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On DVD: Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Mickey Mouse in Black and White and Style Wars

by dave heaton

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas

A wild, colorful satire on the excess, despair and naivete of the US, Terry Gilliam's filmic adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas divides audiences as starkly as almost any other film. Mismarketed and widely distributed, the film lead audiences to walk out in droves (when I first saw the film, in a suburban shopping mall, this is exactly what happened). Rejected by critics like Roger Ebert as a celebration of drug use, the film is in fact an imaginative journey through a nightmare vision of America, as witnessed through the perspective of a cynical, paranoid, and yes, cartoonishly drug-adled rebel and his even more extreme travelling companion. As both a long-in-the-making adaptation of a beloved counterculture book and a subversive film likely to be cult phenomenon for years to come, the film carrys with it a large enough backstory to make it well-suited to the Criterion 2-disc treatment. Between commentary tracks, documentaries, deleted scenes, art galleries and other more unusual features (like footage of Johnny Depp, the film's lead actor, reading letters he and Thompson wrote each other or a -hour lecture on labor issues by Oscar Zena Acosta, the inspiration for Dr Gonzo, played in the film by Benicio Del Toro), the collection delves deeply into all of the relevant stories, including the the film, the book, Ralph Steadman's drawings for the book and Thompson himself. All of this is intriguing, not to mention plentiful enough to get lost in for days, yet the film itself is colorful and daring enough to overshadow all of the supporting materials. Surreal, brutal and hilarious, Fear and Loathing casts a piercing, critical gaze at the uglier dimensions of the American Dream.
{For more information on the DVD, see the Criterion Collection's
web site.}

Mickey Mouse in Black and White: The Classic Collection

Part of the "Walt Disney Treasures" series, the 2-disc Mickey Mouse in Black and White: The Classic Collection is presented by host Leonard Maltin as a treasured piece of history, the primitive early works of the great Walt Disney. The 34 black-and-white shorts, created from 1928-1935, are treated less as films on their own than as key steps in Disney's journey to greatness. From chalking the success of "Steamboat Willie" up to audiences not being used to hearing "funny noises" when they watched cartoons to giving persistent reminders to viewers that these early cartoons aren't the model of morality that we might expect (i.e. Mickey smokes), the insight-free Maltin serves as a constant reminder that these films are most important as part of a corporate empire built on certain assumptions and a particular image. He's not about to poke past the surface and explore the ways in any depth the ways that the Mickey of these cartoons is at odds with Mickey as we think of him now. But ignore Maltin and take the films on their own, and the collection is fascinating. Mickey Mouse here is a typically wild and playfully rebellious cartoon protagonist, who's often causing trouble for the sake of having some fun. He lives in a imaginative world where everything's alive. Mickey's teeth jump out of his mouth to catch a cigarette; a metal hook becomes hand-like as it politely pushes Minnie's skirt down over her behind; It's a world where solid objects move fluidly, where there's a certain energy pulsing through even the most inanimate of objects. It's also a musical world. Music is omnipresent. Even when Mickey's voice begins appearing in the films, he's more likely to sing than talk. He had his companions are not only always singing and dancing, their environment is always joining in. The energy their world seems filled with is entwined with music; the objects' movements closely mimic the musical score. Thus if these Mickey Mouse shorts are a useful historical resource, they're also a lively representation of the link between music and the world around us (especially the earliest of these films; the second disc demonstrates Disney's increased emphasis on narrative and the hi-jinks of Mickey's friends Donald and Goofy). The early Mickey Mouse films demonstrate an imaginative worldview where every tree is a dancer and every object a musician, where music is our lifeforce.

Style Wars

"Hip-hop" is used now to mean all sorts of things, but ask anyone versed in hip-hop history and he or she will tell you that hip-hop has four major elements: rapping, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti. The last of the four is the major subject of the 1983 documentary Style Wars, though the other three play a major part in the film's context, as does the setting of New York City in the 70s, where hip-hop came from. In the film's dramatic opening scene a subway car passes a spotlight and the brightly colored piece of art on its side is illuminated, traditional-style film music builds to a crescendo. But the film goes deeper into graffiti than just admiration from afar. Graffiti artists are followed through their daily lives; viewers get a real understanding of why they create and what they get out of it.

The film's also a portrait of graffiti writing as an act, explaining how it's done and showing the artists in action. But while the filmmakers vividly document graffiti and the people making it, they also pull back to show the societal reactions to it. Through interviews with political leaders, including Mayor Ed Koch, people on the street, city officials in charge of removing the graffiti and even the mother of a graf writer who sees graffiti as "a whole miserable subculture," the furor over graffiti is also delved into in detail. The relationship of graffiti to society as a whole is examined, as is its relationship to the art world.

Style Wars first aired on PBS in 1983, giving people across the nation a detailed introduction to graffiti and hip-hop culture. Now it stands as a historical document, putting hip-hop pioneers on film and showing what NYC was like at the time, but it's also a spellbinding film even outside of the historical aspects. Director Tony Silver and his partner/producer Henru Chalfant take a growing culture and explore it in depth, vividly capturing the images, sounds and faces of hip-hop while probing into the human stories and social issues associated with them.

While the film itself is a thorough look at graffiti and the early days of hip-hop, the new DVD release rounds out the portrait by including extras that focus on more than just the making of the film itself. Though the features on the first disc of the 2-disc set, including an audio commentary by Silver and Chalfant, a 2002 interview with them and an interview with the film's editors, offer plentiful insights into the film itself, the circumstances under which it was created, and the filmmakers' feelings about graffiti, Disc 2, titled "Hall of Fame," is a celebration of graffiti and a tribute to its pioneers. This is a valuable collection for hip-hop fans and anyone with an interest in graffiti as artistic expression, with photos galore and fascinating interviews with graf writers. Galleries spotlight the works of 32 artists, pairing close-up pictures of their works with recent interviews. There's also a 30-minute loop of subway art called "Destroy All Lines," showing an extensive assortment of cars. Disc 2 is in its own way just as exhaustive a portrait of graffiti as the film itself, looking up-close at these artists (or "bombers," as many prefer to be called, for the act of "bombing" a train with spray paint) and their creations.

Interviews from a variety of hip-hop figures, new and old-including Guru, Fab Five Freddy, photographer Martha Cooper, and others-round out the story, giving a full picture of hip-hop and its history. The two discs taken together are a hip-hop library. The back cover of Style Wars bears a quote from KRS-1 which is even more accurate when the second disc is taken into account: "If you want to know what hip-hop is really all about, see a film called Style Wars."

{For more information on the DVD, visit Plexifilm's web site.}

Issue 13, April 2003 | next article


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