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Tuesday, Nov 27, 2007


He’s the most visionary filmmaker of his generation, a genius toiling away in relative obscurity while others of his ilk milk the Internet and festival circuit for every last fame whoring morsel. Yet when compared to their weak minded (and kneed) efforts, Damon Packard stands apart. Born in the ‘60s, reared in the ‘70s, and gifted with the amazing ability to channel post-modern moviemaking into a stream of savant-like subconsciousness, he is single handedly reinventing the idiom of film. Along with fellow free spirit Giuseppe Andrews, Packard is turning celluloid on its humdrum, hackneyed ass, while kicking conventionality and conformity to the neo-No Wave curve.


And he’s done it by cannibalizing the past. To say that this filmmaker is obsessed with cinema’s “second” Golden Age would be as great an understatement as suggesting he’s merely an underground artist. In fact, Packard is so plugged into the Me Decade, so intertwined with the efforts of Coppola, Lucas, and especially blockbuster savior Steven Spielberg that he’s a one-man West Coast renaissance reference map. Toss is a few California quirks, a healthy knowledge of ‘70s television (including the iconic ABC Movie of the Week), and a love of the laid back, Summer of Love hangover that was the world after Watergate, and you’ve got an entire multimedia encyclopedia locked up in one slightly psychotic 40 year old brain.


To listen to Packard talk, film officially ‘ended’ in 1977. Star Wars had substituted unnecessary spectacle for smarts and other favored auteurs were locked in aesthetic battles with themselves. Some would win (Apocalypse Now). Others would fumble and appear to flame out (1941). As the ‘80s ushered in the era of the high concept, elephantine budgets, and overemphasis on special effects, that lasting impact of the Vietnam era motion picture revolution was glossed over in favor of opening weekends, box office returns, and sordid celebrity scuttlebutt. A movie was no longer a work of uncompromised art. It was a cold and calculated commodity, a chance to turn a befuddled business model into a consistent combination of clever marketing and demographic manipulation.


But with his amazing body of work, films that defy description as easily as they embrace their inevitable portrayals as “experimental” and “avant-garde”, Packard has repackaged the ‘70s, turning them into the symbolic acid reflux flashback they really were. Part celebration, part condemnation, and all wholly original, the bold statements that make up his creative canon are easily the most synapse firing freak outs since Kubrick concocted some mirrored process shops to symbolize spaceflight in 2001. All that’s missing here is a giant monolith, an ex-pat’s predilection for perfection, and a few million dollars in financial support. That Packard’s no budget affairs can easily match those of grander repute speaks volumes for his viability as a titanic talent.


It all starts with samples - film clips and snippets - material gathered from a lifetime as watcher and cultural observer. Packard has everything: trailers from obscure British sword and sorcery epics; soundtrack albums from equally unremembered science fiction flops; TV ads from the network’s annual new season blitz; homemade footage crafted from early childhood efforts; newfangled digital technology; old school video wipes and dissolves; analog effects; gallons of blood; untold imagination; unfounded paranoia; and a deep seeded belief that film - not music or any other meaningful media - is the true soundtrack to our lives. In fact, it may just be the support system of our soul.


He accomplishes this amazing feat by melding material that otherwise wouldn’t be considered for combination or comparison. For example, the trailer narration and underscoring for the film Jaws will be superimposed over that popcorn phenom’s closest b-movie counterpart - the killer bear schlock fest, Grizzly. Then Packard will add self-produced scenes of slapstick and grue, just to remind everyone that the entire reality - original merged with copycat, new footage filtered in - is part of the way the nu-industry movies work. Film is, today, no longer a result of one person’s applied vision. Instead, it’s a volatile stew of suggestions, hubris, incompetence, originality, and reliance on the tried and true. When placed before the public, responses are measured and what works is retained. And what doesn’t? It’s tweaked and retweaked until someone decides it’s fiscally sound…or unsalvageable. 


All of this is reflected in Packard’s approach. He will combine old horror films, memorable moments from TV terror, add in his own scripted material, mash it all up in a computer editing program, add in music from other forgotten movies, and ball it all up into a work of wounded intelligence. It’s shocking how effective it can be. Where once you had a simple sequence of girls running in slow motion, now you have a frighteningly faithful homage to those subtle, atmospheric ‘70s scarefests. In Packard’s world, every film is a drive-in classic, every shot a reference to some seminal movie moment from the past. Even better, he makes the material his own, turning his glorified geek tendencies into McLuhan-esque statements of cultural commentary.


Indeed, unlike his close artistic ally Andrews, Packard isn’t out to define what makes a film. He’s not using a camcorder and a bunch of trailer park residents as an echo on what makes basic cinema. Instead, this dedicated director (he once mailed out 23,000 free copies of his epic Reflections of Evil in hopes of getting some attention) believes in the foundations of the format. He’s out to present the previously scene and already recognizable in a new and fascinating light. It’s something akin to holding up a foggy funhouse mirror to the medium that’s given him so much joy, hoping that everyone else sees the insular insane ravings that made motion pictures his personal passion. And he does it all without a single whiff of insider support. While noted pal Sage Stallone (son of Sly) has been a longtime accomplice, Packard has typically functioned so far under the radar that his misguided masterpieces barely get a media mention.


Until now. As we do with any cinematic trailblazer that the rest of the out of touch fanbase fails to embrace, SE&L will present an overview of Packard’s wonderfully perplexing works in tomorrow’s update. Hopefully, such a variety will inspire you to contact the filmmaker and buy one (or hopefully, more) of his devastating directorial deconstructions. Along with their novelty, and desire to remain both nonsensical and knowing, they touch on so many facets of filmmaking (both past and present) that it’s impossible to argue with their insight. Call him a self-indulgence mental case or the single greatest independent artist of the ‘90s/‘00s, but one thing is for sure - Damon Packard is an unqualified moviemaking maverick. And each and everyone one of his fascinating films proves this over and over again. 


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Monday, Nov 26, 2007


When Bobby Darin went from teeny-bopper “splish splash” to pseudo-Sinatra swing, he brought along a vampy, jazzy update of an old Louis Armstrong number with him. Reinterpreting the lyrics to give the tune a ring-a-ding-ding kick, and working all the Brecht/Weill out of the thing, “Mack the Knife” became the singer’s signature song. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, sold a million copies, and went on to win the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1960. Yet few, if any, knew of the original source material. In fact, Dick Clark warned Darin against cutting the track, telling him that if fans ever found out it was taken from an “opera” it would destroy his rock-n-roll cred.


Of course, he was wrong, but even today, the 3 Penny title will throw anyone not aware of the legacy behind Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s riotously influential stage work. Indeed, even a modern revival from 2006 featuring Alan Cumming, Jim Dale, and New Wave chanteuse Cyndi Lauper failed to ignite much interest. Perhaps if people had a chance to see G. W. Pabst’s brilliant interpretation of the material in his 1931 film, they’d realize how phenomenal The 3 Penny Opera really is. The movie is indeed one of the slyest, most striking masterworks ever.


On the day of his wedding, MacHeath, also known as Mackie Messer, otherwise notorious as Mack the Knife, wants everything to be perfect. After all, he is marrying longtime girlfriend Polly Peachum. It’s a very advantageous pairing - she’s the daughter of an infamous London racketeer who controls the beggar trade and his status as a heel remains intact. Also, he’s allowed to carouse and womanize (if only a little) on the side. While finding a preacher willing to enter his literal den of thieves is tough, Messer manages to get hitched. But when Papa Peachum finds out, he is livid. He demands his son-in-law’s head, and propositions corrupt police chief (and Messer ally) Tiger Brown to frame the felon.


When the lawman initially won’t cooperate, Peachum plays his ace. The Queen’s Coronation parade is a few days away. If Messer is not in prison and headed to his death, there will be a poverty row rebellion to interrupt the pomp and circumstance. With all sides playing against and into each other, it will take more than treachery and deception to outwit one another. As in any 3 Penny (or poverty) Opera, it’s the little things overlooked, and the twists of fate unexpected, that end up counting.


G. W. Pabst’s adaptation of Weill and Brecht’s 3 Penny Opera is an astounding cinematic experience - like watching M the musical as filtered through a neo-realistic view of silent-film German Expressionism. At first, you feel overwhelmed by the arch, stylized approach to the story. Told by traveling minstrels and lacking the initial elements of explanation and exposition, it immediately tosses us into London’s seedy port district, a locale overrun with scum, strumpets, and the scoundrels who take advantage of same. As we are introduced to the main characters - master thief (and murderer) MacHeath/Mackie Messer, his gal pal Polly Peachum, and the various members of the twosome’s felonious entourage - and watch the preparations for their soon-to-be grand wedding, we wonder where all of this is going.


For many, the 3 Penny is an unknown quantity, a non-traditional songfest that closely resembles the arcane entertainment referenced in the title. Indeed, the first few numbers - including the instantly recognizable “Mack the Knife” - resemble a Wagnerian war against Gilbert and Sullivan. They’re more arias and sextets than chorus/melody making. While each one of the drawn-out dirges is packed with psychological subtext and social protest, it all comes across as overblown and obvious. How the movie will manage from this point is anyone’s guest.


And then we are introduced to Polly’s corrupt father, a man who actually controls and licenses the beggars in the city. No one can work the streets without his permission, and such a setup is instantaneously intriguing. We want to know more and need it ASAP. But the story does something even better. It takes the situation and amplifies it one outstanding step further. Peachum has a list of possible panhandling personas - the cripple, the crazy, the mute, etc. - and candidates can only choose between those that haven’t met their citywide or regional quota. In one stellar sequence, a newcomer argues with the fierce Fagan over his employment possibilities. The crass, capitalist way Peachum handles his business, and the ragtag group of street trash that wanders through his door (most merely playing at their pathetic state) gives 3 Penny a wonderful cynical edge.


It’s clear why Weill and Brecht were attracted to this 18th century ballad opera (which they then updated). In a country just caving into Nationalism and accompanying Nazi power, the concept of corruption within even the most morose of social situations (the homeless as organized con artists) meshed perfectly with their growing political concerns. When we later find out that police chief Tiger Brown is linked to both Messer and Peachum’s criminal organizations, it adds fuel to an already foul fire.


And then Act III arrives. Peachum, angry that his daughter has married Messer, wants the hoodlum hanged. He threatens Brown with a peasant riot during the Queen’s Coronation if the lawman doesn’t frame his unwanted son-in-law and place him before the gallows. While Messer is mired in the court system, he leaves his racket to his bride, and she turns the burglary and pickpocket ring into a legitimized version of the very same enterprise—otherwise known as a bank. Using their newfound status, and an excess of cash, they save Messer and call Peachum’s bluff. The result is a mass melee between the peasant class and the upper crust who constantly shun them.


As staged brilliantly by director Pabst, this last-act anarchy is unforgettable. A collection of faces both found and fashioned, it speaks volumes about the power in protest while suggesting the senselessness in fighting right with might. Epic in scale if not in visual scope (this was a studio production, limited by the logistics of creating all of London on a soundstage), the clash of classes is then overridden by a last-act truce that speaks more about modern society and who pulls the strings than any movie since, post-modern or otherwise.


When it’s all over, when The 3 Penny Opera wraps up its cutting condemnations and finishes with a flourish, we wonder why we ever doubted it. Even the unusual sonic cues and melodious complexity that keeps everything at arms length suddenly seems silly and easily embraceable. Because of the knotty narrative turns, the backdoor wheeling and dealing, and clearly defined criticism of Germany’s lax citizenry (it’s a similar statement made by Jean Renoir’s revelatory Rules of the Game), what started out stark and dated turns timeless and all too telling. Hats off to Austrian Pabst, who channeled fellow greats like Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau to create an amazing monochrome landscape of shadows and light for the intrigues to play within.


He also does a magnificent job of keeping his characters clear and beyond the obvious caricatures. This is especially true of Papa Peachum. One gets the clear impression that a slight amount of anti-Semitism could be present in Weill/Brecht’s interpretation of the original character. He sure looks and acts like Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. But thanks to Pabst’s careful control of the material, as well as Fritz Rasp’s multifaceted performance, all potential racism is avoided. In fact, even though the entire narrative deals with society’s most unsavory element, 3 Penny never resorts to such cinematic name calling.


It’s safe to say that this ancient allegory, first formulated back in 1728 when Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) suggested John Gray take up the cause of the downtrodden and disenfranchised, is more potent in 2007 than in pre-World War II Europe. Back then, criminals and lowlifes were a cause for scandal, an unacceptable breed given over to censure and individual exile. While Messer makes a compelling mobster, we are never allowed to forget that he once killed an entire family just for the fun of it. Today, thanks to tabloid television and the 24-hour-a-day news cycle, we semi-celebrate such antisocial heroes. They become the “there but for the grace” grooves that feed our need for holier-than-thou judgment.


3 Penny takes such a sentiment and turns it right back at our self-righteous, sanctimonious faces. It asks us to explain why these kinds of characters are so engaging, and makes us realize that they truly exist in all corridors of power—even in ourselves. Weill and Brecht may have been rebelling against a war-weary nation headed toward a complete totalitarian meltdown, but their musical makes us look at our own lack of action in light of such situations. It places us directly in the line of the poor-person maelstrom, and asks us to question why we still don’t care.


Even better, it belies our already staunch cynicism. Everyone thinks the police are corrupt, the wealthy are wicked, the government given over to special interests, and that corporate coffers are lined with white-collar criminality. 3 Penny pushes it all further into farce, suggesting that there’s unbridled badness even among the already unlawful. When Polly proudly celebrates the buying of a bank, we see the simple substituting of one racket for another. When Peachum and Messer talk truce, we witness every backroom deal that drives ethics even further from the standard business/legislative model. It’s all so very modern and yet locked deep within its Victorian England setting. That it suggests such static history makes for an even more disconcerting entertainment.


While you won’t be humming its tunes on the way out of the theater—or while removing the DVD from the player—the music is memorable, especially since it easily encapsulates everything we see onscreen. Indeed, The 3 Penny Opera probably plays better on film than in the theater. Live, the inherent ambiguity of the staging can ruin even the greatest writer’s intentions. But when pasted to celluloid, the tendencies become timeless, and their motives remain solid and concrete. Over the decades, revivals of the show have been less than successful. Movies remain the best way to experience this classic social commentary.


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Sunday, Nov 25, 2007


It’s the dirty little secret that the DVD industry doesn’t want you to know about, the scam that gives them more than one crack at your entertainment dollar while conning you into thinking you’re getting more cinematic bang for your beleaguered buck. It used to be, when a studio or distributor wanted to fleece you, they simple added on some mindless bonus features, changed the title’s cover art, and labeled the release a “special” or “collectors” or “anniversary” edition. And they still do that, reworking a favored film over and over again until there’s dozens of double dip versions begging for your already stretched greenback. This latest cabal, however, requires the cooperation of the theatrical print, a single sensationalized word, and a public gullible enough to think they’re privy to an unexpurgated version of an artist’s vision.


The term, of course, is “unrated”. Technically, it means that a film or movie has not been resubmitted to the MPAA for determination. While it may seem like a purely semantic point, follow the logic. When a studio prepares to release a motion picture, they have two choices – submit it to the noted industry watchdog and await their G – NC-17 verdict, or put it out in the marketplace without a rating. Under the terms of the MPAA guidelines, this title is now “Not Rated”. It was never given to the group for review, and no age-appropriate determination was made. Older films, released before the advent of the organization, are typically presented this way. The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and Vertigo are examples of this concept. However, if they eventually have a theatrical release or revival, a new MPAA score is mandated (the Hitchcock classic earned a PG when it was submitted for its 1983 run). 


Unrated, on the other hand, means the movie has already been reviewed once, with an existing mark on the record. Let’s stick with Vertigo for the time being. Now, let’s say that the Master of Suspense’s estate discovered some rare deleted scenes that the director demanded be included in the film (for some reason, the studio had refused to allow them to be part of the final cut). In planning a new DVD release, the distributor has two options: they can reincorporate the footage, reapply for a rating, and see what happens…OR, they can doctor the existing print, avoid the MPAA all together, and release the new version on home video. By law, the rating would have to switch from “PG” to “Unrated”. Imagine the controversy when the studio announces, the new, “Unrated” edition of such a fabled masterwork. Tongues would be wagging while cash registers ring and ring and ring…


There’s a caveat, of course. Unrated does not mean ‘uncensored’. Unrated also doesn’t mean loaded with nudity, gore, foul language, or excessive sex. All the term means is that the product being presented to the public did not pass through the Association’s review process a second time. By law, it must be labeled ‘unrated’. If a single sentence in a line of dialogue is altered, the MPAA wants everyone to know it did not approve it. It can make for some rather surreal consequences. A director can actually remove blood or bare breasts and wind up with an unrated release. Even more awkward, insignificant elements not originally part of the production (updated CGI, reshot second unit footage) can all result in the fabled label. Naturally, most movie companies go through the motions, assured that their PG-13 will stay that way. But some sly studios take the opposite approach – and they do so because of the craven nature of the consumer.


The horror genre is probably the most blatant abuser of this ballsy bait and switch – and with good reason. The MPAA has been notoriously hard on the fright film, demanding that excess arterial spray and sensationalized sexuality be severely trimmed from most of these movies (the validity of such implied censorship is an entry for another day). Some filmmakers have avoided the fuss all together – George Romero released his classic zombie epic Dawn of the Dead without a rating, as did Sam Raimi with his equally masterful Evil Dead. But when major leaguers dabble in the scary stuff, they usually mandate an MPAA review (the studios support and fund the lobbying group, after all), thereby ensuring that the objectionable is sanitized and moderated for greater mainstream acceptance.


Before DVD, this cutting room floor fodder was typically thrown away. After all, VHS wasn’t going to accommodate its inclusion, and laserdisc was seen as too elitist and limited. But when the added storage space of the CD like aluminum disc was championed, the ability to reincorporate excised content was seen as a selling point. Soon, the so-called “director’s cuts” and “special editions” were clogging up shelf space, making the decision on what to buy all the more difficult. It didn’t help that some studios and distributors took this concept to the extreme. Both Romero and Raimi have seen their unrated gems reconfigured several times for maximum cash grabbing.


But the unrated conspiracy is far more insidious. Let’s look at a typical terror title from last year – Saw III. When it was release in theaters (October of 2006) it was one of the bloodiest, most gore driven fright flicks ever. There was so much splatter on the screen that audiences couldn’t imagine there was additional sluice to be experienced. Well, they were wrong. Not one, but TWO different DVD versions of the film have touted themselves as unrated and uncut…with the second term being far more important. When director Darren Lynn Bousman wanted to rework some of the ending material, he instantly ran into the unrated rule. So Lionsgate, the studio that produced the film, decided to add to the ballyhoo by reinserting some of the edited gore. It’s a tasty trick – give those who love their blood and guts something to cheer, while increasing the marketability of the movie post-box office.


Certainly it all comes down to profit. Promising fans a bit more brazenness works every time. Yet some filmmakers plan this on purpose, and such premeditation seems cheap and rather callous. When they made Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez didn’t make a pair of mini-movies. Each one went out and, on their limited budgets, created the best full length feature they could. When the time came to put together the three hour plus exploitation call back, the self-subscribed scissors came out, and huge chunks of material were removed. Both knew that the Weinstein Group, responsible for the eventual DVD release, was not going to allow both films to fly under a single Special Edition banner. In fact, Tarantino’s Death Proof was being poised for a Cannes run, so separating the pair – at least initially – meant there would be at least two different digital versions of the same material.


Within the last two months, the two disc unrated and uncut (a key phraseology, remember that) DVDS hit stores, and while fans were eager to buy up these new, novel editions, they wondered if they’d ever see Grindhouse the way it was intended. Sure enough, as part of his commentary track on Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez let the creative kitten out of the bag. Indeed, yet another version of the films was being prepared, this time bringing back the fake trailers, the drive-in ads, and the old school theatrical bumpers. While it all seems like standard cinematic operating procedure, remember the set-up. Both filmmakers purposefully created more footage and effects than they knew they could use. The MPAA added another layer of insult to previously intended injury. So they planned on at least two different releases even before the home video version was actually envisioned.


In the worst case scenarios, this means that endless permutations of the same title can be created. It also means that filmmakers can anticipate such strategies. Peter Jackson shot all the footage he wanted for both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. When DVD time rolled around, he offered the theatrical cut, extended versions, and several box set combinations of same. Since we are dealing with movies on an epic scale, these situations don’t appear so crass. But some movies are never ever seen again in their original theatrical state. Hostel has never been released in its original big screen version. The first DVD was unrated, even though it had (by director Eli Roth’s own admission) about “five seconds” of added goo. Just recently, a director’s cut hit stores, and according to reviews, its equally unrated facets include minor trims and additions.


It seems odd that an industry that loves to chide companies for colorization, plagiarizing, and reediting public domain features for one’s own inevitable greed would turn around and embrace this digital deception. When you see a film on the silver screen, you enjoy (or hate) the experience for what was offered then. Rarely will a DVD revamp change your mind. The unrated disc is just a joke, a “you’ve seen it before, so see it again” sort of spiel that sounds promising in the presentation, but almost always winds up failing to fully deliver. About the only example that’s actually paid off on its promise is the unrated version of Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Purposefully dark to avoid MPAA commanded changes, the slightly brightened release allowed the horror of the trapped cave explorers to fully sink in.


This stands as the exception that fuels the rule. Most studios know that they will get you with that single, rather insignificant word. They know you can be tricked into taking a second bite out of the same sour and spoiled apple. If You, Me and Dupree was hackneyed and horrid the first time around, it must have been the ratings board’s fault, right? Imagine how great the unrated version must be, huh? Well, the truth is that most of the alterations will be minor at best, and the elements that made the film faulty in the first place (bad direction, lame characterization, uninspired dialogue) will still be included. In fact, just last week, the fourth Die Hard film (Live Free or Die Hard) made its way onto the format in a highly flaunted “unrated” edition. Fans had indeed been livid over the PG-13 theatrical take, and were hoping that the DVD would deliver the ‘F-bombs and blood’. Wisely, Fox found a way to appease everyone (both cuts are present). 


But the scheme will continue unabated. Studios will continue to underestimate the intelligence of the film fan and hope that a standard statement of non-MPAA involvement will lead to increased sales and customer satisfaction. It doesn‘t really matter if the original film gets a shot at being seen – there’s always cable, and on demand sell through to secure its legacy. No, once “unrated” proved its profitability, there was no turning back –and since we, the viewers, tends to get all antsy when a splatter film finds its way onto DVD without the necessary nastiness, we can’t blame the companies for gilding the lily. We are the suckers PT Barnum loved to laugh at. We are the findings that validate the focus groups. In some ways, we deserve the entire “unrated” DVD conspiracy. And with HD and Blu-Ray waiting for their turn at tricking us, there’s no end in sight.


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Saturday, Nov 24, 2007


Film criticism is flawed in dozens of different ways. While there is no reliable aesthetic consensus among opinions, fans and scholars like to imply (or demand) one. And since each and every review comes down to a matter of taste, finding a harmony between all those varying personal perspectives is a fool’s paradise. Still, because greatness appears to be so easy to agree upon (even with the occasional naysayer, films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca still get almost universal kudos), readers insist that failure fulfill the same concrete criteria. Yet for every hopeless flop, there are objective arguments both pro and con. Take the Summer splat Who’s Your Caddy? An overview of the Rotten Tomatoes tracking indicates this supposed spoof earned an appalling 8% approval rating. That means, of the so-called professionals who decided to review it (and that number is also shockingly small), over 90% found it unacceptable. All of which begs the question – are they right? Oddly enough, no.


That doesn’t mean our story is something significant, mind you. When rap impresario Christopher “C-Note” Hawkins returns to his South Carolina hometown to join the snooty local country club, he butts heads with president and resident bigot Mr. Cummings. At first, his attempts at membership are rebuffed. But when C-Note buys a local mansion (and with it, property rights to the 17th hole), the club must make a deal. They decide to let the media mogul in, but on one condition. He must pass the probationary period without a single significant violation of the rules. In the meantime, Cummings hires some local hitmen, conspires with a haughty female attorney, and basically does everything in his money-based power to keep the ‘undesirable element’ out of his club. Naturally, C-Note’s genuineness, plus his secret familial agenda, helps him survive this ridiculous redneck hazing. Still, it all comes down to a head to head contest on the links. The winner stays. The loser goes.


Who’s Your Caddy? (new to DVD from Dimension Films and Genuis Products) is not the worst film of 2007, but it definitely is one of the most underdeveloped. What wants to be a sly urban Caddysack (though the constant comparisons to the marginal ‘80s entertainment is tenuous at best – more on this later) ends up being a collection of scattered scatology mixed with some decent interaction between the cast members. One of the best things director Don Michael Paul does is allow for and exploit a free flowing level of camaraderie between his actors. Outkast member Big Boi (aka Antwan Andre Patton) may not be the best musician turned movie star on the planet, but his casual mannerism with professional performers Faizon Love, Finesse Mitchell, and Chase Tatum has a real aura of fellowship and fun. Granted, we never do learn much about these purposely placed posse members. They are mere sidekicks, fleshed out by their frequently illustrated proclivities (horniness, weed loving, thug life living) without probing deeper into personality.


Even C-Note suffers from being a single element narrative device. Though Patton does manage to make him more than just a brother with an agenda, the script constantly reminds us that, no matter how winning or wise he may be, our hero is hankering for a little passive payback. The motive for this move – something to do with his late father, a record course score, and Cummings’ countermanding of its legitimacy – may have worked better within a dramatic setting. Here, the ‘doing it for dad’ element never carries the emotional payoff it promises. Even when Hawkins is delivering an inspirational, last act pep talk to fire up his troops, the premise is problematic. Seems there would be better ways for a multimillionaire media giant to take the air out of an old fashioned stuffed shirt other than beating him at 18 holes. Yet this is indicative of Who’s Your Caddy? ’s main flaw. We could care less about the reasons for C-Note’s vendetta. We just want more raunch and revelry.


Yet again, the movie fails to accommodate. There is a single scene where Love, Mitchell, and Tatum are standing butt naked (literally) in the clubhouse locker room. As his cohorts primp and preen, Jon Favreau’s favorite riffs on sexuality, body types, penis size, and clear cultural distinctions. Sure, it may all sound like a lackluster night on Evening at the Improv, but Love is so convincing, and the rest of the movie so wanting, that we’ll take what we can get. Indeed, there are moments of calculated crudity all throughout Who’s Your Caddy? that fail to make us smile. When Love lets out the world’s longest fart right before Cummings tees off, it’s so obvious as to be boring. Similarly, Mitchell is a pot loving loser who – thanks to PC thuggery – must have had much of his material trimmed. This means a brownie joke loses its luster, and a sequence where he feeds herb to a polo pony also misses the mark.


Some things do work, if only moderately. While it may have taken her a tenure on The View to learn that the world is actually round, Ms. Flat Earth Sherri Sheperd is actually quite winning as C-Note’s trash talking assistant. Her moments with the always interesting Terry Crews crackle with energy. Similarly, when Paul takes things down a notch to have C-Note visit his mother, the interaction between Patton and Jenifer Lewis has a nice amount of authenticity. Yet for every facet that finds its mark, Who’s Your Caddy? presents performers and personalities that simply lie there, DOA. This is a film that thinks dwarf gangsters are the height of originality - and hilarity – and anyone who still thinks Andy Milonakis is a misunderstood genius will realize his true limits after watching him here. He’s an unfunny void. Similarly, a well known name in urban comedy like Bruce Bruce is given nothing to do, and let’s not even question what skilled actors like Tamala Jones, James Avery, and Jim Piddock are doing here. Slumming for a paycheck, perhaps?


And then there’s Jeffrey Jones. The one time Tim Burton tent pole, able to lift any scene with a single shift of his rubbery face, has gone from winner to sinner in the eyes of the public. All the good work he did in the ‘80s and ‘90s was washed away amid scandal and alleged sex crimes. Now a bloated, bungling shadow of his former self, Jones is reduced to a Confederate cad here. Though he never uses epithets or racial vulgarities (it is up to Love to translate his comments into N-word nastiness), he’s pompous without a purpose, prejudiced as a matter of screenplay predestination. For those who love to toss the Caddyshack claim about, one need remember that Ted Knight’s jaundiced Judge Smails was more than just a superficial villain. He was dimensionalized to the point of perfection. Here, Jones is just the butt of several jibes – and most of them are unfunny at best.


And about that 1980 links lunacy? Who’s Your Caddy? is not some manner of ghetto update of that celebrated farce. In fact, it has much more in common with the crappy 1988 sequel starring Jackie Mason. Caddy actually betters that pointless update in many significant ways. If Paul had simply had more faith in his filmmaking, and allowed Patton and his costars room to improvise and gel, we’d have a much better movie. Even with the added content provided on the DVD (deleted scenes, minor making-of EPK, an intriguing audio commentary), we see a production constantly hemmed in by expectations and industry standards/mandates. What many thought would be an African American Airplane! ended up sinking in a sodden cinematic sand trap. There is the core for an interesting fish out of water tale here, a comedy of clashing cultures where new world hip-hop meets Southern conservative white repression, but Who’s You Caddy? is not it. It’s just a mindless amusement that should have been better.


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Friday, Nov 23, 2007


Seated alongside The Residents as long time bay area agent provocateurs, the San Francisco based avant-gardists Negativland consistently defy description. Sonic poets, defenders of free speech, and flaunters of the Fair Use Doctrine, the magnificent mash-up artists have been taking on corporate consumer speak and unrealistic copyright laws since their founding at the end of the ‘70s. Though the core of the collective has changed little since their first high school meeting (Mark Hosler and Richard Lyons have remained friends since), the actual band has always been a loose amalgamation of like minded artists, skilled filmmakers, animation activists and similarly styled pop culture rebels. And with targets as imposing as Disney, Coke, Pepsi, and those all powerful mainstream music icons U2, they’ve never been at a loss for material. Toss in a little swearing Casey Kasem, a phony axe killer connection, and various affronts to so-called conservative society, and you’ve got a series of lawsuits just waiting to happen.


To understand the DVD compilation Our Favorite Things, one has to comprehend the basic tenets of Negativland’s philosophy. Thematically, the band appears to follow the William Burroughs’ method of cut and paste creativity. The notorious beat author, responsible for the incomprehensibly brilliant Naked Lunch, used to write long passages, tear out the typed page, cut the sentences into soundbite snippets, and reconfigure the prose into new, unexpected phraseology. Much of the music Negativland makes is standard rock and electronica stomps. There’s even a peppering of pop and pleasant valley sundriness to it. But the lyrics, when there are any, follow a more free flowing, stream of subconsciousness pattern. And the inclusive of samples, sound oddments, various narratives, and other found material fall right into Burroughs’ beliefs. As a result, the group is more of an experience than a straight ahead act. On the plus side, this gives their overall message more room to blossom and grow.


Collected together by celebrated DVD outsiders Other Cinema, Our Favorite Things offers 18 mindbending examples of the band’s creative collage collaborations with experimental and no wave filmmakers. Multifaceted, layered, and brimming with solid subversion, it’s clear why the group has been seated at the center of controversy. Anyone who would challenge the House of Mouse by having Little Mermaid Arial voice the foul mouthed rant of a corporate scumbag attorney is asking for trouble. But Negativland’s targets are typically much bigger than the keepers of Walt Disney’s dying legacy. Hot button subjects like religion, marketing, greed, and government propagandizing make the issues of an angry animation company seem small. Yet the power in these shorts cannot be underestimated. In fact, most of Our Favorite Things plays like brainwashing purposefully created for the already converted. Indeed, by using similar subliminal techniques as those who are doing the preaching, it’s hoped that the faithful truly see the light.


It all begins with something called “Learning to Communicate”. A combination of anti-technology stances and pro-Luddite tweaks, it starts the disc off on a very surreal note. Once we get to “No Business”, the real purpose behind Negativland can be seen. Taking the classic number from Gypsy, the short examines the concept of stealing – in this case, not the extra bow, but music from the Internet. As classic downloading bars fill the screen, Ethel Merman’s bombastic voice extols the joys in robbing artists of their work. Without changing anything except the order of the sung lyrics, this amazing montage is a borderline masterpiece. So is “Gimme the Mermaid”. As a violent voice chides someone on copyright and ownership, a familiar Disney heroine provides the visualized façade. In a very simplistic, uncomplicated manner, this short makes the point regarding the unreasonable nature of indignant ownership.


Next up is the special edit radio mix of “U2: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. As the familiar strains of that alt-rock revivalism screed scurry along the background (in perfectly modulated Casio keyboard crappiness), we hear the familiar voice of Shaggy and America’s Top 40, one Casey Kasem, using language that would make the typical tweeny-bopper blush (with recognition, probably). It’s simply stunning. Then we have a weird exchange between another radio personality – a call-in talk show host – and a listener who doesn’t know the number of “Time Zones” there are in the old Soviet Union (the answer is 11). It’s good, but not as wonderful as the next track – the flawlessly executed “Freedom Waiting”. Initially, we think the scattered and stuttering narration is talking about our inherent right to liberty. Then we start to see all the TV commercials, and the soft shill pitch becomes painfully obvious. Similarly, “The Bottom Line” uses a home shopping style lampoon to sell America’s policy regarding prisoners and torture. Both movies are masterful.


At this point, Out Favorite Things wanders over a bit into the bleeding obvious. It doesn’t dissuade from the message or the manner in which it is being presented, but when an anti-gun feature (called “Guns”) mixes classic kiddie TV ads from the ‘60s with shots of Vietnam and Buddy Dwyer’s on-camera suicide, the level of approach seems rather simplistic. Much better is the No Nukes nonsense “Yellow, Black, and Rectangular” which uses the Civil Defense symbol as a means of illustrating public disinterest in the arms race. Finally, a small child sings “Over the Rainbow” as hiccups occasionally ruin her take. The stop motion animation features a somber stick figure rabbit that finally gives in to its fatalistic urges. It’s funny and effective, but just not as good as what has come before – and what is about to arrive.


One of the best deconstructions of how popular culture cannibalizes its symbols, the “Mashing of the Christ” takes clips from dozens of Hollywood Bible pics (Gibson’s Passion, numerous versions of The King of Kings, and The Greatest Story Ever Told) and cobbles them together in a perfect compare and contrast arrangement. In the background, an evangelist endlessly repeats a meaningless Marxist chide – “Christianity is stupid. Communism is good.” The combination of blood, belief, and bullshit is just superb. And the crackpot KPIX News story on the fake connection the band created between this anti-religious rant and a horrible family killing in the Midwest is nothing more than typical myopic media icing on an already melting communications cake. It proves one of Negativland’s most frequently voiced adages – people are too dumb to realize when a lie stares them square in the face. The next two films illustrate this flawlessly.


“Truth in Advertising” pits another talk show host against a caller who wants clarity between the salesmanship of commercials and the actual validity of a product’s purpose or content. The edited banter, in combination with the repetitive backdrop of noted advertisements, keeps the concerns – and the lack of clear cut answers – in focus. The next seven films take on one of the band’s favorite targets: the pointless soft drink wars between Coke and Pepsi, and the unnecessary onslaught of overhyped, celebrity driven, selling. “One World Advertising” proposes a solution, while “Why Is This Commercial?” and “The Greatest Taste Around” continue the pointed dissection. “Taste in Mind” and Humanitarian Effort” comments on the worldwide influence of such corporate carping, while “Drink It Up” and “Aluminum or Glass” offers two hilarious songs that mock both the health and habit forming flaws in the sodas. Throughout, clips from a ‘40s era Coke industrial film deifies the soft drink. The DVD ends with a glorious reconfiguration of the Sound of Music song that comprises the title of this release.


As an immersive example of pure performance art, Negativland: Our Favorite Things is practically pristine. It may occasionally employ a cinematic sledgehammer to make its points, but when the information and ideology is so evocative and meaningful, it’s okay to apply a bit of blunt force trauma. The animation/cartoon collage format is perfect for the band, since it instills the numerous meanings behind every track expertly, and the range of material and subjects is without equal. Sure, it may seem like the band is railing against the same five issues all the time, but there are hidden declarations and untold political positions buried in each and every poptone. The DVD is delicious, adding several additional shorts (the tainted travelogue “Visit Howland Island”, the hilarious home horror movie “The Monster of Frankenstein”, among others) and a wonderfully rich visual transfer to keep the pictures pretty. There’s also a bonus CD featuring the a capella versions of the band’s material by singing group 180 Gs. 


There will be those who find this leftist liberal leaning lunacy one giant act of unimportant no-name rock band hubris. Instead, Negativland: Our Favorite Things, is like listening to the skeleton of one of those horrid celebrity vanity project albums. This is Bruce Willis bellowing offkey as ‘Bruno’, it’s Phillip Michael Thomas endlessly living the book of his life. It’s Warhol, washed out and worm-ridden, MTV melted down to its business model whoring. Once witnessed, the mind instantly focuses on other noxious issues the collective could tackle. In a world where the current President has condemned the US to decades as the world’s laughing stock, a Negativland take on such an onerous official would be oh so super sweet. Until then, we have this amazing collection of short films to hold us over. Like the best that cinema has to offer, many here will stand the test of time – and so will their meaning.


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