Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ironic Hipsters

And My Ever Rising Blood Pressure

Make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit "I don’t really mean what I’m saying." So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean."

- David Foster Wallace
"E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction"

I work at a library, a customer service industry, in which I'm peppered with hundreds of questions, ranging from the mundane ("Where's the bathroom?") to the complex ("Do you have videos with public performance rights on peer pressure for at-risk minority children of alternative sexuality grades K to 12?") on a weekly basis. Because of the volume and diversity of the questions, which come from people representing a widely divergent range of education and socio-economic background, a librarian has to develop a frame of reference for the questions in order to comprehend what is being asked; often a question isn't even a question until you help the patron articulate just exactly what he or she wants. It's kind of like Jeopardy!; my ability to do my job - and help you, the public - depends on the ability to have queries put in the form of a question (hopefully one with an answerable frame of reference). In other words, I get best results, and waste the least time, when patrons tell me exactly what they want and don't beat around the bush. The Straight Talk Express, library reference style.

That's why I was so peeved on a recent Manic Monday when a young guy who looked like your basic twentysomething Indie Rocker approached me and said, "I'm looking for really pretentious art films."

I know all about art films, but there was a subjective value system buried in the question. I mean, one's man's sirloin is another man's Hamburger Helper as far as what's considered arty and what's considered crap. A naked picture of Jenna Jameson is considered porn while a museum painting of a naked Venus is considered art, in other words. And pretentious? Did he mean, bad films, boring films, laugh-out-loud exercises in artiness?

So I asked him, "You mean bad films?"

"No," Young Guy replied, "Why would you say that?"

"Because," I said, "You said pretentious, which is typically a negative term."

"No it's not," he scoffed.

"It's not?" I countered, suddenly lost. (I had a momentary chill, the kind you get when you think you've gotten something terribly wrong all your life, like when my grandmother corrected my pronunciation of the word poignant, which I had mispronounced as "poik-nant" for 28 years thanks to Curly Howard of the Three Stooges.) "You consider pretentious a positive, complimentary term?"

"Yeah," he said with confidence and without blinking twice.

I was amazed.
1. making (unjustified) claims to special merit or importance: many critics thought her work and ideas pretentious and empty
2. vulgarly showy; ostentatious: a family restaurant with no pretentious furnishing (www.thefreedictionary.com)

"So, if you were in a bar chatting up a girl and she said she found you pretentious, you would take it as a compliment?" I asked, incredulous.

"Yeah," he replied, "Of course."

"Oh, OK..."

In other words, he was playing a game of wordplay, of hipper-than-thou irony. Not a librarian's best friend. We're here to answer questions, not to fall captive to verbal B.S. That's the domain of politicians...and ironic hipsters. Shades of gray in a black-and-white world.

Luckily, my co-worker, who knew the guy slightly from his soccer league, intervened and, being a Twentysomething himself, understood the kid's wavelength enough to decode "pretentious art films". Apparently, the hipster kid wanted to put on a film series based around this narrowly-defined self-understood genre, and my co-worker pulled some titles for him.

This whole interaction made me think of that Onion article "Aging Gen-Xer Doesn't Find Bad Movies Funny Anymore."

Later, I thanked my co-worker and said, "Strange guy, huh?"

My co-worker replied, "Yeah, I didn't understand at first he was being ironic, but once I could understand that he really meant good films in his ironic way, I could help him."

Of course, the kid could have just asked for what he wanted directly.

But I guess that wouldn't have been cool. Some people talk to be overheard and not to be actually listened to.

I call them assholes. Which is a still negative term in almost all circles (barring porn films). But direct and to the point.

Related Links:
Pretentious - For the Sake of It (Gentle Giant CD compilation, 1977)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

When it Rains, Readers Pour

13th Annual Baltimore Book Festival
Friday September 26, 2008 - Sunday September 28, 2008
Mt Vernon Place, Baltimore - "The City That Reads"

Opening Ceremony, Baltimore Book Festival

What is it about the Baltimore Book Festival and torrential downpours? I went down on Sunday (the final - and only dry - day, after spending Saturday bailing out my flooded basement), of the 13th Annual Baltimore Book Festival and mused that question as I walked past the Walters Arts Gallery and saw one of the Walters museum guards outside on a smoke break.

"That's how you know it's the Book Fair," the guard said. "Every year they get the wettest weather - every year!"

Got that right, buddy. I think they even cancelled it one year due to a hurricane alert (2003?).

The sun finally came out Sunday, though festival goers wearing jeans like me still got soaked from the humidity. Anyway, before I even worked up a sweat, I ran into Baltimore Grassroots Media maven Mike Shea on his recumbent bike, down to film a Mark Twain impersonator for Baltimore City Public Access TV. Turns out he was interviewing Alan Reese, the guy I succeeded as Towerlight Features Editor at Towson State College in the '70s. Alan's always been involved with the local poetry and writing scene, and he looked pretty cool in his white suit. If he put on some pounds and grew a beard, he could pull double duty doing in-store appearances at KFC as Colonel Sanders with an outfit like that.

Reel Around the Fountain: Kids frolic in the Children's Book Tent

And Mike Shea? Well, the former Critical Mass-termind is never without his video camera, a spiffy Hi-Def Panasonic HDV30 that had me turning green with digital envy. I always considered Mike a social activist, but he decries the term. But I remember reading him getting busted for videotaping a Critical Mass rally back in 2004 ("Singled Out," City Paper, 5/12/2004). Must have been a hot-head cop (don't they have better things to do in Bodymore, Murderland?), because Mike's a pretty mellow fellow.

Cops put the brakes on biker Mike Shea

There must be something about Mikes clustering together, because next I ran into Mike Hughes, erstwhile MPT and Baltimore Mag Webmaster who also writes fiction on the side. In fact, his short story "The Blackwater Lights" - included in the Legends of the Mountain State anthology - was recently lauded by Huntingtonnews.net as "one of the best stories in a collection that has no bad ones" and compared to the great horror writing of H.P. Lovecraft! (To read his fiction or other observations, check out his great blog at michaelmhughes.com/wordpress). Mike's definitely a social activist of the Literati Set. Apparently he had a reading at the CityLit Stage earlier that day, and was now cooling his jets talking to the hip-savvy McSweeney Books dudes, who looked like they were in Weezer.

Next I ran into a former Pratt Library co-worker, Donna Woods, who was manning the BookMooch booth. BookMooch (www.bookmooch.com) - whose motto is "Give books away. Get books you want" - is an international community for exchanging used books that operates under the premise that's it's better to give AND to receive. Every time you give someone a book, you earn a point and can get any book you want from anyone else at BookMooch. Once you've read a book, you can keep it forever or put it back into BookMooch for someone else, as you wish. I liked their banner (shown below); the Moochie critters are kind of creepy, like something out of a John Wayne Gacy-style clown painting.

And speaking of giving and receiving, when I wandered up to the Radical Books tent, I met the nice folks hawking $pread, the New York-based mag dedicated to worldwide sex industry workers (call girls, escorts, strippers, prostitutes, porn stars, et. al.). Naturally the sexual nature of the mag's headlines and photos attracted a number of horndogs, including some off-duty cop whose flair for the obvious ("I've found that a number of the prostitutes I've arrested had drug problems" - Really! Ya think?) astounded me. But they soon wandered away when they realized the mag wasn't at all prurient, and featured articles about sexual abuse, sex workers unions, hookers that murder their pimps, and such. Far from Red Hot, the mag's focus is more Red Emma's, with an appeal of "Sex Workers of the World Unite!"

I bought the issue with Tracy Quan on the cover, recalling that she wrote the text for a cool photo book I had seen at Daedalus Books & Music called Orientalia: Sex In Asia (2003). Quan, a former sex worker, has branched out into fiction, penning Diary of A Manhattan Call Girl: A Nancy Chan Novel (Three Rivers Press, 2003); though fictional, Quan's book (which originally ran as a column in Salon.com) is based on her real-life Sex and the City experiences. The same issue also had an article about menstruation fetish videos (we live in troubled times!!!) and an interesting interview with Caveh Zahedi about his autobiographical film I Am a Sex Addict, in which Rebecca Lord (one of my favorite adult film actresses) plays the director's wife.

Seeing $pread made me think of Teresa Dulce (pictured right), the Portland-based artist/activist who started stripping to pay off student loans and eventually founded Danzine - an Oregon sex workers organization and zine (1995-2005) - and later curated Portland's Sex by Sex Worker Film Festival (1998-2000)...I remember videotaping her in 1997 for an Atomic TV segment that never aired (trust me, there were a lot of them!), back when she did an in-store appearance at Baltimore's old Atomic Books (then on Charles and Chase streets). As former Atomic Books/TV impresario Scott Huffines recalled, that's when the bookstore used to have a display of James "Shocked & Amazed!" Taylor's sideshow oddities in the store, and Teresa did a "How To Put A Condom On" safe-sex demonstration in which she slipped the "love glove" over one of the horns on a three-horned goat head!

Later I spotted Joe Giordano, creator of the snazzy/snarky online mag GUTTER, wearing one of those Sinatra hipster hats that they sell at Target now (though Joe insists he got his fedora/trilby in New Orleans), the fashion craze that's replaced ironic trucker hats on the Ottobar and Joe Squared circuit...Just kidding Joe! Joe's a good guy and an ace photographer whose getting plenty of work and (well-deserved) kudos of late. I like it when he stops by the library, because he always finds the good books and CDs there before me - it's hard to keep up with his cool finds!

On the way out I had to stop at the American Visionary Arts Museum's booth, which is my perennial favorite. There I was dismayed to see that the already marked-down copy of Andy Warhol's Screen Tests I picked up at Daedalus Books & Music was even more marked down at AVAM! Oh well, live and learn. (By the way, reading about the screen tests is much better than actually viewing them, according to Video Americain's Scott Wallace Brown, who has a number of them in his collection; basically, the screen tests provide a Who's Who record of every notable '60s personality that stopped by The Factory)...Anyway, I told the AVAMsters that they have the best gift shop (officially known as Sideshow) in town and that I regularly recommend them to any out-of-towners who stop in the library and ask what landmarks they should see in Baltimore. By way of thanks, they gave me a Pirate book bag. You just can't beat that: trendy - and functional!

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Katsumi Comes Calling

The comely Katsumi

When I expressed excitement on hearing that Katsumi (now called "Katsuni" after she was barred by a French judge in January 2007 from using "Katsumi" when a woman named Mary Katsumi sued her) - my favorite adult film star* - was coming to dance at Baltimore's Fantasies Nightclub in October, my co-worker Ross mentioned he had a tape of her on Howard Stern's On Demand TV show. It was a lame parody of James Lipton's Inside the Actor's Studio television show (already brilliantly spoofed by Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live) called Inside the Porn Actor's Studio with Richard Christy.

Inside the Porn Actor's Studio w/Richard Christy

Hardcore Gone Limp: Katsumi on lame Howard Stern spoof

Host Christy had the soft-spoken part of the parody down pat, and the intermittent hand-clapping bit, but that was it. Pretty dumb one-trick pony idea, if you ask me, and the studio audience of wack pack mooks were even more lame - especially the nerd kid in the front row who was too chicken to drop trou in tit-for-tat exchange for Katsumi popping her toppings. But I enjoyed listening to Katsumi, the charming and intelligent 29-year-old Lyon, France-born porn star with the Japanese name (she got it from a Japanese manga character's name) who is actually half-Vietnamese (her Dad) and half-French (her Mom). Katsumi is also a polyglot who speaks several languages, including Latin (though, curiously, she didn't understand the word coitus when Christy used it). For the record, Katsumi told Christy her favorite word is gourmandise and her least favorite word is sperm ("Such an ugly word for something so beautiful"). When Christy asked her what she thought God would say to her when she reached the Pearly Gates, she responded, "You have too much pleasure to give; go back to Earth." A hearty applause followed.

Katsumi is huge in France, where she has her own TV show, and has always struck me as The Audrey Hepburn of Porn, able to ooze oodles of class even when her degenerette male porn partners are oozing other substances all over her beautiful body. As such, she deserves better. I for one would like to really know why someone so gorgeous chose this career path; the real James Lipton would find out.
* (Note: While Katsumi is my favorite active porn star; my all-time fave remains the now-retired Suzi Suzuki.)

Related Links:
Katsumi/Katsuni (Wikipedia)
Katsuni (MySpace)

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Coffee Strains

Panera's Gets Nasty

I never thought I'd be a Starbucks person (I still think of them as pretentious fancy latte-sipping consumers of overpriced stimulant beverages and nothing makes me cringe more than when some high-maintenance yenta steps to the counter and insists on substituting organic soy milk for her ridiculously decadent latte concoction-du-jour), but with the demise of my neighborhood's Starbucks-wannabe, Caribou Coffee (which had a cool staff) and the ghettoization of Panera's (now frequented almost exclusively by tasteless college kids and semi-ambulatory seniors and staffed by surly high school grads and excessively inked ex-cons), I find myself getting my daily fix at Starbucks (where the sharp-and-savvy college-age staff is quick, courteous and professional). Always hot coffee, mind you, and always plain and sans-girly flavors and frills. Still over-priced, admittedly. But I got hooked - blame it on my brother and brother-in-law for giving me all those Christmas gift cards.

But I still would sometimes frequent Panera Bread when I was getting food. Until this past Saturday when I went to Panera's for a bagel and a coffee. I always love it when hey have those sliced bagel samples, and today they had chocolate chip and some raisin variety samples out. And tongs. I have never used the tongs. And I have rarely seen anyone else use them. So, I picked up a chocolate chip slice, put it in my mouth, grabbed a napkin to wipe off a chocolate chip smear on my finger, and grabbed another slice. Again, the piece I grabbed went straight into my mouth, without any subsequent contact. But as I approached the cashier, I was suddenly called out.

The cashier loudly announced, "Please use the tongs when eating our samples. When you use your hands...that's nasty!"

Realizing she meant me, I said, "Are you serious?" (This was after I stood in front of her for several seconds while she finished her conversation with her co-workers...but I digress.)

"Yes," she replied. "Don't you think that's nasty?" She wouldn't let it go.

"No, I don't think it's nasty. I washed my hands before I came in here and I grabbed a bread slice and I didn't lick my fingers or anything, I used a napkin, and I put the slice I grabbed into my mouth, without touching anything else. I mean, it's not like George Costanza on Seinfeld when he double-dipped the potato chip at his girlfriend's family wake," I insisted. "It's not like something else came into contact with my mouth."

By now I was miffed. I guess I made a big deal about it because in my day job, also a customer service field, I have to take an inordinate amount of shit every day - and this time, being the customer, I wasn't going to let a slight go unchallenged. Meanwhile, the whole mood of this commercial transaction was tainted and this became more than a simple food and cash exchange.

"Well I think that's nasty,' the cashier insisted.

Well, I think you're a nut case, I thought to myself. I shook my head and waited for her to hand me my sliced chocolate chip bagel (without using tongs!).

I paid her, she gave me my change and as I counted it, thought "Now that's "nasty" - dirty money touched by God knows who."

Needless to say I will never come to Panera's again. It's one thing to object to a patron's hygiene as a courtesy to other diners (as in the case of a legimate "double-dip" transaction), but very poor customer service to characterize something as "nasty." That's like remarking "Gross!" upon a customer suddenly sneezing or clearing their throat. Added colorful commentary, in other words.

Related Links:
Double-Dipping On Trial
Double-dipping? Seinfeld Was Right (USA Today)

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Retro Rockers Channel Groovy Garage & Brit Invasion Vibe

(Friday, September 12) - Though I had to get up early for work the next day, the Joe Squared lineup this night was too good to resist: the hot-rocking garage/surf/mod combo Garage Sale, their surf-instro soul-mates The Tritons, and the debut of a band called The Transporters - the latter featuring Jennifers' guitarist Joe Stone.

Joe Stone (left) and The Jennifers

I only got to stick around for the first two acts (sorry Skizz, Big Dave, Dave McD and John-I!) and while the co-ed Tritons (featuring poet Jenny Keith Ciattei on guitar and hubby Chris "Batworth" Ciattei - he of Plow, Little Gruntpack, Furniture Falling Down the Stairs, The Bobwhites, The Soul Gamblers, etc., etc. - on drums) were tremendous, I'm here to gush about the new kids in town, The Transporters.

The Transporters spun fun '60s singles jingles

The Transporters, nattily attired in sports coats-and-ties and living up to their "cool old sounds played in cool new ways" advance billing, played nothing but retro Garage nuggets and British Invasion cover songs - - and it was crowd-pleasingly delightful! We're talking Kinks ("Till the End of the Day," "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," and the fairly obscure "Gotta Get the First Plane Home" from Kinks Kontroversy and "Holiday In Waikiki" from Face To Face), The Who ("Run, Run, Run"), Les Fleurs des Lys ("Circles"), Yardbirds ("A Certain Girl," "Heartful of Soul," "Over, Under, Sideways, Down"), The Them ("I Can Only Give You Everything"), The Standells ("Good Guys Don't Always Wear White"), early Stones ("The Last Time," "19th Nervous Breakdown") and their ilk. They even threw in Love's psych remake of Bacharach-David's "Little Red Book"!

My friend Dave Cawley calls this style "Freakbeat" but I hate this made-up term for vintage Sixties guitar rock (why does everything have to be a catchphrase? No sir, like China's stance on Taiwan, I refuse to official recognize it!) Let's just say the tune-age met the crowd-pleasing criteria of fuzzy guitars, snarly vocals and a stomping beat.

Anyway, when I got home it made me immmediately start digging out my old vinyl and start playing the originals again, including the Yardbirds' Roger the Engineer, as this 1966 LP featured my fave song "Over Under Sideways Down" - a song you never hear covered by anybody. (Roger The Engineer also featured the Jeff Beck guitar-boogie workout track called "The Nazz Are Blue" - a song that provided the name for Todd Rundgren's old band Nazz; of course Beck's tune took its name from the old Lord Buckley Jesus-of-Nazareth routine "The Nazz"). Later I started spinning my old Stones singles, Kinks komps and Nuggets. So thanks, Transporters - you transported me back to happy days of yore and helped reaquaint me with my record collection!

By the way, straight from Joe Stone, here's the official set list from Friday night's gig at Joe Squared...and Joe assures there's more where that came from!

Transporters Set List:

mercy mercy
a certain girl
till the end of the day
holiday in waikiki
last time
little red book
I'm not like everybody else
heart full of soul
I can only give you everything
sometimes good guys don't wear white
first plane
over under sideways down
run run run
19th nervous breakdown

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Alas David Foster Wallace...

I Hardly Knew Ye (and That's My Loss)

The world lost a bright light in David Foster Wallace

I read the New York Times obit (by photographer/filmmaker Bruce Weber) and appreciations yesterday about the apparent suicide of this apparent genius writer at age 46 and was fascinated. Not because he had suicidal tendencies - many authors and artists-in-general are clinically depressed (see William Styron, Hemingway, John Kennedy Toole, etc.). But when I read about how he was an avid tennis fan who was once a regionally-ranked junior tennis star, I was intrigued (being an avid tennis fan myself) - in the same way my only interest in seeing the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is to learn more about drummer Lars Ulrich's pre-musical career as a tennis player. So, working at a library, I decided to seek out his non-fiction works (since his most famous novel Infinite Jest runs over 1,000 pages and I have textbook AADD, I ruled out reading that book fast!)

One of the first things I found was his 2006 New York Times piece on Roger Federer, "Federer As Religious Experience." It was brilliant, the best appreciation of the Swiss master's skills I had ever read. In watching Federer play, Wallace saw the same kind of beauty Michelangelo realized in sculpting his David:
Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.

Further research led me to two of his non-fiction collections, Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays (2006) - which contained a piece about Tracy Austin and the "sports biography" - and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (1997), which had a superlative profile on Mike Joyce entitled "Tennis player Michael Joyce's professional artistry as a paradigm of certain stuff about choice, freedom, discipline, joy, grotesquerie, and human completeness."

Now I've read every book ever written about tennis and I am here to attest that David Foster Wallace was the best writer on the subject I've ever encountered. He "got it" as only a handful of writers ever came close to "getting it" (e.g., John Feinstein in Hard Courts or Eliot Berry in Topspin). Or, in his own words:
I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is, and also the most demanding. It requires body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness, flat-out speed, endurance, and that strange mix of caution and abandon we call courage. It also requires smarts. Just one single shot in one exchange in one point of a high-level match is a nightmare of mechanical variables. Given a net that's three-feet high (at the center) and two players in (unrealistically) a fixed position, the efficacy of one single shot is determined by its angle, depth, pace, and spin. And each of these determinants is itself determined by still other variables - for example, a shot's depth is determined by the height at which the ball passes over the net combined with some integrated function of pace and spin, with the ball's height over the net itself determined by the player's body position, grip on the racquet, degree of backswing, angle of racquet face, and the 3-D coordinates through which the racquet face moves during that interval in which the ball is actually on the strings. The tree of variables and determinants branches out, on and on, and then on even farther when the opponent's own positions and predilections and the ballistic features of the ball he's sent to you are factored in. No CPU yet existent could compute the expansion of variables for even a single exchange - smoke would come out of the mainframe. The sort of thinking involved is the sort that can only be done by a living and highly conscious entity, and then only unconsciously, i.e., by combining talent with repetition to such an extent that the variables are combined and controlled without conscious thought. In other words, serious tennis is a kind of art.

The physics behind the art of tennis

And it was an art that Wallace rightly concluded was best appreciated live, as "television doesn't really allow us to appreciate what real top-level players can do - how hard they're actually hitting the ball, and with what control and tactical artistry." (God knows I can appreciate that observation. Just this past weekend I was playing tennis on some nearby public courts when former Dark Side bass player Dave Jarkowski strolled in with his 15-year-old son Eric Jarkowski, and asked if I wanted to hit with Eric. I did, or rather, I tried to. Eric was the Baltimore City boys tennis champion last year - as a Freshman (!) - at Poly High School, and receiving his blazing forehand strokes was like seeing an asteroid hurtling toward me at supersonic speeds. Blink and you missed it. It took a half-dozen tries before I could return one measly ball over the net to him!)

I also have read just about every book written on the adult film industry (needless to say, I have divergent interests), so I was doubly pleased to read the opening essay, "Big Red Son," about the Annual AVN (Adult Video News) Awards at the 1998 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, which was described as "the Apocalypse [taking] the form of a cocktail party.". It was a spot-on piece of reporting, Hunter S. Thompson with gravitas. Here's a sample:
The adult industry is vulgar...The industry's not only vulgar, it's predictably vulgar. All the cliches are true. The typical porn producer really is the ugly little man with a bad toupee and a pinkie-ring the size size of a Rolaids. The typical porn director really is a guy who uses the word class as a noun to mean refinement. The typical porn starlet really is the lady in Lycra eveningwear with tattoos all down her arms who's both smoking and chewing gum while telling journalists how grateful she is to Wadcutter Productions Ltd. for footing her breast-enlargement bill. And meaning it. The whole AVN Awards weekend comprises what Mr. Dick Filth calls an Irony-Free Zone.

Irony-free vulgarity at the AVN Awards

Reading all the obits, I realize (all too late) that I must read his books which, thanks to an prodigious-to-the-point-of-exhaustive work ethic, are plentiful. As Sam Anderson wrote in New York magazine:
"He was the great enemy of word limits, proportion, and journalistic restraint. He aimed, in every single project, for the grand totalizing exhaustive gesture — whether it was a 1,000-page novel seeking to catalogue an entire culture (Infinite Jest) or a 100-page "experiential postcard" recounting a week on a cruise ship ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"). For Wallace, a thought could never actually, in good conscience, realistically, be finished — there was always one more reversal, one more qualifying clause, and an honest writer had to follow them out. Hence the famously never-ending sentences that spun off, even more famously, into never-ending footnotes. The black hole of his self-consciousness drew everything into it, even and especially self-consciousness itself. But that compulsion to be exhaustive was, apparently, exhausting."

It's ironic (and David Foster Wallace apparently hated Irony!) that it took a death to make me take notice of the man once considered by his peers to be America's greatest living author. Sign of the times?

Related Links:
New York Times Obit (Bruce Weber)
"Exuberant Riffs On a Land Run Amok" (Michiko Kakutani)
"The Genius of David Foster Wallace and the Ugly Monster of Depression" (Baltimore Sun)
New York Magazine Obit (Sam Anderson)

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Something Weird On Demand


Whenever people ask me what happened to Atomic TV - the analog video dinosaur Scott Huffines and I breach-birthed in 1997 and which ran through 2001, give or take a few holiday specials here and there in the 'Naughties - and why we don't do the show anymore, I go through my usual litany of excuses/explanations, including: unemployment, employment, the rise of digital video, YouTube, On Demand, Internet broadcasting, my computer crashing, my editing VCR dying, my frustrations with Baltimore City Cable, apathy, lethargy, ennui, and so on and so on.

All of the above were valid reasons, but now I have a much simpler explanation: Something Weird Video's Select On Demand programming for Comcast cable television.

It's everything ATV tried to do, only better and briefer (in 4-10 minute easy-to-consume clips) and done with today's fancy editing software, so what's the point of competing with a better idea? Seattle-based Something Weird Video used to be Mike Vraney and Lisa Petrucci's video emporium, but that operation soon begat DVDs, then a website, and then slickly packaged and edited content for Comcast On Demand, showing selected retro striptease clips, vintage educational/classroom scare films, and psychotronic film trailers.

But now (September 2008), Something Weird On Demand is offering its first "original" programming with the debut of new programming entries Weird U, Ad Nauseum, Trailer Trash, and Naughty Bits. Each program applies the Mystery Science Theatre aesthetic of adding smartass commentary to the original campy footage, only whereas MST just added a voiceover track of the MST crew's commentaries, Something Weird's approach is that of a remix: they re-edit the footage, add new narration and semi-synched dialogue - as well as new title cards and graphics - to create mock instructional films (Weird U), commercials (Ad Nauseam), movie trailers (Trailer Trash) and miscellaneous horror/TV/music spoofs (Naughty Bits).

Normally, I hate this sort of thing, reflecting as it does the smug and ironic sensibilities of today's digitally savvy, retro pop culture-appropriating 20something hipsters. I mean, I much prefer the unadulterated original content lampooned by the MST crew and I hate the Rhino Video reissues in which Johnny Legend and Elvira insert their "personalities" into the mix (though in the case of the 1961 semi-3D cult classic THE MASK, Elvira's "Mistress of the Dark" version is the only one currently available, albeit used - for which I'm eternally grateful). And I'm not sure I won't soon grow sick of it...but on a recent dull Sunday afternoon I found myself watching these with great amusement.

Maybe that's fueled by pure ego, because I see a lot of the techniques and 'tudes we used on Atomic TV - context broken-up and transitioned with TV static, drive-in intermission ads, exploitation/psychotronic film trailers - only done slicker and better.

The best of the lot is the Trailer Trash clip that has faux trailers for "Tighty Whitey" (a redubbing of Joe Wiezycki's 1975 film oddity Satan's Children, delivered in a raspy Blaxploitation voiceover) and the chop-socky spoof "1001 Ways To Die" (a redubbing of 1,001 Shaw Brothers movies from the '60s and '70s).

SATAN'S CHILDREN provides fodder for "Tighty Whitey"

I guess I liked "Tighty Whitey" because it reminded me of the footage we used to air on Atomic TV of Chris Jensen (former Atomic TV cameraman and still-legendary Charles Village proprietor of Jensen Plumbing Service) dancing around in his (soiled) tighty whities. Of course, since then Chris the Plumber has tried to circumvent his "stained" reputation by going full-on "commando," as shown below:

Chris the Plumber goes commando during Plumber's Union Initiation Ritual

At the very least, Something Weird's new programming has spurred me to seek out the original Satan's Children, a film that not only features tighty whiteys, but also incest, torture, gang-raping gay bikers (who may or may not be on acid), and homo-hating Satanists (I see a potential conflict if the alternative lifestyle-detesting Satanists ever run into the en masse-molesting gay bikers) for good measure. (Satan's Children is available from SWV as an economy class DVR-R, as well as a special edition DVD double-feature paired with Asylum of Satan.)

So don't fret, psychotronic film purists. Something Weird is still the national depository for "the strange world of exploitation films, drive-in thrillers, grindhouse B-movies, youth scare documentaries" in their original, unadulterated, feature-length form. They're just playing around with a remix experiment, but remain the primo source for sensational and outrageous cinematic cheap thrills.

Unofficial Something Weird Episode Guide:
OK, here's my unofficial episode guide to Something Weird On Demand's new programs for September 2008:

A Career in Stripping
F**king Steady

Party with the Right People
Let's Go Mugging

The Black, Angry Talking Car
The A, B, Cs of Babysitting

Duck & Cover
Kids Army Recruitment Promo

The Sticks
Toothade Festival

Goliath Pest Control
Victor's Secret Lingerie

Frankenstein for Mayor

Otto the Mad Butcher's Meats
Neumann Moustache Solution

Dick Justice
Teenage Hellcats on the Road To Hell Are Going To Hell!

Tighty Whitey
1001 Ways To Die

Raging Bull 2
Stereotype Smackdown

Trauma Unit

Brush Your Teeth Like Drew Carey's Dad
School Safety Patrol

Transylvania Games

The Real World Hell

Related Links:
Satan's Children (IMDB)

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sundance Channel Documentaries

Ever since my co-worker alerted me to the fact that I get the Sundance Channel as part of my digital cable package, I've been watching a lot of programming there. Lately I've been recording a bunch of one-hour mini-documentaries. Here is a field report, starting with the best of the lot.

The Mosquito Problem & Other Stories *****
Directed by Andrey Paounov

Bulgaria, 2007, 58 minutes
In the Bulgarian city of Belene, everyone talks about the “zanzar” problem — a particularly vicious mosquito with a very painful bite. Perhaps the reason everyone talks about mosquitoes is to avoid thinking about the past, and the dark history of what happened on a nearby island during the Communist era. With a delightful eye for the eccentric, the unexpected and the tragic, Andrey Paounov (Georgi and the Butterflies) presents a witty and disturbing documentary about a haunted corner of the world and its colorful inhabitants. (Sundance Channel capsule)

I love this documentary, which I caught while flipping through channels one night. Though at first I wasn't sure what it was about - or even if it was a documentary - because of the way it jumps all over the place, like a jigsaw puzzle that asks the viewer to put the pieces together to form a whole.

What an unusual film - I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it (well, maybe Errol Morris' Vernon, Florida). It feels, as one commentator put it, less like a doc and more like a series of set pieces staged by Wes Anderson - or Antonioni, for that matter. Maybe that's because it has a dreamlike quality to it and, while recording real people, it definitely chooses to stage them ahead of time to maximize each "set piece." It sure ain't Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall verite style, that's for certain. But director Andrey Paounov does achieve some of the most stunning images I've ever seen (a horse galloping around an abandoned prison, cheerleaders with pom-poms and cowboy boots performing pro-nukes choreography inside a dour meeting room, Belene's lone Cuban citizen playing his guitar outside a dormant nuclear power plant, children chasing after a truck that engulfs them in pesticide, etc.) I don't know who his DP was, but he/she has quite an eye, as the framing is imaginative and the cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful.

Images from The Mosquito Problem:

Belene's lone Cuban serenades the power plant

Todor Pdrnikov plays Chopin on a rinky-dink piano

The scenes at the former concentration camp (or "re-education camp" as it was known under the Communist regime) turned prison on Belene Island are the film's strongest. It's like a ghost town, home to a horse, a pig, some dirty pigeons, and a lone prisoner, Ahmed Hasanov, a murderer who seems to be a pretty mellow fellow. Oh, and it's also home to hosts of mosquitos! (Which seems unavoidable, as Belene is situated on the mosquito-friendly marshy banks of the Danube river.)

Apparently Bulgaria's switch from Communism to Capitalism brought promises of employment for Belene's citizens at a much-ballyhooed power plant (locals even engraved the nuclear power plant logo on buildings and restaurant dishes), but the plant - which at one time had thousands of workers from the former Soviet Bloc and friendly communist nations like Cuba and Vietnam - was never completed. Construction was halted in 1990 in the wake of a national economic crisis; the plant's demise kept the townsfolk in limbo, while Belene's population dwindled to under 10,000 inhabitants. That's the socio-economic-political backstory to the film, but I found it most interesting in its celebration of the individual eccentrics. Like the pianist who talks about why Chopin was the most Slavic of composers, or the daughter of a prison guard convicted of abusing prisoners who talks about how much she loves her mother.

According to his bio, director Andrey Paounov was born in 1974 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and has worked "as a bartender in Prague, a cook in Washington DC, a gardener in Toronto, a boom operator in New York and an accounting clerk in San Francisco." He graduated from the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2000. His first documentary feature, Georgi and the Butterflies, won the Silver Wolf at IDFA in 2004. The Mosquito Problem & Other Stories is his second feature-length film. And without a doubt a buzz-worthy one.

French Beauty ** 1/2
Directed by Pascale Lamche
France, 2005, 68 minutes
As essential to France's mystique as its wines, haute couture and cuisine is its place as the defining home of female beauty. Filmmaker Pascale Lamche examines how French film actresses have projected a unique je ne sais quoi -- described as an allure combining delicacy, luxury and intelligence -- that has captivated generations of cinema audiences around the world. Providing their own insight into this Gallic riddle are icons of French cinema, including Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Audrey Tautou and Jeanne Moreau. (Sundance Channel capsule)

French beauty Audrey Tautou

I love French actresses - Bardot, Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Stephane Audran, Audrey Tautou, Jeanne Moureau, et. al. - so I was looking forward to this. But while it sounded great on paper, this French doc was guilty of poor execution and a half-assed focus. And its list of actresses profiled is rather selective - and recent. Bardot's in there at the beginning of course, but where are Emmanuelle Seigner, Anouk Aimee, Julie Delpy, Virginie Ledoyen, Isabelle Adjani and others? Halfway through, the doc shifts its focus to French models, like Jane Birkin's daughter Lou Doillon, who made the switch from modeling to acting (hardly a radical transition, especially in Asia, where many pop stars and models are also movie stars). Disappointing, but I did enjoy seeing the "other" Birkin daughter (from her relationship with French director Jacques Doillon), who unlike her step-sis Charlotte Gainsbourg, looks just like her Mom. Which is to say, a total babe!

Lou Doillon & Jane Birkin

In the Mood for Doyle ** 1/2
Directed by Yves Montmayeur
France, 2007, 54 minutes

Doyle: Obviously Living The Life

Just OK doc about the best cinematographer in Hong Kong - and possibly the world - Christopher Doyle, a scruffy-looking middle-aged Aussie beatnik who dresses like Keith Richards and has been described as an "Asian Jack Kerouac." Doyle is a Western ex-pat living in Hong Kong (that's actually his apartment that Faye Wong inhabits in Chunking Express) and is totally immersed in Chinese and Asian culture, like T. E. Lawrence was with Arabia and the Middle East - refuting Kipling's "never the twain shall meet" adage about East and West cultures. In fact, Doyle famously married a Chinese woman, but she's never referenced and the beautiful young woman by his side and in his house in several scenes is never identified in the film.

Definitive Doyle: Scene from "In the Mood for Love"

Unfortunately, this French documentary is every bit as unfocused as its subject (Doyle may be a brilliant cameraman but he talks in stream-of-conscious bursts like a drug-addled, ADD-afflicted space cadet). As a result, this rag-tag affair jumps all over the place, from Doyle's rambling pop-cultural takes on "The Asian Way" of life to directors Fruit Chan and Olivier Assayas talking about him and Hong Kong filmmaking in general. Doc almost exclusively focuses on Doyle's work with Hong Kong's Godard, director Wong Kar-Wei, who Doyle worked with on Chunking Express, Fallen Angels, In the Mood For Love and 2046, and - unfortunately - wastes time showing him working on lame Western horror movies like Lady in the Water with M. Night Shyamalan (who looks like a dopey college kid next to the grizzled vet Doyle). Last Life in the Universe, the Thai film he worked on with director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang - and arguably his greatest cinematography to date - isn't even mentioned, though we do get to see one clip from his follow-up with the director, the unseen-in-the-West Invisible Waves. And this despite the film opening in Bangkok, where Doyle shows off some of the neighborhoods where he shot footage for In the Mood For Love.

Still, anything about Chris Doyle - whose life is every bit as interesting as his work - is better than nothing, so I enjoyed this short look into his world. I just wanted more of it.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Who's Laughing Now?

Joke-a-vic Spoils A-Rod's Punchline

Some people just can't take a joke. Novak Djokavic is one of them (pictured at left, not laughing). Picking up where sore loser Tommy Robredo left off, world no. 8 Andy Roddick had a little fun mocking the third-ranked Djokovic's injury woes (he called the trainer to address back and ankle injuries during his five-set win over Robredo in the Fourth Round of the 2008 U.S. Open) at a press conference leading up to last night's match between the two. Asked about Djokovich's sore ankle, this exchange transpired:
Roddick: Isn't it both of them? And a back and a hip?

Reporter: And when he said there are too many to count ...

Roddick: And a cramp.

Reporter: Do you get a sense right now that he is ...

Roddick: Bird flu.

Reporter: A lot of things. Beijing hangover. He's got a pretty long list of illness.

Roddick: Anthrax. SARS. Common cough and cold.

Asked whether he believed all the injuries...

Roddick: If it's there, it's there. There's just a lot. You know, he's either quick to call the trainer or he's the most courageous guy of all time. I think it's up for you guys to decide."

Turns out the joke was on Andy as the Djokerman spoiled A-Rod's punchline in four sets, 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (7-5). I have a lot of problems with Roddick, both with his game and his attitude. First off...

Here's the thing about injuries, Andy. You get them from playing a busy tour schedule, not by "resting up" for the U.S. Open. You see, Roddick was the only Top 10 tennis player in world to skip the Olympics, opting to rest up for his vanity project, the U.S. Open - incidentally, the only Grand Slam he's ever one, though it was way back in 2003. Selfish? Of course - he chose personal glory over representing his country at the Olympics. I know, I know - he's the most consistent Davis Cup player and Patrick McEnroes loves him and all that jazz, but this was a major miscalculation.

Moreover, what should have been a walkover at the tune-up Legg Mason Tennis Classic tournament in Washington, D.C., turned into an embarassment, as Roddick lost to Viktor Troicki - not just another Serb, but a B-list one at that (world ranking no. 71). Only then did Roddick question his Cowboy Diplomacy, fire his brother as coach and hire patrick McEnroe in a panic to get him prepped for the Open. But it was all downhill from the moment he made the poor decision to wear that hideous Lacoste shirt - the worst clothing at the U.S. Open this year. That black bumble-bee Lacoste ensemble (officially known as the "Short Sleeve Tennis Super Dry Stripe Polo with Zip") was just ridiculous-looking, too aggressively preppy for my taste. Good thing that it was specially made for Roddick and unavailable in that color for the masses. (The best kit was easily Marty Fish's burgundy K-Swiss Primacy Crewneck, which reminds me of FC Barcelona's soccer logo and colors).

And while I'm harping on A-Rod, let me just add that his fiancee has a dumb, trendy name. C'mon now, Brooklyn? (Isn't that what Posh Spice and her tattooed love boy Becks named one of their progeny?) That's like Djokavic having a girlfriend named Belgradia. It guess it could be worse - at least she's not named Yonkers! But what kind of parents name their daughter after New York City's reigning bastion of Yuppiedom? Rich ones, I reckon.

As the blogger at The Spoke put it, "Brooklyn Decker has the legs of a runway model, the body of a swimsuit model, and the face and hair of your local trailer trash lady that likes to hang out at 7-11 while drinking her big gulp...Fortunately for Brooklyn, only 2 of the above said things really matter." And speaking of big gulps, check out her cups-runneth-over picture below:

Brooklyn: A Match Made in 7-11 Heaven

Anyway, before the U.S. Open, when sports pundits questioned whether Roddick - approaching his 26th birthday at this year's Open - was finished, Roddick angrily retorted: “They said I was through in 2006, which was ridiculous - so I’ve been under the radar before, and responded very big.” This comment was an obvious reference to his runner-up finish to Roger Federer that year in the U.S. Open Final. Then Roddick added, “I know I can compete in the Open, and I know this is the one slam that fits my game. If it wasn’t for a couple of injuries, this would be a different conversation.”

Ah yes, playing the injury card...guess it takes a whiner to know one, right Andy?

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