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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Esoteric pop culture went viral before the internet. Proof: in 1987, two Wisconsin punks started tape-recording their queer neighbors’ vicious fights; eventually, the tapes were released as “Shut Up! Little Man”, and spawned a rabid cult made of cassette-tape collectors, indie comic book creators, playwriters, general Pavement-era hipsters, and weirdos all over the world (well…America!). Matthew Bate’s documentary tells two stories: one about the two men fighting, the other about the two men recording it. Of course, the stories intersect to form an eclectic documentary that’s a quirky, kinda-exploitative-certainly-voyeuristic personal history and populist art criticism about a true-viral success that used magazines and the U.S. postal system instead of blogs and Twitter. The best part is, Shut Up! Little Man is available onDemand and through other streaming video services (Google it!), so you can go watch it immediately after reading this article!

Verbal conflict is both scary and compelling. Some people totally lock up, shut down, and curl into a ball when they hear screaming: these are the children of divorce. Other people get a sick thrill out of listening to loud arguments–it’s private, it’s vulnerable, it’s embarrassing–and hearing that gets them off: these are children who’s parents stayed together. I fit the latter category, so listening to the Shut Up! Little Man tapes, for me, is a “Fun Freudian Fulfillment of Childhood Desire” (FFFOCD). Peter is an overweight homosexual with a wry wit and a subtle lisp; Raymond is a raging homophone riddled with sexual repression and a propensity for physical altercation. However, they’re both agoraphobes completely crippled by alcoholism and government pension checks. Even though they fight, they’re perfect for each other: who would want to live with such sad strange weirdos? Plus, when they got drunk, they said the most hilarious shit! Accusing one another of false giggles–“You always giggle falsely! You don’t have a decent giggle in your body.”–Raymond’s seething gay bashing that sounds way too defensive–“I hate queers! I like girls!”–or Peter’s anti-zen mantra–“Shut up! Little man!” screamed over and over to both perpetuate and disarm the conflict. These middle aged drunks are hilarious! But the more you think about their relationship, the stranger it gets. Speculations that they were lovers do not seem unfounded (all that testosterone trapped in a slummy apartment, it sounds like a Tom Waits song). Isn’t it invasive to take such an intimate look into the lives of two sad drunks? Yes, definitely. Who would do such a thing?

Two men named Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchel D. violated their neighbors privacy and accidentally made their very own piece of pop culture white noise. The “punks” that made the tapes are also discussed in the film. Punk is a confusing word: I think Sausage and D. are better described as dudes who wore flannel and a Charles Bukowski t-shirts, pre-hipsters probably. Initially, they made the tapes to document evidence of their neighbors who were clearly disturbing the peace; then, they realized how funny the arguments were, and slipped snippets into mix-tapes for friends. Eventually the Shut Up! Little Man tapes were distributed through Bananafish magazine (ultra-hip!) and Matador records released a greatest hits CD (you know, the label who was also putting out Pavement, Guided By Voices, and Yo La Tengo). Sausage and D. were famous! Famous to a hyper-specific group of pop-culture snobs who trade media instead of purchasing it. That didn’t stop Eddie and Michel  from trying to take Raymond and Peter’s story to Hollywood for big summer blockbuster treatment! In a sentence a Hollywood producer pitches the coolest idea ever: “Get Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando on the set of a shitty one room apartment; get the alcohol flowing; and just watch them scream and fight and abuse each other in a three day shoot.” That would be the perfect movie. Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons (including a fascinating piece of copyright litigation), a cool movie was never made and a poorly produced independent version came out to the approval of no one. Framing Sausage and D. inevitably got greedy and lost the punk credos that inspired them to make the tapes. Just like Peter and Raymond would fight on rent day or when the vodka was gone, everybody becomes a pissy drama queen when money gets involved.

My favorite part about Shut Up! Little Man is its tenacity to inspire countless remixes and adaptations. Sausage and D. included a mention in the first tapes liner notes stating anyone could use Shut Up! Little Man however the listener saw fit. Plenty of folks took that to heart including: various indie-comic authors who adapted Peter and Raymond’s fights into strips (everything about the pair’s gritty rawness fits the  post-Crumb comix); plenty of Youtube homages with cartoons, puppets, and muppets; and full out dramatic productions of the drunken drama at the core of Raymond and Peter’s relationship. What is it that makes these two men so compelling? And is recording your drunk-bum neighbors art? These are the two questions the movie seeks to answer. Both Peter and Raymond are dead but there are some unreleased interviews trying to see their response to becoming “popular” in a mean, ironic, 90’s kind of way. The movie also has an interview with Tony–R&P’s third sometimes-roommate–that adds even more layers of intrigue into the Raymond/Peter love-story.

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I just got home from the comic store! Let’s start with Miles Morales!

ULTIMATE SPIDERMAN #1

Is Marvel allowed to kill Peter Parker? That is the topic of debate in this USM’s letters-to-the-editor page this month. Even though four of the printed letters hope otherwise, the answer is yes. They already did. To make money, a franchise must stay relevant: in fact, the Ultimate line was always intended for re-invention. I remember initial skepticism at the release of the 2001’s Ultimate Spiderman, but now (those early issues in particular) are generally regarded as some of the best Spiderman writing in the history of the character. A more recent example, Spiderman One More Day/Brand New Day felt gimmicky, but the reboot simplified/revitalized the series, allowing for stories with that “lively exploration” typical to good Spiderman writing (Loeb/Sale’s Spiderman: Blue for example). Two lessons: first, much to the chagrin of harcore-comicbook-mythology nerds, change is usually a good thing for a serialized narrative; second, as a character, Spiderman works best as a bildungsroman (pretentious word alert! How about, coming-of-age-story?)

I’m pro-reboot if the reboot’s good; thankfully, the first issue is excellent. With a tight script, Bendis firmly establishes the character, location, and living situation of the new Spiderman. Miles Morales is a precocious pre-teen from a poor New York neighborhood. The “first conflict” the reader watches Miles face is peculiar for a superhero. Miles and his parents are entered in a random lottery to win him enrollment to an exclusive charter school so Miles can avoid the bad school in his own neighborhood. Bendis highlights the personal drama of this scene beautifully. Miles quickly realized the random cruelness of a school lottery; he’s unsure how to act when his name is chosen. Immediately, we meet a young hero who’s bright and hopeful, but still clever and distrustful of authority: sounds like a Spiderman!

Next, we meet Miles’ Uncle Aaron. Uncles hold a special place in the Spiderman mythos, so Aaron is an appropriately cool uncle. Instead of a maxim spouting old man, Aaron is a cat burglar, and even though his parents forbid Miles to see his uncle, he just can’t resist. Aaron’s most recent robbery was a red box holding a special spider; the spider escapes from his box and bites Miles on the hand. Ka-boom! New Spider-man has powers! The first issue packs all this in only 21 pages. Sarah Pichelli’s knack for facial expressions shows her knack for visual storytelling.

But wait. Isn’t he black? Yeah, Latino too! Miles was thought up during the Obama election cycle, and Bendis seems intent to use this book for dissecting race. Putting a school lottery in the first issue is a great example. Also, notice that the man with four Ph.Ds in the opening Norman Osborn flashback is black  (I hadn’t mentioned that scene until now because I found it confusing).Spiderman can be black, super scientists can be black, the president can be black: Ultimate Spiderman wants you to recognize, anybody can be black. The final page shows us a new power exclusive to Miles Morales: camouflaging invisibility–the power to blend in. You don’t have to be Ralph Ellison to see the significance of this artistic addition. I loved the first issue of Ultimate Spiderman. It reminded me of when I was 12, reading the Peter Parker’s Ultimate Spiderman at the library in trade paperback.

THE ULTIMATES #1

I missed the first printing, so I bought the reprint today! Big fan of Mark Millar’s Ultimates, so expect me to be one of those annoying “Don’t Change Stuff!” nerds I mocked a few paragraphs ago. The first issue of Jonathan Hickman’s Ultimates has good art, but a confusing story. No, it’s not groundbreaking in redefining how Marvel superheros talk to one another like Mark Millar’s original; however, it certainly doesn’t suck like Jeob Loeb’s Ultimates 3.

Hickman’s Ultimates seems to be awesome storyboards for a boring blockbuster movie. We have: a mysterious first scene; white out to a stark two-page “title screen” page (albeit, cool looking); framing shot; cut to elevator, follow Nick Furry talk about incomprehensible Government Superhero Agency BS; cut to shots of flying superheroes; close-ups and talking-head shots; Robert Downy Jr. playing Tony Stark; more flying; fight scene between Thor and Captain Britain; more incomprehensible dialogue; flying; explosions, of course; and finally, dramatic last line. It has the schlocky feel of this summer blockbusters Thor and Captain America. Thankfully, a comicbook isn’t noisy, so you can admire penciler Esad Ribic’s clean “cartoon-y” realism and his nontraditional paneling (like fast film edits); also, Dean White’s saturated colors make the comicbook look…well, like a really expensive movie. I’ll stick around this arc for the art alone, but the story was disappointing. Of course, it’s just the first issue!

Before digital film,  sci-fi seemed a genre off-limits to low budget, indie-film making; science fiction was filled with special effects and the bread and butter of summer blockbuster season. Then, in 2004, Primer came out (albeit, Primer, wasn’t shot on digital, but gimme a minute!). Primer marks a shift toward “cerebral” science fiction. Not only are the movies “cerebral” in a slow, quiet, art-filmy kind of way, but I also mean “cerebral” literally: most of these films’ conflict takes place inside the character’s’ head. Taking cues from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey,  Primer, Moon, and now, Another Earth focus on the existential crises brought about by living in a hyper-technology driven society. Unfortunately, the most recent of the three, Another Earth, misses what made the former two films so interesting: AE’s “cerebral” musings are under-cooked and nebulous; a much buzzed about debut that’s too ambitious for its own good.

Perhaps the reason I found Another Earth unsatisfying is because I found it misleading. The title, the trailer, the poster and the film’s first twenty minutes all suggest it will be a science fiction movie. Rhoda (co-screenwriter, Brit Marling) is a promising high school graduate just accepted into MIT; while driving home drunk, Rhoda is distracted by a suspicious twinkle and accidentally “kills” a family of three. The twinkling turns out to be a parallel planet–one exactly like ours–looming right below “Earth 1”. Rhoda spends five years in prison, and after her release she becomes obsessed with exploring the new mirror world. After Rhoda enters an essay contest to go to space, the film takes an unfortunate turn. The science fiction element is dropped (only to return in the last ten minutes), and Rhoda finds out that one of the people she thought she killed in the crash survived; then, to atone for her mistakes, she cleans his house without ever revealing her identity (which, made me thing the character was flighty and cruel [perhaps that was the point?]). It seems like the sci-fi element is just a contrived metaphor. Did Mike Cahill just want to make a movie about the consequences of drunk driving? Maybe the genre twist is there to get the movie picked up by a studio? Maybe Cahill wanted to do more with the sci-fi but ran out of money? It’s all speculation. Really, the only thing the sci-fi elements provide are lame exposition in the form of news stories and websites. Don’t let the Carl Sagan-esque narrator trick you into assuming the movie has some sort of lofty profundity. The ending’s ambiguity might lead one to suspect the film is deep, but it seems the film mistakes “lack of resolution”with “general confusion.” What would you do if you found out a parallel version of yourself exists? The film asks the question without elaboration–literally, characters keep asking each other this question, but nobody has the gumption to wager a guess. And while were on the subject, go ahead and call me a stickler, but if you’re making a film hinged on the hyper-realistic dramatic reaction of real characters put in real situations, at least try and explain the completely implausible science of the film. The second Earth appears so big in the sky, it must be closer than the sun. That would completely throw off the gravity of the solar system. Nobody mentions it. Another clue that leads me to believe the film is only interested in using science fiction as a metaphor, not telling a science fiction story. Another Earth is a total cock-tease: it’s not interested in solving questions of profound existential weight, it’s really just a character study into the mind a terminally boring white girl.

Now here’s the turn! I’ll admit, tearing apart this movie makes me seem silly. What I didn’t tell you is that Another Earth was shot digitally, and it looks beautiful. Calhill’s direction/cinematography show a true grasp on the fundamentals of film-making. Marling and William Mapother (Ethan from Lost) give great performances. The film is high in mood and emotion. Yet, this quiet atmosphere is what helped me realize all of the films problems; whenever I stop paying attention to the movie and start thinking about how I’m going to structure the review I know it’s not a good flick. This movie is boring, plain and simple; it seems more like an exercise than a finished product. It’s pretentious in the truest sense of the word: it suggests something interesting is going on, but the ideas are only surface deep. I assume Calhill and Marling will make movies inside the Hollywood system and someone can reign them in; then, Another Earth will just be remembered as a student film that jump-started the careers of two talented, young filmmakers.