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!" .