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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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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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?


Ethereal Contraband: ‘Better Than Sex’ and ‘In Bed’


*Updated 01/03/10

The titles. The promotional posters. They elicit expectation, hinting promise of the pleasures of the pure mechanics of sex, if only at a grade below pornography; something just erotic enough to avoid wandering behind the symbolic “black curtain”. Things are, somewhat, still left to the imagination, in these films which essentially boil down to strangers hooking up for casual sex.

Viewer reaction to this, is rather interesting at times, depending on the severity of the sexual content, which is usually much stronger in foreign productions, and tend to release without official ratings regarding recommended audience age and maturity.

The Realm of the Senses, released with much controversy in the late 1970s (and is oddly included in the recommendations in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) pushed the envelope considerably with unsimulated graphic imagery of things like fellatio and erections. Though probably not quite as envelope pushing anymore, what with the accessibility of the multi-billion dollar porn industry, especially in the form of amateur content circulated on-line, The Realm of the Senses was fictional account of a 1930s incident that involved a prostitute named Sada Abe (click the link if you don’t mind film spoilers). It was this context that lead to considerable debate as to whether the film could be fairly labeled art house, or whether it was just “glorified porn”, as though the distinction made any difference to anyone who wanted to see it. It’s clear within minutes of the opening scene exactly what is in store for the viewer. Viewers intimated an identical debate with director Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 film, 9 Songs. The nine songs refer to the live indie rock performances (featuring the Von Bondies and Franz Ferdinand, among others!) that provide the transitions to a story about a young British man’s fling with a young American girl. Nearly the entire film, save the concert footage and brief interjections about the man’s work in the Arctic, contain some form of unsimulated sex. What difference does it make to debate content labels? Again, within minutes of the film’s beginning, there are no surprises about what is in store for the viewer.

Other films, like the Australian production, Better Than Sex and and its Chilean counterpart, In Bed, push aside this intense mechanical approach as it addresses the topic of casual sex, doing so in a manner that fuses the pure and not-very-erotic mechanics with intelligent discussion, one free of timidity and self-conscious giggling.

A Netflix viewer’s review of Better Than Sex, suggested that the film captures an “evolution in relationships”, a conclusion that seems to support the tow-line observation that younger generations have scoffed traditional commitment, existing comfortably instead in the limbo between physical satisfaction and the avoidance of emotional attachment. But this is nothing new, really. Perhaps we’re too conditioned by American films, which have taught us that a happy ending means not only acceptance of commitment, but also monogamy, and more specifically with an extremely compatible lover.

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Masters of Disasters


While Angel the Pig today reports of the possible Gore Virbinski remake of the 1988 cult comedy, Clue, due out in 2011, there are also reports of a Frank Marshall rehash of The Never Ending Story, due for 2012.

With a Hall Pass in Hand: American Teen


American Teen was immediately criticized as it began generating attention at Sundance in 2008. The original promotional material featured the five teenagers at the heart of Nanette Burstein’s documentary in poses and costume nearly identical to those in the Breakfast Club. The previews even pre-defined their roles: The Geek, The Princess, The Jock, The Hearthrob and The Rebel, arousing suspicions that this reduced these people’s stories to palatable, packaged frames, symbolic of a disingenuous adult view of teenage life.

Generally, film-goers tend to hold documentarians to a level of scrutiny that assumes them to be objective observers of their subject. This is not a pure documentary in that sense, and in fact it might be better described as a pop documentary. The filmmaker’s placement does shape environment, and in all stages of production, there are deliberate choices of what to focus on. And for Burstein, it is the concept of the modern American teenager.

Early on, there were criticisms about lacking authenticity in a different regard. Namely, the noticeable lack of variety in the town’s residents, making a film who’s sociological importance could only be generalized to middle-class white American suburbia. In American Teen, there is only one non-white high school school student featured. And every other seemingly “taboo” subject from homosexuality to promiscuous sex to divorce is muted. The sprinkling of teenage drama in the briskly edited montage that made up the trailers suggested a “documentary” that sanitized taboo realities, only to fill the gap with sexier sensationalism.

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