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My Unpopular Opinion: ‘Arrival’ is the very definition of pretentious ‘artsploitation’ cinema
02.24.2017
02:37 pm

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Movies

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I’m back. Remember me? It’s time for another one of my unpopular opinion pieces, and this time it’s about everyone’s favorite 2016 artsy-fartsy sci-fi hit (and Oscar contender) Arrival. The film has gotten nearly unanimous critical praise, and if that wasn’t enough to raise your suspicions, how about the constant use of that critical kiss-of-death word “refreshing”? Were they all paid to use that specific word? Makes you wonder, huh? But before I get into the meat of this essay I’m going to offer up two definitions to bear in mind whilst reading:

1.) Pretentious: attempting to impress by affecting greater importance than is actually present.

2.) Artsploitation: the exploitation of an art-house cinema audience, especially in regard to the critical merits of a film.

Thanks to Google for number one and as for number two, it’s my own coinage. Artsploitation refers, like other exploitation genre tags, to a particular audience’s desire to consume a particular kind of film regardless of its quality. In the case of “art-house” cinema, this means that as long as a film looks pretty or conforms to the audience’s notion of “artistic” merit—most often translating to a level of incomprehensibility that one viewer can use to claim a superior “understanding” over others—said “art” film can then be excused of all its flaws. Regardless of how bad they are or how poorly it may conform to other essential tenets of “good” cinema such as writing, editing, acting and directing.*

If you ask me, Arrival fits both of these definitions down to a tee.

 

 

“God Niall, why do you have to keep shitting on the things that everyone else loves?!” I can hear an imagined reader crying out from the deepest recesses of my ego. But this is the thing: I love genre movies. I love them in their own right, in-and-of themselves. There is no shame in genre cinema for me, there is no shame in gleefully enjoying well-executed action, in impressive explosions or a well-crafted monster, in camp humor and in over-the-top bad acting.

What pisses me off is directors/producers/writers who are unwilling to interact with genre works on their own terms. There is a palpable sense of fear and shame from these arty “updates” and “fresh retellings,” as if the director is afraid of getting tarred with the “genre film director” brush and losing their artistic cachet, or even of stooping to the level of less-acclaimed directors who work within the actual genre. An auteur placing themselves above a genre, not within it, never, ever works. Instead of making a decent movie based on a true understanding of what makes a genre film work, they instead force their own artistic aspirations on the audience, missing the point of why audiences love genre films in the first place. 

Now, Arrival may not be the worst contender—and I’m a big enough man to admit that there were some moments I kinda enjoyed—but it IS guilty of these crimes, nonetheless. I have divided my critiques up into vague categories for clarity, and need I mention: SPOILERS AHEAD! Okay, here we go…

 

 

THE FILM’S SUPPOSED AND WIDELY DISCUSSED “ORIGINALITY”

There’s only one shot in the entire film that stayed with me, and if you have seen the film, you’ll know the one: the slow-motion, aerial approach to the alien ship via a mountain range with cascading clouds. And that shot, indeed, is breathtaking. If only the rest of the film could have stayed at this level of artistry. Unfortunately, it didn’t. So it is surprising to hear seasoned critics gushing over the supposed “originality” of this film, when it’s really not that original at all. The story is a slightly modified take on Contact, the tone of detached wonderment is cribbed from 2001: A Space Odyssey,  the alien ships are lifted from the opening of Prometheus, and the aliens themselves are your bog-standard “tentacled” creations that recall both the mighty Cthulhu and the not-so-mighty Karg and Konos from The Simpsons. None of these are in any way obscure references, so it puzzles me as to why they have not been acknowledged more honestly. But it’s not just Arrival‘s concepts that lack originality: it’s the film’s execution.

DENIS VILLENEUVE

Denis Villeneuve attracts a lot of critical praise for his directorial work. This is the first film of his I have actually seen, so I guess I was expecting a lot. And in the end I couldn’t help but feel utterly disappointed at a film whose central conceit is the power of new forms of language, but which itself leans so heavily on so many tired-ass cinematic cliches. The flashback/forwards/dead daughter “memory” sequences in particular rely on the worst kind of Hallmark-esque imagery. You know the type, it’s on page one of the playbook titled “How To Crassly Manipulate Feelings Of Warm Sentimentality in Your All-Too-Willing-to-be-Manipulated Audience.” Turn on your television right now and you will be bombarded this within kind of imagery in hundreds, no thousands, of adverts: tiny hands brushing through the long grass of a sunny meadow, colourful wellingtons splashing the clear waters of a babbling brook, a laughing baby’s face shot in floaty shallow focus and obscured by lens flare. An old couple holding hands on the porch. All that was missing was a breathy-voiced, piano-ballad cover version of some trashy dance-pop (“Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” perhaps?) Arrival uses a visual language so cliched that I kept expecting to see the Vodaphone or Ikea logo materialise in the corner of the screen, with details of the great new offers available at my local branch. In effect, the director has taken a lazy visual short-cut to the audience’s emotions. And it’s not the only one.

Keep reading after the jump…

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile | Discussion
Tim Buckley and Jean Renoir meet Beau Bridges in 1971’s ‘The Christian Licorice Store’
02.16.2017
09:50 am

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Movies

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After The Monkees TV series ended, 33-year-old director James Frawley went to work on his very first motion picture. The Criterion-worthy Christian Licorice Store stars Beau Bridges as floppy hair, bushy-browed, tennis superstar Franklin Cane and follows the ups and downs of his turbulent Hollywood lifestyle. Inspired by the great French New Wave and Italian neorealists of the late 1950s and 1960s, the film sadly never reached an audience and was shelved by Cinema Center Films just after a few screenings in Boston and Greenwich Village in 1971.

Director James Frawley spoke with me over the phone from his retirement home just outside Palm Springs this week and we discussed the rarely seen film that is still near and dear to his heart. “I came to L.A. first as an actor in an improvisational group called The Premise which was Buck Henry, Ted Flicker, George Segal, and Joan Darling. So the introduction to directing was very improvisational one in which we had a great camera, great writers, terrific young guys, and I had two years of apprenticeship directing with The Monkees. So when I went to make The Christian Licorice Store we took a very improvisational approach to it.”

The story follows Beau Bridges success in the professional tennis world: competing for prize money, entertaining the press, and fielding endorsement offers by day. By night he attends superficial Hollywood parties where he meets love interest, photographer and socialite Cynthia Viestrom (played by Swedish actress and future James Bond girl Maud Adams). For the party scenes, Frawley called on favors from several friends to come in and play themselves as party goers. “The party is full of show business celebrities, producers, writers, psychiatrists, and different characters from Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. I pretty much just improvised the scene and then put it together in the editing room. But it really catches the flavor, I think very much of L.A. Everybody kind of agreed to do it, I looked at the list last night and it’s amazing, I mean Mike Medavoy for chrissakes, Howard Hesseman who’s a friend of mine that was in the second party, George Kirgo, Robert Kaufman, a lot of really amazing people. And it was fun, we did it in one night.” Director Monte Hellman of Two-Lane Blacktop and future Barney Miller creator Ted Flicker also make an appearance.

The Christian Licorice Store makes fun of the superficial showbiz side of Hollywood, while also painting a beautiful portrait of the city using incredible locations from William Pereira‘s LACMA and Theme Building, Johnie’s Coffee Shop, and up the Pacific Coast Highway to the scenic views of Soledad Canyon and Morro Rock. To add to the realism, Frawley used urban, guerrilla filmmaking to capture real L.A. pedestrians walking down the street, driving around, and going about their everyday business. “You put a camera out on a street and just shoot some stuff and just intercut it with the scenes just to get the flavor of L.A.” Then there are nighttime scenes in the film that perfectly capture the strange emptiness of the city after dark. “I love their kind of romantic ballet in the cars coming down the hill from the party. It was kind of a very romantic feeling I had about Los Angeles and, being a New Yorker, you know, the light, the romance, the sexuality. I love the architecture, I mean La La Land, the recent movie, is very much like that in terms of its appreciation of L.A.”
 

 
Frawley tells screenwriter Floyd Mutrix’s story using a very unconventional, avant-garde approach. “I’m a film buff and I grew up with European movies. I loved Godard, 400 Blows, Breathless, Fellini, all of the Italian realists. That was my education and my influence because it does have a very European feeling to it.” The director and screenwriter make many bold decisions, such as opening the film with the dramatic ending scene of the film, a gull-winged Mercedes-Benz wiping out in a tunnel alongside the PCH. Frawley accomplished this with a delicate style of filmmaking that does not spoil the entire movie. “I wanted to frame the film in a way so that you had a sense of foreboding that kind of holds over this whole movie. There’s kind of a sadness to the picture too, a sense of things are not going to turn out well here.” In yet another bold move, the opening credits don’t appear until nearly twelve minutes into the picture and are contained in the movie-within-the-movie when the party-goers are summoned to the screening room of the swanky, modern house.

It certainly helps to make a European influenced film in Hollywood when you have the approval and participation of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Executive producer Michael Laughlin was then married to the French movie star Leslie Caron, who knew Jean Renoir‘s family in France. They asked him if he would agree to make a cameo appearance in The Christian Licorice Store and surprisingly, he said yes… it would end up being the final feature film Renoir was ever involved in before his passing.

“There’s a lot of things I love about the movie, and there are some things that feel awkward because it’s a first film, but the presence of Jean Renoir in the movie is unbelievable. If the movie existed only for Jean Renoir it would be enough for me. A lot of this movie was about people saying yes when we asked them, ‘Would you do this?’ Because a lot of it was favors, and Jean Renoir was a favor, and he’s like Picasso, one of the great men of all time and a great filmmaker. And so we were allowed to be in his house for an afternoon, and again this is totally improvised. As we drove up the hill to his house and drove down afterward, you see those shots, and he talked about film, and he talked about Beau and Maud, and what he did so brilliantly, he talked about how attractive they were to one another in real life. He said, ‘You two could be lovers in real life’ which was wonderful because he acknowledged the fact that we were making a movie.”

More after the jump…

Posted by Doug Jones | Discussion
Real combat rock: Red Rippers brought the Vietnam war home
02.14.2017
10:55 am

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Music
Politics

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The Vietnam era (roughly 1964 to 1975) is commonly considered the best years rock music ever had. It began with the Beatles and The Stones ended with Led Zep and well, The Stones, to say nothing of monsters like The Doors, Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Bowie, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, you get the picture. Before stumbling under the weight of feisty newcomers like punk and disco, “classic rock” ruled the airwaves, packed stadiums, fomented revolution in the streets and served as the soundtrack to a nearly endless jungle skirmish a world away that found teenage kids from middle America torching villages in Saigon and getting tortured and slaughtered by an enemy they did not understand in a fight they did not start. The country they came back to was undergoing its own war, one of class and race and sexual orientation, with assassination in place of napalm carpet bombs. It was barely recognizable by the time many of the soldiers finally made it home. And they were barely recognizable to their own families. If it wasn’t for the righteous jams, I don’t think anybody would’ve survived it.

But here’s the thing: while there was plenty of music made in ‘Nam era, how much of it was made by people who actually fought in the war? For whatever reason, Vietnam vets did not form a lot of bands when they came home. Jimi Hendrix and The Doors’ Ray Manzarek were both discharged before getting shipped off. Creedence main man John Fogerty was in the reserves. And that’s about it. Dudes with guitars were just not clamoring to sign up for the war in 1972 and when they came home, for the most part, they left the plucking and humming to the draft-dodgers.
 

Ed Bankston rocks the aircraft carrier.

But in 1983, a half-dozen years after the ill-fated “military exercise” had wheezed to a halt, a former Vietnam Vet decided it was high time somebody made a rock record about the horrors of jungle combat. Somebody who was there. And that’s just what Ed Bankston did. After serving in the war as a mechanic on an aircraft carrier, he returned home to Florida, picked up his guitar and started writing songs about his experiences, as well as the experiences of other vets he had met along the way, including the teenage marine that inspired “Firefight,” a vivid account of what it’s like to fight—and survive—in jungle warfare. Bankston found a band to back him up and started performing locally as The Red Rippers—an homage to a Naval squadron he had worked with.
 

Bankston writing Rippers jams, early 80s.

Eventually the band got around to recording their songs and Bankston self-released them on Over There…And Over Here. The album is affecting for many reasons, but one of the most notable is the tone of songs like “Body Bag,” “Who Remembers?” and “The Dark and Bloody Road.” There’s no macho, patriotic chest-thumping on this record, but there isn’t any bottled-up rage, either. It’s the melancoly sound of resignation, of sadness, the sound of a man who fought for his country and was thoroughly disappointed with the results. It’s brutally honest in a very low-key, disarming way. It’s raw and real and poetic, but it’s also kind of a breezy southern rock record, too. A real head-spinner.
 

The original Red Rippers ad as seen in Soldier of Fortune magazine

Bankston originally planned on using the album to shop around for a record deal, but in the meantime he sold them through ads in Soldier of Fortune magazine. Sadly, no money men were interested in the band’s fuzzy country-boogie and barroom rock n’ roll, and when no labels came knocking, Bankston gave up on rock and faded into the grind of the 9 to 5 world. And that was basically that. In 2013, the consistently compelling Paradise of Bachelors label discovered and re-released Over There…And Over Here, finally giving a now 60-something Bankston the kind of reach he’d always wanted. He didn’t get the band back together but seemed happy about it nonetheless.

Almost every song you’ve ever heard about Vietnam from Country Joe’s “I Feel I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” to the Charlie Daniels Band’s ‘82 eye-roller “Still in Saigon” was created by dudes who never served in the war. If nothing else, Red Rippers deserves your attention for being the real thing.
 
Listen to Red Rippers after the jump…

Posted by Ken McIntyre | Discussion
Danny Partridge is the Devil: Welcome to the Partridge Family Temple
02.14.2017
01:37 am

Topics:
Music
Occult
Television

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The 90s weren’t known for their frivolity. The whole idea was to be beyond fun. Fun was fucking square in the 90s, man. So naturally, when the Partridge Family Temple—a kooky hip-kid religion based on the irritating 70s sitcom—made their national TV debut on MTV’s The Jon Stewart Showin 1993 clad in impeccable Salvation Army chic and spouting frothy declarations about Shirley Partridge being the “Virgin Earth goddess mother from whose womb all Partridges came,” you instinctively knew something sinister was bubbling just below the glossy, fuzzy, c’mon-get-happy surface. And so it was.

The Partridge Family, lest we forget, was a relatively short-lived (1970-1974) TV series about the titular musical family, who toured around the country playing their gooey flared bell-bottom sunshine pop and getting into lightweight misadventures. The star of the show was real-life teen heartthrob David Cassidy who played Keith, the frontman for the family band. In the Temple, he’s the Satyr, the sex god, and his legendarily generous phallus is “the tree of knowledge and the tree of life combined.” They were wrangled by mom Shirley (Shirley Jones). A father was never even mentioned on the show, hence her placement in the cult as a sort of Virgin Shirley. Danny Partridge (perpetual walking disaster Danny Bonaduce) is the bass player/irritant, the perverse imp, the Partridge’s very own false prophet. Sister/keyboard player Laurie (Susan Dey) is…well, in the Temple she’s always involved in orgies, so maybe she’s the whore of Babylon? We don’t want to dig too deeply into this hole, really. I’m sure you get the drift.
 

The new messiahs?

So where are we, and how did we get here? In 1988, Shaun Fairlee AKA Shaun Partridge, the high priest of the Temple, was living in Denver. One weird weekend he met a rogue reverend, Adam Sleek, who tortured him with Partridge Family albums on crackly vinyl for many unsettling hours. At first, he hated them. That’s the sane reaction, incidentally. But eventually, he broke, allowing the insipid kiddie-pop of “I Think I Love You,” “I Woke Up in Love This Morning,” and “Come On Get Happy” to burrow deep into the soft meat of his brain. He saw it all, the whole virgin/whore dichotomy, his misfiring synapses creating a crazy-quilt origin story where All is Partridge and Partridge is All.. All that was left was to pick a few gold medallions and polyester shirts at the Goodwill and POOF! a new dumb religion was born.
 

He saw the light. Shaun Partridge gets happy

A vaguely sinister provocateur wrapped in a garish mid-70s clown costume, Fairlee began following (some might call it stalking) the various actors from the Partridge Family series. The Temple’s first major public disturbance was at a David Cassidy/Danny Bonaduce concert in 1991, where he was arrested for loudly preaching the gospel of the Temple to weirded-out nostalgia buffs. His stunt caught the attention of the media, and soon the Temple was making the rounds on shows like Stewart’s and on sensational tabloid programs like A Current Affair. Fairlee picked up a small contingent of co-conspirators along the way, most notably Giddle Partridge, a glamorous LA Satanist known mostly for Giddle and Boyd, her apocalyptic retro pop band with noise-rock anti-hero Boyd Rice.
 

Uneasy listening: Giddle and Boyd
 
In the mid-1990’s, they moved their act to freak-friendly Portland, where they were known mostly as creeps, fascists and women-beaters. Fairlee was in frequent barfights, and interviews would devolve quickly into the various atrocities his Temple may (or may not) have been a part of, from raw violence (sure), incest (Fairlee has threatened to marry his sister on occasion), devil worship (definitely; the Temple is rife with Satanists), and even urine-guzzling (Fairlee is very pro pee-play). They’re still around, but odds are they’ll be run out of town with pitchforks and torches any day now.
 

 
It’s hard to laugh off public beatings. I mean, people have seen it with their own eyes. But aside from the drunken rages, almost everything this group has ever done has been wrapped in so many layers of irony and sarcasm that it’s impossible to know exactly what any of this is about. I mean it’s not like they have an actual church to go to or any sacraments or even a sermon to listen to, although they do have a pretty dope house band. But it’s really just a bunch of quasi-evil 90s vintage hipsters fucking with you. Clearly, it’s satire, but what’s the joke? That religion and TV are the same thing? It’s a lot easier to just say that. You don’t need to invest 20 years into a fake cult for that. So maybe the truth has been right in front of us the whole time. Maybe, like Fairlee before us, we just haven’t watched the show enough or paid enough attention to the albums. Maybe illumination awaits, deep in the grooves of The Partridge Family’s Greatest Hits.
 

 
[Spoiler: It doesn’t.]
 

Posted by Ken McIntyre | Discussion
None more black: The grim American gothic horrors of ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’
02.13.2017
11:56 am

Topics:
Books
History
Movies
Occult

Tags:


Black River Falls’ Miss Congeniality circa 1890

Between the years 1890 and 1900, something terribly wrong happened to the good people of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. A tiny mining town populated mostly by Norwegian and German immigrants lured by the promise of cheap land, the once-bustling community fell into disrepair in the late 1880s when the inhospitable climate caused the mines to shut down, essentially dooming the town and everyone in it. While the town did ultimately survive, the ensuing decade was merciless to Black River Falls residents. A thick, impenetrable darkness descended on the town as the population withered, succumbing to poverty, disease, madness, murder, and worse.
 

 
In 1973, Michael Lesy told the terrible true tale of Black River Falls in Wisconsin Death Trip, a book that juxtaposed stark images shot by photographer Charles Van Schaick, who documented the town’s downward spiral in a series of jarring portraits, with matter-of-fact newspaper reports of all the murder, mayhem, devil-worship, suicide, hauntings and general bedlam that infected the town like a virus. If ever a place was cursed, it was Black River Falls, and Wisconsin Death Trip remains one of the bleakest, most devastating accounts of rural American life ever published. Seriously, this place was essentially Hell on Earth.
 

All this and diphtheria, too: a typically unsettling slice of life death in Black River Falls.
 
Witness, if you will, just a smattering of the horrors within:

A ten-year-old boy and his younger brother run away from home, find a remote farm several miles away and promptly blow the owner’s head off. They spend the rest of the summer frolicking at the ill-gotten farmhouse until the farmer’s brother comes for a visit. The boy is sentenced to life in jail.

A funeral director is suspected of botching a burial. The woman’s body is exhumed and the woman is found to have been buried alive, her fingers bitten half off in madness after discovering her horrific fate.

A sixty-year-old woman, afraid that the rash on her back would kill her, steps into her backyard, douses herself with gasoline and self-immolates.

A young mother takes her three children out for a day at the beach, and then drowns them, one by one, while the others watch. A fifteen-year-old Polish girl burns down her employer’s barn—and his house—because she wanted some “excitement.” 

A young German man, having only moved to Black River Falls a month prior, attempts suicide by train, lying down on the tracks and refusing to move. He is finally removed by four men. He later vanishes.

A teenage girl, jilted at the altar by her fiance, goes mad with grief, hanging herself in the local asylum. Meanwhile a young man, also recently jilted, shoots his ex-fiance and then himself. A recently divorced man shoots his ex-wife and her family dead in the crowded town square.

An outbreak of diphtheria kills off a score of local children. The school is closed and the houses of the afflicted burned to the ground. A formerly world famous opera singer moves to town and within a month is reduced to eating chicken feed to survive.

A farmer decapitates all of his chickens and burns down his farmhouse, convinced that the devil has taken over his farm. A drifter is taken in by a kindly family. He has dinner with them and as they sleep, he shoots them all and then himself.

And there’s more, so much more. Just endless misery death, murder, mutilation, arson, starvation, cruelty and unrelenting depression. And all in the space of just a few years.
 

 
In 1999, a highly unsettling documentary based on Lesy’s book was released. Also titled Wisconsin Death Trip, it showed the photographs, recounted the newspaper reports, and recreated many of the crimes in black and white, bringing Black River Falls’ grisly past to life. The film also juxtaposes the town’s lunatic ancestors with dead-eyed portraits of the then-current residents, less murderous but still as dazed and depressed as ever, staring blankly into the camera at nursing homes or bus stops, clearly waiting for the Lord or somebody merciful to end their dreary, pointless existences. I would not recommend consuming both the book and the documentary in one sitting unless you have a bucket of Prozac handy, but I will say this: You might think you’re pretty goth ‘n all with your serial killer books and your Bauhaus records, but you are definitely not Black River Falls goth. Those motherfuckers were the real deal.

Watch ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ after the jump…

Posted by Ken McIntyre | Discussion
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