Monday, February 27, 2006

Gross, Faye Dunaway, gross.

"Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" by Peter Biskind is pure raunchy awesomeness. This 439-page tabloid-esque chronicle of the emergence of "New Hollywood" in the late '60s contains some of the most hilarious and horrifying stories about key figures in American film, all while chugging forward with a gripping narrative of the downfall of the classic studio system and the fleeting power enjoyed by famed auteurs like Marty Scorcese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola. Get all this now.

Friday, February 24, 2006

I'm not even supposed to be here! - "Clerks" as comfort

Being straight-edge in college doomed me to a lot of lonely nights. I spent many of them parked in front of my television set watching “comfort movies,” which carry a much different definition for males than for females. I couldn’t take solace in maudlin romantic comedies or hopeful rags-to-riches stories. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” doused me in sap and “Love, Actually” made me choke on it. Instead, light-hearted films that contained conspiring fun-loving friends trading incisive barbs - “buddy comedies,” basically - were where I hung my psyche’s hat. “The Big Lebowski” and “Bottle Rocket” were among my most gratifying films to watch.

So I spent my first night in college watching “Clerks,” notoriously potty-mouthed writer/director Kevin Smith’s 1993 film debut. I had seen it once before, but I wasn’t looking for any bold new viewing experiences. With the usual burdens of entering college pinning down my thoughts with the strength of industrial staples, I couldn’t afford to think. In fact, I needed something to help me pluck out those staples - something to alleviate my qualms over choosing the right major, trying out for the lacrosse team, and forging new friendships. “Clerks” - and its depiction of two convenience store clerks waging a mean-spirited war against their customers - was just the right tool.

Of course I was not the only “Clerks” fan on any college campus. A tour through any ten dorm rooms in America will likely produce at least one “Clerks” DVD or poster (or its more popular but cruder younger brother, “Mallrats”). The film’s resonance with college students is indeed massive, but not without reason.

Quick Stop cashier Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and RST Video clerk Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) appeal so mightily to college students precisely because they didn’t go to college. They are the road not taken. They have, willfully or not, bypassed the lengthy commitment of a “proper” education. Instead, they slum it in the service sector, where they are subjected to the fury of America’s middle class. Every day for Dante and Randal is another brow-beating, another encounter with someone who tries to remind them of their inferiority.

Randal defensively burrows into the “I didn’t go to college because I already know everything I need to know” persona. He’s perfectly content lambasting customers who unwittingly amble into RST Video to rent a movie for their children. Randal’s store is like a war zone where he plays enough mind games to confuse a seasoned criminal psychologist. He’s rude as hell, but like any great athlete, you’d love to have him playing on your team.

Meanwhile, Dante grapples with the prospect of finishing school in order to please his girlfriend. His happiness is a bit more elusive. Unlike Randal, Dante has connections - people who lament his wasted potential and urge him to leave his minimum wage gulag. Dante, as the name implies, is journeying through Hell - but not one to which he is forever banished. He’d like to escape, but he can’t decide whether he should indulge the hollow perks of his job at the Quick Stop or flee the store for higher ground. The ambivalence causes Dante to alternate between bouts of misery and bursts of joy. Yet, to the viewer, his life doesn’t seem so terrible with a friend like Randal constantly around to amuse him.

Despite veering off the course to happiness and propriety prescribed by their elders, Dante and Randal are ostensibly happy - or at least well-adjusted enough to make light of their plights by filling their days with surliness and scorn toward their customers. They treat the stores that employ them like their homes - they come and go when they please, swipe drinks from the cooler like it was their personal refrigerator, and annex the roof like it was their backyard to host a roller-hockey game with their friends. They encounter eccentrics like gum representatives who incite small-scale riots within the store's smoking patronage and foul-mouthed drug dealers who are dying to be slapped with a sexual harassment lawsuit. All the while, Dante and Randal make convenience stores look like temples of serenity and mirth - relative to most other places of employment. Corporations be damned!

The rebellion of “Clerks” thus lies in its evisceration of “established” people as a witless and bored social stratum. It not only subverts their doctrine of “go to college, get a job, be happy” but also pokes fun at them for being inept and utterly dependent on social servants to meet their menial, everyday needs. Because I had just entered college - when I felt pressured by its “necessity” more than ever - “Clerks’” message hit me like a hammer in my spine. Suddenly college didn’t seem so “do or die.” After all, I could just work at a convenience store for the rest of my life, meet some wacky dude like Randal, and savor the happiness that comes with our hijinks.

The triviality of Dante and Randal’s discussions about popular culture is another hook in the gut of the college audience. These two were clearly reared on a steady diet of Spielberg and Lucas. Yet they don’t have traditionally “nerdy” discussions. They aren’t fan boys who argue that Batman would kick Superman’s ass because he’s that much cooler. Their argument about the explosion of the second Death Star as an injustice against independent contractors mirrors the type of mindless chatter that my suitemates and I would ease into after classes. It’s foolish and moot, but fun to ponder nonetheless.

Not long after seeing “Clerks” for the second time, my suitemates and I would watch it ad infinitum, to the point where endless quotations and even a Halloween masquerade as the cast would define the first few months of our freshman year. We didn’t tire of it. Some of my friends unsuccessfully tried to argue away the movie’s appeal. They just didn’t understand why I loved watching “Clerks” repeatedly. If they did, maybe they would have been able to predict that my obsession would subside once my confidence in “the college life” strengthened. Even I didn’t realize until years later that for those first few months of college, “Clerks” wasn’t just fun, it was comfort.

(photo courtesy of

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Sordid tales of stalking and gawking on are all over the local and national news. Parents everywhere are concerned that the online friend network is going to pluck their adolescent children from their protection and send them tumbling into the arms of weirdos waiting in the wings.

But I don't have kids and I think myspace is a bore, so I don't pay the matter much mind. Instead I'm becoming more interested in the way bands are using myspace more than their regular websites. Nine Inch Nails, for instance, posts videos of live performances regularly on their myspace site, while updating perhaps once a week. Further, people searching for new music are becoming accustomed to the myspace format, which makes browsing and listening all the easier and more accessible. The value of band websites evaporates every time one makes a new myspace page. It's not far-fetched to suggest that band websites may become obsolete entirely.

It seems myspace is on its way to becoming a microcosm of the entire web. Soon everyone - every commercial entity, every non-profit organization, and every religious institution (yes I'm stretching) - will have their own myspace site. And then we can stalk them too.

(photo courtesy of

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I listened to too much Beastie Boys as a child

There's a scene in Stephen Frears' 2000 romantic comedy for music snobs, High Fidelity, in which self-effacing record store clerk and Moby look-alike Dick (Todd Luiso) enters his boss Rob's (John Cusack) apartment to discover Rob's gargantuan vinyl record collection scattered across the floor. Agape and intrigued, Dick tries to decode the madness.
"It looks as if you're reorganizing your records, what is this...chronological?"
"It's not alphabetical."
"No fucking way."
"Yup...I can tell you how I got from Deep Purple to Howling Wolf in just 25 moves. And if I want to find the song 'Landslide' by Fleetwood Mac, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the Fall of 1983 pile, but didn't give it to them for personal reasons."
"That sounds..."
"Comforting. It is."

This scene absolutely nails my feelings towards music. When I listen to a song - "Siberian Kiss" by Glassjaw, for instance - the first thing that comes to mind is not its pummeling guitars, the Tazmanian Devil-like unintelligibility of the lyrics, or its debt to New York City hardcore and the vocal style of Faith No More‘s Mike Patton. Instead I am immediately reminded of the time I first heard it - at a poker party in the basement of a high school friend. The imagery is indelible - the card table was here, two couches there, while so-and-so was sitting in front of the TV playing Nintendo 64 and "that guy" was laying down on the floor because he had taken too many Sudafed. In cognitive psychology this phenomenon is known as spreading activation - one bit of information (song) reaches associated bits (when I heard it, who I heard it with, etc.) through the neural network, bringing to conscious awareness a plethora of associated memories.

In this manner music serves as a sort of index of various scenes in my life. I always associate Foo Fighters' "The Colour and the Shape" and Blur’s self-titled album with my 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C., during which I bought the first album and listened to both non-stop on the Birnie Bus. The Flaming Lips' "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" conjures memories of leaving New York City in the wintry nighttime on a similar bus, while "Psychocandy" by the Jesus and Mary Chain will forever be associated with mowing greens at Monroe Golf Club at 6 a.m. But perhaps my strongest song associations are intertwined with the first album I ever listened to completely through, over and over, until I had memorized every lyric and could anticipate every note.

In 1994, my older cousins lent me a copy of "Check Your Head" by the Beastie Boys to go with my first CD player. Their gift was prompted by my remarking to them how much I loved watching the Spike Jonze-directed video for "Sabotage," and even though "Sabotage" wasn’t on "Check Your Head," I was overflowing with glee when they handed me the album.

At the time, I enjoyed rehearsing the comedic elements of "Check Your Head" almost more than listening to the songs. "Professor Booty’s" opening - "Professor, what’s another word for pirate treasure? Why I think it’s booty!" - was a riot to recite with friends. The fatigued off-key crooning of keyboardist Money Mark in "Mark on the Bus" and the opening dialogue to "The Maestro," set over an upper-crust party ambience, were our other favorites. These humorous portions of "Check Your Head" immediately bring to mind the faces of my childhood friends, crowded together with me around a CD player and laughing hysterically as we endlessly rewound the tracks to hear them again.

The standout songs on "Check Your Head," such as "Pass the Mic" and "So Whatcha Want?", were what ultimately stapled the album to my brain. The opening track, "Jimmy James," which samples Hendrix’s opening feedback to "Foxy Lady," provided me with a fun soundtrack to playing video games like "TIE Fighter" and "Sonic the Hedgehog." The feedback sample warps from the familiar cacophony into a scratching passage that sounds like a schizoid dentist’s drill before Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D storm in to take control.

I could recite every word of "Pass the Mic" with the shortest notice. From the trumpets-blaring, dawn-is-arising-so-take-heed! opening, this third song on "Check Your Head" flows seamlessly, amalgamating threatening guitars with titanic drums and an indecipherable sample of some guy’s panicky voice. Even though the Beastie Boys are not commonly considered the most prolific rappers - their flow falls far below that of the Jay-Zs and MF Dooms of the world, even Eminem - their verses on "Pass the Mic" are gorgeous and intimidating. They sound like gangly white Jewish monsters standing atop the highest perches in their native Brooklyn who should be filmed from menacing low angles as they spit boastful rhymes about rocking block parties and exploding on sight like Jimmy Walker ("Dyn-o-mite!"). It’s the type of song I’d listen to before stepping on the field for a lacrosse game - one that made me feel that I, like the Beastie Boys, was purely untouchable.

Although I also enjoyed "So Whatcha Want," its one of those songs whose personal value has depreciated in light of its hijacking at the hands of the masses. Though the sentiment is silly, it’s one few music fans can deny experiencing. We just don’t like to share. "So Whatcha Want’s" hammer-on-the-anvil rhythm and fragmented vocal filters (a Beastie Boys tradition) are tied together by an organ sample that sounds like it should play between batters at an afternoon baseball game. It’s another song I recall listening to prior to lacrosse games, but for a different reason - it’s aggressive, but the music just makes you want to enjoy yourself.

My undying love of the Beastie Boys‘ "Check Your Head" and its irreplaceable connection to my late childhood can best be illustrated by one fact: I still haven’t given the CD back to my cousins.

(photo courtesy of

Take that, Utah!

A new awards season trailer for Brokeback Mountain boasts of the film's warm reception in "all 50 states." Never heard that one before.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Grizzly Man

The Discovery Channel isn't known for premiering heavily buzzed-about films. But when there comes a documentary about a grizzly bear enthusiast's death at the claws of his beloved beasts, the cable network widely known for depicting fornicating mammals wastes no time laying claim to it.

Veteran German director Werner Herzog's 2004 documentary "Grizzly Man," which won an Alfred P. Sloan feature film prize not one year ago at the Sundance Film Festival, first aired on cable TV last Friday. Appended to the 106-minute film was a 30-minute round table comprised of friends of the film's referent subject, blond mop-headed animal rights activist Timothy Treadwell.

The haste with which the film journeyed from the big screen to the small one demonstrates not only "Grizzly Man's" smooth fit within the Discovery Channel's programming canon, but also the mesmerizing power of the tale Herzog crafts from Treadwell's life and death.

The documentary itself is flawless. Herzog deserves infinite praise for refusing to play the audio of Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard's savage demise by a surly grizzly bear. The roundtable of Treadwell's closest friends and associates lament the morbid fascination with which viewers inquire about this record of Treadwell and Huguenard's deaths. Although it's easy to join in the condemnation of humanity's fixation with violence, it's difficult to deny harboring any curiosity about the soundtrack to two people being slaughtered by a grizzly bear. Ultimately, Herzog's sensitivity to Treadwell's former girlfriend (who possessed and refused to listen to the audio) and the nature activist's surviving loved ones is worth far more than the fleeting thrill of listening to limbs being ripped from torsos. But what was his and Huguenard's death like, you ask? Just use your imagination.

Herzog attempts to shift the focus from Treadwell's tragic death to his life as a frequent summer vacationer in Alaska surrounded by grizzly bears and foxes. Here, Herzog uses bits of the 100-plus hours of footage Treadwell shot in the lush locale that depicts him admiring bear behavior from not so afar and even stopping to marvel at their mounds of feces. All the while, interviews with Treadwell's friends and family are used to help Herzog demonstrate that Treadwell not only earnestly longed to live among the bears, but also to become one.

Herzog even provides a philosophical counterpoint to the chipper Treadwell. The director remarks in his minimally clunky German accent that nature is not the beautiful utopia Treadwell perceived, but rather a harsh realm ruled by primal instincts and brute force. Still, his commentary is offered only as an aside and not an encompassing frame for Treadwell's tale. Herzog is respectful enough a documentarian to not make "Grizzly Man" into his film. We have Michael Moore to pull that kind of stunt.

While Herzog's filmmaking is beyond reproach, Treadwell himself is not. At first glance his tremendous passion for bears and all wildlife is admirable - a captivating portrait of a deep, star-crossed love - but upon examination, his behavior reveals a swollen ego stemming from fragile emotional soil. Almost all of Treadwell's video diaries of his adventures in the Alaskan terrain feature him prominently; he occupies the foreground while his beloved bears lumber about behind him. His appearance is a top priority to him - every jacket he wore in Alaska contained a comb and mirror in the front pocket. Even his friendship with Alaska's animals takes a backseat to his vanity when he shrilly berates a fox for stealing his "important" baseball hat.

Then, in a subtle display of obliviousness, Treadwell alters the rock arrangement in a stream so that salmon may run it and fill the bellies of starving bears. Though benevolent on its own, this gesture betrays a hypocrisy within Treadwell, who frequently cites the absence of human intervention as a raison d'etre for his love of the Alaskan wilderness.

Treadwell's most egregious behavior is captured when the bear activist boasts about his survival skills in the "Grizzly Maze." Poisoned by pride in his life's work, Treadwell challenges viewers to make the journey to the Alaskan wild. With the taunting tone of a schoolyard dare, he declares that no one could survive the experience. And a "survival of the fittest" contest in grizzly bear territory is relevant to the preservation of their beautiful species how? Here Treadwell comes off more as a pompous thrill-seeker whose death is not so much tragic as inevitable. "Grizzly Man" thus inspires both sympathy for Treadwell's colossal love of nature and disdain for his eagerness to let the world know about it.

(photo courtesy of

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Drawing swords...

On the Oscars...

"Crash," Paul Haggis' visceral dissection of racial discord in Los Angeles, has been frequently appearing on the "Best of 2005" lists of critics and IMDB rats alike. It was even awarded an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of the Year. Given this mountain of praise, someone who hasn't seen the movie would probably be led to believe that "Crash" must immediately be Netflix-ed, discussed, and cherished. I can't bring myself to agree.

Watching this mediocre mosaic piece felt like being walloped upside the head with a flaming brick and then being forced to solve a calculus equation. Its caricatured multiethnic characters abrade each other to the point of unbelievability, propelling into the stratosphere our anger with their bigoted actions, until we are compelled to wonder why their hatred dissolves when they discover each other in perilous situations or discover themselves friendless.

The message was astonishingly superficial - people of all ethnicities in LA are angry, anger leads to hate and then suffering, but instead of suffering leading to the dark side, it sometimes leads to self-reflection and a fleeting change of heart. But all it takes is one day, one harmonious, beneficial, or even non-threatening encounter with a member of your targeted outgroup, to foment that change. And yet, sometimes, the anger or prejudice at our cores is so strong, so wildly aflame and irrepressible, that we revert to bigotry instinctively (see: Ryan Phillippe's character). In other words, we're bound to act just about any which way in any given combination of circumstances. Gee, that sort of sounds like...human nature, no? Mail letters of gratitude for this revelation to:

Paul Haggis
Somewhere in Canada

Here is an example: embittered cop who nurses his UTI-afflicted father molests black woman in front of her black husband, then rescues her from a car wreck days later because...he's just Mr. Magnanimous? No, it's because it's his job and there are dozens of witnesses. Yes, you could argue the other way - that his reprehensible actions during the traffic stop were spawned not by malice but stress. But even assuming that he was in fact a "good guy" under the astronomical level of pressure required to drive such a "good guy" to sexually molest a woman in front of her husband on the side of the road, the question remains: what's the point? That we should forgive people who intentionally traumatize us? That racists aren't really such bad guys at heart?

Very little more than self-interest and instinct lurk in the hearts of "Crash's" characters. The truth (or, as a former social psychology student, the truth as I see it) that prejudice is instinctive may be "Crash's" most trenchant point, even if it beats that point into our heads with enough brute force to crush an elephant skull. The difference between stereotyping and racism, however, lies in the persistence of prejudice - whether or not that initial, evolutionary tendency to group and generalize is overcome by consciously acknowledging that you are in fact stereotyping and should open your mind to possibilities. If the mind remains closed, it eventually becomes afraid and the seeds of racism are sown. Lecture over.

As it turns out, the most racist character in the film (as I remember) was also the only character who really changed - Sandra Bullock's Jean. And the shedding of her racist skin was brought about by a truly soulful epiphany: being racist sure makes it tough to make friends.

"Crash" is such a great film because "it makes you think," or so I've been told...frequently. Sure the movie inspires one to reflect on its material. But any idiot can film a movie dealing with abortion, gun control, or racism and inspire someone to discuss the topic with a viewing buddy after exiting the theater. "Crash" is slightly more accomplished than that, but its duel with the issue of racism amounts to two parries before it reaches for its machete and goes for the thematic kill.

The ensemble cast in "Crash" has also attracted raves, but again I'm mostly unmoved. Matt Dillon was a perfectly fine creep, but his performance just wasn't memorable enough to rise above any of his fellow cast members, namely Don Cheadle or Ryan Phillippe. If anything, either of those two gentlemen deserved the Best Supporting Actor nod ahead of Dally Winston (while all three bow to Ed Harris in "A History of Violence"). Lastly, the meddling with the saturation of reds and blues in the photography was uninspired and fashionable (see: Tony Scott). But at least Haggis didn't go for the greater insult and use black-and-white photography.

What irks me most of all is that "Crash's" nomination for Best Picture of the Year comes at the expense of an Oscar nod for my favorite film of the year, "A History of Violence." Ironically, in 1996 "Violence" director David Cronenberg made a movie called "Crash" that was way fucking better than this one.

I'd have to see "Crash" again to truly qualify my opinions of it, perhaps even alter or change them, but I'm afraid a second viewing would compel me to punch my TV screen out of sheer frustration with its caveman-like treatment of as complex a social psychological issue as racism.

(photo courtesy of

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