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Thursday, Feb 15, 2007


Back when television was the only important cultural game in town, the notorious ratings period known as “Sweeps” actually mattered to the viewing public. They knew that, during this advertising extravaganza when networks and local affiliates pulled out all the scatological stops for that extra speck of viewership, something sensational was typically in the offing. Sadly, it seems that the modern concept of this carnival of creative programming is made up of more episodes of American Idol, extra installments of Dateline‘s “To Catch a Predator” and as many reality style shows as possible. Even the cable channels have pulled up stakes and refused to follow the undeniable hype. The choices for the week beginning 17 February are good, but not the kind of gratuitous grandstanding the concept of Sweeps evokes. Still, you’ll enjoy most of the choices, beginning with a certified SE&L favorite:
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Premiere Pick
Hustle and Flow


It may be tough for a pimp, but 2005 was a magical year for filmmaker Craig Brewer. With this look at a world-weary street hustler hoping to break out of his dead end life by becoming a rapper, the novice director delivered a staggering drama with real depth and heart. At the center of this sensational film is the terrific Terrence Howard, offering a star making turn as Djay. He brings real empathy and emotion to what could have been a crude cardboard cut out. Equally effective are the sequences where Brewer shows how hip hop tracks are formed – creativity culled from the bottom up, a combination of inspiration and ingenuity. It all works together wonderfully, melding effortlessly into one of the year’s best films. (17 February, ShowCase, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Longford


This made for British television biography of the Lord of Longford, a champion for controversial causes in the UK, comes to American cable thanks in large part because of The Queen. Indeed, Peter Morgan who wrote said reimagining of Elizabeth II’s battles with Tony Blair over the death of Princess Diana, also scripted this tale about a celebrated child killer – and Longford’s efforts to free her. (17 February, HBO, 8PM EST)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire


After the amazing work Alfonso Cuoran did with Prisoner of Azkaban, many in the Potter fanbase feared that Mike Newell, best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral, would be unable to rise to the challenge of this material. Luckily, those qualms were alleviated when Newell delivered what many consider to be the second best installment of the series. (17 February, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


The Wild


Get ready to yawn as Disney delivers yet another subpar cartoon cavalcade relying on the no longer novel element of CG animation to sell its shortcomings. Mimicking Madagascar, this tale of a ‘city’ lion accidentally shipped off to Africa and the group of wisecracking zoo friends who come to his rescue is so routine it grows stale before the middle act arrives. (17 February, Starz, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Lost Highway


David Lynch, hot off his success with Twin Peaks and the debacle that many considered its big screen incarnation, Fire Walk with Me, decided to abandon all pretense of mainstream acceptance, and instead focused on honing his already odd dreamscape style. The result was this amazing motion picture, as much a study in cinema as it is a look at character duality. Bill Pullman plays a man plagued by anonymous videotapes of his household – and a murder he may be responsible for. Before we know it, the story shifts, and Pullman is now Balthazar Getty, a young mechanic caught up in an affair with a mysterious mob moll. In between gorgeously shot sequences, a white faced demon (played by Robert Blake, of all people) haunts the characters, bringing the world of nightmares to Lynch’s illogical lushness. (18 February, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Additional Choices
Bomb the System


For those unaware of the phrase, “bombing” is old school ghetto lingo for graffiti. Back in the day, when urban youth had little to celebrate, spreading your name all over the city via spray paint and talent was a metaphysical escape. This fiction film does a good job of capturing the culture, and while Style Wars is the definitive documentary statement, this movie manages a close second. (20 February, Sundance, 11:30PM EST)

Walker


Alex Cox went from punk to politics when he followed up his sensational Sid and Nancy with this incredibly odd period piece. Ed Harris is the American mercenary fighting for the Nicaraguans in the 19th century, but it’s clear that Cox had more on his mind than this specific situation. Using a mixture of modern and antiquated imagery, it was really an attack on Reagan and his problematic El Salvador stratagem. (21 February, IFC, 10PM EST)

Short Cuts


The late, great Robert Altman took the short stories of Raymond Carver and turned them into a stunning portrait of LA at the start of the ‘90s. Using his standard interlocking narrative structure, and amazing performances from an all star cast, the director delivered what many consider to be his final major masterwork. As dense as any work of fiction and just as symbolic in its statements. (22 February, Sundance, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
All That Jazz


After a massive heart attack and more than his fair share of Broadway flops, director/choreographer Bob Fosse was looking for a way to battle his all consuming inner demons. His decision – make a thinly veiled autobiographical musical that exposed all his flaws and foibles, no matter how painful that might be to friends and family. The result was this stunning example of cinematic hubris, a classic song and dance fest deconstructed to focus on ideas like adultery, betrayal and death. Drawing on previous collaborators including Ann Reinking and Ben Vereen, and using real figures from his life (renamed and reimagined, of course) Fosse found the proper balance between backstage drama and esoteric experimentalism. It’s a brilliantly insular work of wounded genius. (22 February, Fox Movie Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Good Son


After years of playing the bratling hero, Macaulay Culkin (or more importantly, his dictatorial dad/manager) wanted to expand his thespian range. Too bad then that the producers went and hired Elijah Wood to steal every scene alongside Master Home Alone. What wanted to be a boys’ Bad Seed ended up being merely a bad career move on the part of a fading family film star. (19 February, Encore Mystery, 3:35AM EST)

The Serpent and the Rainbow


Zombies are real – at least they are in the veiled world of voodoo that is Haiti. Horror maestro Wes Craven, taking a break from the supernatural, used the non-fiction book by Wade Davis to discuss the ancient African religion, and the real possibility of creating “the living dead”. Light on flesh eating and heavy on authentic atmosphere, the results are creepy indeed. (20 February, ThrilllerMax, 6:35PM EST)

Clerks


By now, it’s randy reputation precedes it. It’s the film that started Kevin Smith’s career. It was awarded an NC-17 rating by the MPAA for filthy language only. It became a crazy cult unto itself, and spanned one of 2006’s best films. Now drink in the heady humor of this slacker celebration, a terrifically talky look at life and its failed personal promise. (21 February, Showtime, 12AM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Feb 14, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: Director Joe Sarno uncovers the seedy underbelly of scandalous suburban sex games.

Sin in the Suburbs/The Swap and How They Make It



On this quiet street in this exclusive neighborhood, the bored housewives are having a heavy petting field day. Mrs. Geraldine Lewis loves her workaholic husband, but the beefy martini drinker just doesn’t show her enough affection. So when he goes to work and her daughter heads off to school, Gerry invites friends over for drinks and naked debauchery. Next door, Lisa Francis is an equally efficient elbow-lifting lonely heart whose spouse won’t quit his job and stay home with her. She has to find a way to uncork her carnality, and random workmen off the road crew—or a full bottle of Jack Daniels—seem to do just fine. Further down the block, Mrs. Talman and her deviant brother Lewis look in on all the secret sexcapades and decide to make a mint off the salacious socialites. They start an exclusive swingers club and invite the entire borough to join in. All goes as planned until the partner swapping leads to those notorious “strange bedfellows.” Then taboos are broken like so many promises. It’s all part of the scandal, the shame, the Sin in the Suburbs.


Elsewhere, Mona and Karen are new in town and bored out of their gourds. Their aluminum-extruding husbands work all kinds of long hours, and the sequestered sweethearts are just squirming in their Capri pants. They need satisfaction and they need it now! While Karen jumps into the arms of a college jock joke, Mona visits her next-door neighbor, the bawdy Brooke, who tells her about the arrangement she has with her horny hubby. They both belong to “The Exchange,” a canoodling couples cooperative where marrieds make bargains for bonking with other like-minded enlightened lovers. All it takes is a phone call, and you can trade in your usually tame tryst for one night of naughtiness. After you join, the monthly parties consist of dancing, drooling, and dignity demoralizing. At first, everyone is in for the sin, and lovin’ every lewd minute of it. But when Karen cuts off Joe College, he gets all blackmail-ly and wants in on the sexual switcheroo. What our university-educated boy toy doesn’t understand is that adults like to protect their proclivities from prying eyes…and they are about to teach the silly student the real rules of The Swap and How They Make It.


With titles suggesting a sleazy peek into the sordid lives of salacious suburban swingers, and a gritty black-and-white style that further emphasizes the nasty noir of it all, Joe Sarno was, and remains, the Sultan of Sophisticated Smut. Sin in the Suburbs is one of his best films, a bold experiment in style and subject matter that would still be branded as borderline scum, even in today’s so-called tolerant environment. An exceptional exposé of the then-popular swingers’ scene of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, this perfectly plotted masterwork of story and shot selection is more like a post-millennial walk through the seedy side of society than a standard early exploitation film. There is barely any nudie and hardly any cutie to the events and individuals populating this perverted Peyton Place.


Fans will focus far too much attention - as lovers of exploitation usually do - on the Olga-meets-Ilsa dynamic in the movie (Audrey Campbell, the infamous Olga, plays Geraldine Lewis, while the She Wolf of the SS herself, Dyanne Thorne, essays the sleazy seductress Mrs. Talman). But this would be doing a disservice to the utter greatness of Sin. Long before Bob and Carol met Ted and Alice, Sarno was dealing realistically and effectively with the issues of swinging, swapping, and sex clubs. His details ring true, and his attention to tone makes everything feel authentic. Even with minimal nakedness, this movie absolutely sizzles with sensual Eros. When Thorne and another famous Olga, Alice Linville (playing daughter to mother Campbell) play their seductive game of lesbian suggestion, there is sure not to be a dry seat—or free hand—in the house.


On par with the perfection of Sin in the Suburbs, The Swap and How They Make It is another carnal classic from Sarno’s sour brain. Instead of the cult-like convolutions of the sex club scene, complete with masks and miscreant rituals, the focus this time is on an organized version of that water cooler joke source, wife swapping. With another excellent script full of character insight, and a dandy cast of performers, this movie matches Sin in intricacy and intimacy. Sarno employs a new kind of camerawork here, a mostly medium and close-up concept that renders the backdrops and settings insignificant. We never fully get our bearings as to where we really are, and the feeling of being lost lends a very dramatic air to the proceedings. Whenever actors interact, they come toward the camera and play out their scenes as if the lens was another witness, an innocent party to the prurient planning. The performances are again sublime, each individual finding that faultless balance between disconnected and dispirited to make his or her overripe desire seem that much more palatable. The narrative never sways—it builds to a climax of criminal corruption that is as shocking as it is shrewd.


You can sense Sarno’s intention to remove the focus from the acts and onto the people partaking in them. He knows that true drama derives from thoughts and personality, not bare butts bouncing around. The Swap also has one of the greatest sequences of obvious double entendres in the history of skin flicks. When Karen discusses “Dick” with her friend Mona, only using the name and no other personal reference, the implied explicit humor is hilarious. Along with a mostly drumbeat soundtrack (a truly novel and deranged choice) and an equally emotional tone to match its mattress machinations, Sin in the Suburbs and The Swap and How They Make It provides a one-two punch that will give any lover of the tawdry and the tainted right to rejoice.


 


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Tuesday, Feb 13, 2007


It’s a lesson in cultures to see how differently every country views and celebrates the crime thriller. Italy has its giallo, lurid details and sinful sexiness wrapped up in a mechanical shell. The Japanese bathe their tales of cops and robbers in age-old customs and the life or death notion of honor and pride. For those in China—and Hong Kong more specifically—mob bosses and assassins have been turned inside out, fueled by a hyperactive action style and belief that both sides, the legal and illegal, fight the same internal struggles with self and society. Oddly enough, it’s the West that seems to have taken a more caricatured approach to cops and robbers. A typical US gangster film sets up its parameters of bad versus badge, loads up the Tommy guns, and lets the reign of lead ensue.


Or other times, a sultry dame and a private dick try to sort out a case of minor intrigue while falling in and out of love and the web of the real killer. While it didn’t invent it outright, America sure made the mob movie operatic, turning it into Shakespearean tragedy of universal pain and pathos, be it Rico Bandello, Cody Jarrett, or Don Corleone. But leave it to the French to find a way of reinvigorating the crime and caper film. As pioneers (along with the Italians) of neo-realism and the experimental new wave, the filmmakers of Paris understood the nuances of the stateside immigrant epic and went about conceiving it through their own skewed perception. No one did it better than Jean-Pierre Melville. Over the course of a dozen or so films, Melville used the trench coat and hat of the Tinseltown thug/mug and turned him into a man of mystery, an enigma with a gun. And Le Cercle Rouge is one of his best examples.


Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) is heist film as existentialism. It’s a character study told with events, not words. It’s a stellar work of implied understatement and a remarkably profound look at the rather pedestrian, plebian world of crime and crime fighting. In this seminal 1970 French film, there is no clear division between the under and real world. All segments of society are seen as devious and divisive. The police are intertwined so completely with the local criminal element that they cannot solve cases without their help. Likewise, when seeking accomplices and co-conspirators for their acts of fraud and theft, the street thugs and mafia brute find friends in the dishonored and corrupt ex-members of the force.


As an experiment in fracturing the felon formula, Le Cercle Rouge relies heavily on the nuances and knowledge of past pronouncements on the subject of criminality. It also relies on the classics of noir and gangland sagas of the 1930s thru ‘50s to fill in blanks that it would rather leave un-addressed. It gets us to root for felons and failures and then makes us reflect on why we would champion such scum. Brilliantly directed by Melville, it’s a movie that moves at a deliberate pace, never wasting a shot or shifting its tone. While it does play like a symphony to sin, it’s also a sad story of men without place, people without a part in the normal social structure. We are visiting a forgotten realm in Le Cercle Rouge, a place were everyone knows everybody, even if they didn’t know it before.


This is a film told in sections, three stylistically differing acts (think GoodFellas or Blow before its time). Each movement here adds to the suspense and complexity of the film’s plot and narrative themes. At first, the scenes are all subtle precision, slow and near static, building one on top of the other to lay foundations and create dynamics. Methodically, director Jean-Pierre Melville adds textures and characterization, all the while pushing our protagonists ever further into the story. The second section begins as the plans for the heist commence. The use of wipes and dissolves speeds up the sequencing of events, showing us that, while the devil may be in the details, those specific elements are going to be assumed here. We aren’t supposed to see everything. We are to be given the essence of the job, the concept of crime as a workaday element in these men’s lives.


The final portion of the film, after the deed has been done and a fence is sought, is far more swift and scattered. The interlinking storylines and characters converge and crash into one another in a chaotic attempt at breaking out of the fateful bonds, the ever-present ring of red that constrains and condemns them. We jump from the police station to the gangster bar to a quiet and serene Yves Montand and then back to the cops. All the while, the tension is wound tighter. After the pins and needle necessities of the jewelry store heist, this randomized approach throws the audience off its guard, tossing us into the aftermath where anything can happen, anyone can drop dime and well constructed plans fall apart.


Le Cercle Rouge is all about planning and plotting, about time spent in jail cells or dingy hostiles bidding and trading on the minutes and hours. It is a film about disgraced men, about the lost lone male within society as the ultimate expression of freedom, depression and the anti-hero. We never see any women of substance in Le Cercle Rouge. When Alain Delon’s Corey confronts his old mob boss at home, we see a blousy red head, completely nude, wander up to a closed bedroom door to listen in on the exchange of words. She has some vague connection to Corey (he carries her picture in his wallet). But after robbing the Don, he places her photo in the now empty vault. He is giving her up—whoever she is—for the next phase of his life. Then there is the unsung bachelor amongst the underworld brutes: the dapper, determined police officer Mattei. A methodical man of habits (we see him coming home twice in the movie, and both times he goes through the same routine, even addressing his cats in a practiced fashion), he doesn’t have a wife (though we do see a photo of a woman on his desk) nor does he seem to need one.


Le Cercle Rouge is a movie ridding itself systematically of females once and for all. Certainly they make up a background element to the film: dancers in clubs, hookers, and hat check girls. But there is never a balancing feminine presence within the movie the way there is in standard Hollywood fare: no girlfriend with a heart of gold or accidental sex partner who grows into something more important. No, Le Cercle Rouge denies the obvious sexual representations in its title from the feminine perspective (lips, nipples, etcetera) and instead returns the focus to the guys: hard-hearted and psychologically lone rogues. It gives the story a decidedly tough exterior.


This doesn’t mean that the movie is not ripe with other, overt symbolism. Indeed, Le Cercle Rouge is constantly cluing in the audience as to the meaning behind the seemingly vague confrontations going on. When Corey discovers Vogel hiding out in the trunk of his car, the confrontation takes place in a horrible, muddy field. Corey is getting “dirty” again and Vogel is back to the “filth” he is known for (his exact crimes are never explained). The train taking Vogel to justice never enters its “tunnel” like most other extensions of “manhood.” It merely moves along the track, continually drifting further off into the distance. Montand’s alcoholic ex-policeman Jansen lives in a disheveled flat with a secret doorway in the wall that magically opens and disappears. It leads into a black void, much like his life. We have seen his detoxification hallucinations come pouring out of it, and we see him dread approaching it. Whatever he has done to have himself thrown off the force obviously hides in that closet/alcove, waiting and hungry, but we never discover the sinister source.


Indeed, we do not know what anyone is guilty of in Le Cercle Rouge. It’s as if the past crimes committed by these wayward men are no longer important. They are not beyond some manner of redemption, but they are beyond the grasp of innocence. They will never be pure again, no matter how straight they now walk or how hidden they become. They are forever tainted. As the Chief Inspector says to his lead detective on the case, everyone is guilty. We may be born without sin, but that quickly changes. And that is true about the trio of troublemakers in Le Cercle Rouge. They are men marked by their past and also by their destiny—their fate as part of the red circle.


All the acting here is first rate. Alain Delon confirms why he was such a stellar leading man of French cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s with his portrayal of Corey. Silent but sinister, there is a strength born of resilience in this ex-con. Similarly, Gian Maria Volenté simmers with a sinister stare as the ticking time bomb Vogel. But just like the dualistic nature of all the characters in the film (working both sides of the law for their own ends, living one way but believing another), he is a valuable asset in the controlled environment of the heist. Yves Montand probably has the showiest role (he gets to give the DTs a good primal scream or two), but he is also the most memorable, a man of principles who is trying to escape the deadening paralysis of alcoholism. While he is a disgraced cop and a pathetic rum head, he is also a dignified dandy, a suave showman with a sauced secret.


Even Bourvil, noted French comedian and songwriter, gives a remarkable performance as Mattei. Asked to essay the role of investigator, instigator, and calm center to a whirlwind of crime and corruption, this small, specific man with the funny hair and wicked smile makes his officer an example of duty torn by practice to forever walk the fine line between the legal and the illicit. These are the men who will be forever defined by the events in Le Cercle Rouge, the members of the sphere of violence and blood.


At its core, Le Cercle Rouge is all about fortune, about how it cannot be forced nor can it be avoided. It’s the answer to the question of why some people are destined to fail while others seem to glide to ever-higher accolades. It’s about place in the pecking order and how choice de-evolves into chance. It’s a story of three men hoping to make one final multi-million dollar score to salvage their otherwise wasted existences. But they learn a lesson that so many of us never even begin to comprehend. They are not meant to be profitable or pious. They are men of a certain trait, of the caliber of crime. And by using the very instrument for freedom that trapped them into a world of vice and lack of virtue, they are completing that bloody cycle, that red circle, that keeps dragging them over and over back into and around each other.


Perhaps we are not all evil, like the police chief thinks. Or maybe we can repent and wash ourselves clean of past mistakes. But once we have taken the steps into the looking glass, once we’ve entered the crimson realm of crime and punishment, we are forever linked to it. Like the social stigma of conviction (Corey), the public outcry of escape (Vogel), or the human misery of deflated hero worship (Jansen), everyone in Le Cercle Rouge wears a scarlet letter on their very soul. That letter is a circle, an “O,” which stands for too many things—outsider, offender, outcast. Certainly this is an entertaining, exceptional crime thriller, but it is philosophically and psychologically so much more.


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Monday, Feb 12, 2007


It’s a gloriously mixed bag this week – a certified Oscar contender, an interesting independent Academy wannabe, a collection of revamped classics, and an overlooked effort that had the unfortunate luck of being the second in the Truman Capote/In Cold Blood sweepstakes. Toss in another failed Hollywood comedy (someone should keep a running total on the number of these lackluster laughfests the industry releases each year) and an unusual documentary, and you’ve got a nice selection of cinema to choose from. So break open the piggy bank, plan your purchase strategy carefully, and choose between these 13 February releases:


The Departed


As the illustrious LL Cool J once warned, don’t call it a comeback. Indeed, Martin Scorsese has not been hiding along the fringes of cinema, waiting for another certified gangster blockbuster to resurrect his implied lagging artistic credibility. Since his last film, The Aviator, was nominated for several Oscars, it seems silly to suggest that the certified American auteur is arriving from anywhere but the top. Besides, some of his best films – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ – have nothing to do with mean streets and goodfellas. This does not lesson the impact or import of this brilliant Boston crime drama – no one does operatic brutality better – but Scorsese is much more than movie mob boss. He doesn’t deserve such stereotyping.

Other Titles of Interest


Bicycle Thieves: Criterion Collection


It’s the height of post-War desperation in Italy. Citizens are still in shock over how Fascism has failed them. Then light comedy filmmaker Vittorio De Sica decides to explore the devastation from the inside out. The result was this seminal example of neo-realism, made even more important by the new presentation from the preservation experts.

Half Nelson


Inner city school teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) leads a lamentable double life. By day he enthralls his lower income students. By night he’s a raging crackhead. When the two worlds collide, an unusual sort of relationship is the result. What could be a sappy After School special is saved by brilliant acting and a no holds barred approach to its subject.


Infamous


Writer/Director Douglas McGrath and his wonderful all star cast deserved better than to be considered a Capote afterthought. Indeed, this far sunnier look at the author behind In Cold Blood and the crime that would alter his life forever is more playful – and powerful – than the more sober, somber Oscar winner.

Paul Robeson – Portrait of the Artist: Criterion Collection


He was Ivy League educated, sang opera as well as popular songs, and was considered a real Renaissance man. An amazing triumph for a member of a beleaguered race at the turn of the century. Thanks to Criterion, Robeson’s career as an actor (which he ended early, arguing that there were no good roles for blacks) can now be reviewed for all to see and celebrate.

School for Scoundrels


Proving that it will be tough to overcome his pitch perfect performance as Napoleon Dynamite, Jon Herder follows up his equally unimpressive turn in The Benchwarmers with this dopey relationships comedy. While Billy Bob Thorton obviously enjoys doing these kind of over the top slop comedies, we expect better from the man who made geeks groovy. Sadly, there is more horror than humor here.


And Now for Something Completely Different


The US vs. John Lennon


In one of the strangest cases in the history of the Federal Government, the Nixon Administration, in connection with Hoover’s hated FBI, conspired to deport ex-Beatle John Lennon over his pronounced peacenik views. Along with his obvious influence amongst the youth, and his ability to continuously capture the attention of the media, Lennon was the loose cannon the ebbing pro-Vietnam Establishment couldn’t control. The way they went about their plan, however, failed to do anything but further damage an already reeling leadership. Now, thanks to the Freedom of Information act and a decision to contextualize Lennon’s cultural import, filmmakers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld have created a composite of one man, and his undeniable impact on the society that surrounded him. While his death remains the biggest disgrace to his legacy, this chapter is equally embarrassing.

 


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Sunday, Feb 11, 2007


If the Internet is responsible for anything – and there are many divergent (and slightly seedy) concepts it can claim – perhaps the most seismic shock has come in the realm of movie marketing. It used to be that, when a film wanted to tout its potential as either a stellar drama, hilarious comedy, heart-pumping actioner or nail-biting thriller, studios and producers set up carefully considered publicity campaigns, playing to their products strengths while downplaying its potential problems. When the print media made early pronouncements of troubled talent or less than successful results, the mighty Hollywood spin machine was right there, ready to twist the tales in their favor.


Take the films opening in the next few weeks. The Nicholas Cage comic book saga Ghost Rider has been almost omnipresent since production began. Within months, photos of the phantom biker, skull aflame with meticulous CGI conflagration, were “leaked” to fan-favorable sites all along the web. It wasn’t long after that a genre-defining trailer was released, a jump cut driven example of minor exposition mixed with major money shots. By the time the film actually opens on 16 February, audiences will know of Cage’s deal with the Devil, the impressive images of the main character racing up the side of a skyscraper, and the lack of emotional heft possessed by supposed romantic interest Eva Mendes. No wonder the final film won’t be screened for critics prior to release. You can practically review it from the ads alone.


Or what about 300. Ever since it was announced that Zack Snyder was taking on Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. (when tens of thousands of Persians challenged – you guessed it – 300 Spartans), the nerd network went into hyperdrive. Snyder, instrumental in jumpstarting the whole horror remake craze with his excellent work in updating George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, promised a Sin City like respect for the author’s work, and as if to accentuate that fact, early teasers featured signature stylized shots of buff men making war in drama-defining slow motion. Understanding inherently that the new adolescent audience is as devoted to its own idiosyncratic interests as it is with the current pop culture landscape, 300 decided to avoid the standard marketing mechanism and simply go geek.


That’s right, in between online discussions of Doctor Doom’s new look for the Fantastic Four sequel (along with quips about the Silver Surfer’s metallic ‘package’) and the constant consideration of Spider-man 3‘s villain viability (where are those images of Venom!?), dork nation now determines the imagined achievement of a soon to be released film. While it may seem unfair to toss around terms like ‘geek’, ‘nerd’, or ‘dweeb’, the truth is that the web has made the obsessive instrumental in creating the momentum that will make or break a movie. Where once this social stigmatization illustrated one’s unacceptability as a perceived member of the inevitable in-crowd, it’s now a badge of honor, a recognized symbol of status inside the film business’s new advertising strategy.


While consensus has it that Harry Knowles and his Ain’t It Cool News website is the main purveyor of this armchair analyst conceit, the fact remains that, no matter who started it, the new wired mindset is setting the agenda for motion picture marketing. It’s no longer necessary to fashion extensive ad campaigns, hoping your coverage creates the kind of universal interest that generates major box office. No, movies are now like any other prepackaged product from a shrewd and sharp multinational conglomerate. It’s rare that a title will see a theatrical release without international rights, TV and cable contracts, and multiple DVD release strategies sewn up in advance. For a film to actually lose money in this safety net style approach, it has to really be awful – or better yet, lacking a legitimate online champion.


Everyone points to Snakes on a Plane as a perfect example of how the Internet is not that successful a shill, and for that film in particular, those critics have a point. Trying to take an old fashioned action film, highly reminiscent of the 1970s style of disaster and death, and selling it as a slick campy cult classic to a post post-modern audience was the height of salesmanship stupidity. What the geek audience was identifying with – the memory of dateless mid ‘80s evenings sitting in front of the tube with a stack of VHS hackwork – was not actually what the movie was prepared to deliver. Imagine their surprise when New Line actually offered something good. Like expecting something stupid and getting its serious substitute, Snakes of a Plane died because of improper public perception and deadly word of mouth.


Yet this is the very tactic that the new web-based bait and switch approach is hoping to achieve. Certainly there are those movies working on the hope of previously successful formulas (Eddie Murphy + Rick Baker’s amazing make-up = Norbit) and more than a few believing a “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t preview” conceit will confuse a few dollars out of the demographic (The Hitcher, The Messengers). But what the new breed of cinematic carnival barkers are really counting on is the feeb’s fascination with the unknown. When Michael Bay announced his 2007 Summer blockbuster wannabe The Transformers, online speculation went nuclear. It wasn’t long before the base had weighed in on must-have characters, feared directorial missteps, and a genuine curiosity over whether this material would play in a live action format.


Then the first teaser trailer was delivered – adding fuel to the already blazing interest inferno. Prior to the full fledged ad which answered a lot of questions and appeased a lot of panic, the momentary glimpse of the title robots sent messageboards into a tantalized tizzy, which in turn generates the kind of MySpace interest that movie marketers murder for. If a studio can expertly control the release of such iconic information, if they can prevent the kind of collaborative overkill that sunk Snakes chances at wider acceptance, it can guarantee a huge opening weekend and not have to worry about the ultimate value of the product.


Of course, this strategy can backfire – sometimes, tragically – when misapplied. You just know that Cartoon Network and the suits at Time-Warner were wetting themselves when their proposed promotional campaign for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force film (utilizing black boxes that featured a light up illustration of the show’s symbolic Mooninite character) turned into an imagined terrorist plot. Had our post-9/11 mania not kicked in, and the populace panic over something that ‘sort of, could of’ looked like a bomb (in the right light), it would have been fairly obvious what the unusual animated project was attempting. By slyly placing these series symbols around cities in the US, nerds in the know would have their own public private joke. While others looked on at the blocky image, trying to decipher its Atari throwback design, the fanatical would have a shared chuckle and move along.


Indeed that’s the whole point of this new geekdom strategy. Don’t worry what professional critics have to say, don’t screen a movie in advance to allow newspapers and other media sources to set the agenda. Instead, tap into the online cosmos of specific genre categories and hope the devoted fans pull you along. Back when television was the reigning cultural watchdog, such a tactic worked. Shows like Star Trek and Firefly discovered a long life beyond cancellation, while recent efforts like Family Guy and Futurama used the newly discovered populist power of DVD to revive their fortunes. And as the sole significant force setting the agenda for Internet discussion, the wired now work overtime doing the same sort of selling that a carefully choreographed marketing campaign would.


So as the next few months drag on, as film after film arrives without preview press coverage and advanced critical consideration, simply sign on to your favorite world wide website and get the good geek word. Why, even now you can discover how Chow Yun-Fat looks in Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At Worlds End, read a breakdown of how successful a recent focus group screening of the new Simon Pegg and Nick Frost comedy Hot Fuzz was, or just bask in the glow of an onset visit to the still in pre-production Iron Man. And if you don’t think these all knowing nerds matter, consider this: recent reports have Rob Zombie putting a temporary halt on his remake of the John Carpenter classic Halloween. Why? Because early reviews of the script have been brutal in their unified hatred of the project.


What this means for the future of the motion picture marketing machine and its compatriots in the legitimate press may be insignificant – or insurgent. For decades, fans have complained about the lack of a voice in the way in which films are created. They’ve wanted more heart, more head, more meaning; basically, more substance. How letting a bunch of individuals with way too much free time on their hands dictate what does and does not make money (and therefore, catches the eye of those who make the creative decisions) as well as the dialogue on how it is received by the like minded public, doesn’t sound like a sane business practice. But for now, the geek zeitgeist controls the conversation, and there’s not much anyone outside the clique can do about it. 


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