Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Next Wave (Julia Stiles on the digital revolution)

This video showed up recently on YouTube, and it's pretty brilliant. The 12-year old Julia Stiles as a hacker prodigy, covering the digital underground for the school paper in Ghostwriter. .. forget Marshall McLuhan and Neo. This is the Internet messiah that we all overlooked.

(in case you can't understand the multi-jigawatt decibel oscillations of this Internet hyperstream, scroll down... I've done the best I can to make a transcript, and I put it at the end of this entry.)

Anyone remember 1993? Some bloggers probably don't, and even for me it's hardly more than a pair of tail-lights in the fog of memory. It was two years before Hackers, and the infamous Time Cyberporn article, both of which brought a seedy infamy to the circonicum tubes of the Interweb. It was before iPods and the Star Wars Kid and All Your Base, before wiki and blogs and Penny Arcade, before anyone had heard of the RIAA or thought of free Internet music, before CSS and Flash and VRML (okay, so that one never caught on).

Yes, sir, 1993 was the springtime of contemporary culture. The Internet was still a seedling, and do you remember how much hope we had for it? It was going to revolutionize our culture, create a new era of communication and literacy, and break down barriers of age, ethnicity, and ideology. The Internet was an atom bomb whose fuse had just been lit, and we were all right there with Julia Stiles, listening for the majesty of the blast.

The Internet delivered on some of its promises, and it stalled out on others. Is media more democratic? Absolutely, and the phenomenon is only increasing. Is the whole world wired up and spinning in a state of digitally-mediated peace? No, not exactly... like every utopian technology, the Internet was appropriated by the wealthy and privileged, and it hasn't managed to break down that division quite yet. Even so, our lives are vastly richer, and we're vastly more intelligent as a culture, as a result of the Internet.

Even so, it seems harder to commit to the digital age now than it was to be excited for it back at the beginning. The flowering of digital technology has gone hand in hand with a growth of cynicism, the natural by-product of a culture that's suddenly exposed to all its own highs and lows. Images like this "Special Olympics" announcement, and the coining of terms like Godwin's Law (that people just have to bring up Hitler every time they have a fucking debate) are indications of our distrust of Internet discussion. Bloggers spend a lot of time disparaging each other, like in this blogger's post, where he bitches about MySpace users while profoundly misinterpreting Ze Frank's brilliant (and truly optimistic) post on democratization of design. As the Internet's become part of our daily experience, we've also come up with an array of words for our digital pet peeves: spam, trolls, pop-ups, flame wars, and noobs.

Where did our excitement go? Is disenchantment a necessary by-product of experience? Did the Internet live up to our expectations, and if not, where did it fail, and where did WE fail? Is cyberspace still a frontier, or is it a cultural junkyard, like every frontier we try to colonize?

I'm not immune to Internet cynicism... I shake my head in dismay when people disrupt Wikipedia articles, and I'm thoroughly tired of reading arguments where people exaggerate my arguments so far out of proportion that they can compare me to Hitler. But every so often, I feel overcome with appreciation for the digital revolution that's connected me with a world beyond little suburbia. Bloggers like Ze Frank and William Gibson and Lawrence Lessig bring it out, and at those moments, I can relate to that young Julia Stiles, an explorer on a frontier that's still unconquered territory.

If I was that twelve-year old talking to Julia Stiles, you know what I'd say to her?

"Yeah, I've read Neuromancer. Twice."

And then, just before I fainted from the pressure of talking to a pretty girl, I'd manage to get one more thing out. I'd say, "Yeah, Julia, you're right. This is the place where I can say whatever I want, and be judged on my words, not on my wrinkled shirt. As long as we put our faith in those console cowboys... as long as we keep believing in cyberspace, and investing our time and energy into making it more intelligent... then we can also have faith that it'll change the world throughout, and far beyond, our own meager lifetimes."

*swoon* *faint* *Nurse's office*

[transcript of dialouge from YouTube video]

"Do you know anything about hackers? Have you jammed with the console cowboys in cyberspace?"


"Ever read Neuromancer?"


"Ever experienced the New Wave? Next Wave? Green wave? Or cyberpunk? I didn't think so. I'll handle the hacker stories."

"Yeah, I think you should. Where'd you learn about all this hacker stuff?"

[pointing to the computer] "In there. It's a world where you're judged by what you say and think... not by what you look like. A world where curiousity and imagination is a power. [pause to return to real life] We need that paper here, people! Work with me! Work with me!"

[end transcript]

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Newspaper critics: The Journey to Irrelevance

Pop Politics recently posted a shot blurb on the obsolescence of movie critics, mainly referencing an L.A. Times article, found here. The decreasing relevance of newspaper critics may be shocking to some people, especially those used to traditional journalism for their cultural commentary, but to this blog editor, this phenomenon is almost too obvious to warrant mention.

Luckily, both the original essay and PopPolitics' commentary elaborate on this phenomenon enough that they prompt a response. The Times' reaction to this "news" is cynically traditional, in my decidedly neophilic opinion. This is the assumption that we're seeing the downfall of meaningful cinema, and I think critics who subscribe to it are the ones going out of date the fastest. Just look at this L.A. Times paragraph:

"But today we're in an era in which shared enthusiasm matters more than analysis, stylistic cool trumps emotional substance. The world has changed. The vanguard filmmakers of the '60s — the era that spawned our last great generation of critics — were Godard, Kubrick and Antonioni, filmmakers under the spell of the intellectual fervor sparked by existentialism and Marxism. The filmmakers with a youth-culture following today, be it Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, are largely ideology free, masters of detachment and stylistic homage. Like their audience, they prefer irony to Big Ideas."

This is an unfair appraisal at best, and a spot of messy old-world elitism at worst. Modern cinema is a massive, highly-varied mediasphere with every kind of innovator... from political risk-takers like Michael Moore and Hany Abu-Assad, to passionate storytellers like Jeunet and Aronofsky, to industry personalities like Charlie Kaufman, there's a demonstrable "vanguard" of thoughtful filmmakers at work in the industry.

The fact that these innovators aren't the highest-grossing filmmakers? Irrelevant. In 1968, when Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, it didn't even make it to the top ten... Planet of the Apes, Rosemary's Baby, and The Odd Couple all beat it out. And do you really think Antonioni's Blowup made it into any top-tens in 1966? Yeah right. The huge junkyard of consumable media is very different from the parched desert of high-art film, and this is how it's always been.

So critics have the choice: on one hand, they could offer their services to the artists, using traditional aesthetic and analytical criteria to isolate the movies that should become genuine classics. On the other hand, they could inhabit the vast world of mass media. That means sorting out and fully understanding the everyday media world of sensory stimulation, rampant reference, and compulsive marketing. It gets messy. I know from experience.

This dilemma is more salient today because the newspaper is losing its mass credibility. Once upon a time, the critics and the newspapers were the only source of authority anyone could depend on, so they had an unrivaled voice of praise or condemnation. Now word of mouth is just so damn available... you can find a massive sampling of opinions, leveled from every preferential and movie-going perspective, and you don't have to depend on the words of a few sanctioned individuals to be your sole source of feedback. At the same time, as the corporate media machine is being lambasted by every political persuasion, the credibility of newspapers is understandably declining. We don't trust reviewers any more than we trust the press corps these days.

So there's a double effect going on: critics are losing popular relevance, and more and more, they're seeing themselves as the sole defenders of artistic integrity. By both their own power and by the sheer volume of modern mass media, critics are being forced deeper and deeper into "traditional cimena" land. The words of L.A. Times critics Kenneth Turan (as reported by L.A. Times writer Patrick Goldstein) are exemplary:

"I'm sorry, but we're not supposed to be applause meters," says Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan. "If you wanted to go to a restaurant for a special occasion and someone said, 'Why not go to McDonald's? More people go there than any other place.' Would that really be enough to convince you?"

And if that wasn't harsh enough, check out this elitist drivel, also reported (not sanctioned) by Goldstein:

Reviewing a collection of critical essays by the long-time Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins, Time film critic Richard Schickel contrasted Giddins' work with "history-free and sensibility-deprived" bloggers who regularly "blurb the latest Hollywood effulgence."

Kenneth is right... he, and his fellow reviewers, have an obligation to offer a better perspective than the brute-force box office numbers. But there's a subtext that may or may not be applicable: Turan and Schnickel might also be revealing their unwillingness to see cinema as entertainment. That's how you go from that desert of the avante-garde to the landscape of the popular, and that's how you anticipate, and influence, an ADHD-ridden public. You look at the characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of a film that make it entertaining.

Everyone who faces a new set of conditions has a choice: change or become outdated. I'm not saying critics should sanction stupid movies, but they have to account for a few new variables in order to stay relevant, and to influence the movie-going public (i.e. in order to do their jobs).

First, they have to expand their reach beyond newspapers, because newspapers are losing credibility... whether they can swim or not, they have to get the fuck off the sinking ship.

Second, if they want to become cultural forces instead of empty voices drifting into the shadows, they have to account for entertainment value and marketing focus. If Kubrick and Antonioni are your standard, you won't be able to tell people what they're going to like.

I'm not saying the film critic has to become a mass media adolescent, but like any character facing a critical juncture, he's going to have to make a choice.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Off the music video main drag (OkGo and Gnarles Barkley offer alternatives)

The music video is a universally abused form... directors throw visual gimmicks, old tropes, and intense special effects together and shake them, and if they have enough studio backing, they throw the resulting masturbatory vomit onto MTV, where that sort of thing belongs. The ubiquitous tendency of music videos to supernova has overshadowed a little-known fact: music videos can be beautiful and delicate, just like any other developed art form. It's left up to a few thoughtful bands, like Gnarles Barkley and OkGo, to keep proving this by offering alternatives to the overwhelming onslaught of hyperproduced MTV tripe.

Barkley's video, Crazy, and OkGo's music video for Here We Go Again are very different, but I contend that they're both aiming at the same target. By way of very different paths, both videos are stepping off the freight train of music video excess and showcasing a sort of visual minimalism, mobilizing simplicity, symmetry, and continuity to emphasize the strengths of the respective songs.

I mentioned the sweeping differences between these two videos, and I'll examine them from that direction first. The primary difference is production value... Crazy's brilliant, elaborate Rorschach inkblots must have taken hundreds of hours (at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars) to tweak and rotoscope on a high-end graphics machine. This kind of work is painfully detailed and time-consuming... I've tried it. I could hardly make the computer spell my damn name. Whatever the time investment, this production value adds up to a smooth, meditative visual effect with a subliminal edge, something that unfolds the same way Cee-Lo's voice unfolds from Danger Mouse's bassy beats.

OkGo's production value, on the other hand, is basement-dwelling. It looks like the guys spent a few hours messing around with treadmills and a video camera, and that their bizarre, choreographed stroke of genius was the child of their meagerly-funded free time. Note the contrast in the music, and how it reflects in the contrast in production quality... Gnarles Barkley's music is smooth and polished, so the video is the result of a marathon of tinkering and beautification, whereas OkGo's music is freewheeling and spontaneous, so the video is a back-room jaunt of power-pop tomfoolery. In both cases, though, the effect of the minimalism is to distill the essential effect from the visuals so the music is complimented on the most effective level.

Consider some simple similarities, though... both videos are one long cut, with no breaks or interruptions in the cinematic rhythm. Compare that to videos like The Perfect Drug, which jump around madly with no apparent regard for continuity. In the Barkley and the OkGo videos, the image stands on its own, and its pace is enough to keep the watcher's attenion for the whole song. Reznor's video depends entirely on the novelty of each separate image, because no matter how gorgeous your set, you can only watch Trent stand on a statue of a hand for so long.

Another similarity is each video's dependence on symmetry. This one is pretty incidental, but it makes the experience of a video seem more careful, more calculated, and more focused. The unflinching, uncomplicated camera action, designed to emphasize the visual effect of gorgeous symmetrical images, is a welcome change from the flying camera monkey paradigm that we get in videos like Creed's Matrix-obsessed Higher.

Finally (the points are getting less and less interesting) there's the simple fact of sytlistic cohesion in my featured videos. OkGo: one long low-budget camera shot of guys jumping around on treadmills. Gnarles: nothing but shifting monochromatic shapes, drifting in and out according to a surreally intuitive visual logic. These days everybody wants to mix CGI and animation and live shots, which is awesome, sure, like, totally, but it exposes a serious conceptual deficiency in music videos like Freak On a Leash. Korn uses a ton of styles and cinematic gimmicks because they're incapable of developing a visual idea to the point where it makes the overstimulated fans happy.

Now, don't get me wrong... I need my share of aesthetic excess. After all, I'm the guy whose favorite movies include The Rundown and Wild Zero (haven't seen that one? You HAVE to check it out). Still, I want my experience of music to penetrate deeper than my experience of bad film, and music video effects extravaganzas usually make me want to get up and get another soda.

I'm profoundly relieved that there are still innovators, thinking through their aesthetic approaches, making my music video consumption just a little more satisfying.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Gestalt of Olive and Richard (Psychoanalysis and Little Miss Sunshine)

Heeeey, for once I went and saw an actual movie, instead of just surfing trailers. It was a slick flick called Little Miss Sunshine. I immensely enjoyed it. So did every other reviewer, apparently, and I'm glad they agree with me.

There are a ton of themes underlying the narrative of Little Miss Sunshine. Off the top of my head: the effects of modern complications (drugs, profiteering, homosexuality) on traditional family structure; the embodiment of parental authority in children, including those who are trying to actively reject this parental influence; the power of innocence to subvert cynicism and authority... seriously, this film was emotionally complex, and there were a lot of themes at play. I'm going to focus on what I see as the primary one.

Certain theorists have pointed out a transition in psychology that happens to children when they develop full command of language. That transition is from a lower to a higher order of thought, from something called the Imaginary order to something called the Symbolic order. Give me a sec, and I'll try to explain the difference.

In the Imaginary order, the child is preoccupied with its own self-image, and it defines itself as a whole, opposed to everything else outside it. This causes identification with the mother (i.e. "I am...") and opposition to the father (i.e. "I am not..."). It's a black-and-white universe, self and not-self, where the child is concerned with protecting and asserting his own identity and opposing it to other identities.

That's the Imaginary order: me and not-me. The transition I spoke of happens when the child fully integrates into the Symbolic order, the mode of interaction where everything is mediated through language. Suddenly, there's more than just a "me" and an "everything else". The child realizes that there are other subjects, other interests to balance against its own, and a whole complicated network of personalities and interactions that it has to account for.

Want an illustration? Go see Little Miss Sunshine. At the beginning of the movie, Richard's perspective is: "I need to assert myself as a winner. A winner is what I am. A loser is what I'm not, and what I should not be." Though we don't fully realize it, this perspective has infected his children, as well... Olive is stressed out about the possibility of losing in the childrens' beauty pageant, and Dwayne is so obsessed with his goal of becoming a fighter pilot that he's systematically renouncing all the important teenage experiences in the interim. Frank is a by-product of competition, as well, and by defining himself within a dichotomy of rivalry, success, and faliure, he's already faced his Imaginary breakdown (his castration, in psychoanalytical terms).

So, looked at in a certain light, this movie is about a family's transition from the Imaginary order to the Symbolic order. The artifice of competition, centered around "winning" and asserting oneself, is gradually penetrated by the more complex factors at work in the real world. Winner versus loser is broken up, first by Grandpa, who tells Olive that the only losers are people who are too afraid to compete in the first place. Other factors get in the way of the competition dynamic, as well... Dwayne's personal tragedy is that his efforts are thwarted by factors that are genuinely beyond his control (I hope this wasn't a spoiler), and Richard learns that some goals (getting your kid into a beauty pageant) require you to give up your pride and prostrate yourself in front of an administrator with big hair.

And the climax? I won't spoil it, but suffice it to say that in the end, the competition dichotomy... us versus them, winner versus loser... is broken down entirely by the forces of family and community. In the end, certain members of the family (Dwayne and Richard in particular) have to give up their simplistic ideas of success in favor of a broader paradigm that accounts for family and mental health.

Despite Little Miss Sunshine's indie-film humility and its tongue-in-cheek irony, it's a film that wrestles with one of the toughest issues in contemporary culture. In a profoundly competitive culture, we're coaxed into defining ourselves by the competitions we participate in, and we find ourselves alienated by compulsory standards of success and failure. But as Olive, Dwayne, and Richard himself ultimately discover, it's not our win-loss record that defines us... it's the network of our relationships with the people who are an inevitable part of our lives.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Rundown versus The Marine = The Rock vs Cena, and I know who I'm betting on

Just found the trailer for John Cena's The Marine.

Anyone else feel like they've been here before?

Seriously, I can't wait to see Cena in character, because The Rundown was one of my favorite movies of the past ten years. It's brainless, brilliant, a pioneer of choreographed sensory stimulation. I wish I had seen it on the big screen, but owning it and watching it once every couple months is at least a reasonable substitute.

So The Rock seems to have set a precedent that John Cena is going to be following. WWE Wrestler with big personality discovers the broken-down world of action stardom, and recognizes it as a niche that needs to be filled. Our current big-budget action stars are sputtering (Van Damme) or governing California (Arnold)... Vin Deisel effectively kicked himself in the shriveled testicles with The Pacifier, which probably wasn't such a good idea just before the transition to serious film. Samuel L. Jackson still does us proud from time to time, but really, the world of testosterone acting is in need of a few new players.

The Rock was really a winning ticket. He's made a few solid films, including a Conan-the-Barbarian equivalent, and though I haven't seen Walking Tall or Doom, I must repeat that The Rundown was among my favorite movies EVER. I'm also sure that Johnny Bravo is going to absolutely wicked... I can't think of anyone better than The Rock for that coveted role.

I don't really need to dwell on the similarities between these films. It's almost a formula: you cast a muscley dude as a One-Man Army in a jungle-like setting, fighting an international criminal/dictator played by the baddest-looking actor you can find. You have to fulfill a quota of gun-toting action and explosions, but that sort of sequence has to be balanced out with a number of hand-to-hand action sequences. This is especially important when your actors used to be professional wrestlers (read: stuntmen).

So can The Marine supplant The Rundown as the baddest wrestler-cum-soldier-of-fortune movie ever? Let's see what it has to go up against.

First of all, The Rock is almost flawless in this role. In The Rundown, he's a mob enforcer, but he's immaculately classy, even after falling down a cliffside and landing in a mountain spring. Cena looks more like an army brat resurrected as a jock. Not that I really care, since I'm just there for the brawls and explosives, but it's pretty validating to see a guy dressed in a business suit beat the shit out of a professional football team.

The Rundown also wasn't afraid of a little homosexual tension, which I count as a huge mark in its favor. It's a modern joke, and a film criticism trope, that buddy films are rife with repressed homosexuality, but in a scene where Beck unzips Travis so he can pee, the writers aren't even bothering with the repression part any more. Compare this to The Marine, which seems to make a point of the fact that Cena's character is a virile, married young stallion who's plowing through a paramilitary force to save his wife. The shots of a muscle-bound wrestler tied to a chair seem to be more loaded with issues than a tongue-in-cheek buddy picture.

Finally, on villains... while Robert Patrick, of Terminator fame, may be a little more grim as far as criminal masterminds go, he a good choice for a cold-blooded gangster. Still, I think Christopher Walken takes the Badass-muhfucking-CAKE for villian with the best personality. He's a legend, and The Rundown was written for him. Check out the speech:

"I feel like a little boy who's lost his first tooth, put it under his pillow, waiting [weird pause] for the tooth-fairy to come. Only [pause] two [pause] evil burglars have crept in my window, and snatched it before she could get here... [a shot of Brazilians looking confused] Wait a second, do you understand [dramatic pause] the CONCEPT of the tooth-fairy? [more confused Brazilians] She takes the god damned thing, and gives you a quarter. They've got my tooth. I want it back."

Oh my God, it was an awesome filmic moment. And, on the topic of depth, Walken's eccentric dictatorial personality wasn't all self-righteousness. He actually came across as an incompetent narcissist a good deal of the time, as a guy who was great at hiding in a command center but who was destined to fail when it came to looking his victims in the face.

I'm not saying that it's impossible. Cena makes a hell of a marine, and they use a killer stunt that appears to have been pioneered by The Matrix: Reloaded... the car, rotating in midair, getting shot up on the underside and exploding before it lands.

All I'm saying is that The Marine has a lot to live up to.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Red Flecks on a Chess Board (Black Dahlia, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance)

I have to note the branding of Black Dahlia, whose trailer has recently appeared on Apple Trailers. The obsidian black, chalky white, and smear of red may be a gimmicky combination, but they really have an effect on me.

So today I'm going to discuss graphic design, which should be fun, because it was my major as an undergrad. Specifically, I'm going to discuss two functions of design, and how this particular branding scheme works, or doesn't work, in terms of each. I'll call it "Red Fleck Branding." If you want a good idea, take another look at that Splash screen at, linked above.

You may have seen this look before. It was used to exceptional effect in a recent indie film called Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, primarily in the opening credits. Seriously, this was one of the most brilliant opening sequences I've seen in a long time. It'll provide a good point of comparison, so I don't have to analyze Black Dahlia in a vacuum.

So here are two things designers think about...

1) Pure aesthetic effect.

A lot of designers are hung up on the fact that they're business people, rather than real artists, because they serve the content and the client they're designing for. Even so, one of the basic skills of a designer is assembling a cohesive look and mobilizing a set of stylistic influences to create something unique. Rendering images that are both novel and attractive is an artist's skill.

What makes the Red Fleck Branding style so effective is that it mobilizes two decorative modes that have traditionally been opposed to one another. On one hand, they're minimalist, allowing them to place emphasis on very specific points of interest, like the red lips and the drip of blood from the mouth. On the other hand, however, they're florid, with a sensual, organic interplay of curves that was once associated with Art Nouveau and people like Alfons Mucha. Minimalist but organic... the extraction and isolation of forms that make a profound subliminal impression... it makes for an effective approach.

Now, I'm not saying that either of these films (Black Dahlia, Sympathy) are the first media to do this, but they make it work really well.

2) Appropriateness to the content.

Paul Rand is quoted as saying "Design is the method of putting form and content together." This is the broadest and most consistent claim that defines design... designers are preoccupied with making a presentation fit the content that's being presented, so the media comes across as a cohesive whole.

Here is where we come to the meat of the design discussion, and it's where these two films start to diverge. Now, Black Dahlia is about a 1940's Hollywood murder and a web of neurosis and obsession that the murder initiates. The trailer makes it look like a gritty, grainy visual composition, referencing the silver screen projection quality from the old film reels. An awesome effect, mobilized brilliantly in the branding of a similar film coming out: Hollywoodland.

As much as I adore the razor-sharp colors and curves of Red Fleck Branding, do they really reflect this time period and this milieu? The use of sans-serif type, the artificially high contrast in the images, and the sharp curves reminiscent of vector graphics all invoke a contemporary, even cyber-punk feel, and the sudden appearance of film grain in the trailer causes some cognitive dissonance.

Consider, by contrast, the use of this theme in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. It's another gritty film about a gruesome sequence of murders, but the combination of narrative elements... the strong, unabashadly feminine protagonist, the avowed use of colors as symbolism, and the reference to prison tatoos and decorative gilding on the protagonist's pistol... all these aspects serve to tie the narrative to its visual treatment.

If that wasn't enough, take another look at that intense opening sequence. The interlaced themes of the film, violence and stark beauty, are brought together in an unrelated but surreally relevant image: the image of the cake in the bakery, white flour and red glaze, and the knife used to carve it up. In my admittedly humble opinion, it rivals Kyle Cooper's infamous Se7en opening credits.

So props to Hollywood for picking up on a strong visual theme, and for making it work its magic in another gorgeous stylization... but more so, props to Chan-Woo Park for doing it first, and doing it best.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Royal Chic (Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette)

The trailer for Sophia Coppola's new movie Marie Antoinette may make you think of a lot of things. It may invoke a mental picture of hipsters taking over the French monarchy. It may make you want to take torches and pitchforks to Williamsburg. It may make you look at modern pre-pubescent girls and shake your head at their pronounced lack of leadership skills.

As for me? It makes me think of social structures.

Marie Antoinette existed at a strange time and place for politics. 18th-century France was one of the first cultures to embrace public politics, and it was the birthplace of the celebrity personality. Okay, so democracy had happened before (ancient Greece?) and politics have always affected the plebian masses... but this process was never so transparent and urgent as it was in France, at this time, with these people.

The resulting phenomena: capricious passion about political personalities, love and hatred and anger that could explode and flatline with no apparent warning or justification. This volatile public opinion was a form of distraction for the masses, who weren't particularly fascinated with their own everyday lives, but it was complicated by the fact that the "public personalities" were burdened by responsibility for state affairs.

As much as we'd like to hold modern celebrity culture in contempt, it's more rational in at least this one respect. These days, celebrities are free to flaunt their personalities any way they want... making statements about international issues or insulting jews and calling cops "Sugartits," it's all par for the course. Ultimately, bad (read: autonomous, irresponsible) behavior can just run down the drainpipe, because Hollywood is basically a strange and irrelevant universe unto itself. The worst an idiot actor has to fear is that people won't watch his or her movies.

Now, admittedly, there's some celebrity status wrapped up in the political world, and it seems like some politicians have coasted on the merits of their personalities. But take note: even if we're only concerned with conformism or charisma, at least we have to pretend we have political reasons for our policy decisions. Ultimately, politicians are held to a certain type of logic.

That's how politics and entertainment have evolved: they now work on separate modes of logic and discourse... reason, responsibility, and accountability (politics) versus spectacle, amusement, and personality (celebrity).

People like Marie Antoinette had to deal with a world where these two things were mixed up in an irresolvable orgy of public opinion. She was a politician who was watched like she was on reality TV, a victim of the soul-destroying voyeurism that's embodied in modern paparazzi culture. Having a sexually inept husband wasn't just an issue for the tabloids... it was an issue of heredity, of physiological defect, and of bad leadership.

This was the life of a celebrity suddenly placed at the head of a political structure. Just think: you're raised from childhood in a world where you have every privilege, where you're taught that your superiority entitles you to life as you see fit, and then you're thrust into a role of personal responsibility for a country in turmoil... your become the sovereign ruler of a public that's straining at the leash, desperate to blame someone for their discontent, and your life and death depend upon your perceived political success. A life of leisure, suddenly placed under the most intense pressure any individual is ever asked to withstand.

It's hard to cast Marie Antoinette as either a hero (as Sophia Coppola seems to have attempted) or as a villain (as public opinion once held of her) because she was at the nexus of so many uncontrollable forces. It's not that she didn't have autonomy... it's just that her image is a cross-product of vicious gossip, of royalist legend, of decadent socialization, of scandal, of public scrutiny, of a general revolutionary cynicism regarding authority, and of a thousand other things.

And this, I hope, is what Coppola captures: that anyone living in the face of an opinionated public, especially an adolescent female thrust into a world of power and politics, automatically loses control of their own image and identity. In a politically cynical, celebrity-centered culture, public image is torn away from the actual personality and behavior that should ideally determine it. Marie Antoinette's final heroism is simply to have lived her own life in the midst of a world that tried to make her into a thousand things at once.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Balboa versus Meat Loaf: Who Rocks Harder?

It's gonna be the season of brute force nostalgia. Two classic favorites are rolling back in and showing us what made them so awesome in the first place. The fact that they're working in two different media? Irrelevant. Ass gets kicked either way.

In the red corner, we have Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in a final installment of the famous boxing series that I was too young to appreciate. I grew up in Philly, though, so I knew about Rocky. I knew every time I wanted to visit an art museum.

In the blue corner, we have Marvin Lee Aday, returning as Meat Loaf for Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose. I keep accidentally typing his name as Meat Load, but it's kind of appropriate, because Aday is gonna bring us a killer new load of theatrical rock and roll.

In a world of shit-faced remakes and bad song covers, this might seem painfully typical. A resurrection of content we're happier to leave in the cradle of nostalgia, to sing along with on the radio and quote to other people our age (or older)... we don't need anyone dragging BOOH and Rocky's I - V out of their resplendent pop culture crypts, right? Is it going to be any better than it was seeing Jessica Simpson blaspheming Daisy Duke?

The answer is YES, people, because there's a critical principle at work here. These may reference our collective childhood, but they're not remakes or revitalizations. The classics always pale in comparison to their imitations, and nothing's gonna change that. But these aren't imitations. There are the original artists, coming back to defend their titles.

If Vin Diesel was to play a new Rocky, I'd be pissed, and the last thing I could ever want to see is a cover of "Life is a Lemon" by some jackasses like Linkin Park. But instead, we have two classic acts coming back, working under new conditions, to show us what they're made of. Agreed, the guitars in BOOH III are marginally updated (as per this demo song), and Rocky is now fighting a young punk who's grown up in the hip-hop generation.

But that's really the essence of the thing. It's not actually Meat Loaf versus Rocky... it's The Originals (aka RockyLoaf) versus The Imitators. That's right, neuvo metal heads and young punk action stars, it's time to pay dues to the people who inspired you. The Rock versus Rocky Balboa. Nickelback versus Meat Loaf himself.

Somebody thought to dig up the roots. And this Fall, they've got me in their corner.

Friday, August 04, 2006


There's a dangerous new initiative, born in the black bowels of the infamous "Internet," that threatens the integrity of our well-oiled universe. This bad seed, of which the dangerous radical Stephen Colbert is a declared proponent, is "Wikiality." Watch the video. Try not to panic.

After all, our society is the culmination of modern technology, a paradise of well-designed intelligence and media integration tailored to keeping us intellectually comfortable. We get our news from the enlightened hegemon, filtered through the six major media outlets, and we're not even saddled with the responsibility of choosing between points of view. If we really want information in so-called "specialized areas of culture" (though I can't imagine anybody is attached to this option), we can always go to the easily-accessible academic journals awaiting us on every magazine rack. We're finally past the dark ages of haphazard experimentation with media, or with the social structures that support it.

And then came Wikipedia, threatening to overturn everything we've worked for. Wikipedia made available more information than the average "Internet user" could ever want, inducing the vertigo, the veritable phantasmagoria, of being able to figure things out... a malignant, addictive condition I like to call "information dizziness."

Now, if Wikipedia had just copied, word for word, the information presented in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, with sufficient editorial input from the Big Six and the U.S. Government, then it would have done a great service to the information age. But Wikipedia's open editorial policy allows the Internet-using public, a social body FAR too large to effectively generate content, to contribute to information that they never had to worry about before. The result was mass chaos on a scale comparable to the LA riots: millions of people, downloading gigabytes of information, and always having to think about where it might be coming from. Suddenly thousands were resorting to devices like "induction," "deduction," "critical reading," and "fact-checking," instincts we thought Mass Media had finally deprecated.

And now, iconoclasts like Colbert advocate a new structure of thought, a tumerous development springing from the cancerous cells of Wikipedia. This social structure would guarantee that every person is cursed with their own autonomy, and people are left paranoid in the dark, scrutinizing every accepted idea to verify its integrity. Farewell comfortable womb of certainty, hello cold universe of critical thought. Colbert calls this new system "Wikiality."

Does Colbert understand the full ramifications of his dangerous rhetoric? A world where the truisms at the very base of society are in dispute? Where each person is responsibile for his or her OWN outlook, and where citizens are forced to doubt the decisions and emotional reactions benevolently dictated to them? A place where people have to think, question, and evaluate practically EVERYTHING they're told by the information apparatus?

You may go gentle into that good night, but as for me... they will not take me alive.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Bigger Than You Can Imagine (The Assassination of Jesse James)

By and large, trailers are afterthoughts. They give a quick glimpse of the stars involved in a movie, give away a couple of the more obvious aesthetic devices, and allow a momentary glimpse of the stylistic choices made by the director. From trailers of arty films - Garden State - to the teasers for action flicks - Miami Vice - the model is pretty standard. A few high-intensity action shots or closeups, one joke to give a vague suggestion of character, and an enigmatic or suspenseful closing cut so we want to go see whether the dude makes it out alive.

So when I see a gorgeous, well-developed trailer like The Assassination of Jesse James, it makes me feel like I just watched a good film for free.

It's so brief, but it's so beautiful... it goes so far beyond the normal "visual stimuli" paradigm, it's not even funny. The video is composed of three shots of the narrator and three shots of Jesse James, his object of fascination. Jesse James never speaks, and he hardly moves, and Robert Ford spends the whole trailer interacting with something just off-camera. In his first shot, he's watching it ominously, and in the other two shots, he's talking to it.

First, a simple formal consideration... overall, three shots of the voyeur, and three shots of his object. The first shot is Jesse James emerging from a bank of fog, distilling himself from the historical setting of the film. The last shot is him blowing out a candle, closing the curtain on his own story. Jesse James is the background, and he's the object of the gaze, as evidenced by his appearance in a photograph. He frames the flow of the trailer, and his ambient presence, set against the verbal and sensory presence of Robert Ford, is the backbone of the experience.

The confessional is a worthy model for this trailer. Jesse James, silent and pensive, is the priest. This sequence of shots, the confessional, is his domain, where he waits in the shadows to hear the testimonial of his assassin. Robert Ford is the sinner, shown behind glass in his first on-screen appearance... in his final one, he's bathed in the garish white light of interrogation. And because James is such an ambient presence, a lurking face that stares from a shadow without speaking, it's hard to tell whether Robert Ford is confessing to the audience, or to James himself.

The trailer drips with so much anticipation, I can't even hold still. After I saw it, I went and looked up the movie on IMDB, and looked up Jesse James on Wikipedia, and my newfound Wild West education only makes me want me to see the film even more.

That's how we do it, people. Good trailers make for good first weekends.