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 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.