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By Mike Cavalier | August 8, 2013

Richard Brody’s
charitable defense of The Canyons in the New Yorker blog is mind-boggling in its credulity. To wit:

The restrained but potentially explosive exchange of glances in the opening sequence of Paul Schrader’s new film, The Canyons, marks the movie with the sure hand of directorial mastery. The art of direction is essentially musical, and Schrader introduces his theme clearly and cleverly, along with its wealth of menacing undertones.

This benefit-of-the-doubt is so overly generous, it makes it seem as though Brody is either deliberately reading against the grain to be contrarian, or has only seen a dozen microbudget films in his whole career, neither of which could possibly be the case.

For me, The Canyons is easy to dismiss as a poor film, plain and simple, because it looks exactly like the countless “first features” shot and forgotten by overly-ambitious film students who tried to run before they could walk — only to bury the finished product at the bottom of a drawer, hoping that no one ever brings it up again.


By Mike Cavalier | May 3, 2013

Thomas Blachman
(on the right),
a jazz musician and judge on the Danish X-Factor, has a new primetime show where he and a male guest sit in a darkened room as women disrobe in front of them in order to be judged as aesthetic objects. In a stereotypically Danish fashion, Blachman called himself a “genius” and warned that “ungratefulness is the only thing that can really wear down the few geniuses who reside in our country. Remember, I am giving you something that you have never seen before. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

It’s unfortunate that his stroke of genius is the garden-variety male prurience you can find in any stripclub in the world, but Blachman says he created his controversial program to create a space for candid discussions about women without getting too “pornographic or politically correct” about it. “The entire idea of the show is to let men talk about the bodies of naked women while the woman is standing right in front of them. The female body thirsts for words. The words of a man.”

No comment from the naked women, as their role is to remain silent and grateful for the opportunity.

Update 11:48am: The NSFW YouTube clip I had originally posted got shut down for nudity. Gawker has
more clips.

I asked a Danish friend to explain this show to me, and he gave me some excellent context:

well, Thomas Blachman is a well known figure in Denmark. He was the “Simon Cowell” judge on the Danish X-Factor, and a successful record producer in the nineties. His claim to fame was a experimental mix of jazz, electronic music, and hip-hop. The program, which airs on DR2 (Danish Radio’s TV channel for experimental TV and thought-provoking programs), is a talk show in which Blachman interviews a prominent cultural figure, while there is a naked woman in front of them. The setup is simple: a dark room with a couch and a single light. The woman stands naked, and silent. They compliment on her looks, and ask her to turn around, while they discuss the female beauty in all its variety. He has this rambling sort of pseudo-intellectualism that promotes naturalism, beauty, the female figure, under-produced music, but has, in my opinion, yet to produce any substantial arguments.

I haven’t watched a whole program from start to end, because I haven’t had the time to sit down and get it done; but my personal takeaway is that it is interesting experimental TV, which is very much in line with everything that DR2 has done in the last 15 years. I interned at the station, and there is a strong will to make new and unconventional TV that doesn’t conform to the standards of TV formats, ratings, and moral sensibilities.

As for the quality of the program, Blachman is a bit annoying, but one could hope that his guests would raise the level of discussion to somewhere which is actually interesting. I would love if some of my Danish friends would chime in and say a few words about the actual viewing experience.

As for the debate of whether this program is demeaning to women, and chauvinistic, and perverted in general: it has definitely sparked a debate with a lot of opposition from feminists and others that describe the program as disgusting, bizarre, extremely selfish, and utterly redundant. However, there has been some low-key support from various celebrities, and the program is still on; it hasn’t been cancelled. Personally, I would like to watch the program. I don’t find it offensive so much as awkward. The voyeuristic aspect of the viewing experience is quite significant.

If you are interested, you can watch the program here. There is no translated closed-captioning, but you get to see the beautiful awkwardness of the whole setup.

By Mike Cavalier | May 3, 2013

Who knew that
when Soderbergh retired from features, he’d do something like this big elder-statesman speech at the San Francisco Film Festival last week? He starts by bemoaning tiny-screen culture, and asserting the primacy of storytelling, then mounts a simple defense of auteur theory:

is there a difference between cinema and movies? […] The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with the where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad — it doesn’t even really have to be a movie: it could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision, it’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.

While he’s not treading new ground here, it’s remarkable, and I think important, that this message is coming from a well-known filmmaker who’s had massive commercial and critical success — someone who has successfully walked the tightrope of art-and-commerce, and can legitimately speak from the intersection of both. His speech is the curmudgeonly rant of a Hollywood outsider spurned by the machinery of showbiz, yet it’s coming from the guy who won the Palme d’Or at 26, grossed $450 million worldwide on a single film, and still found time to make insanely off-beat movies like Bubble, Full Frontal, and Schizopolis.

(A. O. Scott did a write-up of Soderbergh’s speech in the Times, and went into a digression about a noirish novella Soderbergh wrote and tweeted piece by piece which is, as of this writing, up to eleven chapters.)

By Mike Cavalier | May 2, 2013

Nicholas Day wrote
a book about the science and cultural history of infancy called Baby Meets World. He was on Slate’s Double X podcast this week to promote it, and had previously published a short teaser piece on the site about the notion of “parental ethnotheories” — basically, the idea that different cultures have their own ideas about how best to raise children, largely predicated on their local values, traditions, and circumstances. The Dutch, he tells us, tend to value stability and focus in their children; the Spanish prefer sociability; the Swedes, security and happiness.

Day goes on to argue that Americans are preoccupied with intelligence, and presents this as a total mystery. How did we get so focused on cognitive development, and not, say, social intelligence? Or moral character? On the podcast, too, Day seems bewildered by this conclusion:

Hanna Rosin [the host]: We Americans talk a lot about intelligence and enrichment, and we think that’s a universal aspiration, and it turns out it’s not at all a universal aspiration […] so why are we so into intelligence? Like, it seems intuitive. Of course you want your baby to be smart. But why is that a particularly American trait?

Nicholas Day: I don’t know! But I’m willing to entertain all sorts of guesses.

Really, though? He can’t think of any reason American parents would be preoccupied with their kid’s intelligence? Setting aside the inherent ridiculousness of making sweeping statements about people as if they exist in a monolithic culture (“all rural Kenyans care about responsibility!”) with no diversity within their distinct communities, as well as the vague racial othering that takes place as a result, it’s positively Gladwellian to pretend there’s not a simple explanation for this supposed tendency:

It’s The Economy, Stupid.

America is a starkly capitalistic place, and our primary vehicle for social mobility (if indeed there is one at all) is high performance in school. (Surely, Mr. Day remembers having to take the SAT?) If American parents are really obsessing over intelligence, it’s probably for the same reason ancient subsistence cultures obsessed over whether their children could find fruits or kill fish: our livelihoods depend upon it.

By Mike Cavalier | May 2, 2013

did a little speculative accounting on Alex Jones’ ultra-right-wing, conspiracy-fueled media holdings. “On the very low end” of how much money he makes per year, their political reporter guesses it’s:

a little over $1 million for Web, $215,000 for radio, and $1.5 million for paid subscribers for a not-too-shabby $2.7 million a year. On the high end, if we assume he pulls in the maximum $6 million on Web, another $450,000 on the radio (if his ad rates are at the top of their possible window), and he has 2.5 percent of his website visitors paying to subscribe, then we’re talking about more than $10 million a year. And none of this includes book sales, merch, speaking tours, promotional tie-ins, book and DVD royalties or any other revenue streams that might exist.

The full explanation of these figures is here. Don’t get lost in the weeds. Jones, of course, owns and, and grabbed his 15 minutes of infamy when he vigorously defended guns on Piers Morgan Live immediately after the Sandy Hook shooting:

By Mike Cavalier | May 1, 2013

Mountain Dew thought it’d be a good idea to ask Tyler, the Creator of the hip-hop collective Odd Future to come up with a new ad campaign. Even though Tyler himself called his pitch “fuckin’ retarded,” they greenlit it anyway, and made a series of absurdist spots featuring a belligerent “nasty goat” named Felicia, whom Tyler voiced.

First, Felicia goes nuts on a waitress for not bringing her enough Dew:

Having committed aggravated assault with her hooves, Felicia tries to make a run for it — and gets pulled over for speeding:

This third spot is the one that Mountain Dew’s parent company, PepsiCo, pulled and apologized for:

Dr. Boyce Watkins,
a finance professor at Syracuse, wrote a blogpost calling the ad “arguably the most racist commercial in history,” claiming that “corporations are making it cool for black men to murder one another” and that the spot “put black men on par with animals” since only men of color (from Odd Future) appear in the line-up.

This may seem a bit overblown to anyone who’s watched television in the past eighty years, but the ad obviously offended enough people that the blogosphere has been tripping over itself all morning to rush headlong into dead-end conversations about race and poverty (and in some circles, misogyny), even though this ad is mostly just a “stupid idea” that Tyler claims he came up with five minutes before the pitch meeting. “They actually gave me a chance,” he said back in April, “and let me be seven years old with their product.”

By Mike Cavalier | May 1, 2013

One of the most contentious topics in screenwriting is how much voice to infuse into your descriptive paragraphs. Do you get straight to the point with the pared-down, ultra-minimalist style favored by highly-visual directors? Or do you wink and flirt with the reader a little, to charm and win over the bored, underpaid assistant tasked with writing your coverage? It’s a tough call, but this much is clear: Shane Black is the classic example of the latter — a trailblazer of audacious descriptions, like this line from Long Kiss Goodnight:


Or his signature move of flattering the reader, like this paragraph from Last Boy Scout:


Or this infamous sex scene sans sex, also from Boy Scout:


For more, here’s a nice collection of Shane’s greatest hits from NYMag’s Vulture blog.

By Mike Cavalier | May 1, 2013

I’ve been listening to Slate’s Culture podcast for, I don’t know, like four years or something now. I rarely miss an episode. This winter, I roped my friends Lindsey and Joe into listening with me, and we became like a little book club for illiterate people. Anyway, I was thinking from week to week, I might throw up some of my scattered thoughts about the show on this blog. I’m not sure how that will work; I’m winging it here. I’ll try do the same for This American Life and whatever else I hear, when warranted.

This week’s episode was on the movie Pain & Gain, Brian Stelter’s new book Top of the Morning (about the Today show and GMA, jockeying for power over the morning daypart), and the new Amazon pilots. A few points: 1. Steve’s objections to Pain & Gain actually changed my opinion of the film a little bit. Particularly when he said:

The biggest thing for me — what made it dispiriting was the utter lack of humanity with which he’s famous for making his movies. (Michael Bay, going all the way back to The Rock.) If there’s a persistent undernote to a Michael Bay movie, it’s, I think, sadism. And this movie is filled with it. There’s no recognizable human warmth from any of the characters. Now, satire, very often, is predicated on that: that we’re all equally reprobates, and that’s fine. But satire is successful only when it’s very sharp and very smart. That’s the only thing that lets you get away with that degree of cynicism. This isn’t smart. It’s not cynical. It’s vacuous. I just found it to be a complete assault on my goodwill. Hated it.

Personally, I felt a little squishy about Pain & Gain after my screening (gave it three and a half stars on letterboxd), and wasn’t sure how much we should grade Michael Bay on a curve. By conventional standards, the movie is an amoral mess, and far too long. But shouldn’t it matter that this is probably Bay’s best film to date? And why would we fault Michael Bay for the gonzo violence in his movie, yet praise the same quality in a film by, say, Takashi Miike? (Although Steve might call Miike’s films equally irredeemable.)

The thing is: between Pain & Gain and Bad Boys II, there’s a powerful auteurist vision being developed that transcends the splashy, car-commercial aesthetics of Bay’s schlockier successes, like The Rock, Transformers, and Armageddon (as well as his other failures, like Pearl Harbor and The Island; see this oral history in GQ for a good retrospective). It’s a certain blend of money, excess, masculinity, spectacle, sex, trashiness, color saturation, sudden violence, and profound emptiness (not unlike South Florida itself). And there’s something almost Bressonian about the way the pointless, seemingly endless onslaught wears you down after awhile. Bad Boys II, especially, is a surprisingly brutal experience, like Pain & Gain minus what little sense of humor it has going for it. Steve concedes this point about auteurism briefly at the end, but to me, it’s central.

Auteurism is, in large part, the establishing of a separate reading strategy for a director’s films that suddenly makes them legible. It’s the alchemy that can transform Warhol’s laziest movie from mere prank to legitimized cinematic art.

2. If you’re interested in the Today Show drama between Matt Lauer and Ann Curry, NYmag has a great, gossipy, tabloid-ish cover story from back in March that serves as a nice primer on what went down.

3. Can’t believe I haven’t watched any of these damn Amazon pilots. It’s the kind of outside-the-box media story that would’ve blown my mind in gradschool, back when the disruptive potential of Netflix’ House of Cards was, like, the juiciest concept imaginable.

4. Like every sane person, I try to tune out during the commercials in podcasts, or skip them entirely. But for some reason this week, I listened to them all the way through like a psychopath, and was delighted to find out that Patti Smith’s autobiographical Just Kids has an audio edition read by Smith herself. That’s amazing; I’d love to listen to that this summer. I thumbed through Just Kids last year in the Skylight Books in Los Feliz and was pretty enthralled, but that was during a long, hazy vacation of some considerable intensity, and I ended up forgetting most of the book by the time I flew back.

By Mike Cavalier | July 26, 2012

The most recent issue of The Baffler has a very good article about Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert titled “The Joke’s on You.” I like it, I think it’s really smart, and I recommend it as a read. Buuuuut, I also think it hinges on some false assumptions about comedy, and an over-exaggeration of the level of responsibility a comedian has for inciting and effecting social change.

In short, the Baffler piece trots out the ol’ Bill Hicks bullshit, that “comedy’s highest calling is to confront the moral complacency” and yada yada yada. In his piece, Steve Almond writes:

He [meaning Stewart] is not interested in [having guests on his show] who might interrogate the hegemonic dogmas of corporate capitalism

Then later:

To hear Hicks rant about the evils of late-model capitalism… is to encounter the wonder of a voice free of what Marshall McLuhan called the “corporate mask”

Ahhhh yes, saintly Bill Hicks. The last comedian to speak truth to power. That Andy Kaufman fellow was a decadent fool. Hicks was the real deal *puffs cigar*

The rant Almond’s referring to is probably this preach-to-the-choir bit by Hicks, in which there’s no punchline nor argument, just a whole lot of “There is no fucking joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn” and such.

Call me crazy, but I think that’s a bit on-the-nose. When it comes to serious, thinky comedy, I prefer mine both nuanced and parceled out in small, sucker-punch doses, and I enjoy it more when it’s peppered with a few, I dunno, jokes.

And I’m completely willing to let it pass through the sieve of McLuhan’s corporate mask, if it must. Really, that just makes it more funny and subversive to me. There’s no question that fierce, uncompromising works of comedy reach levels of greatness that more timid works never achieve. But while a show like, say, Wonder Showzen — which was daring and completely insane — got to make a few strong kicks the solar plexus in its two-season run, The Colbert Report made a thousand tiny cuts over its 1,000+ episodes, and undeniably made a bigger cultural impact overall. Wonder Showzen got a pedestal and a small (though rabid) following. Stephen Colbert got to insult a sitting president right to his face.

And the point is: Colbert had to don the corporate mask to get there. But anyway, it doesn’t matter. Despite what Bill Hicks or Marshall McLuhan or H. L. Mencken says, comedy is not the greatest weapon in politics. A truly successful joke, no matter how biting, is but a single blow in the multilateral, unending war to shift culture — which is fought by nearly everyone, all time, all at once.

(…oh and by the way: let’s dispense with this universal notion of a “moral complacency.” It’s a nice turn of phrase to rally the troops, but it’s not something grown-ups should actually believe in. In the morally relativistic universe in which we actually live, “moral complacency” is a term we use to describe the stubborn refusal of the rest of the world to take up the exact same political and philosophical positions as we do.)