Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Susan Sontag

"Because this country's so anti-intellectual, I want to be perverse and say proudly 'I'm an intellectual'. There are these words that everyone professes to be superior to. One word is 'intellectual' and the other is 'feminist'. Because these words are not fashionable, I want to say 'Yes, I'm an intellectual. I'm a feminist.' I don't want to be superior to those categories."

As you probably already know, Susan Sontag, one of the most significant intellectual figures of the last fifty years, died this week. Tributes are appearing in many places, such as Christopher Hitchen's in Slate and this 2001 interview in Salon. The New York Times has a special section, including links to many reviews, interviews and articles they've published over the years, though there's no guarantee as to how long it will be available. Of special interest, if you haven't read them before, are her misunderstood essay on cinephilia, "", and a brilliant look at last spring's torture stories, "Regarding the Torture of Others".

I was fortunate enough to interview Sontag about twenty years ago when she came to town for a reading as the guest of a local literary group. The publicist went out of her way to make arrangements for me - even calling one of the local daily papers and getting them to accept my story when Sontag told her that she would only do interviews for the area's major publications. (I was writing for a small, unknown weekly at the time.) There was always the threat of cancellation, and when I arrived at the hotel I overheard some of the staff talking about how irritable Sontag had been when she arrived. An earlier interview with a reporter who was clearly unfamiliar with Sontag's work had evidently went badly. But when I got to her room, she proved to be gracious, friendly and generous with her time and her opinions. In fact, the final interview is still one of my favorites from my not-so-spectacular career as a free-lance semi-journalist.

(The quote at the top of this entry is from that afternoon. The paper that originally printed it has been out of business for over fifteen years, so I could probably reprint it if I wanted. Perhaps I'll add some more excerpts later.)

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Godard speaks...Spongebob squeaks

The New York Times features a brief interview with Jean-Luc Godard about his new film Notre Musique.

I'll be posting a review soon, but in the meantime, here's one of The Spongebob Squarepants Movie.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Don't let a word of this slip out to the advertising business! has launched a something called Amazon Theatre, with the assistance of director Tony Scott (though if you look at the list of filmmakers, it may that the whole thing is just a way for Scott to get his kids out of the house....). Apprently, they've come up with a novel idea of using short films to sell things. Isn't that clever?

Sunday, November 07, 2004

This just in... Special Sunday Times edition:

A long time ago my Sunday morning ritual was the same as that of many others: spending hours going over the New York Times. Then I moved to a different neighborhood and when I asked about changing my subscription, the good folks at the NYT acted like I was crazy. "You don't think we deliver there, do you?" "Besides", they pointed out, "you can subscribe to our on-line edition." Well, yes, but I can also read it for free. Yeah, I know it's not quite the same as having the real, 17-pound thing on the table but it still brings us news like this:

Pee-Wee strikes back!! (...and while you're at it, check out Pee-Wee's own website...)

DVD killed the straight-to-video star...
Will Dolph Lundgren have to return to his real love, the theatre?

Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Polar Express: The Last Temptation of Santa?
Near the end of The Polar Express, when the film is starting to get dangerously close to the sentimentality and false nostalgia that inevitably enters even the best Christmastime movies, the young hero finally sees Santa Claus. (Yes, when he gets to the North Pole he meets Santa Claus; if you are shocked by this or consider it a "spoiler", deal with it.) Having already made much of the need to "believe", director Robert Zemeckis seems to be pushing the religious allusions a bit heavily by making a glowing bearded Santa who almost resembles Max Von Sydow's Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told. As the hero looks up in awe, the screen turned white...What the hey? An animated Christmas dropping a nod to The Last Temptation of Christ?
As it turned out, the film really had broken, not from the mystical force of Santa's appearance but from an overloaded platter in the projection booth. That amazingly coincidental interruption aside, The Polar Express is a fast-moving and frequently amazing film, perhaps the most ambitious CGI feature to date. I was skeptical that Chris Van Allsburg's slim book (32 pages, half of which are illustrations) could be turned into a feature-length film without a lot of unnecessary dead weight added but Zemeckis major invention, turning the train voyage into a series of action-filled setpieces, makes sense. The quasi-realistic style, is a little unsettling at first, but corresponds to the rich texture of Van Allsburgs' own excellent artwork and eventually gives the characters more human-like dimensions than usual for an animated film. Another addition, a hobo who dispatches advice from above the train, is equally well-placed.
So despite getting a bit carried away with Christmas nostalgia (Why does this holiday make filmmakers think that the entire world is a suburban village landscaped by Norman Rockwell? And what is it about Christmas that makes the hero of almost every seasonal movie or tv special worry that he's celebrating it incorrectly?) The Polar Express is an impressive visual adventure, modeled,like many other fantasies, on a theme park ride but also giving the non-stop ride a sense of spiritual meaning. (There are many moments that recall the consderably slower but no less loaded ride of a floating feather in an earlier Zemeckis film...)
Fans of Van Allburg's book will be relieved: The Polar Express complements its source beautifully, (and considerably more gracefully than an earlier Van Allsburg adaptation Jumanji)but won't displace it on the shelves of childrens literature. But if there are any producers out there holding on to options on Goodnight Moon or Pat the Bunny, don't expect to be so lucky.
Weekend roundup: Borges, Pullman, Rivette, Antonioni

"The root of the that theocracies don't know how to read, and democracies do." Philip Pullman writes about The War on Words (will it ever end?) in the Guardian. It's an extract from the current issue of Index on Censorship.

The latest issue of Rouge is online with articles about Hitchcock, Antonioni, Rivette, Bob Dylan and the other John Hughes.

David Foster Wallace reviews a new biography of Borges, and doesn't like the idea of using speculation about an author's personal life to interpret his works. Or maybe it's the other way around. Anyway, he also wants you to see that he's persuaded the New York Times to allow footnotes.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Duck! Cover! Rinse! Repeat!
Conelrad, comic strips and Henry James...

This is only a test: In one of those how-did-I-end-up-at-this-site moments, I ran across Conelrad, a great tribute to the wonderful world of nuclear hysteria and the Emergency Broadcast System. You could spend hours here. Check out the sound clips and the revelation of Mia Farrow's past as a "Duck and Cover" child.

Meanwhile, if you can get over the annoyance of its name, something called Indy Magazine has prepared a special issue on comics and politics. I'll forgive the (tr)indy name as long as they continue to publish stuff like this:

Art Spiegelman on his Towers !

an interview with Jules Feiffer !

Henry James on Honore Daumier !

Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Incredibles:Living up to its name...
With all of the disgust and loathing dredged up by this week's political events, I forgot about reviewing The Incredibles. The memory of Monday night's screening had been almost completely wiped out by Tuesday night's disaster. Which is a shame, since The Incredibles is a witty, imaginative film. It's not as gag-loaded as Shrek or Shark Tale, as ready to wink at the audience for getting it. It's not sentimental like Monsters, Inc. And all of these things work to its advantage, even though at times the reworked evil-villain-with-jungle-island-hideout plot of its final actlooked so familiar that I though someone must have stolen storyboards for Thunderbirds. In spite of it all, The Incredibles makes a relatively familiar idea (superheroes who live mundane lives) actually work as both an action movie and a character piece.
It certainly helps that it's the work of a single writer and director, Brad Bird (who also directed The Iron Giant). While the Dreamworks animated features often seem like the work of a committee - and a committee that's more concerned poking the audience in the ribs while slipping in as much product placement as possible, The Incredibles, like Bird's previous feature, sticks to a strong narrative path, filmed in a style that toys with an ersatz nostalgic style (50s/60s suburbia) without deriding it. Yes, it's colorful and fun to watch, but the heart of the premise - that a superhero forced into retirement simply loves his job saving the world too much to ever really give it up -is brought to life more by Bird's writing and the fine vocal performances of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter and Samuel L. Jackson. Sure, it's stunning (this is a Pixar film, after all, ) but it's also smart and believable.
The Incredibles isn't a masterpiece on the level of the Toy Story films, but it's a strong piece of animated work from a filmmaker with a distinctive voice. I won't go so far as to say that it offers an escape from the ghastly political news - or even suggest that we need a hero in this ugly time. See it for its own merits and let your judgment remain unsullied by the current political state.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Finally, a movie so good
...that you'll want to throw it away!

Why are is at least a small portion of the film industry so determined to convince its customers that movies are disposable? Yes, most movies are just that, subject to Sturgeon's Law, but now we have a company that takes the idea of a disposable movie literally. In fact, they're not just disposable - they're recylable!
In the next few weeks, a Christmas drama called Noel, directed by Chazz Palminteri and featuring Susan Sarandon and Penelope Cruz, will open for a theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles. On November 28th, it will be aired on Turner Network Television.
But starting November 17th, you can pick up a DVD of Noel from Amazon - exclusively- for only $4.99. Here's the catch. The film is being released in a format called Flexplay (previously tested on a handful of Disney and Miramax titles as EZ-D)which offers, according to the packaging "total convenience!". Which means that even though the film is, according to the package, "sure to become a holiday classic", they're also pretty sure you won't be thinking too much about it later. 48 hours after you unwrap the disc, a red circle in the center will turn black, telling you that the disc has "expired".
This is not the first time that the film industry has played around with the idea of movies that self-destruct - and I doubt that it will be any more successful than previous attempts - but it seems more blatant and misguided than most. If movies are no more than an impulse item, purchased at the same cost as a rental and easily discarded, then they should be placing these in supermarkets, not exclusively at Amazon. And why would Disney, of all companies - a company which was forced kicking and screaming into the home video market but has probably benefited from it more than anyone - be marketing time-sensitive copies of movies like Freaky Friday and Pirates of the Caribbean at the same time that they've made point-of-purchase the most lively part of the distribution chain?
Okay, I'm probably carrying on needlessly. Flexplay will probably go onto the technological scrapheap within a year. It's a stupid, bad idea. But why do dumb ideas like this keep coming back?

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Cinema Scope is finally online.!

Arguably the most ambitious if not the best film magazine in North America, the Canadian Cinema Scope finally has a website. Go there immediately.

Thanks to the also irreplacable GreenCine Daily for bringing this to my attention.
Now if someone would convince CineAction to get in on the action.....

Friday, October 29, 2004

Keaton: Finding the joke in reality

The Times Literary Supplement offers Muriel Zagha's review of a new biography of Buster Keaton, though it looks like there's not a scheduled US publication date yet.
(But look below: Tom Dardis' excellent biography and Keaton's own autobiography are still available and well worth your attention...)

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Beheadings: Halloween horror vs. the real thing;
Also: Scariest movie villain chosen

(The following item comes courtesy of Sightings, a publicaton of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.)
Beheading: Horror in Film and War
-- David L. Simmons

Halloween, one of my favorite holidays, will be overshadowed this year by the presidential election and the all-too-present horrors of Iraq. Prayers were offered in the worship service I attended on Sunday for the children's aid worker Margaret Hassan, whose heart-wrenching pleas were broadcast around the world that weekend. "I don't want to die like Bigley," she said.

Since the beheading of Nicholas Berg in May, I have been reflecting on the cultural significance of representations of decapitation in film and on television. It is a classic trope of the horror movies that are frequently shown in the weeks before Halloween, and since I am a fan of the genre, I have done some soul-searching about the fears and desires that are encoded in such popular entertainments.

These thoughts led me back to Tim Burton's 1999 film Sleepy Hollow. As an adaptation of Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the American ancestor of all Halloween thrillers, the film is a powerful piece of mythmaking. It wraps the story of the Headless Horseman into a myth about the origins of our nation in a way that is surprisingly revelatory when compared to the discourse about war, religion, and politics currently circulating in our media.

Although tinged with Burton's macabre humor, Sleepy Hollow is a grim fairy tale whose gruesome representation of eighteen beheadings has become impossible to imagine as entertainment. Purists have noted that the script departs from the original story, but the innovations make it much more relevant. In the story, Ichabod Crane is a "Connecticut Yankee" schoolteacher with morbid fantasies who can quote Cotton Mather's "history of New England witchcraft" (Wonders of the Invisible World) from memory.

In the film, Ichabod (whose Hebraic name means "the glory of God is gone") is a character out of Poe, a New York City constable sent to Sleepy Hollow to solve the Horseman's murders using forensic science and deductive reasoning. It is later revealed that his mother was a practicing witch who was tortured to death by his own puritanical father. In Burton's revision, then, scientific reason and enlightened skepticism are pitted against Dutch Reform piety and a capitalist social hierarchy on one hand, and a kind of "folk religion" of black and white magic, which turns out to be very real, on the other.

In both versions, the Headless Horseman was, in life, a Hessian mercenary fighting for the British in the Revolutionary War. In the film, the Hessian is a demonic, barbaric figure, foreign and brutal, a professional warrior whose bloodlust has survived the grave. He is a baroque emblem of war itself, suggested by his resemblance to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The relentless decapitations are Burton's invention, an homage to Roger Corman and the Hammer horror movies that popularized these blood and gore effects. But the nightmarish identification of the Horseman with war and witchcraft is not. In the original story, the war is still a fresh trauma, Salem more than a memory, and the Horseman finally appears as the scourge of Ichabod's hidden appetites: lust, jealousy, greed, and gluttony.

"Heads Will Roll," the ad slogan when Sleepy Hollow was released, today seems a bleakly ironic comment on the many jingoistic rallying cries for U.S. military engagement. On the other hand, the image of Irving's Hessian mercenary has returned in the form of the Afghani warlords in Democratic campaign rhetoric. In this context, the myth of Sleepy Hollow reads like a cautionary tale. Wherever the horror of war is systematically repressed by the demonization and persecution of the innocent, couched in appeals to God, Providence, and prosperity, the specter of the Horseman rises.

In the real world, it is no longer phantoms and fairy tales that terrify us. This Halloween we pray that the pleas of the compassionate will dispel the imminent threat that hangs over the heads of all of those being held hostage.

David L. Simmons is a doctoral candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a current Marty Center dissertation fellow.

And from the Internet Movie Database:

Bush Voted Year's Top Film Villain

American President George W. Bush has topped an unlikely poll in Britain - as this year's top screen villain. Bush won the dubious accolade for his unauthorized appearance in Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. The politician beat out the likes of Doc Ock, played by Alfred Molina, in Spider-Man 2; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface; Andy Serkis' Gollum from Lord Of The Rings trilogy; and Elle Driver, the assassin played by Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill. Almost 10,000 people voted in the poll, conducted by Total Film Magazine.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Eric Rohmer: "All of my films are spy films".

Eric Rohmer talks to the Guardian's Stuart Jeffries about his new film Triple Agent. Not a lot of information..but it's still Rohmer. (Too bad Jeffries had to revive that tired old Night Moves quote.)

Other miscellaneous cinematic notes:

This is hardly news, but Asian cinema is suddenly this year's model; Mark Cousins, writing in Prospect, has a few ideas about why that is.

The latest edition of Senses of Cinema is online. Of special interest: a section on comedy that includes pieces on Keaton, Clair, Soviet humor and Shallow Hal.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Silent Ashlee stirs memories of Spice Girls

Our veteran stargazer Lina Lamont charts the path of Jessica's sibling meteorite and miscounts Spice Girls:

It occurred to me this morning that I could no longer recall the names of the Spice Girls. Posh Spice still turns up in the papers from time to time, of course, but only because of her on-and-off marriage to someone more famous to herself. I remembered that Ginger Spice had left the group and done some sort of charitable work for the United Nations, so she probably shows up in public service announcement from time to time. But it took me several minutes to realize that the one who favored athletic outfits was called - obviously - Sporty Spice, because I kept wanting to call her Scary. Then I remembered that there really was a Scary Spice as well. At which point my memory gave up. Wasn't there a fifth one? I had actually seen Spice World, so I should know these things. (The missing piece, Baby Spice, eventually came to me, but having assembled the complete set, I then became aware - to my relief - that I couldn't remember a single one of their songs.)
This hard-won exercise in 90s nostalgia came as I was contemplating the recent troubles of Ashlee Simpson, a celebrity whose primary claim to fame as the younger (I'm guessing) sister of an equally dubious celebrity was already causing me to confuse her with Nicky Hilton. (Yes, I know that Ashlee, like Jessica, Hilary, Britney and Lindsay, is a "recording artist", at least in theory, but musical product seems to be no more significant an aspect of their public images than their books, designer fragrances or whatever other trinkets they are willing to garb with their faces and names: the primary occupation of these women, as far as I can determine, appears to be posing for magazine covers.)
Ashlee's current PR disaster - as if you didn't know - stems from her recent appearance on "Saturday Night Live" where it was revealed not only that she lip-synchs her performances - was this much of a surprise? - but that she doesn't even do it very well.
Ashlee was introduced by host Jude Law to perform her second song of the night. Music began, though no one was playing an istrument. Ashlee's voice was heard, briefly, though her lips weren't moving. She started doing some kind of goofy clog-dancing routine. (It this a regular pert of her stage act?) The band tries to recover. Ashlee repeats her drunken-clown-at-Riverdance move, then walks off the stage.
The excuses came almost immediately and keep growing. Ashlee was flustered because the band started playing the wrong song (even though they weren't playing anything). The drummer accidentally turned the tape on (but why was the tape there?) Ashlee was suffering from acid reflux but didn't want to disappoint the audience. The spin from "it never happened" to "it was somebody else's fault" to "I did it for the fans" is simply breathtaking. (Click here for Ashlee's own non-explanation - assuming that she really writes this stuff.)
But in Ashlee's defense, I have to say that there's something awfully disingenuous about the way the infotainment world is clucking over this incident. How shocking! The curtain comes down and a manufactured pre-fab pop commodity is revealed to be... manufactured pre-fab pop commodity. Simon Cowell must be shocked. Come on, guys! Aging baby boomer purists may cling to some hazy (and historically inaccurate) picture of pop music as a source of integrity, but it's been nearly 25 years since MTV blurred the barrier between performance and advertising and made being photogenic as important a factor to a musical career as a good ear. Why would anyone in the post-Milli Vanilli world pretend otherwise? Frankly, if I had paid $75.00 for a ticket to hear Ashlee's howling, I'd be a little steamed, (but I'd have only P.T. Barnum to blame). But if she treats a forgettable tv appearance as something she can just toss off, my only advice is lay off the fried food before showtime.
So Ashley, don't despair. Your career may be able to survive this Wizard of Oz moment. Why not? Yes, they're all being so mean to you now, but that's not all your fault. There is a strangely nihilistic quality to the current trend of nubile pop stardom, and the sheer vapidity of your sister, the Hilton girls and yes even Britney herself is somehow central to the very nature of their celebrity. If your sister can turn her apparent stupidity into credentials for a career as an advertising spokesperson, then why can't your failure - inability? - to sing become your own gimmick? Spare us the embarassment of another awards show performance and go straight to the next "Maxim" layout. Your Warholian fifteen minutes are running out, Ashlee. They're too precious to waste on something so tiresome as performing live.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Hitting the Books: Bob Dylan hits the Village, Woody Allen visits George S. Kaufman's Broadway.

Tom Carson, writing in the New York Times, calls Bob Dylan's "Chronicles: Volume One" "some of the best fake Huckleberry Finn I've ever read", and we think he means it as a compliment.

Henry Porter, a man with no alibi, puts his two cents in here.

Meanwhile, one of our favorite institutions The Library of America has set its sights on one of Broadway's wittiest legends, George S. Kaufman, and Woody Allen pays tribute.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Ed Wood resurfaces on DVD! And so does Ed Wood!

By now you've probably already heard that the late, angora-loving director Ed Wood's long-lost porno film Necromania has been discovered and is coming to your home, courtesy of Wood biographer Rudolph Grey and blog entrepreneur Nick Denton's Fleshbot. The New Yorker provides a good introduction here .
But in the midst of this sea of love for the director of Glen or Glenda, a better introduction can be found (along with a brilliant performance by Johnny Depp) in Tim Burton's biopic, finally available on DVD. Burton's film presents an unflappable Wood, relentlessly full of faith in his own talent and that of his associates. For the film's Wood, life is a talent show, and junkies, drag queens and gargantuan wrestlers all get to be finalists.

Coincidence? Trend? Psychic blip?

Just as I was mentioning the prophetic nature of his last novel a few days ago, cyberpunk avatar and professional coolchaser William Gibson decided to resume his blog. Gibson fans may recall that he started posting while on a publicity tour, but reluctantly gave it up to focus on his writing once the tour was done. So what provoked him to return to the blogosphere? Like a lot of other people these days, he's worked up about the sorry state of democracy these days...

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Porn Again:

As if we needed proof of the ubiquitous porn culture discussed below, along comes Bill O'Reilly. Yet another confirmation of the old adage that each pompous media moralist gets the scandal he deserves. Bloggers are having a field day, of course, and in terms of poetic justice it beats even the drug-fueled, hearing-impaired travails of Rush Limbaugh. Yes, the concept of fairness (not one of Bill's favorites) reminds us that these are just accusations, and not proof positive that Fox's poster boy is an obnoxious jerk, but when your read the account of loofah-loving Bill's alleged hounding of a co-worker, doesn't it just sound like him? If you haven't already read the suit, it's here. But be warned. It makes the Starr Report seem soooo tame.

And if you're wondering how O'Reilly's media cohorts are reacting, here's a summary of fair and balanced headlines, courtesy of the indispensable Gawker.

(And by the way, if there's ever a list of the ten websites that really changed the world, won't The Smoking Gun have to be on it? How did we get along without this kind of thing in the pre-web past?)

Thursday, October 14, 2004

America's Greatest Living Director speaks!

The greatest living filmmaker in America (hint: he talks about Tanner on Tanner) is interviewed by The Onion.

What? You were expecting Joel Schumacher?

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Special PoMo to Porn edition:

1.)Jacques Derrida

Learning to enjoy your homework: Ennio Plaise, our Spy in the House of Academia reports on the pleasures of the text...
As the New York Times has noticed on several recent occasions, pornography has crept into the mainstream, or at least become part of the world that is "fit to print". This is not the first time, of course. In the early 70s national magazines announced the age of "porno chic" and reported that sophisticated audiences had replaced the archetypal raincoat brigade at screenings of Deep Throat. Porno may have been chic, but it takes more than a box-office hit to counter a century of censorship and prudishness. By the 1980s. Deep Throat was more likely remembered as a footnote to Watergate, misguided pro-censorship feminists like Andrea Dworkin had hopped into bed with the Meese Commission, and the porno industry, still dreaming of the elusive cross-over into the mainstream, had retreated.
It was a retreat, but not a defeat. In the 80s, porno became less public but got an enormous boost by the fastgrowing technology of home video. No longer chic, it was now accessible at home. The VCR meant that the Times Square fleapit had been replaced by the suburban bedroom. And the introduction of video cameras meant that likes of Marilyn Chambers and Harry Reems were now getting competition from you, your wife, your girlfriend or you neighbor, as the porn film curiously crossed paths with the home movie.
Fast forward to 2004. Britney Spears bumps and grinds on stage for an audience of pre-adolescent girls, many of whom are undoubtedly watching their first lap dance while wearing t-shirts that bear mottos like "Porn Star". Children on sitcoms express disapproval by saying that something "sucks", hardly aware that they're casually referencing the same sexual act whose mention put Lenny Bruce in jail.
Linda Williams, whose book "Hard Core" is the definitive study of pornography from the perspective of film theory, pioneers the study of pornography as culture with her new "Porn Studies", a collection of scholarly essays culled from various seminars she's organized over the last few years. (Though Williams wrote only one of the pieces in the book, her influence on the field is unavoidable; nearly every author in the collection cites "Hard Core" and the definitive introduction to taking porno seriously.) One of Williams' strongest points is that pornography has crossed the line from being "obscene" - literally "out of the scene" - and has become what she calls “on/scene”, an unavoidable part of the culture. It’s not just movies and magazines anymore. Porno is everywhere. The book sections of your most sedate papers offer comments on Jenna Jameson's autobiography and the anal-sex-as-spirituality memoir "The Surrendor". A minor-league celebrity like Paris Hilton can ride to the top of the gossip columns on the strength of an "amateur" sex video. Thanks to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, discussions of blowjobs, thongs and cigar fetishism took place not just in chatrooms but on the nightly news and even in official government publications.

Nearly all of "Porn Studies" is worth reading, but there is still a sense of giggling students passing notes in class, albeit notes that reference Foucault. The material covered ranges from the public ("The Starr Report", World War Two era pin-ups) to the private (if such a word can be applied to the famous Pam and Tommy Lee video), from the low culture world of smokers and beaver loops to the gallery-approved area of video installations and Warhol's "Blow Job", all of which adds to the sense of contradiction that hovers over the book. Even as it appears that we're in what one commentator has called "pornotopia..where it's always bedtime", we continue to cover it up, to deny or condemn our obsession with sexuality. The habits of a culture that has long favored guilt and shame over desire die hard.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Watch out for the Michelin man!!!!
William Gibson's last novel Pattern Recognition was about a "coolchaser", a woman whose career was based on her instinctive ability to know what was going to be hip - (just as long as she didn't run across the image of her dreaded enemy, Bibucon the Michelin Man). Turns out that as usual Gibson was reporting from 10 minutes into the future. Apparently scientists can use MRIs to determine what's cool and who catches on to it first. Jennifer Kahn reports the whole story in the current issue of Wired.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Rest in peace, Richard Avedon...
The great photographer Richard Avedon died this week and tributes are appearing all over the web, as they should be. The New Yorker, where Avedon had been staff photographer since 1992, offers theirs, with a gallery of photos.

Nouvelle Godard!
Jean-Luc Godard's Notre Musique plays at the New York Film Festival on Monday - a US release will follow sometime later next month - and from most reports, it's a major achievement. The New York Times review is here.

Lights! Action! Education!
Our Director of Pedagogery Carmen Zaentz brings the following item to our attention:

If you've ever spent time behind the lectern these days, you know the inescapable feeling that the students are expecting something - a joke, a song, a dance - that will wake them from the ordeal of education, and that you, dear professor, are the star of the show. Some teachers I know take a little too much pleasure in blaming the students. Others see it as the Way of the World, a lost battle. An elementary school teacher once told me "it's all the fault of Sesame Street. Learning isn't supposed to be entertaining", though I like to give equal blame to the Dead Poets Society model of the wacky/inspirational problem. Whatever the cause, Mark Edmundson offers a painfully accurate look at some of the problems of teaching in a world where the classroom bell has come to mean "Showtime!" .

Monday, September 27, 2004

Shark Tale review...
I wasn't particularly eager to see this film, having reached a saturation point for computer animation somewhere around the time of Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie.. and for the first five minutes, it looked like my suspicions were justified as the filmmakers piled on every bad fish pun you can imagine. (Comedian Kip Adotta already exhausted this territory years ago with a novelty record called "Fish Story", and the best joke on that would never get past even the most broad-minded family film....) But after a few moments of aimlessness, Shark Tale turns into a fairly clever and fast-moving comedy, the best moments of which are built around the audience's recognition of the voice talent. Will Smith, Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro come off best, allowing the film to shift from "Godfather" riffs to a kind of Daffy Duck heroic lunacy without missing too many beats. It's not a particularly well-crafted story or an distinctively individual work, but the filmmakers have clearly decided that if they keep the gags coming hard and heavy you won't miss any of those other qualities. Other animators have adopted such a plan at their own risk - anybody want to watch Osmosis Jones again? - but Shark Tale manages to pull it off without too many weak jokes lying in its wake.
Dylan's Back Pages
You already know that Bob Dylan's autobiography is coming out in a few weeks. Newsweek has an excerpt here and a report from "a motel room somewhere in the Midwest" here.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Shedding light on Dark Materials

As an admirer of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, I was a little suspicious when I heard that Chris Weitz had been chosen to direct a film version. Bridge to the Stars, the best of the Dark Materials fan sites, has a lengthy and reassuring interview with Weitz here.
Wong Kar Wai and John Cassavetes:
(Now how's that for a set of keywords?)

There's an excellent profile of Wong Kar Wai and his new film 2046 in today's NYT. (Youll have to have a Time login to read it....)
(And speaking of Wong Kar Wai, Kino is releasing a boxed set of five films on Oct. 19. The titles are Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, Days of Being Wild and As Tears Go By, the latter two appearing in the U.S. for the first time. )

Also in the Times, though less impressive, Manohla Dargis on Cassavetes. But am I the only person whose a little put off by the "struggling with critical and popular indifference" take in recent articles about Cassavetes? No, his films aren't a mainstream taste - and that's no insult, given what passes as mainstream these days, - but why would anyone think he was? That's about as likely as selling tickets for a revival of My Night at Maud's at a Star Wars convention...

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Leonard Cohen! Michael O'Donoghue!
I admit that I spend a lot of time sitting alone being a Gloomy Gus, but there are times when such things are better left to professionals. Leonard Cohen,the poet of inveterate romance, has a new album coming out on October 26th. Order it now! You'll feel better immediately. Well, probably not... but order it anyway!

Meanwhile, a new issue - that is to say an old issue - of "Evergreen Review" is online here. The highlight is Michael O' Donoghue's classic memoir of artistic life, "Paris in the Twenties". Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.
(And if you're not familiar with Mr. Mike - a big time Gloomy Gus if there ever was one - you need to read Dennis Perrin's biography..(Yes, I know it came out several years ago..In fact, I didn't expect to find it still in print.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Lemony Fresh
Guest (as in Edgar) literary correspondent Nadja Bartleby checks in on the 11th installment of A Series of Unfortunate Events:
These books are critic-proof. What else is there to say? If you have come to love Klaus, Violet and Sunny (especially Sunny!), the only thing you need to know about The Grim Grotto, the latest in the soon-to-be-ending series, is that our dear Mr. Snicket is clearly heading the story toward some kind of conclusion in which the mysteries that have piled up over the last few years (the sugar bowl, V.F.D., the Snicket family's involvement) will all be resolved, and that the Baudelaire trio are maturing, while their assailants, Olaf and crew, are as horrible as ever. With only two volumes left to go, Snicket has lost none of the wry humor, disassocoiative authorial tactics and highbrow mannerisms that have made A Series of Unfortunate Events the best thing to hit juvenile literature since Roald Dahl made misanthropy seem cute.

Because every other movie except Pepe and Fearless Frank has already been remade:
Don't get me wrong: I love Ted Turner and all of his acquisitions. I love Turner Classic Movies, the only station with the guts to do marathons of Edgar Ulmer and Carl Dreyer movies. But TCM's ugly stepsisters WTBS and TNT have been scraping the barrel lately. First comes the long-awaited announcement fromTBS (they prefer to drop the W), which now devotes most of its airtime to censored "Sex and the City" reruns and brainless reality shows, of the "movie star" in their new "Return to Gilligan's Island" (in which a real sailor, millionaire, scientist, etc. live by their wits on an island while recreating zany stunts from the old series) will be...Carmen Electra. That's their idea of a movie star? While they're at it, why not make the millionaire some guy who earns $22,000 a year...
And if that's not enough, their increasingly boring sister station TNT has scraped the very bottom of the remake barrel to give us this .
From McSweeney's, a far too rational reconsideration of a few classic films as well as some of M. Night Shyamalan's.

Quentin Tarantino has a blog. The strangest thing about it is that it's not a hoax.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

From Russ Meyer (rest in peace) to Wong Kar Wai in one paragraph

Russ Meyer, one of the most eccentrically independent figures of American film, has died. Pull out that worn videotape of Meyer's twisted masterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Why isn't this on DVD???) and lift a glass in his memory. His occasional collaborator Roger Ebert pays tribute.

Meanwhile, movies go on, and the brilliant Wong Kar Wai, whose last film In the Mood for Love is one of the finest films of the last ten years, is interviewed by the Guardian about his latest work, 2046, a sequel (in a loose sense) to In the Mood. No telling when it will get a U.S. release, though.

Speaking of director interviews, John Waters is all over the place promoting his latest, A Dirty Shame. Look here .

Ali G. gets his famous guests the old fashioned way.

If you've been wondering how Ali G. gets people like Buzz Aldrin and Sam Donaldson to appear on his show, Slate has a few answers here. In a nutshell, he lies to them. That's a relief.
Of course, it still doesn't entirely explain why so many famous people are so clueless... I mean, I expect Gore Vidal to stay a little out of the pop culture fray, but surely Christine Todd Whitman and Pat Buchanan have HBO, don't they?

Meanwhile, the Cat Stevens revival continues. First stage: kindle nostalgia (See Anne Dante's report of 7/25, below) ; Second stage: generate controversy. (As usual, the Drudge Report gets bonus points for accompanying the headline "Cat Stevens diverts plane" with a nifty little photo of a plane for those confused Drudge readers who don't quite get the whole aviation concept...)

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Random bitterness

I know I'm a rapidly aging old crank, but am I the only person who misses the days when theatres were actually relatively peaceful before the curtain opened? There may have been music playing, but it wasn't the relentless slides-and-canned-music combination that you get at most theatres today. Some of you may find it hard to believe that there was a period in the 1970s when theatres began to experiment with running commercials before films - but actually stopped doing it when they found out that patrons didn't like it!!! (When I lived in a small town in Wisconsin for a few months in 1977, one of the two local theatres in town showed Pepsi commercials - but only after the feature when most people had left...)
Today's theatre chains don't care much about what you think once you've shelled out your $7.50, so the slide show, followed by even more commercials, often in grainy video blown up to 35mm, are just part of what you're expected to endure.
And of all the on-screen advertising pushed upon your senses, is there anything more irritating that the current anti-piracy campaign from the MPAA in which a seasoned stuntman named Manny Perry suggests that you're stealing bread from the mouth of his babies every time you download a movie or dub a friend's copy of The Sorrow and the Pity. The always entertaining "Defamer" has been carrying on about this for a few weeks now (see here) so I'll just mention the two things that irritate me the most about the whole campaign.
1) It's safe to assume that Manny Perry gets paid for his work as a stuntman once his job is done. His car crashes may have been as essential part of Enemy of the State, but I doubt that he gets much in the way of profit participation. So after he finishes his work on the next Jerry Bruckheimer epic,if you download a copy, sneak your video camera into a screening and sell low quality bootlegs on the street, steal the negative and dump it into the Hudson or persuade JB to shelf the whole thing so it doesn't distract him from his true purpose in life - Coyote Ugly 2 - it's not going to cost Manny a penny. In this respect, the whole campaign is a guilt-inducing lie.
2) When do you see the MPAAs plea from Manny? Just minutes after you've shelled out a fair amount of cash to see a movie. If the MPAA wants to go after movie pirates, have them run a flash version of Manny's ad on BitTorrent or some other P2P site where the pirates and movie downloaders will see it, not in front of the paying audience who they should be thanking......

Don't Worry; I'm changing the subject
...but while I'm in High Indignation Mode, can't someone come up with a way to convince filmmakers that DVD technology doesn't mean that they need to constantly tinker with and "improve" films? Obviously I'm thinking of the forthcoming Star Wars collection, where, among other revisions to the films (which, if memory serves, were fairly well received in their original versions), the faces of the actors playing the Emperor and the unmasked Darth Vader have been replaced with images of the actors who played those roles in the two most recent installments. George Lucas, if you're out there... I enjoyed the first three Star Wars movies - okay, I didn't exactly build a religion around them like some fans, but I liked them well enough. But they don't need to be repackaged every five years or so just because your CGI team has come up with a way to make lightsabres a little shinier... If you feel the need to tinker with your films, why not work on Howard the Duck or come up with a way of making The Radioland Murders funny?

Friday, September 10, 2004

Okay, I haven't posted in several weeks because I've been busy with other projects and problems. I'll be back into shape soon with a short review of my current obsession, Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi. Meanwhile , I've been indulging myself by taking a second look at Kitano's other films, including my favorite, Kikujuro. If you haven't seen it or if you have fallen for the common misunderstanding that Kitano is just a Japanese John Woo turning out violent cop movies, it's worth a look.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Tom Dowd & The Language of Music ..a new film uncovers an unsung music legend so talented that it will even make you reconsider "Sweet Home Alabama"

There was a time in the history of popular music, about a century ago, when a hit song was measured by the number of copies of sheet music that sold. Pop songs entered the national consciousness not through a particular performance or interpretation but by way of the middle- class parlor room, where a piano was nearly as common an object as a cd player is today.
Tom Edison changed all that with the invention of the phonograph, a discovery that, like many of Edison's most innovative ideas, came to him through studying an unrelated piece of technology when he discovered that he could feel vibrations coming through a telephone receiver. You don't have to be Walter Benjamin to realize that the ability to record and preserve a single performance changed the way music is heard, used and even created. As recordings - a specific, fixed document of a piece of music - replaced sheet music - a blueprint for a potential performance -, the nature of music changed forever. Music and technology were intertwined, evolving together into a new language that most of us have learned to take for granted.
If you've never heard of Tom Dowd - a reasonable assumption - you may find it hard to believe that one person could have had such a long- lasting role not just in the way musical recordings are made but in a wide-ranging field of genres from bebop and soul to "Southern rock". As an engineer and producer, Dowd's had a hand in more great recordings than you could even listen to in a day, but one of the most welcome things about Mark Moormann's film Tom Dowd and the Language of Music is that it keeps its subject off a pedestal, preferring to find him where he's happiest, working the knobs and sliders of a recording studio console.
The film, which opens theatrically in selected cities this week and will be released on video later this month, is a string of talking-head anecdotes, archival footage and musical performances but there's not a dull moment in it, even on a second viewing. (Moormann succumbs to the unfortunate trend of staging some period scenes, but does so sparsely, never pushing the film into the contrived fictional region that marred Standing in the Shadows of Motown.). Dowd, a shaggy man in his seventies (He died at 77 in 2002, the year the film premiered at Sundance) who not only was a living witness to pop culture and history (in addition to his recording career, he worked on the Manhattan Project but gave up a dream of becoming a nuclear physicist when government security prevented him from returning to college), but remained at the end of his life every bit as excited by the memory of a musical performance or a technical detail as he had been when he first faced them.
Dowd started engineering in the late 40s, when the limitations of a typical recording studio made capturing the dynamics of a band an almost insurmountable challenge. Hooking up with a new, fast-rising label, Atlantic, he recorded some of the most prominent jazz and rhythm and blues acts of the 50s, experimenting with multiple tracks before stereo had even been developed. (A few years later, Dowd's tapes allowed Atlantic to reissue their back catalog in authentic stereo, when most labels were stuck creating ineffective simulations of two-track sound.) Taking a cue from guitarist Les Paul's home studio, he began experiment with eight-track recording years before it became an industry standard, and when Atlantic became one of the major labels of the 1960s and moved to new offices, it was Dowd who called the shots and designed the recording studios.
And then there are the records, from classic jazz albums with Monk, Coleman and Mingus to the breakthrough pop hits like "Mack the Knife" and "Stand by Me", from Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin to the quasi-psychedelia of Cream's "Disraeli Gears" (where Dowd is credited for overcoming the suspicions of the musicians by coming up with the syncopated beat for "Sunshine of Your Love"). As he became in demand for sessions at the Stax studio in Memphis as well as in, Macon and Mussel Shoals, the New York born physicist-turned-engineer relocated to Miami, where he became closely associated with the early careers of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. What keeps the film from no more than a parade of guest stars and greatest hits, however, is the sense conveyed by Dowd's recollections and footage of studio sessions that we are watching artists at work, tending less to the illusion of celebrity than to the real labor of laying down tracks and making them work.
As one might expect, the film includes many interviews with Dowd's associates, from industry legends like Ahmet Ertegun and Phil Ramone to artists like Clapton and Charles. The finest moment, and the film's climax, is given to Dowd alone, as he sits at a mixing board listening to the original tracks for "Layla". He works the dials eagerly as he explores the raw materials, excitedly pulling an additional slide guitar part here, a second piano there. This, we finally see, is his instrument, and he moves his fingers over the board with the same skill and passion that others give to their guitars and keyboards. If you think recorded music is just a matter of aiming a microphone in the right direction, or if you're used to thinking of "Layla" as just another piece of "classic rock" background noise, this film is a real ear-opener.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Lina who? Robert Hunt reaches deep into his files and recalls a mid-Seventies folly...

I was moving files out of a drawer and just reached the last handful: Wajda, Warhol,Welles, Wenders,Wertmuller. The last one took me by surprise. I imagine that many people interested in movies would be surprised to know that there was a time when Lina Wertmuller was a media cause celebre, subject of NYT profiles and cover stories: in fact, it might not be unreasonable to assume that most under the age of thirty will not even recognise the name at all (despite the recent blink-and-you'll-miss-it remake of Swept away...)
But things were quite different for a brief moment in 1976, when Wertmuller's blend of cruel comedy and politics found a home in American art-houses. Art-house taste at that time was set largely by a kind of snobbism (It's not that different now) and while a few of the giants of the Sixties (Truffaut and Bergman, most consistently) still made annual appearances and the occasional light comedy could break through (Anyone remember Cousin, Cousine ?), the audience had splintered. Individual directors had cult followings, but Eric Rohmer's fans generally weren't likely to have much in common with Ken Russell's. The American cinema was generally ignored. The occasional taboo-shattering scandal (Last Tango, The Night Porter, In the Realm of Senses) made for good conversation, but no one wanted to commit too seriously to them.
In this climate, Lina Wertmuller was the perfect director for the movie snob with Marxist and feminist intentions. Her films were political,feminist, serious. Or at least she said they were. And she talked a good game.
Wertmuller first entered the US arthouses with a modest hit called The Seduction of Mimi. Swept Away, with the same stars,Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangelo Melato, did even better. By the time Seven Beauties opened, New York Magazine had placed her on the cover calling her "the important European director since Bergman". Earlier Wertmuller films were given a belated U. S release. Hollywood stars plugged her movies on talk shows.
Talking to Wertmuller's fans could be exhausting, yet somehow you got the feeling that it was like talking to one of the fairy-tale emperor's supporters just after their hero had paraded nude past their block. She was praised as a political satirist, until you pointed out that both the political and comic points came from having her prole Everyman heroes (usually played by Gianini) abused by someone powerful (frequently a woman) and taking revenge by abusing them in turn, hardly a clear feminist statement. If you pointed out that the politics were simplistic and the humor crude at best, usually saved - barely- by Gianini's droopy-eyed appeal, they'd insist that the films you had seen were flawed, but whatever Wertmuller item you had missed was the masterpiece that saved her reputation.
But it must have appeared obvious to even the most devoted that Wertmuller's films didn't quite live up to her lofty claims of political insight, and that her penchant for lengthy titles like was at best pretentious, and worst, nonsensical. And wasn't it odd for an alleged Marxist/feminist that her biggest supporter in the US was the conservative critic John Simon (author of the "most important since Bergman" quote)? .
By the time her 1965 Let's Talk About Men was revived in 1976 (it was, coincidentally, the first film I ever reviewed in print), the game was up. In her interview with Simon, she had described the film as "extremely feminist", evidently confident that her US fan club would never see it: it turned out to be a standard, but minor, Italian farce, the kind of thing that arthouse audiences had given up on by 1965.
Like many European directors who find American success, Wertmuller was able to move up to international co-productions with American stars, but the audience lost interest by the time A Night Full of Rain (or if you prefer, The End of the World in our Usual beds on a Night Full of Rain) appeared, pairing Giannini with Candice Bergen. (European critics, by the way, were puzzled by the whole Wertmuller fad, much as you might be if you heard that a foreign magazine had just described Daniel Petrie or Joel Schumacher "the most important American director since Scorsese" or some such nonsense). By 1980, she was almost forgotten in the US, though a few of the Hollywood deals eventually resulted in The Seduction of Mimi remade as a Richard Pryor vehicle, and Swept Away was reworked, even prior to the recent Madonna interpretation as Overboard.
I didn't open the Wertmuller file. I know what's in it: old production notes and a glossy reproduction of the "New York" cover story, reprinted by one of her US distributors. To re-read them now, nearly 30 years later would simply raise the obvious question: What on earth were they thinking?

Friday, August 06, 2004

Was it all a dream?

When Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers opened earlier this year, most of the criticism I read reflected disinterested confusion, some of it accusing the director of a simple-minded nostalgia, most of it unable to get past the film's NC-17 rating. Having finally caught up with the film on the recently released DVD, I'm even more disappointed with the lack of insightful criticism than I was earlier.
Is it a success? It's hard to say, though one of the unusual things about Bertolucci's work is that his failures (1900 and Luna, for example) are sometimes more rewarding for the risks they take. There are so many strands running through The Dreamers that it may take a few viewings to sort them all out: cinephilia, sex, May .68, the other cultural detritus of the 60s, and Cocteau's "Les Enfants Terribles".
I haven't read Gilbert Adair's novel "The Holy Innocents", though the author notes - approvingly - that the film makes many additions to his story (it has even been reported that he rewriting the book to incorporate Bertolucci's changes) but gather from descriptions that it's a revision of Cocteau's "Les Enfants Terribles" (one English translation of which was titled "The Holy Terrors") in the form of an autobiographical account of the author's experiences as a British student in France.
Cocteau's novel (which was filmed by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1948) is about a pair of semi-incestuous siblings playing psychological games in a Paris apartment. Though they adopt friends, they also manipulate them in an almost sadistic manner. It's a magical story, but with a cruel streak.
The Dreamers has a similarly incestuous couple living an intensely aestheticized life in an apartment sanctuary, but in this case their self-absorbed idyll is invaded by history and viewed from the perspective of a third party, a young American student who is pulled into the world as much from his own loneliness as by their magnetism.
One of the most curious scenes comes the absent parents return to the apartment, survey the damage, find the naked trio and, leaving a check behind to keep the kids in groceries, run off as if fearing for their lives.The abandonment of parental authority or its' defeat? And why does it this scene drive Isabelle to attempt suicide? Is she associating her death with Mouchette, or is Bertolucci making the connection?
The film offers little in the way of resolution. Do the events of May bring an end to innocence, a commitment to political change, a break between the romantic Matthew and the newly-committed Theo? Perhaps Bertolucci is trying to do too much and can't really answer his own questions. Much of the charm of The Dreamers is in the asking.
Fortunately, this perceptive review in "Bright Lights Film Journal" by A. Zubatov and Yaniv Eyny puts much of the film in perspective.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Here's the Thunderbirds link, as promised:

Jonathan Rosenbaum, possibly the best working film critic in print these days (I'll be posting a review of his new book "Essential Cinema" soon) , uses the new documentary Outfoxed as an entry point to think about how DVDs have changed the way we use movies.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Either I've lost all critical facilities or I'm just feeling generous. I went to a screening of Thunderbirds Saturday expecting the worst, and actually enjoyed  it. My review will be hitting print on Friday and I'll provide a link to it. 

Meanwhile, the latest edition of "Senses of Cinema" - now a quarterly, to judge from the headline- is on line - check out the link at the left - with articles on Welles, Kill Bill, Guy Maddin and the latest from Jacques Rivette.


A new book and film take detailed looks at the creation of two cultural sensations of the 60s and 70s:  the scandalous comic novel "Candy" by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg and the 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song. Now read on....

Good Grief! It's our literary correspondent Nadja Bartleby!: 

 In the 1950s, two expatriate writers living in Europe collaborated on a dirty book. Well, not so much a dirty book - though there's no doubt that  lecherous thoughts provided inspiration - as a satire of pornography, of postwar America, of various  intellectual trends. Using Voltaire's "Candide" as their model, these two authors created the story of a naive but well-intentioned young girl whose empathy for the suffering and unfairness of the world somehow unavoidably leads her to provide sexual favors to every man she meets. It also became a marker in the legal road that would gradually undo literary censorship in this country and the victim of imprecise copyright laws in the US and Europe. Young Candy Christian would inspire not only lust but, outside the printed page, greed, litigation and outright theft. Not a bad streak for a girl who just wants to help others.
    The novel, of course, was "Candy", written by the great Terry Southern and the more obscure Mason Hoffenberg, but the story behind the novel proves to be every bit as absorbing as (though certainly less amusing than) the bawdy adventures of a their Voltairean innocent. With access to reams of unpublished material from both parties, as well as their first publisher, the notorious Maurice Girodias, Southern's son Nile,a keeper-of-the-flame without equal (In addition to compiling "Now Dig This", a collection of previously uncollected pieces, he was able to find a permanent home for Dad's archive and maintains a groovy website at, has produced a fascinating volume called "The Candy Men"  (Arcade Publishing, , $27.95) chronicling the strange and twisted story of the book, its creation and its subsequent career as both hip cultural scandal and legal battleground. 
     Southern and Hoffenberg were part of the wave of quasi-beat Americans who migrated to Europe after World War Two to write or paint or just hang out in cafes soaking up an artistic vibe, grateful to escape the stifling atmosphere Eisenhower America. Some lived on next to nothing, while others were fortunate enough to burn their way through a trust fund - or to attach themself to someone who had one. Southern was in the "next to nothing" category, while Hoffenberg, a soul-eyed poet with a serious fondness for heroin, had family money he could call for when things got too bleak.
     Enter Maurice Girodias, one of the most incorrigible con men to walk the streets of France. Girodias was a publisher who specialised in the kind of literature that couldn't be discussed in polite company, as well as more serious writing that strayed into taboos generally out of the realm of the mainstream publishing world. His ideal book was that which combined both, and he was the first to bring out such distinguished titles as "Lolita", "The Green Man" and "Naked Lunch".
     It was Southern's idea to take expand a short story about a young woman's wide-eyed journey through a jungle of sexually needy characters into a full-length satirical novel, perfect for Girodias' under-the-counter line.  With other projects also on the burner, he recruited Hoffenberg  to add a few chapters. (It was one of the misfortunes of Southern's career that the three works for which he was most known, "Candy" and the screenplays for Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, were all collaborative, with later debates about credit inevitably rising. One of the welcome aspects of "The Candy Men" is that it clears up most of the confusion about who penned what.)  The work went slowly, but eventually the nubile heroine wrapped herself in a book cover (whose author was listed as "Maxwell Kenton" ) and made her public debut.
Then the troubles began.
     S & H had already learned how difficult it was to get money from Girodias while they were writing "Candy", but once published, it became next to impossible. "Gid", as he was known, would beg economic woe caused by his many legal troubles (which was partly true since most of  his titles, "Candy" included, were regularly found obscene) but it appears that he was constituionally incapable of paying royalties without duress. The authors dueled with him for years, but had to play their side very carefully since they had no easy way of verifying sales figures. (They didn't realise that he outwitted the ban on "Candy" by reprinting it as "Lollipop", an edition for which they never saw a dime.)
     By 1964, "Candy" was starting to the attention of America publishers, but clearing  ownership was as  difficult as negotiating with Girodias. By failing to hold a European copyright, the work was considered to be in the public domain, a major concern to Putnam who brought out the first US edition. (Their suspicion was justified: as the book became a success, more than a half dozen companies specializing in pornography made pirate editions.) The once-friendly authors became distant: Southern had made a name for himself writing for "Esquire", published " The Magic Christian" (which happens to be one of the funniest books ever written) and launched himself as a screenwriter with Strangelove. Hoffenberg, between bouts of addiction, became paranoid and insecure, irritated at press pieces suggesting that TS was,if not "Candy"'s sole author, then its most talented.
Between piracy, legal fees, vagaries of international copyright law and outright deception, the authors received very little  money from the book, even as it climbed the best-seller list   The complications over the rights, the pirates, and the ever scheming Girodias guaranteed that even with great sales and a movie deal on the horizon (the movie, which could be politely labeled a mess, came out at the end of 1968), neither author would ever see more than chump change.
   No staid literary bio (for these were not staid literary men) "The Candy Men" becomes  a frantic portrait of two men riding on the fringe of a cultural change, watching their book evolve from stoned fantasy to cause celebre, from a smut-for- hire job  to contractual nightmare. But there's not a dull page in it, thanks to the generous selections from the authors' correspondence. Southern, in particular,  was a master of the put-on, the absurd reverie, and notes to friends may have been his ideal medium. Fans of his distinct, wildly comic voice will find it here in abundance. 

     For an artist who has remaned largely in the margins of popular culture, Melvin Van Peebles has had a very busy career. He's been an actor, a novelist and a filmmaker, written and directed Broadway musicals, recorded his own songs and, for a brief period when he faded from public view in the 80s, even had a seat in the stock market. But while Van Peebles clearly likes to move around artistically, he will probably remain most fixed in the public mind as the man who made Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, a technically crude but sociologically daring film that launched the short but influential trend of black exploitation films in the early 70s. (MGM's Shaft, a more conventional crime film, opened three months later.)
Van Peebles published a diary of the making of Sweetback, a slim paperback that remained in print long after the blacksploitation trend had faded. (In fact, it's still in print today, in an updated edition.. see below) The book is stronger on personal information than technical advice,  but it's considered something of a primer in guerilla filmmaking. Of course, this was at  a time  when every film studio had a token hippie producer in hopes of luring a share of that Easy Rider-Woodstock green and an "indie" film hadn't become a euphemism for "self-indulgent crap that you can put on your resume to impress producers at the WB". 
      Sweetback really isn't much of a film (it's not nearly as entertaining as Superfly  or as ambitious as Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess), but that in no way diminishes its cultural and important significance. So perhaps it makes sensee that the story behind it, recounted in Van Peebles' book and now in a fascinating, comical film Baadasss!, directed by his son, proves to be more enduring that the object itself.
     Baadasss! ( still in release from Sony Pictures and due on home video  in the fall) , is a curious film, part companion to other recent tales of minor history like Ed Wood or Man in the Moon, sometimes playing like a dramatized version of a "making  of" featurette on a DVD, and always a manifesto about filmmaking, race and artistic independence. Mario Van Peebles' films (which I generally like, including New Jack City and Panther ) tend to be a bit more pedantic than those of his father, but he manages to lay the message on  with a light touch. He's like the rare high school teacher who can actually share his enthusiam for a subject, rather than merely drill it into the students.  And since he's actually portraying his own father and recounting his own reluctance, at age 13, to be involved with Sweetback (where he even had to participate in a sex scene), there's a built-in ambivalence to his story that could keep therapists shaking their heads for months. 
     Van Peebles sees his father's film and the struggle to make it as both a symbolic show of unity in the black (and hippie/political) community and a comic adventure. Besides having almost no money, the crew consisted largely of inexperienced if not outright amateurs. To prevent interference from the movie unions, they had to pretend to be shooting a porno film. Strapped for cash, the director even arranged a secret meeting to borrow from Bill Cosby, whose appearance in the fringes of the film (he's played by T.K.Carter) says much about the position of black talent at the time.
     Faced with a project both daunting and absurd, Melvin Van Peebles perservered and Baadassss! gives a pretty good picture of both the time in which it was made and the inspired madman who made it. For the first half hour, you might find yourself thinking "this is amusing, but why bother to tell this story?" By the time it's over - and especially after the final credits in which the real participants (including Cosby) reminisce about Sweetback- you'll be convinced that it's an episode in film history that deserves to be told.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Cat Stevens !?!
Our musical correspondent Anne Dante is being followed by a moonshadow:

There are some things that will simply never reach those people standing at the edge of the great Chasm of Hipness sneering at those on the other side: Remember trying to explain Abba to your friends in the 70s as they floated in their smoky cloud of Eagles-Ronstadt-Fleetwood Mac? Did you ever try to get your 13 year old Britney Spears-fan niece to listen to Leonard Cohen?
Well, I’m afraid that Cat Stevens is one of those issues that will probably not make that leap back over to the edge of hipness anytime soon for most of you, even though his records are back in print and there’s even a greatest hits collection being hawked on tv at 3 am. He started to off some time around 1974 when he released “Foreigner”, an underrated album that featured one of his best songs, “The Hurt”, but was built around a rambling 20-minute long “Suite” of song fragments that was accused of overplaying the tortured artiste effect. (It’s really not that bad if you keep in mind that being a tortured artiste was part parcel of the whole 70s singer-songwriter bit for almost everyone  - except Harry Nilsson). His next album, the excellent “Buddah and the Chocolate Box” got a better reception, but the release of a mid-70s greatest hits collection essentially stood as a career-ending marker. When the Cat announced his retirement a few years and albums later, few people noticed. Ask someone about him today and they’ll probably say “’Peace Train’ was alright, but didn’t he try to kill Salman Rushdie?”.
            Scoff all you want, but the small and gloomy Stevens fans among us, the recent release of the “Majikat” DVD is a treasure. Filmed during a Stevens’ last tour (a theatrical event that apparently included magicians, jugglers and all that – very few of whom are preserved on the DVD), it consists of a 1976 concert with Stevens in top form. The real treats, however, are in the bonus materials, which include a reproduction of the concert program, a handful of early tv clips, including the animated “Moonshadow” short, and a lengthy interview with the man himself, now known as Yusuf Islam, who speaks openly about his career and his abandonment of the same.
            Will it convert anyone (to use an appropriate metaphor) to Stevens’ music? Probably not. But if you’re in that small group that clings to your old vinyl copy of “Teaser and the Firecat”, “Majikat” is a pleasant rediscovery, a portrait of the artiste in a not-too-tortured mode.
So phooey on the rest of you.

Editorial note: The editor of this site is not sure that he approves of saying "phooey" to our readers.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

"We've got to make a movie where on the way out of the theater people are going to ask the ushers if they have any torches."
       That's Michael Moore in an interview in the latest "Film Comment". It's a good piece, one of the few in the dozens of recent pieces on Moore that actually deals with his work from a cinematic perspective rather than concentrate solely on the controversy and the attacks surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11. It's not on the FC website, but they have posted some excerpts that didn't make it into print. You can also read Kent Jones' review online here.
Also in the latest FC: articles on Jacques Tati, Kill Bill, and documentaries about making movies (Burden of Dreams, American Movie, Lost in La Mancha, etc).  But alas, nothing's perfect; they've also brought back the "Guilty Pleasures" column with a contribution from Joan Rivers, of all people. 
     It's ironic that Film Comment's last interview with Moore, a notably hostile piece that appeared in 1989 at time of Roger and Me, is rumored to have been one of the things responsible for ousting then-editor Harlan Jacobson, thus indirectly contributing to the magazine's gradual and uneven improvement over the last fourteen years. I' ve been buying FC since 1976 (only missing one issue in that time). but in the 1980s it had become nearly unreadable.
     Which makes another small item in the current issue an ironic sign of change. A passing reference to James Toback's Fingers in the "Opening Shots" column calls it "Toback's only watchable film". That might be true, but it's quite a step away from the days when FC allowed film critic/novelist/habitual name-dropper David Thomson ramble on about nothing in particular in almost every issue, many of his pieces little more than extended love-letters and press releases to and on behalf of the director of Exposed.
Incidentally, my favorite Thomson moment had nothing to do with Toback or even with his endless references to his friendships with Toback, Warren Beatty, Buck Henry and others. Here's an excerpt from a 1982 interview with Goldie Hawn.

* * *

You swept your hair back off your face just now, and you have lovely hair. But when your hair goes back you look less pretty and stronger. Your eyes get older.
That's why these hairdressers are making a fortune of money.
But don't they do what you want them to do?
Some do, some don't. What I'm saying is that people want to look a certain way, so they have their hair done a certain way. I'm not somebody who's liked the hair off my face. I don't think it's becoming. And I must admit I like to look as nice as I can. But for a film I'd do it. But, you know, right now we're in a meeting, and why would one arbitrarily put one's hair up if you don't think you would look nice?
You must have sat for hours in front of a mirror experimenting as a child. I didn't tell you anything about your hair you didn't know already.

* * *
Could Bruno from the Ali G. show have done any better?

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Cowboy Apocalypse
The enthusiasm of Quentin Tarantino aside, the Spaghetti Western remains a cult taste even more esoteric than one for  kung-fu movies or Seventies cheerleader comedies. The days when The New York Times could dismiss Spaghettis as "The Burn, The Gouge and the Mangle may be gone but once you get past the Leone canon, you're not likely to find much in the way of critical recognition. (An exception to be made, of course, for Christopher Frayling's masterful "Spaghetti Westerns: from Karl May to Sergio Leone" which covers all aspects of the Europeanised version of the West ).
Spaghetti westerns made less of an impact in the US than you might think, once the dust had settled and the dollars counted from United Artists' highly profitable release of the Dollars trilogy. Though most of the major studios picked up one or two Spaghettis for their drive-in markets, most of the US releases came courtesy of smaller and now forgotten distributors.
Over the last few decades (the Spaghetti boom was more or less over by 1971), most of the non-Leone films became almost impossible to find. Thanks to a few DVD companies, the situation has improved slightly especially with the release of two boxed sets, Once Upon a Time in Italy, from Anchor Bay and The Spaghetti Western Collection from Blue Underground . There are no classics on the level of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West, but for those with an interest in the western genre, the nine films display the wide range of variations Italian directors played on familiar frontier themes. Those who only know Leone's masterpieces will find surprises here: European-filtered westerns that rework traditions, bend generic rules and add elements of politics, slapstick and even horror.
The oddest film in the Anchor Bay collection - not the best - is unquestionably Lucio Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse, of which little has been written. Frayling simply cites it as an example of a Spaghetti western made late in the cycle and claims that it attempts to apply the style of Easy Rider to the genre. That's true up to a point: there are lots of solar effects, self-consciously loose focusing and a vague sense of counter-cultural sympathy. But that doesn't begin to cover the inadvertent and almost heavyhanded weirdness of the film.
Four of the Apocalypse is based on stories by Bret Harte, loosely strung together as random encounters. (I don't know much of Harte's work, but I recognised elements from "The Outcasts of Poker Flats" and "The Luck of Roaring Camp".) A chance encounter in a prison massacre brings four outsiders together: a gambler (Fabio Test), a pregnant prostitute (Lynne Frederick), a drunk and an off-balanced black man who talks to the spirits of the dead. Heading out with particular destination, they cross paths with a psychotic, Manson-like outlaw (Tomas Milian) who torments them, feeds them peyote and leaves them to die in the desert.
(Much of the film's loopy charm is in the casting. Testi is likable in an only-here-for the-ride way. Frederick, better known as the widow of both Peter Sellers and David Niven, is an actress of limited skills, yet endearingly earnest. Pollard, of course, was a cult figure whose post-Bonnie and Clyde career never really happened. And Milian is a major figure in the Spaghetti canon, but better known for his comic work in political Spaghettis like Companeros, which gives his complete lack of sympathy in this film an even more chilling edge.)
Fulci is best known as a director of gory and occasionally colorful horror movies, a specialist in the Italian sub-genres of zombies and cannibalism.And true to form, he even manages to include a particularly unpleasant meal and a gratuitous torture scene in a film that shifts its emotional tone with every sequence. (The "Luck of Roaring Camp" episode, for example, is an unabashedly sentimental segment in which an exclusively male mining town become surrogate fathers to a newborn baby.)
No, it's not really a very good movie, nor a particularly coherent one, but that's part of the charm of minor Spaghetti westerns. The filmmakers simultaneously borrow the traditions of the western genre and treat them in the most cavalier fashion. They love the genre but they can't stop trying to change it.
Click on either of the links below to buy Frayling's book or either of the DVD collections from Amazon.