Twice as Tough

Short Ends and Leader Turns Two

by Bill Gibron

13 August 2008

It was a year for directors, decisions, and dilemmas as PopMatters' feisty film blog celebrated its second year of motion picture provocation.
From the Coca Cola filmstrip, Black Treasures.(1969) Image (partial) found on 

The terrible twos…the sophomore slump…the unnecessary sequel…the evil twin. Let’s face it - with the notorious reputation that second helpings have, it’s no wonder PopMatters’ blog has faced a difficult anniversary. Two years ago (on 31 July 2006, to be exact), we started this daily update on film and the movie business as a means of supplementing our already stellar coverage. It’s been a challenge to provide regular updates, to take on topics that appear overnight while maintaining a sense of stability and smarts. In combination with our regular reviews of releases on both the big screen as well as DVD, Short Ends and Leader (SE&L) sees itself as a vital link to the otherwise in-depth and scholarly insights the magazine provides elsewhere.

Still, it was a rough year. We championed Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween and were lashed by more than 75 reader comments. The same thing happened when Speed Racer became an early Summer favorite of ours. Stories on The Dark Knight and the end of Something Weird Video made the wire services, while we continued to champion the outsider auteurship of such avant-garde gems as Giuseppe Andrews, Damon Packard, and Chris Seaver. Indeed, it seemed like the 2007-2008 version of the blog was mostly dedicated to directors. Right before our one year anniversary, the artform lost two influential giants. Both Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni were instrumental in moving foreign film to the vanguard during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Yet, as we noted in another internationally syndicated piece, their passing seemed important to few in modern movie fandom.

No, when we celebrated old hands (such as the crazy Ken Russell) or novel newcomers (the arrival of Judd Apatow as comedy’s savior), we did so to minimal effect. Sure, there were some who agreed with our look at discredited directors and the films that killed their careers, and when we sang the praises of Guillermo Del Toro, Chris Nolan, and the Coen Brothers, we got more attention than our takes on true geniuses like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jerry Lewis (stop laughing). Perhaps the biggest lesson we learned came from our in-depth Q&As with two industry eccentrics. In talking with Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (regarding his boycotted classic Poultrygeist) and Saw’s Darren Lynn Bousman (for his unreleased gore musical Repo: The Genetic Opera) SE&L discovered that, as a business, film is still guided by laziness, dollars and the non-exact science of ‘creativity by committee’.

Just as important as the newfound emphasis on filmmakers was our focus on the trends taking over the Hollywood dynamic. We were one of the first to recognize the emergence of Blu-ray as the definitive (if unnecessary) new format, while arguing that the internet and geek culture were not as influential on movies and marketing as the media likes to think. We pointed out some of the aesthetic flaws in the WGA strike strategy, while addressing the push for a new ‘digital revolution’ in film. The viral ad campaign also caught our attention, most specifically with the arrival of the J.J. Abrams produced Cloverfield. After the film was released, we then examined the backlash, looking at criticisms of the rather novel thriller as well as wondering what audiences expected.

As usual, we discovered that the medium remains a clever contradiction in terms. Movies still don’t like to address religion, at least not in ways that are clever or insightful. Yet faith-based film stands as a showcase for some of the most shocking, disturbing, and violent excesses ever. SE&L also followed the recent trend in onscreen vulgarity. Ten years ago, a certain slang term for women (a four letter epithet beginning with “C”) would never have been heard in films. Today, it’s the new F-bomb. Similarly, while we supported splatter and its various celluloid incarnations with a Best-of list, we also pointed out the stagnancy of such strategies within the independent horror domain. From the rise (and regress) of Hannah Montana to the way in which Tinsel Town sells ethnicity to the public, many interesting subjects became fodder for our features.

Indeed, the long form commentary has become a blog trademark. We’ve dissected everything from the WGA strike‘s affect on the Golden Globes to the major mistakes Oscar has made during its 75 years of existence. We explained double dipping rip off techniques - otherwise known as the Unrated DVD - and pointed out the 10 biggest lessons learned from Roland Emmerich’s prehistoric flop 10,000 BC. We defended Tyler Perry and his output, while questioning why anyone would tolerate Michael Haneke’s cinematic slap in the face known as Funny Games. And Rajan Zed can try and take all the credit for outing Mike Myers’ lack of talent prior to the release of his horrendous Love Guru, but SE&L was suggesting the former funny man had lost his way a while ago.

Perhaps no other event in 2007-2008 was more shocking or sad than the death of Australian actor Heath Ledger. It seemed like an unnecessary loss, the kind of preventable passing that puts things into immediate and harsh perspective. We addressed his accidental overdose, and then went on to watch as his turn as the Joker redefined the comic book villain. Indeed, toward the end of our second year, The Dark Knight became a particularly interesting phenomenon. SE&L’s focus was on the abusive backlash received by those who panned the blockbuster, as well as what such success meant to everyone involved. We had done something similar with Iron Man when it breached $100 million in its first weekend of release - and then defended director Jon Favreau when Marvel didn’t want to pay him to helm the sequel.

There were other staggering losses this year, people whose influence and importance to the artform will be hard to replace. Within the last 12 months, we lost the iconic Roy Scheider and the God-like Charlton Heston. Celebrated director Sydney Pollack finally succumbed to cancer, as did longtime special effects genius Stan Winston. There was nothing funny about the deaths of Harvey Korman or counterculture rebel George Carlin. Even the untimely passing of homemade horror filmmaker John Polonia demanded our attention. While barely a blip on the celebrity stage, the 39 year old was, along with his twin brother Mark, indicative of what the digital DIY spirit of the new technology meant to many on the fringes of the mainstream.

There was another shocking finale this year, albeit one that everyone (including SE&L) has been anticipating for quite a while. Last year, when Roger Ebert rejected Disney’s lowball offer over the continued use of the iconic ‘thumbs’, many believed At the Movies was on borrowed time. Sure enough, just as our birthday was creeping up, the House of Mouse announced the end of the Ebert and Roeper era - and then turned around and retooled the property for a more “hip and up to date” demographic. Naturally, we took Uncle Walt’s way to task, suggesting that film criticism was more than just youthful faces and nerd nostalgia. But with both Roger and Richard vowing to soldier on, we may not have seen the last of classic movie reviewing…yet.

Elsewhere in SE&L’s world, it was baffling business as usual. We used October as a month long commemoration for everything horror, from the works of Stephen King to our takes on Troma and the zombie film. One of the pieces we’re most proud of is one acknowledging the brilliant F/X work of MIA movie legend Rob Bottin. Responsible for the boundary pushing grue of such terror treats as The Thing and Se7en, we are still anxiously awaiting an update on the make-up madman whose last IMDb credit is some work on the 2002 Adam Sandler slop Mr. Deeds. Of course, once 2007 came to a close, we picked our Top 10 Films, DVDs, and Unknown Gems. We also looked at the worst each medium had to offer.

We also experimented with format. We tried a weekly news feature, looked into bootleg titles from around the world (so far, we’ve only addressed the Turkish Exorcist rip-off Seytan), and rediscovered the art of the cinematic score - otherwise known as Surround Sound. One of the more successful new sections is entitled Critical Confessions, and it provides a rare insight into the process of being a film journalist from the perspective of yours truly, SE&L’s editor and main contributor. Over the course of 10 individual installments (and counting), readers have been treated to the ins and outs of the press screening process, how security and the need for piracy control has led to some less than successful experiences, and the odd feeling one gets when they are the only person out of their peer group to love/hate a film.

Critical Confessions also addressed 2007-2008’s other major issue - the death of print publishing and the rise of Internet media. In an open letter to online critics, we debated a new standard of world web ethics, complaining that what one scoop-obsessed blogger does will effect everyone adversely. Similarly, we accented this point by showing how studios, responding to the ease of turnover when it comes to weekly titles, are taking a last minute, the night before strategy with screenings - or in some cases, banning the online reviewers all together. From the audience fascination with the press row to their inability to watch a film without making noise, this section stands as a vital link between what readers see as a simple job and what we behind the scenes understand is a everchanging struggle.

Of course, SE&L isn’t only my doing. We’ve had wonderful contributions from many of PopMatters considered staff. Chris Barsanti contributed some insightful reviews of WALL-E, Take Out, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Sex and the City: The Movie, while Sean Murphy praised the aforementioned John Carpenter remake of The Thing. Marco Lanzagorta stepped out of his usual horror scholar persona to pen several Surround Sound pieces, while longtime contributor Farisa Khalid reviewed the Bollywood spectacle Om Shanti Om and the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton potboiler The Comedians. With the occasional wire service insert and reprints of previous efforts, the blog manages to stay fresh at least 350 days of the year.

And yet, the industry moves on. In another month, the awards season push will begin. Films not opening until 2009 are already vying to make a post-Comic Con splash, while the upcoming Olympics threaten to put a damper on record breaking box office receipts. For us at SE&L it’s still business as usual. We’ve already argued for our divorce from Woody Allen, and upcoming features will focus on the cannibalization of the Star Wars legacy (via a new animated adventure) and a discussion of the almost omnipresent casting of actor Danny McBride.

Until then, we’ll keep tuning in to Kevin Smith’s wonderful SModcast, wait with excitement for the next MST-inspired endeavor from the gang at Cinematic Titanic, and pursue the weekly releases for looks at other misguided developments (selling WALL-E short) and the same old stupidity (failing to embrace a hidden horror gem like The Ruins). As long as film remains a viable entertainment medium, Short Ends and Leader will be there to take it down a notch. It’s what we do most - and best.

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