Thursday, July 27, 2006
Friday, July 21, 2006
LENI RIEFENSTAHL GOES TO TOWN: AN ESSAY
In early 1960, the British Film Institute chose to appease protesters by making a significant change to its scheduled line-up of lecturers. An invitation previously extended to Leni Riefenstahl was formally withdrawn, after a number of complaints emphasized issues surrounding the filmmaker’s potent Nazi propaganda films produced during the rise of the Third Reich. Riefenstahl had been slated to speak at the National Film Theatre in a lecture series that was to include a number of other accomplished artisans, but at least one of them was bothered by the deleterious connotations potentially carried by the filmmaker’s presence. Prior to the Institute’s decision, the British director Ivor Montagu refused to participate in a program that involved Riefenstahl, and consequently declined to make an appearance.
In a supposed letter to Peter Sellers, Montagu urged the prominent British actor, who was also slated to speak at the series, to join him in protest. Sellers refused, claiming that Riefenstahl’s artistic merits were of value and her appearance would be innocuous. “Alongisde her contributions to the art of filmmaking,” Sellers wrote back in response to the director, “our efforts, if I may say so, Mr. Montagu, appear very puny, indeed.”
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Its downfall was inevitable from the moment it caught on. Former Hannah Barbera animator John Kricfalusi’s crudely drawn cat and chihuahua pals engaged in silly romps that pandered to a childish fascination with toilet humor. Although the jokes mostly relied on visual quirkiness, Ren’s exaggerated Latino inflection and mean-spirited treatment of his dim-witted partner were a departure from Bugs Bunny innocuousness. In retrospect, it’s a miracle that Kricfalusi managed to sustain the program for two seasons before the network took it away from him.
Now his characters are back with no boundaries in Ren and Stimpy: The Lost Episodes, which is basically an FCC nightmare. The six stories contained on two discs are taken from ideas Kricfalusi pitched in response to fan letters during the early seasons. Three of them aired on Spike TV as Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon, but some were deemed too inappropriate even for that channel’s projected masculinity. Several of the animators on the new episodes grew up watching the show, and, as Kricfalusi explains in his introduction to the discs, the characters have grown up with them. The newcomers clearly had a blast introducing explicit sex, more bodily fluids, et al. to the seedy oeuvre, but frattish fun doesn’t translate into a consistently solid viewing experience.
Still, animation junkies will enjoy the behind-the-scenes bonuses featuring storyboards and the like, and most episodes have some redeemable qualities to please diehard R&N fans and Adult Swim insomniacs eager to tune out reality. “
On bonus interviews, the eccentric Kricfalusi and his team of Spumco animators try to excuse their boorish wit by discussing the conceptualization of the storylines the way one might dissect a classic Looney Tunes short. But their reverence wears thin: On his blog, Kricfalusi claims that Warner Bros. legend Chuck Jones had difficulty channeling his visual technique into well-timed punchlines. This particular imbalance is exactly what limits Kricfalusi’s cartoons— a stream of engaging oddities without much insight. The revamped raunchiness is gleefully irreverent, but it’s also irrelevant.
*A version of this review was published this week in the New York Press.
I haven't seen Lady in the Water yet, but since M. Night Shyamalan is like, the easiest auteur to keep tabs on, I always feel compelled to check out his latest work in case I ever need a last minute dissertation topic, or something else equally obscure that requires a case study. But now I have another reason to check out this seventh offering from the guy who sees people who see dead people: sympathy. Anyone that gets trashed in upwards of 1100 words in the New York Times and isn't, like, a dictator or something has one raw deal on their hands.
Early buzz on the movie ain't so hot, but the rocky historical backdrop behind the film's production certainly is fascinating, even if the book about it is apparently hit-or-miss. Watching something fail miserably after such a long struggle is sort of like experiencing a great tragedy narrative. I mean, Apocalypse Now took forever to make and ended up being pretty good. If you tell me that Shyamalan is no Coppola, I'll tell you that Paul Giamatti is no Marlon Brando. So everything is relative, m'kay?
Anyway, I'm going to see it, but even if there wasn't this Shyamalan-as-psychotic-egomaniac epic being projected onto the film's reputation, I feel like checking it out because it sounds campy as hell. Michael Atkinson has pointed out that the baddies in the movie, scrunts, share their name with a rather unflattering reference to a part of the female body, but he neglected to mention another of the film's supposedly invented terms that has precedence elsewhere: Bryce Dallas Howard's character is a magical creature called a narf. A narf! Ring any bells? Here's a referesher. Pay close attention to the very end of the video.
Well, Shyamalan did say that the film was based on a bedtime story for his kids. Maybe they dug the show.
Monday, July 17, 2006
Running parallel to this year’s slew of raucous summer spectacles is an unlikely subgenre kept stylistically meek as the box office underdog—namely, the environmental documentary. Born in the shadow of Al Gore’s mighty Powerpoint diatribe, Who Killed the Electric Car? may seem like a lesser son of this unofficial trend, but the comparison is hardly apt. I hear that Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is a rallying cry to avoid global catastrophe, and I really need to make time to see the damn thing before it melts to DVD. Its seasonal colleague tracks the unfortunate decimation of General Motor’s promising gas-free EV-1 automobiles, using a narrow prism of storytelling that skews the title into a mournful wail. With his film, director Chris Paine is hosting a wake.
I mean that literally: The greatest set piece is a staged funeral assembled by EV-1 drivers in the summer of 2003 protesting the suppression of their pilfered transportation. The attendees lost the vehicles over the course of a year following a coarse announcement by GM that it would not renew the leases for its electric models. Other developers quickly followed suit. The decision was part of numerous hindrances for the EV-1, which was assailed by oil moguls and avaricious manufactures worried about the future profitability of gas powered vehicles. Surprisingly, their opponents were not primarily driven by larger environmental purposes; countless testimonies from EV-1 drivers suggest that the car was a damn sexy ride (albeit only for short distances). Being an urban dweller and having little use for automobiles these days (except when I ride the bus), I can’t say I feel like I’m directly missing out on anything, but broadly speaking, the politics of greed is a universal tragedy.
Sunday, July 16, 2006
Friday, July 14, 2006
What is it about Stephen Colbert that makes his program so fundamentally different from the late night aesthetic of The Daily Show? Like most people I know, I favor Jon Stewart's soulful cynicism over Colbert's excessive imitation, but his approach creates an entirely seperate experience. It feels more like a guilty pleasure -- the same way that some people might describe The O'Reilly Factor. Anyone who laughs at Bill's show when he delivers his regular over-the-top indictments of the Left (his perspective, not mine) will find similar amusement watching Colbert. His satiric performance is complimented by the formal design of the show, most notably with The Word, an appropriation of the Talking Points segment on The O’Reilly Factor. Since Colbert’s act primarily intends to mock Bill O’Reilly’s demeanor, The Word becomes an extension of that imitation, since it is presented with a similar design and structure. One mechanism that can be used to understand how The Word satirizes Talking Points is through semiotics— the study of signs.
This is an academic theory that I've been trying to pull together, so it does get somewhat dense, but semiotics really do provide a great entry point for exploring how ideology works, so obviously they work just as well to show how ideology can be mocked (and anyway, you can really get the gist of the concepts with a little sloppy googling).
According to the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, a sign is defined as “anything that determines something else,” and has two basic elements: the signifier and the signified. On both The O’Reilly Factor and The Colbert Report, the signifier is the physical representation of Talking Points, which (broadly speaking) features the presenter on the left hand of the screen discussing an issue, while summaries of the points discussed are listed on the right hand of the screen. The signified is the meaning that viewers extract from this representation. On The O’Reilly Factor, the signified is O’Reilly’s opinion. Colbert satirizes O’Reilly’s discussion in Talking Points by pretending to put forth the same opinions with The Word. Since The Word looks like Talking Points but is obviously different, it functions as an “icon” that represents Talking Points. An icon is something related to a sign that gives it value. Using these definitions, the manifestation of the Talking Points structure in The Word forms an iconic relationship with Talking Points that redefines the sign (Talking Points) by changing the signifier from its original meaning on The O’Reilly Factor— making the viewer feel like they identify with O'Reilly—to obviating this effect, so that the signified becomes a satire of O’Reilly’s self-projected conservative perspective.
Whew. OK, if you get that much, the rest should fall into place rather easily.
On the same night, The Colbert Report featured this structure on The Word. Colbert is framed on the left of the screen, flanked on the right by a graphic that resembles the visual arrangement of the Talking Points graphic. Colbert introduces the topic with a general statement: “Don’t be fooled, nation. This country’s senior citizens are anything but dodos. They’re actually tonight’s Word.” The topic is established (senior citizens), in addition Colbert’s projected opinion (that they won’t go away). The first expression assembled on The Word graphic is “Silver Foxes,” a jokingly condescending reference to the elderly that imitates O’Reilly’s condescending reference to a “wail[ing]” left.
This demonstrates how Colbert satirizes the Talking Points lead-in by introducing his subject using O’Reilly’s parameters and applying them to an intentionally absurd statement. The signified has been redefined through an adaptation of Talking Points, giving new meaning to the original sign. Which seems to explain why the satire is so effective. Who needs Bill when you've got Stephen? Unless, you know, you actually buy into Bill's bravado. And that takes some serious effort.
 Professor Joe Cutbirth, lecture notes,
 Peirce, Charles Sanders. Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic.
 Since The Word is presented by Stephen Colbert, airs on a different show on a separate channel, is presented in front of live audience, and other obvious elements that immediately differentiate it from Bill O’Reilly’s Talking Points, it is justifiable to say that The Word is obviously not Talking Points, despite similarities.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Yep, pickles. They're freaky. And I can relate. Seriously.
Next a guest needs to wig out over onions and I'll know that I'm truly not alone in this universe.
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
NOT QUITE NAILING IT
Mini’s First Time/The OH in
The sporadically annual tradition of dueling plot treatments always begs comparison. Antz and A Bug’s Life were both witty experiments that suffered from a shared metaphor—insects utilize social hierarchy, get it? Armegeddon and Deep Impact were two sides of the same coin in the global catastrophe genre. This week offers performances by two seasoned actors from the wizened pantheon of popular middle-aged Hollywood men, both playing mack daddies to doe-eyed young women, which is more credible than talking critters— but possibly less credible than a sudden apocalypse.
The films operate under a self-imposed “independent” moniker, which is a distraction; low budgets notwithstanding, their baseline appeal stems from marquee names. Would you rather watch Danny DeVito nail Parker Posey in a pool or Alec Baldwin get it on with Nikki Reed? The OH in Ohio and Mini’s First Time are structured on this star-driven mechanism, respectively. But crass celebrity intertext only allows the material to look familiar, a ruse established in order to avoid inspection of the tenuous scenarios. And there’s a reason why a cigar is not always just a cigar.
In this battle of narratives, Mini’s wins by playing a safe card, relying on film noir conventions. That doesn’t make it particularly great, but at least it’s commendable for steering clear of cringe-worthy sentimentality. Narrated by Reed, who perfectly nailed adolescent angst in Thirteen, she now portrays Mini, a
As Mini drags Martin into the mix to be her ramshackle shill, the film suddenly becomes a mean-spirited Double Indemnity, especially after the clandestine homicide happens and Luke Wilson shows up playing a skeptical detective. Then the tensions build, mostly carried by
The principle cast has done better work in films that borrow noir elements:
By comparison, OH sets out as a routine sex comedy, and hardly musters more than a few incidental laughs. Posey plays orgasm-deficient Priscilla, “the prettiest girl” in
Meanwhile, Priscilla centers her romantic intentions on Wayne, the old guy who installs pools around town (DeVito), either because he’s a lonely little man or she digs his adorable mullet. DeVito is exuding comedic gold right now as the avaricious father figure on FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where he conveys the hilarious delusion that women find him attractive.
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Sunday, July 09, 2006
Since I'm a fan of Philip K. Dick's playfully morbid writing, I was mostly pleased with A Scanner Darkly. It follows the book fairly closely, unlike the more accessible adaptations of his material, which radically depart from his particular brand of pessimistic insight about the future of human technology (I'm thinking of Minority Report and Blade Runner, which both of have their merits, but that's thanks to Spielberg and Ridley Scott, respectively, who adhere to conventional aspects of science fiction). Scanner may be slow and sedated, but that's sort of the point, since it essentially documents the gradual decay of coherent subjectivity. Unlike Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, a visionary depiction of how hallucination can unsuspectingly turn from ectastic to horrific in a seamless stream of conciousness, Richard Linklater's direction places emphasis on the frusteration of drug abuse once the startling effects of the opiate become a given. If anything needed some tweaking, it's the cop thriller genre one-two punch surprise finale, which could have been spread across the film's running time to keep the longer dialogue sequences more fluid. But I'm assuming that fluidity was the last thing on the filmmaker's mind.
Linklater doesn't take full advantage of the rotoscope technology the way that most people would expect him to with this story. Since there are drugs, one would think things should get trippy, and they don't do that very often. Personally, I'm glad we're spared too many explorations of these addicts' wounded mindfucks. Keanu Reeves doesn't really act as much as he drifts around, and Woody Harrelson is eternally chill, limiting his range. It's pretty refreshing to just watch their characters strung out on the dreaded Substance D, in extended, rambling conversation, harboring the delusion that they're actually saying something interesting. That delusion, friends, is the ultimate tragedy of justifying excess.
And as a side note, it's true that Robert Downey Jr. really only plays himself these days, but in this case that works better than ever; I get the impression that only he could play a pretentious addict without coming across as condescending or stereotypical.
Friday, July 07, 2006
Meryl Streep being the thespian goddess she is, her icy riff on the ethics of power as fictionalized Runway editor Miranda Priestly is a beacon of brilliance in a fairly average story, which centers on Anne Hathaway as a wannabe New Yorker with high-minded journalistic intentions. Needless to say, working for Priestly as a low-end assistant provides little in the way of intellectual stimulation. The Big Bad Boss is presumed to be Vogue queen Anna Wintour, who claimed to find the film “entertaining.” Could Hitler have thought as much of The Great Dictator?
Second only to Streep is Stanley Tucci in the role of her faithfully queer advisor. If for no other reason, it is worthwhile seeing Prada for his show-stopping monologue, where he explains the immovably strict system as a necessary means of maintaining their flamboyant creative expression. If only the same process worked for the film.*A trunctated version of this review was published this week in the New York Press.
The rest of Ernest’s routine includes neglecting homework and hanging out with fully pubescent gal pal Christine (Samantha Futerman), who isn’t perceptive enough to realize that she’s leading him on. Stuck in a droll routine managing the motel’s desk and cleaning up the mess in post-coitus rooms, Ernest is like a young Travis Bickle, although not as defiantly unsocial. His fixation on developing as a writer is repressed by his managerial mother, who autocratically insists that her son channels all his energies into an administrative routine.
The tired Freudian twist is that she seems to project her own unfulfilled desire for a coherent family unit onto the success of their operation, which also includes Ernest’s tight-lipped grandfather and ebullient little sister. All of these characters are unsurprisingly transparent, since such heavy consequence is allotted to our youthful protagonist (the film’s first shot is his POV of a half-eaten egg roll). He neglects the tenuous household structure, forgoing family time to absorb the homophobic teasing from a neighborhood bully (Conor J. White).
These doleful salad days are cranked up a notch on the maturity scale with the arrival of a suave Korean-American guest named Sam (Sung Kang). When Sam isn’t busy screwing, he playfully bonds with Ernest over shared societal opposition. Although their relationship is eventually one-dimensional, it serves to highlight Ernest’s increasing awareness of how grown-up conflicts only differ from his own in the specifics, and for that purpose, their earlier scenes together have enough charm to sustain the narrative. When Sam’s sappy background story about a failed romance starts to murkily evolve, the plot thickens with a lot of hot air.
In a conclusive scene featuring subtle, gritty defiance against mindless rebellion, Ernest comes full circle to embrace the value system he had initially met with resistance. Once the arc is complete, it’s impossible to overlook the screen precedents—Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, for one, and Todd Solondz’s exploration of the interplay between sexual deviance and youth in both Palindromes and the unforgettably dour Welcome to the Dollhouse. While Kang’s film lacks the good-natured exploratory qualities of Truffaut’s storytelling, and isn’t mean-spirited like Solondz, it somehow feels like an oddball laboratory experiment to combine opposing formulas. Which it might be—Kang conceived of the script, at least partially, in a Sundance workshop. This being his directorial debut, it’s easy to see where ambition fails him. The compositions, usually unfolding in Jarmuschian long takes and viewed through wide angles, tend to look flat, and extended dialogue scenes grow tired. But like Ernest himself, there’s little doubt that Kang’s style will grow.*A version of this review was published this week in the New York Press.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
Kill Your Idols/Urbanscapes*
Rock documentaries work best without heavily mythologizing (the critique now being leveled at Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man), and instead focusing on how the iconization of musical expression becomes a platform for ideas, whether or not they were intended as such. S.A. Crary’s Kill Your Idol falls into the latter camp, noting that the alluring contradiction of the No Wave movement is that it insisted on carte blanche expression but still adheres to standards of creativity. A gruff blend of loud noises and jagged performance tactics, No Wave emerged primarily in lower Manhattan during the late 1970s as a knee-jerk reaction to more conventional punk rock and commercial pop. Crary offers plenty of live footage for the uninitiated, with precious performances by landmark stage screamers Suicide, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and others. Early in the film, the fierce montage featuring these concerts overrides the need for coherent storytelling, but in a sense, it’s a reasonable way to let the harsh sound settle in.
The greatest prize is seeing how eloquent the aging musicians are during interviews. Unfortunately, with the exception of occasional archival footage, Crary’s technique relies solely on letting his subjects speak, then providing imagery to underscore their point— in one ongoing discussion, No Wave darling Lydia Lunch scolds the new local rockers for relying on the homogenized combination of drums, guitar and bass, urging them to “pick up a tuba!” Cut to the image of a tuba, and so on. This approach to documentary construction can get tired quickly, and it does; fortunately, Lunch and her cohorts are loads of fun, the brand of which defies structural limitations. In other words, no wave, no boundaries.
Through no direct fault of its own, Kill Your Idol feels dated during its exploration of the contemporary rock scene. The setting is 2002, and the film has only now, in the wake of its Tribeca screening, received theatrical distribution. Consequently, interviews with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the Lower East Side and ruminations from local New Yorkers about The Strokes, two bands that have since exponentially increased their corporatized image and betrayed more than a few fans, both serve to illuminate the argument put forth that the future of rock has died—for now, at least. Now that’s an inconvenient truth.
Less progressive and more ponderous but equally esoteric is Urbanscapes, which could also be called Kill Your Edifice. There’s no story, per se, but certainly there is a myth in this slight avant-garde exploration of how classic American landscapes are in the process of gradually being demolished. The filmmakers, Lorena Luciano and Filipo Piscopo, employ a technique implemented by Jay Leyda in his 1931 experiment A Bronx Morning: a series of slow pans across architecture (in this case, awe-inspiring colorful shots from across the country) glorifies a building’s unique place in the universe, which here serves to tell a sob story. While never consistently compelling, Urbanscapes has a dreamlike quality that rewards patient viewers. It blends its scenery shots with talking heads who live in and around the structures, one of whom claims that the archaic building designs “guide your mind,” an entrancing argument that, sadly, would never hold up in court.
*Versions of these reviews were published this week in the New York Press.
Strangers with Candy*
Although it doggedly insists on killing time with low-grade race and fart jokes, Strangers with Candy scores enough decent laughs through a calculated cast of comedic performers to sustain its loony 83 minutes. Amy Sedaris, adapting her character from Comedy Central’s deservedly defunct TV series, is a purely physical comedian, cackling and jeering her way through a flimsy story, essentially owning it. She plays Jerri Blank, an aging ex-street thug with an absurdly inflated record, returning from jail to find her beloved father comatose. Poised to wake him up with good spirits (and urged on by the giddy family doctor, hilariously portrayed by Ian Holm), Jerri returns to high school and fields locker room social sharks while aiming to win the science fair. Cue the vignettes.
Just when Sedaris’ geriatric time bomb persona starts to get weary, Stephen Colbert saves the day. Playing the school’s quirky science teacher (the second of The Daily Show gang to do so, following Jon Stewart’s more restrained role in The Faculty) Colbert is essentially riffing on his mock-O’Reilly persona, a cross-reference that enables him and the film’s other random personalities to enhance their pop culture immortality (Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Kristie Alley all drop in, possibly along their way to more refined projects).
With no solid structure but a consistently caustic wit, Candy often has a surrealist tone that makes it more comparable to the classroom scenes in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life or Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty—rather than Mean Girls— but it’s obviously less inspired. In terms of the premise, Billy Madison does it better, but that’s not saying much.
*A trunctated version of this review was published this week in the New York Press.