Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Friday, Feb 8, 2008


Ever since Pixar proved that three dimensional animation could be considered art, the battle between traditional pen and ink cartooning and the high tech tool has raged ever onward. On the one side are those who fear the tradition of human drawing will be destroyed by the turn toward computer assisted creativity. On the other are those who fervently believe that all technological advances can only improve the process. This contrast between progress and the past is a lot like the conflict at the core of director Jeffrey Travis’ adaptation of Edwin A. Abbot’s 1884 social commentary Flatland. Originally conceived by the author as a swipe at the stringent Victorian class system, this delightful fable provides the perfect metaphor for those who embrace change vs. those with a fundamentalist hold on the past.


Arthur Square (Martin Sheen) and his adopted granddaughter Hex (Kristin Bell) are free thinking forms in the two dimensional world of Flatland. He’s an office drone who takes orders from supposed superiors, sage like Circles who use their many angled manner as a means of oppressing the mathematical masses. There is a strict hierarchy in this order - triangles are the lowest, common worker, followed quickly by squares, pentagons, hexagons, etc. One day, Arthur is visited by Spherius (Michael York), a messenger from Spaceland. He has come to show the naïve citizens of Flatland that there is another dimension, a third dimension of height, that will broaden their perspective on the universe and their own 2D life. Of course, if successful, the Circles will lose their power. So they plot to suppress this information, and anyone who holds it - including Arthur and Hex.



Clocking in at a little over 30 minutes and packing a lot of education in its geometrical meaning, Flatland is a fabulously engaging effort. Not to be confused with a 2007 full length feature by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., this labor of love represents a real sense of individual imagination and awe-inspiring wonder. Writers Seth Caplan and Dano Johnson, along with director Travis, have translated the essence of Abbot’s allegory, using the best bits to fuel a fantastic look at conformity, control, and the power of contravention. With effective voice work from Sheen, his real life brother Joe Estevez, Bell, and others, the result is an exceptional classroom tool that functions equally well as an artistically brave entertainment. Indeed, one of the best facets of Flatland is the intriguing character design, in combination with the unique vision employed to realize the basic X,Y world.


Bringing personality to squares, triangles, and other shapes is never easy, especially when you have to adhere to clear mathematical principles (don’t want the number geeks getting on your case over the angles of your vertices, right?). Yet thanks to a combination of simplicity and sophistication, a clear old school cartoon technique merged with the infinite options of motherboard manipulation, we get breathtaking moments like the aerial view of our title locale, or the opening sequence shuffle through the everyday activity of the population. It’s amazing stuff, the kind of material that shows how dedicated Travis and company are at making this unusual universe real and tactile. We get a true sense of Arthur’s home and workplace, as well as the suburban Hell setup that strictures Flatland.



Yet this film doesn’t rely on eye candy to get its point across. There are solid ideas behind Flatland, concepts that Abbott challenged along with his pre-1984 prognostication. One of the best moments occurs when Spherius - voiced with perfect gravitas by York - scoffs at the notion of a FOURTH dimension. Apparently, just like the Circles who guide the 2D world, the 3D plane is equally shortsighted. There’s also a sensational sequence where little Hex begins the process of thinking “outside the box”, using the theorems presented to explain the leap from length and width to height - and maybe beyond. Arthur’s interaction with Pointland and Lineland are also flawless at getting their message across with straightforward, self-explanatory strokes. From the tiniest detail to the celebratory conclusion, Flatland stands as a major accomplishment.


It also suggests that old fashioned cartooning and CGI can easily work together. When given a chance, the techniques blend effortlessly, resulting in a memorable, magical movie going experience.  There is a lot of heart here, along with the various formulas and arithmetic - and while some of Abbot’s story and satire are simplified in order to make things more manageable, the main narrative never feels truncated. In fact, this adaptation avoids a great deal of the ancillary politics of the period that get in the way of the wonder. Flatland is clearly more interested in the bigger picture than the many minor facets. Its successful combination of approaches bodes well for the future of animated movies - and the fortunes of these filmmakers.



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Thursday, Feb 7, 2008

It’s clear that some filmmakers inherently understand the value of music in setting up the tone of their film. It’s a two way street, of course. The right selection of songs, or perfectly executed score, can turn the everyday into something epic, or the mildly amusing into a comic cavalcade. Yet there are times when, because of excessive ambition or smug self congratulation, the tunes take on a tainted life all their own - and the screen’s not ‘big’ enough for both the sonic and the storyline. Finding flawless examples of the former is far harder than locating mediocre members of the latter, basically because the meshing of music and movies is typically left to those (Scorsese, Tarantino) who know what they’re doing. In this latest installment of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we’ll focus on a trio of soundtracks that truly understand the importance of sonics within the cinematic. They also reflect three of 2007’s best efforts.


Juno - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 9]


How does one match a movie built almost exclusively on quirk? Do you go for an equally eccentric collection of songs, or try and reflect the borderline precocious personalities of the cast? For director, and soundtrack producer Jason Reitman (with help from Peter Afterman and Margaret Yen), you do a little of both. Wisely, son of Ivan relied on Kimya Dawson and the idio-indie vibe left over from her work with the Moldy Peaches to propel the Juno soundtrack toward perfected mix tape nirvana. The selections here celebrate all that’s good about the pregnancy parable, exploring the tentative twee universe of adolescent sexual discovery with the down to earth worldview of its simple syrup heroine. Though it’s lacking the aesthetic cornerstone that drives our ‘with child’ champion - namely, old school ‘70s punk - it does pick through the last 40 years of music to find symbolic soulmates for the character.

Dawson’s work is delicious, a combination of lo-fi lollipops and angst fueled confessionals. “My Rollercoaster”, “Tire Swing”, “Loose Lips” and “So Nice So Smart” are all winners, all walking the fine line between imagined bedroom singalongs and full blown coffee house concertos. Similarly, the ‘main’ musical number, the Peaches pubescent love lament “Anyone Else But You” does double duty - functioning as both theme and last act truce between Juno and her boy joy Paulie. And while it would seem that tracks from established bands like The Kinks (“A Well Respected Man”), The Velvet Underground (“I’m Sticking With You”), and Sonic Youth (the Carpenters cover “Superstar”) would announce their obviousness and overstay their welcome, the way Reitman handles them in the film makes their presence more than mandatory here. Besides, anyone wise enough to give Mo Tucker’s lunatic lullaby a place on their playlist deserves unfettered kudos. The Juno soundtrack is exactly like the film itself - clever, original, and just a tad out of step with normalcy.


Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]


For a composer, it must be an impossible dilemma to overcome. How does one write songs for a specific actor to sing while also creating music that’s supposed to be the result of said performer’s specific character? Luckily, the minds behind the wacky wintertime comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story took a hands on approach. Director/co-writer Jake Kasdan, along with collaborator/comedy savior Judd Apatow, made sure that star John C. Reilly had some sonic substance to work with, hashing out lyrics and stylistic ideals before calling in actual musicians to bring them forth. Members of the Candy Butchers (Dan Bern and Mike Viola) as well as established artists like Van Dyke Parks and Marshall Crenshaw used the sketches and outlines as the basis for their clever contributions. The results become one of the best parody albums ever, matching considered classics from Spinal Tap and Tenacious D, note for nutty note.

As the movie is meant to mimic the recent biopic of Johnny Cash (among others, including Ray and The Buddy Holly Story), we get several man in black moments. The title track is terrific, a perfect amalgamation of message and mock bravado that comes across as iconic and idiotic. Similarly, early narrative numbers like “Take My Hand” and “(Mama) You Gots to Love Your Negro Man” take stylistic satire and brave bad taste to new levels. During the middle of the movie, when Reilly’s character is experimenting with sound and inspiration, the Parks’ penned psychedelic epic “Black Sheep” reminds us that rock and roll is almost inherently a self-parody to begin with. Between the faux folk protest of songs like “Dear Mr. President” to the late in life resurgence stated in “Beautiful Ride”, this is a score that celebrates the best - and excesses - of a life as a musician. It’s just too bad that the film and the album failed to connect with audiences. Like other examples of the genre, however, it’s destined to become a signpost of cult cool in the years to come - just like another similarly styled heavy metal spoof. 


Into The Wild - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 9]


For close to two decades now, Eddie Vedder and his post-modern Bob Seeger Everyman routine have kept Pearl Jam a relevant, exciting rock and roll entity, long outliving the band’s neo-nostalgic grunge groundwork. Chosen specifically by writer/director Sean Penn to take on the onerous task of complementing the story of Christopher McCandless and the young man’s self-imposed exile from the world, the famed frontman delivered a collection of amazing tracks. They provided the perfect sonic backdrop to deal with the film’s complex emotional layers. They functioned as celebration and sermon, the All-American instinct toward wanderlust balanced against the needs of Penn’s reinvented road movie. The combination struck a chord with listeners as well as critics, many who saw the acoustic based material as instrumental in the film’s success. Of course, the old coots at the Academy didn’t get it. Vedder missed out on a sure thing Oscar nod (and probable win) when his work was deemed too “song oriented” to be considered a proper score. Huh?

Revisiting the tracks recorded, there is clearly a nomadic troubadour feel to what Vedder has created. Early tracks like “Setting Out” and “Far Behind” are statements of separation and distance, while later numbers like “Rise” and “The Wolf” provide insight into the sense of self-discovery (or delusion) and freedom that McCandless was striving for. Vedder is in fine voice, his balladry belying years as the aural accessory in Pearl Jam’s punk-poseur guitar sound. Yet he also shows with a pair of collaborations - dueting with Sleater-Kitty’s Corin Tucker on the Gordon Peterson/Indio track “Hard Sun”, polishing the Jerry Hannan penned “Society” - that there is a real sense of artistic community in the man. Along with Michael Brooks, who provided the more ambient cues for the film, Vedder’s work on Into the Wild feels like one massively important part of the much bigger motion picture. It verifies the faith Penn had in the musician, and the man’s own belief in his amazing muse. The results speak for themselves - over and over again.


 


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Wednesday, Feb 6, 2008


They say that successful movie marketing is an art. If it is, it’s one of the blackest. Nothing against advertisers in general, or the creative individuals forced to turn turkey loaf into Thanksgiving, but creating buzz is a bifurcated saber. On the one hand, you have the easy sell, the material or individual with inherent pull and established popularity. All you have to do is say the name, suggest the situation, and potential revenue streams find their inner customer clicked over into “sold” mold. It’s the very definition of a no-brainer - the mindless, lemming like “Yes” to a Madison Avenue SOS.


But then there are the harder sells - the untested talent, the complicated project, the demographically indeterminate subset. For these amorphous entities, these hard to compartmentalize and conceptualize beings, no amount of Q rating returns or focus group grading can provide a window into its retail viability. For the copywriter or the art director, the minds paid to pull this unreasonable rabbit out of its wonderland-like hole, it’s all about the angle, the dirty back road in. If they can just find some path to the PR Promised Land, it’s another unexpectedly successful campaign and a key to the unisex Executive washroom.


So it’s clear that when faced with the prospect of selling Malcolm Lee’s Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins to a comedy weary (and wary) viewership, Universal’s crew was more than a little flummoxed. The upcoming comedy has a cast comprised of several recognizable and established actor/stand-ups (Martin Lawrence, Mo’Nique, Cedric the Entertainer), a complementary list of fine A-list names (James Earl Jones, Margaret Avery, Michael Clarke Duncan), and a few scene-stealing surprises (Michael Epps) to flesh out its funny business. With a script that successfully balances the broadest of physical and shtick humor with lots of familial heart and insight, the studio must have sensed it had a winner on its hands.


But how to get that across to a public poised to hate almost anything that purports to make them laugh. After a decade of gross out gag fests, a combination of limp ideas and even lamer execution, anything without the name “Apatow” attached to it was seen as a risk. Add to that the clear ethnic angle and suddenly, you’re stuck. Between Tyler Perry’s “Go with God” restaged plays, and the formulaic African American anarchy which substitutes crudeness for something clever, the selling points were stuck between a social Scylla and Charybdis. So how did they resolve this dilemma? They didn’t. They took the incredibly easy way out and decided to position this film as a scatological slice of slapstick.


Frankly, nothing could be farther from the truth. In a year already overloaded with unexceptional fare, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is a surprisingly rich and rewarding experience. Certainly, Mo’Nique and Cedric trade on the material that made them famous, and director Lee resorts to outrageous physical humor to drive some of his less important points, but at the oversized soul of this movie is a clear message about embracing who you are, forgiving people for the past, and learning to accept the love…and lesser qualities, of those you grew up with. Pointed, insightful, and slightly sloppy around the edges, it’s a wholly entertaining and enjoyable work.


Yet to watch the trailers, you’d think it was nothing but tawdry toilet humor, riotous roughhousing, and lots and lots of hard-R retorts. Of course, much of that comes directly from the comedians cast. All of the professional stand-ups present are notorious for their potty mouthed performances, and throughout the course of the film, several euphemisms and other expletive like comments are heard. But for every bit of blue humor, material one imagines resulted directly from the adlibbing tendencies present, Lee made sure to include a moment of clarity, a sequence where common sense takes the place of crudeness. And the pratfalls are saved for a couple of over the top sequences where our filmmaker lets the anarchy get out of hand. But it’s hardly the main point of the movie.


No, the marketers of Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins obviously believed that audiences - specifically viewers of color - were not sophisticated enough to embrace a full blown family comedy. Even the PG-13 rating reveals a limited use of the FCC’s favorite slang (the F-bomb gets dropped once). Like politicians who believe that pandering is the best way to tap into the electorate, Hollywood is convinced that certain racial profiling perfectly mirrors their merchandising. A slacker flick has to have indie rock and some petulant pop culture quips. A RomCom must retread some Tin Pan Alley classic and contain at least one shot of our stars making cow eyes at each other. And apparently, African Americans need sophistication spoon fed to them in vaudevillian like volleys of mugging.


Or maybe the motive is even more sinister. Maybe, in order to sell the film beyond those predetermined to see it, Tinsel Town takes the intolerant approach. While someone more scholarly and sophisticated will have to determine if the Roscoe Jenkins trailer is racist (instead of merely misguided), it is clear that to an audience unfamiliar with the work of those in the cast, stereotypes abound: the big mouthed black woman with shaving cream on her face; the fast talking hustler; the “white” acting prodigal; the various references to other culturally specific signposts. Like a visual reference guide to the experience about to be offered, the trailer takes a road no one should travel and traverses it with hamfisted foolishness. 


Again, the question is why? Why is the film being marketed this way? And again, what does that say about the intended audience on both sides of the social spectrum? If Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins wasn’t so obvious in the way it addresses its product, if the movie wasn’t so different than the non-character based chaos shown in the advertisement, maybe it wouldn’t matter. But Tootsie didn’t trade exclusively on its man in drag dimension, and Knocked Up acknowledged that there was more to its scatological tirades than farts and frat boyishness.


Yet somehow, when the skin tone shifts, so does the subjectivity. Instead, everything gets processed through a veiled worldview that’s long stopped representing the community at large. There is true diversity in the African American community, an element that Malcolm Lee’s movie clearly embraces. Too bad the rest of the entertainment arena can’t see it. Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins is indeed a good movie. Perhaps it’s time Hollywood relied on truth, instead of trickery, to enlighten its customers. Imagine how novel that would be.


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Tuesday, Feb 5, 2008


It’s time to stop hatin’ on Disney - not that they don’t still deserve a little manufactured wholesomeness dissing. Critics clamor over the retread sequelizing of classic titles, the cookie cutter entertainment options, and the long dead aesthetic of the corporate namesake, and still the House of Mouse thrives. Hot on the heels of the smash hit concert tour, Hannah Montana - aka Achy Breaky offspring Miley Cyrus, has broken box office records with the 3-D version of her syrup-strapped stage show, and everyone’s favorite organized opportunist couldn’t be happier. As a matter of fact, Disney has announced an extended theatrical run for the film, hoping to milk that cacophonous cash cow for all its pre-adolescent worth.


Now granted, there is nothing inherently wrong with what Montana/Cyrus represents. It’s yet another in a long line of tide pooling cultural waves, generational substrata that see certain heretofore unknown quantities leap up and grasp the pre-tween constituency. It represents the untenable trending, the post-Popcorn Report’s inability to gauge the ga-ga factor in the Double-O demo. Certainly, if someone could forecast which underage family fodder becomes the next Tickle Me Elmo, Drake Bell and Josh Peck would be on their fifth franchise effort. Kids are fickle, however, and they tend to run with the herd. Tell them that a brain addled bumpkin with limited life skills is the second coming of pop artistry, and it’s Britney/Hilary all over again.


So, naturally, we cast aspersion on the younger generation, wondering how cultural phenoms could go from the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys in 30 short years. Social fashions are gauged, the talent temperature is taken, and predictions are prepared. Then, seemingly out of the ether, an unfamiliar quantity grasps the short attention span of kid nation and a new fad is formed. Companies rush to capitalize, entertainment show tongues wag, and in the end, no one knows nothing, William Goldman style. Like any good social surfer, the entity rides the crest, establishes their potential staying power (or lack thereof) and then goes the way of the Big Kahuna, leaving room for the next mainstream mindboggler.


There’s another element here that’s equally aggressive, a facet that longs to see this latest bandwagon dismantled, burnt, and buried in salted earth so that it never has reason to reinvent or revive its fortunes. The aesthetic watchdogs, the so called connoisseurs who believe that opinion is fact and individual taste is a matter of group determination wince at the very suggestion that something like Hannah Montana is worthy of such acclaim. To them, it’s a creative Rapture, a moment when art is usurped by artifice to raise the routine and the redolent from the genre grave. It doesn’t matter if the no-frill filler makes millions of underdeveloped music lovers ecstatic - scholarship demands its intellectual pound of flesh, and there’s lots of pubescent baby fat to go around. 


But why blame the audience for the blanding of the medium when the true culprit is so bloody obvious - and remember, Disney is just responding to some already present fiscal wind. No, the true adversaries in this nightmare of nonthreatening-ness are parents - specifically the generation of guardians who grew up in the ‘70s. For them, Uncle Walt and his old world pen and ink iconography represented the purest panacea to a disco and drugged-out decade overflowing with bad vibes and even worse entertainment options. Thanks to the rerelease boycotts on all their famous films, the full length animated features the company counted on to continue their legacy became the pot of gold at the end of the lineage leprechaun’s rainbow. Now, three decades later, they command that their own progeny bathe in the warm, overworked glow of the new creative order that’s learned to capitalize on - and cannibalize - its past.


You see, Disney actually lives by the motto forwarded in the classic I’m No Fool shorts series. As little Jiminy Cricket crooned, “they play safe for you and me.” The basic formula is this - if it made money before, it will make money again. The amount is usually determined less by the quality and the peeked sense of proprietary nostalgia. When home video came along, the House of Mouse protected it’s product like a mother badger sensing a coyote. This made Moms and Dads dismiss the Ten Commandments and covet the Hell out of the rapidly OOP videotapes (and later, DVDs). They needed them for two very important reasons. One, they represented the high end of kid vid oriented amusement. Unlike the infomercial-esque Saturday morning fare, which tended to hide its charms in mechanical cartooning and lax production value, Mickey had a patina of quality.


The second element was even more important - it held the wee ones in rapt attention. Compared to the crap pouring out of the boob tube, the gorgeous drawings and backdrops that Disney excelled at gave children their first taste of true eye candy - and their sugar addicted brains drank it up. As more and more titles became available, the suits suggested extended the more popular series. While recent policy changes have put the kibosh on such direct-to-video revamps, the company learned a valuable lesson: the more you give the world weary adult and their biological responsibilities, the greater the returns…and the need…and the vicious cycle.


Now, there’s the Disney Channel. Instead of having to put in a disc or fire up some aging technology, you can hit the remote and soak your soul in 24/7 House of Mouse fodder. It’s all there - the old cartoons, the new revisions, the original programs, and the trends in progress. Hannah Montana’s rise to record returns is a subject left for another time, another place. After all, little girls like to think in lockstep with one another, and too many careers can be chalked up to such a mob mentality. But the true culprit remains the parent, the people who can’t say “NO”, the individuals who substitute prescriptions for discipline and wish fulfillment for actual interpersonal connections.


After all, one misguided mom let her daughter submit a series of lies in essay form (including the death of a fictional father in Iraq) just to win tickets to Ms. Cyrus’ group hug. When confronted, she claimed innocence, then argued that her choice was not really fraud - it was a creative chance at making her demanding daughter happy. Better minds can dissect the ethics of said decision, but it points to the real problem. If adults were not willing to part with hundreds of their hard earned dollars to feed the need of kids who’ve achieved said want out of endless, unsupervised hours in front of the TV, there’d be no demand. Without demand, no mania. Without mania, no phenomenon. And without the phenomenon, no windfall.


Like the stereotypical miser rubbing his wrinkled hands together at the thought of another possible penny, Disney must love every controversial, craze-fueling second. Even the recent disclosure of a Hannah/Miley double (used to facilitate a costume change) did very little damage to the ever increasing cult. It’s no surprise then that the concert film cleaned up at the box office. Parents have been preparing their kids to be such consumers since the minute they flicked on the flat screen. Without a buffer for what the House of Mouse is putting across (there are dozens of ads each day for the movie, including song-long clips to get the toes - and wallets - tapping), without some manner of matured wisdom to wipe the panic away from the apparent peer pressure of being outside the Cyrus loop, the benevolent brainwashing will continue - unabated and undeterred.


So don’t be surprised if Hannah Montana and her safe as sugared sunshine music make a second big weekend splash at the box office. Even with the ‘had to be their first’ crowd over and done with it, the buzz is still loud enough to draw in the fringe and the merely curious. Nothing stimulates sales like a high profile, and it doesn’t look like the media mushroom cloud is going to die down anytime soon. But there has to be a constituency for every hard sell shilling, and Mothers and Fathers around the country have created the perfect, unfiltered sponge to absorb it all. Call it tradition or trickery, but Disney is more than happy to play along. They may have started it all, but someone else keeps the coffers overflowing. After all, very few children have that kind of disposable income. Too bad their parents don’t have as much disposable time.


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Monday, Feb 4, 2008


By Wednesday, it will probably all be over. The pundits will be hoarse and the electorate sore and scarred. Eight whole months before the rest of the so-called democracy can actually have their say in who becomes President, Super Tuesday will set a stage that few faltering campaigns can recover from. In a contest that’s seen both fields narrowed down to two questionable contenders, the votes cast this day will determine everything - momentum, money, endorsements, delegates, and perhaps most importantly, public perception. If you’re Mitt Romney, alleged Conservative savior, and you loose to many of those Red State reactionaries, no amount of flip flopping will revive your reverse Reaganism. And for Hillary Clinton, it’s time to put that frontrunner fallacy to the test. If Obama can keep in lockstep, their showdown may have to be solved on the convention floor. It’s all part of the process. It’s all part of politics. 


Ahh… politics. That creator of strange bedfellows. That seducer of the honest and the well intentioned. That corrupt bastion of bad policies, faulty execution, and spin doctored excuses for both. Every couple of years it seems the representative form of our government gets the grand idea that people actually believe that their voice counts, and so they set about pandering—sorry, CAMPAIGNING—to bring the citizenry to the issues that the lobbyists find most important. Outrage is amplified over insignificant social dicta while truth is tempered by ideological based perspective. It’s all in service of a sinister cabal in which power cannibalizes and feeds itself, a non-stop frenzy of false pride and implied dominance. In the end, the result is a malfeasant machine that manufactures its own magnitude and perpetually pleases only those who can provide its omnivorous fetid fuel.


But wait, you don’t believe that one man/one vote is a lost cause? You think that a sincere and straightforward candidate can rise up out of the glad-handing quagmire that is this onerous organism and avoid the behind the scenes manipulation of his or her party’s protectorate to actually serve their constituency? Well, Mr. and Mrs. America, you need a quick lesson in the realities of the Republic, and there’s no better place to start than with the many movies made on the subject. Indeed, film has, over the decades, found many ways to highlight the hypocrisy and expose the evil boiling just below the surface of the scandal-plagued political process. No sour subject has avoided the cinematic vox populi, from nation altering atrocities like Watergate and the JFK assassination to the standard stratagem of dirty tricks and the always scandalizing subject of sex.


Perhaps the best example of such an anti-politico polemic is 1972’s Year of the Yahoo. What? What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of this film? Perhaps you were expecting All the President’s Men? Primary Colors? The Manchurian Candidate? Well, if you took a smattering of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, mixed in a smidgen of standard exploitation, and sprinkled the entire enterprise with a heaping helping of hominy and hambone, you’d have Herschell Gordon Lewis’ long lost masterpiece of down home despotism and the media’s unpardonable ability to influence events. With a narrative fresh out of today’s headlines and a tone as cynical as a grad student’s weblog, Lewis lifts the lid off the muckraking ridiculousness that is our political process, and even provides a few toe-tapping musical PSAs along the way.


Our story begins when the incredibly liberal and virtually unbeatable Senator Burwell comes up for re-election. Angry over his left-leaning ideals, the sitting President of the United States wants Burwell defeated. He even handpicks his own rube for the job: strumming and grinning goober Hank Jackson, famous in both fields of music: country and western. Sending a triumvirate of trained pollsters and media men into the bumpkin’s backwoods locale, the Corruptor in Chief hopes to help the honky-tonk hick win more than his fair share of the illiterate Appalachian vote. But the glad-handing Governor and his backside smooching sidekick think this corn pone crooner ain’t got a chance in Chattanooga of success. They fail to take his candidacy seriously, and spend most of their days giggling over the lopsided poll numbers.


It’s not long, however, before a sleazy, slick ad campaign and a constant playlist of public pandering, philosophically fascist songs has Hank labeled a wholesome homeboy by the neo-conservative race baiters within his constituency. His TV appearances, complete with some finger snappin’, demographically accurate musical numbers, increase his image of earnestness and elect-ability. Indeed, it looks like Jackson will win the gerrymander, even when a rent strike divides his bluegrass bandwagon and unsettles his perfectly polished coalition. As Hank continues to tow the prejudiced party line, his hen pecker of a girlfriend sides with the agitators. It takes dozens of underhanded shenanigans, a sexual assault and a clear case of conscience—not to mention a lonesome ballad or two—to help Hank regain his integrity and to determine, once and for all, if it’s really The Year of the Yahoo.


Indeed, Yahoo is a real rarity amongst supposed skin and sin exploitation films, especially the one’s made by Mr. Blood Feast himself. Instead of some sleazy exposé in which naughtiness and nudity are the only salient selling points, what we have here is a really great movie with an incredibly well written script, a narrative that navigates the truths about government in a way most mainstream efforts would likely avoid. Existing outside the confines of an oppressive studio system, capable of saying anything and everything he wants, screenwriter Allen Kahn creates an astute, perceptive dissection of the entire cynical candidacy process. It’s a plot that demonstrates how gaining elected office in the United States is not a matter of ethics or integrity but merely showmanship and selfless pandering to the public. Measuring up favorably against directorial heavyweights like Mike Nichols and Elia Kazan, Lewis’ political potboiler about a podunk country singer candidate being mass marketed to his population of peons feels as new and astute now as when it was made.


Unfortunately, a hundred image consultants doing soundbite surgery at a suicidal rate would have a hard time getting the registered voter hyped about Claude King. Yes, he can carry a tune, but he can’t carry a movie. His “wish I was George Jones” persona filled with ‘golly-gees’ and hair cream just can’t seem to slink beyond the initial line reading level. He’s like any other non-actor trying to put on the performance. His halting, half-baked believability leeches every available drop of drama out of his dilemma.  Still, his “h-yuck yuck” yokelism works wonderfully within the movie. He comes across as a complete innocent made a meaningful man of the people. Actually, about the worst thing you can say about this production is that its low budget, non-professional cast aspects tend to show through more than usual. Funny how good writing will do that. Still, if you never thought that you’d experience high-class social consciousness and shrewd political satire in a surreal pseudo-grindhouse goof, then step right up and cast your ballot for The Year of the Yahoo. It’s no more ridiculous than the arrogant stumping that’s passing itself off as self-determination this Super Tuesday cycle.



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