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.