Archive for the ‘film’ Category
It’s a commonly held belief that the African-American community is, when compared with the general population, less accepting of homosexuality at best and more homophobic at worst.
Recently, President Obama endorsed gay marriage and many wondered how black voters would respond in the upcoming election. However, on May 19th, in an outstanding display of solidarity with fellow human rights advocates, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed a resolution in support of marriage equality, a move that is bound to chip away at this persistent stereotype.
Amidst this flurry of news, it’s suiting that “Pariah,” a film about a young, black lesbian, was just released on DVD.
In this full-length feature from director Dee Rees, Brooklyn high school junior Alike [Ah-LEE-kay], played by Adepero Oduye, navigates her way through family, friends, and love as her sexual orientation becomes increasingly obvious. Early in the film, the audience becomes aware of an inner tension living inside Alike. On the one hand she knows she’s gay, has no need to question it, and actively pursues women as she’s dragged along to gay clubs by her out friend, Laura. On the other is her family. Alike’s mother, played by Kim Wayans, a devoutly religious woman, attempts to steer her daughter toward a more feminine lifestyle through pink blouses and forced friendships. Although one gets the sense that her father, played by Charles Parnell, has the potential to be more accepting — he’s more lenient of Alike’s personal style — there’s a reluctance to confront her homosexuality head on.
For Alike, finding ground between these two worlds is a struggle. “It’s about her trying to find herself and express herself in a way that’s authentic,” said Rees in an interview with KCRW’s film show, The Treatment.
“Pariah” is a reminder to those who may have forgotten the details of high school life just how tumultuous and tortured those years can be. Part of Alike’s charm is how she hangs on with the best of them — getting straight As, leaning on her friend, using poetry as an emotional outlet, and finding a mentor in a supportive English teacher.
Much of “Pariah” is informed by Rees’s life, although it shouldn’t be confused with autobiography. The opening scene where Alike is in a gay club is inspired by Rees’s experience when she first came out — she even used the same song that was first playing when she’d walked in her first time. Although much of the film deviates from Rees’s personal story, “Pariah” has a very real feel to it: there are no gimmicks, no formulaic feel. “Pariah” is one of the most original films I’ve seen this year.
“This is a film about identity … it’s about how to be yourself. … It’s not the typical coming out story, it’s more coming into,” Rees said; and if viewers are open to it, they’ll find that the film transcends the immediate subject matter, giving it a universal coming-of-age feel.
“Pariah,” with its lovable lead character, is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. This realistic piece of cinema will leave you wondering: where is the next Dee Rees production?
Pariah, the official website
Dee Rees interviewed on KCRW’s The Treatment
Dee Rees and lead actress Adepero Oduye speaks with NPR
Dee Rees profiled on The Root
An interview with the Los Angeles Times
NAACP announcement on marriage equality
Behind the NAACP Equality Decision at The Root
In the early 2000s, Swedish film director Göran Hugo Olsson was working on the documentary “Am I Black Enough for You” about 70s soul musician Billy Paul. While researching he found an archive of 16 mm tapes in the building of Swedish Television, the country’s broadcasting company. The footage had been shot by a group of Swedish television journalists sympathetic to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the US. In 1967 they’d traveled to America to document the lives of both ordinary black Americans as well as those politically involved in the struggle for equal rights.
This footage, nearly 85 hours of it, sat in a basement for 30 years. In the 70s, Olsson was a student in Sweden. It was a time when his generation developed an interest in the Vietnam War and America’s role in it. This was the time of author Stieg Larsson’s political activism, when he was a photo journalist working with revolutionary groups in the Horn of Africa. There was something in the air and the group of filmmakers had caught it. Years later, Olsson was, once again, inspired by it, which led him to create The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975.
Deciding “to riff on the popular ‘70s ‘mixtape’ format,” Olsson was careful not to cut the footage into pieces. Instead he kept the interviews at length and assembled them in chronological order.
The first public figure we see is Stokely Carmichael, someone I’d never heard of before this film. Carmichael could be considered a bridge between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers. He started out as a leader of a nonviolent student organization, taking part in the 1961 Freedom Rides, a group that originally relied on civil disobedience. Soon, he’d lost patience with MLK’s message and found a new role model in Frantz Fanon. After reading Fanon’s seminal text, Wretched of the Earth, Carmichael took the organization in a radical direction, adopting instead, Black Power ideology.
Co-producer Danny Glover, whose production company helped secure funding for the film, when he saw the footage, was taken with how clearly it showed the link between the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Highlighting this connections, and following the flow of history, the film moves naturally from Stokely’s words to those of the Black Panthers’.
There are echoes of Stokely in the footage that follows. Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers’ Minister of Information, gives a speech about the presidential nominees in San Francisco in 1968, Bobby Seale, the Chairman, explains the all-encompassing nature of the organization, and Huey P. Newton, the Minister of Defense, in 1971, released on bail after his arrest on allegations of manslaughter, discusses the “abusive” and “oppressive” treatment he experienced while in jail.
For anyone familiar with Europe’s views of the American criminal justice system, it will come as no surprise that the Attica prison riot, fueled in part by the prisoners’ desire for better living conditions, and the murder trial involving Angela Davis, whose ancillary role as owner of guns used in a hostage situation, put her in the precarious position of defending her life.
Adding a contemporary component to the film is commentary from black thinkers today. Those featured in voice-overs are musicians Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, and Questlove of The Roots. Throughout the film they, along with poets Sonia Sanchez and Abiodun Oyewole and academic Robin Kelley discuss their memories of and experiences with the figures and moments in the archival footage.
The Black Power Mixtape takes an often-unquestioning and sympathetic view of its subject. However, this fact is stated in the opening of the film with text on the screen: “It [The Black Power Mixtape] does not presume to tell the whole story of the Black Power Movement, but to show how it was perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.” While it shouldn’t be taken as a sole account of this time period, the film is both a fascinating and educational contribution to the documentation of American history. For anyone looking for a place to start — but not a place to end — The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 is a fantastic primer.
Watch Instant on Netflix (available for streaming at the time of this posting)
Stokely Carmichael’s essay “What We Want” (PDF)
Okay Player Interview with Film Director Goran Olsson
Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements by Malcolm X
“These are the major speeches made by Malcolm X during the last tumultuous eight months of his life. In this short period of time, his vision for abolishing racial inequality in the United States underwent a vast transformation. Breaking from the Black Muslims, he moved away from the black militarism prevalent in his earlier years only to be shot down by an assassin’s bullet.” [via IndieBound]
Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
“By turns shocking and lyrical, unblinking and raw, the searingly honest memoirs of Eldridge Cleaver are a testament to his unique place in American history. Cleaver writes in Soul on Ice, “I’m perfectly aware that I’m in prison, that I’m a Negro, that I’ve been a rapist, and that I have a Higher Uneducation.” What Cleaver shows us, on the pages of this now classic autobiography, is how much he was a man.” [via IndieBound]
Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton
“Eloquently tracing the birth of a revolutionary, Huey P. Newton’s famous and oft-quoted autobiography is as much a manifesto as a portrait of the inner circle of America’s Black Panther Party. From Newton’s impoverished childhood on the streets of Oakland to his adolescence and struggles with the system, from his role in the Black Panthers to his solitary confinement in the Alameda County Jail, Revolutionary Suicide is smart, unrepentant, and thought-provoking in its portrayal of inspired radicalism.” [via IndieBound]
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
“With her characteristic brilliance, grace and radical audacity, Angela Y. Davis has put the case for the latest abolition movement in American life: the abolition of the prison. As she quite correctly notes, American life is replete with abolition movements, and when they were engaged in these struggles, their chances of success seemed almost unthinkable. For generations of Americans, the abolition of slavery was sheerest illusion. Similarly,the entrenched system of racial segregation seemed to last forever, and generations lived in the midst of the practice, with few predicting its passage from custom. The brutal, exploitative (dare one say lucrative?) convict-lease system that succeeded formal slavery reaped millions to southern jurisdictions (and untold miseries for tens of thousands of men, and women). Few predicted its passing from the American penal landscape. Davis expertly argues how social movements transformed these social, political and cultural institutions, and made such practices untenable.” [via IndieBound”
The Black Panthers Speak edited by Philip S. Foner
“For over three decades, The Black Panthers Speak has represented the most important single source of original material on the Black Panther Party. With cartoons, flyers, and articles by Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver, this collection endures as an essential part of civil-rights history.” [via IndieBound]
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
“The Wretched of the Earth (published 1961) is Frantz Fanon’s most famous work, written during and regarding the Algerian struggle for independence from colonial rule. As a psychiatrist, Fanon explored the psychological effect of colonization on the psyche of a nation as well as its broader implications for building a movement for decolonization.” [via Wikipedia] Jean Paul-Sartre’s preface.
Quality by Talib Kweli (2002)
“Talib’s elation here strikes as sophisticated, distinguishing itself from the materialistic acquisitions, drug binges and sexual conquests that pass for contentment on many hip-hop albums, with a spiritual center attained through an on-record intellectual honesty and emotional transparency that’s still rare in a culture that feeds off inflated stereotypes of machismo posturing and stands on the political platform of fatalism and resignation. In fact, Kweli’s unabashed positivity and emotional vulnerability feel almost transgressive to these ears. Even when he confronts the ills of society, as he does on the wrenching “Where Do We Go” and “Stand to the Side”, there’s a certain optimism and belief that by illuminating the darkness through hip-hop, we can hope to transcend the pain.” [via Pitchfork]
Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” hosted by Jon Stewart since 1999, and Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report,” created in 2005, helped launch a revitalization of comedic television. Colbert, who got his start on “The Daily Show,” had come from the world of improv, and Stewart, who had been in stand-up, brought with him fellow comics Demetri Martin, Wyatt Cenac, and Samantha Bee to work as writers and correspondents.
FOX’s wildly popular show “Arrested Development”, whose cast included stand-up comedian David Cross, welcomed reoccurring characters played by the late Patrice Oneal and featured cameos by Bob Odenkirk and Andy Dick. Two years later, premiering on NBC in 2005, the US remake of “The Office,” was first created in the UK by comedian Ricky Gervais, and starred, until recently, Steve Carell. The show has enjoyed seven highly-acclaimed seasons and is now gearing up for its eighth.
Another sitcom bringing a few million weekly viewers a week to NBC is “Parks and Recreation” starring three actors from the stand-up and sketch comedy world: Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, and Aubrey Plaza. While the fate of NBC’s “Community”—a clever show set on the campus of a community college starring stand-up comics Joel McHale and Donald Glover, The Daily Show’s John Oliver, and legendary comedian Chevy Chase—hangs in the balance, it enjoys a following of hardcore fans willing to stage a flash mob outside of 30 Rock in protest of its possible cancellation.
Loyal audiences and rave reviews for these programs shows an appetite for smart, offbeat humor. These successes, it could be argued, have had an unintended side effect: they’ve paved the way for a wider appreciation of television comedy’s often darker, raunchier cousin: the stand-up show. This is how one might account for the rising popularity of once-underground comic Louis C.K.
For those looking for something harder than PG-13, there’s “Louie,” C.K.’s part-live show, part-sketch sitcom on FX. Written, directed, edited, and produced by C.K., Louie stars the comedian as himself making his way through everyday life—uncomfortably and usually without grace.
The show begins with a few minutes of C.K.’s stand-up act, with him at the Comedy Cellar in the West Village or Caroline’s in the Theater District, followed by a scripted sketch, a hyperbolization of his life as a somewhat-depressed, out of shape, divorced father of two girls.
Louis’s comedy tends to focus on two topics: sex and parenting. While you might not think admittances to thoughts of sexual deviance—often involving errant bodily fluids—would be endearing, C.K.’s self-deprecation and amused smirk gives him a certain charm.
Switching effortlessly between debauchery and fatherhood, and without creepy segues, C.K. says what’s on the mind of every parent: your own kids are boring and you hate other people’s. But his love for his two young daughters is obvious and his bits come off like a roast without the guest of honor’s presence.
Recently, C.K.’s been in the spotlight for the non-traditional release of his one-hour special, “Live at the Beacon Theater”. In an age where self-publishing and other independent ventures are lauded with the volume cranked way up, the reception for Louis has been especially loud.
Bypassing traditional television outlets, making the show available DRM-free on his website for five dollars, C.K. is currently the poster boy for DIY film production. At the time of my writing, the small fee allows you to stream the special twice on your browser and download it three times, which you can then watch as much as you want on any device and burn it to a DVD.
Louis is an ideal guinea pigs for this sort of digital distribution experiment. The success of his TV show meant he had the start-up money, a fan base, and name recognition. Unlike many artists trying to earn a living from such projects, Louis thought that if he could just break even, it would be worth it.
From years of doing stand-up and writing for such shows as “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “The Dana Carvey Show,” and “The Chris Rock Show,” he had the support, and admiration, from peers and could rely on a certain amount of promotional airtime. A few days after the release he was on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and, as a favorite of Terry Gross, he was on the national radio program “Fresh Air”.
The release was also well-timed, intentionally so or a stroke of luck I don’t know. This year, “Louie,” now in its second season, made it onto various year-end top ten of 2011 television lists, including New York magazine’s, Entertainment Weekly’s, and NPR Fresh Air’s television critic’s. This top tier publicity along with the media’s coverage of his chosen business model, created a momentum that surprised the comic himself.
After just 10 days the show grossed one million dollars. Having grown up poor, C.K. didn’t feel comfortable having that much money so he broke it up into pieces. First he recouped on the film, putting the money back into his company, next he gave bonuses to all the people who work for him, and finally he donated $280,000 to various charities for women, children, and humanitarian relief.
Riffing off the opening for the FX show, the beginning of “Live at the Beacon Theater” shows Louis in his signature black t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers walking through the streets of Manhattan. This time it’s towards the Upper West Side venue. He shows up alone, wades through the crowd of fans waiting outside, and heads up to the green room. It’s this lack of pomp and circumstance that adds to his likeability.
“Live at the Beacon Theater” is C.K.’s best stand-up yet. From the moment he steps on stage to introduce himself, telling the audience to take their seats and the technicians to kill the house lights, the crowd is roaring. He adds, “don’t text or Twitter during the show, just live your life,” which, of course, gets another round of applause.
As one can imagine, if you’ve ever heard his stand-up, the hour-long routine is full of inappropriate humor, largely about masturbation, but, as Slate’s David Haglund points out in his review, there’s more political commentary in his act as well, including a bit on global warming where Louis, imagining himself as God, asks what we did to the polar bears.
With “Live at the Beacon Theater,” not only has C.K. proven himself a gifted entertainer, he’s shown himself to be an astute businessman. The entire project is brilliant and being a small part of it was well worth the five dollars. Watch “Louie” on FX, get the Beacon Theater special, and, if you’re not already, get on board for what I hope will be a very long ride.
Buy Live at the Beacon Theater (Louis C.K.’s website)
Louie Official Show Site
Louie on Netflix (stream instantly)
Interview on NPR’s Fresh Air
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (Part I)
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (Part II)
Louis takes questions from fans on Reddit
The unconventional documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, best known for his film Super Size Me, an account of what happens when you eat only McDonald’s for 30 days, explores the advertising industry in his latest production. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, now available on DVD, is an inside look at the ubiquity of advertising today. Spurlock pulls back the curtain to expose how product placement makes its way onto our television screens, into our Hollywood films, and even onto the fields of our high school football games.
In a humorous, meta-twist Spurlock seeks to finance the project with ads, auctioning off screen time in exchange for start-up money. A camera crew follows him as he meets with potential investors, pitches the idea, and hashes out the contracts.
As companies step forward, some of them major corporations with images to protect, and make their demands, Morgan worries about his integrity; however, his concern has the feel of a clever charade, a playful way to include critical voices. Morgan meets with cultural commentators such as Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader as well as successful film directors J.J. Abrams and Quentin Tarantino. In their interviews, the former discuss corporate power and its influence on the general public while the latter share their firsthand experience with advertising in the film industry.
Pom Wonderful, the pomegranate juice company, winds up paying the largest sum, 1 million dollars, and their name, as part of the deal, is placed on the marquee. In fact, the full movie title is “Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”. Their financial support also means that whenever Morgan is in a meeting, Pom’s pomegranate juice is on the table. Similarly, wherever other drinks are present, those other company’s logos are out of focus. There are even a few commercial breaks featuring Spurlock as the star. Jet Blue, another major backer, gets the special treatment with an interview taking place in one of their terminals.
As the advertising industry’s marketing departments mingle with science, their tactics are honed to perfection. Using manipulation, these companies are able to steer customers away from the competition and toward their product. Morgan visits a neuroscientist who scans his brain in an MRI machine while he watches advertisements featuring images meant to inspire fear, induce cravings, and rev up the hormones.
In his trip to Sao Paolo, Brazil, where public advertising has been banned, the audience is given a glimpse of urban life without a barrage of images, a stark contrast to the scenes shot in New York City and Los Angeles.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold benefits from Spurlock’s wit and charm. As the New York Times says in their review, “Mr. Spurlock has Mr. [Michael] Moore’s prankster’s instincts, though not his sense of outrage.” It’s this lack of outrage that makes an otherwise damning movie downright amusing. No one comes out looking like a villain but viewing audiences will walk away better educated.
This film is perfect for those who appreciate sarcasm and those concerned with endless advertising in our lives—and everyone in between. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold shows that a lighthearted approach to a serious topic can be just as thought-provoking as a dogmatic one. After watching Spurlock’s on-screen antics, you’ll never miss those faced-out soda cans on your favorite prime time show again.
The Greatest Story Ever Sold official website
Morgan Spurlock’s TED Talk for The Greatest Story Ever Sold
Morgan Spurlock on KCRW’s The Business
Morgan Spurlock on NPR’s Talk of the Nation
Morgan Spurlock on Funny or Die (opens with sound)
Interview with Morgan Spurlock at AdWeek
Rogert Ebert’s review
New York Times review
AdWeek dives deeper into the MRI
What’s On the Shelf?
The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard
“The Hidden Persuaders is Vance Packard’s pioneering and prescient work revealing how advertisers use psychological methods to tap into our unconscious desires in order to “persuade” us to buy the products they are selling.
A classic examination of how our thoughts and feelings are manipulated by business, media and politicians, The Hidden Persuaders was the first book to expose the hidden world of “motivation research,” the psychological technique that advertisers use to probe our minds in order to control our actions as consumers. Through analysis of products, political campaigns and television programs of the 1950s, Packard shows how the insidious manipulation practices that have come to dominate today’s corporate-driven world began.” [via IndieBound]
Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing & Advertising by Susan Linn
“[P]rovides instead a measured, but ultimately devastating, critique of consumerism and American childhood.
Children influence some $600 billion in annual spending, and marketers, as Linn amply documents, will stop at nothing to harness this kiddie-consumer juggernaut. Of the head-shaking stats and anecdotes Linn supplies, perhaps the most repulsive is the “nag factor study,” which identified the parents most susceptible to ‘pester power,’ whose kids thus make the most profitable advertising targets.” [via Mother Jones]
Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom
In Buy-ology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, author and marketing guru Martin Lindstromtakes us on a behind the scenes look at what sells and why we are lambs to the slaughter when it comes to buying ‘stuff.’ . . . Using one of the largest neuromarketing studies, Lindstrom attempts to look past what we say and figure out why we do what we do and how our brain responds to all of the incoming stimuli.” [via Interview with TreeHugger]
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
“Jonah Lehrer’s engaging new book, “How We Decide,” puts our decision-making skills under the microscope. . . . [Malcolm] Gladwell’s book [Blink] took an external vantage point on its subject, drawing largely on observations from psychology and sociology, [to study the boundary between reason and intuition] while Lehrer’s is an inside job, zooming in on the inner workings of the brain. We learn about the nucleus accumbens, spindle cells and the prefrontal cortex.” [via The New York Times] Watch Jonah discuss his book on Fora.tv (opens with sound).
No Logo by Naomi Klein
“Klein’s writing caught the wave of anti-globalization protests that swept across the planet a decade ago, beginning with the massive and violent demonstrations against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in November 1999. Almost immediately, wherever world leaders gathered—international economic conferences, G8 summits, trade negotiations—they would be met with street protests and a parallel meeting of the planet’s angry marginalia, including counterculturalists, environmentalists, socialists, labor organizations, and human rights activists. No Logo was quickly adopted as the movement’s bible and, along with Nalgene water bottles and khaki cargo pants, became an essential part of the general-issue battle kit for campus lefties.
What are we to make of No Logo a decade on? It remains a passionate and ambitious snapshot of the newly globalized youth and consumer culture at the end of the 20th century. It is also an often infuriating work of agitprop that marries old Marxist prejudices about the market economy to a paranoid and conspiratorial account of the business of advertising.” [via Reason]
Since A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, Low End Theory, came out in 1991 I’ve been a fan. I can still remember the first time I saw the video for “Scenario”. The lines were clever—like Phife Dog’s of-the-moment opener, “Bo knows this and Bo knows that But Bo don’t know jack, cause Bo can’t rap”—and Busta Rhymes’ mesmerizing cameo. That year “Scenario” was on everyone’s mixtape. If you were in a car or at a party for more than 10 minutes, chances are you’d hear it.
Delving deeper, as fanatical teens are known to do, I liked them more and more. I loved their jazz samples and smart lyrics and stuck with them throughout the years, faithfully buying each album.
Earlier this year when I’d heard Michael Rapaport made a documentary about the group, I thought I’d heard wrong. Michael Rapaport? A Tribe Called Quest? Truly it was too awesome a pairing to be real.
For anyone who doesn’t know who Michael Rapaport is, he was usually the only white actor in 90s “black” movies, or “Hood films” as Wikipedia calls them, who wasn’t casted as a cop or corrupt politician. It was the era of Spike Lee and films like New Jack City, Boyz N the Hood, Above the Rim, and Menace II Society were huge; Rapaport was consistently authentic—he was the down white guy.
Beats, Rhymes & Life was Rapaport’s first time directing a film, a project that came about unintentionally. In passing, he’d mentioned to Q-Tip that someone needed to make a film about them. Q-Tip said, “do it”.
The first scene Michael shot became the film’s opening; the group was on their 2008 reunion tour. The footage shows the height of the group’s tension. Tribe had broken up in 1998, after their album The Love Movement was released. They’d known each other for nearly 30 years and spent 20 of those making music.
Q-Tip, Phife Dog, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were feeling the strain of living life as one entity. The film, however, is not about the group’s decline. Beats, Rhymes & Life doesn’t sensationalize the hard times, instead it’s a celebration of who this group was and what they meant to people.
When Rapaport looks back on Tribe’s early and glory days, he’s documenting the beginning—and rise—of hip hop, the revolution of the 80s, sparked by the radio. There were boomboxes on every stoop blasting DJ Red Alert, Run DMC, and LL Cool J—all influencers on Tribe’s style.
As Tribe’s sound became known on the street, in the venues, and on the radio, they, too, became the influential. Angie Martinez, Monie Love, the Beastie Boys, Common, Black Thought, and others all get on camera to tell stories and talk about what Tribe was to them. It made me remember how much fun East Coast hip hop was in the 90s.
In his interview with the New York Times, when asked if he thought it would be difficult to make a documentary about Tribe, Rapaport said, “Honestly, no. I was a little bit innocent about that,” which is exactly why he was the best man to shoot this film. Like Rapaport, A Tribe Called Quest always had an air of honesty and innocence. The group’s issues—largely isolated to Phife feelings towards Q-Tip, as the film shows—plays it out as a brotherly tiff, a misunderstanding between stubborn family members. Beats, Rhymes & Life is a trip down memory lane paved with love and affection.
Q&A with the New York Times
Q&A with PBS’s Art Beat
Q&A with WNYC’s Culture Editor
Interview on Sound of Young America
Interview on KCRW’s The Treatment
Interview on NPR’s All Things Considered
Interview on WNYC’s Soundcheck
New York Times review
A.V. Club review
What’s on the Shelf?
The Plot Against Hip Hop by Nelson George
“THE PLOT AGAINST HIP HOP is a noir novel set in the world of hip hop culture. The stabbing murder of esteemed music critic Dwayne Robinson in a Soho office building is dismissed by the NYPD as a gang initiation. But his old friend, bodyguard/security expert D Hunter, suspects there’s much more to his death. An old cassette tape, the theft of a manuscript Robinson was working on, and some veiled threats suggest there are larger forces at work.” [via Akashic] Review in Time Out New York. Interview at okayplayer.
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
“On the surface, Can’t Stop charts a smart history of the hip-hop movement as it’s come to be understood; Chang devotes a lot of attention to breakdancing and graffiti, as well as the music. Can’t Stop‘s real strength, however, derives from its big-picture vantage. Chang is a formidable reporter who follows individual actions to their collective vanishing point, such that principal figures like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Rakim, Public Enemy, and Ice Cube all wade in the lapping tides of black consciousness and political unrest. Chang’s approach to history seems to stem from a question he poses in regard to dub, the remixed reggae sound whose focus on shadows helped set the stage for hip-hop: ‘What kind of mirror is it that reflects everything but the person looking into it?’” [via The AV Club]
The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop by Dan Charnas
“Pulitzer-level reporting — Charnas interviewed more than 300 subjects — brings to life the story of the dollars behind the ballers in this absorbing account of hip-hop’s transformation from South Bronx cottage industry to multibillion-dollar global business.” [via Spin]
Interview on Fresh Air. Interview on Sound of Young America. Interview at Fader.
Decoded by Jay-Z
“. . . ‘Decoded’ is much better than it needs to be; in fact, it’s one of a handful of books that just about any hip-hop fan should own. Jay-Z explains not only what his lyrics mean but how they sound, even how they feel . . .” [via New Yorker]
Interview on Fresh Air. Video of Jay-Z in conversation with Cornell West at the New York Public Library (opens with sound).
Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label by Bill Adler, Dan Charnas, and Rick Rubin; Introduction by Russell Simmons
“Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label is a colossal read, with its oversize width reminiscent of a vinyl sleeve. But the inside isn’t daunting; in fact, it’s alluring, with photography steeped in the record company’s storied first years, alongside words from some of hip-hop’s historic moguls, such as Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin and Kevin Liles. With a relentless attention to aesthetic, Def Jam pays homage to both its past as a corporation and the past of the genre that it helped build.” [via The Root] Listen to Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons on NPR’s Weekend Edition.
What’s on your shelf this week? Comments are open.
If you’re looking for a take down of the New York Times, Page One: Inside the New York Times, is not for you. This documentary, which premiered at Sundance in January and is now available on DVD, is a look at the future of the newspaper industry through the lens of the New York Times’ media editors and reporters.
Director Andrew Rossi, previously the Associate Producer of Control Room, the 2004 documentary about Al Jazeera, had 14 months of considerable access at the Times. His footage even includes scenes from the twice-daily meetings where executives and desk editors meet to decide what stories would make it onto the front page, the coveted spot after which the movie is named.
When asked by The Huffington Post why he allowed Rossi such access, Bill Keller, who was the paper’s Executive Editor at the time of filming, said, “Andrew had what sounded like a smart angle — follow the media desk as it covers the implosion of our own industry”. More importantly, perhaps, “Andrew passed [David Carr’s] smell test.”
For those of you who don’t already who know David Carr is, you will by the end of the film. Former editor of the Twin Cities Reader and the Washington City Paper, now media columnist for the paper, David is the star of the film. He’s brash, incisive, scrappy—and incredibly likable. Despite his rough demeanor, he’s a fair journalist. In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Carr explains that he doesn’t trick sources into giving him good quotes. He doesn’t feed them false pleasantries hoping to lower their guard. If the story’s going to be a rough one, he tells them so they have a chance to defend themselves.
Carr’s media desk cohorts include Brian Stelter, a former anonymous blogger now Times reporter known for his fantastic Twitter skills, reporter Richard Perez-Pena, and department editor Bruce Headlam. Together, with a few other contributors, they form the site’s Media Decoder blog, which according the Times is “an insider’s guide to the media industry . . . a showcase for the extensive media coverage throughout The New York Times and a window on how the business of connecting with consumers is changing in the digital age.”
The film sets out to chart the wave of uncertainty that swept the newspaper industry starting in 2008—and continues to this day. As part of the investigation into new media’s role in people’s consumption of news and the status of traditional news outlets, Wikileaks acts as a case study. As the paper who released the Pentagon Papers 30 years earlier, Times reporters and news analysts are able to make direct comparisons.
The film allows the editors at the paper to discuss the gaffes that had taken place in quick succession—the Judith Miller Iraq War reporting and the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal—in their own words and how they affected traditional media’s integrity.
In a short segment on the encroaching online outlets both Gawker founder, Nick Denton, and Arianna Huffington, owner of The Huffington Post, said the future of the media is giving people what they want to read. Notable push back on this philosophy, one of hit-driven content, came from former Baltimore City reporter and Wire creator David Simon and Katrina vanden Heuval, Editor and Publisher of the liberal weekly magazine The Nation. ProPublica, an independent, non-profit investigative news outlet was praised for its model and efforts: serious reporting on issues that matter to the health of civil society and their willingness to partner with traditional media outlets for occasional content and distribution.
Also worth mentioning are the interviews with Clay Shirky, a prominent thinker on Internet technologies, and Jeff Jarvis, similarly, a media theorist, both of whom play something of a foil to the more positive predictions for traditional media outlets.
For media junkies, the talk about the future of print journalism, the behind-the-scenes footage, and David Carr’s show-stealing personality makes this documentary well-worth watching. Highly recommended for a lazy Sunday.
Page One’s official website
Page One on Netflix
Q&A with Andrew Rossi
David Carr and Andrew Rossi on NPR’s Morning Edition
David Carr on Fresh Air
David Carr on Twitter
Brian Stelter on Twitter
Michael Kinsley’s review of the film for the New York Times
Review on NPR’s All Things Considered
On the Shelf: books by people featured in the film
David Carr is outspoken about his history with drug addiction. He speaks a bit about it in the film. In this book.
“In his ambition for connection Mr. Carr decides to report on his own life as if That Guy were a stranger. If This Guy can’t clearly see That Guy through the chemical and temporal blur, perhaps others can. Across many months, equipped with tape recorder and video camera, he tracks down figures from his past: friends, antagonists (including old editors), drug dealers, former girlfriends, members of his immediate family. He even interviews his own daughters. He hopes all of them will fill in some of the blanks. For the most part they do. The emerging self-portrait is not pretty.” [Pete Hamill via New York Times]
Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators by Clay Shirky
“Shirky’s hypothesis is that a lot of the 20th century stuff we used to take for granted — most people didn’t want to create media, people didn’t value homemade and amateur productions, no one would pitch in to create something for others to enjoy unless they were being paid — weren’t immutable laws of nature, but accidents of history. The Internet has undone those accidents, by making it possible for more people to make and do cool stuff, especially together. . . . Cognitive Surplus fizzes with great insights about how people use networks and interact with each other [and] continues to prove that Clay Shirky is one of the best thinkers and advocates the net has. It’s a delight to read and will change how you think about the future.” [via BoingBoing]
You can check out his profile and videos at TED
Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way we Work and Live by Jeff Jarvis
“Privacy has its advocates. Jeff Jarvis has made himself an advocate for publicness. In Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way we Work and Live, the original Internet optimist argues that if we become too obsessed with guarding all personal information on the ‘Net, we’ll miss important opportunities that come with making information available.” [via Fortune at CNN Money]
You can listen to an interview with Jeff about his book on the Six Pixels of Separation podcast
The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution That Influences the World by Gay Talese
Gay Talese, a former reporter for the Times, appeared in the film. He also wrote a book about the paper.
“The classic inside story of The New York Times, the most prestigious, and perhaps the most powerful, of all American newspapers. Bestselling author Talese lays bare the secret internal intrigues behind the tradition of front page exposes in a story as gripping as a work of fiction and as immediate as today’s headlines.” [IndieBound]
What’s on your shelf? Comments are open.
“Using the low-key approach that shapes Cunningham’s column, Press works up a portrait that’s as raw, gentle, funny, and—in the end—irresistible as the pictures themselves.” —Slate
If you don’t follow fashion you could be forgiven for not knowing who Bill Cunningham is. Forgiven—but not off the hook. There is even less of an excuse now that a fascinating documentary has been made about his life and work. In Bill Cunningham New York (Zeitgeist Films) Director Richard Press has captured a truly charming character who could have easily been overlooked by the wider public—and what a shame that would have been.
Although famously praised by Vogue’s Anna Wintour and given front row seating to all the fashion shows in the US and abroad, Bill, the legendary New York Times fashion photographer, is not one of these ascot-donning, private car-hiring types. Instead, this octogenarian can be seen riding his bicycle through New York City traffic in a blue smock normally worn by Parisian street cleaners—both of which point to his ascetic lifestyle beautifully captured on screen.
It might be easier to think of Bill not as a fashion photographer for one of the largest newspapers in the world, but as someone he more closely resembles: a street photographer. All day he roams the city looking for themes: hats, flowers, colors, patterns, whatever appears to be trending at the moment. His photos are candid and rarely, if ever, posed.
Every Sunday in the New York Times Style Section, Bill’s thematic photos are collected and carefully arranged. The painstaking process, also given time in the film, is both humorous and endearing. Aside from the shots of ordinary, and sometimes extraordinary, people, Bill is the man behind the week’s gala event pictures. One’s heart melts when you hear Bill explain that he chooses which to go to based on the good of the organization, not on who is attending as one would assume.
This sharp divide between the notion of the fashion industry and one of its most-loved is what makes this film so compelling to those outside of this seemingly glamorous culture. Bill Cunningham is one of the most genuine characters I’ve ever seen, a humanizing force in a world viewed as vapid and materialistic. All should be grateful to Press for taking the time to capture him on film.
After you watch this documentary, you’ll never miss the Sunday Style section again.
Baltimore native John Waters, the filmmaker brought to mainstream fame with his movie Hairspray, featuring Ricki Lake, Divine, and Sonny Bono, is currently on tour promoting the paperback edition of Role Models. While most of us think of Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, and JFK when we hear that phrase, Waters, a true subversive, thinks of Little Richard, Johnny Mathis, and Leslie Van Houten, a former Manson girl still in prison for murders she committed under the influence of one of the world’s most notorious psychopaths. John still advocates for her release today.
If you’re not fortunate enough to catch him in San Fran, LA, or Baltimore, you should check out his interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air, WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show, and WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. And while you should definitely check out the films he’s directed and produced, his stand up on This Filthy World, now available for streaming on Netflix, is amazing.
exit through the gift shop is as entertaining as Banksy’s art, and warrants the same double take
the elusive street artist Banksy has earned an incredible amount of recognition over the past few years. his public displays of political satire have since expanded from the confides of his hometown, bristol. the attention reached new heights when, in 2005, he painted nine ironic images onto the separation wall in the west bank. before that he’d caused a stir at a number of prominent museums in new york and one in brooklyn when he put a few paintings of his own up on the walls. now, the documentary exit through the gift shop, which he both stars in and is given credit for directing, is up for an Oscar.
for people unfamiliar with the big names in street art—shepard fairey, hands-down the most recognizable in the film; space invader, a true up-and-comer; swoon, a woman who knows how to use a haunting image; and ron english, a contemporary artist who turns pop-advertising on its head—this documentary is a great intro not only to the cast of deviant characters and their works but also to the essence of the movement: a rebellious world where smart asses and class clowns reign.
street artists—whether they use paint, stencils, or mixed media installations—go to great lengths to thwart fines, arrest, and injury; most of the time it’s hard to tell if they do it in spite of or because of the risks involved. these talented and determined artists use the street as their canvas. they don’t create for the money but will most likely admit that fame plays a factor. Fame: not in the lindsay lohan and lady gaga sense but fame: the ubiquity of their signature character or style. like puppies on the first day in a new home they tag every spot, leaving no corner, wall, or fixed object unmarked; the harder to reach the better. even when a person’s technique or image isn’t the best, if they reach new levels of visibility, they earn respect.
this is why thierry guetta, a frenchman living in los angeles, is the perfect documentor for an authentic film on street art. just like the people he follows, he’s driven to take it one step further.
from the day thierry held his first video camera, the context of its arrival now forgotten, it became an appendage. this new extension was always on, filming every moment to the annoyance of strangers and movie stars, and to the resignation of family members.
as luck would have it, one of those family members, thierry’s cousin, is the french artist space invader. during a visit to france, thierry collects footage of invader’s stealth gluing adventures. space invader, for all who have not yet had the pleasure of spying his work, is the creator of small mosaics featuring much-loved 1980s video game characters. these tiled squares, ranging from small to medium in size, have since made their way to many cities around the world—berlin, bangkok, bilbao, lyon, los angeles, and new york.
in a scene where the camera is turned on the filmmaker the audience is privvy to thierry’s sincere appreciation for what his cousin is doing; pasting up art in a public space for all to enjoy without having to pay an entrance fee. the experience changes him, his focus, and sparks an obsession; all of which only adds to his quirky charm.
thierry, obviously prone to obsessive behavior, digs deeper into the haphazard project, stubbornly pursuing and building relationships with the top names in the industry.
his first non-familial subject is shepard fairey, a connection made in 2002 through space invader. thierry goes to kinkos where shepard is printing out large sheets of his trademark image: a tightly-cropped face of wrestling legend Andre the Giant with the vague command, “obey,” written overhead. shepard had become used to increased media attention, his art having been recognizable for a few years at that point, but repeat interviews was something new and like any sane person, after a few mildly-intrusive days with the odd frenchman, shepard questions thierry about his plans.
thierry claims he’s working on a documentary about street art; fairey, convinced, allows him unprecedented, near-continuous access. soon thierry takes off for days at a time, leaving his wife and three kids at home, to travel the world documenting shepard’s wheatpasting escapades.
through thierry’s adventure videography, and because of his unrelenting desire to capture everything, viewers experience the streets with these graffiti-world heroes, witnessing firsthand what it’s like to scale the highest point of a building, dodge the police, and remain incognito—sometimes unsuccessfully—while committing unlawful acts, often on a large scale.
after embarking on a dogged pursuit thierry tracks down Banksy, the one artist notorious for keeping his face out of the press. his encounter with the indispensable figure, who appears on film only in the shadows and with his voice digitally altered, fundamentally changes the course of the film (or, the film that wasn’t, to be more precise).
in 2006, the art world experienced a shock: banksy’s show, “barely legal,” drew lines which, until that time, were reserved only for major museum exhibit openings. adding to the awe, the line wasn’t just for the first night, it persisted for three consecutive days; and even more incredible, it was in a warehouse located in downtown LA’s skid row, an area that contains one of the largest homeless populations in the US. big-time collectors started coming out to auction houses and paying good money for these pieces that were once categorized as crude vandalism. but now shepard fairey’s work hung side-by-side with rothko’s in the homes of international elites.
concerned with the commercialization of the work, banksy told thierry it was the time to finish the documentary—to show the artists for the anti-establishment, adrenaline addicts that they were and not some money-seeking flashes in the pan.
nearly a thousand, possibly more, hours of tape sat in thierry’s garage, uncategorized and abandoned without future. under pressure thierry does something he never expected: he edits the footage into a full-length feature; the end product is akin to acid visions on speed. filmmaker thierry is not but compulsive collector his is and banksy, with the eye and instincts of a world-class artist, takes over, turning the camera on thierry in the process.
along the way thierry had come up with his own character, an image of himself with a video camera, and had begun stickering and stenciling alongside his mentors. with this in mind banksy sends thierry back to LA with the idea of curating an art show in his head. it was a way of getting thierry out of his hair so he could sift through the footage but thierry, apparently very literal-minded, took it as a direct order. moving full-steam ahead as his newly-adopted street art persona, mr. brainwash, what becomes of thierry is comical—or horrific—depending on your sense of humor. rather quickly he sets up a studio ala warhol, hiring artists to create his mashed up visions pulled from a variety of art books and pop culture resources.
the speculation surrounding the film has become trite. skeptics believe banksy staged it all as another one of his sarcasm-soaked critiques of society. it probably didnt help that around the same time, joaquin phoenix came out with a documentary that supposedly followed him during his alleged nervous breakdown. both were a hoax, confirmed by the director and mentally-healthy star a few days after it hit the theaters. real street art fans won’t care; after all, they crave intelligent, well-crafted pranks; and anyway, exit through the gift shop, is so amazingly absurd it can’t help but be genuine.
exit through the gift shop‘s official site
interview with producer and editor on KCRW’s the treatment
space invader’s website
extra special thanks to laughing squid for running a giveaway of the dvd, which i won
it doesn’t feel natural to me to like science fiction. i was never a superhero person. i liked Archie Comics. the characters were super-normal teens with super-normal problems. archie had confusing issues with two girls, betty and veronica (who may or may not have been best friends). jughead, an asexual, skinny hamburger-lover was chased relentlessly by gawky, love-struck “big” ethel. there was nothing fantastical about it. i tend to enjoy realism. i watch dramas. i read biography, science, and politics. i think using Photoshop is cheating. yet, i felt as if i was missing out on something.
i came across Heroes before i knew it could be classified as sci-fi. it didnt hit me until after i was nearly done with the series that that’s precisely what it is. it’s format is inspired by a marvel/dc-type comic book. i absolutely loved this show. the characters are layered and the creepy cliffhangers will hook you. it was a sad day to see this one end. now available at netflix for instant viewing.
Blade Runner, the book. i have the movie in vhs format but never got around to watching it. a few weekends ago, listening to podcasts, i’d heard novelist jonathan lethem talk about philip k. dick, the classic sci-fi author. i was already headed to the bookstore but never thought i’d go to the science fiction section. it was an odd feeling. all those so-called boy books. i headed straight to D on the shelf with the title jonathan mentioned in mind. i couldnt quite bring myself to buy it but was forever chronicled by my camera phone. the following week i was early for a train to long island. i found a place to sit outside and looked in my bag for something to read. after half-grabbing at what i saw i realized i didnt feel like reading anything i’d brought with me. in normal circumstances i wouldve made do but at that moment i was staring straight at the Penn Plaza Borders. ‘just buy a cheap mass market’, i thought to myself. surely a $7.99 paperback in a time of reading-material-crisis wouldnt count towards my terrible book hoarding habit.
sci-fi is notorious for it’s mass market format. the small, cheap throwaways. and luckily, probably due to their popularity, the section was on the first floor, across from the cashier. i dug through my mental index and came up with a few names: gaiman, bradbury, asimov, dick. as i made a quick round through the alphabet, i had a few books in my hands but nothing that stood out, until i saw Blade Runner. i never knew philip k. dick wrote it, an embarrassing oversight by someone who owns the vhs. with a deep sense of shame in tow, i made my way to the checkout counter, hoping the guy or girl ringing me up wouldn’t mock me, silently, for jumping on the Blade Runner bandwagon a few decades too late.
i’m almost finished with it and can definitely say it’s worth reading if you’re curious about sci-fi. the humans in the story have this quirky fascination for animals. before the author makes it clear why, you get a sense that they’ve become scarce. you soon find out why. the bounty hunter, our protagonist, has an electric sheep but leads his neighbor to believe it’s real. live animals are more expensive than the knock-offs so having one speaks to your social status. their religion is interesting too. although kept in the background and semi-vague, the people have something called Mercerism, named after its creator and figurehead. it appears to tranquilize the people and give a feeling of communalism, although through a solitary, sterile process.
the action takes place in the story of the bounty hunter and the hunted. the human and the androids. robots—androids—are used by the humans for mundane tasks but increasingly, they’re becoming more like humans and getting harder to tell apart. if this book hadnt been written in 1968, the premise would seem stale, but it works and stays fresh this many years later.
definitely a great intro to sci-fi literature.
To the Best of Our Knowledge: Writers on Writing – Jonathan Lethem discusses Philip K. Dick
i was in my favorite bookstore yesterday looking for the dvd of Examined Life (opens with video). turns out, it hasn’t been released yet but while i was looking over the videos they had on display, one caught my eye: Objectified. it had a bunch of simple, everyday images in black on the cover. the sticker on the cellophane said something like, “from the director of Helvetica“. being that i am a Netflix subscriber, i made sure to write down both film titles so i could put them in my queue when i got home.
as luck would have it, Helvetica was available for instant viewing, meaning i could play it on my computer at any time. so i watched it that night.
the film opens with typeface blocks cut from steel, a man inking them, rolling a press over them, and showing the end product – a fresh, black, inky ‘Helvetica’ in Helvetica on a piece of white paper. then, Times Square. it turns out that Helvetica is all around us and about 30 minutes into the film, it started to feel a bit oppressive. not the movie, but the fact that we are surrounded – overwhelmingly – with one typeface. i have a fear of walking outside my apartment and going mad from the oneness of our society’s choice in signage.
but, as the film goes on to show, there are reasons to embrace Helvetica. it is bold, clean, and easy to read. it is also the product of the “Swiss style,” which means it is very much concerned with the ‘figure-ground relationship,’ adding to it’s aesthetically pleasing presentation. the pro-Helvetica camp interviewed for the film even went so far as to philosophize about it’s rationality. to the pro-Helvetica camp, Helvetica is perfection.
i must say, i was buying it. i thought back to my zine days where i would toy with my font choices and even handwrite a few things. was i wrong? unwise to the supreme status of Helvetica? i was almost about to drop all my typeface-adventurism when in walked the anti-Helvetica camp – or the ‘we’re-just-not-that-into-you’ camp.
one of these revolutionaries has been my long-time design hero, david carson. i found myself cheering him on, like the dorky kid in class secretly willing the class clown to do the things she’d never dream of doing herself. david carson played with text. it looked weird, it overlapped, it didnt always make sense but it was art. it was rebellion textified.
but, as with many things, there was no simple answer. the pro and the anti camps kept coming back, intertwining and making their equally compelling cases. in the end, i came away with a shocking awareness of just how prevalant and profound something as unassuming as typeface can be.
the quality of Helvetica is astounding. the framing of the shots, the conversations from and observations of the world-renowned designers make this history of a runaway font thought-provoking and entertaining.