he works the audience like regaled names in the category’s past. Sure, there’s still a by the numbers corpse grinding involved, but getting there is an exercise in polished, professional cinema, nothing more or less.

Indeed, the reason Nispel should now be number one on any studios classic horror remake list - an inventory now containing such noted names as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, and The Evil Dead - is that he won’t kowtow to fanboy lusts or messageboard mandates. He won’t cater to memory or excessive obsession. Instead, he will play the narrative exactly the way the material requires. As a matter of fact, the next update he should attempt should be Sam Raimi’s breakthrough demons in a cabin romp. The Evil Dead would be perfect for Nispel’s ominous ambience and sensational splatter rampaging. He would use the wilderness as an effective foil to the foolishness happenings within, and when the creatures start to emerge, he could really turn on the terror. Just like Leatherface and his family, Nispel could even make the entire thing into some sort of redolent look at society circa 2010 (or whatever date the studios decide to set).

Because of his complete confidence in his own vision, because he can take even the cheesiest chestnut from the macabre mindfield and turn it into something stunning, Marcus Nispel should be instantly tossed to the top of the horror heap. He should never have to worry about working. He should have a laundry list of potential projects to choose from. Even when he fails - and Pathfinder is nothing short of subpar - he shows a spark and originality that few filmmakers possess. Remember, both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th were predisposed to fail. Devotees just knew that anyone tackling these titles would come up incredibly short. That Nispel managed to match - and in the case of Jason’s journey, best - the previous offerings says something about his gift for gruesomeness. Clearly, when it comes to horror, he “gets” it. Any producer looking to jumpstart their genre franchise should “get” him as well.

by Mike Deane

13 Feb 2009

I’ve long been a modern R&B hater. I’m not claiming it’s not a valuable genre or form of music, because it obviously is, it’s just never had any musical elements that have appealed to me. From Boyz II Men to Brandy to Chris Brown, it’s always come off as boring and preposterous; all of the “whooowhoowhoooo”s and the needlessly sappy and slow songs lost my interest by the first chorus. There have been exceptions over the years; Usher, Beyonce, R.Kelly, Ciara have all nailed it on certain songs, bringing a certain energy and swagger to a typically uninspired and maudlin genre, but my feelings towards modern R&B changed a couple of summers ago when Rihanna’s “Umbrella” hit the radio (minus Jay Z’s terrible intro verse) with its heaviness, hookiness and nonsense “ella” and “ay” repetitions.

“Umbrella” seemed to have a lot more going on than previous modern R&B, with its heavy keyboards and hip hop drums. When the follow-up single came out, “Shut Up and Drive”, I realized that “Umbrella” had nothing to do with Rihanna—it was essentially karaoke—the real talent was with the writers. It’d be a while until I found out who that writing team was, and the answer drew me in to modern R&B.

When friends started talking about The-Dream’s album Love Hate (Love Me All Summer / Hate Me All Winter), I was not on board.  It just seemed like typical R&B and I already had my token listenable R&B song with Usher’s “Love in the Club”. After hearing more and more of The-Dream’s debut album I realized that he was employing Rihanna’s “ella”s and “ay”s and something like Young Jeezy’s “Aaaaayyy”s. After very little investigation I found out that The-Dream (Terius Nash) and his production partner Christopher Stewart were the geniuses behind “Umbrella”,  that’s all that was necessary for me to give the entire album a chance.

Prejudices can make people do odd things. I had ignored modern R&B for a decade, when I’m sure when mined there are a ton of good albums regardless of your tastes. Hearing The-Dream’s debut has given me more listening satisfaction than most other 2008 releases (it was released Dec 2007). I’m kind of glad that I was late in discovering Love Hate, because it means that the wait for more The-Dream is not as long as it is for those early adapters. So, with his new album, Love vs. Money, set for release March 10 (I wonder how close Def Jam will get to that actual date), I want to give late praise to The-Dream and Love Hate—from the perspective of a changed man. For all you R&B haters out there: if you’re going to check out one R&B album, make sure it’s this one, it’ll change your perspective.

by Sarah Zupko

13 Feb 2009

Easy Star All-Stars have previously recorded critically acclaimed reggae tributes to Pink Floyd (Dub Side of the Moon, 2003) and Radiohead (Radiodread, 2006). Michael Keefe went so far as to call the band’s “seriously dubby paranoia is the reggae of the new millennium.” They are following up those popular efforts with a new take on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band releases on April 14th and will include an impressive array of guest artists, including Steel Pulse, Matisyahu, Michael Rose (Black Uhuru), Luciano, U Roy, Bunny Rugs (Third World), Ranking Roger (English Beat), Sugar Minott, Frankie Paul, Max Romeo and The Mighty Diamonds. Check out the first single “With a Little Help From My Friends”. It features Luciano and is releasing exclusively on iTunes along with a B-side dub version featuring the legendary U Roy.

Easy Star All-Stars
“With a Little Help From My Friends” [MP3]
     

TOUR DATES
March 12: Boulder, CO @ Fox Theatre
March 13: Denver, CO @ Cervante’s Masterpiece Ballroom
March 14: Aspen, CO @ Belly Up
March 15: Ft. Collins, CO @ Aggie Theatre
March 18: Austin, TX - SXSW Opening Party @ IODA
March 19: Austin, TX - SXSW showcase at Vice

Photo © www.ollyhearsey.co.uk

by C.L. Chafin

13 Feb 2009

Glasgow’s Popup are a new addition to Conor Oberst’s Team Love Records. Sounding like the result of a drunken bathroom hookup between Arab Strap and the Pixies, Popup have made the best song about Siamese Twins in love you’re likely to hear this week. Not to overstate things. But, as LeVar Burton might say, don’t take our word for it. Check out their brand spankin’ new video for “Love Triangle”.

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