Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Team of Five

Team of Five
Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump, published yesterday, reveals how the most recent ex-Presidents and their spouses have adapted to life out of office. Author Kate Anderson Brower interviewed Jimmy Carter and three former First Ladies, though most of the ‘team of five’ didn’t participate.

Brower also spoke to the incumbent, Donald Trump, and the book begins with her Oval Office interview. Trump showed Brower a letter he had received from Kim Jong Un, presumably the same one that he showed to another interviewer, Doug Wead. In both cases, Trump used the document to give the illusion of bringing the interviewers into his confidence: he told Wead that his advisors “don’t want me to give these to you”, and he told Brower that she “was not meant to see this,” though he had already Tweeted the letter months earlier.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Sunset Boulevard (blu-ray)

Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard was first released on blu-ray by Paramount in 2012. The disc included a newly-discovered deleted scene, in which lyricists Ray Livingston and Ray Evans sing one of their own compositions, The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues. The song was cut from the film—and replaced with Buttons and Bows—because the studio considered it too much of an inside joke, though plenty more inside jokes survived the edit.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Il Re di Bangkok

Il Re di Bangkok
Il Re di Bangkok
The graphic novel Il Re di Bangkok (‘the king of Bangkok’), was published in Italian last year, and has now been translated into Thai. The book was written by Claudio Sopranzetti and Chiara Natalucci, with illustrations by Sara Fabbri. (The Thai edition has been self-censored—on pages 93, 157, and 205—though the Italian edition is unexpurgated.)

The title character, Nok, is a blind lottery-ticket vendor from Isaan who travels to Bangkok for a better life. Economic migration from upcountry to the capital is commonplace, and was a standard theme of politically-conscious writers and directors in the mid-1970s. Nok becomes increasingly politically engaged during his time in Bangkok, as he lives through the ‘Black May’ massacre, the ‘tom yum kung’ economic crisis, the rise and fall of Thaksin Shinawatra, the 2006 coup, and the ‘red-shirt’ protests. The book ends as the red-shirts are massacred by the military, an event that took place exactly a decade ago.

For its Thai publication, Il Re di Bangkok was retitled ตาสว่าง (ta sawang), which describes the sense of political awakening experienced by Nok. Several of the Thai filmmakers I’ve interviewed have explained their own feelings of newfound political enlightenment. Pen-ek Ratanaruang (“somebody like me, who five years ago had no interest in politics at all”), Yuthlert Sippapak (“I never gave a shit about politics. But right now, it’s too much.”), Chulayarnnon Siriphol (“I turned to be interested in the political situation”), Thunska Pansittivorakul (“I started to learn about politics”), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“I was politically naïve”), and Nontawat Numbenchapol (“I was a teenager, a young man not interested in politics so much”) all discussed their personal experiences of ta sawang.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Cannibal Ferox (blu-ray)

Cannibal Ferox
Eaten Alive!
The short-lived Italian cannibal horror subgenre was one of the most controversial chapters in the history of exploitation cinema. Umberto Lenzi directed the film that launched the cycle, Man from Deep River (Il paese del sesso selvaggio), though Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is the only example of any real cinematic interest. Despite its exploitation origins, Cannibal Holocaust provided a multi-layered critique of mondo filmmaking, and it directly influenced The Blair Witch Project and other ‘found footage’ horror films.

Cannibal Ferox eschewed the structural sophistication of Cannibal Holocaust in favour of ritualised, explicit violence. As Kim Newman wrote in Nightmare Movies: “Lenzi takes the form about as far as it can go in the direction of gratuitous violence”. Both films contain scenes of genuine animal killings, and both were included on the ‘video nasties’ list in the UK, though Newman calls Cannibal Ferox “the nastiest of the nasties”.

The deluxe blu-ray edition of Cannibal Ferox released by Grindhouse in 2015 features approximately twenty seconds of newly-discovered footage. This extra material, which has no soundtrack, includes additional shots of a pig being killed. (As a vegetarian, scenes like this are hard to watch.) The blu-ray supplements include a feature-length documentary, Eaten Alive! The Rise and Fall of the Italian Cannibal Film, directed by Calum Waddell, featuring interviews with Lenzi, Deodato, and Newman.

Monday, 4 May 2020

No Filter

No Filter
Which is the most harmful social media platform? Facebook’s attention-grabbing and data-mining is unprecedented, and it hosted anti-Rohingya propaganda with devastating consequences. Fake news spread by WhatsApp group chats has led to mob killings in India. But Instagram has an arguably more pernicious cultural impact, and—as Sarah Frier writes in No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram— it’s changing our entire way of life.

Cafés, galleries, and tourist attractions have become mere selfie backdrops, visited to be photographed at rather than experienced. As Frier notes, savvy businesses capitalise on this by changing “the way they design their spaces and how they market their products, adjusting their strategies to cater to the new visual way we communicate, to be worthy of photographing for Instagram.”

Instagram’s square frame is like the pool that captivated Narcissus. Instagram influencers post daily semi-naked selfies, and Instagram is a world of endless vacations, flawless bodies, and ideal homes. As Frier writes, “Instagram has made us not only more expressive but also more self-conscious and performative.” Whereas traditional advertising is aspirational, the picture-perfect lifestyles self-promoted on Instagram are absolutely unattainable.

Instagram’s founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, initially resisted commercialisation, though after Facebook bought the company they began running ads to placate Mark Zuckerberg. But most advertising on Instagram is more insidious and ambiguous: what Frier calls “this thriving new economy of influence. As Instagram grew, so did the set of people willing to take money in exchange for posting about their outfits, vacations, or beauty routines, choosing their “favorite” brands with financial incentive to do so.”

Zuckerberg’s cooperation with the book extended only to a two-sentence email, though Frier did interview Systrom and Krieger. Zuckerberg comes across as the villain of the piece, though this may be because his perspective is missing. Once under the Facebook umbrella, Instagram was pressured to increase revenue. When it achieved this, by crossing previous red lines on user privacy and design integrity, it was regarded by Zuckerberg as an internal threat to be subjugated. (Inevitably, Systrom and Krieger resigned in 2018, just as the founders of other Facebook acquisitions—WhatsApp and Oculus—had done earlier that year.)

In the UK, No Filter is subtitled The Inside Story of How Instagram Transformed Business, Celebrity and Our Culture. In her preface, Frier describes the book as “an effort to bring you the definitive inside story of Instagram.” That effort was certainly successful, and No Filter stands alongside Facebook: The Inside Story, The Facebook Effect, and Hatching Twitter as an essential account of the creation and consequences of social media.