Profile – Bill Hicks

June 24, 2010

“It’s always funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s just hilarious.”

Our new, long overdue profile is one of those classic examples of an artist completely underrated in his time: Bill Hicks.

It looks like his time has come due; a new documentary called American: The Bill Hicks Story is playing to rave reviews over in the UK and the trailer (below) has me struggling to contain my excitement.

Bill Hicks is not so much a comedian as an orator. His act can be hard to swallow because so much of it, especially later in his career, is designed to upend the status quo regarding politics and media. He attacks these establishments with such precise doses of seething venom that bearing witness to it runs the risk of generating terror instead of laughs. In fact, he delivers very few jokes onstage, instead substituting observations on the evils hiding in plain sight which happen to be hilarious despite their tragic absurdity.

His was a life spent performing; he started in his teens in venues he wasn’t legally allowed to be in, then sharpened his act through experiments with drugs and alcohol. Later he struggled publicly with censorship and cigarettes, and just when it seemed he’d finally cross over to the mainstream audience he was desperate to reach, pancreatic cancer stopped him in his tracks at the painfully young age of 32.

16 years later, as the political/corporate machine rages out of control in large parts of the world and advertising is as ubiquitous as oxygen, Bill Hicks’ ideas stand the test of time and hopefully will be heard by a new generation that sorely needs exposure to them.

If you have a spare hour, this public access interview from his native Texas where Hicks answers caller’s questions and is given carte blanche to say on TV what no mainstream outlet would dare put on the airwaves is a prime example of who he was: abrasive, cynical and an unapologetic thinker.

(Note: David Letterman – who is referred to above by Hicks while recounting how we was excised from the Late Show after recording one of his last bits – did try to make amends five years later, apologizing to Hicks’ mom on the show and airing his full set.)

There is no North American release date for the documentary yet so I suggest you all cozy up with a copy of Rants in E-Minor or Sane Man. Or you could just scour YouTube for gems like the one below.



Coolest Thing Ever: Write the Future

June 5, 2010

Welcome to a new column making its debut on Filmpunk – Coolest Thing Ever.
With so much wonderful content out there, I often find myself thinking “well, that was the coolest thing ever” so I’ve decided to start posting them here…

And what better way to kick it off than with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s adrenaline-filled, sprawling, epic advertisement for Nike called Write the Future.

Check it out below:

The piece is a perfect synthesis of efficiency and energy. The sheer ambition of Iñárritu’s Write the Future captures the intensity of the game, the pop culture aspect of being a sports god (or martyr), and is a visual smorgasboard as captivating as your likely to see in a field defined by such distilled, perfectly rendered imagery. It also boasts some of soccer’s biggest stars, several awesome cameos and is packed with so much detail that it makes repeat viewings a delightful necessity.

But what it ultimately boils down to is a simple portrayal of the predictions we all make when faced with a defining moment.

Write the Future is bound to become the most influential piece of advertising since Ridley Scott’s 1984 Macintosh commercial and Iñárritu continues to prove that he is one of world’s most important filmmakers. Can’t wait for Biutiful!


Double Feature: ‘The Pledge’ and ‘The Crossing Guard’

May 26, 2010

You know who’s a bad-ass, totally underrated director? Sean mother-effin‘ Penn, that’s who!

Like many, I took notice of Mr. Penn’s beautiful adaptation of Into the Wild, almost completely oblivious to his other directorial efforts. I remember taking a stab at watching The Pledge a few years ago and not being able to stick with it. And I remember why – too slow. When Cinematical recently called Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Pledge his best, I figured I’d try again, if only to re-evaluate the acting.

The result. Best cinematic experience I’ve had in 2010.

Nicholson and Penn’s first actor-director collaboration was The Crossing Guard which I watched the very next day.

Second best experience this year. So hang on tight and check out the reviews below.

The Pledge (2001)

“I made a promise, Eric. You’re old enough to remember when that meant something…”

After seeing this movie in the right frame of mind, I can understand why it left me cold the first time. This movie begins as a fairly standard police procedural, but defies convention to become an existential journey for Nicholson’s character Jerry Black, a newly retired cop who is haunted by his last case involving the rape and murder of a school-aged girl and the titular promise he made to her grief-stricken parents. It was this bucking of convention that originally led me astray and which I now admire as a braver, more realistic experience.

The murder is initially pinned on a mentally challenged Native with a history of sexual assault and Black is forced into retirement after the case is shut. It’s here the movie shifts from standard cop fare to a more contemplative focus on Nicholson’s character. He buys a gas station in the quiet wilderness of a fishing town, befriends a local bartender (Robin Wright, who does great work as always) and becomes a father figure to her young daughter, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the earlier victim.

Nicholson gives an incredibly subtle, yet deeply layered performance as a man obsessed with keeping his word to find the killer he believes was never caught and the film as a whole is supported by a wonderful cast including Aaron Eckhart, Benicio Del Toro, Sam Shepard, Mickey Rourke and Tom Noonan as the creepiest man of faith you’re likely to see on film.

Without spoiling the ending, I can say it is brave in what it brilliantly offers and denies the viewer as far as a resolution. Sean Penn shows a clear understanding of how to use the form to create a movie which will haunt you in much the same way Black is haunted.

The Crossing Guard (1995)

“Freedom is overrated.”

The perfect companion piece to The Pledge. This is Penn’s second effort as director and while this film is smaller in scope, it tackles equally huge internal conflicts. The Crossing Guard also flips convention on its head with a tale of revenge where the characters seem to be reversed.

Nicholson plays a Freddy Gale, a jeweller ruined by the death of his daughter at the hands of a drunk driver. His only remaining comforts are the alcohol and strippers he keeps on hand at all times. He can’t even forge a real friendship amongst the other sleazy middle-aged men who seem to idolize him. One day he shows up unannounced at his ex-wife’s home – where she raises Freddy’s two young sons with her new husband – to gleefully inform her that the man who ran down their daughter is out of jail and he intends on killing him.

Meanwhile, John Booth, the drunk driver, is released from prison into the custody of loving parents and welcomed back into his gang of hippie-ish friends. Despite all the support and efforts to get him back on his feet, Booth – as played by David Morse, is so racked with guilt he can barely function.

The film is about an unresolved issue that takes our two leads down a path which threatens to consume them both. Nicholson cleverly creates a character whose motivations should be understandable but are undermined by who he’s become to get his revenge; while Morse is genuinely likeable to all he encounters despite his inability to forgive himself for what happened. It’s this unusual, disconcerting dynamic that carries this un-showy revenge narrative. It’s the welcome opposite of the glut of Daddy’s Revenge films we’ve seen lately (Edge of Darkness, Death Sentence, Last House on the Left to name a few).

Once again, Penn gets great work from his supporting cast too. Anjelica Huston more than holds her own dealing with Nicholson’s hatred and desperation. And while Robin Wright has much less to do in this film, she makes for a tempting return to the world of the living for Booth.

The climax is drawn out over the course of a foot chase that takes our characters literally and figuratively to their unexpected conclusions. Remarkably, after wallowing in misery and anger for almost two hours, The Crossing Guard manages to end on a note of optimism and redemption. It’s incredibly beautiful, if only the slightest bit contrived.

Let’s hope Penn gets back behind the camera soon. I, for one, cannot wait to see where he takes me next!


Attempted Facebook Suicide: Part Two

May 18, 2010

If you stare into the abyss long enough, teh abyzz stares bk @ u.

It is purely by accident that one of the books I began to read during my Facebook exile is the 20th anniversary edition of Amusing Ourselves to Death.

I’m only halfways through and it has already tied together many of Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky’s ideas together for me, as though part of a missing triptych required to comprehend these counter-intuitive notions about media consumption. Written in 1985 it makes most of its arguments about the decline of informative, necessary public discourse being due to the advent of television. It’s remarkably eerie how prescient these ideas are in the Age of Internet.

To have these ideas bouncing around my mind while waiting for the clock to run down on my Facebook account for good is becoming a bizarre self-exploration to say the least.

What does this have to do with Facebook? Well, for one, I’m currently grappling with the admittedly trivial disconnect of not seeing familiar faces and trading witty one-liners on a daily basis. In a certain respect, Facebook has transcended being a social network and become the method by which we communicate, pushing other formats to the side. It has annexed email, photo sharing, online gaming and chat from the Internet; introduced a new platform for targeted advertising and helped organize partygoers and activists. Facebook is also in most pockets now that the smart phone revolution is in full swing. Data plans are quietly overtaking voice plans. Facebook wants to encompass everything and in many ways, it’s succeeding.

In a sense, this is what people without an account turn their backs on.

Tamagotchi Takeover

I remember when the Tamagotchis took over my summer camp. I was 11. To this day I can’t believe how many kids had one. For anyone who successfully repressed this bit of pop culture, Tamagotchis are little handheld sized, electronic pets that were huge in early 90s. The idea was you pressed a button to feed it a certain times throughout the day and it would smile; or you’d forget and it would die. The way I remember it, more tears were shed over these dead keychains than because of fights, heartbreak, camp-related injuries and homesickness combined. Even at 11, I thought it was absurd. (That didn’t stop me from trying to kill as many of them as I could by keeping their owners distracted).

This is the metaphor I’ve chosen for the Facebook profile page. Looking at mine for the last time, I couldn’t help but reflect on all the efforts I’d put into it over three years. I maintained it; put only the best pictures up, only the wittiest updates, de-tagged myself when necessary, posted only the funniest or most informative links, and joined only the best causes or trendiest groups. I put forward the best digital avatar I could and what kind of return did I get for all the Dennis Ryan personality-advertising?

Very, very little.

As a result of signing up for Twitter to fill the void, I’ve realized just how much narcissism drives me to use social media (I suspect must of us are driven similarly). I’m usually much more interested in seeing how many reactions my posts, pictures and updates are getting than in most things posted or expressed by my friends. I thrive on the little red notification icons at the top of the page. That’s not to say I’m above anything my friends’ put out there; only that Facebook has become my Tamagotchi. It exists primarily for me to post and get a reaction.

Post a picture. Tag friends. Wait for comments.

Update status. Wait for comments.

Post a link. Count how many likes.

See new comments. Start trolling to get more.

Even worse is now when I travel, I’m Facebook-conscious. That is, I plan and look forward to the comments I’ll generate. I either update-on-the-go or daydream about the day I get home and can post.  I should add that the nature of the reactions is almost always secondary, at best. Why is this? Because Facebook is not a venue for discussing anything of even remote substance. It’s a place for high fives. Who remembers high fives? I don’t, but I am addicted to them. Thanks Facebook!

What’s even more interesting is how many of my friendships seem to hinge on this scintilla of interaction. And yet, it may be this very form of connection to certain people that makes me log in and negate my suicide. I do like people after all.

To strengthen my resolve, I look to friends who have never signed up for Facebook. For three years I couldn’t imagine how they got by without it. The surprising part was whenever I confronted one of them about it; they always seemed completely unfazed, as if I’d been chiding them for not seeing a movie. Now I know it’s because they’re pure; untainted by Facebook’s promises of connectedness. They make it look easy because they don’t know otherwise. The new media hasn’t reformed their lifestyle…yet.

Odds of beating Facebook: Gonna give myself a solid 70% today. Miss the high fives. Like having extra time to cook and read and think. Oh, and there’s still the privacy issues that have gone unanswered despite some “emergency meetings.”

Speaking of which, anyone who wants to learn more about their privacy or just jump on the bandwagon, here’s a few sites:

See ya in a few days…


Attempted Facebook Suicide: Part One

May 15, 2010

I wouldn’t call this a cry for help. Or my way of seeing if anyone will miss me when I’m gone. The truth is I’m still not sure why I decided to give up my Facebook account.

I suppose it could be a case of bandwagoning, with the current media circus showcasing the company and its cringe-inducing founder Mark Zuckerberg’s mercurial privacy record and the fact that user data is increasingly being used to generate profits through targeted ads.

More than simple backlash though, I think the novel challenge of attempting to quit the crack of the internet cold turkey had something to do with it.

Facebook’s account deletion process invites just such a social experiment. If you’re Google-savvy enough to even figure out how to delete (and not simply de-activate) your account, the final condition the company imposes is that you not log back in for 14 days.

They practically dare us to stay away…Challenge accepted!

First Impressions

I sat staring at my Facebook profile for the last time(?) at 8:45AM on May 13, 2010. I quietly reassured myself of several things:

1) Of the 149 Facebook ‘friends’ staring at me from cyberspace, maybe 30 represented people I regularly saw or spoke to and most of the site’s third-party functions were intelligence-draining wastes of time.

2) If I disagreed with the policies of Facebook, the only action I could take was to delete my account and NOT as instinct insisted, use my Facebook status update to spout off about how corrupt Facebook had become. Money, meet mouth.

3) I could find alternatives to maintain an online identity if I wanted to. (Exciting upstart Diaspora, branding itself as the anti-facebook, is scheduled to launch in September).

I jotted down a few phone numbers and email addresses I didn’t have saved elsewhere, squinted awkwardly at the final CAPTCHA I had to fill out and said goodbye to my digital representation.

My first craving hit an hour later. I wanted to check up on a friend of mine who had moved to Edmonton and was planning on coming to Toronto for a visit. All correspondence to do with the trip had been done on Facebook. It certainly wasn’t the type of exchange that couldn’t continue over email, but seeing my friends in photos in the same place I corresponded with them had always been nice and was the first thing I missed.

*It was at this point that I decided to record my experience.

To help things along, I cleared all my browser history and caches so I wouldn’t be auto-suggested Facebook while using the internet. After that, I wrote emails with the same nostalgic pride people who save dead languages must feel.

I became extra productive that first day so I could tell myself later it was because I had abandoned Facebook. It worked quite well until that evening when my fingers twice managed to type “facebo” into Chrome before I could stop them. Facebook had revealed another symptom of its unexpected powers.

Most of the soapboxing that goes on within Facebook was another factor in my deciding to leave. Too much grammatically horrifying bluster and rhetoric, not enough intelligent opinion or ideas. One friend who makes an effort joined the military a few months ago and was maintaining quite an interesting first-person account of the intense training via collective Facebook messages. It was the new format of a soldier’s letter that relayed hilarious anecdotes of absurdity and frustration while keeping me up to date on what was happening with a friend.

Another colleague of mine has the wonderful habit of collecting the strangest photos he can find and photoshopping himself into the action and then coming up with a perfectly hilarious caption. It may not sound like much, but believe me when I say his efforts are better than any single-panel comic to the people who know him (and probably many that don’t). It’s hard to weigh the value of a system that creates so much useless content for every interesting or unique perspective it offers.

On the evening of Day Three I signed up for Twitter. I would reclaim my beloved status update. After twenty minutes of setting up my profile, browsing for friends or corporations I liked, relearning basic punctuation again (RT, @, #!) and downloading Tweetdeck, I logged off. Too much rebuilding to do in one sitting.

Odds of successfully defeating the mighty Facebook: Even. Still not a fan of Zuckerberg & Co’s general disdain for their users but can’t help but admit that their network is still the most convenient place for communicating with a large number of acquaintances.


R.I.P. Cable TV – 1948 – 2009

September 2, 2009

On the heels of an announcement earlier this month warning Canadians to prepare for higher monthly cable fees, this week the CRTC has announced that it will no longer limit the amount of advertising networks are allowed to air.

So while the cable industry struggles to compete with online and digital alternatives in the midst of a fragile economy, the CRTC in all its brilliance has decided to authorize providers to charge consumers more for the privilege of watching more ads (a large percentage of which extol American companies that don’t exist here).

Dare I predict the imminent end of cable television?

The irony is that the CRTC is also at the forefront of combating pirated media which is by definition free, available on demand, and contains no advertising. The simple truth is they need a much better game plan if they’re to save an anachronistic method of transmission.

Hint: Wasting people’s time and money ain’t it.

ITunes has already proven along with several other studies that pirates will pay for their media so long as they feel they’re getting value for their dollar. Pirated media is often of questionable quality and harder to find than a competitively priced corporate alternative. And however unlikely, no one wants to be made an example of in a courtroom while politicians try and figure out the legality of p2p software.

So how the CRTC is getting it so completely and utterly wrong remains baffling but in the meantime it’s once again up to consumer ire to send a powerful message by reducing or completely canceling cable packages. My fiancé used to insist we maintain a cable package so she could watch NHL games, however with TSN.ca and CBC.ca showing the majority of Canadian games between them, that argument is no longer valid. Besides that, most networks host their most popular series’ online for free (with a fraction of the advertising content).

Another nail in the cable coffin is the fact that viewing habits have changed with the advent of TV on DVD. Marathon viewings of series is becoming quite the popular form of consumption (who hasn’t taken in a season of 24 in real time or passed out trying at least once?) Furthermore, by not having cable, I only consume what I’m actually interested in watching, rather than mindless channel surfing and background noise. Who knows, the CRTC may end up encouraging me to read more books…

Now’s the time to take bold action, failure to do so will only embolden the CRTC to make more foolish decisions. There’s a difference between ad-supported content that’s free (ie. most legitimate online media) and reckless price-gouging which is what’s happening with cable.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have some original programming to take in courtesy of Current.com and fora.tv.