Sunday, December 30, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: Charlie's Angels

Ah boys and their action-adventure toys. The boys are the man so cool he only needs one name, the director McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol), and the writers Ryan Rowe, Ed Solomon, and John August. Their toys are fast cars, helicopters, missiles, guns, swords, cgi, kung fu fighting, wire work, stunt work, and, their biggest toy of all, Charlie's Angels, the 2000 film starring Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz as Charlie's most recent angels, Bill Murray, who alone brings some much needed silliness to the silly proceedings as Bosley, Sam Rockwell and Kelly Lynch as the bad guys and gals, and John Forsythe reprising his television role of the Charlie in Charlie's Angels.

Charlie's Angels (Columbia), yet another adaptation of a television show (Charlie's Angels, ABC, 1976-1981), is a typical paint by numbers contemporary Hollywood film. With Charlie's Angels you get the nostalgia of yet another remake of an past television series. You get action adventure with a little bit of humour thrown in. You get a driving and throbbing rock and pop film score with a bit of pop nostalgia thrown into the mix (soundtrack on Sony, of course). You get a lot of t and a. All of this is then put into a pot and blended in order to get Charlie's chosen demographic--those mostly males between the ages of 14 to 26 or so with money--into the theatres so that producers, one of whom is Barrymore herself, and the studio heads can make lots of money.

Story wise Charlie's Angels tells the tale of how our three angels, the bad ass hotheaded redhead one, Dylan Sanders (Drew Barrymore), the nerdy Asian brunette one, Alex Munday (Lucy Liu), a shout out to Robert Wagner's characters name in another ABC show It Takes A Thief (1968-1970), Alexander Munday, and the peppy blonde innocent girly one with self esteem problems, Natalie Cook (Cameron Diaz), save Charlie from a man (Rockwell) seeking revenge for his fathers death. Along the way our Angels, individually or collectively, dance on Soul Train, shake their booty, cook for their boyfriends, sing songs, date, drive fast cars, drive fast boats, climb ropes up to castles in Carmel and up to helicopters where an evil villain is about to kill Charlie, and kick ass. We are, I suppose, meant to believe that Angels can be feminist, sexy, and bad ass investigators all at the same time. Needless to say the feminism in the film version of Charlie's Angels is as faux as the feminism in the television show.

McG directs Charlie's Angels as though it were an MTV music promo, which is where he got his start. He manipulates colours and keeps the pace moving very rapidly and, this is an action-adventure film after all, throws in a lot of car crashes and blows up a lot of stuff. At other times McG gives us what looks like a Playboy shoot. He slows the action down so we can see the Angel's in model like poses with hair blowing sexily and sensuously in the wind. Not trusting that his audience can read his visual clues and cues McG underlines some things in the film twice for good measure adding subtitles telling them, at one point, that characters he introduced them to earlier are the Director 1 and Director 2 he introduced the audience to earlier and he backtracks so we can see a scene in which Angel Dylan escaped the bullet of bad man Knox (Rockwell) again but this time in slow motion rather than normal film motion. And its all done in such unrealistic ways that it makes you wonder what ever became of realism in Hollywood cinema and whether audiences now think of this stuff as "realistic" because they have become so acclimated to it.

The writing is as cliched as the direction. It is full of the rather obvious sexual innuendos that seem to pass for subtle wit in Hollywood these days as when Natalie tells her boyfriend that she is like a virgin and that it is her first or when she tells the UPS man that he can stick her packages in her slot. Witty, very witty Rowe, Solomon, and August. Not. I am sure the younger demographic the film is aimed at loves the sexual "innuendos" here as much as they do in their teeny pop and roll.

I am giving Charlie's Angels two and a half stars. Mediocre, cliche ridden, unmemorable, and fully disposable, yet, at the end of the day, somewhat watchable. Charlie's Angels thou art the brave new world of Hollywood.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: Spice World

I want to begin this review by talking about something not so completely different, EMI. EMI, one of the once upon a time giants of the entertainment and music industry, is dead. It has been gobbled up by Universal, one of the worst of the entertainment giants I am aware of, and which now controls 40% of the music market. The only proviso from European and North American regulators Universal had to meet was that the megagiant had to sell EMI's music business. They sold it to one of the other giants of the entertainment industry, Sony/ATV. Universal's take over of EMI is, of course, a sign of the ever increasingly cartellistic and monopolistic times as the world returns to the 19th century of gilded neo-19th century liberalism.

EMI was, as pundits tell us, a victim of its own lack of diversity in this global neo-gilded era during which the music industry has virtually died. Eat your heart our Don McLean. In retrospect this assessment seems right. A more nuanced picture of EMI's demise, however, would note that EMI tried to diversify when it merged with Thorn Electrical Industries in 1977 and tried to expand into the defence industries, light bulbs, radio rentals, television rentals, coolers, and fridges. EMI's diversity strategies, however, didn't work and EMI divorced Thorn in 1996 leaving it, as it turns out, in a very vulnerable market position in the brave new world of corporate globalisation and synergy (horizontal integration).

So what does all of this have to do with Spice World and its stars, the Spice Girls? The Spice Girls were an EMI product. Virgin Records, the label for which Britain's Spice Girls recorded, had been purchased by EMI in 1996. The Spice Girls were Bob Herbert's, Chris Herbert's, and Lindsey Casbon's attempt to revive the girl group amidst the 1990s boy band revival. The Spice Girls were born out of an advertisement the Herbert's, Casbon, and financier Chic Murray placed in The Stage magazine for 18-23 year old women who could sing and dance. Eventually 400 women were, after some twists and turns, whittled down to five and the Spice Girls were born. They signed with Simon Fuller and his 19 Entertainment who would go on to help create other marketing strategies to find and, in the process, market, stars in a post World Wide Web disneyfornicated entertainment environment including Pop Idol, American Idol, and So You Think You Can Dance.

There was a Spice Girl for every presumed demographic in the UK whether it was class, skin colour, hair colour, or female stereotype and caricature. There was Posh Spice (Victoria Beckham) for those who liked or dreamed of the posh life. There was Sporty Spice (Melanie Chisholm) for those who liked or dreamed of being athletic. There was Ginger Spice (Geri Halliwell) for those who liked or dreamed of hot redheaded outrageousness. There was Baby Spice (Emma Bunton) for those who liked or dreamed of sexy lolita girly girl innocence. And there was Scary Spice (Melanie Brown) for those who liked or dreamed of being tough and aggressive. Collectively the Spice Girls were supposed, or so the marketing group that created them hoped to make us believe via their marketing strategies, to equal Girl Power but they never even came close to approaching the girl power of riot grrrl.

One of the strategies to market the Spice Girls was film. Spice World (1997, Columbia, Icon, Polygram, Director: Bob Spiers, Writer, Kim Fuller, from an idea she and the Spice Girls had), the Spice Girls first and thankfully only film, was the Spice Girls marketing machine's attempt to do for the Spice Girls what A Hard Days Night did for another EMI product, the Beatles. Spice World, a kind of Charlie's oops Bond's Angels, is a series of music promos, modelling shots, and parodies of everything from James Bond to Monty Python to Hollywood to music managers to documentaries to Agatha Christie's Poirot to self parody loosely tied together by a plot in which a Rupert Murdoch newspaper tycoon type sends his best freelance character assassin out to defame the reputation of the Spice Girls. All of this was then poured through a mold of bright hippie cum tamed and hence available for mainstream marketing clothes and female stereotypes and caricatures all of which seem to lie more on the whore side of the female stereotype and caricature spectrum than the virgin. The soundtrack of the film is largely a blitzkrieg of Spice Girls tune. The actors in the film, which inexplicably includes some of Britain's best and brightest including Bob Hoskins, Alan Cummings, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Richard Briers, do their best over the top, something very appropriate for this very over the top film. It was also presumably the marketing machines attempt to help the Spice Girls conquer the huge market of the United States, hence the presence of American actors like George Wendt in the film.

The marketing strategy apparently worked. Spice World took in $75 million dollars worldwide, $29 million of that in the US. It cost around $25 million. Though it may have raked in the dough I have to say that Spice World is one of the worst films I have ever seen. It may be the worst film I have ever seen. Even the attempt of Spice World's filmmakers to make fun of itself thanks to its parodic documentary within a film and film within a film strategies falls flat and seems more like a marketing strategy than an attempt at Brechtian verfremdungseffekt, distancing. I give Spice World one star and that is, I must say, incredibly generous.

Spice World, 2001, directed by Bob Spiers, screenplay by Kim Fuller, 93 minutes, 1:85:1

Friday, December 28, 2012

Maps of Misreading: Indian Tradiionalist Rape Culture, Arundhati Roy, and Reader Response

I have long been interested in how "audiences" read or misread things. Some of these misreadings are clearly deliberate. Others are not. Many of those "unintentional" misreadings are clearly a function of ideology and the way that ideology works by giving words meanings they were not intended to have.

As I was trolling through the Web I found yet another example of how humans deliberately or ideologically misread what others say. On 21 December 2012 Indian analyst and critic Arundhati Roy talked about the culture of rape in India on Channel 4 (UK) News after the horrific rape and torture of a 23 year old Indian female medical student by at least six men on a bus in Delhi, rape and torture that led to her death in Singapore, where she was transferred for medical reasons, on 28 December 2102. Roy made a number of points about Indian rape culture particularly on how it intersected with patriarchalism, traditionalism, and class. She, rightly, pointed out how hundreds of rapes, over 600 reported this year alone already according to one source, and particularly rapes of lower caste or class women, hasn't stimulated the media attention or the protests that have arisen over the rape of a reportedly middle class woman in India. She doesn't say that the rape of middle class women is acceptable. And she certainly doesn't excuse rape or the patriarchal culture that is so embedded in India.

I add these last two sentences because that is not how a number of people at the Outlook are "reading" Roy's interview. Some posters seem to think that she thinks it is OK to rape a middle or upper class woman but not OK to rape a poor woman. Some accuse her of insensitivity. Some, in tried and true pathetic fashion, prefer to play in character assassination and ad hominems. Some play the pathetic love it or leave it, it is worse elsewhere card. Sticks and stones breaking bones and love it or leave it mentalities are not the monopoly of many in the United States or the United Kingdom.

Of course, one might, and some have, argued that the reaction to this rape is because of its incredible brutality. The victim and her boyfriend were beaten with iron bars. The victim was raped for at least an hour on the bus, she had an iron bar inserted into her body which resulted in severe organ damage, she suffered brain damage as a result of her brutal torture, and then she was thrown from an apparently moving bus. This is how disgusting the traditional (and religion is generally tied to traditionalism) misogynistic patriarchal culture of India where women are taught to avoid rape and when they can't are blamed for it and are seen as dishonouring the family, and where men are believed to be motivated by biological instincts that result in rape, works.

I hope that the women in the streets of India's cities are able to change Indian politics, to change the Indian police system, to change the Indian legal system, to change how women are perceived and regarded in India, to change how the poor are perceived and represented, and to move India away from its traditionalist misogynistic culture with its abuse of women, its rape of women, its sexual slavery, and its female infanticide. I doubt that they will be able to change Indian patriarchal and misogynistic culture, however, because, after all, India's politicians, India's police, and India's judges are generally men and are often very much ideologically embedded in traditionalist Indian misogynistic culture. As the Guardian recently reported there was an incident just this week in which police jeered and laughed at a 17-year-old woman in Patiala, which is in the north-western state of Punjab, who attempted to report a gang rape and who, as a result, committed suicide. I really do hope I am wrong, however.

Before we in the "modern" and "advanced" West get all smug about the "progress" we have made with respect to gender, class, and race issues we should remember that like India we are too have gender, class, race, and class problems that are reflected in things like the differential media coverage of the disappearances of the the White, brunette, and pregnant Laci Peterson in California in 2002 and the White blonde Natalee Holloway in Aruba in 2005 versus the lack of saturation national media coverage of the disappearance of the Black, Hispanic, and pregnant LaToyia Figueroa in Philadelphia in 2005 shows. Cultures of gender, class, and race and the power differentials that underlie them are, it seems, hard to change.

Capsule Film Reviews: Wimbledon

Wimbledon (2004, Universal, Studio Canal, Working Title, director, Richard Loncraine) was the latest romantic comedy from, as the trailer for the film reminds us, some of the same people who brought us Notting Hill (1999, Universal, Working Title, writer, Richard Curtis, director, Roger Michell) and Bridget Jones's Diary (2001, Studio Canal, Working Title, Writer, Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis, director, Sharon Maguire). Paul Bettany plays the Hugh Grant and Colin Firth roles while Kirsten Dunst plays the Julia Roberts and Renée Zellweger roles with, this is also a tennis movie and she plays an American tennis player after all, a bit of John McEnroe thrown in.

Bettany plays Peter Colt, an English tennis player who has seen his better days and is playing at his last Wimbledon. Dunst plays Lizzie Bradbury an up and coming American who is playing her first Wimbledon. They meet quite by accident in the hotel they are staying at during the tournament--or is it accidental--hook up, find romance, and everntually find a love that conquers not necessarily all but is able to conquer Wimbledon, Bettany not surprisingly wins, and Lizzie's father (Sam Neill), he who wants his daughter to exchange her distracting fun for practise, practise, practise. Wimbledon ends with the special relationship once again intact as Lizzie teaches her daughter how to play tennis while husband Peter and son sit watching in their asphalted Manhattan park. Shades of Notting Hill.

Unfortunately for the film Bettany is no Grant or Firth, Dunst is no Roberts or Zellweger, and writers Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin are no Curtis or Davies. Two to two and a half stars. By the way McEnroes are everywhere in Wimbledon from the American Bradbury, to the American Jake Hammond (Austin Nichols), to Colt who has Mac Attack after a blown call during match point, and to McEnroe himself who plays McEnroe himself as tennis broadcaster.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Capusule Film Reviews: The Ex

In The Ex (2006, MGM, 2929 Productions, the Weinstein Company, Director, Jesse Peretz, Writers, David Guion and Michael Handelman) husband (Zach Braff) who generally speaks his mind, loses, thanks to it, yet another job and moves him, his wife (Amanda Peet), and his newborn child to Ohio where wife's ad man father (Charles Grodin) gets husband a job at the Sunburst Ad Agency. There he is taken under the wing of a man in a wheelchair (Jason Bateman) who happens to be the ex of the title and who connives to take back husband's wife. Love survives when husband once again speaks his mind, reminds wife why she fell in love with him, saves the day, and tricks the man in a wheelchair who cares more about a high flying ad man job in Barcelona than wife. There may be something important that this film wants to say about political correctness, new age lameness, and getting ahead--I don't know--because I was too distracted by anything else I could think to care while watching this omnishambles of a film to care. A terrible waste of Charles Grodin's talent. One star. Note to future self: you should know by now that any film with three alternative endings bodes ill.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: American Flyers

The only film I was ever in was as an extra in the wonderful Peter Yates and Steve Tesch film Breaking Away (20th Century Fox, 1979). It was my first year in beautiful, leafy, colourful, hilly, limestony, and gothicy Bloomington and they were filming Breaking Away on campus, still the most beautiful college campus I have ever seen, and in and around Bloomington.

The one thing that has remained in my memory about Breaking Away has to do with expectations. Many people I knew didn't expect the film to be very good. Bloomington, after all, was a town with more than ample opportunities for film viewing, particularly foreign cinema film viewing, and we were jaded about Hollywood. Even the reviewer for the student newspaper, the IDS, the Indiana Daily Student, had negative things to say about the film when it premiered at the Indiana University Auditorium in the centre of the older part of the campus. Things changed, however, when positive after positive reviews of the film came in from critics like Janet Maslin at the New York Times and Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times and the film was nominated for and won the Golden Globe for best film comedy or musical and writer Steve Tesich was nominated for and won an academy award for original screenplay.

When I saw the film for the first time I was surprised by just how good Breaking Away, this wonderful coming of age film about four young men (Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quad, Jackie Earle Haley, Daniel Stern) just out of high school and floundering around for what to do with their lives, was. I liked that it was not your typical Hollywood film and that it was more like the slice of life foreign films that I adored at the time. It seemed real to me. And, of course, I enjoyed seeing places on campus and in and around my beloved beautiful Bloomington that I knew and loved. I also enjoyed the town versus gown, cutters versus college student, tension theme that structured the film, tensions which ended in our cutters taking on and defeating the gownies at the annual Little 500 bike race at the end of the school year, even though, in my experience, those tensions were exaggerated in the film.

Recently I watched another Tesich film in which bikes and a bike race again play an important role, American Flyers (Warner Brothers, John Badham, 1985). Though on the surface American Flyers is a film about bikes, American Flyers, like Tesich's earlier Breaking Away, is less about bikes and bike racing than about family, family tensions, brotherly love, literal and metaphorical, and friendship. In American Flyers Kevin Kostner and David Marshall Grant play brothers Marcus and David Sommers who are on a quest to compete in and win the Hell of the West bike race in Colorado. I don't want to say much more about American Flyers and spoil the films wonderful misdirection and emotional power except to say that the bike riding sequences are great and that it was filmed, in part, in the great city of Madison, Wisconsin. There is one downside to the film, the 1980s corporate rock that serves as the soundtrack for the American Flyers. That said, I give this wonderful slice of life film between three and three and a half stars out of four.

Tesich, by the way, is unaccountably absent from Richard Corliss's and David Kipen's screenwriter as auteur polemics, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in American Cinema and The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of Film History. One can certainly make a compelling argument that both Breaking Away and American Flyers are Tesich films. One can also compellingly hypothesise that the European quality of Breaking Away is as much if not more due to Peter Yates, an English director who cut his teeth in the British new wave realist cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s, than Tesich. On the other hand Tesich was born in Jugoslavija, took degrees in Russian at Indiana University and Columbia University, and was likely familiar with foreign cinema particularly the various new waves and their attempts to bring greater realism to the screen. Tesich's European background may also explain his obsession with bicycle racing. Or did Tesich become obsessed with bike racing when he was at IU and was a teammate of Dave Blase who rode 139 of the 200 laps, including the last lap, of the Little 500 for the Phi Kappa Psi team and won? Blase was the model for Dave Stoller (Christopher) in Breaking Away. All of this makes further research necessary if we are to truly understand the question of authorship in Breaking Away.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: Dick

I am almost certain that when producer Gale Ann Hurd, writer Sheryl Longin, and writer/director Andrew Fleming pitched Dick, a film about two fifteen years old airheads who are more interested in Bobby Sherman and celebrity culture than politics when the film begins and who inadvertently happen upon and help Bob Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Carl Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch) uncover the secrets of the Watergate scandal, the executives at Columbia TriStar must have thought that the idea for the film was cute. And for a while Dick is cute as Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams) happen upon G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer), one of the Watergate burglars, in the Watergate complex where Arlene lives after they sneak out to mail a letter to Arlene's celebrity crush of the moment Bobby Sherman, as Betsy and Arlene are given jobs as official White House dog walkers for a dog named Checkers in order to keep them quiet, as Betsy and Arlene feed the White House pot laced cookies, as Betsy and Arlene happen upon documents being shredded and money being readied in a room in the White House in order to keep people quiet about Watergate, as Betsy and Arlene are promoted to White House Youth Advisors, as Betsy and Arlene discover that Nixon (Dan Hedaya) is taping his expletive not so deleted conversations and that he hates Checkers, as Betsy and Arlene accidentally make John Dean (Jim Breuer) go straight, as Betsy and Arlene become Deep Throat--itself an in joke for Betsy and Arlene as Betsy's brother is caught watching the film of the same name at a local DC cinema--and as Betsy and Arlene are chased through the streets of DC by a van with the logo Plumbers of Washington DC across it. The problem, at least for me, was that after about half an hour the ain't we so smart and witty and very obvious Saturday Night Live like cuteness wore really thin. I am giving Dick two stars out of four. It is only slightly better than a typical episode of Saturday Night Live.

Capsule Film Reviews: The Nativity Story

It is almost Christmas, the solstice holiday during which Christians celebrate the birth of their son of god and saviour Jesus. I am not a Christian but I am a cinephile and as a lover of films I have seen a lot of movies, most of them Hollywood epics, about Jesus and the birth of Christianity including the silent King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMllle, 1927), the sound era King of Kings (MGM, Nicholas Ray, 1961), The Greatest Story Ever Told (United Artists, George Stevens, 1965), Quo Vadis (MGM, Mervin LeRoy, 1951), and The Robe (20th Century Fox, Henry Koster, 1953). Today I watched director Catherine Hardwicke's and writer Mick Rich's The Nativity Story (New Line, 2006).

The Nativity Story tells a tale that is as old as the gospels of Luke and Matthew on which it draws. Unlike most of its epic predecessors The Nativity Story tells the tale of the birth of Jesus on a small and, thanks to a number of historical advisers and perhaps Hartwicke who directed the realistic teen drama Thirteen (Fox Searchlight, 2003) before The Nativity Story and Rich, who once worked as a journalist, on a realistic scale. In The Nativity Story you can see the wear and tear on poor people's--and most of the people in the film are poor--clothes and in their faces. You can see the dirt on Joseph's (Oscar Isaac) feet as he and Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) journey from poor Nazareth to poor Bethlehem as the census of Caesar Augustus demands. You can hear the pain in Elizabeth's voice as she gives birth to John the Baptist. And you can see the sweat on Mary's face as she gives birth to Jesus.

It is the small scale and the supernatural realism of The Nativity Story which makes the film an interesting retelling of a very familiar story for those of us in the West even non-Christians like myself. I give the film two and a half to three stars out of four.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: Cake

At one point in the 2005 Canadian romantic comedy Cake (directed by Nisha Ganatra, written by Tassie Cameron) Philippa "Pippa" McGee (Heather Graham, who was also executive producer) the bohemian world travelling almost thirtysomething travel writing daughter of a magazine magnate (Malcolm, Bruce Gray) who sees men as little more than play toys for her personal pleasure (Hemingway Jones played by Taye Diggs is one of them) wears a shirt proclaiming that women are the new men. What Pippa finds when she returns home to Toronto from her world adventures, however, is that one by one her friends, the women who, at one point in the film, she says were going to take over the world, are getting married (Jane, Sarah Chalke), falling in love (Rachel, Sabrina Grdevich), and having babies (Lulu, Sandra Oh). Women, Pippa learns, aren't the new men. They are simply updated versions of the women they have always been. By the end of the film Pippa exchanges her "men are the new women" shirt for a pink one, the same pink that bathes the offices and van of the Wedding Bells magazine she has taken over for her sick father, once she finds true love with Ian (Daniel Sutcliffe), the man who her father has asked to guide Pippa through the murky waters of magazine publishing. Fairy tales, Cake seems to tell us, really are real and they really do come true. Women who thought they were the new men can find true love, have babies, and reconcile with their once busy fathers. Cake may have its Sex and the City like sexual frankness and cynicism about romance but it eats it too. But hey, it does manage to mention Baudrillard and Derrida and reference 1930s and 1940s Hollywood screwball romantic comedies all in the same breath. Two and a half stars out of four.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: Battle of the Brave

Je me souviens just might almost be the watchword for Battle of the Brave (Jean Beaudin, 2004), the English language version of the French Canadian film Nouvelle-France. What this epic film asks us to remember is less memories of those nasty and brutish British conquerors, soon to be American schemers, Roman Catholic complicity with Nouvelle France's red coated conquerors, or even the perversions of some of the French elite before Nouvelle France's British conquest though it is hard not to see Nouvelle-France and its English language version as the product in some way, shape, or form of French Canadian nationalism. What Battle of the Brave asks its viewers to remember is a daughters tale of her peasant mother's (Noemie Godin-Vigneau) love for a man she is never able to have (David La Haye) and of her devotion to the daughter who tells Battle of the Brave's tale and for whom she sacrificed her life (Juliette Gosselin).

Battle of the Brave, one of the most expensive films ever made in Canada at a cost of around $C30 million Canadian dollars, may be beautifully filmed, have exquisite sets and costumes, and may be wonderfully scored but I didn't find its tale of romance, motherly love, and the horror of popular superstitions or its earthy peasants and foppish and cynical elites all that interesting or compelling and I really didn't care about any of its characters in the end. I didn't, however, find it as bad as some of its online critics who call it the worst film they have ever seen. I have seen far worse films during my cinephilic life. On the Maltin meter I would have to give Battle of the Brave two and a half stars. But hey, it was nice to see someone attempt a traditional Hollywood adult costume epic in these days of Hollywood kiddie korn.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Me and the Soaps...

I know I am late coming to the funeral but I wanted to put in my two cents worth anyway...

One of my memories of my high school years is how much my mother loved the ABC lineup of soap operas, All My Children (1970-2012), One Life to Live (1968-2012), and General Hospital (1963) and how religiously she watched them. Like so many others, I looked down, for some reason on soap operas. Then, thanks to my mother, I discovered how much I enjoyed their unfolding tales of love, deception, betryal, revenge, family, intrigue, and the damage and joy that is living, their Erika Kane's, and the generally high quality of their acting. Little did I realise that they were simply the latest in a long line of popular melodramas that stretched back to Dickens.

I was never as devoted to watching AMC, OLtL, and GH daily as was my mum but I did watch them fairly religiously in the early 1970s and the late 1980's. I also began to watch the most famous of the British soaps, Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-) and Eastenders (BBC, 1985-), in the late 1980s thanks to the local PBS station in Albany and liked them too. One of my most vivid soap memories of the late 1980s was when OLtL's Clint Buchanan time travelled back to the Old West of 1888 in 1988. I managed to catch most of the final month or so AMC and OLtL. And I have to say that I was happy that ABC's cheaper replacements for them both, The Chew and the now defunct The Revolution, were doing much worse in the ratings in their time slots than AMC and OLtL did. Nothing is as sweet as sweet revenge.

Unfortunately, you can never go home again. It is no use wishing that All My Children and One Life to Live will come back to ABC. I really miss them both. Rest in peace. You are not forgotten.

Capsule Film Reviews: Chances Are

Chances Are (Emile Ardolino, Columbia TriStar, 1989) is yet another attempt by Hollywood to recapture its glory years. In this instance the film from its classic past that Hollywood hopes to recapture is Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Columbia, 1941). This is not the first time that Hollywood has remade Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait (Paramount, 1978) was a remake and updating of this classic man comes back to life in another body and wackiness ensues comedy subgenre.

In Chances Are, a film made by the same studio as Here Comes Mr. Jordan--that makes rights issues easier--Robert Downey Jr. plays Alex Finch, a recent graduate of Yale who dreams of getting a dream job at the Washington Post. Chances Are was made in the wake of the Watergate scandal which the Post played a major role in uncovering. While applying for a job at the Post Finch meets and is befriended by Phillip Train (Ryan O'Neal). Phillip takes Alex to the house of his friend and the woman he has loved for much of his life, Corrine Jeffries, played by Cybil Shepherd, and her daughter Miranda (Mary Stuart Masterson). Gradually Alex, who has bonded with Miranda, begins to realise that he is Louis, Corinne's husband, who died almost twenty years previously in an accident. Louis has been, in a scene right out of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, told by heaven's bureaucrats that he is dead but that he will be recycled back into a body of a just born infant. One of heaven's bureaucrats has accidentally failed to give him the shot of forgetfulness, however, and all sorts of wackiness ensues as Alex tries to convince Corinne that he is Louis. Chances Are ends in typical Hollywood fashion as Alex cracks a case Louis had originally solved, is offered, as a result, a job at the Post, gets the girl, in this case Miranda, and watches as Corinne and Philip finally marry. Don't you just love fairy tales with happy endings?

I didn't find Chances Are a great film. I did, however, find it a creditable effort by Hollywood to recapture its golden days. If you are looking for an adult light romantic comedy that is right out of the old Hollywood I think you will enjoy Chances Are. I'll give it two and a half stars on the Maltin meter.

By the way, it is a pity that Cybil Shepherd, who was also wonderful in the screwball television show Moonlighting (Glenn Gordon Caron, ABC, 1985-1989), wasn't around during the golden age of the fantasy factory because I think that she, like Barbra Streisand who was superb in Peter Bogdanavich's latter day screwball comedy What's Up Doc (WB, 1972), would have been a great actor in the era of Hollywood's golden age.

One more thing before I go, Chances Are uses the Johnny Mathis song "Chances Are" for its opening credit sequence. That song, which is kind of a throwback to the classic age of American songwriting, is a very appropriate one for a romantic comedy like Chances Are. It is a song I have always loved.

Capsule Film Reviews: Cutthroat Island

Cutthroat Island (1995, Studio Canal/Carolco/MGM/Lionsgate DVD) is a Hollywood tale of family squabbles, greed, and revenge as niece (Geena Davis) and uncle (Frank Langella) and their pirate crews fight each other across the Caribbean in order to obtain three maps which will show them way to a hidden pirates pot of gold and jewels on the unknown Cutthroat Island.

Cutthroat Island was Hollywood's latest attempt, in the 1990s, to revive and re imagine the pirate genre by adding a bit of humour to the action adventure mix that dominates contemporary Hollywood and is a favourite of its juvenile demographic. What the film really was, however, was an excuse for director Rennie Harlan and his crew to blow lots of stuff up and play with a lot of toys. And blow lots of stuff up and play with a lot of toys they do. The films sexual repartee was apparently what passed for wit in 199s Hollywood but is no match for the real wit of pirate films of the more distant past like Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, WB, 1935 and the Sea Hawk (Michael Curtiz, WB, 1940). The film's attempt at a kick ass third wave show us some cleavage female hero in the form of Morgan Adams (Geena Davis) was apparently what passed for feminism in the Hollywood of the 1990s. It was not feminist and it certainly didn't atone for Hollywood's sins of commission and commission of the past.

What there is in Cutthroat Island is exactly what one would expect of a Hollywood pirate film. There's elite British military fops, a peg leg, a lost buried treasure, a treasure map, a monkey, some alien like grotesque eel like creatures, betrayals, blue seas, a storm, a ship tossed at sea, an unmapped jungle island, a secret cave, skulls and bones, a pitched sea battle, and, of course, romance as our kick ass Morgan finds true love with flim flam man William Shaw (Matthew Modine) in this paint by the genre numbers Hollywood film. What a waste of a reported $99 million dollars.

In a way, I suppose it could be argued that, Cutthroat Island and Roman Polanski's earlier 1986 Pirates may have been the wrong films at the wrong time. Cutthroat only took in a "paltry", paltry by Hollywood standards that is, $19 million dollars at the box office. Pirates, which cost $40 million, took in only a paltry $8 million. It is these numbers which rule Hollywood today. A similar pirate action adventure/humour/romance mix with a little Disney supernaturalism, Johnny Depp doing his best Marlon Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty (Lewis Milestone, MGM, 1962) impression, and, in all but the fourth, the queen of the contemporary costume movie, Keira Knightly, thrown in, would prove more popular at the box office when Jerry Bruckheimer brought his four Pirates of the Caribbean films to the big wide screen in 2003, 2006, 2007, and 2011. Viewers apparently couldn't resist the Pirates franchise and that is why, I guess they keep pumping them out. Another one is apparently on the way as I write. I, on the other hand--I am too old for this juvenalia--did, do,and will resist any Pirates of the Caribbean film, past, present, or future. And I certainly resisted finding Cutthroat Island anything more than yet another mediocre Hollywood big budget extravaganza aimed at the kiddies and the kiddie within. Cutthroat Island, then, is a film I cannot recommend.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

America's a Mess, It's in Their Rhetoric...

Whenever a tragedy occurs you can be sure that the religious kooks come out of the woodwork. Whether it is Jerry Falwell blaming godlessness in New York for 9/11, Pat Robertson blaming Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans decadence, or now Mike Huckabee blaming the mass murder in Shady Hook, Connecticut on secularism it seems like so many Christians are absolutely bonkers these days, bonker kooks who have not only no sense of propriety but have no knowledge of statistical correlation. So many Christians, in fact, are so totally wacky these days that it is a wonder that there is anyone left who wishes to call himself or herself a Christian anymore.

Let's get real. Human violence has been around longer than prostitutes and spies have. It is new weapons technologies, of course, the gun, the machine gun, chemical weapons, the atomic bomb, handguns, assault weapons, not god or a lack of god, that have made it possible for humans to kill more of their own kind not to mention greater numbers of flora and fauna across the planet. So get real dimmed Christian bulbs, if you want to lessen human violence deal with the weapons that turn inherently flawed human beings into ever more mass killers.

Boy, it seems that Christian hucksters are even more difficult to get rid of in the US than dangerous weapons of mass destruction. By the way, isn't it funny how these self-righteous celebrity Christians who ascribe terrorist attacks in New York and secularism in the Northeast to the g.o.d. don't see to blame droughts in the "Christian" state of Texas on the g.o.d.?

An Irony for Yet Another Mass American Murder...

I just can't help reflecting on the fact that while people in Newtown and Sandy Hook Connecticut are praising teachers as heroes Michigan's and Wisconsin's Republican's are taking the right of collective bargaining and benefits from their teachers. Ebenezer Scrooge lives.

On that thought I wish you all Happy Holidays

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dissing the Donut Hole: Why I Have a Problem With Crystal Ball Textualism

My problem with a lot of what comes out of English Studies and Film and Television Studies programmes is that the crystal ball textualism that dominates those programmes and the writing that comes out of it is not grounded in little h historical analysis. It is not grounded in archival analysis. It is not grounded in interviews with those who "created" literary works, films, or television programmes. To paraphrase the title of a book by noted cultural anthropologist and historian Eric Wolf it is the product people of literature, film, and television without a sense of history.

I suppose this historical amnesia in literary, film, and television wouldn't be a problem if, contra the crystal ball textualists, historical analysis on how a text was produced, including its authorship, wasn't essential and central to the understanding of literary, film, and television texts, their sociology, their authorship, their economics, their politics, their cultural contexts, their demographics, and their geography. History, little h history, history as a method, is and has to be, I would argue, the first step toward an understanding of any text, literary, film, television, or national and a first step before textual hermeneutics and aethetics takes place.

One fundamental problem with much literary, film, and television analysis is that the ahistorical if not antihistorical analysis the crystal ball textualists are producing is actually a type or types of reader response. Unfortunately, most crystal ball don't realise this simple fact. Crystal ball textualist readings of texts, which generally stand in for real reader response analysis--surveys, ethnography, and interviews with a random group of readers of literary, film, or television texts--is not a akin to Chomsky's notion that you can learn all you need to learn about language through one language speaker. You cannot learn all you need to know about a literary, film, or television text from one academic or even a group of academics ahistorical readings of literary, film, or television texts because the practise and the knowledge of academics, and particularly crystal ball academics, is constructed in specific social and cultural contexts and bear the cultural and ideological traces of those social and cultural contexts.

The only way, I would argue, to get beyond the tautological and fetishistic tendencies of crystal ball textualism is to tie textual readings to the empirical, to textual production, to empirical analysis that necessitates archival research, ethnographic research, surveys, interviews, and so on, and which, as a result can be verified or not falsified in an empirical rather than an ideological way and which can serve as an empirical check on readings of literary, film, and television texts.

This doesn't mean that I think that cultural analysis be it Geertzian--speaking of Clifford Geertz it is worth remembering that Geertz came of intellectual age, in part, in Talcott Parsons Harvard interdisciplinary social science Social Relations programme, that he was deeply influenced by the comparative history of Max Weber, that he deeply understood the history of colonialism and how it impacted culture, that his approach, before becoming skeptical of grand theorising, bears some if not many of the hallmarks of Parsonian structural functionalism, and that he was involved in studies funded by the US government on the Soviet Union--Turnerian (Victor Turnerian), or whatever is not possible. It just has to be grounded in history and it has to be grounded in a realisation that some symbolic culture is central to national cultures--American civil religion and American football, for instance--some is central to local cultures--eternal progression in Mormon culture, for example. We need to be cognizant of the fact that not all symbols are key symbols, in other words. And we need to be aware that all symbols develop historically and in historical sociological, cultural, geographic, and biological contexts.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Dullest Games People Play: Another Day, Another Really Bad Hollywood Movie...

I am being punished for buying $3 dollar DVD's from the bargain DVD bins at Big Lots. Yesterday I had the misfortune of watching the dreadful Catwoman (2004) starring Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt, and Sharon Stone which I bought in the bargain bins at Big Lots. Today, the film torture, and it is torture of the iron maiden variety, continues thanks to another bargain DVD I bought at Big Lots, the Olsen Twins 2000 magnum crapus Our Lips Are Sealed.

I really don't want to say a lot about this film because it doesn't even deserve to have more than two words wasted on it, and here they are, IT STINKS. But I have to say a bit more about it. Our Lips Are Sealed's stereotyping and caricaturing of Aussies--the film is set in a Sydney to which the twins (Mary-Kate and Ashley) have to escape after they testify in court against a murderous bunch of family thieves--borders on racism. Everything about Our Lips Are Sealed is cliched populated as it is with high school cliques, high school stereotypes, mean girls, bumbling bad guys, clueless parents, poor poor pitiful middle classers whinging about not being considered cool by the in crowd, cute pets, picture postcard touristy locales, and overly simplistic lessons learned. The camera style and scene length befits the ADD generation it appears to be aimed at. The film, which went direct to video, seems pitched to a clean family values audience that mistakes Father Knows Best (CBS, 1954-1960) for real American life and who think that an occasional breaking of the fourth wall--Our Lips Are Sealed does occasionally break the fourth wall--is cool and cute. Presumably this is who the Olsen Twins and their handlers thought their ideal demographic was.

Our Lips Are Sealed, to put it bluntly, is wretched in the strongest sense of the term. Yesterday I was convinced that Catwoman was the worst film I had ever seen. Today I am fully convinced that the worst movie I have ever seen is Our Lips Are Sealed. I cannot recommend NOT watching it highly enough. What a pity that now I be forced to recall that the name of this film is also the name of a Go-Go's song I have always liked. A pox on the Olsen Twins. Oh, and I did learn a lesson from Our Lips Are Sealed: be more discerning about your purchases from Big Lots.

One final note, the extras on the Our Lips Are Sealed DVD, particularly the Olsen Twins commentary and an extra on the the Olsen Twins fashion for the film--a fashion sense, by the way, which seems to me as derivative as the film itself--seem to be aimed at promoting the Olsen Twins and the public money making identities they and their handlers have fashioned to appeal to their demographic. In the commentary the twins sound so studied and the commentary so scripted that it suggests that the disneyfornicated Olsen's couldn't be authentic and spontaneous to save their lives. All hail the cult of happy faced we are geniuses so you should buy our product so you can see how cool we are and you can become cool by buying our products cult.

I watched the Olsen Twins New York Minute (Dennie Barnes, 2004) yesterday, 18 December 2012. I enjoyed the film and its screwball comedy of accidental mishap after mishap and accidental mishaps which lead to romance much more than I did Our Lips are Sealed. New York Minute wasn't a great film, but it was certainly, except for the horrible stereotypes and caricatures it played in during the Harlem House of Bling scenes, watchable and at times even enjoyable. I suspect the reason I found New York Minute a passable and watchable film, is because of the presence of SCTV alumni Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin in the cast. That said, the Olsen Twins do a creditable job of playing the screwball sisters, goody two shoes overachiever Jane Ryan (Ashley) and rebel rocker underachiever Roxy Ryan (Mary-Kate), who, by the end of the film, learn the lesson that there is a little bit of Jane in Roxy and a little bit of Roxy in Jane and that sister love conquers all even the death of a mother. And hey, Mary-Kate gets to play drums on "Suffragette City".

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Death By Cat Scratch Fever...

I don't know what to say. Let me start with this. I have been watching films for some fifty years and I have seen some pretty awful movies including some bad Fassbinder films, the In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978) in particular, and the awful End of the Game (1975, Maximilian Schell). But nothing, nothing prepared me for the awfulness that is 2004's Catwoman.

Catwoman, a film that reaches its height during the opening credits and goes downhill very quickly from there, has in its very cinematic DNA all of the things that make contemporary Hollywood so dreadful: obvious cgi, camera movements that seem to be done largely for camera movements sake, a style that seems more appropriate to a rock video or video games, scenes which rarely last more than a few minutes, unmemorable pop music for the kiddies (physical or mental) at whom most Hollywood films are aimed these days, a pop music, of course, that is in the film in the first place to sell corporate pop music product not to say something about the character or the cinematographic landscapes the films characters traverse, the sex that sells, cliched catch phrases masquerading as wit, and a star who is in the film not because she was born to play the role of the Catwoman but because the makers of the film thought the presence of Halle Berry would sell tickets. Blah.

One more word to the wise, it is always advisable to steer far clear of any film directed by someone who apparently fancies that he is so cool that he only needs one name. In Catwoman's case the one named bandit is Pitoff.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Genre Makes the World Go Round...

I find it curious and, to be honest, rather bizarre when an occasional critic condemns the BBC Sherlock television show for not doing something new. Why? Because Sherlock is a genre show. It is a detective show that plays off of the work of detective fiction that set the template for detective fiction, detective films, and detective television shows and from which intellectual and action detective fiction has their origins and gets their formulaic themes in large part, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. It is a show that doesn't attempt, in other words, to be anything other than what it is, a detective show.

Genre literature, film, and television as a general rule doesn't offer anything new. It generally offers sameness. And it is this sameness, this repetitiousness, that audiences, as Hollywood learned long ago, loves, or can be taught to love, and which, along with stars, draws audiences into the cinema or onto the couches in front of TV sets. Hollywood, be it Hollywood film or Hollywood TV is the ultimate genre cinema and television and has been so essentially since its beginning. There is, as far as I know, no art cinema auteurs in Hollywood. Hollywood has no Ingmar Bergman, no Federico Fellini, no Eric Rohmer, no Alain Resnais, no Robert Bresson, no Jean-Luc Goddard, no Dardennes Brothers in Hollywood though I do realise that these giants of art cinema do have their American counterparts in American cinema particularly American independent cinema. Woody Allen was, at leat in his early days, in part an American Bergman and Fellini and the poster child for serious Hollywood "art". But even Woody tried his hand at the Hollywood thriller (Match Point), uses Hollywood stars (Will Ferrell), and today seems relegated to making picture postcard films set about in mythical European cities for Americans with an irrational fear of foreign films and subtitles. Richard Linklatter is an American Rohmer. Todd Solandz is an American Bresson. David Lynch is a very pale and depolitisiced version of Luis Bunuel

It is Hollywood cinema's and Hollywood television's generic repetitiveness that is one reason, the other is its childishness, why I find so much contemporary Hollywood cinema and television to be, aesthetically, one of the least interesting national cinemas in the world. Now don't get me wrong. I like my occasional genre film and television programme. I love the films of Howard Hawks be they Westerns, Screwball comedies, action adventure films, or musicals. I love the suspense films of Alfred Hitchcock. Ah the days when Hollywood made films for adults with thinking brains. I like the original Dragnet, I Love Lucy, the Honeymooners, the Dick Van Dyke Show, and the Twilight Zone. I love the genre blending knowingness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Genre blending and reflexivity seem one of the few ways a genre cinema and television can be innovative in today's Hollywood. And I love the BBC Sherlock which, like the wonderful American TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, plays with genre and plays with genre expectations in fascinating ways and which adds something somewhat new into the cinematic mix in its use of text on screen and in its use of montage to reflect what is happening in the jump cut mind of its protagonist, the great detective himself, Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is a show made, in part, by Sherlockians for other Sherlockians and that is one of the reasons why I like it so much.

Oh, by the way, I will take the BBC Sherlock over that tired, cliched dinosaur of an American Sherlock meets Mentalist rip off Elementary any day, I will take the more visually innovative, better acted, and more Sherlockian BBC Sherlock over the Hollywood version starring Robert Downey any day, and I will take the more interesting and innovative, if I can use that term in reference to television situation comedies, Channel 4 nerd sitcom Spaced over the tired and cliched CBS "nerd" sitcom Big Bang Theory any day. Comparing Elementary to the BBC Sherlock reminds me once again why I have long found British television so much more interesting, emotionally compelling, and intellectually stimulating than American TV. British television has always seemed to me more willing to experiment, more willing to take chances, even with genre shows.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Response to My Critics...Analysing Television and Film...

A few thoughts about your email concerning my paper "Time Passages: From Upstairs Downstairs to Downton Abbey".

I think Upstairs Downstairs was more popular in its time than Downton is at the moment. Up Down was, I think, one of the most popular shows in the UK in the 1970s and was the most popular show in the world in the 1970s.

One thing that has changed since the 1970s is that audiences for British television, for a variety of reasons, have become socialised or enculturated into more filmic modes of production, flimic modes of production with lots of editing, between the 1970s and today. In the 1970s, though this would require more extensive study of audiences beyond the ivy walls, some Brits and some Americans were used to seeing theatrical modes of production for "upscale" productions like Up Down and read, because of the meanings attached to theatre in the UK, such modes of production as "quality". Many readers now, of course, and here we have filmmakers, critics (particularly Truffaut and Godard with their emphasis on mise-en-scene and its impact on film criticism), and academics who ideologically privilege film over theatre to thank, in part, for this, denigrate (a normative discourse) theatrical modes of production, long takes, and talk. I am thinking here of what I think are problematic critical takes on the films of John Sayles--claims that his films are too talky and too lacking in "cinematic" gymnastics--and the fact that Sayles, despite a politics that one would think would resonate with academics, is little discussed in Film Studies compared to other directors like that purveyor of rather apolitical surrealism for surrealism's sake David Lynch. There has been an ideologically sea change since the 1970s which I find intriguing because of what this sea change might tell us about intellectual culture, including academic culture which is both similar to and different from intellectual culture, and their economic, political, cultural, geographic, and demographic contexts.

I gave lots of examples of Downton's "borrowing from" or "homage to" Upstairs Downstairs not because I am a trained historians and historians like to give example after example but because no one, as far as I am aware, has pointed out these commonalities and I wanted to be as thorough as possible here in order to make my point and to make my point as strong as possible.

I am interested in audience analysis. I am interested in how individuals, for instance, have read say the Sermon on the Mount over the centuries. These readings vary and we may be able to tie these varied readings, in part, to economic, political, cultural, demographic and geographic changes. I have always liked Robert Darnton's essay on how one Swiss bourgeois read Rousseau during the Enlightenment by exploring the notes he wrote to himself in the margins of his Rousseau book about what Rousseau was saying, or what he thought Rousseau was saying. Rousseau's books, of course, became more widely available thanks to the publishing revolution of the fifteenth century.

I am also interested in how people read television or film or books. I do not, however, confuse individual academic readings of films or television show with random and generalisable audience research grounded in empirical research. I would argue that academic readings of texts NOT grounded in archival research and oral histories of those who produced films or television shows--crystal ball textualism--are simply examples of audience response, should be treated as reader response, and probably tell us more about academics than the "text" produced.

I am also interested in intentions, in the production side, as well. For instance, if I wanted to get a handle on Napoleon I would explore the relevant archival material on Napoleon, including any journals, letters, diaries, etc, contemporary writings on Napoleon, something which acts as an empirical check on Napoleon Studies and limits the number of valid interpretations of Napoleon's motives, beahaviours, and actions. Only then, only after exegesis, would I move on to hermeneutics, interpretation. Only after doing exegesis and hermeneutics will I move on to homiletics, aesthetics, morality, ethics. I try to do this because I believe that before you can critique, before you can say how you would do it, you have to know how the person or persons who did it, did it. I thus don't take people who hate the Coen Brothers or Buffy but who have never seen or barely seen any Coen Brothers films or Buffy--and I have met people who said to me that they don't like the Coen Brothers or Buffy despite never seeing either--seriously on the exegetical or homiletic level. I do take these "readings" seriously as examples of how some humans "read". And given that I love irony and absurdity...

Thanks again for your very helpful and very thoughtful comments.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Throwing Stones at Glass Houses? Musings on Jimmy Savile

The scandal surrounding the alleged pedophilia of TV and radio celebrity Jimmy Savile, OBE, KCSG, in the UK is clearly broader than just the BBC. Up to now the Corporation has born the brunt of most of the often self righteous criticism of those who seem to blame the BBC, many for political reasons--they want to cut the supposedly liberal Beeb down to size--exclusively for turning every cheek from the scandal and covering it up. As this article and others indicate, however, the apparently intentional amnesia about Savile's behaviour and its cover up was not only something that apparently happened at the Beeb, it also happened in broader British society and culture as well. It was thus not only the hierarchy at the Beeb who were turning the other way way while Savile engaged in his alleged behaviour, it was much of British society and culture including much British society and culture on high.

What this seeming "royal" treatment of Savile by so many institutions and individuals in British society and culture really tells us about is the role celebrity culture and people's perceptions of celebrities in the UK and beyond play in the modern world today. The cult of celebrity personality appears to have affected how people perceived Savile's behaviour and it appears to have limited the actions institutions and people, including Scotland Yard, could and did take against Saville. And this little fact should give us all pause. It should make us reflect upon the cult of celebrity personality and its role in creating secular saints, secular whitewashed saints, to be "worshiped" as symbols for what we believe our society and our culture should be (thank you Durkheim). It should make all of us reflect on the roles almost all of us play in creating and maintaining these cults of personality. It should make us reflect on the role institutions like Hollywood and the British media play in manufacturing cults of celebrity personality and the reasons why they manufacture these cults of personality. It should make us all look in the mirror. I hope you will forgive me for my cynicism if I say, however, that I doubt such reflexivity will last longer than a few weeks after the scandal ends. After all, no one seems to be paying much attention to one of the great scandals of the millennium, Rupert Murdoch's buying of British politicians and the British police and breaking into private messages of celebrities of all flavours.

One other interesting issue--there are many--raised by scandale Savile, as this article seems to indicate, is the issue of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll groupie culture. Apparently, if Rick Parfitt of the long lived rock and roll group Status Quo is to be believed, this groupie culture was apparently quite common at Top of the Pops at the time of Savile's reign and Savile was deeply a part of it. One has to wonder whether what happened in this groupie culture is now being re-read or re-interpreted from the vantage point of the more sensitive to child abuse era of the post 1990s. And one has to reflect on the patriarchal nature of this groupie culture of an earlier era, a patriarchal culture that gave impetus, in part, to the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s and beyond.

Nothing that I write here is meant to excuse Savile for his behaviour. If reports that he forced himself on a brain dead patient at a hospital in Leeds, to take just one instance, are accurate than his behaviour was truly disgusting and very disturbing. The point that I want to make here is that there is a lot of people and institutions one can point ones fingers at, people and institutions at the BBC and beyond who and which allowed Savile to get away with his disgusting and disturbing behaviour. Using this scandal, a scandal that says volumes about celebrity, to go after and punish the BBC alone would be as disgusting and disturbing as the behaviour of Sir Jimmy Savile himself, at least in my book. Look in the mirror Great Britain.

Addendum, 12 November
So it is not enough for Rupert Murdoch and his heirs apparent and their fellow travelers to try to kill the BBC. The BBC, it appears, wants to help Murdoch and others who want to eliminate the world's great public broadcasting competition from the television and online scene. In 2008 Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand--both of whom I find enormously unfunny--made telephone calls to actor Andrew Sachs crudely discussing Brand's relationship with Sach's granddaughter. In 2010 after it was revealed how much the Beeb paid celebrities like Ross and Brand questions were raised about whether a public broadcaster should be shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salaries for individuals, like Ross and Brand, in the name of competitiveness. In October of 2012 the Savile scandal discussed above broke and it became clear that Newsnight, the BBC's flagship current affairs programme, had backed off airing a report on the scandal last year. Critics pointed out that the Beeb ran a celebratory show on the deceased Savile around the same time and suggested we connect the dots. In November Newsnight aired an investigative report in which Steven Messham, a former care-home resident, claimed he was sexually abused by Tory politician Lord Alistair McAlpine. The tale, as it turned out, was false--as the Guardian discovered--and the BBC has had to issue an apology for the inaccurate report. Was Newsnight and the BBC trying to redeem itself for not airing the report on the Savile scandal and as a result aired the investigative report too hastily or was it, as recent reports seem to indicate, a result of the depletion of the Newsnight editorial board and the confusion that brought?

Amidst all of this the enemies of the BBC, including Rupert Murdoch--he who throws stones at glass houses except when it is his own--are playing the role of King Herod calling for the head of the BBC. What political, economic, and cultural--the issue of trustworthiness, for example--impacts these latest controversies surrounding the BBC will have on one of the great public institutions in the world only time will tell. Only time will tell how long it will take the Beeb to stop aiming loaded pistols at its own feet as well. I for one cannot help but wonder whether the Beeb is turning tragedy into farce whenever it can. And this saddens me.

For an interesting essay on the Savile scandal see Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, "The Dark Side of a British TV Icon" TV Worth Watching, 27 October 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Irrationalism of Emotion...

I watched the fascinating documentary The Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War on PBS last week. I was struck in particular by what one of the academic and intellectual taking heads said in that documentary. Americans, to paraphrase him, are like werewolves affected by the full moon when it comes to Cuba. They can't and have never been able to deal rationally with a nation many think of as an extension of and a playground of the United States and which others think of, in an obfuscating and dissembling nostalgic purple haze, as a utopia before the Revolution.

This statement, a statement I agree with, by the way, got me thinking about those people who hate American's current president of the United States, Barack Obama. I have long thought that the hatred many Americans have for Obama is similar to the hatred many Americans, particularly those first and second generation Cuban exiles living in Miami, have for Cuba and Castro. They are both grounded in emotion, elite and privileged class emotions in the first instance and racist tinged emotions in the second.

The problem with emotional hallucinations, and the emotional hatred of Cuba and the emotional hatred of Obama are both hallucinations, is that they bear no relationship to reality. When you actually look objectively at Barack Obama, for instance, he is clearly cut out of the same foreign policy cloth as Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and George W. Bush. Just as Kennedy followed in Eisenhower's footsteps on Cuba and Vietnam Obama has followed in the footsteps of foreign policy initiatives laid down in the Bush administration that preceded him and even expanded them. Obama's continuation of and expansion of drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere and Obama's continuation of the plans to kill Osama bin Laden immediately come to mind here.

Given these similarities one has to look for other reasons for the irrational hatred many Americans have for President Obama. And I think, as I have already mentioned, that the thing one has to look at is good old fashioned American racism, an American racism that has long been linked to rhetorics of state rights, anti-communism, anti-socialism, anti-liberalism, and Supreme Court activism among others. You have to look to, in other words, irrational culturally constructed emotions.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Incompetence of the New York State Tax and Finance Department...

This [state] is full of money grabbers...Go ahead bite the big apple...Don't mind the maggots.

The New York State Tax and Finance Department incompetent? Let me count the ways.

1. They wrote a tax form asking taxpayers for their “federal deductions” when they meant itemized federal deductions. And they haven’t changed it to the less ambiguous itemized federal deductions as of 2012 when I write.

2. They can’t write a computer programme that immediately catches that taxpayers put their standardized deductions on the “federal deductions” line (as they should given the wording of that line; that is literally what it asks for). This means that they don’t immediately send the form back to taxpayers for correction. But that would mean the Department would lose penalties and interest wouldn’t it? Perhaps this isn’t incompetence just skanky greed.

3. When they discovered that I put me and my wife’s federal deductions, federal standard deductions, for obvious reasons—that is what the line asked for—for five years, they didn’t add up all the charges and put them on one invoice sheet. Instead they sent me five in five different envelopes with five different metred stamps on them. Why save money for the taxpayers when you can milk them for more monies?

4. They do something that no reputable organization, agency, or business would do: they do not add charges, note the etiology of said charges, and reduce charges relative to payments made. Instead they send separate bills with no indication of payments.

5. They apparently have the same penalties and interest charges for those who intentionally lie and cheat on their tax forms as for those who make unintentional mistakes, unintentional mistakes sometimes based on poorly worded tax forms as with me. The state as a harsh Yahweh god? Anyway, you gotta love one size fits all government and morality. Not.

6. They sent a decree indicating that I owe over $800 bucks for payments I have already made, a decree that threatens me with a trip to the wood shed unless said charges are paid.

7. I paid $3600 plus in June and July for “mistakes” I made in 2008, 2009, 2010. I made the same “mistake” in 2011 and despite the fact that my mistakes were known by NYSTF before my refund cheque for 2011 was sent to me, they sent me a refund cheque based on what should have been clearly seen at that time as a flawed tax refund request (at least from their point of view with its flawed reading of the “federal deductions" line) since I put my standard federal deductions—again as I should have given the wording of that line—on the “federal deductions” line. I did not cash this cheque knowing that it was sent to me as a result of NY State Tax and Finance Department incompetence and returned it to them in July meaning that I owe nothing for 2011 and they cannot charge me interest since the monies never left their account. Of course, one wonders if such common sense rationality has any cache with them at all.

8. My sense is that when they calculated what I owed them for claiming me and my wife's standard federal deductions on the "federal deductions" line that they did not subtract the taxes they actually did owe me for the years 2008, 2009, 2010. I, quite reasonably, deducted these amounts from my bills when I sent payment to the Tax Department. Speaking of tax refunds, NYSTF has still not sent the refund they owe me for 2011 nor did they inform me, as I requested, that they did apply this refund to my over refund bill. I suspect that they are not going to apply penalties and interest for their failure to send my refund to me. Double standards are a common aspect of how government deals with citizens. Can you say tyranny?

9. They can't, unlike the federal government, give citizens the option of an EZ form. I have been doing taxes since the early 1970s and this is the first time I have had a problem. Income tax forms, particularly those of New York State, have, I think, been getting ever more complex since the early 2000s. So complex that a common I find doing taxes even less exciting than watching paint dry bloke like me has problems doing them on my own anymore. Is the state in league with private tax robber barons? Speaking of tax form problems, since the federal government is too cheap to send us forms to us through the post anymore I have been forced to do them by going online to the IRS website. Unfortunately, for oldies like myself reading the instructions online is extremely difficult. The feds need to put up old age friendly online forms and instructions for people like me to use. Don't worry, dear unreaders, I am not holding my breath waiting for NY state to provide us with an EZ tax form or for the US government to do user friendly tax form and tax instructions web sites. I am sure I would die if I did.

10. Because I sent a cheque to NY State Tax and Finance in one lump sum they didn't apply it to my total bill. Apparently NYSTF likes to get multiple cheques back for the multiple primitive "bills" they send out to offenders. And though I had an over $200 credit in my account they did not (and said they could not) apply it to additional monies owed for other years. It just sat there earning no interest (puns intended) waiting for me to get in touch with the idiocrats at NYSTF asking for its return. Surreal.

11. To get a final solution to my problem we, me and my tax accountant, had to go through three people, all of whom asked for the same information. While we were told by one NYSTF official that he didn't think I owed any additional money, another bureaucrat told me I did, despite the fact that there was monies in my account that would have covered two thirds of what I supposedly owed. And it all only took one hour and a half to do. That's snark. Surreal.

Kafka, of course, would not be surprised by any and all of the above. The idiocracy rules New York State. I think it is time for me to get out of a state that treats its "takers" like serf swine and its Wall Street "makers", the real flim flam and confidence men of today, like demigods.

And the incompetence continues. Today, 29 October, I got a call from NYSTF, Diane to be specific, saying they can apply my refund to the charges against my account. Of course, this was two days after I sent a cheque to them for the full amount. I asked them to do this back in July but never even got a response from that good old arrogant royal bureaucracy on high. NYSTF and NY state takes incompetence and Kafkaesque surrealism to new heights. I suppose that this is something New York State can take pride in, in a twisted and perverse sort of way.

Addendum II
So I sent the incompetent, den of idiots, and den of Ebenezer Scrooge NYSTF a third cheque for a bill they claim I owe. I think I overpaid but I want to get these wankers off my back and it is easier to write a cheque than deal with a bunch of incompetent wanks who think they are god almighty. I sent this cheque by registered mail on 26 October 2012. To show you how incompetent or mammon greedy these wankers are I received a royal decree dated 11/06/2012 demanding that I pay them what I already paid them on the 26th. And of course, the decree states that they will continue to take their pound of flesh in interest. How they can charge interest on an accident based on their poor tax form writing is beyond me. They surely can't demand interest on what is already paid I would assume but then again this is New York State.

To top it all off NYSTF still owes me $200 bucks plus. I still haven't received my 2011 refund. I, of course, will demand that they owe me interest for not sending it to me but as you know dear unreaders I am unlikely to get interest because I am a powerless citizen trapped in a labyrinth populated by bloodsucking tax and finance bureaucrats who, it appears, wouldn't know their arses from a hole in the ground and who take gobshiteing to levels of unforeseen heights.

Addendum III
Apparently the monies the New York State Tax and Finance Department owed me and have owed me since April will have interest applied to them. I am gobsmacked. I will believe when I see it. As of yet, 3 December, I haven't seen it.

Addendum IV
I finally got my tax refund today a full eight months after I filed my tax paperwork with the New York State Tax and Finance Department. And despite claims from the Tax Department bureaucrats that I would be receiving interest on the monies NYSTF had in their accounts for this eight months that turned out to be more inept shite from the gobshites at New York State Tax and Finance. I couldn't help but think of double standards here. When we do something wrong, intentional or not, they get more than a pound of flesh from us. When they do something inept with our accounts its ooops, sorry, but no interest or penalties for you. I guess we should expect no more from a wanker bureaucracy in a wanker state. If there was justice...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The More Things Change...

You think you're something special, you think you're something else...Shania Twain

So I recently took a look at Oxford University Press's much touted, at least by itself, new textbook American Horizons (concise edition, Volume II, Since 1865, 2013). American Horizons claims to, to quote the subtitle of the textbook, put "US History In A Global Context". After looking at American Horizons co-authored by Michael Schaller, Robert Schulzinger, John Bezis-Selfa,Janette Thomas Greenwood, Andrew Kirk, Sarah Purcell, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean--wow now that was a mouthful--however, I can't say I am particularly impressed with this as its boosters proclaim on its back cover "only US History Survey text to offer fully integrated treatment of US History within a global context".

Horizons has the usual stuff of global import one can find in almost any introductory text to US History--the broader aspects of American colonialism in the Caribbean and Pacific, America as a Great Power, a very brief discussion of global social liberalism, WWI, WWII, for example. There is a reference to Black emancipations in Jamaica and South Africa but none to how slavery by another name intersects with the treatment of Aborigines in Australia or South Africa. There is a tiny box on the treatment of Aboriginals in settler societies by the British colonial rulers but no extensive discussion of the treatment of indigenous peoples after Britain granted Canada, Australia, and New Zealand confederation, federation, or dominion status. There is a discussion of how the US dealt with the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s but no comparison of how Canada, Australia, and NZ dealt with it. There is a brief discussion of the global suffragette movement but no comparison between US, Canadian, Australian, and Kiwi suffragetism. New Zealand, of course, a leading social liberal light, was the first nation to grant women the vote. So much for American Horizons boosterist claims.

What Horizons didn't do, as I have already intimated, and this is why I was, in particular, so unimpressed with the book, was to take the opportunity it had as a comparative textbook to do what any comparative history of the US worth its salt should do, namely take on the issue of American exceptionalism as at least one of its central organising principles. It should have, in other words, looked at US history and its society and culture, through the lenses of Canada, Australia, NZ, South Africa, and the UK, the settler societies and old world hearth, that, to a large extent, gave "birth" to all of them. There are only a paltry three references to Canada in Horizons, Volume II, eight references to Australia, six references to New Zealand, and one to South Africa (hey, how about a comparison of apartheid and Jim Crow?). An additional problem, one which increasingly characterises a lot of college textbooks these days, is that Horizons reads like a Twitter version of US history and remains infected with that dreaded kitchen sink or throw everything against the wall approach to US history.

After perusing American Horizons I remain as fully convinced as ever that the textbook I have been using in my US History Survey classes, Unto a Good Land (Eerdmans, 2005), is the best textbook available to those teaching American History survey courses. In fact, I would argue, it is one of the best introductory textbooks I have ever seen and I have seen a lot of them--sociology introductory textbooks, sociology of religion introductory textbooks, stratification introductory textbooks,cultural anthropology introductory textbooks, communication introductory textbooks, television history introductory textbooks, European history introductory textbooks, world history introductory textbooks, and comparative history introductory textbooks. I think Unto a Good Land is an excellent textbook, though admittedly this is kind of a backhanded comment given the generally dreadful character of most of the introductory history texts out there that one can compare it to, because of its superb organisation, its depth (there are over one hundred fact filled pages on the Gilded Age alone), its attention to US religious history, one of the most important factors in American history and one that continues to be largely ignored by historians and sociologists, its, if perhaps in far too limited a way, placing of US history in comparative perspective, and the fact that it doesn't try to order to appeal every cultural interest group--the plague of vanity identity culture--out there in Americaland in its structure. So no thanks Oxford, I am going to stick with the textbook I already use for my American history classes.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Welcome to the Land of Solipsism...Or, Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge....

I realise that many Republicans have a problem facing up to reality as many of the comments above and below clearly show. Buuuut. The fact is is that Obama did use the word "terror" in his Rose Garden speech just after the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya as youtube and the transcript to his speech in the Rose Garden show. I don't expect a party which has several candidates who think that "legitimate rapes" don't lead to pregnancies or that the earth was made in seven days or that government doesn't create jobs (despite the evidence to the contrary of the Interstate Highway System, Boulder Dam, the TVA, public school teachers, giving real estate to Big Railroads to name just a few) to be slapped back to reality by reality, however.

Oh, by the way, I am not a registered Democrat. I am someone who believes that factual accuracy matters. One can debate the hermeneutics of Obama's use of the word "terror" and its meaning or meanings. What one cannot do, however, is say that he did not use the term.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Romney Believes in the Virgin Birth of the Public Sector?

So Romney thinks that government does not create jobs. Hmm. One then wonders who created those jobs that built highways and overpasses when the federal government under a Republican president decided to pony up 90% of the monies which went into building the interstate highway system across the nation, a decision and a financing that gave further impetus to suburbanisation, suburban shopping malls, and economic activity and, hence, more jobs. Colgate toothpaste? One then wonders who created jobs at public schools and public universities. Kellogg's Corn Flakes? One then wonders who created Romney's job when he was the governor of Massachusetts. Alpo dog food? Bain Capital? Well perhaps more the latter than the former. Romney. Demagogue? cynic? historical and economic illiterate? all of the above?