On DVD: Who's the Caboose?

Who's the Caboose? is a small film from the late 1990s that would seem to prove the argument that true talent will find a way. Dating from 1997, Who's the Caboose? was co-written and directed by Sam Seder, who has gone on to success as an actor and radio and television host. It stars Sarah Silverman, and features appearances by Andy Dick, David Cross, H. Jon Benjamin, Kathy Griffin, Laura Kightlinger, and Marc Maron. It is a funny, improv-driven film that also serves as a portrait of the comedy scenes in both New York and Los Angeles at the time of its production.

Susan (Silverman) is a comedian who decides to leave New York and travel to Los Angeles for pilot season. Pilot season (approximately April - June) is when studios cast for the new shows scheduled to air that fall. Susan doesn't tell her "performance artist" boyfriend Max (Seder) until the last minute, but he follows her out to LA anyway, despite a proclaimed disdain for that city. Susan becomes busy trying out for shows, under the tutelage of her airheaded manager Jason (Andy Dick) and his put-upon assistant (Lauren Dombrowski). Before he knows it - and without intending to - Max has drawn the attention of an ambitious entertainment attorney named Ken Fold (Benjamin), who could not be more enthusiastic about turning Max into a star.

The best thing about
Who's the Caboose? is that it is not dramatically or thematically ambitious. This leaves the actors free to explore their parts and their environments realistically, drawing humor from casual interaction and mundane situations. The movie is about the years of struggle that every artist must endure, sleeping on couches, battling entertainment fringe figures who want to shape and mold you into their own visions of success, and getting by on scant wages. It's also about the moral and social freak show that is Los Angeles and the bizarre priorities of people who are drawn there for one reason or another. Not dated at all fourteen years after its original release, Who's the Caboose? remains fresh, honest, and very funny. 

Read the full review here

On DVD: Kings of Pastry

Kings of Pastry is a truly thrilling and informative look at the somewhat secretive and incestuous world of French patisserie - specifically, the pastry- and candy-making portion of the quadrennial Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) competition among craftsmen in various disciplines. Acclaimed filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (Don't Look Back, The War Room) follow three competitors as they prepare and compete in this high-pressure contest whose winners will forever hold the highest distinction in their field.

The film highlights Jacquy Pfeiffer, a French-born but Chicago-based pastry chef, who has a great emotional and professional investment in the competition (although this could easily be said of every other competitor, too). Jacquy has an American girlfriend and daughters, and must leave his adopted home for several weeks to practice prior to the MOF. We also meet Philippe Rigollot, a candy specialist whose work is inspired by his own children, and the somewhat blasé Regis Lazard, who is perhaps the least intensely motivated of the three.

The parameters of the competition are roughly as follows: Over a period of three days, sixteen contestants share kitchen space as they prepare approximately forty recipes of varying degrees of complexity. They include lollipops, chocolate candies, small cakes and tarts, a wedding cake, a large-scale dessert "sculpture," and a decorative piece entirely of sugar called a
bijou ("jewel"). Each of these concoctions is judged by a dozen or so prior MOF laureates, who turn them over in their mouths assessing the balance of ingredients, weight, texture, and of course flavor. Each chef has already prepared his (there are no female competitors) individual recipes for each item in advance; each day's activities are timed.

Pennebaker and Hegedus have captured real toil and drama in this story of obsessive, driven creative individuals. The many potential hazards of baking are addressed, including the quality of ingredients, timing, and atmospheric conditions. The fragility of the different pieces - especially the sugar sculptures - is an ongoing source of tension.

It's unfortunate that the visual style of the film doesn't complement the beauty of the MOFs' creations. It's shot in a particularly unattractive digital format that leaves the film looking less polished than a local news broadcast. Given the extraordinary filmography of the directors, the clumsiness of the presentation came as a surprise.

On balance, however,
Kings of Pastry is a fitting tribute to men of rare talent. It's an engrossing look at a rarefied and largely unknown world.

Read the full review here


Essay: "...with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark..."

In the next five to ten years, we will see a major cultural shift against some of the dominant features of current daily life. 

Two generations ago, our grandparents - the people who lived through the Great Depression and World War II - lived through a vast accumulation of wealth and the newly-enjoyed position of the United States as the pre-eminent world power. The businesses that emerged during that era - modern advertising, an enormous defense industry, and pumped-up entertainment businesses (among others) - helped professionalize America and simplified the so-called American Dream: two kids, a house in the suburbs, a couple of cars, a television set, and a barbeque.

In response, we had the political and social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s.
Assassinations, multiple armed radical factions, free love, paranoia, anger, and distrust ultimately self-destructed due to overindulgence and a lack of purpose. 

Also, a new wave of prosperity encouraged the population to simmer down. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, former hippies traded ponchos for the cashmere of Yuppieville and jobs in the high tech industry, where they became nouveau riches with mansions, European sportscars, and bad taste.

The Yuppies of the 1980s, in turn, presided over a vast accumulation of wealth in the 1990s - and don't let anyone fool you into thinking that the tech or dot-com bubble and its subsequent burst is unrelated to the recent worldwide real estate crash and the ongoing Great Recession.

The dominant lifestyle of the present is one that relies enormously upon the technology and associated gadgets produced by the very industry and culture responsible for the interrelated crises of our time. The 1990s spawned enormous leaps in computer technology and the Internet. Now, we are all online all the time, via desktop or laptop, smartphone or

What people are starting to wake up to is that nothing actually happens on the Internet. We do not have experiences there, despite the fact that we communicate there in fits and starts, and occasionally use the Web trade information. The only thing the Internet is actually good for is shopping. And I'm not saying it's been entirely co-opted by big business - small sellers can still do well online. But that is the single substantive activity that takes place online. Nothing else can be accomplished there, even by the few surviving people who believe in the Internet as a tool of social and cultural revolution. That time has passed. The Internet is primarily a marketplace, and the enormous energy and enthusiasm of the 1990s - the ideals and promise of that era - gave way to the same greed that is now the primary raison d'etre of the entire enterprise.

There will be a reckoning. People around my own age - people who are old enough to remember pre-Internet life - will finally get it together and there will come a time when we understand that the Internet is poor for one's mental health; that eyesight and mood are negatively affected by long hours in front of a monitor; that the dozens of hours a week that we spend on the Internet is simply and purely wasted time - wasted lives.

These concerns will characterize the next countercultural movement, and it's just over the horizon. Let's hope its high-water mark doesn't fade so readily.

For a little more context regarding the article's title and illustration, please go here for information on the source, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.


Essay: A Field Report on Corporate English

Far from being isolated individual words or phrases, corporate English is a far more layered mode of expression than one might at first think, packed as it is with meaning that often  contradicts the ways people would parse the same words in common English.  

The key characteristic of corporate English is an inherent duplicity - but this is not like the outright dissembling of a con artist or pathological liar.  It is, rather, more akin to the terror-stricken, jaw-clenching nerviness one might expect from a Turkish prisoner or mob informant - in other words, someone who knows, on some level, that the rug could be pulled out from under them at any moment.  

The unique contortions of corporate English, and its sub rosa fear and loathing, continually spin into new variations and phraseology, with a speed and swiftness that suggest a bizarre quasi-sentience - an awareness, on some level, that the language could at any moment be found out for what it really is: the lingo of fascistic lizard overlords from beyond the moon.

Here is a sampling, translated into common English:

  • "Send me your/his/her resume." = I will toss it in a pile or perhaps the garbage.

  • "I'm open to that!" = No. 

  • "We should get a dialogue going." = I need more time to figure out how to get my way.

  • "I have a hard stop in 30 minutes." = I'm important, and I don't have time to dialogue with you.

  • "I'm looping Ted from marketing into this e-mail exchange." = I'm passing buck here; specifically, to Ted from marketing.

  • "Can you cc my manager on that e-mail?" = I'd like my manager to see what an unreasonable asshole you are.

  • "I'll see you at the conference!" = I will assiduously avoid you at the conference.

  • "Thanks for all your hard work on that project." = You have helped to make me very rich ad infinitum, while you will be lucky to receive cost-of-living raises every other year.

  • "We are really excited about this product." = You better fucking pretend to be excited about this product - our livelihoods currently depend upon a facade of enthusiasm that may not correlate to the product's inherent qualities.


On DVD: 127 Hours

127 Hours has a true-life plot that would have appealed to Antonioni, but the film is shot through with hyperkinetic visuals that recall Oliver Stone in the 1990s and director Danny Boyle's own hit, Trainspotting. Although the content and the form don't always interact happily, James Franco gives an energetic and layered performance as Aron Ralston, an amateur outdoorsman and rock climber who, in 2003, became trapped in a Utah canyon when a boulder came loose and pinned his right arm to the rock wall.

Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy had a number of challenges before them in selecting Ralston's story as a film project - in fact, it almost looks as though they specifically chose the story for its seeming plethora of anti-cinematic qualities. One thing they had working against them was the broad media saturation of Ralston's story. At least in the United States, virtually everyone with functioning senses had learned of Ralston and the broad outlines of his story within days of his escape. Another factor that would have made many other filmmakers turn away from Ralston as a feature subject is the relative simplicity of his tale. Ralston went out into the wilderness alone, became trapped for five days, and finally cut off his own arm to make a successful escape. Beyond those bare facts, there is not much incident and only a very few supporting characters.

Boyle and Beaufoy's success in 127 Hours is in crafting the film's story as a running expression of Ralston's mental and emotional state, his perceptions, his daydreams, and his memories. Wherever Ralston's thoughts go - whether backward into memory, forward into desire and premonition, or rooted in the dire present - the film follows swiftly and surely. The filmmakers are aided immeasurably by Franco's deft, fluid performance. He plays Ralston with a goofy, dorky energy in the film's opening segment, but that modest cockiness gives way to a transcendent sense of his own isolated smallness as doom seems to close in. Somewhere within that isolation Ralston found a force of will that shattered his transitory terror to smithereens. The flux of Ralston's state of mind is the film's - and Franco's - triumph.

But within this effective storytelling approach, Boyle too often reaches for stylistic flourishes that take away from the simple, stark, powerful idea that holds the whole thing together. The camera is too active. Cutting is too rapid and flashy, with an annoying panoply of optical and other effects taking away from the human struggle at the film's center. Although narrative devices such as flashback, dreams, and visions are deftly executed, other visual tricks - including a rather repetitive Fincheresque dependence upon being inside of things such as Ralston's water bottle, camera, and even his doomed arm (!) - are distracting and subtractive instead of additive.

The penultimate sequence involving the fate of Ralston's right arm is as tooth-gnashing as one might imagine, but it is also assembled in a way that avoids unnecessary graphic detail. The deed is indeed carried out with a determination and force of will that never once appears desperate. We see Ralston toy with the idea of severing his arm earlier in the film - both he and we know what has to come. (Despite the relative restraint of this sequence, the person I watched the movie with - and who declines to be identified - wound up tossing her cookies anyway.) 

Read the full review here