Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Cronos (1993) d. Guillermo del Toro

The Cronos device, from Cronos d. Guillermo del Toro

Movie Review
Cronos (1993)
d. Guillermo del Toro
Criterion Collection #551
Uploaded to Criterion Collection Hulu Streaming on August 26th, 2013.

  One of the many cool things about Criterion Collection/Hulu Plus is that they pop a new movie up every single day.  Not all of them are Criterion Collection titles proper, but every so often you get a big score.  Such was the case earlier this week when Guillermo del Toro's first feature, Cronos, went up- along with multiple of the DVD extras.

  It's clear to me now that one of the things Criterion Collection does is advocate on behalf of some directors who are arguably Auteurs.  They are clearly all in on Guillermo del Toro, having now given two of his films the Criterion Collection treatment.  The other film is The Devil's Backbone.  That films recent release was probably the impetus for Cronos being uploaded this week.

  If you watch the included DVD extras, you can see the case being made for del Toro as an Auteur.  Particularly compelling in that regard is the included interview with Director of Photography Guillermo Navarro, who describes the young del Toro as having "everything ready to go" before production even started.  He also discusses how del Toro, working in Guadalajara Mexico, designed his own special effects because there was no one else to do it.

  I've been a del Toro fan from the drop.  I remember watching a regular old VHS version of Cronos back in the 1990s, and I positively leapt at the chance to interview del Toro when he was doing press for the regrettable flop Mimic (starring Mira Sorvino!)  Of course, it was Pan's Labyrinth (2006) that really brought him to the attention of the Hollywood elite and then there are a handful of mass market films: Blade II, Hellboy I and II and Pacific Rim from this summer.

  In his own interview that is included in the Hulu Plus stream package, del Toro discusses how all of the themes from his later work are present in his first feature, and how that's how he wanted it to be- to have everything from his universe present in the first film.  Particularly germane to his later success is his connection to the dark side of a fairy tale- how a child can be a part of a dark story (Cronos is about Vampires) and still infuse the proceedings with a gentleness that belies the subject matter.

  He also discusses how he likes "sad monsters" and uses the example from this film of the vampire from Cronos, Jesus Gris (played by Argentinian actor Federico Luppi) licking up blood for the bathroom floor.  It's true, you can't get sadder then that.  The jury is still out on del Toro as an Auteur. Methinks he needs a little less Pacific Rim and a little more Pan's Labyrinth, but it is still too soon to judge.  I'm sure there will be more personal films like Cronos, The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth in the future, intermixed with his more predictable genre exercises.  Personally, I liked Pacific Rim.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nothing Tells The Truth Like Pre-Sale Tickets

 When you are in the business of popular music you look for indications of success that aren't susceptible to manipulation.  For example, Facebook friends and Twitter followers can be faked, Last FM total plays and users can't.  Spotify plays can not.

  One indicator which is just brutally, brutally honest is ticket pre-sales.  Man, there is no denying what ticket pre-sales tell you about the comparative popularity of two Artists.  It's only within the past six months that I've had access to both national and local pre sale figures really poses existential questions.  Sure, walk up is great, and sell outs based on walk up is great, but it is a big difference between doing that and selling out a month in advance.  And it is great if you sell out a 200-300 person venue, but let's be honest... you are probably treading water unless you can sell 10x that number of tickets.

  But I now have access to local pre sale tickets in both San Diego and Los Angeles, and access to national and international pre-sales, and then I kind of keep track of sell outs in other markets and the size of venues and man the news is just always brutal.  It's also truth about the real popularity of a specific Artist.

Born In Exile by George Gissing

English author George Gissing

Book Review
Born In Exile
by George Gissing
p. 1892

 Consider the character of the alienated intellectual. If you had only read literature of the 20th century, you might assume that such a figure has played a central role in the development of the novel as an art form, so prominent is his/her position in the great works of the 20th and 21st century.  And yet this character is relatively recent development, with sporadic appearances in French literature, a more significant role in Russian literature and almost entirely absent in British literature until George Gissing hit the scene.  Gissing actually wrote two novels that essentially created this character:  He published New Grub Street in 1891, and Born In Exile in 1892.   New Grub Street is an incredibly bleak look at the entire life and times of a failed novelist.  Born In Exile is a less despairing look at a similar figure- but this time the main guy is a scientist and would-be clergyman rather then a writer.

 Godwin Peak is a man born to lower/middle class parents.  He quickly demonstrates an aptitude for study and begins course work at a nearby college, only to have his dreams thwarted when a Cockney Uncle opens up a restaurant across the street from his college.  Of course he quits college rather then put up with a lower class relative opening up a restaurant nearby, it makes perfect sense!

 After leaving school, he suffers multiple crises of faith before deciding to pursue a clerical career, only to have his plan wrecked by this earlier dabbling in religious criticism, which is brought to the attention of his clerical sponsors.  Unlike New Grub Street, which ends in utter misery, Born In Exile has a marginally less depressing finale where Peak inherits money from the sister of a friend, and is able to travel the world where he dies...also in Exile.  Do you see the irony there?  Because the book is called Born In Exile?  And he also Dies in Exile?  Maybe irony isn't the right word.  Symmetry, I suppose.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

List of Important Japanese Films 1950-1973

     I think movie reviews of Japanese films are the least popular subject I cover on my blog.  So far I've watched six films via the Criterion Collection: Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kwaidan, Samurai I & II & Good Morning.   Then I've got three scheduled in September: High and Low, Rashomon & The Seven Samurai.  Then I've got three scheduled in October: Double Suicide, The Hidden Fortress & Samurai III.  Yeah.  I spread them out because they are so very, very unpopular.  The Ozu review (Good Morning) got 17 page views.  17.  That is embarrassing.  The most popular review is Yojimbo, published in June, with 84 views.

  I figure... maybe it is because I'm not doing Japanese cinema justice, that I am ignorant.  The same goes for many of the discrete areas of world cinema: Italian neo-realism would be another example.  I don't see any value to watching these movies other then them being great art.  It truly seems like not a soul I know in the world could give two shits about Japanese film, but does that mean I ignore it?

  Last time I was in Los Angeles I went to a few used books stores to look for a cheap, college-level text that provided summaries of the different genres of World Cinema.  I found A History of Film by Jack C. Ellis, published by Prentice-Hall, which I believe is an educational house.  Each chapter ends with a list of the important films, and I think it is quite a useful resource for what I'm doing.

  Another interesting aspect of Japanese films on Criterion Collection/Hulu Plus is that they are 100% streaming.  There are some countries where it is almost 100% the other way- films from the U.K.- for example- very few of those titles are available streaming.

  Ultiimately though I think one of the things you do if you are actually into Art vs. just being a poser who likes to hang out with cool people, is you take it on yourself to learn about new kinds of art with which were previously unfamiliar.  And Japanese cinema fits that bill.  So the fact that it is unpopular to readers of this blog is irrelevant.

 Here is the list for Japanese films between 1950-1973 (Date of review)

Rashomon (Kurosawa) (September 11th, 2013)

Ikiru (Kurosawa) Criterion Collection #221 !
The Life of O'Haru (Mizoguchi) Criterion Collection #664 !

Gate of Hell (Kinugasa)Criterion Collection #653 !
Tokyo Story (Ozu) Criterion Collection #217 !
Ugetsu (Mizoguchi) Criterion Collection #309 !

Chickamatsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi)
The Bailiff (Mizoguchi) Criterion Collection #386 !
Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)(September 18th, 2013)

The Harp of Burma (Ichikawa) Criterion Collection #379 !

The Lower Depths (Kurosawa) Criterion Collection #239 !
The Throne of Blood (Kurosawa) Criterion Collection #190 !

Conflagration (Ickikawa)

Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa) Criterion Collection #378 !

An Autumn Afternoon (Ozu) Criterion Collection #446 !
The Human Condition (Kobayashi) Criterion Collection #480 !
Onibaba (Shindo) Criterion Collection #226 !
Woman of the Dunes (Teshighara) Criterion Collection #394 !

Red Beard (Kurosawa) Criterion Collection #159 !

Death by Hanging (Oshima)
Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Oshima)

Boy (Oshima)
Double Suicide (Shinoda) (October 7th, 2013)

Dodeska-den (Kurosawa) Criterion Collection #465 !

The Ceremony (Oshima)

Dersu Uzala (Kurosawa)
Kaeski (Kobayashi)
Realm of the Senses (Oshima) Criterion Collection #446 !

! = Available on Hulu Plus

Marketa Lazarová (1967) d. František Vlácil

Magda Vášáryová plays Marketa in Marketa Lazarova.

Movie Review
Marketa Lazarová (1967)
 d. František Vlácil
Criterion Collection #661
Criterion Collection edition released June 18th, 2013

    In Portland the week Marketa Lazarová  was released by the Criterion Collection (fathers day), I went to the Art Museum and perused their events circular.  I was surprised to see that the film division was featuring films from the Czech republic.  Prior to reading that circular, I was arguably unaware that such a thing as "Czech film" even existed.  Sure, I might have been able to identify Milos Forman as a Czech film film maker, but beyond that?  No way.

  Independent of learning about the existence of Czech cinema from a random circular at the Portland Art Museum, I've actually begun to watch the films on Criterion Collection Hulu Plus.  First there was Closely Watched Trains, which is a kind of Czech take on a 400 Blows style French new wave coming of age film.  Now there is Marketa Lazarová which is as different from Closely Watched Trains as Andrei Rublev is from When Cranes Fly (Woop Woop Russian Cinema Reference!)

  Marketa Lazarová is a sprawling medieval epic, a kind of Czech cowboys-and-indians saga set in the early Middle Ages before Christianity had really taken the Western Slavs by the throat. The conflict in Marketa Lazarová is between Pagan Czech Robber Barons and the German backed King (represented by his envoy, Captain Beer.)

  There is a ton of back story to this film- it's adapted from a Novel written by Vladislav Vančura, a Czech author who is interesting in his own right as a main mover in the Czech modernist art world. The Novel is a most peculiar beast, a kind of modern take on Epic literature with a wry sense of self awareness.  Apparently, the source material is humorous/sardonic, but that sense of humor is lacking from the film, which comes across as very straight.

  In addition to the voluminous back story, Marketa Lazarova has technical aspects that lend it an otherworldly field beyond the strangeness that a medieval Czech epic about a conflict between Pagans and Christians naturally evokes.  For one thing, the vocals are both dubbed and echoed- something I've never seen in a film before.  The characters practically speak with reverb.  A strange, strange creative choice but hard to say it doesn't work.  The whole movie is a gd magical experience.  I would consider buying the DVD itself if I owned a blu ray DVD player which I don't.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Auteur Theory, DIY & Bedroom Indie

  Auteur Theory, like "Post-Modernism," and "Gothic" is a good example of a critical concept that transcends art forms.  Auteur Theory was developed by film critics in Paris to describe the personality of a films creator transcending the compromises required by the industrial nature of the production and distribution of films. (1)

 As I've watched dozens of Criterion Collection titles from decades of Cinema, I've had ample time to muse on the meaning of Auteur theory and what, if any, relationship it has to the Artists I've worked with in the music business.  It occurred to me early on that some of the Artists I've worked with: Best Coast, Dum Dum Girls, Crocodiles, Dirty Beaches, had many of the characteristics of the film auteur in that they were controlling all stages of the recording and distribution of their Art, albeit at a  "DIY" level.

  In a very real sense, every unsuccessful Artist can be considered an Auteur- Auteur status typically comes only after a film maker has succeeded.  Auteur status is often confirmed AFTER the qualifying works are released, and one of the important currents in film criticism is the continuing struggle over whether a specific film maker can be considered an Auteur or not.

  Because of the industrial nature of film production and distribution, the desire to control every aspect of the creation of a work of art may be compromised by other needs by other players.  This is well documented within the world of popular music.  It is almost taken for granted that the involvement of larger players with musicians: major labels, management, public relations, will result in that musicians ceding important parts of their artistic identity to a third party.

 This process is so taken for granted within the world of Popular Music that there has essentially been no attempt to apply Auteur Theory analysis to musicians.  To apply Auteur principles to any Top 40 Artist borders on the absurd.

  On the other hand if you look at recent trends in the DIY/Indie area of music, technology has enabled an entire generation of bedroom indie Artists whose rise relates directly to the standard definition of "Auteur," creating a work in an industrial production/distribution arrangement where the vision is solely/primarily that of the Auteur.

  There are also Top 40 Artists, particularly those within the world of hip hop, who would likely claim Auteur status if you asked them.  I'm sure Kanye West would call himself an Auteur. (2)

  In conclusion, the point of this analysis is to suggest that when you are evaluating a new Artist, it's important to consider the extent to which that Artist has the makings of an Auteur, i.e. the ability and wherewithal to control every aspect of their production and distribution.  This is a facility that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with talent, in fact the world is littered with Auteurs who are unsuccessful because their vision is not compelling to anyone.


(1) Auteur Theory Wikipedia page.
(2) Kanye Weste Auteur Google Search.

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

The Invisible Man, film version.

Book Review
The Invisible Man
by H.G. Wells
p. 1897

  Investigating the origins of art genres is always worthwhile. Considering how important genre and classification are in any field of art criticism, it behooves an interested individual to have an idea of how genres start and be familiar with Artists who themselves create genres.  You might think of Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock in the field of painting. And while you might argue that H.G. Wells didn't invent science fiction, he is almost certainly responsible for the creation of the genre osf fiction that we today refer to as "science fiction."   His best known stories involve a plot that revolves around a perhaps plausible scientific innovation whose presence triggers whatever story he is going to tell.

 Here, it is the invention by the invisible man himself, called Griffin, of a method to render human substance transparent by means of a poorly described chemical reaction.  The Invisible Man often reads like a variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, except Griffin is a permanent Mr. Hyde.  The Invisible Man is obviously considered a classic because of its enduring popularity because the plot mechanics are very awkward.

  The Invisible Man starts with Griffin arriving at a provincial inn.  He is soon discovered and has to flee the town.  He goes to Port Burdock and tells his story in a long winded flashback to his former classmate Dr. Kemp.  The story then returns to the present and Griffin is hunted and captured, returning to his visible self.

 During the lengthy mid novella flashback, it becomes clear that Griffin is a psycho- he blows up the house of his landlord, violently assaults children for no reason and is quick to administer  an invisible beating.  Griffin is not a sympathetic character struggling with a dual identity, he is a "monster" in the vein of Dracula.   This creation of unsympathetic/monstrous villains is a key development in genre fiction, and is an approach that novels like The Invisible Man (and Dracula) passed straight through to Hollywood, where the "movie villain" convention became firmly established as a character archetype. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Status Update 2013 Experiences in the Popular Music Business

   It may seem strange to write a year end summary in late August, but it truly is the end of my year.  If you are on the lower rungs of the popular music business the entire last quarter of the year is essentially blacked out.  September is blacked out because of the level of competition from the upper rungs of the Popular Music Business ladder.  October and November are blacked out because the attention of the Audience is weak, and December is blacked out because the holidays make scheduling and distribution difficult.  On the other end of the year January and February are possible times but pretty weak.  That leaves the heart of the calendar for a lower level Music Business entity: March through August.   How many releases can a record label be expected to make in this six month period.  One?  Two? Certainly not more then three.

 This year it was two releases, one in May and one in August.  Both releases brought home the fact that the record business has only two categories of releases: Those which do not have an established Audience and those that do.  Releasing records of new bands without an established Audience is the most difficult thing in the world to do.  Success rates are very low, and the costs are very high.  On the other hand, releasing the record of a band with an established audience- NO MATTER THE SIZE OF THAT AUDIENCE- is essentially a given in terms of simply being an accounting exercise and an attempt to expand the size of that particular Audience for the next effort.

 Any record company business model which is built on the premise of the ability to discover new acts is doomed to failure for multiple reasons.  First, the over all success rate is low, the chance of generating profit is even lower. Second, a position on the lower rungs of the Music Business ladder is tantamount to being plankton in the ocean: You get eaten by everything, so the odds of losing an Artist once you break them is very high.  Third, and this is something I've been thinking about a lot: Time passes you by.

    Consider that there are two target demographics that comprise more then 90% of the Audience for new music:  18-24, 25-34.

    If you then say that a record label started in 2009, by 2013 you are already into the second half of that first demographic category.  In other words, you've lost 30% of your initial Audience.  The new people in that 18-24 demographic don't know shit about you unless you are a Top 40 Artist.  There is no reason for that new cohort to favor your product at the expense of a competing product.

   Locally, I've seen this happen with Burger Records- which is way, way, way more popular then anything I've been affiliated with in terms of a record label.  At the same time, I'm conscious that their popularity is akin to the popularity of a band, and doesn't reflect a strong retail presence outside of cool tape displays in some discerning retail environments.  Also, I know they signed a distribution agreement with Sony/Red Eye distribution, and if asked I would say that was a mistake.  But at the same time, when I actually talk to people at the lower end of the 18-34 age range, they all talk about Burger Records, so you can assume that national retail presence will follow. (1)  And I am impressed by their reach on social media: 25 thousand Facebook friends- 25x what Zoo Music has.

  I suppose it is that fact alone that might motivate a record label to continue to try to break new bands, on the theory that they will at least secure an Audience for that product at the lower end of the 18-34 range.   But something I've realized is that achieving even a tiny modicum of success breeds complacency almost instantly- more than anything else.  In fact, success and complacency practically require one another- they are co-dependent.

  So I know that even as I achieve some small amount of that success in the record business, the basis of that success is evaporating.  It's the equivalent of an Indiana Jones films where Harrison Ford is running with the floor collapsing behind him as he runs.  Maybe you make it to the other side, or maybe you plunge to your death. That is the cold hard fact of existence in the American Popular Music Business.  If you just sit there and do nothing you will plunge to your death. If only I knew what to do, besides breaking a new band, which is almost impossible.

Foot Note

(1) Burger Records is an actual store in Fullerton California that was created at the same time or even before the label.  Prior to their distribution agreement with Red Eye/Sony they did not have national production/distribution abilities.

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