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by Bill Gibron

19 Jul 2010

Apparently, I am easy to please. Soaked in the slop of a continuing line of mainstream movie muck, I will jump at any above average mediocrity and call it a “masterpiece”. I’ve drunk the Dark Knight Kool-aid, worship unabashedly at the altar of Memento and its muse, and fail to recognize a naked cinematic emperor when he struts naked and exposed right in front of my fawning eyes. From my outright championing of The Prestige as 2006’s Best film to the relentless conviction over Inception‘s creative brilliance, I am a dope. A dunderhead. An aesthetically challenged part of geek nation whose fanboy love of all things Nolan clouds my already questionable online critical judgment.

Watching the Inception debate unfold over the last few days, a few givens must be mentioned. First, there are some in the world wide webisphere who’ve never gotten over the impact of Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of the Batman mythology. For them, everything since Heath Ledger sputtered his way to a posthumous Oscar is an apple of artistic gold (for the record, I am not one of them). So challenge said position at your own flame war risk. Secondly, something like Inception was bound to draw sharp, “love it or hate it” criticism. It is a film that fails to lend itself to an anchored middle ground. Finally, the actual published opinions of those on both sides seem stuck in an “us vs. them” mentality, a weird protracted positioning that allows little leeway for contrary or complex arguments.

by Bill Gibron

13 May 2010

Actually, that’s not 100% accurate. I hate BAD romantic comedy, the kind of limp, lusterless romantic comedy that Hollywood has been peddling over the last decade or so. I can go back in my book of memorable movies and pick out several successful examples of the genre, from Woody Allen’s wonderful Annie Hall and Manhattan, to more recent titles like Sleepless in Seattle, Chasing Amy, Jerry Maguire, and Knocked Up. If there is one consistent thread running through many of the RomComs I love, it’s a sense of intelligence. It’s a knowledge that the characters aren’t just some cookie cutter cretins slammed out of some interns Powerbook. Instead, they function like real human beings - mostly - and use the budding attraction between each other as a more universal commentary on the truth of relationships.

But somewhere along the line, “zany” got added into the mix. Perhaps it was the work of the flummoxing Farrelly Brothers who brought insanity to the interpersonal. With gimmicky efforts like There’s Something About Mary, Me, Myself and Irene, and Shallow Hal, they infused a level of crudity and gross out gagging into the category that hadn’t been seen since John Waters got his drag queen pal to eat dog turds. Their success - especially among men - gave Hollywood an easy out. Instead of finding scripts where truly authentic individuals fell in and out of love, all a studio needed was a star, a stupid idea, and a bucketful of bodily fluids. Eventually, the last two elements would fall out of favor, leaving the A-lister (or their currently popular TV equivalent) to take up the slack. All they ended up doing was increasing the crap.

by Bill Gibron

30 Mar 2010

It hasn’t been a good month for movie critics. At the Movies was finally cancelled, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips unable to raise the flatlining Ebert and Siskel showcase from an already obvious fate. Todd McCarthy was fired from Variety and that famed contrarian Armond White found himself stuck in the middle of a massive brouhaha surrounding Noah Baumbach and some previously printed comments regarding mothers and abortion. Kevin Smith “tweeted” that film reviewers should be replaced by paying audience members, the aforementioned great unwashed being a better judge of cinema’s value than someone whose made a career out of trashing his talent. And all around Austin, SXSW and its dedicated followers of film fashion continued to give the online writer a decidedly dorky, geeky, fan boy façade.

Really makes you want to get out of bed and head for the keyboard (or screening), doesn’t it. Frankly, the inconsistent fortunes of my chosen profession are disheartening, to say the least. Apply any cliché to it you want - one step forward, three back…survival of the fittest/shittest…the new school overwhelming the old guard - whatever you want, but the truth remains that film criticism is at a crossroads. Actually, it’s been standing at the intersection of ‘reinvention’ and ‘irreverence’ for quite a while now, the universal cyber soapbox known as the ‘Net providing anyone with a blog and a significant amount of BS the right to punditcy. Like finally discovering a like minded audience for your rants and raves, the web is wiping out print media as we’ve come to know it. What will take its place, however, is as frightening as it is flawed.

by Bill Gibron

7 Dec 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of 2009. It comes with the career territory. In a scant two weeks, the movie year will be officially over, all high profile titles screened and tucked away for the long winter’s nap between release and Best-of reverie (or lack thereof). All the important DVDs will be in your local brick and mortar, hoping to coerce a little additional cash into their coffers. Everyone, from legitimate press heads to basic bloggers will have their own opinions on what ten (or twenty, or fifty) films meet the final tabulation of determined excellence, and with said statements, the arguments will start all over again - mainstream vs. arthouse, trendy indie vs. good old reliable Tinseltown tripe.

But 2009 is also different in two additionally significant ways. First, Oscar has decided to widen the berth for potential nominees, allowing ten Best Picture candidates for the first time since Jolson went talkie. Instead of the standard five, the Academy wants to double your pleasure - and directly, the possible TV ratings - by giving more titles a fighting chance. While this raises a whole series of questions that will be dealt with in a moment, it’s the second circumstance that it even more concerning. 2009 marks the end of the decade, the first ten years of the 21st century. As a result, along with the yearly Best-Of, everyone is also offering their own 120 month wrap-up…and therein lies the bigger problem.

For me, classicism is all about time. We don’t look back at films like The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, or Casablanca because they walked away with a boatload of accolades come 50, 60, or 70 years ago. We don’t celebrate the Golden Era of Hollywood because it resulted in so many positive artform judgments. Film stands as a symbol, a reflection of time, place, temperament, focus, interest, perspective, and in some cases, an undeniable fluke. And with the passage of time, comes a greater appreciation - and a label of legitimacy. Want proof? Look at the list of Best Picture winners since 2000 and imagine how many will be championed come 2070:

2000 - American Beauty
2001 - Gladiator
2002 - A Beautiful Mind
2003 - Chicago
2004 - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2005 - Million Dollar Baby
2006 - Crash
2007 - The Departed
2008 - No Country for Old Men
2009 - Slumdog Millionaire

Clearly, this decade started out crappy. While I can defend American Beauty forever, the next three films for me represent the worst kind of studio crafted mediocrity. I can’t see anyone looking at this trio and feeling that, somehow, it represented the best of what the artform has to offer. Now granted, they didn’t beat out any underappreciated classics (a look at the list of 15 nominees for 2001 - 2003 finds slim pickings, to say the least), but as usual, Oscar is about 1000 light years away from accurately reflecting what many consider to be “the best.”

For example, in my opinion, the best film of 2004 may have been Pixar’s The Incredibles, or Ondi Timoner’s brilliant rock doc DiG! . In 2006, I was all about The Prestige. Last year, it was an almost virtual tie between the amazing Let the Right One In and the horribly misunderstood Revolutionary Road. I am by no means a contrarian, but I tend to go with my heart and not my head. I preferred Tim Burton’s take on Sweeney Todd to the Coen’s masterful No Country (if only by a hair), and there are numerous titles I’ve taken on - The Fountain, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Zack and Miri Make a Porno - much to the deference of my long suffering credibility.

This year, with the added emphasis on keeping an open mind - what else would adding five more films to the Best Picture consideration mean, when you think about it…aside from the obvious dollar signs involved in tagging your DVD/Blu-ray “2010 Oscar Nominee” - things are much, much worse. While some will argue that 2009 was a great year, I tend to disagree. Looking over the 210 theatrical releases I’ve seen (and this week I will see 12 more), there’s been very few reasons to celebrate. You know you’re in awards season trouble when Star Trek continues to haunt your Top Ten - albeit for reasons I can totally and completely justify (Hell, it’s better than Nine).

True, I haven’t finalized anything, and a recent bout with the standard End-of-the-Year screener pile has produced two gems - Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, and The Coens latest, A Serious Man. Still, I can guarantee that when I cast my ballot for the first of what will be five group/site/association lists, I will be favoring the recent without remembering what was great about something shown eight months ago. I’ll do what all critics do best - turn my opinion, my flat out flawed judgment about something I’ve seen - and turn it into a testament, a gospel of sorts supporting by nothing more than my love of film and my years immersed in said artform.

But as I go back and look at my selections from past years, I can help but feel there’s been padding - the same kind of pointless additions that Oscar will be offering in less than two months. In a year where I can justify almost anything - from Peter Jackson’s brilliant The Lovely Bones to Lars Van Trier’s uber-audacious Antichrist, I fear Hollywood harkening back to the days when the studio bosses ran everything. Ten nominees gives outside hopefuls like The Blind Side or even New Moon, a shot at getting some ‘one hand washes the other’ payback. Heck, Disney has been pimping Betty White as a Best Supporting Actress candidate for a fart of a performance in the totally forgettable RomCom The Proposal. Now tell me this isn’t part of some “Alan Arkin is dying” determination to get an aging actor some props.

That’s my overall problem with any kind of Top Ten. By the time you get down to eight or nine, you’re dealing with the dregs - the best kind of dregs, but the dregs just the same. While the winner beats out nine others, thus making it look like a more “important” victory, the losers are left wondering where they fit into the mix. Sure, it was the same when it was five, but the bigger the number, the bigger the discrepancy. I’m sure once the weekend arrives, once Sherlock Holmes is deduced and The Princess and the Frog unfurled, once I get through Moon and The White Ribbon and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, I will be more settled. Still, unlike most years, I’m a lot more Top Ten-tative this time around.

by Diepiriye Kuku

29 Nov 2009

Wait: A gay hero? They are going to unmask the ‘blacky,’ and solve the murder. But will all turn out dandy?

Pow! Boom! Crash! Crunch! No punches, just blows. This was 1961, and this scene at least was the birth of the gay hero. We see the people mourning over their losses, and folks belittling on others’ debts- this is a real feel good flic with all the highs and lows of any melodrama. Instead of a red suit with emblems and tights, this hero wears his dignity and refusal to be silenced by shame.

1961’s film Victim is a classic. It’s not slapstick comedy, nor a thriller. But the one liners are often thrilling slaps in the face:

“But Mr. Farr’s married, sir.”
“Those are famous last words,” sir shoots back.

“Insincere bastard,” says the fag hag hanging off the bar, perched on her regular stool.
Well, what else can I be,” replies the barman, presaging something about the characters of his well-wishing.

“Nature played me a dirty trick. I’m gonna see I can get a few years peace and quiet in return,” said another sinner.

The main character coming out to his wife was one of the most powerful scenes. She drags him out of the closet- not to throw him away, but only to help him realize that he has actually known and expressed love in their relationship. She insists on her love for him, but as importantly asks him to be true to himself; her ego is small and her compassion grand. She offers him the opportunity to acknowledge his love for ‘that boy’ for perhaps the first time in his life. She accuses guilt of displacing her in his heart, not the ‘way’ he was, an interesting distinction on all the preaching against the Down Low (it’s society that breeds guilt, silly).

A Human Stain, A Gay Hero and Modern Martyrs

Race still marks difference in our society with minorities often burdened with the task of unraveling race, let alone racism, and whites often unable to perceive the hegemony. The post-Civil Rights strategy of Obama portends to ignore ‘race’ altogether, promising that the best of us arrives from taking care of all of us.

People wonder why there is no Malcolm X, nor Martin Luther King to galvanize queer people. But, unlike 1961 London, or pre-2003 USA, or pre-2009 India, the modern gay movement won’t be fought on the marching ground, and we won’t have martyrs like Harvey Milk serve as our only impetus for change. Each and everyone of us has the power to assert agency in our daily lives. The Internet has exponentially, for example, increased the means by which radical, anti-white-washing, anti-polarizing voices can spread across the universe. Stains of inequality which sat and shroomed in pockets in the old world, such as Apartheid in South Africa or Jim and Jane Crow in the American South, can no longer persist in the modern world. Might this be the fate of caste in India?

How might have the Suweto uprising changed had there been mobile phone cameras and MMS texting, let alone E-mail, blogging, and posting videos to YouTube?!? Where one radical picture of Hector Pieterson- a slain Black school boy- galvanized resistance against Aparthied, and evidently sparked an entire revolution, the visualization of the beating of Black Los Angeles motorist Rodney King brought home the normative way in which ‘race’ materializes in law-enforcement. Thanks to just mobile phones, let alone other technologies, witnesses can testify around the world to micro and macro atrocities that others never wanted to believe existed. Now consider the viral video of fights, including in schools (search YouTube for “school fight” and do not be shocked that most results are not dramatizations, are almost always ‘boys’, and often before a cheering crowd.

Then consider Derrion Alberts, a Chicago youth who was beaten to death near his school on the way home. Those street fights are a real and present danger, a known but ignored reality of modern urban decay. The video not only brought some of the gang members to the clutches of justice, but also provided an anchor for other mute witnesses and community members to take a stand: The viral nature of the video clip, and its circulation in the media encouraged folks to name the accused, in a neighborhood where gang violence silences many through retaliation. A concerned citizen specifically took the video in response to lack of action taken against the regular street violence in front of his sister’s high school, and still he remains hidden for fear of his safety and allows the medium of video to represent his presence; that videographer witnesses, and agrees to testify. “Damn” and “Oh my God, get closer” a young sister says off screen during the video of Derrion’s last minute. Damn” someone says after Derrion’s death, “dey still down ‘er goin’ at it.”

Also, think about regimes which silence an entire people. Think about the police crack down in Guinea, the citizen reporting from Iran, or the role Internet video in modern terrorism. Video in the hands of the people can assert the kind of agency that topples dictatorships and oppressive ideologies like never before. Moreover, that kind of footage is almost tangible. It’s more real than The Blair Witch Project, and more personable than the reality TV show Big Brother - even with the run-of-the-mill racists rows with Shilpa Shetty and greasy Jermaine Jackson’s coaching that Indian princess). We face our violence and are forced to acknowledge that violence is deeply ingrained in our society and interwoven into who we are- what it means to be a man, for example. 

Boys must learn not to hit girls, and men are shamed for hitting women. But I know many a bitch that will beat a nigga down (like Precious’ mama); but those are the ‘quality’ chicks the commercial rappers cheer about (“beat dat bitch witta bat”). Nonetheless, we approve men committing violence against men, and even encourage it as a part of being a man. Boys are especially given toy weapons from miniature tanks and battle-ready starships, to guns and swords for potty training! We are a beat down nation! Americans really, really get high on violence. After comedian Bernie Mac: We hate like a mutha fucka! And we Americans love us some mutha fuckin’ violence!

Mobile phone clips are just one technology revolutionizing how we act out. Societies’ recent past often show that once we actually ‘see’ our violence, we are transformed. Somehow time and distance can only be traversed through the person-to-person reportage, not just reporting, but witnessing and then testifying. Former slave Harriet Ann Jacobs’ (b.1813, slave; d.1897, free) Incidents in the Life of a Slavegirl is said to be the definitive book that introduced northerners to the lived reality of slavery allowing may to ‘see’ their complicacy through their tacit support of the Fugitive Slave Law. First published in 1861, Jacobs’ personal portrait of slavery sparked change. Hector Pieterson’s had the same ramifications in Apartheid South Africa, for there are many reports from (white) Afrikaners who claim to not have been aware of the extent of the oppression in which they were silently participating and, crucially, therefore approving.

Rev Dr. Martin Luther King had to go from place to place and show his face for people to understand the weight of Jim and Jane Crow, while the 1955 photo of Emmet Till’s open casket exposed many complacent Americans to the violence of racism- 14-year old Till’s head bashed in by sick white racists, all in a damn day’s work in that place and time. We all saw the ominous picture of the fencing where Mathew Shepard’s mutilated body was left to perish, and we promise to ourselves that this just should not happen. Yet, frankly our inactivity, and then mobilization around slight, localized causes like Prop 8 and military conscription demonstrates that we are still waiting on another Milk.

No, gays won’t have to march- there are plenty more ways for heroes to come out to battle. What if lynching had gone viral? Remember that Dr. King had no iPhone, hence the distance between Montgomery and Atlanta was enormous, but dwarfed by now the Internet (not to mention I-85). Just consider the hate crimes and non-violence protest organized around Jena Louisiana. No, Beyoncé, you cannot do for me what Martin did for the people! Ran by the men but the women kept the tempo No, B. you’re no shero like Fannie Lou Hamer, and certainly not Mahalia Jackson. The people are asking for a bit more substance, building on the impact of these images of real people- unarticulated through market forces- can create change; the mobile clip might supersede these modern divas.

Remember, the iconic image of Hector Pieterson!?! Still, we’re unfortunately still into martyrs. It took images like HU’s own Skip Gates’ arrest to give credence to the sitting president to address the violence of how race mediates how we interact on every level from the boys and gals in blue and the average citizen, to even civil public discourse. At least Big B did what he could do and fashioned a “teachable moment,” the sort that viral media gone rancid cannot. Too many folks eat images like a hit-and-run (or fire-and-forget), and we feel as satisfied as filling up with soda- what we in Kentucky call pop. It’s just empty calories. We feel temporarily full, high even from the fantastic sugar, sodium, caffeine combo; but soon enough we just piss that crap out and hunger for more. That’s how we do pop (culture). Luckily, our local convenient stores and school vending machine are always on point, offering a cooled supply of junk.

Might we ever see images of genuine, soulful luster and grandeur- happiness articulated through something other than material bliss, and come out the better? Might we ever lust for pop images that give us soul to satiate us with pleasures beyond hype and bling, and without the typical modern cynicism? The cynicism derides and berates anything critical, which leaves us to only feed off the pain, the sheer martyrdom of others. We get high off of a good beat down, and become excitable around shows of guns, tits and ass. No one really dare stand out, lest the sound-bite, viral media take a chunk out of their lives and call them a Smooth Criminal (Damn right, I said that sh*t! I could teach you, but I’(d) havta charge).

Might this technology continually produce videos like the brutal death of Derrion Alberts and galvanize Americans to transform ourselves into a non-violent society, which was King’s true dream, to recall the mantle upon which the Nobel Peace Prize stands! King sparked a social revolution, and the Nobel Prize apparently hastened, galvanized broader dialogue in support of his efforts. “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice.” says King, opening his acceptance speech in Oslo in December of 1964. The Nobel Peace prize was awarded, and King accepted the Prize on behalf of a movement, which likens it more to a grant, a note of support. Notably, the Prize apparently focused King’s efforts on ending the violence of poverty and the violence of war. Peace is the real upgrade. At issue here is what sparks change, for change is inevitable.

Victim, with it’s extraordinarily woven narratives and almost melodramatic dialogues that liken the film to more of a stage production than a moving picture flic gives the film a quality of liveliness. Shot in Black and White, the close-ups and sustained dialogues really focuses our attention on experiencing the emotions involved- we are after all talking about a non-violent crime so the action is in the anxiety. At one point we even have an extreme close-up shot of one main victim panting, tears squeezing out of the corners of his eyes, having lost his freedom for the crime of homosexuality, ashamed, considering his next move. This finesse makes the experiences of the narrative as personable as Black Box Theater.

The finish of Victim shows that always cowards sell each other out and end up selling themselves out by not standing up for anything. They act out of fear, something that it seems far more easy to do today sitting behind a laptop or a flat screen, virtually experiencing the world. When communication is mediated by this technology, we are embolden to take a stance- to basically stand at one pole or the other- shades of gray are less hued now than in this pre-Technicolor film. The trouble is, for those who experience most of the world virtually, they’ve really nothing of substance to say, and are robbed of opportunities to develop skills for dynamic dialogue- not just posting something on a site, never knowing if it actually gets read. But, then there are those whose circumstances demand change. Some of us even tend to speak out more through these technological mediums, but only enough to leave a vile response or tacky, ill-worded reply to an article.

That sort of virtual existence we’re approaching is the theme of plenty of contemporary Sci-Fi flics from the 1999/2003’s Matrix Trilogy to 2009’s Surrogates, or for example, 1998’s Pleasantville. One can even see this polarized virtual reality in 1975’s The Stepford Wives  or its 2004 remake starring Ms. Nicole Kidman. Like the Stepford husbands living in a virtual reality, modern folk can also have an easier reality with which to contemplate. Yet, rest assured that these blokes and their modern net-freak flock are the true casualties of modernization. Few of these folks actually find the courage to stand up in their daily lives as does the main protagonist of the ironically named film Victim. A punctuating message of Victim seems to be that despite the cynicism, which was well dramatized in this film by the behavior of the flock, there are still those who refuse to cow down. Like the opening scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope few seem to consciously ‘get’ these dramatic twist.

Yet, that’s just the twist: There’s as thin a line between love and hate, as between courage and fear, dignity and humiliation- a line that the main characters of Rope failed to identify, but one that Victim’s ultimate hero has. Failing to locate that line could cost you your life. And perceiving that line takes a bit more than a sound-bite can handle. Yet, that’s what makes Victim also an action movie, where one outstanding citizen dares to go against the tide within the confounds of daily life. The action: daring to speak ‘out’. The heroine: Daring to stand by. Both are examples of everyday courage.

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