Culture

The New Cyborgs: Cyberculture and Women's Webcams

Wes Lee

What is so exciting about an unmade bed? And not just one unmade bed but thousands across the globe sitting in empty rooms alongside empty chairs and the tattered remains of last nights parties. These are some of the sights that have become addictive to the many people who regularly view 24-hour live Webcam sites on the Net.

What is so exciting about an unmade bed? And not just one unmade bed but thousands across the globe sitting in empty rooms alongside empty chairs and the tattered remains of last nights parties. These are some of the sights that have become addictive to the many people who regularly view 24 hour live Webcam sites on the Net.

Often there is a woman sitting on a chair in front of a monitor. She is as engrossed as you, her eyes glazed in mesmerized attention. RL (Real Life) no longer exists for either of you as you have both passed into a virtual dimension. Because time as we know it does not exist in this constructed void/oasis you are as lost in space as she is. And yet you are not looking at the same thing because she's not looking at you, she cannot see you. You are the visitor and she is allowing you access.

However, you have the technology to make her aware. If she were to allow it you could CHAT with her on IRC, you could post her a message on her bulletin board, or you could send her an email. If you are lucky and she reads it she may reply or she may even wave at you across infinity - she may even smile.

Over the last three years of the last millennium there has been a proliferation of the phenomenon of personal Webcams; digital cameras that have been set up by women on the internet. My focus in this article is specifically on 24 hour/ 7 day Real Life cams which record the lives of the women who have positioned them in their living rooms, bedrooms and offices uploading continuous images of their creator's lives. These 'Camgirls' often maintain a diary or journal page as part of their Website which accompanies the Webcam images.; The most well known (reputed to be the first) 'Camgirl' is JenniCam:

"JenniCam takes a page from Andy Warhol's pop-culture statements about celebrity and image. Jenni's site makes an interesting statement about the voyeurism and exhibitionism that we've come to associate with the Net. For a medium that's been criticized for undermining social interaction, sites like Jenni's are redefining those interactions and our sense of public and private space - In their banality, these sites are offering us a new and unfamiliar aesthetic - one that is, like all interesting art, visually fascinating, disconcertingly erotic and a provocative reflection of ourselves." (Firth,1998)

Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam created her initial Webcam site on April 14th, 1996, uploading images of herself every three minutes from her dorm-room in Dickenson College Pennsylvania. She was motivated to set up her cam after seeing a Webcam called The Amazing Fish Cam which was pointed at an aquarium in the offices of Netscape. Four years later her site, now located in her apartment in Washington D.C., gets 4.5 million hits a day and has transformed Ringley into a Net Star: one of a small elite number of Webcam girls who have attained a level of fame on the Net which has not yet become apparent in the Offline world.

My interest in these sites lies in the fact that Webcams are attractive because they offer women strong elements of risk yet at the same time, elements of safety. They address the desire for a freedom of discourse that the Net appears to offer. Some 'Camgirls' have no interaction with people that visit their site but their journals and the cams themselves allow them a high degree of personal expression. This expression is made possible by the protection offered by the safety mechanisms that are built into the technology itself. They are able to have a level of anonymity in the Offline world and yet reveal their intimate private life on the Net.

In my estimation it is the continual revelation of contradiction that make Webcams Real Life - they present an antidote to the seamless, manufactured sanitized construct that has been the staple diet of traditional broadcast media. "The glitches in the matrix" are continuously revealed in these sites through the personal control of content and the low resolution aesthetic which contributes to this sense of life as it is lived. Low tech images are continually uploaded from underlit bedrooms, living-rooms and offices creating a grainy Real Life aesthetic similar to this phenomenon's antithetical brother the surveillance camera.

What is fascinating for me as an observer of these sites, is the often "gritty" quality to these unsanitized, captured existences. Watch as Psychowhore rises from her bed and dribbles coffee down her chest. Watch as she reads the newspaper. Watch as she sits gazing into space - Will she get up off the couch and if she does what will she do next? In their banality and ordinariness they ask the questions: What is Real Life like? What does it look like? Does it exist and what does it mean?

There are a multitude of permutations of these sites. Some call themselves Performance Artcams (Ana Voog of AnaCam) Some label themselves as sites devoted to a "no-holds barred" vision of Real Life (Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam) some are 24 hour Real Life cams with the focus on an Artcam or Art-journal (Psychowhore; Monty T. Full) There are Webcam sites which offer a pastiche of interesting features to their 24 hour Real Life cams: Gab.gab of gabgab.com is a New York writer who wanted to present a real vision of a New York writers life after being disgusted with the life of the writer depicted in "Sex in the City". Cykacam (A Russian Webgirl located in Moscow) presents a 24 hour Real Life cam with "Late night ramblings" posted to members via email called "Cykaspeak". Dawn-Marie's Fabulous Fishbowl is a site with a stunning and ever-changing visual aesthetic - the design changes as the seasons change and as events take place in her life. Last but not least there are the ubiquitous "Sex Cams" - 24 hour cams that offer sex shows as part of the 24 hour/ 7 days a week lived experience.

Within the wide ranging focus of these sites one aspect is immediately apparent: these sites are populated by strong voices that often consciously refuse to be pigeon-holed or controlled. These sites offer a form of resistance to traditional paradigms of sanitized broadcast media through their confessional and contradictory nature. In these sites there are seldom apologies for contradiction or outbursts. There are statements of a day to day reality and images of a lived experience of reality. A reality recorded Online - a reality that is public not private.

I have included a statement from Ana Voog's manifesto to demonstrate the elements of defiance that many of the 24 hour Webcams proclaim: "...welcome I'm a paradox (like most people) and I take the liberty to change my mind about anything I say at the drop of a hat...I am coming to the conclusion that this site isn't about me at all...it's about YOU!... yes anacam seems to be a giant inkblot that people project their own psyche upon. It's about PROJECTION what do YOU see here? what do YOU think this site is about? and what does that say about YOU? what does it say about your ideas, morals, ethics, boundaries, state of mind...what do you feel and think about this site? that is my question to you...I am you mirror....I like to push boundaries of what people think a woman is and isn't I want to break stereotypes because I'm in showbiz people always want to know about me. And they usually get it all wrong and try to put me in a neat little compartmentalized package for mass consumption it's like having a speculum up your ass and that's all they can see...just one part of my body (and a small one at that!) they can't see the whole picture...so I'm doing this to say: HERE YA GO HERE'S MY LIFE, I'M A REAL PERSON AND HERE I AM IN ALL MY MUNDANE AND SPECTACULAR GLORY IT DOESN'T HAVE TO MAKE SENSE..." (http://www.anacam.com/anatomy/).

Webcam girl Psychowhore in her journal entries has a voice that is also contradictory, often obtuse. In that sense it is real - it is not a sanitized, edited construct that we have been conditioned to see as reality by the media. These women consciously state throughout their journals that they resist being pigeonholed. Ana Voog of Anacam consciously aligns herself with Performance artist Yoko Ono. She states: "Her influence on me is not really lyrical or musical...her influence is more that she has always done what she wanted to do with no apologies or explanations and I admire her perseverance and vision to do her own thing no matter what others may think, even though she seems to be one of the most publicly misunderstood people..." (ONOWEB May 20th, 1998 http://www.cam.org/~rjoly/yoko/)

What I found captivating when I "found" these sites was their elusive quality. What struck me as a voyeur/visitor/voyager was how they eluded interpretation at a certain level, how they offered powerful metaphors in their fantastic banality and their sometimes other-worldliness.

Often I found myself watching an image of a woman sleeping, a woman in concentration, a woman in unconscious thought. Sometimes the images presented visions of great beauty, of absence, of presence, of spaces occupied, of possibilities. I was captivated with the wonderful metaphoric capacity of this phenomenon.

I consider the 24 hour Webcam women to be 'the new cyborgs' because their lives are almost completely translated into electronic data - a melding of RL (Real Life) with the virtual. The cyborg has become a powerful metaphor both for women Online and theorists writing on Cyberculture:

"We're moving toward a period of ubiquitous, cyborg technology....it truly is warm-blooded computers, because in cyborg technology the boundary between you and the machine disappears...it becomes a true prosthetic, which is to say, an invisible, impalpable and unconscious extension of your own agency...it becomes part of your presence." (Stone - Mondo 2000 Interview).

The most powerful metaphor that I glimpsed in these sites was that of the cyborg - a living translation into the digital dimension. For me these sites signify a transitional phase of "becoming" the cyborg, not the terminator of our nightmares. They signify the translation of "life as we know it" into data/information - another dimension.

Statement of Purpose

Theoretically I locate this study within the cross-disciplines of Cultural Studies and Cybercultural Studies. My methodology has been a direct immersion as a viewer and a participant within the Webcam world. I have attempted to present a descriptive analysis of content from interviews and direct observation

Through the writing of this article I hope to demonstrate that Women's Webcam sites present a form of resistance to the dominant forms of traditional broadcast media by their very existence and presence on the Net:

"Cyberspace is still highly contested ground both in its metaphor and reality, it stands to reason that a conscious decision to put one's voice Online can be construed as a political act...In one form of resistance it suffices that women are Online. In another, women are Online, they aren't keeping their mouths shut, and they're learning how to get heard." (Scott, 1998).

"Many to many media I think are a revolution in the way the printing press was a revolution...When you collect computers and telecommunications together, you created a global many to many medium that unlocks the access to other people's minds. You no longer have to be a television network or own a newspaper, take a little computer bulletin board system and publish a manifesto or an eyewitness report, you could be in Tienamen square, you could be anywhere in the world where news is happening and broadcast that news to the world." (Rheingold, 1995).

The 24 hour live Webcam phenomenon - Context and Critiques

There has not been a great deal of specific focus on Webcams within academic writing. Instead the concentration has been on other examples of CMC (Computer mediated communication) where women are participants or are building narratives on the Net. Academic focus has been on: Women's ezines, Bulletin Boards, IRC Chat rooms, MUD's and MOO's. The majority of writing on the Webcam phenomenon has been generated by the mainstream press and has often concentrated on the more sensational aspects of this phenomenon, i.e. its capacity to attract a voyeuristic following. As a result of this the emphasis has largely been on the glimpses of bare flesh that can be found in the 24 hour live images of Net Stars such as Jennifer Ringley.

However, in an article by Kristine Blair and Pamela Takayoshi entitled "Who's Gaze is it anyway? -Navigating the Image of Women on Line" the authors examine the complexities of how Women Online (with particular focus on Women's Webcams) strive to maintain subject status:

"Images of women on the Web exist along a continuum from objectification to representation, and although it would be comforting to attribute all objectifying images to men, it is clear that women grapple with this continuum both consciously and unconsciously in their own production of electronic discourse. The Web phenomenon of Jennifer Ringley provides a good example of a website where these layers of meaning come together....One could theorize Ringley's feminist status in her obvious control over the presentation of her own image online and her control of what her male viewers are able to gaze.... Still, the addressed and invoked audience for Jennifer's site is male, a creation of an image by a woman for a man. Jennifer's site represents a complex dialectic between woman as subject and woman as object, woman as both consumer and consumed, and woman as "performer" of femininity through her interaction with "woman" as object of desire, a positioning that privileges the presence of women Online as objects first, subjects second. As Ringley's site suggests, women attempting to re-image themselves often have little encouragement from mass culture to produce resistance discourse and often are positioned as both complicit with and resistant to their traditional subject position as an object of desire."

Lisa Gerrard in an article entitled "Thoughts on Computers, Gender, and the Body Electric" also posits that: "What we have been doing so far is simply carrying our culture Online." Yet she goes on to state in relation to JenniCam that: "Yet the computer gives us new opportunities to be ourselves. Consider Jennicam...When I first read about JenniCam I thought about Simone de Beauvoir's discussion of "female narcissism": a woman who has been taught - as most have - that she will be valued according to her physical appearance goes out of her way to be sure she gets looked at. Jenni's use of digital technology seemed to be the perfect illustration of female narcissism, and the technology the perfect medium for self-display. But when I logged on to JenniCam I found the site more playful than self-aggrandizing, more of a goofy experiment by a young technophile flaunting a few social conventions. Jenni's site is a lot like the sites of the other twenty-something women I've been analyzing lately: friendly, witty, irreverent, and individual. I don't know Jenni, but my guess is that technology hasn't changed her: it's merely given her a new tool for expressing, and publicizing herself."

Krista Scott in her article entitled "Girls Need Modems - Cyberculture and Women's Ezines." acknowledges that: "...the most important factor Online for women is control of their discourse and identity..."

The object/subject debate, for and regarding women is obviously as important in analyzing images of women that are created and exist in the Online world as it is in the Offline world. The potential and the reality of voyeurism and exploitation of images of women on these Webcam sites is a striking feature in both academic writings and in the mainstream press. However, in my estimation the very presence of the Webcam women on the Net is of the most importance, offering as it does a radical new vision of women's lived reality in both the Online and Offline worlds, 24/7.

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Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans


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59. Everything Everything - A Fever Dream (RCA)

Everything Everything is a band of impossible ambition, apparent from even the name. Merely everything is not enough for this prog-pop quartet and frankly, the world may not be ready to oblige. "I want this planet, and I want it now / to beat like an anvil 'til the poison's out" begins "Desire", one of the album's early gut-punches. If these were times of hope and prosperity, maybe egos this size would be celebrated. But we've made that mistake before. Hovering in our minds is the expectation that we must repent for generations of excess with modesty, conservation, quiet introspection. A Fever Dream embodies none of this. It reeks of English imperialism and mulish masculinity. It's bombastic beyond belief, and it's exactly what we need.

Everything Everything's fourth record is its most personal and urgent yet. The lyrics seem to be a document for primary songwriter Jonathan Higgs' psychological condition, and it's a troubling one, to say the least. He wears his insecurities like armor, and his pride gleams like Excalibur. Enshrouding his big plans for this world gone mad are doubt and defeatism and a predisposition for hedonism. It's the battle of Jonathan vs. the world, but also of the world vs. the world, and of Jonathan vs. Jonathan. For us sons and daughters of the microprocessor, a mere trip to the grocer's forces us to contend with the unruly exponential growth of this absurdist empire—our neighborhoods and international networks, ids and egos are in constant need of rewiring

That concluding track of A Fever Dream rides out with the mantra: "Never tell me that we can't go further." The title of this track is "White Whale"—that impossible desire perpetually just out of reach. Whether for peace on earth or a little peace of mind, the struggle to satisfy it can lead only to insanity or death. But Everything Everything would never strive for anything less. - A. Noah Harrison



58. Do Make Say Think – Stubborn Persistent Illusions (Constellation)

Sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone and other times you don't realize it until it returns. Following an eight-year hiatus since Other Truths, Do Make Say Think's previous album, Stubborn Persistent Illusions is the boldest, most arresting progression of songs that the Toronto unit have crafted since Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn in 2003. Among the swells and cries of their heavier-hearted Constellation label mates such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Silver Mt. Zion permutations, Do Make Say Think always set themselves apart by keeping spry and limber. The band was, and remains, a kind of compact jazz orchestra in rock band's clothing. Not a moment is wasted even in the record's tranquil stretches. This is fitting for an album whose concept comes from something as deep yet fleeting as an "image in a Buddhist poem about working with a wild mind." - Ian King



57. The Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti-)

Thirty years on from their last studio album, 1988's Ghost Stories, Steve Wynn has reconvened the Dream Syndicate to release what is arguably the band's best record ever. Yes, Days of Wine & Roses will always remain a touchstone for longtime fans, its surprises still fresh after decades, but How Did I Find Myself Here? distills every lesson Wynn had learned over a long and adventurous career into a coherent eight-song set that finds his band confident and playful in equal measure, amped up and in sync. Here, Wynn is joined by longtime drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Mark Walton and, as he has since the Dream Syndicate's 2012 reformation as a touring unit, Jason Victor (Wynn's longtime partner in Miracle 3) has replaced Paul Cutler on guitar. Further, Kendra Smith's surprising and welcome return on album closer "Kendra's Dream" evaporates time to connect past and future in a perfect psychedelic drift. It all adds up to a triumphant and fitting capstone for the legendary band.



56. Lee Ann Womack - The Lonely, the Lonesome, & the Gone (ATO)

Lee Ann Womack recorded The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone in Houston, not far from the small town where she grew up. The album is rich with a mythical Texas in the best possible ways. Womack sings with a twang and gets sentimentally soppy or wickedly mean as the songs suggest. She goes to the extremes one would expect of a Lone Star musician. It may not be the biggest state geographically, but Texans have always done things bigger. Like her fellow state-mate George Jones, whose gospel "Take the Devil Out of Me" she covers, she's pure country, meaning she probably won't be played on country radio these days. Womack wrote half of the songs here, and redoes classic material associated with Patsy Cline, Lefty Frizzell, and Johnny Cash. She covers them with a style that shows her respect for past masters and still manages to make their songs her own. - Steve Horowitz



55. Charly Bliss - Guppy (Barsuk)

On the first track of Charly Bliss' debut album Guppy, the pop-rock band, led by potent vocalist Eva Hendricks, makes a bold declaration of self. On "Percolator", Hendricks defines her artistic self and if that definition includes some uncertainty and some conflict, so much the better as Hendricks's confidence bursts forth in accepting all those elements. The rest of the album, a joyous bash of guitars and energy, pounds through related but non-repetitive territory. Hendricks takes on relationships, abuse, and harassment (and more), vocalizing complex feelings and ideas that need to be heard. She shifts quickly from anger to humor to questioning without breaking stride. The band and its sound of eating candy in the garage delivers catchy melodies and bright sounds that matches the sense of seeking and realization throughout the album. Guppy looks for sense in a demanding world while retaining a strong center, keeping a strong self-assurance in the face of various challenges. - Justin Cober-Lake



54. Tyler, the Creator - Flower Boy (Columbia)

After baiting the media with controversial, derogatory statements for years, the fact that Flower Boy was hyped as the album where Tyler, the Creator came out of the closet was, for some, reason enough to dig into it, to give him a second chance, to reassess his past statements or, you know, dismiss him all over again. Yet despite lines about "kissing white boys since 2004", the crux of Flower Boy isn't Tyler revealing his sexuality so much as he's revealing his loneliness. This is a profoundly sad album, where the immaculate production hits all of your brain's pleasure centers at once while distracting you from how isolated he feels. Happiness is always elusive, which is why he pulls out every trick he can to prevent us from seeing the real human beneath, from stacking the tracks with guest spots to releasing the worst song as the lead single. Yet the more time you spend with it, the more you wan to keep coming back to the emotional world he's constructed for himself. You'll share in his loneliness, too. - Evan Sawdey



53. Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life (Interscope)

The image of physically scaling the Hollywood sign's "H" encapsulates Lana Del Rey's ethos in that celebrity is not some abstract pinnacle one reaches but one that needs to be experienced in person. Chasing the rush of fame drove the impeccable Born to Die and, five years later, the feeling of having achieved it is evoked by the smoldering warmth of Lust for Life. Still, the disarray of the world broke through even to pop's foremost escapist, but she addresses it and her well-earned status with cryptic optimism; "Is it the end of an era? / … / No, it's only the beginning." What Lust for Life teaches is that one can – and, possibly, should – stay as vigilant towards the affairs that affect us all while also indulging in the selfish, beautiful act of seeking love. - Brian Duricy



52. Paramore - After Laughter (Fueled by Ramen)

Many bands know what a Herculean undertaking reinventing their sound is. This year, nobody did it better than former pop-punkers Paramore. Four years since their last release, Hayley Williams and co. released After Laughter, which fuses sleek elements of '80s new wave, funk, and synthpop while keeping their emotional foundations intact. The most important ingredient to Paramore's success is the return of founding member Zac Farro, whose musical direction in side project HalfNoise point to the influence he had on crafting the new Paramore. Although ten years removed from their breakout, Riot!, they're still "in the business of misery" with songs like "Fake Happy" and hit single "Hard Times". But if the misery business means more of these grooving bass lines and tropical marimbas and guitar riffs, sign me up. - Chris Thiessen



51. (Sandy) Alex G - Rocket (Domino)

Alex Giannascoli refines his paradoxical impulses on Rocket. On his eighth full-length overall, and second for Domino, he crafts a beautifully strange brew of haunting folk with a narrative that's oddly indistinct. He's learned to work within the constraints of an album, a format that he treated with some flippancy during his Bandcamp years, though he still finds any excuse to circumvent the format as he draws upon a patchwork of ideas. Giannascoli finds his muse in longtime collaborator, and partner, Molly Germer, an accomplished violinist who adds whim and character to his otherwise sparse arrangements. From yearning country ballad "Bobby" -- their voices entwined and harmonized to their lush, string-led compositions -- to the gliding melancholy of "Powerful Man", they provide a touching ode to traditional folk that comes across as some alien take on a Smithsonian Folkways recording. And yet Rocket is so much more, taking on a surfeit of modern and antiquated music styles set against a backdrop of bucolic terrain. But even at its most eccentric, Giannascoli has accomplished a winsome collection of handcrafted songs that leave a lasting impression. - Juan Edgardo Rodriguez

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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