DID YOU READ

Down Into the Roots of Cultural Vegetables

Down Into the Roots of Cultural Vegetables (photo)

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I finally got a chance to read Dan Kois’ controversial New York Times Magazine article “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables,” which has garnered all sorts of interesting-slash-outraged responses and reactions from all around the web. And, hey, I’m on the web! I have responses and reactions to things too! So now it’s my turn.

You should read Kois’ entire piece, but here is an excerpt that gets right to the meat — or rather the vegetables — of his argument:

“As I get older, I find I’m suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables, no matter how good they may be for me… Yes, there are films, like the 2000 Taiwanese drama ‘Yi Yi,’ that enrapture me with deliberate pacing, spare screenplays and static shooting styles… but while I’m grateful to have watched ‘Solaris’ and ‘Blue’ and ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ and ‘The Son’ and ‘Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)’ and ‘Three Times’ and on and on, my taste stubbornly remains my taste.

Kois makes a lot of “Meek’s Cutoff,” his most current example of what he alternately describes as cultural vegetables and “aspirational viewing,” i.e. languidly paced art films, which he describes as a “quiet, arduous” viewing experience that he found difficult to sit through. Kois says he’s drawn to films like “Meek’s Cutoff” because they’re enjoyed by people whose opinions he respects and whose company he enjoys but, as he puts it, “I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?”

As a general rule, my favorite critical essays are the most honest ones; if there are flaws in Kois’ piece, they don’t include a lack of honesty. Essentially Kois is outing himself in the most public forum possible so that he can’t pretend to love these sorts of movies anymore. From here on out he’s got no choice to lay his cards out on the table, and that is kind of brave.

I do agree with Kois that there are folks out there who hop on the bandwagon for quote-unquote art films because they have a great reputation and they want to appear cultured to their friends and loved ones. People often don’t want to admit what they really think about an “important” movie — that it’s boring or pretentious or dated — because they don’t want to look like philistines. And readers should be skeptical of any critic who believes they hold the one true and correct view about a film. Personal taste matters, and the best critics filter cinema through personal taste to give us their unique perspective on culture.

Still, I wish Kois wasn’t painting with so broad a brush when he talked about these movies. Not all quiet viewing experiences are created equal. I’ve seen movies that I had trouble finishing. But maybe the problem wasn’t that they were slow; maybe the problem was that they were just plain bad.

Look, there are days when I’d rather watch “America’s Next Top Model” than a film by Chantal Akerman (those days, by the way, are called Wednesdays). But plenty of movies that look like “cultural vegetables” are so much richer than they might initially appear to be. Two films on my top ten list from last year, “Sweetgrass” and “Alamar,” might look like cultural vegetables; they’re both micro-indies, one a doc the other a quasi-fictional narrative, with very little in the way of action. The most memorable moment in each film involves a real but genuine interaction between human and wild animal. But those moments are more transcendant and memorable than anything in “America’s Next Top Model” (except the one episode where Tyra told all the finalists they’d been kicked off the show just so she could watch them cry. Epic!).

To me, the success or failure of one of Kois’ cultural vegetables always comes down to a matter of form following function. Anyone can make a slow, contemplative art film, but if you’re not contemplating anything in particular, you’re wasting everyone’s time. “Alamar” needs to be a deliberate film because it is about savoring this deliberate way of life that the main character wants to pass down to his son, who he may never see again. I haven’t seen “Meek’s Cutoff” yet — unfortunately, since I’m a big fan of its director, Kelly Reichardt — but I would suggest that Kois discovered the function of its form when he wrote that by the end he “could sympathize with the settlers’ exhaustion” because he felt “as if I’d been through a similarly grueling experience.” Again, I haven’t seen the film, but couldn’t that have been the whole point?

What I want out of a critic is not someone who will blindly praise a film simply because Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s name is on it, but rather a writer who understands their work and is interested in engaging with it. On the flip side, I’m not interested in someone who blindly dismisses Hollywood blockbusters, either. The best critics are worth reading whether they’re writing about something that cost $100 million or $100. Critics shouldn’t aspire to importance or respectability. They should just try to show us things about the movies we don’t see in them on our own.

Underworld

Under Your Spell

10 Otherworldly Romances That’ll Melt Your Heart

Spend Valentine's Day weekend with IFC's Underworld movie marathon.

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Photo Credit: Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection

Romance takes many forms, and that is especially true when you have a thirst for blood or laser beams coming out of your eyes.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a werewolf, a superhero, a clone, a time-traveler, or a vampire, love is the one thing that infects us all.  Read on to find out why Romeo and Juliet have nothing on these supernatural star-crossed lovers, and be sure to catch IFC’s Underworld movie marathon this Valentine’s Day weekend.

1. Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine, X-Men series

The X-Men franchise is rife with romance, but the steamiest “ménage à mutant” may just be the one between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Their triangle is a complicated one as Jean finds herself torn between the two very different men while also trying to control her darker side, the Phoenix. This leads to Jean killing Cyclops and eventually getting stabbed through her heart by Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand. Yikes!  Maybe they should change the name to Ex-Men instead?


2. Willow/Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon gave audiences some great romances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — including the central triangle of Buffy, Angel, and Spike — but it was the love between witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) that broke new ground for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a LGBT relationship.

Willow is smart and confident and isn’t even sure of her sexuality when she first meets Tara at college in a Wiccan campus group. As the two begin experimenting with spells, they realize they’re also falling for one another and become the show’s most enduring, happy couple. At least until Tara’s death in season six, a moment that still brings on the feels.


3. Selene/Michael, Underworld series

The Twilight gang pales in comparison (both literally and metaphorically) to the Lycans and Vampires of the stylish Underworld franchise. If you’re looking for an epic vampire/werewolf romance set amidst an epic vampire/werewolf war, Underworld handily delivers in the form of leather catsuited Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and shaggy blonde hunk Michael (a post-Felicity Scott Speedman). As they work together to stop the Vampire/Lycan war, they give into their passions while also kicking butt in skintight leather. Love at first bite indeed.


4. Spider-man/Mary Jane Watson, Spider-man

After rushing to the aid of beautiful girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the Amazing Spider-man is rewarded with an upside-down kiss that is still one of the most romantic moments in comic book movie history. For Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the shy, lovable dork beneath the mask, his rain-soaked makeout session is the culmination of years of unrequited love and one very powerful spider bite. As the films progress, Peter tries pushing MJ away in an attempt to protect her from his enemies, but their web of love is just too powerful. And you know, with great power, comes great responsibility.


5. Molly/Sam, Ghost

When it comes to supernatural romance, you really can’t beat Molly and Sam from the 1990 hit film Ghost. Demi Moore goes crazy for Swayze like the rest of us, and the pair make pottery sexier than it’s ever been.

When Sam is murdered, he’s forced to communicate through con artist turned real psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in her Academy Award-winning role) to warn Molly she is still in danger from his co-worker, Carl (a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn). Molly doesn’t believe Oda is telling the truth, so Sam proves it by sliding a penny up the wall and then possessing Oda so he and Molly can share one last romantic dance together (but not the dirty kind). We’d pay a penny for a dance with Patrick Swayze ANY day.


6. Cosima/Delphine, Orphan Black

It stands to reason there would be at least one complicated romance on a show about clones, and none more complicated than the one between clone Cosima (Tatiana Maslany) and Dr. Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu) on BBC America’s hit drama Orphan Black.

Cosima is a PhD student focusing on evolutionary developmental biology at the University of Minnesota when she meets Delphine, a research associate from the nefarious Dyad Institute, posing as a fellow immunology student. The two fall in love, but their happiness is brief once Dyad and the other members of Clone Club get involved. Here’s hoping Cosima finds love in season four of Orphan Black. Girlfriend could use a break.


7. Aragorn/Arwen, Lord of the Rings

On a picturesque bridge in Rivendell amidst some stellar mood-lighting and dreamy Elvish language with English subtitles for us non-Middle Earthlings, Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) bind their souls to one another, pledging to love each other no matter what befalls them.

Their courtship is a matter of contention with Arwen’s father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who doesn’t wish to see his daughter suffer over Aragorn’s future death. The two marry after the conclusion of the War of the Ring, with Aragorn assuming his throne as King of Gondor, and Arwen forgoing her immortality to become his Queen. Is it too much to assume they asked Frodo to be their wedding ring-bearer?


8. Lafayette/Jesus, True Blood

True Blood quickly became the go-to show for supernatural sex scenes featuring future Magic Mike strippers (Joe Manganiello) and pale Nordic men with washboard abs (Hi Alexander Skarsgård!), but honestly, there was a little something for everyone, including fan favorite Bon Temps medium, Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis).

In season three, Lafayette met his mother’s nurse, Jesus, and the two began a relationship. As they spend more time together and start doing V (short for Vampire Blood), they learn Jesus is descended from a long line of witches and that Lafayette himself has magical abilities. However, supernatural love is anything but simple, and after the pair join a coven, Lafayette becomes possessed by the dead spirit of its former leader. This relationship certainly puts a whole new spin on possessive love.


9. Nymphadora Tonks/Remus Lupin, Harry Potter series

There are lots of sad characters in the Harry Potter series, but Remus Lupin ranks among the saddest. He was bitten by a werewolf as a child, his best friend was murdered and his other best friend was wrongly imprisoned in Azkaban for it, then THAT best friend was killed by a Death Eater at the Ministry of Magic as Remus looked on. So when Lupin unexpectedly found himself in love with badass Auror and Metamorphmagus Nymphadora Tonks (she prefers to be called by her surname ONLY, thank you very much), pretty much everyone, including Lupin himself, was both elated and cautiously hopeful about their romance and eventual marriage.

Sadly, the pair met a tragic ending when both were killed by Death Eaters during the Battle of Hogwarts, leaving their son, Teddy, orphaned much like his godfather Harry Potter. Accio hankies!


10. The Doctor/Rose Tyler, Doctor Who

Speaking of wolves, Rose “Bad Wolf” Tyler (Billie Piper) captured the Doctor’s hearts from the moment he told her to “Run!” in the very first episode of the re-booted Doctor Who series. Their affection for one another grew steadily deeper during their travels in the TARDIS, whether they were stuck in 1950s London, facing down pure evil in the Satan Pit, or battling Cybermen.

But their relationship took a tragic turn during the season two finale episode, “Doomsday,” when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose found themselves separated in parallel universes with no way of being reunited (lest two universes collapse as a result of a paradox). A sobbing Rose told a holographic transmission of the Doctor she loved him, but before he could reply, the transmission cut out, leaving our beloved Time Lord (and most of the audience) with a tear-stained face and two broken hearts all alone in the TARDIS.

Mondo Video Brings Back VHS

Mondo Video Brings Back VHS (photo)

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No longer content to be the coolest, nerdiest indie movie poster label on the Interwebs, the dudes at Mondo are expanding into the world of video. And when I say video, I mean video. Today, Mondo announced the launch of Mondo Video, which will release films on VHS. Their first title is “Sledgehammer,” a 1983 horror film that was, appropriately, shot on videotape. Here is the trailer for the film, in all its analog glory.

Mondo Video Presents SLEDGEHAMMER on VHS from Severin Films on Vimeo.

First of all, I’m surprised these guys could even find someone that still manufactures VHS tapes at this point, but leave it to Mondo to do the borderline impossible (and borderline insane). I don’t know how many people still have VCRs around to play video tapes, but it can’t be many (my friends and I actually share one machine that we pass back and forth whenever someone needs to use it). Regardless, this new label still makes sense to me. Vinyl’s made a big comeback in recent years; I know people who collect records now who don’t even own a working record player. This works along the same basic principle.

To my mind, there are certain reasons why someone would buy a VHS tape of a film they could also buy on DVD (and you’ll be able to buy “Sledgehammer” on DVD, if you prefer, tomorrow). Collectibility, a big part of Mondo’s modus operandi, would be one. Nostalgia would be the other, particularly in the case of a quick and dirty little film like “Sledgehammer” which was both shot and intended to be viewed on VHS. And I could see other movies finding new appeal on VHS as well. I’ve long argued that films of a certain grimy atmosphere are best viewed in degraded copies, rather than on pristine, wet-from-the-lab prints. To me, the proper way to watch a “Friday the 13th” movie is on a beat-up tape your buddy’s uncle copied off HBO, with plenty of video roll and watery audio.

To a certain demented mind there’s actually something appealing about those VHS imperfections. Video ages and degrades in a way that’s kind of beautiful. There’s a certain validation in a crappy video copy of a film, since each blur and pop and skip represents all the times it’s been played. I literally watched my VHS copy of “Gymkata” to death; the first five minutes of the tape are so worn out they’re basically unviewable. But that video destruction is a sort of badge of honor; I loved this thing so much and here is the proof. And I know that there are filmmakers like Michel Gondry (whose “Be Kind Rewind” is about the beauty of old videotapes and special effects) and Harmony Korine (whose “Trash Humpers” was shot on videotape and edited on two VCRs) out there who agree with me.

Either of those films would make ideal future Mondo Video releases (and, of course, a “Gymkata” VHS would break my brain in half with joy). But for now, the “Sledgehammer” VHS will be available on MondoTees.com on Tuesday.

The Summer’s New Hero: Thor-ge W. Bush

The Summer’s New Hero: Thor-ge W. Bush (photo)

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This post contains SPOILERS for the movie “Thor.” If thy desire is to avoid details about the plot of this buster of blocks then, verily, thy dost need to read something else this fine May morn.

I don’t know Kenneth Branagh’s politics. I don’t know the politics of screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, J. Michael Straczynski, and Mark Protosevich. All I know is when I saw “Thor” last week, I became convinced that it was all about George W. Bush. Chris Hemsworth looks like Thor, the superheroic God of Thunder from Marvel Comics. But his story is a straight-up allegorical fantasy of the last decade of American foreign policy; the misadventures and redemption of Thor-ge W. Bush.

Our hero, Thor(ge), is the arrogant son of a powerful ruler of interdimensional beings called the Asgardians. Their sworn enemies are the Frost Giants, icy villains from the world of Jotunheim. Centuries earlier, Thor’s father Odin defeated the Frost Giants and left their civilization lying in ruin, but decided not to depose their ruler Laufey. On the day that Thor is to be sworn in to replace Odin as the new King, the Frost Giants mount an assault on Asgard’s home soil. They infiltrate Odin’s armory and attempt to steal a mystical casket; Thor, believing that the best defense is a good offense disobeys his father’s orders and leads a small party of warriors into Jotunheim for a retaliatory attack. The battle is not successful, however, and as punishment for his impudence, Odin strips Thor of his mystical powers and exiles him to Earth, where he must redeem himself before he can reclaim his place as heir to the throne of Asgard.

Granted, lots of this stuff is taken from the original Marvel Comics first created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby in 1962. Their very first Thor comics involved the God of Thunder displaced on Earth learning a similar lesson in humility by sharing a body with a doctor named Donald Blake (listen closely and you’ll hear references to this guy in the movie; he’s Jane Foster’s ex-boyfriend). But Branagh and company’s take on the Marvel mythos is a bit different, and rather blatantly reflective of the reign presidencies of the Bushes George.

According to some narratives about the War in Iraq (like Oliver Stone’s biopic “W.”) President George W. Bush invaded Iraq primarily to correct the oversight he felt his father made back in 1992 when he left Saddam Hussein in power at the end of the first Gulf War. Stone’s version is surely a simplification, but he thinks it all boils down to daddy issues: W. could never live up to George Sr.’s expectations, so he set out to do the one thing his dad never could.

That’s basically what happens in “Thor:” cocky son of the King wants to finish the job started by his father with a preemptive strike on their enemies, but he goes off half-cocked without much of an exit strategy. You could argue that Thor’s brother Loki represents Vice President Dick Cheney, the seemingly subservient right-hand man who exerts an undue amount of influence on the Commander-in-Chief and maybe even craves the throne for himself. The two themes that thread their way through “Thor” are issues about fathers and sons and the question of what is the proper use of military force. As Odin tells Thor before he journeys to Jotunheim, “A wise king never seeks out war, but must always be ready for it.”

All of these parallels hit in “Thor”‘s first act while he’s still in the mystical realm of Asgard. After he’s dumped in New Mexico — which does bear a certain arid physical resemblance to Iraq — he comes into conflict with S.H.I.E.L.D., another concept with its roots in Lee/Kirby Marvel Comics that’s also been reformulated for post-9/11 resonance. Instead of the comic books’ clandestine organization of James Bond-ish super spies, the S.H.I.E.L.D. of “Thor” acts like a Patriot Act nightmare, surveilling people and confiscating private property with impunity. Even when they find the weapon of mass destruction in the desert — Thor’s mystical hammer, Mjolnir, sent to Earth along with him — they don’t even know what to do with it.

Eventually the film’s real world connections begins to fall away; if they didn’t, “Thor” would have to end with the God of Thunder deposed to Texas after credit default swaps cripple the Asgardian economy (then again Thor’s outfits on earth, khaki jackets over blue shirts and slacks, do look a lot like W.’s ranchwear when he’s chainsawing brush down in Crawford). In some ways, though, the events that follow Thor’s dismissal by Odin represent a kind of dream of how we wish things had turned out in the last decade, as the world is saved and united by a leader who understands that might doen’t always equal right, but isn’t afraid to kick a little ass when it does. We’ll have to see whether writer/director Joss Whedon carries over these parallels when he brings Thor into his movie of “The Avengers” next summer. In that movie, he’ll be hanging out with Captain America, a symbol of American patriotism from a simpler era, The Hulk, our fears of nuclear war made flesh, and Iron Man, a weapons manufacturer who also learns that the wise never seek out war but must always be ready for it. The potential is there to assemble a lot more than a bunch of famous comic book characters.

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