Put Your Fandom All Over My Body

21 December, 2015 at 12:36 pm (film, uncategorized)

I haven’t seen Star Wars.

Pew! Pew! from ThinkGeek

And not in the new, hipster way that young people haven’t seen Star Wars, because they’ve been told all their lives that it’s amazing, and it’s a small act of rebellion (against, amusingly, the Rebellion) to avoid the things their parents loved and fixated upon. Much in the way it took me almost thirty-five years to watch Citizen Kane, because I didn’t trust the mores and scales of those before me, and I both didn’t want to be disappointed that something might have aged badly and didn’t want to begrudgingly admit that maybe it really was the greatest thing ever.

(It’s not, by the way. Kane nor Star Wars. Neither is the greatest thing evs, let alone since sliced bread. But that’s another column.)

A L O N G T I M E A G O I N A G A L A X Y F A R F A R A W A YAnd neither have I not seen Star Wars in the BBC Radio, it’s-just-one-of-those-things-that-passed-me-by sense. No, I’ve seen Star Wars, I just haven’t seen Episode Seven. Not yet.

The first film to make over one hundred million dollars on opening day (although that number may include preview screenings from Thursday), and I am not one of the many Bothans that saw it. I usually pride myself on being able to be part of the cultural conversation in a timely manner, but I’m sitting this one out for a week or two. Which means that if I want to be spoiler wary, I have to keep much of cultural conversation in a sealed container. Next week, upon finally having been forced to awaken, I can go back to the internet and pry open that box and see what everyone has been saying about it a little too late. I’m a little sad about this, but if there’s anything that Twitter has taught me is to be used to getting to the interesting conversation far too late to chime in.

And it will be interesting to be slightly on the opposite side of a cultural phenomenon. Because since the Fake Geek spats of the last few years, I’ve been thinking about how it does and doesn’t bug me how much nerd culture has swept commonplace marketeering. Read the rest of this entry »

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Criterion Blogathon: Charade

18 November, 2015 at 10:44 pm (charade, film)

This post is intended as part of the Criterion Blog-a-thon, hosted by Kristina at Speakeasy, Ruth at Silver Screening, and Aaron at Criterion Blues. Click HERE for the full roster for the event!

It’s been a good couple weeks for me and the Criterion Collection. They had a 50% off flash sale in early October and then they did their annual November sale with Barnes & Noble, and I proceeded to clean up about half of my profile wishlist. I’ve enjoyed coming home to a brick of Blu-Ray, whether the single-chaptered crisp blue key of Mulholland Drive, or the much-anticipated update of the classic Fisher King Criterion laserdisc. And then, today on the Criterion blog, I learned that the Speakeasy and Criterion Blues film blogs had organized a marathon of homage posts to the collection. Today featured English-language films from 1947 until 1980… which should have included Charade, but no one seems to have stepped up and claimed the title. I don’t really have the time to spend on this, as I should be working on other writing, but I shall stride in where others haven’t deigned to tread and add my own small, unrequested contribution.

blog_1511_blogathon_charade_01

I have previously written on the fiftieth anniversary of the film, of copyright issues surrounding it’s public domain status, and how I first started buying various editions of the DVD way back in 2002. The film has either been a touchstone or an obsession of mine, depending upon who you talk to. So what remains as a topic to address? A day after the internet, particularly “Film Twitter”, went nuts about the idea of remaking Memento, it could be time to mention that The A.V. Club listed Charade first amongst its list of films that merited updating or at least a revisit. Cameron Scheetz acknowledges that Jonathan Demme already tried this, but still seems to think that the chemistry and repartee between the leads would crackle under the deft hand of someone like Steven Soderbergh, saying the script would foster his “ability to build palpable, simmering chemistry between his two leads amid a thrilling crime yarn.” I adore Soderbergh, and have faith in his timing, his stylishness, and his control of tone. And if there’s something that Charade tries very hard to do, it’s to pendulum between these three cardinal points of romance, comedy, and genuine suspense, occasionally dangling one over the dark pit of whether a classic Hollywood star could actually be sharkskin: deliciously smooth in one direction, but barbed and even savage in the other. And in Soderbergh’s Side Effects, we unfortunately saw that he wasn’t able to successfully manage that kind of audience deception. That the consequence of lying to another character also meant completely obfuscating the audience as well, which rendered revelations and payoff as a disappointing gruel. Stylish and engaging, but with a sense that not even the most dedicated of mystery readers could have found the hidden clues and followed along at home.

But no, let’s not talk about what the film shouldn’t be, lets talk about how the film succeeds, and then wrap up by noting what the disc itself provides. Read the rest of this entry »

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Today in Charade

21 July, 2015 at 9:10 am (charade, webjunk)

The AV Club is still plugging along, successfully bridging the gap between actual commentary and clickbait in a manner that The Dissolve quite mournfully was unable to do — with a strict reading of “successfully” as “commercially successful” only — and late last night I stumbled upon a headline for an article that claimed a “New search engine lets you quickly find your favorite movie quote’s source” accompanied by a photograph from Charade.

CHARADE: 'Good lord, where is he?'

But wait, I asked myself, how did the article know that was my favorite movie? And why on Earth would that be used as an example of being able to find film quotes, when the lines captured are amongst the least evocative of all time? A quick scrumble about Google Image Search revealed that the above pitcure has shown up in news articles when someone needs an example of movie subtitles or closed-captioning. Why? Because Wikimedia has it as a non-copyrighted image of an example of film subtitles and online journalism seems to use Wikipedia as its first and only stop for research. And why is it non-copyrighted? Because the film was published without a complete copyright notice.

Having read a little about this, my memory was that some prints of Charade — but not all! — were distributed without without copyright indicia, and I had previously gone on record that I simply couldn’t believe that Universal would endorse remakes of Charade if it didn’t actually control the copyright, that the gazillion chop-shop DVD releases of Charade had to be from prints that left off the copyright notice, that it was a loophole. This was an incorrect reading or understanding of events. Turns out, while it was a technicality, it wasn’t a some-prints-are-protected-some-aren’t glitch. It was much more along the lines of the single misplaced comma that cost Ed Stevens his job, as apparently Universal Pictures published a copyright notice on the film, but did so in a manner that only met two of the three required elements for a statement of copyright in 1963: the claimant, the year, and the word or symbol for copyright. All copies of Charade at the time lacked the last of those elements. And so, according to the copyright cheatsheet from Cornell University, it “fail[ed] to comply with required formalities” and instantly became a work in the public domain. Which was fine for twenty-five years, as most people couldn’t get their hands on an actual 33mm print of Charade to distribute or duplicate it, but the home video market changed that significantly.

So with this new understanding firmly in place, only two quibbles remain: if the soundtrack and script are maintained under separate copyrights, and Peter Stone had maintained his copyright on the screenplay to Charade (or, at least he registered copyright on its original short story version, “The Unsuspecting Wife” in 1961), surely the dialogue quoted in the subtitles is under copyright? Could a film be in the public domain, but the ability to reproduce its dialogue in print not be?

And secondly, am I an unredeemable, pretentious idiot for continually calling the film in question CharAHde instead of CharAIde? The obvious niche benefit of the website this AV Club article was about is that it could help in the production of certain supercuts. I have been slowly collecting a list of different pop-culture examples of the pronunciation of “charade”, (Pro-AHD: The Hour, The 39 Steps, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; pro-AID: The X-Files, NewsRadio, Agent Carter — I’m very disappointed in you, young Jarvis!), but an intital search of QuoDB provides me with more to go and listen to and add to this accounting.

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Your Guide to Popular Culture

22 February, 2015 at 1:02 pm (benjamin, webjunk)

One of these days I’ll actually get around to writing up the complete version of a long-standing musing about the top five writers and documents that most influenced my prosody and thought processes (current version, in chronological order: Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Sherlock Holmes, the Columbia Records version of Marshall MacLuhan’s The Medium is the Message, Philip K. Dick’s Valis, and Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, but that leaves out both Woody Allen and Peter S. Beagle, so that’s no good already…), but perhaps not, because it is a strangely arbitrary idea to limit oneself to a handful of prominent influences, when we are constantly being yo-yo’ed and nudged by the thoughts and gravity of others. Still, it was interesting to stumble across a Vlogbrothers video of John Green reminding himself and his brother Hank of the fast-paced, breathless rants of Ian Shoales, and then engaging in his own musings on how much the Vlogbrothers house style exists in part because of the rat-a-tat delivery and charm of Shoales’ weekly column.

Merle Kessler as Ian Shoales: NPR Promotional HeadshotGreen may have been surprised to dredge Shoales out of the mists of memory, but I think of him quite often. I was introduced to him by a vintage mentor of mine who thought that his acerbic commentary and relentless observation and prodding of popular culture would mirror my own. He had a cassette he’d compiled himself from having taped Shoales’ segments on the radio, collecting them piecemeal over time. I can imagine him with his hands hovering over the controls of a silvered plastic radio, staring back at him with it’s one large, round, corrugated speaker, as he jabbed at the pause and record buttons in order to do that magical thing of capturing the ephemeral. Tape gave you power over the intangible essence of music, it gave you the freedom to replay it whenever you wanted, as well as the ability to share it with others. Radio was crazy. And television was the same way. You had to bend to its whims, and you only were permitted to watch that particular movie at 7pm on a select Friday night or perhaps on a lazy Sunday at 2. If you missed an episode of Saturday Night Live, you had to listen to everyone else talk about it on Monday in order to hear what had happened, and, man, would they talk about it. Constantly. And sure, the song that you liked was in high rotation and would almost certainly play again at the top of the hour, but the waiting and the ads and the Creedence that you had to suffer through in order to hear it again was extraordinarily frustrating.

Kids today, man, with their YouTube bootlegs and their wireless downloads and their gigs upon gigs of digital memory… I roll my eyes at how much time they spend searching for the right song on a computer, and how much of their lives they waste jumping from impulse to impulse as they compulsively playlist their daily scroll of emotions by making sure their angst and boredom and frustration has the right soundtrack at every given moment. But I strike this attitude in part because they will never understand the sheer frustrating idleness of living in a world where you had to be patient enough for media to happen on its own timetable, and the wastrel spending of time in the interim is the crucible that shaped my generational character.

On the other hand, that adolescent digital immediacy is what drove me to find Green’s memorialization of Shoales in the first place. Read the rest of this entry »

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Scientific Progress goes “Moo”*

12 May, 2014 at 8:30 pm (comics, webjunk)

Sometimes the internet astonishes me: you put money into it, and you get stuff out of it.

Obviously, this is both most people’s common experience and a completely foreign experience to many. Amazon, eBay, iTunes, Etsy, etc. wouldn’t all exist and thrive if people weren’t putting money into the internet and then receiving something in return. And also a great number of people turn to the internet in order to acquire things without having to spend any money on them. This ranges from the relatively innocuous — MP3s and digitized images — to a significant trade in films, software, books, credit card numbers, and the like. And as much as we use the internet to reinforce our pre-existing worldviews, creating streams of personalized content that provide us with feeds and pings and alerts about the things and people we already like, it is the surprises that drift across that are the most wonderful, the unexpected pleasures.

Chainsaw Vigilante commissions: Erica Henderson, Lars Brown, Katie CookLast summer at the Boston Comic Con, I commissioned sketches from attending artists for the first time. Travis Ellisor had been trumpeting his expanding Karate Kid vs. commission gallery for a little while, and I liked the concept: a single factor of commonality, but the opportunity to allow the artist to also feature his or her chosen creation. (I also have a bit of a soft spot for the classic LoSH Karate Kid, whose solo title was the first comic I actively tried to collect as a kid, saving up for back issues from the archive bins of local stores.) And the final grace note is that the character is a bit odd. Many people have con sketchbooks of obvious corporate populist characters, but finding that odd tertiary character that people fondly recall but haven’t thought about in ages is the real cherry on the sundae. I’d finally decided, after much musing, that my own original sketch collection was going to be different interpretations of The Tick‘s Chainsaw Vigilante engaged in combat with DC Comics’ Ambush Bug. Then I did some research on how much two-figure commissions tended to run, and I decided to start by just getting some drawings of the Chainsaw Vigilante to start with and to work my way up.

So I went to the Con, and I experienced a strange anxiety: I was going to be handed a drawing by the artist, and I was going to have a reaction, right there in real time, of exhilaration or disappointment in the result. In front of the creative person who was asked to interpret a paid command for which he or she may have had no particular artistic inclination. This is a character I like, but it doesn’t necessarily inspire or movie the person drawing it. Would I be able to tell by the composition? Would my face visibly blanch as I took the commissions from their hands?

My Advanced Art teacher in high school often said that she thought the worst thing a person could say was, “I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.” As willfully ignorant of a statement as that may be, I believe people have strong, instinctive opinions about aesthetics, regardless of their ability to articulate or contextualize them. I think that comics will forever be a minority art form simply because the presentation of the visual narrative either will or will not appeal, aesthetically, to the reader, and one can’t read the story without looking at artwork that either pleases or assaults the eye. Obviously, if one is commissioning a drawing, one would surely only pay out money to an artist whose work one finds appealing, but that still doesn’t mean that the selection of infinite artistic choices made will end up being those one would prefer. Will the drawings be the sort of thing one would automatically reblog in one’s curated stream of aesthetic content, or not?

Luckily, all of my commissions have hit the sweet spot of surprise (which I believe is also a channel on RedTube). They have combined the familiar visual voice of the artist, the comforting content of the form of the character, and the simple act of not being what I would have done. Surely it’s this last misdirect, this last moment of dissonance that is what makes getting something from the hands and minds of other people the most worthwhile, the sudden veering into unpredictability. And while there may be some anxiety about cost and result, the most important bit is that whatever the result it sprang from someone else and is therefore something that would have been impossible for you to acquire or create or establish on your own.

Which is why the internet is wonderful. You put money in, and you get something unexpected out of it. This week I received two commissions: one virtual and one physical. Read the rest of this entry »

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April 18: “THE” Batman

18 April, 2014 at 10:34 pm (batman)

It’s the 75th anniversary of Batman. DC Comics has released a commemorative logo and Warner Brothers has teased a animated homage. There are some variations as to when this should be recognized: Detective Comics #27, the first appearance of “The ‘Bat-Man'”, has a cover date of May 1939, but Bleeding Cool has traced it to a copyright date of March 30 of that same year. However, ComicVine declares that the street date, the day which the March-copyrighted, May-labeled issue of Detective Comics was actually on newsstands was April 18, 1939, and today is that anniversary.

The problem is that, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, while a rose is a rose is a rose, Batman is not Batman is not Batman. The “Bat-Man” is not Batman is not BATMAN™. While criminals were already recognizing the striking profile and showy costume of the “mysterious and adventurous figure” in his first appearance, his appearance, identity, tone, name, age, mission, code, et al. have all changed over the last 75 years.

Detective Comics #27: The 'Bat-Man'

[Bleeding Cool]

People will talk about a character’s staying power, how he is able to maintain relevance over successive generations by being able to be reinterpreted during each age. My contention is that this means the character really isn’t so much a character as a small set of characteristics.
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I’m Comin’ Up, So You Better Get This Party Kickstarted…

15 March, 2014 at 10:26 am (benjamin, film, imdblr)

Comedian Doug Benson has a weekly gig called Doug Loves Movies, a trivia show about films that he runs at least partially because of his impressive recall of films he has idly consumed over his personal and professional life — both as a casual audience member and as someone who travels with some frequency and therefore watches a number of films on planes. He occasionally refers to himself as “IMDB”, because he an impressive depository of films and film credits that only the Internet Movie Database could rival, Deep Blue/Watson stylee, and because it allows him to say, “I am DB” — he is Doug Benson. (Not unlike Irwin Maurice Fletcher.)

This is a personal blog, and has been since November 2000, so ego-posting is hardly surprising. And while I (still) don’t (yet) have an entry on IMDB, I have been keeping track of my appearances in various DVD credits, a feat that is much easier to accomplish now that Kickstarter seems to be regularly offering it as a low-impact, high-cost perk for various film projects.

Unlike posts in the past, I haven’t actually made it to the credits of anything new, but I have created my own Doug Benson-inspired tag for this post and for the future: imdblr, or “in movies desperately: benjamin lawrence russell”. And while I haven’t been specifically named in any recent Kickfunded projects, I am thanked as part of a mass in two, appear unbilled in a third, and am thanked in the website credits for a fourth.

 

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH: BEYOND EXPECTATIONS (Filmed in 2012, funded for distribution in 2013)

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH: BEYOND EXPECTATIONS -- Title Screen
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Break out the Seegers (This life is for Squirrels)

29 January, 2014 at 4:21 pm (music, new hampshire)

Pete Seeger has died, and the New York Times article about his legacy is really quite amazing. I don’t have any particular relationship with the man or his music, but as an avid follower of the late-90s folk/pop revival, I’m a conceptual fan of the ’60s folk revival and therefore a transitive fan of the Guthrie/Seeger revival axis that made that possible twenty to thirty years beforehand.

blog_1401_pogo_seegerWhile I was duly impressed with the accounting of the songs he tweaked and rewrote and influenced that have become so much the foundation of the current American songbook, I was even more interested in how much the obituary leaned on the affect that his Communism (or communism, as he is oft-quoted as saying he was a “communist with a small ‘c.'”) affected his career. The Times spoke of it, to my ear, matter-of-factly and without judgement, which is what I’d hope for in what I consider to be a post-ideologue age. However, I’m aware that while my perspective on the perceived threat of Communism is a young man’s viewpoint — I take the view of Bob Hillman and Dan Bern — people who were alive and feel that labored under the scarlet shadow of the Red Menace feel very differently about it.

In fact, in 2001 when a plaque to memorialize the New Hampshire members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was to be installed in the State House, a wave of anti-Communist protesters spun and chittered their way out of the woodwork to prevent anything that might impugn the name of proper soldiers by dint of association or proximity. I was shocked that people cared so much, that they still needed to make sure anyone with Communist leanings would receive no proper American recognition.

With this startling impression lingering in my mind, I was therefore further surprised to just read so many mentions of Communism — or even communism — in Seeger’s obit without any accompanying outcry about his having performed in the “We Are One” inaugural celebration for President Obama. It seems like such obvious fodder for the NObama crowd: that the Socialist president had a card-carrying member of the Communist party — a man who was called before HUAC and held in contempt of Congress — play at his inauguration. I’m surprised some of the usual suspects over at You Are Dumb or The Colbert Report didn’t mouth off about how indicative of a booking that really was. (When Colbert had Seeger on as a guest I thought there would be some more talk about his Communist past, but the interview rambled on a different way. And Colbert is enough of a gentleman in real life that despite having tried to amp up the competition when he and Seeger were both nominated for the same Grammy, the post-mortem gloating or character assassination will likely be minimal.)

So did it not happen? Did I not notice? Or, being that it’s not the sort of content with which I populate my newsfeed, I simply wouldn’t have encountered it myself, I’d only have read about it via third-party commentary, and there wasn’t any of sufficient prominence. A brief search later, I found a small number of examples, and they seem both harmless and petulant. Which is, in it’s way, pleasing.
 

 
Related Links:
+ The post title is a reference to Lines Upon A Tranquil Brow from Songs of the Pogo
+ Download “Children of the Cold War” by Dan Bern at Archive.org

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GALLERY: Business Cards in Cinema

24 December, 2013 at 11:09 pm (film)

Still don’t have enough of these to warrant their own website yet, so just the occasional post, then. Like the last one, these are screencaps of business cards I’ve encountered in films, which interest me as a narrative device, as examples of real and fake phone numbers, and whether they are bog-standard insert shots or primary character shots. Also, like the last post, I’ve included one television card in the mix, because I’m fond of the show.

The In-Laws - Dr. Sheldon Kornpett
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BRIEFLY: Peter O’Toole

15 December, 2013 at 3:02 pm (film, webjunk)

The Guardian is reporting that Peter O’Toole has died. My grandfather loved How To Steal A Million, preferring it to Charade, and my aunt and I regularly bond over the majesty of his portrayal of T.E. Lawrence.

There’s a tradition over at The V that when someone famous or important dies, we memorialize him or her with silent, pictorial tributes. There are to be no personal remarks or sentimental platitudes. So while searching for the right image from Lawrence of Arabia with which to do this (something from the attack on the train, I thought), I found the following dynamic image:

Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia

Goodness, I thought. That looks like it could be out of Star Wars or something. Luckily, someone else thought the very same thing. Good job, internet.

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