Saturday, March 6, 2010

It has come to this

I keep getting Asian porn spam in my comments so until further notice comments are turned off to all but other members of the blog. Not that this really inconveniences anyone....

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Not a Movie for People Who Hate Movies

I'm on a bit of a jag against IFC lately. Shortly, I will post a brief rant against their programming in general, as well as what will be a likely separate and somewhat longer consideration of their documentary Indie Sex. Today, I want to say a couple things about one of the movies promoted by that documentary, John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus. Interested parties should consult my other blog, Movies for People Who Hate Movies, for my thoughts about a movie, and a filmmaker, that deals with analogous subject matter with greater sensitivity, depth and profundity, Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs.


Don't believe the hype, most of which you will hear in that unintentionally comical IFC documentary, Indie Sex. This is an astonishingly mediocre movie, you know the kind that gets called Indie because it wasn't shot on a Universal back lot and has no known stars in it and it's kind of quirky in one or two hackneyed ways. There are gay guys in it! The plot centers around a woman who is searching for her elusive first orgasm! They all hang out at a sex club! Filmmaker, John Cameron Mitchell, ups the ante and gives his Indie cred a shot in the arm by showing real sex: penetration, cumshots. But as I say, if you are used to porn, there's nothing surprising here, just a run-of-the-mill parade of cliches.

For starters the acting in what is supposed to be an ensemble, actor's piece is pretty dreadful. They are all more or less one-note stereotypes. Utterly perplexing in this “honest, unflinching exploration of sexuality” is the fact that these one-dimensional characters hang on to their single dimension during sex! We never see different facets to these personalities. We never see unexpected reactions. The only interesting actor for me was the brief appearance by an old man at Shortbus who introduces himself as a “former mayor of NYC” (I think he's supposed to be Ed Koch! Am I hip because I get the reference?) He has a nice little speech and old people are interesting to watch and hear, but beyond that the performances in this movie are pretty lame. Maybe it takes so much out of you to reconcile yourself to the fact that you are fucking on camera that you have nothing left to give to actual acting? I don't know; I'm just speculating. Just thinking out loud.

I suppose I should be more forgiving of the story as a stylization, but the fact that all these people do is talk about sex and have sex is pretty obnoxious, it becomes grating after awhile. This is what I don't understand about movies like this that claim to be realistic. The most truthful part of Shortbus is when James tells Jamie he can't have sex right now because he just jerked off. As opposed to the next scene, in which Sofia, a professional therapist, slaps her client, Jamie, and then confesses to the couple that she's sorry she lost control, but she's a bit on edge because she's never had an orgasm. I don't know. Is that supposed to be funny? I can appreciate the absurdity of it, I suppose. I have been telling people this movie is like John Waters film without jokes, but maybe I'm missing the jokes. Some of the “top critics” at Rotten Tomatoes certainly talk about it as if it were a comedy.

Maybe I misconstrue it because of Mitchell's serous tone in the aforementioned Indie Sex. To hear him talk about it, you would think this is the most serious film ever made. I would add that the comments of the other talking heads confirm the importance of his film, so it is fair to say that the film itself endorses Shortbus as an important, crucial moment in cultural history. So I took it as such. The thing is I don't think this mission of releasing us from our sexual shackles is a pertinent crusade. I'm pretty sure sex is all over the place. Porn is mainstream enough that I can watch the AVN awards and specials about the most recent adult entertainment industry expo on basic cable. Every show on MTV and VH1 entails finding a mate for Brett Michaels, or a C-level model, or a D-level R&B artist. Every beer commercial, soda commercial, deodorant commercial and shampoo commercial hinges on sexual innuendo or various levels of exposure. I don't understand. Who is uptight? Where is it that our society needs to loosen up? Are you telling me Shortbus is reaching out to the Tea Baggers? Cause they ain't gonna be converted by a movie that shows three guys blowing each other.

The time has passed for shocking content. Everything is permissible now. Don't be taken in by Fox News and the Tea Baggers. Nothing is shocking, remember that Perry Ferrell said that when Reagan was president. Does anyone honestly believe that as a whole the culture has become more puritanical in the past twenty years? We don't need shocking content. We need now what we have always needed: shocking style; unique, profound, naked modes of expression. Grafting Hollywood style on to a couple of explicit scene won't get the job done. One need look no further than than the scene in which “a former mayor of NYC” talks to Ceth. Their in the middle of a party; there's a live band, and they are practically whispering to one another in the middle of it all. The background, which is not background at all, but all around them is conveniently mic-ed down so all we here is their conversation clear as a bell. Sorry, but I will not suspend this particular disbelief. Moreover, as they talk they are being watched across a crowded, noisy room by James and Jamie who can obviously tell what they are talking about. They even nod to Ceth in approval after he gives the old man a hug. This is classic look-think-feel as Ray Carney describes it in his essay “Two Forms of Cinematic Modernism:
Notes Towards a Pragmatic Aesthetic.” ( As Carney explains, these characters can read the thoughts and feelings of one another from across the room. In mainstream cinema its a perfectly acceptable device, but if we are asking for new modes of expression, and I am, it will not do.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Dear IFC, Please stop now.

I suppose it has been long enough since the last time I complained about IFC. For some reason, those letters stand for Independent Film Channel. Anyway, I was digging through my notebooks and found some scratchings about watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on IFC, and I felt compelled by the hand of the lord to share those thoughts. Let me say that I enjoy breasts from the seventies as much as any heterosexual man should, maybe more, but I musty insist that there are places to see them other than what is ostensibly a venue for low budget American art cinema. The fact is that if it were at all true to its name, IFC would show movies by Cassavetes, Robert Kramer, Su Friedrich, Jay Rosenblatt, Stan Brakhage, Caveh Zahedi, Mark Rappaport, Shirley Clarke, Andrew Bujalski, the Duplass Brothers, Joe Swanberg, etc. But you can't find any of these directors there. Instead, IFC provides The Land of the Spiders, a B-movie about tarantulas taking over a town in Texas that stars William Shatner, and the Roger Ebert penned, Russ Meyer directed Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Has the word “independent” undergone such a transformation in our culture that it is now synonymous with “ironic”? Because we know that these are not Indy movies, don't we? Is it not that IFC bow sells Indy attitude more than Indy product, and part of that attitude is the ability to enjoy exploitation movies and B-movie hokum from an ironic distance?

I have an idea for IFC: why not make a fucking documentary about Russ Meyer? It is an interesting enough story. He's somewhere between the Robert Crumb and Ed Wood intellectually. He was a real “independent” filmmaker before the term was a buzzword. The documentary would be more interesting than his crappy movies precisely because it would explore the tension between his do-it-yourself ethic and his terrible ideas. Maybe through documentary we could discover the true meaning of Christmas – namely that making a film independent of the studio does not mean that you are making unique or spiritually “independent” art. After all, IFC loves an excuse to jam sex into a documentary under the guise of intellectual investigation. If you missed their review or would-be “study” of sex in cinema, do yourself a favor and continue to miss it, unless you happen to have a hole that can only be filled by pseudo-intellectual clap-trap.

Random Thoughts on CCR

Lately I have been listening to a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival. I do not know why I have neglected them for so long, except to say that I suppose one goes through phases. There is so much great music available, and I tend to obsess over a band or two at a time, however long that time may last. Obsessing is good because it directs one's attention toward detail, and leads to richer appreciation. I am blown away by “Suzie Q,” a song I used to find boring and repetitive. First, the guitar tone is great. Maybe I overstate, because I previously overlooked it. But the Fogerty brothers have a really warm, organic overdrive with real depth. I doubt any pedals were used here, just amps cranked as loud as they can go (I'm not a historian and I encourage readers who are to provide any necessary details). Those solos are so simple, but great tone makes them interesting. I find that if a guitar is producing a deep, rich, complex tone, the solo can be a single note, and it will sound good. It's not about cramming in scales and arpeggios; it's about attack, timing, sustain and overdrive.

These songs conceal their complexity, because the layers are tonal, not virtuostic (musicologists forgive my slaughter of these terms. Don't worry, we are about to move out of technical criticisms). Outside of the musical experience of CCR I am struck by the weird, randomness of popularity, of staying power and of fame in general. As far as I know, everyone likes this band. I grew up in the rural Midwest, and I cannot remember anyone ever complaining about too much Creedence. Everyone from redneck to hillbilly to hardcore bigot to future tea-bagger loves “Willie and the Poor Boys,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” “Up Around the Bend” and everything else from Chronicle 1 and 2. “Suzie Q” made it into Apocalypse Now and “Lookin' Out my Back Door” is in The Big Lebowski, two films essential to the college zeitgeist of my generation. There is certainly no rational explanation for this, at least not the part where conservatives like them.

Consider the following CCR hits: “Proud Mary,” “I Put a Spell on You,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Night Time is the Right Time” were all huge hits for the black performers that originally recorded them, so right away we can say that it makes no sense for someone who is openly bigoted to like this band that owes at least half a dozen of its biggest hits to black songwriters. Then there's the Woody Guthrie-esque populism and feeling of one's roots that I guess is mistaken down-homey. There are songs about drug use, unless you think “Lookin' Out My Back Door” is about something else. I submit: “Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band/Won't you take a ride on the flying spoon?/Wond'rous apparition provided by magician.” Chances are pretty good that most of the tea-baggers who would love CCR, have never actually heard those words, much less considered their meaning – something to do with their overall lack of attention to detail I imagine.

And they certainly have never thought about the words to “Fortunate Son.” I don't know what goes into popularity, but in many cases, lack of attention and sheer obliviousness seem to be key ingredients. I remember a commercial for Ralph Lauren that came out in the months following 9-11, you know, when all the soulless wretches in marketing departments all over the country decided it was ethically sound to cash in on people's sorrow and fear by flying a flag in every commercial. I may have actually cried the first time I saw that commercial where the Budweiser clydesdales bowed in front of the hole where the towers used to be, but if I died it was from a deep disappointment that advertisers could be so callous. A new frontier of cynicism had been reached, and I got dragged across the threshold unwillingly. Anyway, the Ralph Lauren ad plays the song “Fortunate Son,” but only the first two lines: “Some folks were born made to wave the flag/Ooh, that red, white and blue.” Then they show a flag and the viewer is reminded that loving America means loving expensive jackets, polos and rugby shirts.

Now, if you had never heard the song before, and you were a fearful, xenophobic lunatic, you might think what a good song to express such a noble sentiment. The trouble is that these are the rest of the words:

And when the band plays "Hail To The Chief",
oh, they point the cannon at you, Lord,

It ain't me, it ain't me,
I ain't no senator's son,
It ain't me, it ain't me,
I ain't no fortunate one, no,

Some folks are born silver spoon in hand,
Lord, don't they help themselves? oh.
But when the taxman come to the door,
Lord, the house look a like a rummage sale, yes,

It ain't me, it ain't me,
I ain't no millionaire's son, no, no.
It ain't me, it ain't me,
I ain't no fortunate one, no.

Yeah, some folks inherit star spangled eyes,
ooh, they send you down to war, Lord,
And when you ask them, how much should we give,
oh, they only answer, more, more, more.

It's a fucking anti-war song! And whatever you may think of marketing tactics in general, the fact remains that this commercial came out during a time in which every mainstream media voice was calling for the blood of whoever did this to “us” and if we cannot find them, then anyone who kind of looks like them or lives near where they live will do. Just making sure you understand the context for this blatant disregard of context. “Fortunate Son” is quite beyond the satirical and bittersweet “Pink Houses” or the ironic “Born in the U.S.A; it is incendiary. It spells out a complete critique of the ties between war-mongering and patriotism, between nepotism and power. Zach de la Rocha could have written it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

R.E.M. Double Live

There aren't a lot of people around these days that care much for R.E.M. At least I don't run in to many of them. The people I talk to either hate them (in my opinion, because they are homophobic) or they think they used to be cool, but now they suck. I've heard that one since Out of Time. Lately I have been wondering how this came about. I suppose they did just get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whatever that means, and I know that if they went on tour it would be a stadium venture that would sell out everywhere. But we know that people go to shows who don't care about the bands. I suppose I just expect R.E.M. to hold the same status as U2. Perhaps I'm showing my age, but that is how I always experienced them. These were my two favorite bands for as long as I can remember being aware of their existences. I have always thought of R.E.M. as our, meaning America's U2, as the most important American producer of rock and roll since Bob Dylan.

I don't wish to dwell on all this, I just want to let you know who it is that is reviewing their new album, a double disc live set from a theater in Dublin. They call it a rehearsal, go online and read the details, I want to talk about the songs.

Merely to read the names of the tracks on set list offers many surprises. There are songs from the newest album and a few here and there from most of the albums back to Life's Rich Pageant. But the set is dominated by songs from the first three albums and the EP that preceded them. Songs from Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, Reconstruction of the Fables (of Reconstruction) are performed with clarity and completeness the early recordings lacked. I would not say either version is better, just that the new performances of the old songs come alive in different, often unexpected, ways. There are no different arrangements, just details: you can understand the lyrics now, Mike Mills' backing vocals are more self-assured and more frequent and there are more textures of guitar. There are just more sonic layers overall which, again, is not to say that the songs are better than they used to be.

I listen and do not really here songs that are new to me, but performances that sound like the songs are new to the artists. These are not aging rockers going through the motions of playing their old shit. R.E.M. seem to have discovered that they wrote some very good songs 25 and 30 years ago. They don't trot out these tunes the way the Rolling Stones trot out Satisfaction. The songs from the first four recordings are vital, energetic and urgent. Perhaps this is why there's barely anything in the set that would count as a hit. No “Losing My Religion” or “Shiny Happy People.” No “Stand,” “The One I Love” or “End of the World as We Know It.” They perform “Drive” but not “Man on the Moon” or “Everybody Hurts.” All the quasi-hits are the old hits, but even then they are few and far between. “So. Central Rain” and “Driver 8” appear but not “Don't Go Back to Rockville” or “Radio Free Europe.”

For me this may be the best album they could have made. It makes me dream of the possibility that the bands I love will see this as an option. No Line on the Horizon is great, but I wonder U2 would make of October and Boy these days? I think this is one of the unique possibilities rock and roll affords. One need not be forever coming up with new material. Revisit and re-imagine the old material. Find new vitality in it.

Further Notes on the Contemporary American Man

My intellectual life is aimed directly at confronting Hollywood and everything it represents. My whole ideology is set in opposition to the values it represents and helps to indoctrinate. Even on an instinctual, emotional level I am predisposed to hating that which the mainstream. Somehow my life has brought me to this strange place: I have a sustained social interaction with an acquaintance who works in the writing branch of film studio. His day job as I understand it is to make notes and punch up scripts. This is the meal ticket for his freelance work that includes mainstream online publication at a major sports news outlet and selling a romantic comedy to a studio. Our interactions, which take place entirely over the internet, are sometimes polite and tolerant, but often bitter and sardonic. I don't like him, mostly because I have no respect for his work, but my dislike is exacerbated my fear that anything I say against him will be interpreted by others as jealousy.

Part of the problem for me is the self promotion. When he recently posted a link to an article he had written, I was immediately annoyed. The people in our peer group are generally a creative bunch. Most of us write; some of us perform, but none of us fish for compliments and/or brag about our successes save for one. Against my better judgment I followed the link and read. It was pretty typical of everything else on the website, which I may as well reveal is ESPN Page 2. All of it is nonsense more or less, inflating that which barely matters in human existence to life or death proportions. It is the raison d'etre of Page 2 to treat sport as if its shallow emotional resonances were deep, as if its mathematical calculations of statistics were intellect, as if the seriousness with which we look at it is spiritually appropriate. The best stuff on Page 2 has always been by Chuck Klosterman and the late Hunter S. Thompson precisely because they don't love sport. They are more interested in mass love of sport than in personal fandom. Little wonder that they are few and far between at Page 2, and that they were well-established cultural critics in their own right before being invited to contribute to ESPN.

First Notes on the Contemporary American Man

I recently had to cut off the tap that ran from ESPN into my brain. At least the so-called “analysis” portion which is really just guys who talk about their fandom and grossly overestimate the value of sport. I recall Dave Damashek once musing: “In these troubled times I fell sorry for people who don't have sport. What do they do? How do they escape?” These guys worship uniforms. And the question Damashek asks is buried so deeply beneath a foundation of unknowing, I would have no idea how to answer him in terms that would make sense. People read books, Damashek. They try to figure out what the hell is going on instead of hiding from it. They try to learn how to live life rather than escape from it.

I'll still watch a game or twenty, but my days for listening to podcasts are over. Except for Bill Simmons. I should explain. It isn't that I consider him an exception to the standard idiocy; in many ways he is a champion flying the Idiot flag. Though I am sympathetic to him in some ways, and though he occasionally offers genuine insight (but only when talking about the NBA), I would not call him a good writer. He knows a little about sports. I feel sorry for him when he talks about music. I cringe for humanity when he talks about movies. It is not that my standard is high, just that it is a standard at all. This is the problem with Page 2, with culture at large, everyone is just going through the motions.

I read Simmons because to me he represents the Contemporary American Man, and I have to keeps tabs on that spirit/ideology, because I regard it as what I am up against. He is the champion of the middle brow. The Contemporary American Man loves his any art that makes him feel smart and greets anything that confuses him with suspicion and hostility. Simmons loves mediocre sentimentality in movies and resents anything that looks like it may have been made by someone smarter than him. He has two phrases for this: “artsy-fartsy” and “too cool for school.” These terms cover anything that makes him feel stupid. This infantilism is the affliction of the Contemporary American Man. I suffer from it too, but my advantage is that I have diagnosed it correctly.