march 2005

click here for permalink March 16, 2005

I've been gorging myself on movies and documentaries lately and when I ran out decent options last weekend, I picked up "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." I know, I know... just look at the title. It can't be good...

Well. Not only was it not good... heh, I think it qualifies as easily the most glaring exercise in film making hubris and miscalculation since... okay, I haven't seen "Alexander" so I'll stop right there. It confounds the rational mind how this movie could have been sold as an idea enough to capture the "all-star" cast that eventually brought it to theaters and video stores everywhere.

With just one (brief but appropriately dismissive) exception, every review I've read online talks about this movie as some kind of breakthrough, waxing lyrical on the merging of animation and live action while drawing comparisons to at least two, sometimes closer to ten, other films that Sky Captain references, riffs on or rips off outright. I personally lost count around 25.

Any fragment of originality "Sky Captain" might contain is buried under a heavy, soft-focus filter designed to blur the line between the real and the digital. Of course, it's hard to keep that line blurred when your entire marketing campaign is about the use of CGI for everything, including the actors.

The result is a 90+ minute montage of lo-res, low-budget, reimagined images of Classic Hollywood, a "retrospective" like the ones that show all the best parts of Titanic, Forest Gump and Close Encounters with a swelling, self-important score in the background.

There isn't a single scene in Sky Captain that doesn't suggest something we've seen before, from the subtly, visually derivative to the blatantly, line-for-line lifted. The intention may be homage but the effect is collage.

Of all its transgressions against the grand tradition of moviemaking, by far the most offensive is the ghoulish and gratuitous CGI reanimation of dead legand Sir Laurence Olivier in the role of Dr. Totenkopf (or The Great and Powerful Oz/Big Brother/M) whose name, sickeningly, translates as "Death's-head" in German.

It's one thing to reproduce the immortal image of a dead icon, posthumously and in perpetuity, and use it to sell mountains of disposable collectible kitsch in every mall in civilization (Marilyn's lips in red neon, Che's cheekbones on t-shirts — ad infinitum). It's quite another to hijack their hollowed-out likeness, wrap it around a wireframe and make it dance for you like a plucked chicken hand-puppet.

Nearly a decade ago, on Superbowl Sunday, a collective hiss of disapproval could be heard from TV audiences as they watched Fred Astaire's ghostly spectre dance across the ceiling, a shill for Dirt Devil from beyond the grave. Shortly thereafter, when Humphrey Bogart defied death to hawk high end furniture and luxury sedans, the public barely raised an eyebrow.

There are greater numbers of great actors working in Hollywood today than at any other time in movie history; how is it that this "part" could only be "brought to life" by a dead actor — one who couldn't refuse the role and couldn't possibly receive a paycheck for it?

It makes me wish that I had never seen "Shallow Grave" before so I could stumble across it one day and have my faith in movie making magically restored.

click here for permalink March 13, 2005

One of the few vivid memories I have of my 10th grade Biology class is the fetal pig dissection we begged our teacher to squeeze in at the end of the school year. With only three weeks left, there wasn't enough time to do the slow, sequential and scientific examination — the teacher's manual recommended six weeks for that. No matter; our class was divided into groups of three students per pig and we began the dissections as the manual instructed.

When we ran out of time proper sequence and keeping pace with each other were quickly abandoned in favor of a free-for-all race to the finish which came to a grand and gruesome finale in the field behind the Biology lab where the warm, spring morning air was filled with howls of hormonally-charged laughter as pieces of pig brain and other fetal organs found their targets like chunks of formaldehyde-soaked shrapnel.

For anyone who has equally fond memories of fetal pig dissection (or were somehow educated in an institution that omitted such things), there's always virtual pig dissection.

Also, check out Mark Benjamin's The Invisible Wounded over at Salon to read about the latest thing the American military doesn't want you to see... and something they do want you to watch is Coming to a Flat Screen Near You; Arianna Huffington previews the new Pentagon Channel. I shit you not.

click here for permalink March 8, 2005

Everybody knows if you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. Well, if you're going to Iraq, there are things you'll want to be sure to do, too... and some things you want to be sure not to do...

Another great article from on the three stages of American Empire.

And that's it for today!

click here for permalink March 4, 2005

You can infer some interesting things about the collective consciousness of a culture from its marketing techniques, from the 1940's wartime propaganda employed by both Axis and Allies — which has since been immortalized as kitschy pop nostalgia — to the modern era of immersion consumerism, winking, post-ironic and self-referential, that is so finely intertwined with our everyday lives it's like subliminal advertising on the cellular level.

In the late 1980's, big-money marketing experienced a revival that harkened back to its retro roots in the Fifties. Greed was good and big Greed called for bigger-is-better advertising the way single malt Scotch calls for a good cigar. It was all about Wall Street and the Glengarry Glen Ross guys, whose martini-lunch-masculinity and "always be closing" mantra was an oasis of testosterone in a post-feminist marketplace.

Money was a man's game and a brutal, vicious, ugly game at that — think Donald Trump, Claus von Bülow and Reaganomics. It was a game best left to the Old (white) Boys Club, seething with pre-Viagra frustration, sweating and swearing and stabbing each other in the back.

Fast forward ten years and we were on our Information Superhighway honeymoon; it was a post-grunge, pre-Boy Band world — for a minute, anyway. Generation X had upgraded from McJobs to McCareers and the geeks had inherited the earth. E-commerce and Shopping Carts were the new Costco and "permission marketing" was the new personal shopper.

In order to court a new kind of consumer, single, savvy and pajama-clad, the game was sales as seduction — but not your parents' kind of seduction (eww) and not the old Rhett-hauls-Scarlett-up-the-stairs kind, either. In a post-safe sex, post-political correctness, post-post-feminist era, a century's worth of psychology and mind-control experiments went mainstream. Info-tainment, irony and "permission" sales pitches came together like a step-by-step, interactive tango tutorial for the DIY generation.

(Life imitated marketing soon after as we marked the arrival of Reality TV and Speed Dating.)

Which brings us to the decade without a name. "Viral" marketing is where we're at now; it's the same pitch on the down low, on the cellular level — persuasion as epidemic, force majeure, black plague — sales strategy as germ warfare, genetic mutation.

Why? Because when your priorities become as backwards and fucked up as ours have, it makes buying and selling stuff so much more meaningful if you can think of it as an act of bioterrorism or blasphemy. We're not bad, we're just drawn that way — the cycle of abuse and dysfunction is passed on through our DNA.

Little wonder that even the non-religious among us seem to be harboring apocalyptic fantasies of a cleansing catastrophe to wipe the slate clean. We're all so infected and altered we can no longer even imagine a healthy reality.