Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I do things without asking. Lists updated, of course can be undone.

It's Here!

My field recorder!

Two more steps and my project is underway!

If I had gotten the camera first, that'd be a much better picture of the recorder. Also, apparently when you buy used you get a whole lot of packing material but no manual. I'll have to download one.

Like most huge electronic purchases it's just sitting there refusing to entertain me.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Who Knew You Could Use "Brechtian" and Jean Claude Van Damme in the Same Sentence?

Well, now you can. Being on foot while working has meant that I have walked by theaters and have had some impulse viewings of films I've mentioned here already in an attempt to actually follow through on things I had hinted were interesting. That has meant seeing the previous posts' Repo! The Genetic Opera and the meta-action Jean Claude Van Damme movie, JVCD.

Having already discussed the premise in my earlier post, the movie lived up to its billing. We are treated to a down on his luck, misunderstood Van Damme. If the character of himself is to be believed, even he doesn't like his movies.

The movie is heavily desaturated with the light blown out. The Brecht comes in the form of a monologue delivered among the hanging lights above the set where Van Damme gives a 30% justification 70% apology for who he has been and the movies he has made (or if you're cynical, 25% justification, 35% apology, and 40% audition for serious roles that don't involve kicking anyone.)

This isn't a clumsily done attempt to rebrand an actor, even if it is clearly an attempt to rebrand an actor. Audience information is carefully controlled to create conclusions that the film later questions and the film does not even allow him the minor victory that is crafted at the end that would frankly have diminished the rest of the film. As a critique of media and cult of personality it falls short of many better attempts, but overall pretty interesting.

My only real complaint is that if you're going to blow out all the light in the film, color the subtitles so they don't get lost.

He also all but calls out Steven Segal to make the same move. Now that's something I'd like to see. But then, I am from the generation of appreciating things ironically.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Idiot Proof Filmmaking?

You've no doubt had this conversation. You're trying to discuss your disappointment with a film with someone who you didn't realize was a hard core fan. Maybe your critique is mild, you just didn't think an aspect worked but you still overall liked the movie. And then they hit you with it, "You have to appreciate it for what it is."

And there it is, the ultimate trump, the 'get out of jail free' card of what would otherwise be an undefensibly bad film. Like all easy outs, it's founded in a legitimate complaint that has been banged, stretched, and drawn over until it has almost no meaning left.

Can you really say that you can measure Citizen Kane and Young Frankenstein or Heat with the same stick? I would argue, as others, that a movie has to at least primarily be evaluated within its genre (and I swear I'll one day do that big ass genre post that I created this blog for in the first place one day), but beyond that intent, time, context...it wouldn't be productive to compare all films to The Bicycle Thief.

But where does that end and simply making excuses for lazy film making begin?

I bring this up because it's been a week of follow up, I actually watched Repo!: The Genetic Opera and JCVD, both of which had been prompts for recent posts. I'll get to JCVD in another post that, if you read in page order you've already read but I haven't written yet...cosmic...

Repo! is largely what could be expected from the billing. It does have Paris Hilton's face falling off, for what's that worth...

It's wall to wall guitar with a score that doesn't so much sound like separate songs but rather one long track, as if Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody had been two hours long. I have to correct myself in that it is not a musical conceived for film but actually did start out as a stage piece first. There were stylistic elements that seemed to overlap - a whole subplot appeared to be created just to give the 'streetwise' narrator character a motivation as he acted like The MC in Cabaret. But there was no pay off for him. Further complicating that is the use of comic book panels to handle other aspects of exposition.

Which is not to say that it's all bad, it manages to create a complex and ultimately compromised anti-hero and a devil's bargain ending that creates a not often used third option for the protagonist.

In its opening week it only played in 8 theaters, one less by the time I saw it. Its per screen average was a respectable $6k in it's opening week, but has suffered a 64% drop.

But as I left the theater I stopped and looked at the midnight movie listings (I missed The Warriors showing with gang costume contest) - is it going to matter? There is really little to no chance for this film to gain mainstream success. Lightening could strike, word of mouth on this film is actually pretty decent for this film in the right crowd, if the people who had prompted me to actually quest for the film are anything to go by. But if they are, then the success or failure of the movie isn't going to matter.

Any criticism of this movie for them will be brushed off as not appreciating it for what it is. Soundtracks will be bought, small theater productions staged, and midnight screenings (perhaps with costume contests) will be had. In it's theatrical run they likely haven't even made back Hilton's salary, but in the slow burn DVD sales and cult following from Saw fans, or Skinny Puppy fans, or the gore/goth/whatever else that this movie taps on the head will likely be a steady check for at least a few years.

And once it's there, it's idiot proof. What's it going to matter what a critic says? What difference will its theatrical release make? Dismal showings will only build the movies legend, the fact that it was screened in a single digit number of theaters only cinches that. This goes beyond appreciating a movie ironically, which may be at the root of this practice but has long since been left on the side of the road wondering what happened.

So far my completely unscientific poll of two whole people who have seen it automatically make excuses for it as they tell you they like it.

Ironic appreciation has evolved itself into an idiot proof film formula. I don't know how I feel about it. With the DVD/midnight movie cult, movies that are too high concept to be really have any mainstream hope have a chance to live, and therefore made. But at the same time I grow tired of having to defend a critique by assuring the person that I'm not comparing their movie to Casablanca just because I felt a particular subplot was unmotivated.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Can't Say No

I just bought the last major piece of my audio kit, hopefully paving the way for my new career as a field audio mixer for television and film (mostly television, documentaries etc. Film is a whole different set of gear and demands).

Ultimately, this was a good deal. It's a quality recorder, has all the functions that I need, and I picked it up used at a third of the price it or a like recorder would go for.

And yet, a few mere hours since placing the order, I'm a wreck.

I realized a while ago that my problem with making decisions and buying things specifically is that I never view it as selecting one thing, but rather turning down a bunch of other stuff. I didn't decide to buy a mixer, I instead decided not to get any of the following-

- A less functional recorder and a still camera.
- Same less functional recorder and a used 3 CCD miniDV camcorder
- A cheap motorcycle
- A barrier mic
- A better shotgun mic
- Any of the other half dozen recorders I was looking at
- Replace the cool box in my bus
- Side tent for my bus
- PS3 or Wii

I could go on...

There are reasons that I made the decision that I did, and even better reasons that I didn't make any of the purchases I didn't make. But that doesn't mean that once I make a decision I don't feel like I shut down all the other options. I'm honestly more comfortable sitting here thinking of all the things I could do.

This might be from being poor-most of the time any amount of money I spend is in my fantasy world. It's hard for me to make the transition to all those fantasies to one reality is a hard one for me to handle.

This is probably the most telling aspect of my personality. I'm far more enamored with what could be than actually is.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why I Want Lieberman Back in the Caucus

I always feel ridiculous when I do political posts for a number of reasons. The world really doesn't need another political blog, especially from someone as unqualified for it as me. Not that it really needs a media criticism/social commentary blog with a loose premise that we've all but abandoned early on, but what ever.

Lieberman has his problems, and the aforementioned blogs have no doubt gone over and over it again and again, and I think their reasonings are at least in part right. There are valid reasons to want him out, and I get it.

But here's the thing-I didn't like Obama because he gave great speeches or that his candidacy was historic or his health care plan or because he was against the war. Icing. What I liked was he was someone I could disagree with. Look, I'm not going to agree with everything any president does, it's just not going to happen. I wouldn't agree with everything I would do as president in all likelyhood. What I wanted was someone who was open to the discussion. I wanted discourse, something that hasn't been around for the past, say, eight years.

And that means that you can't really punish dissent. Yes, Lieberman said some crappy things during the campaign, yes he was as nasty as those he supported, yes he campaigned against his own party down the line. All bad. But if I want discussion against things I don't agree with Obama with, that means that I'm going to have to want discussion against Obama with things I agree with. Is there a limit? Perhaps. I just don't want to have the first at bat set it.

Alright. Enough with the politics. Back to talking about movie trends for movies I haven't seen...(JVCD opens this weekend in SF!)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Pseudo-documentary

Last night, Walrus, Jen and I went to see John Hodgman speak at the City Arts and Lectures series at the Herbst Theater in SF. It was, as was anticipated, highly entertaining--Hodgman's quirky genius for bullshit is unmatched.

It got me thinking, though, about bullshit of all kinds, and a semi-private wish that I've harbored for a long time: the pseudo-documentary. This is distinct from the mockumentary in that it is not intended as a platform for satire, like Waiting for Guffman or Zelig, but is rather a dead-serious film intended to inform the audience about something that does not, in fact, exist. There are glimmers of this on occasion; The Discovery Channel's The Future is Wild came awfully close by speculating (wildly) about what life might be like in hundreds of millions of years--the spear-chucking tree octopodes were pretty awesome, and shows like Star Wars Tech almost get there, but fall short by turning into ads for their subject matter.

What I really want to see is what's on the Discovery Channel in the Star Trek universe. It seems to me that some really cool ideas are being done a disservice by the need to connect them to a narrative with characters, resolution, and conflict.

Walrus and I had a brief opportunity to do something like this when we produced a magazine for a wierd sci-fi spaceship simulator we were involved with in the early '90s. We became the creative force for shaping the narrative surrounding this uber-geek enterprise, and it mainly took the form of an in-context magazine written for the consumption of not the players of the game, but for their in-game personae. I guess it was kind of an exercise in role-playing, really, but I liked the idea of it in a more abstract way.

I'd like to kick around the idea of a Journal of Unreal Studies--a forum for all that doesn't exist yet bears discussion nevertheless. Any ideas out there?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

What Would "Back" Look Like?

There was an argument that would happen from time to time with me and SR about whether or not the film musical was 'back.' He was for, I was against. It seemed to me that it was a short trend that would last no longer than occasional bursts of westerns (remember the summers of Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill that followed the success of Unforgiven? Then a whole lot of nothing except the occasional 3:10 to Yuma.)

But westerns are still being made, if occasionally. And so are musicals. Big budget musical films have continued to be produced year after year, tracking back to Chicago to this year's Mamma Mia!. Certainly they have been made with greater frequency than westerns.

But does that constitute 'back?' Does 'back' merely mean that they exist separate of isolated 'me too' trends in movie releases, or does it have to compare to the heyday of the film musical, the thirty year run where the film musical was king?

I have to admit that my criteria for denying that it was back was nested partly in that it was too early to tell, and partly in what a high watermark that musicals have left.

But now I have to conclude that this is an unfair standard. Part of what drove the film musical was the old studio system. Packaged stars and a near factory approach to film making as well as a more thoroughly integrated system meant that theaters could literally be flooded with musicals year in and year out. Most of the assessments of the musical cite the rise of rock and roll and changing sensibilities as the death of the musical, but it seems that it would be no coincidence that the decline of the musical coincides with the decline of the studio system.

Certainly the dissolving of things like the Hayes Code would change thing, changing the landscape of films from all having a more or less vanilla morality to them to grittier movies like The Man With the Golden Arm and The Bicycle Thief, that helped break the code down. Certainly there would still be room for a South Pacific in such a world, but room still had to be made.

The truth is that no single type of film could ever achieve the complete dominance the film musical used to have. The only real 'type' of film that can compare would be the blockbuster, since movie studios use these films as 'tentpoles' to support riskier projects, losses, and regular old studio maintenance.

But the thing is, these can come in any flavor, and certainly have come in the guise of musicals such as Chicago, Dreamgirls, Moulin Rouge!, Mamma Mia!. But there have been losers as well, in Phantom of the Opera, Rent, and The Producers. In fact, it seems for every major success of a movie musical there is a two laying at their feet.

However, they're still being made. For near release there is Repo! The Genetic Opera, Dark Streets, and Christmas on Mars. Unlike Dreamgirls or Chicago, none of these are based on a stage musical. Each actually attempts a new take on the musical, Dark Streets a smokey jazz fantasy/thriller, Repo! A Genetic Opera a sci fi musical from the producers of Saw, and Christmas on Mars essentially a rock band film in the vein of The Wall or Tommy, but this time for The Flaming Lips.

Honestly, none of these are likely to make much of a splash at the box office. But the thing is, they're still getting made. Not to mention upcoming releases of Jeckyll & Hyde, Aida, Jesus Christ Superstar (I was as surprised as you are), Footloose and Wicked. It's been six years since Chicago, seven since Moulin Rouge!, and almost two decades since Beauty and the Beast and Nightmare Before Christmas arguably opened the door for the modern film musical.

If I bury this in enough quasi-film paper nonsense I can quietly admit, yes, the film musical is 'back.' But it's a diminished back, a back that does not come even close to restoring its prominence. It's not a back that can rely on the Great White Way. It is a back that still carries a higher than normal risk-it doesn't have a 'place' in the calender like the spring romances, the summer action films, or the fall prestige films. And it is a tenuous back. And has been well into my denials.

But that doesn't mean that I'm going to admit that the fantasy film is back. It would have to have had a 'there' to be back from...

Friday, November 07, 2008


In a fit of boredom I added some new toys to the list on the sidebar. Most of them are for me, lazy little ways to know if their is anything new out there without me having to actually look, and a racing calender that I'll more than likely delete sooner or later, or forget it's even there. I tried to add "You Are Here" to the list of sites that alert updates but it didn't work, so you'd still have to check manually to know if she did.

I also added a subscription link, which if it works the way I think it does, means that the blog will tell you when it updates instead of forcing whoever might still be marginally interested to make futile, optimistic checks to see if we've gotten off our butts and written something. I also re-added sitemeter so I can see just how in vain it all is again. SO-42 is the camper package in my bus, Westfalia SO-42, the most common.

That's whats passing for contribution today. I wanted to add that cool 'most recent comments' thing from Incertus but I couldn't find it and it would just depress me anyway since there are hardly ever comments anyway...

EDIT: Ah, just click on it and follow instructions...and yep, instantly depressing...
EDIT II: More toys, the little question at the end of the posts that allows you to be dismissive passively...disappointing that the question cannot be customized for each post, and definitely have to come up with a better question (SR, if you got one just go ahead and change it) because I'm not so much a glutton for punishment to deal with all 'meh' responses. Palin spellings due to space.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Meta Action Hero Duel

Parallel production isn't all that uncommon-back to back summers hosted dueling volcano movies (Dante's Peak vs. the more direct Volcano) then Killer Asteroid movies (Armageddon vs. Deep Impact). I compared before battling up-coming 're-dos' of franchise films.

Coming soon two very different kinds of action heroes are staring it two very different kinds of self-referential films. This, of course, is not new. Marked by some as the beginning of the end for action hero turned 'governator,' The Last Action Hero was essentially a ham-handed commentary on Schwarzenegger's career. This new pair of films combines The Last Action Hero's 'treatise on the star' element with open referential elements in movies like The Player, Being John Malchovich, or the recent What Just Happened?.

First up is JVCD, starring Jean Claude Van Damme as Jean Claude Van Damme, aging, relevance fading, barely enough energy to keep up even his tarnished star. The down on his luck Van Damme finds himself in the middle of a hostage crisis - no stunt co-coordinators, no fight choreographing - just plain pedestrian victimhood, seasoned with the reputation of a former action star. His groin aching splits and lightening kicks don't win the day, but instead appear as a side show display in an attempt to amuse his captors and prolong his life.

The other side of the coin is My Name is Bruce, starring Bruce Campbell again as Bruce Campbell, B-movie star drunk (almost literally) on his own niche fame. In contrast to JVCD's image in contrast to stark reality approach, My Name is Bruce has the reality meet the fantasy of Campbell's persona. Ultimately they are the same story - actor meets 'real' situations that they have portrayed in movies and has to deal accordingly. It just so happens that Campbell's world is of pure fantasy.

On the surface, these stories are not new. Comedies such as The Three Amigos and Galaxyquest have dealt with actors famous for a genre of film being thrust into a 'real' situation. There's even a Twilight Zone episode where a cowboy hero finds himself face to face with the 'real' Jesse James.

My Name is Bruce takes the traditionally self effacing route, appearing to paint himself as comedically incompetent after previous false bravado. (the trailer seems to even take a swipe at Van Damme as the overly arrogant Campbell touts his action hero credentials including, "Speaking English.")

The self-effacing also has a strong tradition, such as in Free Enterprise where William Shatner leans heavily on his reputation of being a slightly off balance good natured ego maniac (in the film hoping to stage a one man show production of Hamlet).

In contrast JVCD seems to take a slightly more sober 'treatise on the twilight of stardom' look, a sort of high kicking Sunset Boulevard. (Alright, I admit that at this point part of me is just seeing how many films these two can be said to drawing upon)

This is keeping with dueling concept movies, Dante's Peak being the slightly more sober volcano movie to Volcano's over the top 'volcano in LA' premise, Armageddon's 'rock star drillers on an asteroid' vs the 'there's nothing we can do but accept that we're going to get hit by an asteroid' Deep Impact. For what it's worth, over the top trumps sober every time. (though that doesn't seem as likely this time as Campbell will be touring personally with his film, joining Tarantino's Grindhouse throwback to personality driven B-movie hey day. (seriously, once you start it's hard to stop...) and JCVD will have traditional release)

Which means in all likely-hood I won't be able to compare them (not that after my long to-do about Diary of the Dead I actually saw it...<.< >.>) unless this suddenly becomes a well read and often updated site making me an actual critic and I get invitations to these things. But for that to happen these rambles would have to come to some sort of conclusion. But for a dueling themed movies, I'll take self-examining action heroes over asteroids any day.