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by Bill Gibron

6 Dec 2009


In the long standing debate between movies as merchandise and film as art, the sex comedy usually get laughed out of the room - and not for the reasons you think. Humor has literally nothing to do with it. Instead, the skin farce, the lust lampoon, the cracked coming of age where wantonness subs for wisdom, is repeatedly snubbed, stuffed in the same lame category as exploitation - smutty without being significant, craven without being creative or clever. Naturally, most of these scholarly decisions are based on a limited sampling of said pseudo-smut. After all, how could you call Porky’s anything other than wimpy white lightning in a unexpected blockbuster bottle, or American Pie as pastry porn?

That’s where the Canadian classic Screwballs comes in. That’s right - CLASSIC. In fact, it’s safe to say that in the seedy subgenre of teenage boys begging to get their rocks off, this surreal statement is its Gone with the Wind. Yes, it’s prurient and pasty. Yes, it makes even a post-millennial audience groan with raincoat crowd crudity. No, it doesn’t have the kind of redeeming social value or aesthetic merit to keep communal moral compasses from veering wildly away from true North. What it does offer, on the other hand, is nothing short of a window into the world circa the early ‘80s, a chance to see how far we’ve come in the days since flesh was considered a felony, and even more shockingly, the lack of any real progress since.

The story centers on boobs - there’s no other way to put it. Reigning homecoming queen (and all around stuck-up snob) Purity Busch is rumored to have the hottest rack in all of T&A High. Naturally, this gets a quintet of hormonally overcharged delinquents - chronic masturbator Melvin Jerkovski, dorky science geek Howie Bates, fun loving cut-up Ricky McKay, self-proclaimed BMOC Brent Van Dusen III, and recent transfer student/regular guy Tim Stevenson - all hot and bothered. While serving detention, the guys come up with a scheme. With the help of “friendly” coeds Bootsie Goodhead, Rhonda Rocket, and Sarah Bellum, the boys will each use their wit and cunning to discover a means of checking out Purity’s pom-poms - and it looks like her last public act will be the perfect place for the unveiling.

As you can see, Screwballs is nothing if not subtle. It’s about as understated as a group of drag queens at a Sarah Palin rally. Writers Linda Shayne and Jim Wynorski give director Rafal Zielinski a nice clothesline narrative from which to work, letting the filmmaker follow-up with one unhinged cockamamie concept after another. From the stupid science inspired inventions used by Howie to the fey false bravado oozed by Brent, everything here is a lark. It’s turn of the century burlesque retrofitted for a slightly more permissive time. This is a movie that believes it is progressive, that measures men in hefty ham steaks while the gals are fully flowered in feminism. Why? Well, because the cheerleaders acknowledge their love of nookie while the guys goof around and grunt like Neanderthals.

This is a catch-all comedy, the brains behind the camera coming up with anything and everything to get a laugh. There are clichés and funny business formulas (the absent minded professor, the cougar-cat spinster type). There are archetypes and anarchy (the horndog principal, the centerpiece known as “strip bowling”). There’s even a small amount of social satire and critical commentary to be found - of course, you’ll have to look past all the heavy petting and raw naked human libido to see it. Indeed, the reason Screwballs stands as the ultimate sex comedy has little to do with the bodkin we see and much more with the attitude it offers. Being unapologetic is one thing. Tossing tons of unclothed actresses at the screen for no other reason than genre requirements is quite a different dynamic.

Besides, it’s all in good clean, non-Puritanical, gratuitous Great White North fun. Though Roger Corman’s name is tossed about as someone closely involved in this project, the connection is weak, to say the least (his company, New World Pictures, had some part in the distribution). Instead, this is a pure Rush and back bacon view of friskiness, a ‘baby it’s always cold outside’ combination of adolescent longing and upfront scatology. While it may sound like a knuckleheaded, nonsensical appraisal, it’s actually perfect for something like Screwballs. We don’t want half-baked nostalgia or Airplane! like joke-a-thons. We don’t need a cautionary counterbalance, or reminder of the imbalance within these gender politics. This is a movie that just wants to celebrate the basic human need for pleasure. It’s biology. It’s instinct. It’s what we are.

Luckily, sleaze salvage yard Severin Films has taken this often maligned movie and given it the full blown craven Criterion Collection treatment it deserves. The 1080p transfer is terrific, taking what is often a full screen pan and scan nightmare and turning it into a fresh, if still slightly dated, delight. The colors are crisp and the details prevalent. In addition, they add a bunch of complementary context, including deleted scenes, director’s commentary, cast and crew interviews, and two scholarly overviews - one by Canuxsploitation expert Paul Corupe, the other from celebrity nudity expert Mr. Skin. In tandem, and with the rest of the bonus features provided, they give this amazing film a new lease on life - critically, commercially, and categorically.

Of course, there’s a caveat. Let’s be honest, shall we? Screwballs does have some minor misgivings. The gals we see sans clothing couldn’t compete with the plasticine honeys humpin’ across late night subscription cable nowadays. And in the end, when the big reveal is made, we start to wonder if all the titty-based rigmarole was worth it. Yet the answer is obvious to anyone who has seen the film - Hell-friggin-yeah! Even without this wonderful format update, the blissfully sweet results speak for themselves. Screwballs is indeed a classic - just not for the standard cinematic reasons. As a movie, it’s genuine junk. As a faux-funny erotic epiphany, it’s nothing short of epic.

by Bill Gibron

4 Dec 2009


It’s all about immersion. It’s all about historical context and accuracy. It’s all about character and the defiant need to stay true to same. And in the end, it’s about the past, about the United States struggling through the grips of the Great Depression and the rogue bank robber who captured a nation’s sullied imagination - as well as attention from the number one crime buster on the block. To hear director Michael Mann discuss it, his 2009 Summer spectacle Public Enemies stands as nothing short of the last word on John Dillinger and the post-incarceration crime spree that led to his legend. It’s not about myth (though some of that is mixed in here). It’s not about star power (though he does corral Johnny Depp and Christian Bale as his two main leads). And it’s definitely not about big bang production value action or thrills.

No, for the filmmaker responsible for bringing a music video stylization to the big screen, Public Enemies is about virtual cinematic time travel. It’s about controverting the audience’s expectation when it comes to period pieces and actually making a movie seemingly set within that particular era. From the clothes and the locations to the jargon and jive (as well as the undeniable influence of information depravation), Mann wanted to take his digital cameras, set them up in the same places John Dillinger and his gang haunted, the bring those ghosts back to life. Though the results often don’t match the ambitions expressed by the director (who is revelatory in his accompanying audio commentary offered on the new Blu-ray release) he does have one obvious point. Public Enemies is unlike any gangster film you’ve ever seen - for good, for uneven, and sometimes, for reasons only the auteur and his actors can fully understand.

The story takes place in 1933, during the heart of the worst economic times in America’s history. With banks acting as the main villain in the citizenry’s financial downfall, an outlaw like Dillinger (Depp) is romanticized and revered. After spending nine years in jail for a petty crime, he returns to the real world ready to live it up while tearing it down. Along with cohorts Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff), “Red” Hamilton (Jason Clarke), Harry Pierpont (David Wenham) and Charles Makley (Christian Stolte), he scours the Midwest, stealing money and securing his contacts. One night, he meets the lovely Billie Frenchette (Marion Coitllard) and soon the two are inseparable. Never thinking about his future, Dillinger continues his criminal ways, much to the chagrin of the local Chicago mob, and most importantly, the FBI.

J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), desperate to catapult his tiny agency into the big leagues, puts top G-Man Melvin Purvis (Bale) on the case. Having apprehended Pretty Boy Floyd, the director feels this is his best bet to catch Dillinger. Naturally, things don’t go well at first, the modern day bandit slipping through the FBI’s fingers at every turn. But soon, many of his men start dying, and it’s not long before Dillinger and Frenchette are cornered in a Phoenix hotel. She is let go. He is imprisoned, but manages to escape. With few left to rely on, Dillinger hooks up with the volatile Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), and soon, the new gang is in a horrific firefight at a secluded wilderness lodge. Eventually, Purvis makes a deal with a local madam. She will lure Dillinger out in the open to prevent her deportation. They will then take him down.

The FBI’s chance comes on 22 July, 1934, at a downtown movie theater.

At first glance, Public Enemies is a lot like that lame 1991 movie Mobsters starring Christian Slater, Costas Mandylor, Richard Greico, and Patrick Dempsey. It has all the trappings of a Tiger Beat version of Untouchables folklore, glamorous names and A-list faces filling in for individuals for whom reality has a more honest, and homelier, truth. But once you get past the superstar status of many in the cast and concentrate on what Michael Mann is doing here, the superficiality slowly fades away. In its place are artistry, authenticity, and an attention to detail which helps to override the occasional lapses in the narrative. Listening to the filmmaker during his discussion fills in many of the blanks the basic storyline skips over. In fact, Mann even mentions a quick introductory read of the book upon which the movie is based in order to provide the necessary context his two hour plus drama could not begin to touch.

You can see it several times throughout the course of this otherwise fine film. When Channing Tatum turns up as Pretty Boy Floyd, you wonder why this particular criminal is treated like a cameo. Later on, when Dillinger is making his date with destiny, Leelee Sobieski turns up as the hoodlum’s escort for the night. This happens frequently in Public Enemies - just as we are settling in and getting background on the individuals up on the screen, another interesting but explained person (Lili Taylor as Sheriff Lillian Holley) shows up to snatch the movie away. We are desperate for more - more insight, more bank robberies, more Tommy Gun sputtering battles. Instead, Mann focuses on his forward narrative momentum, driving Depp and Bale to their mostly indirect clash. Whether it was an issue of trying to deal with too much or some manner of editorial confusion, Public Enemies needed to me more in-depth - or just less busy.

Still the performances are top notch, and on the small screen Blu-ray experience, you can really invest in what Depp and Bale are doing. This is not some manner of scene hogging grandstanding. We don’t see the men falling into their characters like mannered Method wannabes. Instead, all easily play into Mann’s desire to be immersive, to actually live in the moment, preferably in the actual places these people existed in as well. All throughout the commentary track we hear how the production repurposed old jails, found identical residences, and used the preservationist element within the many Midwestern locales to create a sense of sameness. Heck, they even film in the original Little Bohemia lodge, in the actual room Dillinger stayed in. From prison cells to city streets, Public Enemies is nothing if not respectful of the past.

Still, there is something slightly amiss about the movie overall. It never builds into the kind of epic you imagine Mann believes it to be. Even with all the ornate backdrops and “you are there” intimacy of the digital camera approach (which looks startling on the 1080p image transfer), there is a beat or two that’s off. Whenever Crudup’s Hoover steps up to sermonize, we keep waiting for something more impactful. When Purvis leads an unsuccessful stake out of Dillinger and his crew, we expect something more than a shoulder shrug sense of defeat. Of course, according to Mann, this is how it was. This is the way it happened (even with a few factual flubs to streamline the narrative), and therefore, this is the way is will be. Interestingly enough, Martin Scorsese can take a similar sensationalized true story of organized crime and turn it into masterworks like Goodfellas and Casino. Public Enemies should be as grand. Instead, it’s merely good. 

by Bill Gibron

2 Dec 2009


Guy Ritchie can give you a headache. No, not with his ‘70s post-modernism mixed with unhealthy doses of MTV-schooled stylization. No, not even with his cockney rhyming, slang happy cast of cartoon-like characters. Certainly, his stint as Madonna’s own personal boy toy filmmaker forced more than one viewer to run for the medicine cabinet (or in the case of their only feature collaboration, a rancid remake of Lina Wertmueller’s brilliant Swept Away, the porcelain throne below it), and their eventual divorce could give anyone the TMZ shivers.

No, Ritchie’s real ability to boil your brain comes with his undeniable inconsistency. One moment, he’s delivering an amazing bit of anarchy like Snatch. Then next, he’s dropping the cinematic equivalent of a deuce in your lap (2005’s Revolver). Even his first film, the often acclaimed heist flick Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels belies this migraine making hit or miss ideal. While his last effort, RocknRolla, resulted in a shot at bringing a beloved fictional character back to revisionist light (his take on Sherlock Holmes is mere weeks away), one can’t help but feel that too much was made out this initial effort, a clever if cluttered walk down old school English gangster gratuity.

Eddie (Nick Moran) fancies himself quite the card sharp. With the help of his friends Bacon (Jason Statham), Soap (Dexter Fletcher), and Tom (Jason Flemyng), he pools together the $100K required to enter Harry the Hatchet’s (P.H. Moriarty) high stakes game. When the sly street tough is finished with the lad, he’s in debt for nearly $500K and has only one week to raise it. If not, his father’s (Sting) bar is in jeopardy, as are all of his pals’ fingers. Desperate for a means of making that kind of cash, they get a brainstorm. Eddie and Bacon’s next door neighbors are drug dealers. They’ve overheard their own desire to rob a bunch of pot growing gits of their money and dope. So they decide to lie in wait, let the criminals do all the work, and then relieve them of their ill-gotten gains after. Naturally, things don’t go as planned.

Like any runaway train ready to trample all over past genre contrivances, Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels takes a little while getting started. Since we’ve already met characters like this in his later work, and because the writer/director currently has said signature moves down to a cinematic science, the growing pains practiced here are frequent and obvious. Unlike Snatch, say, that finds a way to make several divergent narratives roar in the movie equivalent of a bawdy, pissed pub sing-along, this earlier effort needs some time to completely tap in and make the connections. Indeed, when we learn that Rory Breaker (an excellent Vas Blackwood) set the man on fire that we see coming out of the bar early on, the sudden shock of the link indicated Ritchie’s less than smooth sense of transition trickery.

Equally incomplete are the various motives involved. Hatchet Harry may actually be creating this entire card game with the hopes of landing Eddie’s father’s club, but said stratagem is never made clear. Similarly, the whole antiques gun issue feels like the most routine of red herrings, a way of keeping a couple of wacky characters in the story while providing the fodder for a “what next?” kind of Italian Job finale. There is no denying that Ritchie is head and shoulders above his UK crime thriller brethren. The closest the country had previously come to producing something similar was way back when Danny Boyle first burst on the screen with 1994’s Shallow Grave, and even that was more Hitchcock than post-modern histrionics. No, the effect this film had on the national noir type was immediate and undeniable. As with most influential titles, the reputation extends far beyond the actual entertainment value.

That doesn’t mean this movie is bad. Far from it. Indeed, some of the performances are so memorable you wish they were given more time to blossom and grow. Former illegal bareknuckles boxer Lenny McLean is so good as Harry’s right hand muscle, Barry the Baptist, that when we learn he died shortly after making the movie, our heart sinks a little - not just for the man himself, but for the power and abject magnetism he brought to the screen. Jason Statham (who’s also present, though in a much more subdued role) can only wish he can be this bad-ass as he heads toward his middle years. Similarly, Jason Flemyng is so slickly slimy as Tom that his current career as a mainstream movie “star” seems a million miles away. While there are other novel turns here and there (Sting just said the F-word!), this is really Ritchie’s resume builder - and he tries to make the most of it.

Oddly enough, for its arrival on Blu-ray, there are some real limitations to what Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels has to offer, content-wise. Granted, the 1080p picture looks amazing, Ritchie’s destaturated designs coming across with the necessary ambient grit and seedy London swagger the movie all but exudes. There’s also a featurette on said cinematography, as well as a compilation of all the film’s expletives. But a couple of years back, a “Director’s Cut” was offered with added scenes. That is not available here. Nor is said excised footage restored as a bonus feature or extra. Also missing from previous versions is a Cockney Dictionary, which might be helpful to those of you unfamiliar with the randy jokester jargon. But what would really be nice is a Ritchie commentary track. If any film needs a sense of perspective and import, it’s this one. Sadly, no said statement is offered.

Still, for all its minor flaws and digital packaging failings, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is a highly effective film. It is easy to see why it took an ill-prepared, post-Pulp Fiction fanbase by storm and how it set Ritchie up for future successes (Snatch, RocknRolla) and beyond expectation failures (Revolver). It’s the perfect example of a showboating headscratcher, a movie that makes its frequently fun points without ever really getting into the business of engaging you as a thriller or a dark comedy. Instead, the jokes appear haphazard and random, the violence a necessary evil of a movie made within the criminal context of this particular social arena. What his other movies have done summarily or languidly, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels does with some clear novice stumbles. It’s creative and very clever. It’s just not a classic. 

by Bill Gibron

1 Dec 2009


Last time around, we compared this brilliant BBC detective series (with sophisticated sci-fi overtones) to David Fincher’s equally excellent masterwork Zodiac - and the reasons still remain rather obvious. Both offered slightly unreal looks at standard police procedurals circa the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Both were a magnificent combination of vision and performance. And both took their time to develop storylines and characters that served sometimes symbolic, always multilayered purposes. We also argued that, for all its entertainment value, the experience wouldn’t be 100% percent complete until the entire run of Life with Mars, Series 1 and 2, arrived on DVD. Well, said wait is over - and as we stated before, it was definitely well worth it.

Like the first eight installments, Life on Mars Series 2 represents another masterful example of this old school detecting vs. new world law enforcement ideal. Centering on the surreal adventures of millennial cop Sam Tyler (John Simm) suddenly transported back to 1973, it’s time travel taken to sly, sophisticated heights. Arriving around the time of David Bowie’s hit song (thus the title), the Detective Chief Inspector takes up with the Criminal Investigation Department of Manchester under the auspices of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). There, he works with the rest of the force to solve crimes while dealing with the differences between his time, and the past. In the last eight episodes, Tyler also hopes to uncover the truth behind his current Billy Pilgrim-like situation.

Over the course of all sixteen sensational episodes (eight for each season), the series shows Sam’s difficulty in coping, his by-the-book approach clashing significantly with the ‘70s ‘anything for a confession’ conceit. Series 2 gets more into the situation itself, suggesting that our hero may be medically incapacitated in the future (he is hit by a car at the beginning of the storyline, hinting that he is now in a coma), a true anomaly of physics, or just mad. There are elements of the supernatural and suspense, as well as halting humor and the kind of fish out of water formulas that never seem to fail. When meshed with amazing acting from Simm and Glenister (among others), smart scripting, and a truly moving finale, we wind up with something very special indeed.

There’s just something about the British when it comes to television drama. They can take a standard storyline - say a police psychologist who uses his cunning and insight to ‘crack’ cases - and turn it into the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy (right, Robbie “Eddie Fitzgerald” Coltraine?). It’s the same with Life on Mars. Each episode uses Sam’s dilemma as a backdrop for what is, otherwise, a sometimes straightforward exploration of crime and punishment. There are individual cases to be solved, the backdrop of messages from the future, and a strange little spectral girl adding elements of intrigue to the whodunit.

It’s easy to see why this material failed when translated over to America (the ABC version ran for one season in 2008). The storylines contained in the first eight episodes offered, just like in the final run here, require concentration and a continued investment. You can’t just tune in, pick up a red herring or random clue, and feel vindicated when the bad guy is caught. No, Life on Mars is meant to be culture shock as social commentary, an attempt by creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharoah to expand on the typical police plotlines with elements both human and out of this world. 

The UK has always had a fondness for science fiction, with shows like Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Primeval garnering huge ratings within a contemporary reality TV dynamic. Life on Mars is different - a hybrid of sorts between grim reality (England in 1973 was no picnic) and fanciful wish fulfillment. One of the main themes that runs throughout the series is Tyler’s desire to return back to the 21st Century. Of course, there’s a complication, and her name is Annie Cartwright (Liz White). Thrust into the middle of the ‘70s concept of gender inequality, the character instantly earns Sam’s attention. Over the course of the series, she also gains something far more personal.

It’s this kind of investment - emotionally, intellectually - that makes Life on Mars so resonant. The show never excuses the era, illustrating obvious flaws like sexism and racism while celebrating the police’s ability to solve crimes under seemingly backward conditions. We see the usual suspects - armed robbers, gangsters, drug dealers - interwoven with darker, more diabolical crimes. As Sam struggles to make sense of his life, the rest of the Manchester force must confront the kind of calm, controlled detecting he brings to their male machismo methodology. The interpretations of these wholly different men are uniformly excellent, with Simm and Glenister simply great as the differing DCIs.

Of course, the biggest problem with any series like this is how immersive and involving it is. Just as we get to Episode 8, and some questions appear to be answered, we are thrown back into the mix and left wanting more. That’s where this new DVD set really eases the pain. Acorn Media offers the second (and final) half of this amazing production on four discs loaded with added content. There is an amazing documentary which discusses the Life on Mars phenomenon, a look at the end of the series (it did return - sort of - in the ‘80s inspired reinvention Ashes to Ashes), and a look behind the scenes of Episodes 3, 5, and 7. As always, there is clarity in many of these conversations and overviews, bits and pieces of plot and characterization that amplify our understanding of the show’s main narrative purpose.

If it seems like many of the sentiments in this review merely mimic the initial reaction to Life on Mars Series 1, you’d be right. Consistency is one of the British dramas strong points, a show like The Prisoner capable of delivering installment after installment of well honed, expertly crafted entertainment. Sure, there is a slip up here and now, and no singular story arc is ever going to provide universal appreciate amongst the devoted (there remains some minor controversy over the explanation of Sam’s ‘reality’). But like experiencing a magnificent movie, and then getting a chance to immediately dive into the sequel, Series 1 and 2 of Life on Mars provides.

In Fincher’s film, we got the distinct impression that if forensic science and inter-department communication had been ever so slightly more advanced, the Zodiac killer would right now be rotting in a jail cell somewhere. Instead, the limits of the past flummoxed even the most loyal law enforcement official. Life on Mars is another example of police procedural as filtered through a far less sophisticated time. Everything else about the show, however, is thoroughly modern - and marvelous. 

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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