Friday, March 02, 2007

Camera Obscura - Cruelty as Entertainment

I've been giving America's most popular TV show a chance to argue it's case for the last few weeks, which means I have selflessly devoted some of my lifetime to the hours and hours and hours of the show on FOX which somehow has captured the nation's heart.

When American Idol first began a few years ago, I did watch some bits and pieces, thought "feh! who cares" and went on my way. But I decided like any good media critic, I should sit and watch as many episodes as I could ... which I have done for this season. I confess, it has become more and more difficult to sit through an hour (much less two) of this drivel.

It should now and forever be called American iDull.

So I will not watch anymore, I cannot. I hope you who do appreciate that this experience is an endless series of unimaginative judging, which essentially boils down to three words, one for each judge -- "dog", "beautiful" and "terrible", and an endless series of humiliations - "you've just been kicked off as the worst singer of the bunch, so 'cmon and sing one more time through your tears while the winners sing behind your back."

Whatever, people.

But since I'm on the topic of appetites for humiliation and cruelty, then let's talk about the current rage for a series of movies called "Saw."

I've always been a fan of horror films and always will be. However, movies like "Saw", "Hostel", "Wolf Creek," and others in recent years have been more about sadistic cruelties than narrative entertainments. It's a boring claim, yes, made in the past about everything from comic books to rock music. I'm going to do my best here not to write some pedantic student film research treatise. It's just that all movies - not just horror movies - have subtexts, both intended and unintended - which can make them both popular and profitable.

So I've been pondering on the subtexts in the "Saw" series. Grime-encrusted clockwork technologies, crude and blunt and brutal machines and damn near medieval "teach-the-bad-person-a-lesson" plot points are all integral parts to these movies. It's their appearance and the gory outcomes that audiences and critics all talk about. But why does it appeal to today's audiences?

Today's world is abuzz with new tech, not low tech. Most people can relate to feelings of being trapped by tech innovations, even simple ones like being stuck forever on the telephone menu pressing one button to go here or another to go there and never encountering anything with a human connection. Those who do not have broadband-connected lives, MP3 players or MySpace pages likely feel keenly disconnected from the times they inhabit. Perhaps it's a subconscious realization that the world is littered with technologies ancient and recent. We rely on machines most of us could never create ourselves, but which so dominate actions we must all take.

And there is a connection, too, I think, between these movies and the America with a 9-11 worldview. Smart-bombs and high-tech war machines are battling with unorganized and random enemies who use homemade explosives. Can a box-cutter and some fuel make a weapon which cannot be defeated? And it seems odd to me that in years past we used the word "bomb" and today the preferred word is "improvised explosive device", as if giving it a complex title transforms it's basic crudeness into a more technological danger. How, many may subconsciously wonder, can we not win a battle between hi and low tech?

And typically in the "Saw" films, the audiences is left to consider that if the intended victims just stay calm and think, they can figure a way out of a death-trap. Ironically in this series of movies, the one woman who can escape then joins in the game of making death-traps herself.

Discussions of torture and of morality are certainly prevalent in today's world. And as I said, there are intended and unintended subtexts in any movie -- even the crudest film made just to turn a tidy profit is an exercise not just in business, but in stimulus and response.

Is there a politics of the horror film?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Thursday Web Walking

The legendary Superman was caught on videotape at an accident scene at a DMV office. This Florida CBS affiliate has the video, and yep, sure enough, there is a man clad head-to-toe in the Man of Steel's clothes. And this sentence from the report is priceless:

Inexplicably, a man in a Superman costume could be seen walking around the car, but he did not stop to help the driver or any of the victims."

Video and story here.

Web rumors say the casting of the next set of actors to play the leads in the next "Star Trek" movie are: Matt Damon as Capt. Kirk, Adrien Brody as Spock and Gary Sinese as Dr. McCoy. And speaking of Heroes and Sidekicks, a look at suggestions for Sidekicks who are superior to their Hero partners.

Will someone in Rep.Campfield's district tell him he needs to sponsor a bill to create the Tennessee Office of Zombie Preparedness? Why wait until the mindless hordes attack? Heck of a job, Campy!

The picture here is one of a series from what happened when a safety drill at a zoo in Tokyo pretty much terrified the children who watched this furry creature get chased, tackled and eventually shot with a tranquilizer gun. Good times, huh kids?

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Violent Femmes-Burger, with Cheese

I thought I was the only one who had noticed it for a while -- that a Wendy's commercial was using music from The Violent Femmes "Blister In The Sun" to sell their greasy food. I did one of those spit-takes when I heard it -- and pondered if anyone at Wendy's might know the lyrics.

Who knows? Maybe some ad folks thought it would be funny.

Anyway, the other night while wasting time watching something mindless on TV, the commercial comes on and The Editor says -- "ummm ... is that ....?" So then I knew at least two people who thought the ad was a little odd.

Far ahead of the crowd though, was John at Salem's Lots, who not only wrote about the ad, but even had a comment on his post from the very unhapy Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie. "I see my life’s work trivialized at the hands of my business partner over and over again, although I have raised my objections numerous times. As disgusted as you are I am moreso ".

Way cool that Brian left a comment and like John, I've been a fan of the band too.

But my Creep-O-Meter went off the scale and broke years ago when advertisers started using great rock and roll songs to sell crap - or more accurately perhaps, to sell some product's Philosophy of Lifestyle.

Just last night I was caught off guard again when I realized some toothbrush company ad was using KISS' tune "I Wanna Rock And Roll All Night" for their toothbrush. At least they didn't change the lyrics to say "I wanna brush my teeth all night, and floss every day." And a friend just reminded me today that for some time now, Kentucky Fried Chicken uses the song "Sweet Home Alabama" to sell their greasy food. Call it ad-logic.

And in just a moment or two of web-searching, I found a web site which tracks all the rock and other music used in advertising, movies, tv, etc. So again, I'm very late to a party which has been going on for years. My dad used to tell me "Boy, when your boat comes in, you'll probably be at the airport."

Hell, half the time, I see some ad skitter across the screen and have absolutely no idea what has just been advertised. Was it a cologne? Floor wax? Car insurance? Diapers? Shoes? Drugs? These ads always seem to have Incredibly Happy People running among green fields, wearing sweaters draped over their shoulders with the sleeves making a knot, or making a car jump a bajillion feet or some folks taking a slow-motion stroll on the beach at sunrise and everyone shaking hands and hugging, somehow exhilarated at long last that some bane of life has become a boon instead.

Music can just arrive in the strangest ways from my surroundings, like that dude who had the theme from "The Exorcist" as the ring tone for his cell phone.

It all sort of reminds me that things have become a mega-miniature James Joyce-like stream of fragments and fractals, mash-ups of memories and moments blended to make some easily-digested smoothie of experience.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Finney's Folly, or Reports of Evil Monkey Sighting

A state senator from Maryville, Raymond Finney, is posing a nonsensical set of questions in a resolution for the Tennessee Dept. of Education. And yes, it's a waste of government time and money - especially since he answers his own question in the resolution, or rather, he can't seem to decide what to think --:

1.) "Is the universe and all that is within it, including human beings, created through purposeful, intelligent design by a Supreme Being, that is a Creator?"

2.) "Since the universe, including human beings, is created by a supreme being (a creator), why is creationism not taught in Tennessee public schools?

3.) "Since it cannot be determined whether the universe, including human beings, is created by a supreme being (a creator), why is creationism not taught as an alternative concept, explanation, or theory, along with the theory of evolution in Tennessee public schools?"

Senator - you are deeply confused here. First, you ask if all Creation was made by a Creator, then you answer that and say "Yes, it is", which you follow with a third statement that the answer you seek "cannot be determined."

Try being honest - you really are asking why the state's school system isn't teaching Religion in Science class.

A viable solution exists for you -- go to the church of your choice and discuss concerns about your Creator and attend some Science classes at a school of your choice and learn about theory there? Wasn't some Science requirement involved when you earned a degree as a physician?

You might also want to go back and take some Logic classes too.

This makes me wonder if some of our elected officials are thinking - "Hey, I can get attention for being as goofy as Stacey Campfield."

(image via Chris Griffin's fears)

UPDATE: more discussion of this topic as well as the school board in Blount County (Finney's district) and their take on science and biology is heating up at KnoxViews.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Smearing Al Gore The TCPR Way

Facts are secondary at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research.

Nicole Williams wrote an unresearched attack on Al Gore because he uses electricity -- without bothering to mention the higher fees he pays are due to the fact he purchases "green power", electricity created by methods other than coal burning.

More complete info was offered via The Tennessean:

Electric bills obtained by The Tennessean, however, showed that Gore is paying a premium on his bills to be part of the “green power” program. Gore purchased 108 blocks of “green power” for at least each of the last three months, according to a summary of bills from Nashville Electric Service.

That’s a total of $432 a month spent to pay extra for solar or other renewable energy sources. NES power – outside this program - is derived largely from coal, which emits carbon, a green house gas.

The green power purchased by Gore in those three months is equivalent to recycling 2.48 million aluminum cans, or recycling 286,092 pounds of newspaper, according to comparison figures on the utility's Web site.

Gore’s movie details how greenhouse gases are trapping heat next to the earth, causing a changing climate with melting ice caps and more violent storms.

“Every family has a different carbon footprint,” said Kalee Krider, a spokeswoman for Gore.

The Green Power Switch program, however, isn’t all he and his wife, Tipper, are doing, Krider said.

They use compact fluourescent lights and are in the midst of a renovation project that includes having solar panels installed on their home to reduce fossil fuel consumption more, she said.

Their car? A Lexus hybrid SUV."

William's bio page notes she "
Nicole writes and presents business and cultural seminars for international corporations such as DaimlerChrysler".

And the current president of the TCPR used to work for the Exxon-Mobile funded American Enterprise Institute, which donated over $1.6 million to the group since 1998.

TCPR claims to be:

".. an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to providing concerned citizens, the media and public leaders with expert research and timely free market policy solutions to public policy issues in Tennessee."

Expert research? Non-partisan? Then where are their policy statements calling for expanded support for Green Power sources? Seems that's counter to their agenda. But once the report was issued, it was presented to national outlets as fact. And it isn't the first time oil execs have sought to discredit Gore:

"The press release from Johnson's group, an obscure conservative think tank founded by Johnson in 2004 when he was 24, was given splashy attention on the highly-trafficked Drudge Report Monday evening, and former Gore aides saw it as part of a piece, along with an Fox News Channel investigation from earlier this month of Gore's use of private planes in 2000. Last year, a seemingly amateurish Youtube video mocking the "An Inconvenient Truth" turned out to have been produced by slick Republican public relations firm called DCI, which just happens to have oil giant Exxon as a client.

Considering that he spends an overwhelming majority of his time advocating on behalf of and trying to affect change on this issue, it's not surprising that people who have a vested interest in protecting the status quo would go after him."

Firing Attorneys Who Expose Corruption

Is the Bush administration obstructing justice by removing U.S. attorneys who have been investigating widespread corruption and bribes which resulted in indictments? Senate and House committees are starting to review what some are calling a purge -- or at least a surge in cronyism --directed by Attorney General Gonzales.

Here's some background via TPM:

Sometimes a really big story is sitting there, right in plain sight. That's the case with the firing of San Diego US Attorney Carol Lam and the on-going Duke Cunningham investigation.

As per Washington conventional wisdom we're now supposed to accept that the firing of seven US attorneys around the country was, yes, perhaps unprecedented, but more an example of Bush cronyism than an effort to short-circuit one or more investigations. But the firing of Lam just doesn't bear out that reading.

Earlier this month, Lam indicted Brent Wilkes, Dusty Foggo and John T. Michael.

By almost any measure this is a public corruption indictment of historic proportions. Wilkes corrupted the sitting US congressman who got the longest sentence ever given to a member of Congress. Foggo was the executive director of the CIA, the number three guy, the one who actually ran the agency on a daily basis. Michael helped bribing Duke and he also appears to have lied to investigators. He's also the nephew of Tommy Kontogiannis, a key player in the scandal who is listed as an unindicted briber-and-coconspirator in Duke Cunningham's plea agreement. One of the big mysteries in this case is why Kontogiannis still hasn't been indicted, especially now that his nephew -- whose role in the case was secondary to that of his uncle -- has. On Kontogiannis, it's probably worth considering the widespread reports of his role on the fringe of the intelligence and criminal underworlds to see why he might, as yet, have drawn a pass.

In any case, a pretty weighty indictment. And the prosecutor gets forced out so that she only barely has time to bring the main indictments? That sounds very fishy.

And what's the reason for her firing?

We were originally told that she was let go on the basis of poor performance and management. But McClatchy later reported that, like other fired US attorneys, Lam's performance reviews were strong.

So why was she fired?

We're now asked to believe that she was canned because a few conservative congressmen were complaining that she wasn't doing enough on the illegal immigration front.


A look at the cases against the men in question leave little doubt that this investigation wasn't over. But the job of the person who's led the prosecution from beginning is.

Who's foolish enough to believe this is all a coincidence?"

A wide range of other editorial writers and elected officials are raising some critical concerns about what appears to be attempts to stifle or simply end corruption investigations. Five of such editorials are cited here.

As WaPo story from Feb 15th reported:

The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to explain how the Justice Department's former top environmental prosecutor could sign consent decrees with the third-largest U.S. oil company after buying a $980,000 vacation home with its top lobbyist."

More on that here:

Last March, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, then the head of the Justice Department’s environmental division, bought a $1 million vacation home with Don R. Duncan, the top lobbyist for oil company ConocoPhillips. Nine months later, Ms. Wooldridge signed off on a settlement agreement that let ConocoPhillips delay the installation of pollution-control equipment and the payment of fines.

Just to make matters cozier, the third owner of the beach house is J. Steven Griles, the former No. 2 official at the Interior Department who’s now the target of a Justice Department criminal investigation into his dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Oh, and Ms. Wooldridge, who lives with Mr. Griles, once worked with him at Interior, where she gave Mr. Griles ethics advice and defended his actions during an inspector general investigation."

Sunday, February 25, 2007

79th Oscar Live Blogging

See the post below for my predictions and current thoughts as the show continues ...

My Picks for the 79th Oscars

Foolishly bold -- my picks for who will win at the 79th Oscars.

Best Picture: The Departed
Best Director: Martin Scorsese for The Departed
Best Actor: Peter O'Toole in Venus
Best Actress: Helen Mirren in The Queen
Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine
Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal
Best Original Screenplay: Little Miss Sunshine
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Departed
Cinematography: Pan's Labyrinth
Art Direction: Pan's Labyrinth
Costume Design: Dreamgirls
Original Song: "Listen" — Dreamgirls
Best Visual Effects: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Best Animated Feature Film: Monster House
Best Foreign Language Film: Pan's Labyrinth — Mexico
Best Documentary Feature: An Inconvenient Truth

UPDATE: It's about the halfway mark, and I have pegged a few winners but I have some thoughts on those I missed ...

- Best Costume - forgot all about that Coppola Magic Touch, which led to a win for Sofia's "Marie Antoinette.
- Best Foreign Film - no matter what, Pan's Labyrinth is best and Guillermo del Toro is brilliant.
- Best Supporting Actress - I blame my error on my anti-American Idol bias. I still do not like it, but at least Jen Hudson did not win that show and she sure can belt out a tune.
- Best Animated Feature - who knew the director of "Mad Max" and "Road Warrior" would cop an Oscar for animation? His script for the movie "Babe" should have clued me in.

UPDATE 2: Long overdue was a celebration of the work of composer Ennio Morricone. His work is as vital as any character in the movies he scored. But two notes about tonight -- the Academy ignored mention of his work on "Once Upon A Time In The West," where he scored musical themes for each of the characters and captured so much with simple sounds. Always innovative and experimental, his work (full credits here) is among the best in cinema. The other major mistake is to let Celine Dion sing one of his songs - that's like asking Eminem to sing all the parts in "Carmen."

UPDATE 3: My correct picks so far --
Art Direction: Pan's Labyrinth
Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Departed
Cinematography: Pan's Labyrinth
Best Visual Effects: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Best Original Screenplay: Little Miss Sunshine
Best Documentary Feature: An Inconvenient Truth

UPDATE 4: Well, duh. I was paying attention to which song of those nominated was best. I forgot to consider that the Academy had a chance to give two awards to Al Gore's documentary. Duh.

LAST UPDATE: I confess my selection of Peter O'Toole was purely out of my deep appreciation for his incredible career. Forest Whitaker is another incredible performer - and no, I haven't seen Last King of Scotland yet. But there are three of his performances worth seeking out - "Bird", "Color of Money" (a great Scorsese movie where he has a small scene scamming the hell out of Paul Newman at pool), and Ghost Dog, as a modern day samurai, is one of my favorite movies ever.

And after years of denial, Marty gets a much deserved accolade. All movie fans have known for years he is an American Master. From his early work as cinematographer and editor on "Woodstock" to his vast career with "Taxi Driver", "Mean Streets," "The Last Waltz," "Raging Bull", "King of Comedy" and so many more. Congrats, Marty, at long last.

The ones I picked correctly - ten of 16:

Best Picture: The Departed
Best Director: Martin Scorsese for The Departed
Best Actress: Helen Mirren in The Queen
Art Direction: Pan's Labyrinth
Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Departed
Cinematography: Pan's Labyrinth
Best Visual Effects: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Best Original Screenplay: Little Miss Sunshine
Best Documentary Feature: An Inconvenient Truth