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by Bill Gibron

26 Nov 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.

by Bill Gibron

25 Nov 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.

by Bill Gibron

24 Nov 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.

by Bill Gibron

23 Nov 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.

by Bill Gibron

22 Nov 2007

Though every generation likes to think that they’ve discovered Hollywood’s dirty little secret, the truth is that remakes have been around forever. Back in the silent days, storylines would be revisited time and time again, and once sound reinvigorated the artform, notorious non-talkies were recreated for a sonically sensitive viewership. All throughout the Golden Era, previous hits were reconfigured for new stars and directors, and musicals were made over to keep the Depression/War weary audiences entertained. Though they didn’t call themselves by the now notorious name, the ‘50s and ‘60s were flooded with genre efforts that basically repeated the same narrative ideas and themes ad nauseum, and the ‘70s saw deconstructionist directors take on their Tinsel Town favorites as an experiment in homage/hubris.

Yet over the last few years, the remake has raised its profile significantly, thanks in no small part to the decision by filmmakers to take on well known and beloved projects from the past. When Gus Van Zant decided to soil the reputation of Alfred Hitchcock by creating a shot for shot revamp of his seminal Psycho, buzzers started going off in film fans heads. If such an important movie masterwork could be given such a pathetic post-modern push, what was next? The answer came at the cost of such genre classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween. While one can debate the validity and viability of these recent retoolings, the words of the late, great Gene Siskel still reverberate – why remake good movies when there are perfectly bad films out there that could use a redux.

In honor of such cinematic wisdom, SE&L presents a few suggestions for lamentable works that could really use an artistic overhaul. With the exception of one genuine gem, the movies discussed here all had promise – at least, when they were originally conceived. But somewhere along the line, their ability to translate said potential into actual motion picture polish went askew. Now, they have a chance for aesthetic redemption – that is, as long as the right combination of creativity and consideration is utilized. If not, God help us all. Let’s begin the discussion with one of the biggest eggs ever laid by a major movie name:

Howard the Duck

Fans of the original source material were excited when it was announced that George Lucas and his production company were taking on the fowl from another planet, given the filmmaker’s still active Star Wars cred. Even when it was discovered that Willard Huyuck would handle the writing/directing chores, there was still optimism. This was the man responsible for helping script American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. With the standard pre-production security that accompanied ‘fantasy’ films of the era, no one knew what the title character would look like, but with a creative staff like the one at ILM, it promised to be something really special. It turned out to be a little person in a kid’s party outfit. Gone was the gaunt, cigar chomping anti-hero of dozens of cynical comics. In its place was an obvious costume that constantly reminded the viewer they were watching some guy in a suit. Add in the other misguided elements – the bumbling Tim Robbins’ character, Howard’s asexual attraction to co-star Lea Thompson – and you’ve got an abysmal cinematic mess.

In 2007, all of this can be changed. First and foremost, CGI has come such a long way that fully realized characters like Gollum (or any number of Star Wars prequels props) can be rendered in life like, interactive expertise. Howard’s original grating gumshoe qualities can be reinstated, and this new animated version can blend seamlessly into the live action without sticking out like a dwarf in duck duds. Even better, the comic book movie has been reinvented and is now revered by Hollywood, which understands the wealth of goodwill and greenbacks they can earn by giving the fanbase what it wants. All someone has to do is convince Uncle George that this project would be worth his sagging genre reputation (one assumes he still holds the rights) and find the right industry obsessive (Kevin Smith, perhaps) to give this quirky quacker the cinematic respect he deserves. Oh, and one more thing – NO Thomas Dolby electro-pop soundtrack, please!

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

When Don Knotts walked away from his role as Deputy Barney Fife on the solid ‘60s hit The Andy Griffith Show, he did so with an armload of Emmys, and a huge amount of performer popularity, on his side. Universal, long hoping to tap into that formidable fame windfall, put the actor into a series of specially designed projects, many crafted by the Griffith show’s staff writers. Who better to guide Knotts’ big screen persona than the men who developed it for the boob tube. After the combination cartoon/live action comedy The Incredible Mr. Limpet, the actor next appeared in this wonderful little gem. Using a horror theme (Knotts is a typesetter who investigates a local haunted house, hoping to become a real life reporter) and his personal pliability with physical goofiness, the filmmakers found the right balance between humor and heart. The result is an enduring classic that stands up well, even today. It showcases Knotts’ deft timing, and offers a perfect subject showcase for his shaky shenanigans.

So why remake it? Well, two reasons, actually. It’s a fantastic storyline – a little contrived and clichéd at times, but still effective as a quaint, quirky character study. It would be easy to see someone like Steve Buscemi, or a younger Jeff Goldblum, playing the part of nerdy nebbish Luther Heggs. Both are individuals who can infuse their performances with enough peculiarities and pathos to elevate the material. Secondly, special effects have grown so in the last 40 years that the haunted house element of the narrative can really be explored. The notion of a small town tainted by a towering estate with an evil past has a delightfully discordant ring to it, and done properly, the contrast between comedy and creeps can be winningly maintained – similar to the way the divergent emotions were equalized in Edward Scissorhands. In fact, if Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are looking for another project to participate in, this would be right up their alley.

The Sentinel (1977)

In 1975, two books dominated the genre fiction landscape. One was Stephen King’s vampires in a small town tome ‘Salem’s Lot. The other was Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel. Centering on a New York supermodel and her brownstone apartment (that just so happens to be poised precariously over the actual gates of Hell), it was a nasty little gem, a pure page turner with gore and gratuity in abundance. Naturally, fans who favored flocking to the Cineplex to get their spine tingled couldn’t wait for an adaptation. Sadly, what arrived in 1977 was a toothless, watered down version of what Konvitz created – and oddly enough, he was responsible for the inept, uninvolving screenplay. Part of the problem with the big screen translation was the terrible casting. Christina Raines defined blandness as the helpless heroine, and director Michael Winner (a Brit, hot off the success of Death Wish) decided to pepper the rest of the roles with old school Hollywood heavies like Martin Balsam, John Carradine, Jose Ferrer, Ava Gardner, and Burgess Meredith, among many others. This gave the narrative a lame Love Boat feel. Winner himself was also an issue. He kept the blatant terrors of the novel tented in a veil of ambiguity and subtlety, in direct contradiction to what readers wanted.

With the current trend toward turning every fright flick made in the last 30 years into a pre-tween remake, it’s astounding no one has thought of revisiting this material. In the right hands, you could easily have a menacing mesh of Dario Argento’s Inferno and William Freidkin’s The Exorcist. The book is bursting with sensational scare setpieces, and with the newfound F/X tech, they can be accurately recreated in all their blood drenching glory. Even better, Tinsel Town could easily find a filmmaker more in sync with Konvitz’s sense of splatter. Imagine this property helmed by Sam Raimi, Neil Marshall, or Nacho Cerda – filmmakers who understand the visceral appeal and ambient awfulness in a little arterial spray. And then there is the ending. Since we learn that the title entity stands guard over the entrance, keeping the demons and the damned from roaming the Earth, just visualize the last act spectacle once the doors to Satan’s sin palace swing wide. It’s enough to make true macabre mavens giddy. 

Robot Jox

With the towering success of Michael Bay’s Transformers (a hit despite the prominent display of his much maligned name on the marquee), the time seems ripe to remake this Stuart Gordon sci-fi epic. Granted, the premise is a tad perfunctory: there’s no more war. Country/conglomerates now wage battle as part of a spectator sport where the title ‘athletes’ operate skyscraper sized automatons in rock ‘em, sock ‘em beat downs to the death. But thanks to the undercurrent of espionage (someone is sabotaging the machines to favor one ‘side’ over the other) and the overpowering possibilities of the visuals, we have something that CGI could make truly magnificent. This is not to say that Gordon’s movie is bad. In fact, it’s very good. It’s just hampered by a lack of financing (the production company actually went bankrupts during filming) and limited stop motion animation effects. Add in the lack of true star power – the cast is recognizable, but definitely relegated to the lower tiers of celebrity – and a basic b-movie feel, and you’ve got a project ripe for rediscovery.

In fact, Bay may be the perfect person to head up the remake. He has a tendency to inflate everything he does with an elephantine sense of importance, and he’s comfortable carving insular universes out of recognizable reality. Unlike The Island, which tried for future shock and wound up delivering flaccid schlock, Bay could really explore the dynamics of a planet gone playground, a world were a no holds barred rumble between giant machines determines the fate of nations. One can easily see the old Soviet iconography and new American jingoism being incorporated into the mix, and with the right set of actors – why does the name Nicholas Cage immediately come to mind? – this could be both monumental and meaningful. Indeed, Robot Jox is one of the few off title properties that carries a lot of inherent commentary possibilities. This means Bay could make something important for once, whether he realizes it or not.

The Incredible Melting Man

When Rick Baker was still an unknown scrub, drinking in the discerning genius of movie make-up guru Dick Smith, he was asked to participate in this peculiar project, a mid ‘70s update of a standard ‘50s sci-fi shocker. His mandate – create the title character in all its goo glop glory. And he did just that, much to the joy of slimy sluice fans everywhere. Too bad the film surrounding the slowly disintegrating astronaut was so lame. Filled with unintentional humor, oddball tangents, and a lack of other onscreen grue (while the man’s melting could be shown, his grizzly murders could not) the results are as ridiculous as they are repugnant. After a few play dates in the still standing passion pits and last remaining urban grindhouses, the film went on to obscurity, disdain, and in some outsider environs, considered cult status. It eventually achieved a newfound, if noxious, appreciation as part of a classic installment of the TV phenom Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Still, it’s a wonderful idea, and if handled by the appropriate genre guide, we could have a new installment of the one time fashionable “double dare” entertainment. For a little background context – back at the beginning of the ‘80s, when the VCR made make-up and physical effects the scare sets cause celeb, movies were made that tested the mantle of the average moviegoer with their over the top, exploitative gore. Examples included Lucio Fulci’s Zombi and City of the Living Dead/Gates of Hell, as well as John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Their reputation as notorious, noxious examples of excess had fans challenging each other, putting their love of all things red and revolting to the true eye gouging, skull drilling, head-bursting test. In the considered hands of someone like Eli Roth, or Rob Zombie (two filmmakers who get the groove of outrageous offal), we could have a new puke paradigm on our hands. 


Clive Barker wanted it to be “the Star Wars” of horror films. After successfully bringing his brilliant Hellraiser to the silver screen, he eyed his “monsters among us” novella Cabal as his next project. It was to be big and brash, the culmination of his reality based repugnance (ala the beloved Books of Blood) and love of all things fanciful and foul. Using up his entire cache of industry interest and filmmaking favors (remember, this was only his second full length feature behind the lens), he envisioned an epic terror tale dealing with psychopathic serial killers, hidden underworlds, and misunderstood menace. He even got body horror icon David Cronenberg to step before the camera as one of this main leads. Production was problematic, with cost overruns and budget concerns cranking down the creativity. Similarly, scope had to be scaled back and many of the more important moments in the film (the descent into the bowels of Midian, with all its accompanying creatures) had to be trimmed or merely tossed away. When it was all over, the studio hated what they saw, and buried the film via a short spring release.

Except for the lack of support, Barker no longer faces the massive monetary concerns that held the original Nightbreed back. CGI and other effects are relatively inexpensive, and can be mastered by any one of several outside the industry artists. Even better, DVD has made incomplete movies like this a much more saleable commodity. If Barker could just get his hands on the missing film reels, restructure the storyline, and fix it all up with some computer generated jazziness, he might have something. Even better, he could just give up the notion of revamping the film himself, and let someone else tackle the actual literary source. Cabal is one of the author’s best works, and in the hands of someone equally in tune with what Barker was after – say, Peter Jackson? – the possibility exists for the epic the author always hoped for. Of course, as the prequels proved, the Star Wars comparison can be restrictive at best. Perhaps reconfiguring it as “the Lord of the Rings of the macabre” would be a good place to restart.

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