Artifacts of the Old World: I Need That Record


For some people, music is just another thing. A distraction. But, for others (like myself), music means a hell of a lot more. At some point, there was that one song, that one band that transformed everything. The one that made them want to be part of it in some way. Music for them is like what sports or politics or any other obsession is to other people. It informs everything about them. Conversations, friends, fashion, values. Whatever.

When I was a lowly teenager in Orlando in the mid-90s, my friends and I were heavily into punk and its offshoots. There were still a handful of independent music stores around at the time that catered to our tastes and one that we spent a lot of time at was called D.I.Y. Records. The store clerks there were basically like us, except older. They dyed their hair and knew the music and joked around with the people that wandered into the small space they rented in a strip mall down the highway from the state university. I used to go out there to put out copies of my zine and pick up copies of others’. On weekends, they opened up the backroom for local bands to play all-ages shows. We’d go and watch our friends perform and see kids around that we’d see at every show in town we could get into. We were young and music was a big deal to us and so, D.I.Y. Records became a kind of second home.

Brendan Toller’s 2008 documentary, I Need That Record: The Death (Or Possible Survival of) the Independent Record Store, would say that D.I.Y. Records helped forge a community. Music may have brought people there, but it was more than just a music store. Its local roots and that scene that we identified with gave us kids a sense of place, one that we never would have found (or will find again) had we done our shopping in giant, homogeneous chains. Not that we would have found what we were looking for on the shelves of a major retailer, anyways. Most of the stuff we loved listening to wasn’t played on commercial radio. And it sure as shit didn’t rate on any charts.

D.I.Y. Records closed not longer after that, and they say it was because of the rampant shoplifting. But, rather than go out of business entirely, they switched to an online and mail-order operation. And, rather ironically, the store became a Spanish church. And the community that the little record store (that could) fostered had been displaced, if it wasn’t killed off altogether since a lot of other shops closed probably within one or two years after that.

The story of D.I.Y. Records is a lot like the independent music stores spotlighted in I Need That Record are shown to be undergoing the same fate, closing their doors after some twenty or thirty years in the business. These were neighborhood staples that served as small sanctuaries for oddballs, weirdos, and fanatics that make up the universe of music junkies. With collections that spanned in the thousands, they were a place to make those beloved rare discoveries.

But sympathize as I might, it’s a little uncomfortable watching the owners as they’re at a loss for words, and some on the verge of tears, reminiscing and wondering what the hell they’re going to do next. Of those screwed by lease agreements, it’s not clear why the owners didn’t attempt to relocate. The customers, too, kind of ham it up, shaking a fist at big chains (more so than any other culprit in this changing business), and likewise, wonder where they’ll turn to for their music now, especially the ones who dig vinyl. Sure, you could say the Internet, but ex-Minuteman Mike Watt (who looked high during the interview) and ex-Patti Smith collaborator, Lenny Kaye, would say it just doesn’t hold the same sense of community. Although, the kids born and bred on the Internet might disagree.

So basically the question comes down to, what’s killing off the indies? These places that made it easy for kids to wander into and find this whole other world of music (it still is a little harder to do on the Internet, because you already have to know where to look), and three thousand of them shut down in the last decade. But, it soon becomes apparent that sales of hard media (not just CDs, but things like books and movies, too) have been on the decline for quite a while, forcing even major retailers like Tower, Borders, and Blockbusters out of business. What we were witnessing was basically a dramatic change in business models because of changing technology. I Need That Record attributes a lot of the answer to music’s digital conversion, providing a little history of the inventions along the way that really revolutionized the game like the creation of mp3 file format and the release of the first iPod. And, while the litigation battles over piracy and peer-to-peer networks are discussed, they thankfully don’t overshadow the entire history as is usually the tendency. But, it’s also important not to overlook the fact that, digital conversion wasn’t everything. The Internet gave people a way to find even hard copy media at a much cheaper price.

Global Warming Totally Sucks – Birdemic: Shock & Terror


After seeing Tommy Wiseau’s The Room in Cleveland a few months ago, I was sure it reached a new benchmark in bad film-making. Not only is it steeped in horrendous acting, baffling dialogue, fleeting plot points and characters, awkward sex scenes, a grossly unappealing leading man, and suspiciously plentiful assertions of heterosexuality, but, adding to the humor, Wiseau tried to save face by selling it as a black comedy.

Then, I saw Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

Completed in 2008, but not released until this year,  Birdemic is the latest “Best Worst” movie gaining a cult following on the indie theater midnight movie circuit. Generously described (with intentional humor) in the Moviehead press release as a “Romantic Thriller,” the first 40 minutes painstakingly detail the reunion of high school classmates who start dating. It almost like watching one of those movies from high school language lab that teach conversational French. And it’s followed by another 40 minutes painstakingly detailing the new young couple’s mostly pointless attempts to escape a sudden attack by a mob of crazy ass birds. And there’s still the 10 minute finale where the heroes collect to watch the birds, which seem stuck in mid-air.

And all while pushing a serious political agenda!

Brazenly submitted for the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 (although let’s face it, they do show a fair amount pretentious shit there), it was not surprisingly rejected. Aside from trying to make a movie out of two halves of a half-developed whole, coupled with the usual flaws that make these movies so comical (bad acting, loose logic, and bizarre dialogue, etc.), Birdemic demonstrates a new level of technical ignorance. Reaction and establishing shots are done to death. Scenes filmed in noisy locations muffle conversations several times. Shots that look like the mistaken start of a dream sequence. My particular favorite was the stock photo in the news report about melting glaciers in the Arctic that was obscured by the Ghetty Images watermark. But above all else, Birdemic takes the cake for worst special effects which are truly so awful, they’ll leave you speechless. And how do you create an atmosphere of destruction and avionic terror on a mere budget of $10 grand? Why, animated GIFs! Except, most of the time, it seems as though the flying terrors are both harmless and impervious to threat, as though all people needed to do was settle for the fact that birds will now occasionally hover above them because they’re angry about pollution.

Hey, it’s a small price to pay for messing up the environment!

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Zen and the Art of Bad Movies


Our first BBQ of the summer this year ended with something different this time: a screening of the spectacularly bad fantasy film, Troll 2. The recent release of the making-of documentary, Best Worst Movie, has sparked renewed interest among cult fans. That it has generated headlines in major media goes to show you that the history of an utterly shitty movie can turn out to be even more entertaining than the movie itself. And this particular making-of documentary was directed by none other than Michael Paul Stephenson, the toothy, freckle-faced young star of Troll 2.

There’s something really intriguing about bad movies. Like that way that you pass a really bad car wreck and just can’t look away. Badly written, poorly acted, and shoddily designed, these movies are some kind of confounding testament to serious malfunctions in filmmaking, if not the human psyche altogether.

And yet, even the worst can, paradoxically, be the best…around. Their sole redeeming value is basically social cohesion. That they’re laughably horrible makes them ripee for riffing with a roomful of friends. And there’s certainly been far more cinematic stinkers than any “Worst Of” list can reasonably fit without being overwhelming. There’s plenty of obvious choices. Most any movie Ed Wood ever made. A slew of Japanese creature features from the 1950s. (The Japanese have come a long way, even inspiring American filmmakers who hunger for source material for sub-par remakes). There’s the over-hyped flops like The English Patient (elaborated on in a Seinfeld episode) and Battlefield Earth (which was labeled “Travolting”).The commercially-driven star vehicle like Cool as Ice.

With the Drive-In and late night movie marathons on cable television now being all but a thing of the past, obscure selections like Space MutinyMitchellSanta Clause Conquers the MartiansMonster A Go-Go, and a curious abundance of 1950s teenage rebel movies that overdid it on the slang were resurrected for Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Mike Nelson and the gang continued the tradition with the mp3-based Riff Trax). In addition to regular screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show, the midnight movie circuit in various cities now run a small monopoly of so-bad-it’s-good fare. DC residents at least are also privy to the goodwill of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society, now with 20 years of real turkeys under their belt. Carl, the host, usually enlightens attendees of the free, weekly screenings with hilarious backstory. And I wonder,  if in time, Stephen Baldwin’s hammy Target, will join the list.

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Last Laughs: Exit Through the Gift Shop


Graffiti has come along way since the 70s. Once an art form (or vandalism and public nuisance to some) typified by exotic tags on a canvas of urban decay, experimentalists and pioneers have broken boundaries in both content and medium. Freeform gave way to stencils. Stencils to prints. Prints to three-dimensional forms. And so forth. Graffiti has always been subversive, posing that looming threat of unregulated public voice. But lately, structures of an otherwise tame and guarded environment have been seized for overt politics and amusing mockery as graffiti artists expose, even in the most simplest forms, oppression and contradiction. Unfortunately, as the art becomes simplified and more accessible than the elaborate typography that once dominated, it has become easily co-opted and commercialized. Such is the fate of subversive culture.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a mix of documentary and possible sham, one engineered by the immensely popular, but cleverly elusive  master of public mockery: stencil graffiti artist, Banksy.  The film was supposedly borne out of French shop owner, Thierry Guetta’s obsessive compulsiveness and attraction to the grandiose. Getting his hands on a video camera, he began to record everything, no matter how mundane the event. Orphaned at a young age when his mother died, he claimed the new found hobby satisfied his compulsion to hold on to the life around him. Soon, all this filming leads him to a new objective: a documentary about street artists.

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Quit Bugggin’: Human Centipede


“I’m waiting for them to say ‘we aren’t really showing a movie, we just wanted to see how depraved you all are.'” – Carl

Human Centipede was the latest star of E Street Cinema’s “Midnight Madness.” Something that was advertised as an adults-only affair. This weekend only. And supposedly, it has become the new Internet meme, too!

I first heard about it from The Other AC who posted a trailer to his Facebook page a few weeks ago for an unusually high-quality production about a German surgeon who kidnaps unfortunate strangers to use in his experiment: the Human Centipede.

Oh… so it’s like Rocky Horror but not funny?! (Hint, hint, you movie parodying specialists!).

Technically, the title is a misnomer. This Centipede has nowhere near a hundred legs. Though, who knows… it might by the end of the trilogy.

Oh yes, there’s more!

A few days later, I saw the film poster at E Street during the opening night of The Runaways. It was playing in two weeks. The E Street Cinema’s MC barely plugged it. “Well, I won’t tell you what it’s about. You saw the poster.” We knew what we were in store for. I immediately sent a text to The Other AC. Calendars were engraved in stone.

It was far too weird a movie to even suggest to most of my relatively normal friends to come see it with us. That, and asking them to put up with the additional nuisances of driving  downtown, finding a parking spot, and staying out till what we people nearing 30 call… “the wee hours of the morning.”

The film poster gave away more information than the studio had when Dutch writer/director/AK-47 enthusiast Tom Six made his pitch about a surgeon who sewed people together, not letting on precisely how this fusion takes place. As we waited in the growing line of white, black-clad hipsters for the first of two nights for the midnight screening, I noticed Carl, the host of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society here in DC, and went over to strike up conversation.

Marvel at my casual, but cool introduction…

“You’re the dude from the Psychotronic Film Society!” (I said while pointing at him).

Don’t judge. Carl didn’t.

When you spend 20 years hosting the trashy, gory, bizarre, and just plain bad movies that have made up Psychotronic screening history to DC audiences in bar basements as Carl has, there probably isn’t much that can shock you anymore. Which is why it surprised me when he said he might be watching most of this film with his eyes closed. (See my clever oxymoron? Watching with his eyes closed. Let’s virtually high five!).

Compton bowed out early on after reading about the movie on Wiki and feared that she wouldn’t be able to keep down the dinner we’d have before the show. Even CNN had declared Human Centipede the “Most Disturbing Film Ever Made!” (I presume they’ve overlooked the suffocation-by-boner scene in Body Melt?). Could this movie really be so extreme that audiences would be vomiting in the aisles (or worse, on each other!), or fleeing the theater in horror and disgust like they did when The Exorcist debuted? I had been under the impression that this was just a well-shot schlock, but nothing really all that repulsive. (There was some funny commentary from the row behind us). Plus, I couldn’t imagine this kind of audience being quite that sensitive.

But there was only way to find out! And so, we piled into a row of theater seats with Lyz and the Other AC’s depraved friends and the lights went down…

Well, actually what followed was a sort of disgusting, but mostly disappointing movie.

The Six and Six team (I can’t figure out what relation one of the co-producers, a lady Six, shares with director/writer Tom Six… could you imagine if she is his wife?!) daringly draw a line in the sand and happily step over it. But, really, it’s a small line. And the leap over it is a really tiny one. Years and years of outrageous horror cinema did not suddenly get “outdid” by Human Centipede. I mean, my dear CNN columnist (and similar admonishers!): have you seen some of the crazy shit the Japanese and Koreans made lately?

Let’s take a look, shall we?

BE VEWY QUIET. THAR BE SPOILERS HERE!

As the good doctor explains to his victims with his handy overhead projector, the Human Centipede experiment requires breaking some knee caps and surgically attaching the specimens… ass to mouth. In the end, like a real centipede, they’ll be sharing a single digestive track. Oh, to be the lucky person at front of this train lucky enough to get their nutrients from actual food and not someone else’s doodie!

Shocking… isn’t it?!

But, as the DCist already pointed out, the 90 minute movie is consumed by it’s simple concept (although, maybe the unexplained difference between the First Sequence (part 1) and the upcoming Full Sequence (part 2) is the difference between seeing a buffet and digging in). The doctor finds his victims fairly quickly, since he only needs 3 unfortunate souls for his Centipede rather than, you  know, 50. He didn’t even have to go out and find them all, some came to him.  The expected escape attempt is quashed just as quickly. And, even though the demented doctor is a Hater (bluntly telling his victims, “I don’t like human beings”), he attempts to train the Centipede to be an obedient pet, only to get discouraged and go for a swim. Which is even more frustrating when two detectives with amazing hair show up around this time to investigate suspicious reports from the neighbors in what seems like almost an afterthought of how to end this thing. It’s basically all process.

Actually, a majority of this is as unsettling as it is to sit through because it’s star, Dieter Laser, is a creepy MF! And not in that Norman Bates kind of sociopath bathed in baby-face innocence. Laser is thin and veiny, has remarkably sunken cheeks, a hard square jaw with a permanent frown, and giant black eyes that harkens back to way Donald Pleasance described young Mike Meyers in the first Halloween: “He had the blackest eyes… the Devil’s eyes.”

I wonder though, if there was satire at play in Human Centipede. A German psycho-surgeon. A young, ineffectively defiant Japanese man who occupies the front of the Centipede. And, as punishment for not learning the basics of auto mechanics (changing a tire) — two American girls are placed at the end of this chain, simultaneously taking shit and kissing ass. Frustrating as it may be as an actress, walking around a film set with your face literally buried in someone else’s ass, it’s frustrating that they are permanent mutes. But, if it’s not satirical, then some of the imagery looks as though it was designed to fullfill some sort of kinky fantasy. In the scenes where the conjoined trio are asleep, it looks like an orgy that ran late past everyone’s bedtime. And I don’t think I’ll elaborate that last point any further.

All in all, the first installment survives on a reputation of hype. So what comes next?

Break On Through: The Runaways


A great rock n’ roll movie is the one that gets the blood coursing in your veins. After watching The Runaways, which released this week, the first thing I wanted to do when I left the theater was jam at full volume.

For those of you too young to remember (or never heard about at all), The Runaways were an all-girl teenage rock band that formed in California in 1975. At a time when rock n’ roll was shifting towards faster tempos and amateurish ease, boys in leather jackets and dirty jeans were learning how easy it was to form a band. Meanwhile, their eager counterparts were encouraged to stay put in a hypocritical paradigm. Like Joan Jett’s guitar teacher (Damone!) explained so bluntly in the movie:  “Girls don’t play electric guitar.”

The hell they don’t. Gender bending was already a staple of rock n’ roll. But if guys like David Bowie and the New York Dolls could prance around onstage in women’s clothes, why couldn’t a bunch of sweaty, angry, bad ass girls plug in and go crazy in front of a stack of amps?

And so the defiant Runaways formed in Hollywood when drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve’s part in the movie) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), having each toyed with the idea of starting an all-girl band, were introduced by Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the sleazy record producer who eventually became the band’s sleazy manager. Fowley was a lot like Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (who died of cancer last week) in that The Runaways was a concept band, and the other members — lead guitarist Lita Ford, lead singer Cheri Currie, and a rotating lineup of bassists (due to legal issues, the fictional Robin Robinson represented Jamie Fox) — were recruited more for attitude than ability to play instruments or sing. Although historically labeled “teenage jailbait,” Kim Fowley clarified in the documentary Edgeplay that The Runaways weren’t T & A. These were girls who  just didn’t give a shit (and had no reason to), and they modeled themselves on their rock idols which, aside from Suzie Quatro, were guys.  Bowie, Keith Richards, Gene Simmons, Jeff Beck, and others. And even when Cheri Currie strutted on stage in Japan in a Betty Page corset, she looked ready to dominate, not be dominated.  (Baby-faced Dakota Fanning made it seem more innocent when reenacting this in the film).

And so The Runaways were born. The movie is obviously a limited biopic, which is a shame considering the renewed interest in the band that its likely to generate, especially among young audiences since it’s basically been marketed as That Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning Movie. Because it’s based on Cheri Currie’s memoir, Neon Angel, the focus is primarily on the relationship between she, Joan Jett, and Kim Fowley. But Currie’s career really fizzled out after she left the band, and aside from Joan Jett, guitarist Lita Ford, who teamed up with Sharon and Ozzie Osbourne, achieved some access as a solo artist after The Runaways disbanded.

The Runaways ran the risk of limited release teeny bopper mediocrity, although it surprisingly proved otherwise (and a lot of credit is owed to its leading actors). It’s tricky pulling off a story about a handful of angst-ridden teenage girls in way that doesn’t come off as utterly trite (see Catherine Hardwick’s Thirteen), or drowned in gender politics as it did in say, Lou Adler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (which is probably the closest cinematic kin to The Runaways). While in reality, rock n’ roll was still very much a man’s world in the 70s, The Runaways is just the opposite. Most of the men in the film are either ineffectual (like Steve, the road manager), or utterly vile, like the Currie sisters’ alcoholic father and the band’s manager, Kim Fowley. (Though that’s not to say that even the women in the film can’t disappoint – Currie’s mother was a real flake).

Because it’s a movie based on an American band that formed before the benign (and incredibly boring) Age of Extreme Political Correctness, the movie revisits the grime that’s been lost to recent cultural gentrification. Albeit, it’s a grime of West Coast flavor (rather than say, abysmal New York City in the mid 70s). The Runaways is chock full of dirty clubs, dismal prospects, ambitious sleazebags, absentee parents, booze, drugs, leather, cigarettes, and sex. And to have a handful of angsty teenage girls at the center of this chaotic playground makes it all the more naughty.

The Runaways oozes in ferocious rebellion and blissful sexuality, the very essence of rock n’ roll. Canadian artist/director Floria Sigismondi had the right sensibilities for this kind of material, having come from a background in fashion photography and later, directing music videos for bands like The White Stripes, Interpol, and David Bowie. More than just a band’s tale unfolding in a pristine reconstruction of the 1970s, Sigismondi injects periodic “artsy” display like the ebb and flow of an orchestra – the rich reds and blacks at the height of their decadent fame, stop-and-go action during the big performance scene, the dreamy sequences of excess, and the bleached aftermath. Suddenly the abstract of music has texture, and what better way to reveal rock n’ roll than through a band like The Runaways?


View From Above: The Lovely Bones


It was rather puzzling to learn that Peter Jackson would be directing a film about the rape and murder of a young girl by her neighbor. Wait… I’m not really spoiling anything here. But after all, this is the guy who directed the deranged puppet comedy, Meet the Feebles, and hit major mainstream success with the epic blockbuster trilogy, Lord of the Rings. The starkness of a family tragedy. The pounding suspense of exposing the killer. It just didn’t seem like his kind of material. Most importantly, where would you add the CGI?!

But Alice Sebold’s 2002 bildungsroman novel actually turned out to be an adaptation fit for a knight (see? because Jackson is knighted), because this isn’t your typical tale of murder. This is a story told from the point of view of it’s victim, 14-year old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). Providing the story’s narration, she tells your right away that she’ll be murdered. Will even tell you who her killer is. The name of the game is for the characters onscreen to figure out what the audience already knows. To some extent, her family will get help from Susie herself, who observes life on Earth, witnessing the devastation the brutal murder caused her family, from some fantastic world that exists somewhere between the world of the living, and a sort of heaven (Sebold, in response to religious critics about the secular treatment of the afterlife, said that she didn’t write the book with the traditional sense of heaven in mind). “The in-between” her younger brother calls it. New and unexplored, it’s both driven by the imagination of an innocent pre-teen girl, and also shaped by her reactions to the living world. Vast and visually-reliant, it’s a creation satisfying to the CGI fetishist (which Jackson essentially is), but it’s not a redemptive limbo. Rather, this is the place where Susie must find resolve. She is the story’s hero.

Of course, film critics have lambasted Jackson for nurturing the visuals (or, basically, any part of the film featuring Susie’s after-life world) to the point of creating unnecessary distraction. This world is bubble-gummy —contrary to Jackson’s intentions to avoid being hokey— since it is the fantasy world shaped by a 14-year old girl, the death and its impact on her family not having immediately made her bitter, only unclear as to her purpose. And it seems to go on forever. There are two especially aggravating scenes by the film’s end, where suddenly gripping intensity is abruptly held for dreamy drama, something that tested the patience of audience members who began growling in disgust, realizing how fruitless it was to yell at the characters in the film to JUST GET ON WITH IT! It’s like you’ve discovered a trail of gasoline and then suddenly spotted a man nearby about to light up a cigarette (the old Hitchcock philosophy of showing the viewers certain tidbits of information to rile them up) and before he is about to throw down his match, you’re suddenly thrust into a glassy scene of fuzzy gray kittens.

The material itself was really a challenge for any director as it requires to blend conflicting genres into a consistent film. On the one hand is that extreme discomfort of knowing when Susie is about to be killed, the nail-biting suspense of frequent moments when it looks like the other characters will find realize that Susie’s killer is right under their noses, something that of course, always leads to one of them going into the killer’s house to snoop around, but linger longer than they should. Jackson keeps tight reigns on these, and Stanley Tucci plays the villain well — you know, calm, cool, and mostly collected. On the other hand, there is the dreamy fantasy world that Susie Salmon wanders, almost aimlessly, as she watches over her family on Earth, and at the same time, tries to understand her purpose. As already said, that alternative foreground tends to spill over into the thriller in the Earth-world, destroying that well crafted suspense. Add to that, is also a little bit of comic relief where Susan Sarandon appears as the alcoholic, irresponsible grandmother. But, The Lovely Bones is not pure gut-wrenching tragedy, and if it was, there’d be no need for Susie Salmon, except to question why its taking so long to realize that she died at the hands of her neighbors. Instead, her death simply marks the impetus of an epic coming-of-age tale, strange as that can be where it occurs in the after-life.