Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Library of Congress Film Registry 2010

The Library of Congress has announced this year's additions to the National Film Registry:
  • Airplane (1980)
  • All the President’s Men (1976)
  • The Bargain (1914)
  • Cry of Jazz (1959)
  • Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967)
  • The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • The Exorcist (1973)
  • The Front Page (1931)
  • Grey Gardens (1976)
  • I Am Joaquin (1969)
  • It’s a Gift (1934)
  • Let There Be Light (1946)
  • Lonesome (1928)
  • Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)
  • Malcolm X (1992)
  • McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
  • Newark Athlete (1891)
  • Our Lady of the Sphere (1969)
  • The Pink Panther (1964)
  • Preservation of the Sign Language (1913)
  • Saturday Night Fever (1977)
  • Study of a River (1996)
  • Tarantella (1940)
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
  • A Trip Down Market Street (1906)
The National Film Registry archives and preserves films that are deemed to be historically, culturally, or aesthetically important. You can find out more about this year's inductees here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Variety: Lucasfilm settles lawsuit over 'anticompetitive' behavior

Variety has just published this article about a Department of Justice investigation into the relationship between Lucasfilm and Pixar. An excerpt:
The DoJ filed a complaint calling on the film, toon and FX powerhouse to stop entering into "anticompetitive" agreements with Pixar that the DoJ says have unfairly affected digital animators. The filing of the complaint included the proposed settlement to end the ongoing suit, pending court approval.

The complaint was part of a larger investigation by the DoJ's antitrust division into tech company employment practices.

The department asserts that Lucasfilm and Pixar each agreed not to cold-call employees at the other company with job offers, to notify each other when offering a job to an employee, and not to counteroffer when such an offer was made.
The article does not mention that Pixar was initially a part of Lucasfilm but was sold to Disney.

Filmography 2010

Check out this mash up of clips from the films of 2010. It's not much more than a montage of clips and music, but it is really cool.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Olbermann's Tribute to Leslie Nielsen

On Countdown on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann made a tribute to the memory of actor Leslie Nielsen, noting the actor's long career as a performer and how his deadpan style transferred seamlessly from drama to comedy. Nielsen died on November 28th.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Is Nudity the New Retard?

In the satirical film Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller played actors who go to ridiculous lengths to court the Hollywood awards circuit. One transforms his physical appearance from Caucasian to African and the other plays a mentally retarded adult. The point of the satire was to criticize just how vacuous and self serving these kinds of dramatic roles had become.

Now we have an essay by Jennie Yabroff at Newsweek about nudity by A-list actors. As Yabroff points out, "Not so long ago (think Porky’s era), gratuitous nude scenes were pretty much de rigueur for American actresses until they became big-enough stars to say no. But increasingly, nudity has become a self-congratulatory indication of European-style seriousness, an interruption of the narrative to remind the audience we are watching A Work of Art."

Although Yabroff is discussing Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal disrobing for the new film Love and Other Drugs, there are additional examples to support this claim. Consider Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, Chloƫ Sevigny in The Brown Bunny, Kate Winslet in The Reader, or Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist. In each case, the nudity was proclaimed by the press or by the publicity machine behind the film as evidence of its artistic credibility.

That's not to say that these film are artistically void. Some of them were quite good (and few of them were not). And clarify further, I have no problem with nudity or sexuality on screen. Nor do I have a problem with violence or portrayals of retardation. Try to imagine Schindler's List without violence, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest without mentally indigent characters, or In the Realm of the Senses without sexuality. In these films the content is absolutely relevant to the aims of the picture. And that's the point.

The tree Yabroff is scratching at here holds the fruit of Hollywood's awards season and the lengths to which actors, directors, and studios engineer their film making choices to appeal to voters. Self-conscious choices by artists, and especially by those perceived to be glamorous, can be distracting to the story they are trying to tell. When an actor disrobes for camera only to prove that they are a "serious artist," it is really no different from the struggling actor who disrobes only for the sake of attracting attention via their body. As Downey Jr.'s character warns Stiller's in Tropic Thunder, never go full retard.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Criticism of "For Colored Girls"

I have not seen the film yet, but here is a critical piece by Salamishah Tillet at The Root about Tyler Perry's adaptation of For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. (The film's title is shortened to For Colored Girls.) Here is an excerpt:
Ultimately, Perry's For Colored Girls could reach a larger audience than Shange could ever have imagined the stage and page versions reaching. Much like Lee Daniels' award-winning film Precious, Perry's version stands to usurp the original, not just in popularity but also in political message. Because of this, we need to celebrate Perry's ability to pull out the brilliant and magical performances provided by actresses like Loretta Devine, Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad and revel in his rare commitment to an all-black women's ensemble.

At the same time, we must remain hyper aware that Perry's For Colored Girls does little to dispel the sexual stereotypes and victim blaming of black women in contemporary American politics and popular culture -- especially of those women who have endured sexual assault, domestic violence, infertility and sexual transmitted infections. (Here, I should mention that Perry's new homophobic plot twist -- involving a closeted, bisexual, HIV-positive black man and his ostensibly emasculating wife -- also works against the open and inclusive spirit of Shange's brand of black feminism.)

But in the end, the durability of Shange's play has as much to do with the genius of her prose as it does with the stubbornness of racism and sexism to shape the material conditions of black women's lives. To his credit, Perry used 85 percent of Shange's original poetry in his final script. So even cloaked in his melodramatic conservatism, the potency of her words can't be fully lost.
This reminds me of last year's controversy over The Blind Side and Precious. The controversy erupted over "negative" versus "positive" portrayals of African Americans. The trouble with that kind of criticism, which often dogs the politics of representation, is that is misses the larger picture. It's true that the The Blind Side portrayed characters who were emblematic of goodness and tolerance and it carried a message of hope. But those characters were facile and their goodness was without sacrifice or insight. Precious' portrayal of African Americans wasn't so much negative as it was complex. That story was cast with full-fledged characters as opposed to stereotypes, with their own flaws and ambitions and hopes and nightmares. And ultimately, that kind of layered and sophisticated portrayal of people, of whatever color, is what we ought to seek and demand from filmmakers.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" at WSU

Panhellenic Council, Women and Gender Studies, and PAVE will be hosting a free screening of the movie The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on Monday, November 15th at 7pm in the Somsen Auditorium on the Winona State University campus.

According to Tracy Rahm, Associate Director of Student Activities & Leadership at WSU, the goal of the screening is to address difficult topics such as rape and sexual abuse. After the movie, PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment) will be hosting a discussion. Two advocates from the Women's Resource Center will be at the screening due to the very graphic content of the movie.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Movie Talk in Politics

This isn't specifically about movies, but it is a good example of the way film, and specifically Hollywood, shapes the way we talk about other subjects, in this case politics. The clip comes from "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell" on MSNBC:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Invisible People" Documentary

A public screening of the film "The Invisible People" will take place on Friday, November 5 at 7pm on the Winona State University campus in Science Lab 120.

"The Invisible People" is a 29-minute film about the lives of people living in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh. A discussion will follow the screening.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Invocation of My Demon Brother" with Commentary

Today's show wrapped up this year's batch of Halloween related episodes. For the last episode I broadcast the entire score from Kenneth Anger's short film "Lucifer Rising."

Here is Anger's short film "Invocation of My Demon Brother," which is made of material from the original version of "Lucifer Rising" that was never completed. The music in this film is composed by Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones. The audio on this video includes Anger's commentary track from "The Films of Kenneth Anger Vol. II" DVD.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special to Air in Winona

Listeners to 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN will be treated to two episodes of Sounds of Cinema this Halloween weekend.

First, the Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will air at 11pm on Saturday, October 30th. This program will be an hour of music, with minimal interuptions and include audio clips and musical selections from a wide variety of Halloween-related films.

Second, the regularly scheduled episode of Sounds of Cinema will air at the usual time, at 9am on Sunday, October 31st. This episode will feature Bobby Beausoleil's entire score from Kenneth Anger's short film, Lucifer Rising.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Halloween Movie Events in Winona

In the lead up to Halloween, there are a number of film screenings going on in the Winona area.

Wednesday, October 27th - A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The Winona State University Sociology club will be screening the original A Nightmare on Elm Street at 7pm in Minne 103. A discussion about scary movies and Halloween will follow.

Thursday, October 28th - Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The WSU English Department's Student Life Committee will be screening the original Night of the Living Dead at 7pm in the Smaug (the lower level of the student union). Snacks will be provided.

Friday, October 29th - Vampyr (1932)
The Fringe Friday Committee is coordinating a showing of the 1932 silent horror movie Vampyr, played to live music, at the Masonic Lodge in Winona at 7pm.

These are some great and important movies and I encourage you all to get out and get scared.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"Cannibal Holocaust" and "American Psycho"

Today's show continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look back at two very controversial films: Cannibal Holocaust and American Psycho.

Cannibal Holocaust
Cannibal Holocaust was directed by Italian filmmaker Ruggero Deodato. The film premiered in Italy in 1980 and played very successfully for a few weeks. Sergio Leone, the director of films like The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in America sent a letter to Deodato that said, “Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world."

That prediction came true, and the film was seized by Italian authorities and director Ruggero Deodato was arrested on the belief that this was a snuff film. Although Deodato was exonerated of murder charges, Cannibal Holocaust was labeled obscene due to footage of real animals killed at the hands of the actors, and the film was caught in legal limbo for years. The film did not appear in the United States until 1985 but when it did, it was given an X-rating and so its circulation was limited.

In other territories Cannibal Holocaust was heavily cut or banned outright. It is hard if not impossible to determine how many countries actually banned the film, although numbers as high as thirty to fifty have been suggested. If those numbers are correct, Cannibal Holocaust would probably be the most widely banned film of all time. There is some nuance to film bans since a cut version of Cannibal Holocaust is now allowed in locations such as the United Kingdom and Germany, although the complete version is still banned in both places.

Despite the thirty years that have passed since its premiere, Cannibal Holocaust remains a lightning rod of controversy for its animal killings, the portrayal of indigenous people, and the extreme anti-personal violence. But I think most of those explanations are red herrings that distract us from what Cannibal Holocaust is really about, why it really distresses the audience, and why it is distinct and important among horror films.
Cannibal Holocaust is not troubling to the audience for any one charge made against it, but for its cumulative effect. The barbarity of the animal killings, the display of economic and sexual exploitation, and the acts of violence craft a vision of humanity darker than the stories of Joseph Conrad or William Golding. There is a totality to its nihilistic presentation of humanity that stamps out hope.

When a viewer watches a horror film, he or she intentionally submits him or herself to trauma. Most mainstream horror films like Jaws or Psycho scare us and thrill us but in the end leave viewers knowing that good has triumphed over evil and all is right with the world. More challenging horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes do not offer quite the same solace of a closed resolution but generally there is a survivor who we can empathize with and whose self-preservation is a source of relief. These films have a cathartic effect on the viewer, allowing him or her to experience terror and fear from the safety of the theater seat and then walk away to carry on with his or her life.

Cannibal Holocaust refuses to engage in this kind of pattern. It piles on the awfulness and as the rapes and murders accumulate, the film abandons all unwritten agreements of propriety between the filmmaker and the audience. For those who expect to see a liberal humanist notion of human decency emerge from the darkness, the film offers a moral black hole. And in this, Cannibal Holocaust confronts an awful truth.

We spend much of our time avoiding the truth. Psychologists tell us that we create fantasies and dreamscapes to escape them. We subterfuge desire and convince ourselves that we are civilized by building libraries and court houses and creating laws and philosophy. And we reject those things that do not coalesce with our collective assumptions.

Cannibal Holocaust is most awful and unendurable at the moments that it shows us things we are aware of subconsciously but would never want to see and are loath to admit about ourselves and our species. But these things exist. Genital mutilation and honor killings occur. Sexual and economic exploitation are real (and sometimes connected, as they are in the film). We live at a time when religious fundamentalists videotape themselves cutting off the heads of their enemies and broadcast the footage on the internet for all to see. Unscrupulous media hacks cherry pick video clips to distort our view of reality. Such things are not defeated by illusions of hope.

From time to time, an artist, either by accident, madness, or intent, creates a work that violates our collective assumptions. From Marquis de Sade to Bret Easton Ellis, there are those who create pieces of art that aren’t merely incendiary, but attack the most cherished and sacred illusion of all: the spiritual and moral development of humanity. Ruggero Deodato accomplished this in Cannibal Holocaust and his film is simultaneously profound and obscene. And that tension is exactly why I think it merits a place at the table, even if—or because—its appetite is exclusively for flesh and blood.

American Psycho
First released in 1991, American Psycho was the third novel by author Bret Easton Ellis and the book was a source of controversy before it was ever published. The novel American Psycho includes very detailed descriptions of women being tortured and murdered and when pages including these descriptions were leaked, they caused an uproar. Enraged feminist organizations protested the book before it was even on the shelves and convinced Simon & Schuster to drop the project. Vintage Books picked up the manuscript and published it in paperback form. After its publication, author Bret Eason Ellis was the recipient of death threats and the book became a prop for demonstrations, such as when a protestor entered a bookstore and poured blood on copies of the novel.

Although there were various efforts to mount a movie adaptation, American Psycho was considered un-filmable until screenwriter Guinevere Turner and co-screenwriter and director Mary Harron took on the project for a film that was released in 2000.

American Psycho was a moderate box office success although its take was far less than a lot of film released before and after such as Scream or Saw.

The film had mixed reactions from critics. Most of the reviews were positive, such as Roger Ebert who wrote, “Christian Bale is heroic in the way he allows the character to leap joyfully into despicability; there is no instinct for self-preservation here, and that is one mark of a good actor.”

Negative reviews criticized the film for being as vacuous as the characters it was condemning. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon wrote, “If 'American Psycho' worked better as a thriller or a comedy or some combination of the two, its reason for existing would be much easier to explain. As it is, the picture seems to exist solely for self-congratulation, as a kind of sacred text designed to remind us (as if we could ever forget) how ridiculous we all were some 10 or 15 years past -- and to toll a half-hearted warning, in darkly comic tones, that we may be headed that way again.”

Since its release, American Psycho’s legacy has been aided by a few factors. One of them is the rise of Christian Bale to movie star status which he has done primarily on the success of his Batman pictures with Christopher Nolan. Another is the media environment of postmodern satire that we now live in. Cable channels like Comedy Central have made irony their major export with programming like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and online entertainment like funnyordie.com has created a market for self conscious work.

The legacy of American Psycho has also been aided by events in the world of economics and politics. Historical films, whether they are placed in the distant past or recreate recent episodes, are made in order to parallel and comment upon current events. The collapse and bailout of Wall Street, scandals involving corporations like Enron and Halliburton, and the corruption of government institutions like the Department of Interior under the Bush administration, have made this film immediately relevant again. Patrick Bateman surrogates have been and are running things and the extreme interpersonal violence that the fictional character commits is a metaphor for the institutional violence that is wrought on the lower and working classes.

At the same time there is another cultural dimension in which American Psycho is again relevant. The 1980s were characterized by an emphasis on bodies and physical perfection. Although this has never really gone away, the plethora of messages selling us bodily improvement and perfection, from mail order diet plans, to reality television programs, to pharmaceutical sexual enhancement, is at a level never seen before. American Psycho is a story about a character who constantly rips and tears through the superficial layers of name brand clothes, inedible designer food, and finally human flesh. Patrick Bateman’s rage at the vacuity of his existence is a reaction to a state of 1980s culture that corresponds to our contemporary consumer culture.
Ten years after its original release, American Psycho’s message about superficiality is as on target as ever. In 2000 it was a film ahead of its time and now that our age has caught up with it, it’s time to revisit Patrick Bateman and consider what this story has to say.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Supplements for "Cannibal Holocaust" Screening

I have made two items related to the screening of Cannibal Holocaust publicly available.

First is the audio from the panel discussion  that followed the screening. The panel includes Nick Ozment and Andrea Wood of the Winona State English Department and they discuss the controversy of the film and how to evaluate and understand it. You can download the audio file here.

Second, I have published an essay about Cannibal Holocaust on Winona360.org. In the essay I explain why I screened the film and why I think this is an important movie. Here is an excerpt:
Cannibal Holocaust is not troubling to the audience for any one charge made against it, but for its cumulative effect. The barbarity of the animal killings, the display of economic and sexual exploitation, and the parallel acts of violence craft a vision of humanity darker than the stories of Joseph Conrad or William Golding. There is a totality to its nihilistic presentation of humanity that stamps out hope.

When a viewer watches a horror film, he or she intentionally submits him or herself to trauma. Most mainstream horror films like Jaws or Psycho scare us and thrill us but in the end leave viewers knowing that good has triumphed over evil and all is right with the world. More challenging horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes do not offer quite the same solace of a closed resolution but generally there is a survivor who we can empathize with and whose self preservation is a source of relief. These films have a cathartic effect on the viewer, allowing him or her to experience terror and fear from the safety of the theater seat or the living room sofa and then walk away to carry on with his or her life.

Cannibal Holocaust refuses to engage in this kind of pattern. It piles on the awfulness and as the rapes and murders accumulate, the film abandons all unwritten agreements of propriety between the filmmaker and the audience. For those who expect to see a liberal humanist notion of human decency emerge from the darkness, the film offers a moral black hole. For those who demand a meaningful resolution where death is not in vain, the film offers none. And for those who want to preserve hope in humanity, Ruggero Deodato cinematically gives his audience the finger. In short, Cannibal Holocaust tells the truth.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thank You

Thank you to everyone who came to the Cannibal Holocaust screening. The program was well attended and everyone at it was well behaved despite the difficulty of the subject matter.

Additional thanks to Andrea Wood and Nick Ozment of the Winona State University English Department for agreeing to participate in the panel discussion. Audio of their remarks during the discussion can be heard on Sounds of Cinema this Sunday, October 24th.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cannibal Holocaust Screening October 18th

Remember that your chance to attend a free screening of Cannibal Holocaust occurs tomorrow, October 18th, at 7pm in Science Lab 120 on the Winona State University campus. A panel discussion about the film will follow.

Please keep in mind that the screening is limited to viewers over 18 years of age.

More information on the film and the screening can be found here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Contribute to the KMSU Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM is currently broadcasting its fall pledge drive. Those of you who listen to the station, either directly or from 91.3 FM in Austin or 91.9 FM in Fairmont and Albert Lea, please consider contributing.

KMSU is dependent upon listener support to function. This station is an important part of the campus and the community. Your donations allow the station to continue to function so that we can keep the programing coming to you.

To make a pledge, please call 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also pledge online here.

This Sunday, October 10th, Sounds of Cinema will broadcast a special pledge drive edition of the show on KMSU. Those listening on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly scheduled episode.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Navajo Oral History Project - October 8

There will be a reception for the Navajo Oral History Project at 5 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 8th, in the Science Laboratory Center at Winona State University.

The program will include the premiere of four short documentaries produced by WSU Mass Communication Department students and students at Dine College on the Navajo Reservation.

The event is free and open to the public.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"The Shining" and "Friday the 13th"

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema examined a pair of horror films released just weeks apart in the spring on 1980: The Shining and Friday the 13th.

The Shining represents the last gasp of a certain kind of horror film that hasn’t really been seen since. In the 1960s, under directors like Alfred Hitchcock, the horror film was considered a fairly respectable genre and throughout the 1970s Hollywood studios had financed high profile, star driven horror pictures like The Exorcist, The Omen, and Jaws. After The Shining, the genre gave way to the low budget thrills of Friday the 13th and its imitators. The Shining is paced less like a rollercoaster ride and more like a psychological study of madness and as a result, the film is stylistically anachronistic even for 1980 when the film was released.

The Shining was not well received upon its release. Critics considered it inferior to Kubrick’s accomplishments on films like Spartacus, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Dr. Strangelove. This may have been unavoidable due to the fact that it is a horror film, placing it a genre that critics are loath to admire, and the impenetrable nature of the mystery and Kubrick’s intellectual style were off-putting. Variety wrote, “The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks. Shelley Duvall transforms the warm sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric.” Fans of the Stephen King novel were upset by Kubrick’s abandonment of the book and King himself later confessed a great disappointment with the film. King later produced a made-for-TV remake of The Shining that aired in 1997.

The Shining was nominated for Razzie Awards for worst actress and worst director for films of 1980. Yet, the film has survived and even thrived. Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, and William Friedkin have praised the film and it has become a popular film for scholars to analyze. In 2001, The Shining was ranked 29th on AFI's '100 Years...100 Thrills' list and the character Jack Torrance was named one of the greatest villains on the AFI's '100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains' list.

Viewing The Shining three decades after its original release, the film is still harrowing viewing. Whatever the faults of the film, and it certainly does have its shortcomings, The Shining is an excellent example of the use of visuals and sound and at its best the film manages to put a face on evil that is as interesting as it is frightening.

Like The Shining, Friday the 13th was received negatively by critics upon its release but unlike The Shining its reputation with critics has never recovered. At the time of its release, Friday the 13th was protested by critics such as Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel who used their syndicated television program to attack the film makers for creating it, Paramount for distributing it, and recognizable actress Betsy Palmer for participating in it. Friday the 13th and its contemporaries and imitators were also a target of feminists who saw slasher films as misogynist and by social conservatives who objected to the sex and violence of the films. Releasing Friday the 13th was also a controversial decision among stockholders and executives at Paramount who were not proud of the film and saw it as tarnishing the history of a studio that had put out classics like The Godfather.

Friday the 13th was a trend setter, as it inspired a wave a slasher films made by independents and distributed by major studios. And this new business model had major repercussions. To compare, The Shining cost $19 million but made $44 million in its domestic theatrical run. The original Friday the 13th cost about 500 thousand dollars to make but made $5 million in its opening weekend and grossed $40 million in its theatrical run. The cost-to-profit ratio alone made slashers good business sense and they dominated both the horror genre and American film at large for the decade. This business model would pay off a decade later as independent films like Reservoir Dogs and Clerks were found major distribution deals.

Although the aggressive marketing campaigns that accompanied the theatrical releases of Friday the 13th deserve a lot of the credit for their box office success, the continued popularity of these slasher films has been largely fan driven. Friday the 13th has thrived in ways that The Shining never could primarily because of a devoted fan base. Like fans of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, the fans of Friday the 13th have responded to this series, despite its faults, and invested time and energy into coordinating conventions and maintaining websites. And in their efforts the fans have ensured that this little film will be remembered for decades to come.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sounds of Cinema October Programs 2010

As has been tradition on Sounds of Cinema, the month of October will be dedicated to Halloween-related programming. In years past, each October episode had taken broad approaches, with each show taking on subgenres or periods of films. This year will be a bit different. The year 2010 marks significant anniversaries for quite a few important films and throughout this year's batch of October episodes, Sounds of Cinema will take a close look at a few particular movies.

October 3 - Friday the 13th and The Shining
Released within weeks of each other in the spring of 1980, Friday the 13th and The Shining came from completely opposite ends of the film making scene. Since their release, both of these film have become classics of the horror genre and represent both the beginning and end of respective eras of the American horror film.

October 10 - Psycho and Peeping Tom
Psycho and Peeping Tom were released in 1960 and the two films are remarkably similar in their examination of psychologically disturbed characters. Although both films are now considered important entries in the horror genre, Psycho was tolerated by the critical establishment while Peeping Tom was not and the failure of the film critically and financially ended director Michael Powell's career.

Update: Those listening to the show from 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato will hear a special pledge drive edition of Sounds of Cinema on October 10th.

October 17 - Bride of Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Universal Studios released an entire catalogue of horror films such as Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, and all of their sequels and spin offs. Widely considered among the greatest of these films is Bride of Frankenstein. Influenced by Bride of Frankenstein as well as many other monster films of the 1940s and 50s, Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in 1975 to a disastrous reception but in years that followed it became the ultimate cult film.

October 18 - Film Screening: Cannibal Holocaust
A public screening of Cannibal Holocaust will be held at 7pm in Science Lab Auditorium 120 (between Pasteur and Stark Halls) on the Winona State University campus. Admission is free but no one under 18 will be permitted to see the film. A panel discussion will follow the screening. Find out more about the film and the screening here.

October 24 - Cannibal Holocaust and American Psycho
This episode will take on two films known for their controversial material. Released in 1980, Cannibal Holocaust quickly became one of the most widely censored films of all time. Its highly realistic scenes of human murder as well as actual footage of animal cruelty were cause for protest and even legal prosecution. In years since, the film has gained renewed relevance as a commentary on documentary films and the exploitation of developing cultures by industrialized cultures. In 2000, director Mary Harron adapted Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho, probably the most controversial piece of literature in the last quarter of the 20th century, into a commentary on the culture of greed of the 1980s. On the tenth anniversary of the film's release, that commentary has found renewed relevance.

October 31 - Lucifer Rising
Lucifer Rising was one of the final films by experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger. His production of Lucifer Rising was complicated by rivalries and disasters big and small. This episode will include the complete score for Lucifer Rising composed by former Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil.

Friday, October 1, 2010

BIG ANNOUNCEMENT: "Cannibal Holocaust" Coming to Winona

As a part of this year's October programming, Sounds of Cinema is sponsoring a public screening of Cannibal Holocaust on the Winona State University campus at 7pm in Science Lab 120 (between Pasteur and Stark Halls) on October 18th. A panel discussion featuring WSU faculty will follow. Admission is free. Due to the content of the film, no one under 18 years old will be admitted.

You can find more information about the screening and the film here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Halloween is Coming . . .

October is upon us again and that means Sounds of Cinema is in Halloween mode. This year I have some special programs planned and a big announcement is immanent so stay tuned to the show, the website, and Facebook.

One matter of house keeping: this October I have some special episodes planned that will make reviews of new theatrical releases impossible to include in the weekly show. However, I will continue to provide audio of current reviews on the Sounds of Cinema myspace page and to the website Winona360.org and the Minnesota Morning radio program on KMSU FM in Mankato. Full text versions of recent reviews will also appear on the website.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Blockbuster: The End of an Era

After months of speculation, Blockbuster Video has filed for bankruptcy. This isn't necessarily the end of the video rental chain, as it plans to shut down some stores and reorganize, but it is officially the end of an era.

Back in the early 1980s, when the VHS format first became popular, locally owned video rental stores popped up all over the nation. Selection in these locally owned stores varied depending on the owner's means and tastes, and consumers had to familiarize themselves with each rental store's unique selection, which might vary from mainstream Hollywood films to obscure B-movies to hardcore pornography.

At that time, it was standard business practice in the home video industry  to price VHS titles at about $80 upon their initial release and then reduce the price to a figure more consumer friendly several months later. This gave rental stores a unique window in which they were the sole providers of the newest and most popular titles.

Into this environment came Blockbuster Video. Backed by oil money, Blockbuster aggressively built stores and bought out competitors. With deep financial resources, which got deeper after Blockbuster was purchased by Viacom (which owns Paramount) in the early 1990s, the chain was able to stock its stores with many copies of the most popular titles, despite the cost of new releases.

But Blockbuster didn't merely fill in the front half of the supply and demand paradigm. The company shaped what that supply looked like by refusing to stock porn, pictures rated NC-17 by the MPAA, or controversial titles like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. And as the local competitors fell by the wayside, the public's access to films was largely determined by what titles Blockbuster and Viacom were going to promote. As time went by those titles were less likely to be independent or foreign pictures and more likely to be the latest Hollywood studio star vehicle.

Blockbuster also shaped its supply in another way. Video stores like Blockbuster were a new way of experiencing films and brought them to a new audience. This increased access to film helped to shape the next generation of filmmakers who would later reinvigorate American film in the mid-1990s. Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino were actually video store employees and their films and understanding of cinema was shaped by the home video experience.

When DVDs arrived in the late 1990s, the game changed. Following a similar aggressive business formula as Blockbuster, Wal-Mart had stamped local competitors out of business and built a string of Wal-Marts, Super Wal-Marts, and Sam's Clubs all over the nation. And when the decision was made to immediately price DVDs to own rather than to rent, these two retail giants found themselves in direct competition, with Wal-Mart taking an edge. Blockbuster no longer had its exclusive window on home video entertainment and Wal-Mart was able to offer huge discounts on DVDs prices.

Things got worse for Blockbuster through the 2000s. The internet changed commerce and online services like Netflix offered a wider selection of DVDs than any Blockbuster retail operation. Ironically, online operations allowed a return to the kind of obscure selection that many original video stores had offered. This, along with competition from Redbox and other financial and economic problems, spelled the end: the end of video stores in general and Blockbuster's dominance in particular.

There are reasons to cheer the end of Blockbuster. For the anti-corporatist, Blockbuster represented one of the most blatant examples of deliberate manufacturing of public taste and the corporate takeover of the cinematic art form. And as Blockbuster went on, the store became less and less about providing a wide selection than it was about a deep selection; that's to say, the store offered literally hundreds of copies of the newest Hollywood studio release but gradually pushed independents or other competitors out of the store and therefore out of the public's access.

But there are also reasons to shed a tear for Blockbuster's decline. The store provided a physical place where film geeks could gather and brought cinema to the masses in ways that theatrical distribution never could. It also allowed movie goers the chance to preruse the shelves in a given genre and discover titles they had never heard of before. That organic, community experience cannot be replicated by a streaming service or a kiosk.

But now we're at the end. Even if Blockbuster continues to operate retail stores, it will have to be in a limited way. For better or worse, the future of film distribution will be online. And the way we experience films will never the same.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Robert Rodriguez's Bad Ass Song

I've written a new essay for Winona360, which can be found here.

Timing in art isn’t everything but it is a lot. Release a film too early, like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing in 1989, and it is considered cynical and hyperbolic. Release a film too late, like 2010’s Green Zone, and it just confirms what everyone already understands or assumes. But if the right film comes out at the right moment, that film has the ability to dramatize the debates occurring around water coolers, on talking-head television shows, and in political stump speeches and play out those ideas and arguments to a conclusion.

Last weekend I went into the local movie theater and witnessed such a film. Not only was it one of the most entertaining films of the year, but its political insight was so sharp, its satire so biting, and its cultural relevance so immediate that in years to come it may be considered a time capsule of this era. And no, I’m not talking about The American, the very skillfully made but disappointingly vacant film starring George Clooney.

I’m talking about Machete.

Yes, that Machete: the film that began as a joke in the form of a three-minute mock trailer that opened the 2007 Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse. Rodriguez’s little joke was arguably more popular than the two-and-a-half hour extravaganza it was attached to, and a feature length version of Machete has now opened in theaters. And it is the bloody and chaotic rollercoaster ride that the original trailer promised.

But underneath the trashy exterior there is some serious satire at work. Machete tells the story of a Mexican day laborer (Danny Trejo) who is contracted to assassinate a Senatorial candidate (Robert De Niro) campaigning on a hard line anti-immigration platform. Double crossed by the people who hired him, Machete goes on a quest of bloody revenge and discovers a web of corruption linking his intended political target with anti-immigrant border patrols and Mexican drug cartels.

Had Machete been released a year ago, many elements of the film might seem implausibly exaggerated. But with Machete coming out in the context of drug-related violence at the Mexico border and Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” law, to say nothing of the underlying racism that has poisoned the discourse on everything from immigration to the controversy over the proposed New York mosque, Machete’s political satire is frighteningly on target. (See this article at The Daily Beast by Bryan Curtis for a detailed description of Machete’s political relevance.)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film to most accurately portray the immigration debate would be a relatively low budget action picture. Mainstream Hollywood dramas are often a few paces behind the issues of the day, in part because of the time it takes to produce and release a film, but also because Hollywood incessantly waits and looks both ways before crossing the street, and even then market researches and test screens films into inoffensive sludge.

Machete follows in a tradition of genre pictures that fulfill the expectations of their audience while also managing to tap into the cultural zeitgeist. In much the same way that George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead skewered mindless consumerism or Planet of the Apes represented race and class conflict of the 1960s, Machete has its grip firmly around the immigration issue. And just as The Dark Knight and Minority Report addressed the War on Terror and its related topics in more interesting ways than “issue” pictures like Rendition or Syriana, Machete makes a more interesting statement about racism and immigration than Crash or Babel.

That’s not to say Machete is a perfect film. Far from it. Machete suffers from too many characters, constantly weaving between various storylines that are mostly underdeveloped. Steven Seagal, who plays the lead heavy of the film, is not given enough screen time and the ending is simultaneously bloated and abrupt, bringing all the characters together for a loud, machine-gun-firing and saber-wielding finale, but it doesn’t quite give the characters a meaningful conclusion.

But at some level the chaos of Machete’s ending is in its favor. In a symbolic way, the anarchic quality of the conclusion is indicative of the very messiness of the immigration issue. And because it does not pretend to be Babel or Syriana or Crash or any other piece of pretentious Oscar bait, Machete’s flaws are more forgivable and its scope, satire, and ambition are easier to appreciate.

Exploitation movies, as their name implies, generally aren’t taken seriously. Even films that now enjoy significant critical adoration like Foxy Brown or Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song were largely dismissed at the time of their release. But the independent market, when it isn’t hijacked by mainstream studios pursuing Oscar gold, continues to be a vibrant source for American movies. This corner of our cinema—including the part of it dismissively labeled as “exploitation”—continues to provide audiences with authentic and audacious films that have much more to say about our times than two hundred million dollar movies about giant killer robots or ostentatious political dramas intended to highlight celebrity activism.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

30 Years of "The Empire Strikes Back"

On Sunday, August 15th, Sounds of Cinema will commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back with a special episode entirely dedicated to the film. Throughout the hour I will play selections from John Williams' score as well as excerpts from the DVD commentary track featuring Empire producer George Lucas, director Irvin Kershner, actress Carrie Fisher, and sound designer Ben Burtt.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Articles on 3-D

Based on these three articles, things may not be looking good for the 3-D format.

Chris Hewitt has written this piece for the St. Paul Pioneer Press on the disorienting effects of 3-D films.

This piece by Gloria Goodale from the Christian Science Monitor tries to account for the lack of box office on this summer's 3-D films.

And this piece by Michael Cieply of the New York Times tells of a growing backlash against 3-D from audiences and filmmakers.

I'm not sure if this is a sign of an actual shift or just a series of articles jumping on a critical bandwagon. I suspect that if the upcoming films continue to do poorly, or at least do not make enough to justify the extra expense of shooting or converting into 3-D, the format could be restrained to only major releases.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

What Oliver Stone Actually Said . . .

There has been some controversy over Oliver Stone's recent interview with the U.K. Sunday Times. While being interviewed about his upcoming documentaries South of the Border and The Secret History of America, Stone made comments that critics have claimed were anti-Semetic. Here is the excerpt from the interview, including what Stone actually said:
[Stone] constantly researches, thinks, reads: at one point he even asks me if I can do him a favour and help with the "Israelis and the bomb", after a recent conversation he had with Ken Livingstone in which the former London mayor suggested that the British knew that Israel had the bomb "as early as the 1950s". "Could you go into the archive at The Sunday Times and see if you can find anything about the British being involved with a shipment of heavy water ..." he says, dropping his voice. Sure, I say.

His next task, the leviathan Secret History of America, tackles received versions of events in the last century, an extension, perhaps, of what he did in 1991's JFK, when he suggested that the president's assassination was in fact a highlevel conspiracy. The 10-part documentary will address Stalin and Hitler "in context", he says. "Hitler was a Frankenstein but there was also a Dr Frankenstein. German industrialists, the Americans and the British. He had a lot of support."

He also seeks to put his atrocities in proportion: "Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people, 25 or 30m."

Why such a focus on the Holocaust then? "The Jewish domination of the media," he says. "There's a major lobby in the United States. They are hard workers. They stay on top of every comment, the most powerful lobby in Washington. Israel has f***** up United States foreign policy for years."
Stone has since apologized (twice) for the remark, saying, "In trying to make a broader historical point about the range of atrocities the Germans committed against many people, I made a clumsy association about the Holocaust, for which I am sorry and I regret."

But after reading the actual content from the Times, compare it to these second-hand summaries of his remarks:

From The Huffington Post:
Oliver Stone urges us to see the positive side of Hitler and Ahmadinejad, while imitating his two heroes by railing against Jewish control of the media.
From The Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Stone promised that his new series would put "in context" and "show empathy" for people many Americans hate, like Hitler and Stalin. In an interview with London's Daily Telegraph, Mr. Stone said that Jewish deaths during World War II had to be viewed "in proportion," since "Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people."
From Hollywood News.com:
Stone was reportedly explaining his choice to focus on the Holocaust with his latest project when he stated it was because of “the Jewish domination of the media.” He then continued to comment, “They stay on top of every comment, the most powerful lobby in Washington,” a statement which has gotten him into trouble with the Anti-Defamation League, reports The Hollywood Reporter.
From E! Online:
Controversial conspiracy theorist extraordinaire (and sometime director) Oliver Stone briefly waded into Mel Gibson territory this week when he claimed Jews controlled the media and that Hitler, in retrospect, maybe wasn't such a bad guy after all. But he has one thing Mel doesn't—a public sense of remorse for his "clumsy" words. Well, either that or a really good publicist.
From Worst Previews:
Director Oliver Stone (Wall Street) has been stating that Hitler is neither good or bad and that since Jews control the media, they have been able to vilify him and make it seem that it was only the Jews who died during the Holocaust.
From Chicagonnow.com:
The same cannot be said, however, for Oliver Stone who just last weekend launched into his own anti-Semitic rant. Coverage of Stone's outrageous comments, arguably as bad as Gibson's, has been met with a virtual shrug from the Old Media, especially the TV newsers.
Although Stone's comments were certainly clumsy, some of these press reactions are effective examples of news and social media actually making things worse with sloppy summaries.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fish Frye at Mid West Music Fest

Mid West Music Fest will be held in Winona, MN from July 30th - 31st. Over eighty music groups from the region will be participating, playing at various venues in the Winona area.

Fish Frye, the official band of Sounds of Cinema, will be playing on Saturday, July 31st on the Winona State University grounds at 4:30pm.

You can find out more about the Mid West Music Fest, including schedule and ticket information, here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Populist and Elitist Film Criticism

As a follow up to my previous post, here is an analysis of a rift between "elitist" and "populist" film criticism, embodied, respectively, by Armond White of the New York Press and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. Things got ugly recently when White claimed that Ebert destroyed film criticism while Ebert has labeled White an Internet troll. Writing for Moviefone, Jack Matthews describes the difference between them and how that difference shapes their response to films and each critic's relationship to the audience:
The critics may quibble over those labels, but for this discussion, an elitist is a critic who believes his primary responsibility is to educate readers so they may better understand the film medium while a populist, using his knowledge and tastes, sets out to explain his responses to films. One assumes the voice of authority, the other assumes the voice of a confidant.

White is a classic, unapologetic elitist and one of the few to ever work for a general interest or mainstream publication. For good reason: As White's editors are being constantly reminded, the inherent insult to readers' intelligence by White's approach is risky business. His haughty, theoretical approach is the stuff of academia and film journals.

On the other extreme, there couldn't be a greater symbol of populism than a thumb being aimed up or down in judgment. If all popular criticism followed that example, White would be right in saying that Ebert destroyed film criticism. A simple up or down vote on any subjective issue obliterates all nuance, which is the essence of criticism.
One one hand, White certainly has a point. The abundance of amateur and online film criticism has created a surplus of voices (and I'm aware of the irony of writing that on a blog). And although it is great to see all of this enthusiasm for discussing film, the quality of many of those voices is questionable - just look at any message thread on IMDb.

I have some things in common with White both in education (we both have MFA degrees) and in critical aim (to educate readers about film and make them better consumers). But at the same time, I think its important to temper our expectations as film goers, which is where populist perspectives come into play.

But populist perspectives have their own pitfalls. With so many viewer's cinematic knowledge extending only as far back as the previous summer, the public's critical perspective is very shallow. A solely populist approach would not allow for films that are challenging or different and encourage endless sequels and spin offs.

To use a recent example, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is not The Godfather, but it isn't trying to be either. If we eat at McDonalds we shouldn't be surprised when we get fast food and there is no point in complaining that the dish is not gourmet cooking. But, to continue with the analogy, if all we eat is fast food then we might not be able to tell the difference. In reviewing a film like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the critic ought to identify the film for what it is and evaluate it on its own terms but at the same time maintain a broad enough critical perspective to distinguish between disposable entertainment and cinematic art.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What We Can Learn From the Critical Reaction to "Inception"

Here is an article from the Los Angeles Times about the critical reaction to Inception. The first reviews to come out were extraordinarily positive, ranking Inception among the great Hollywood films of all time like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Vertigo. But later reviews were not nearly as positive. It's an open question whether these critics were reacting negatively to the film or reacting to the overwhelmingly positive response by their contemporaries and competitors. From the article:
Too much early buzz can stir contrarian feelings in those who see it later — even perhaps rigorously independent critics. "Any individual critic is going to say they're evaluating the movie on its own terms," O'Hehir says. "But I think in the aggregate this larger phenomenon does come into play, especially with a Chris Nolan or Jim Cameron [writer-director of "Avatar" and "Titanic"] who can divide critics. I don't know if it's conscious or unconscious, but I think there is this thing where some of us go into a movie spoiling for a fight."
This kind of evolving reaction is not new, and the article points to a long standing tradition in critical media to assess and then reassess a film over time and with the Internet, the process moves faster. (Here is a link to a similar article from The Daily Beast about fan reactions to Avatar.) But there are a few important points to this that audiences should bear in mind:
  • Don't listen to just one film critic. In times like these, when a dollar is hard to come by, audiences are going to spend their cash more selectively and will use film critics to help them make the best choices. If someone listens to just one critic, they might miss out on a film that is otherwise getting favorable reviews. This is why, on my show, I give my review but then I summarize what other critics are saying based on the score at the Rotten Tomatoes website.
  • Ask yourself about the source. Just like everyone else, individual film critics like or dislike certain kinds of films or believe that cinema should do certain things or appeal to certain ideals. For example, horror films don't do well with many mainstream critics because horror is usually contrary to their ideals about aesthetics and narrative. But if you can find critics whose ideals align with yours, then you can make better decisions about viewing choices.
  • Remember what the purpose of film criticism actually is. Although critics can have a very real impact on box office performance, it is not their job to cause the financial success or failure of a film. A film critic's job is to be a voice of reason, to make the audience think about the entertainment put in front of them and to give viewers some ideas about how to think about it.
I will air my review of Inception on Sunday.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Social Network" and "Middle Men" Trailers

Two films about web pioneers are coming out this fall and their trailers make them look remarkably similar.

The Social Network, due out in October, tells the story of the founders of Facebook. The film is directed by David Fincher and stars Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg.

Middle Men, due out in August, tells the story of Jack Harris, a web entrepreneur who helped turn the Internet into a profit machine, primarily through pornography. The film is directed by George Gallo and stars Luke Wilson as Harris. Embedded below is the green band trailer. You can find the red band trailer here (NSFW).

We won't know until the films come out but based on the trailers both pictures seem to have a rags-to-riches premise wrapped around a success-has-its-pitfalls theme. Both have the potential to be provocative and provide some vantage point to the way online communications have changed our culture and ourselves. Here's hoping they deliver.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Predators: Our Only Hope

Check out this article from the Today Show by critic and fan Dave White, who is looking forward to the new film Predators with a sense of desperation. The essay is a little tongue-in-cheek, but with the overwhelming number of high profile disappointments this summer, White has a point. Here is an excerpt:
I’m glad this time the Predators will be locking horns with humans only. That’s because “AVP: Alien vs Predator” (2004) and “AVPR: Aliens vs Predator: Requiem” (2007) were boring times two. Both films forgot that violence needs to be taking place on screen at all times and that when monsters fight it should be at the expense of all human life around them. These films should fade away, an insult to fans of monster-fighting the world over. I’d sooner watch "Godzilla vs Biollante" again. You know what Biollante was? A giant flower. So, yeah.

But mostly I have high hopes because I just flat-out love monsters. I want the best from them and for them. Aside from the Franken-bird-girl of the unexpectedly cool “Splice,” and aside from “Piranha 3D,” which technically isn’t really a monster movie, “Predators” is all we monster fans can expect from this summer. And in spite of their reputation as mindless entertainment, a good monster movie done well can be beautiful pop art. If you saw the recent Korean movie “The Host,” you know what I mean.
Predators comes out this weekend.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Controversial Films 2010

In observance of Independence Day, Sounds of Cinema celebrated freedom of speech by examining censored, banned, and otherwise controversial films on today's show. Here is a recap of the films discussed with some links and sources.

300, an adaption of the Frank Miller graphic novel, tells the story of the last stand of the 300 Spartans as they fight off an invasion by the Persian empire. A number of critics commented upon the film’s use of fascistic themes and imagery, and some scenes of the film do borrow or imitate the Nazi propaganda films The Triumph of the Will and Olympia, directed by Leni Riefenstahl.

300 was released while tension between the U.S. and Iran was swelling and the film provoked very angry reactions from both Iranian political leaders and citizens. In a country where public opinion and government policy are increasingly divergent, there was a unity between the two fostered by a shared offense to the way 300 demonized and distorted the Persian roots of their culture.

Disney films don’t usually suggest themselves as controversial but a few have raised controversies over the years. Aladdin was protested by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee based on racism and cultural insensitivity.

In the film, Aladdin and Jasmine are depicted as Western and even American; they speak with Western accents and their appearance downplays any Middle Eastern characteristics; Aladdin in particular looks like Tom Cruise. But the villains of the film are all portrayed as angry or conniving Arab stereotypes. Anger was directed at the theatrical version of the song “Arabian Nights,” which opens the film. The theatrical version of the song contained the line, “Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face/It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home"; the line was rerecorded for subsequent video releases and for the re-released soundtrack and changed to "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense."

The Basketball Diaries
This film is an adaption of the memoir by Jim Carroll. It was released in 1995 to no great fanfare but at the end of the decade The Basketball Diaries found itself back in the news following the Columbine High School shootings. The film includes a fantasy sequences where the teenage Carroll, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, enters his high school dressed in a black trench coat and begin shooting students. This image was replayed constantly during the news media’s coverage as politicians and pundits attempted to lay blame for the massacre on heavy metal music, video games, and violent media. Aside from the actual news footage of the event, this clip from The Basketball Diaries, taken without context or regard for its source, was key to shaping how we visualize and think about the massacre even though the clip had little to do with the way the attack actually played out.

Blue Velvet
David Lynch’s film about the sexual perversion lurking beneath the surface of suburbia mixes sexuality with violence, which is always controversial, and some film critics such as Roger Ebert found the treatment of Isabella Rossellini’s character degrading. But the styles and themes of this film have been echoed in a lot of later films such as American Beauty.

Cannibal Holocaust
Cannibal Holocaust was part of a trend of Italian cannibal films from the 1970s and 80s and is one of the most widely banned films of all time. The first half of Cannibal Holocaust follows an anthropologist into the Amazon as he discovers the remains of a documentary film crew that has disappeared and the second half shows what happened to them through the footage that they shot.

Cannibal Holocaust became an instant bombshell upon its premiere. The film features very realistic scenes of the characters being killed and even includes footage of the actors killing animals. The intent was to manipulate the line between what is real and what is not and make audiences think about news and entertainment. As it turned out, it worked too well and the director and cinematographer were arrested because of the cruelty to animals and upon the belief that the actors had actually been killed in the making of the film. As a part of their contract to help with marketing Cannibal Holocaust, the actors had agreed to lay low and stay out of sight and so the lawyers for the filmmakers had to scramble and bring the cast into court to exonerate the filmmakers.

Cannibal Holocaust remains a difficult and challenging film but it is also an important one and in the age of 24-hour news networks, sensational journalism, and reality television it has actually become more relevant.

Here is a video of metal band Necrophagia performing a song based on Riz Ortolani's score to Cannibal Holocaust inter cut with clips of the film.

A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange was criticized for intense violence mingled with sexuality, but the controversy was made worse by supposed copycat crimes in which gangs would recite the song “Singin' in the Rain” while committing violent offenses. After the link between the crimes and film was made public, A Clockwork Orange was yanked from theaters in the U.K. although that decision appears to have been made by director Stanley Kubrick out of respect for the family members of the victims. The film was not available in Britain until 2000.

Do The Right Thing
Sometimes a film is released just ahead of major cultural events that shift our understanding of the world and ourselves. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released in 1989 and some of its observations and commentary about race relations were viewed as gross exaggerations and some critics feared that the film would incite African American audiences to violence, although that never happened. A few years later, the commentary on violence and racial tension was vindicated and even dwarfed by real life events such as the Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Last Tango in Paris
Last Tango in Paris was among the first mainstream film to get an "X" rating and go out to U.S. theaters with the rating rather than appeal or cut content to achieve an R, although it was cut for later re-releases. It was also the first film to be prosecuted under Britain's Obscene Publications Act although the filmmakers eventually won. In Italy, the film was banned and director Bernardo Bertolucci was given a 4-month suspended prison sentence for obscenity.

Munich is a fictionalized account of Israel’s retaliation for the murder of Jewish athletes at the 1972 Olympic games. Based on George Jonas' book Vengeance, the film encountered a troubled reception upon its release, in part because the reliability of Jonas’ book was questioned. But what hurt the film primarily was how it was perceived in regard to the Israel-Palestine issue. Munich drew a polarized response in the worst way; some saw the film as an anti-Israeli picture, such as the Zionist Organization of America, which called for a boycott. On the other side, Munich was dismissed as yet another film depicting Palestinians as terrorists. As a result, no one from either camp went to see the film or if they did, they perceived it through an ideological lens that skewed or ignored the complex moral and political questions that Munich presented.

Natural Born Killers
The films of Oliver Stone have consistently caused political rancor but by far the noisiest response occurred over Natural Born Killers, a notorious satire of media sensationalism and violence. The film has been criticized for becoming the very thing that it was satirizing. I think the film works more than it doesn’t and it is still a fascinating film to watch. In the opinion of director Oliver Stone, the compromised theatrical cut is actually more violent because the excesses featured in the director’s cut version make the absurdity of the film more apparent. There were a number of copycat murders linked to the film and novelist and sometime lawyer John Grisham actually led a civil suit against the filmmakers but lost.

Passion of the Christ
I would guess that more ink was spilled attacking and defending this film than any other since the turn of the century. Most of the controversy was based on accusations of anti-Semitism but I’ve never felt that these accusations were convincing.

I do have issues with the film being violently pornographic – the film festishises torture. To illustrate the point, consider a sex scene in a dramatic film. In that case, the scene is part of an ongoing narrative context. That context gives the scene meaning beyond the act itself. When you pull the scene out of that context, then it becomes about the act. In this case, the film isolates the torture and execution of Christ, with an emphasis on the gore, and no context about Christ’s life or his message is given. While it’s true that a lot of Christian viewers will bring that context with them, in evaluating the film we have to stay within the boundaries of what the film presents, and The Passion does not provide context for anything.

Here is a panel discussion on the controversy over The Passion of the Christ:

The film Patton had unique circumstances for its release. The film tells the story of controversial General George Patton and was released in the midst of the Vietnam War. Those in favor of the war effort saw Patton as a patriotic and pro-war film but those in the antiwar camp viewed Patton as a satire and this great general as an anachronism. This of course led to very positive reception on both sides, which naturally translated into critical and box office success.

The film Patton has incurred controversy in the ensuing years. The film was supposedly a favorite of Richard Nixon, who screened it repeatedly at the White House and would watch it before making difficult decisions related to the Vietnam War. According to some, Nixon identified with Patton as he is presented in the film and after viewing it decided to go ahead with the bombing of Cambodia.

The screenplay for Oliver Stone’s 1995 film Nixon actually included a scene in which Nixon watches Patton and then makes his decision to bomb Cambodia. The scene was never shot because George C. Scott refused to allow a clip from the film to be used.

This is a remake of the 1932 film, which was also controversial at the time of its release. Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface ran into trouble from the beginning of its production. The film was initially to be shot in Miami but when allegations spread among the Cuban community that the film would be a pro-Castro or anti-immigrant story, locals made trouble for the production company and forced them to relocate.

Scarface was submitted to the MPAA three times but they refused to give the film an R rating. Eventually the producers arranged a hearing in which they brought in a panel of experts, including psychiatrists and narcotics officers, to argue stated that the film was an accurate portrayal of the drug underworld. The producers won. However, De Palma felt that if the third cut of the film was judged an "R" than the very first cut should have been an "R" as well. He asked the studio if he could release the first cut but was told that he couldn't. But since the studio executives really didn't know the differences between the various cuts that had been submitted, De Palma released the first cut of the film to theaters anyway.

Scarface was not a big success at the box office in its theatrical run and was treated harshly by critics; Brian De Palma was nominated for a Razzie award for worst director. But over time the film has gained a grass roots following and is now considered one of the greatest gangster pictures of all time.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut is an adaptation of the Comedy Central television series. The film is a political satire and a parody of Disney films and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the film contains 399 curse words and 199 offensive gestures inside of its 81-minute running time. The story includes Saddam Hussein as Satan’s homosexual lover and supposedly Saddam was forced to watch the film while he was in the custody of the American military. The song "Blame Canada" was nominated for an Oscar for best original song.

The ratings process of South Park was rather interesting. According to filmmakers Matt Stone and Trey Parker, they submitted the film to the MPAA and received an NC-17 but instead of cutting out offensive material, they put more in and resubmitted it. The ratings board again gave them an NC-17 and Parker and Stone again put more offensive material into the film. This went back and forth and after six screenings the MPAA apparently gave up and approved an R-rating.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Celebrate Freedom on Sounds of Cinema

This Independence Day weekend, tune into Sounds of Cinema for a look at banned, censored, and otherwise controversial films. Some of the pictures discussed include Cannibal Holocaust, Scarface, South Park, Natural Born Killers, and more.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cinematical: Do You Care How Your State is Presented in Film?

Cinematical features this article on how various states have been consistently presented in film. According to the article, perceived negative portrayals have seen push back from some state governments. An excerpt:
Meanwhile, Texans are concerned about the political and violent themes of Robert Rodriguez' Machete, especially since that controversial Cinco de Mayo trailer that bashed Arizona's new witch-hunt-like immigration law. Florida also recently had some controversy regarding its attempt at censoring film productions, which was viewed as against homosexuals. Other states merely frown upon movies that are or might be deemed pornographic (or simply rated NC-17). But the people of these states aren't so much worried about the tourism industry; they mostly just don't want their tax dollars to go towards films they disagree with.
Compared to New York, California, or Texas, Minnesota and Wisconsin do not have nearly as many films set or shot here. But for those that do, the tendency is not to portray Minnesotans and Wisconsinites as dangerous and full of drug dealers and murderers (Wisconsin's many serial killers notwithstanding) but as beer drinking, gun toting, religion clinging idiots. Consider North Country, Fargo, The Great Outdoors, Grumpy Old Men, Milwaukee, Minnesota, and New in Town.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ben Wardinski to Co-Host Sounds of Cinema

Ben Wardinski, my younger brother, will be the special co-host of Sounds of Cinema for the episode airing on June 13th. Tune in for music from Back to the Future, Dumb and Dumber, and more.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Why Rambo Matters

The year 2010 marks significant anniversaries of some of the greatest and most memorable films of all time: The Empire Strikes Back and Raging Bull are thirty, Five Easy Pieces is forty, Psycho is fifty, and Bride of Frankenstein is seventy-five. These are some serious cinematic heavyweights with awards and other critical accolades to their credit. But there is another film, which is celebrating its silver anniversary: Rambo: First Blood Part II.

First Blood Part II didn’t win any Academy Awards; the Best Picture Oscar for films of 1985 went to Out of Africa. But First Blood Part II did take Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Picture, Actor, and Screenplay. With the amount of effort and emphasis placed on the Hollywood awards circuit, we would expect the Oscar winner to be enshrined in cultural immortality and the Razzie “winner” to sink into obscurity. But, twenty-five years later, nothing could be further from the truth. While Out of Africa enjoys a healthy level of popularity, it is First Blood Part II that is played as a part of marathons on American Movie Classics and other cable television channels. It is First Blood Part II that is referenced as recognizable parody (the surest sign of cultural influence) in Hot Shots Part Deux, UHF, and Son of Rambow. And it is First Blood Part II that continues to stir the emotions of its viewers, who vent their love or hatred of the film in online message boards.

For those unfamiliar with the film, First Blood Part II is a follow up to 1982’s First Blood. Picking up a few months after the events of the original, decorated Vietnam veteran John Rambo is sent on a covert mission to photograph American prisoners of war still being held in Vietnam. When Rambo exceeds his mandate and engages the Vietnamese, he is abandoned and must fight his way out of the jungle.

Is First Blood Part II a good movie? Perhaps, in its own way it is. But that’s really beside the point, which is that First Blood Part II is an important movie. I would go so far as to argue it is among the most important movies of the last twenty-five years.

First Blood Part II stands out in several ways, not the least of which is its impact on filmmaking itself. The picture set a new standard for possible (and acceptable) body counts, the level of property destruction, and how the hero—and by extension the audience—should think and feel about that human and material devastation (in that we don’t). Later action films like Die Hard, Bad Boys, Braveheart, Black Hawk Down and even Avatar owe their style in whole or in part to First Blood Part II. To put it another way, First Blood Part II made possible every picture Michael Bay ever made.

Secondly, First Blood Part II is among the essential films of Reagan-Bush era. The film dramatizes one of the major conservative pillars of the post-Vietnam period: that the war was just and winnable but was lost by the bureaucrats. Rambo’s annihilation of the Vietnamese prison camp and rescue of the POWs in spite of the establishment is a fantasy of wish fulfillment to compensate for defeat in Vietnam and the film and the character embody the rehabilitation of America’s self-image throughout the 1980s; a superhero as a metaphor for a superpower. Like many fantasies, it is irrational, has little or nothing to do with reality, and is embarrassing to behold when held to the light. But like in a dream, our fantasies act out our desires and First Blood Part II fulfilled that desire.

Another funny thing about fantasies, especially those on film, is the way that they can shape our expectations and actions in life. First Blood Part II, along with the action films of the 1980s staring Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger, normalized unilateral, maverick military action and cast it as patriotic. It is too much to say that First Blood Part II and its contemporaries bear responsibility for the United States’ military interventions in places like Granada and Afghanistan throughout the 1980s; that would be like blaming school shootings on video games. But when academic debates are abandoned for contests of brute strength, superiority is measured by shooting accuracy, and moral authority is inherently possessed by one side over another as opposed to being earned, nurtured, and maintained, a culture surrenders its ability to think critically about itself. And this is precisely what First Blood Part II encouraged.

But why do First Blood Part II and the Rambo character matter for the twenty-first century? Consider these two examples.

In 2007, the comic book adaptation 300 was released in theaters. The film shows significant influence from First Blood Part II with its exaggeratedly staged violence, shirtless and muscled out heroes, and the theme of fighting for freedom. At the time of the film’s release, the United States was preparing to escalate the war in Iraq with a troop surge. Dramatizing the last stand of the three hundred Spartans as a conflict between the democratic and civilized Greek (read: Western) civilization and a barbaric and theocratic Persian (read: Middle Eastern) civilization, the film played right into the arguments of those who would redouble the war effort. Whether or not the filmmakers behind 300 intended to do this is irrelevant; this is the context into which the film was released and it functioned that way within the culture.

A year later, Sylvester Stallone returned to his character in the fourth film of the series, simply titled Rambo. Set in Burma, Rambo rescues a group of Christian missionaries who have been captured by the country’s military junta. Rambo is banned in Burma but pirated copies have found their way into the country and the film has circulated underground. Those who are caught viewing it face imprisonment and those who distribute the film risk their lives. One of Rambo’s lines from the film, “Live for nothing or die for something” became a rallying cry among the Karen resistance fighters. At the time of Rambo’s premiere, Mark Farmaner, Director of the Burma Campaign UK said, “By setting Rambo in Burma, Sylvester Stallone has done more than governments or the United Nations to draw attention to the crisis going on out of sight in the jungles of Eastern Burma.”

We tend to think of action films like the Rambo pictures as sort of silly diversions with no real artistic or social value. And in some cases they are. But film and popular entertainment can not only draw attention to an ongoing social issue but actually shape our perception of it, for good or bad, and thereby shape our reactions to it. This is why movies are important and why it is important for us, as the consumers of cinema, to think about the entertainment that is being sold to us.