Wednesday, November 6, 2013

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW


If the Disney empire's meteoric rise to corporate prominence is mass culture's Kampfzeit, then their ongoing vice grip on the global public's eyes, ears, and disposable income is the alternative future where we're all speaking German.  (Maybe the fact that my default totalitarian metaphor is Nazism and not, say, US-backed despots like Pinochet or Mubarak, means that in a way, we are.)  But Onkel Walt's aggressive distribution is, though toxic, just capitalism doing its thing.  It's the dynasty's legacy of claiming the public domain as their own, then renewing their lease on it under the sign of copyright protection, that should inspire your contempt.  They're no less litigious about anything else bearing the Disney name, which is no doubt meant as something of an extralegal gag order on well-deserved satire.  No problem: skewer a doe-eyed anthropomorph in your smarmy media text and it won't be a mystery who your target is.

That's not enough for Randy Moore, though, who dramatizes a Disney World visitor's 24-hour mental breakdown for Escape from Tomorrow with footage shot on-location, guerrilla-style.  That fact alone is what drew me and, I'd wager, the lion's share of audiences, to the film.  Credit where credit is due: it's an impressive feat.  The alternately cramped and lopsided framing is a striking index of Moore's choice of consumer-grade DLSRs to bypass park authorities under the pretense of garden-variety family vacation documentation.  Ditto the oblique angles and jittery handheld once the psychosis starts setting in.  Presumably when and where shooting would have brought too much notice (to understand the depth of the filmmaker's paranoia, consider that he outsourced editing entirely to South Korea to escape surveillance), the on-the-fly stuff is supplemented by green screen effects self-consciously crude enough for a Kids in the Hall sketch.

Not that anything is compromised by such formal levity.  Escape from Tomorrow is a comedy first and foremost, as its subtle-as-a-sledgehammer premise requires.  It's also a pretty consistently funny one, due in no small part to the lead performance by no-name Roy Abramsohn, a dowdy Dennis Quaid type who faces with lethargic incredulity the combined pressures of joblessness, fatherhood, demonic animatrons, nubile French teenagers, his nagging wife, a dowdy Linda Hamilton type, and his needy boy and girl, two shock blond children of the damned.  Said joblessness frames the story nicely by underwriting Disney's tyrannical good cheer with white-collar humiliation, and said animatrons are put to unsubtle work with After Effects horns and fangs, wisely subtly applied; even wiser is leaving It's a Small World entirely to its own already terrifying devices.  Said French girls lend the film rising action (in more ways than one, har har) lifted wholesale from American Beauty, except with girls who look cringe-inducingly like girls, and without the Oscar pandering, mercifully.

Indeed, Moore's violation of bourgeois good taste becomes more and more coterminous with his takedown of the House of Mouse as Escape from Tomorrow progresses.  The laughter surrounding me the night I saw Escape from Tomorrow at the Music Box lapsed evermore to groans as the pedophilia thread progressed, which in turn gave way to matters of the lower bodily stratum.  A series of half-baked gags involving ejaculation, sonorous vomiting, and a poorly-dressed toe laceration punctuate spotty B-movie vignettes that flail about like so many agitated tentacles.  The narrative, such as it is, culminates in a wide angle bird's-eye view of our hero in the throes of violent diarrhea, followed by the hacking of alarmingly hairy phlegm before he collapses half-cocked against the wall, paralyzed in a fiendish grin.  All of this is intercut with long shots of Epcot's iconic Spaceship Earth, exalting a commodified space-age future, the film's brilliantly saccharine score soaring effusively as fireworks explode in the sky.  Manufactured majesty, meet the abject body.  Take that, culture industry!

What may be a snotty confrontation in theory plays on screen as basically a reasonably well-staged gross-out.  What gives it any edge at all is the extratextual knowledge of how and under what conditions those intercut long shots were taken, a knowledge with which anyone coming to this necessarily undermarketed indie presumably comes equipped.  But those are some slim pickings; it's hard to imagine Bob Iger losing any sleep over R-rated toilet humor.  Escape from Tomorrow can be described accordingly as an exercise in warmed over anti-establishment ethos, a sort of National Lampoon's Vacation by way of the Cinema of Transgression.

Friday, October 4, 2013

On THE SIMPSONS: Deconstructed


The homegirl Nikki Loehr directed my attention recently to a video by one JK Keller, posted last month by blogger Jason Kottke.  The video is a formalist experiment that throws The Simpsons episode "Mom and Pop Art" (in which Jasper Johns and Isabella Rossellini make guest appearances, although most know it as the "Everything's coming up Milhouse!" episode) through digital filters until its representational coherence is all but entirely obscured.


You don't need me to point out that the result is rather extraordinary.  (While I'm reluctant to reduce the experience of psychedelic drugs to lazy shorthand, this video is one instance where I'd concur with the description "bad acid trip.")  Keller's claim that it "retains the full character of the show" is debatable, since that "full character" arguably consists mainly of the many features comprising its narration - screenwriting, voice acting, stories, gags - and the cheerfully ironic tone that coheres them.  "Realigning My Thoughts on Jasper Johns," on the contrary, is a disconcerting, even creepy, sustain of audiovisual noise, rhythmically invertebrate and a challenge to sit through.  What keeps it from being entirely an art-school chore are the unmistakable vestiges of the show's aesthetic that remain.  The tracking shots that open the theme song, for example, are instantly recognizable despite the reduction of Springfield to splashes of lines and colors.  Somehow, the integrity of space remains intact: although I haven't seen the original episode, and the audio sounds like a Nurse With Wound demo tape, it becomes clear very quickly that the first scene takes place in the Simpsons' backyard.

But the characters are the most striking feature.  You'll only follow the filtered opening if you know the original well enough, but you don't have to have watched a single full episode, really, to pick out Homer, Bart, Marge, Lisa, even Maggie, from the visual detritus: they're iconic down to their most basic geometry (Bart's spikes, Marge's hair, Homer's gut).  Then there's their garish yellow complexion, ostensibly the show's substitute for Caucasian - people of color, by contrast, are verisimilarly rendered - but cheekily identified on several occasions during the series as simply yellow.  Although I'd be interested to see a similar test applied to another show - South Park, perhaps? - I suspect that it would be far more vulnerable to visual indistinction.  Only a text as eternally current in the pop culture canon as The Simpsons could survive this kind of video art vandalism.   

Friday, September 27, 2013

Jay Lynch: "Hippies just didn't seem to grasp satire"

Jay Lynch, "Divorce Court," Midwest Magazine (~1970).
In '67, Skip Williamson and I started an underground humor mag called the Chicago Mirror. By the third issue of the Mirror, we were getting a little bit discouraged, though. It seemed that the hippies just didn't seem to grasp the concepts of satire. This was driven home to me one day when I was selling copies of the Mirror on the streets of Chicago's sixties hippie neighborhood known as Old Town. 
At this time, the press had been reporting that some hippies had been drying and curing banana skins to smoke for a legal high. In the Mirror we ran a piece satirically stating that smoking dog poop would provide an excellent psychedelic experience. We went on to say that the best variety of dog poop was something called "Lincoln Park Brown," and we gave tongue-in-cheek instructions for preparing the poop for smoking. We said that the new breed of dog-poop smokers were known as "shit heads." Get it? "Pot heads"? "Shit heads"? It's satire, right? But then when I was selling the mag on the street, this hippie came up to me and said, "Hey, man! Thanks for the tip on how to cure dog poop! We've been smoking it all week, and it's groovy!" I tried to explain to the kid that it was satire and that he shouldn't really be smoking dog poop, but he wouldn't listen. Apparently he was too blissed out of his mind on the nitrogen content of dog feces to grasp my explanation.
- Jay Lynch, "Introduction," eds. James Danky and Denis Kitchen, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix (New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2009).

Saturday, September 14, 2013

On THE SIMPSONS: The SOUTH PARK Bias



The Simpsons enters its 25th season this month, putting it eight seasons ahead of Real World/Road Rules Challenge as the longest-running primetime television series in US history.  As that closest contender may suggest, genius is not necessarily coextensive with longevity, and yet when it comes to the endlessly lucrative brainchild of Matt Groening - to whom, along with Aaron Spelling and the NFL, the Fox Broadcasting Company owes its rise to the majors in the 90s - no critical approbation is spared.  Both Empire and Time ranked it the greatest TV show of all time, and it's so far roped in 27 Emmys, 13 in the last 13 years, during which consensus has observed an overall decline in quality.

It is, in other words, quite uncontroversially an essential component of any media nerd's viewing repertoire, and until now a glaring gap in mine.  Anyone with the misfortune of making small talk with me about over the past few months has probably heard at least twice that when I was a child, my parents, citing the wisdom of one or two cultural critics of note - Barbara Bush, perhaps? - no doubt, forbade me from watching The Simpsons, even as my peers watched and quoted it prodigiously.  It was primetime television, you see, and therefore under their jurisdiction as grand arbiters of our rayon tube Mitsubishi and the household more generally.  But they were early risers, and once they turned it at 9:30 sharp every Wednesday, I'd sneak out quietly a half hour later to taste the forbidden cable fruits of South Park, which was, all things considered, probably the more foul source of mental contamination in the pantheon of civilization-destroying animation.

What developed was a near religious devotion to the series.  I quoted it at length during lunchtime and my socializing favored other young men who found themselves doing the same.  As popular film and television criticism entered my reading diet and gave shape to emerging critical faculties, South Park became a favored object for defending a tenet I developed early and have held steadfastly ever since: the idea that absolutely anything can, and should, be funny.  I became a vocal champion of its particular mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, insisting that to dismiss the series for its bathroom humor and inevitable appeal to the Bugle Boy set would be to ignore searingly intelligent social satire.  According to this argument - one I'd happily advance today, with some qualifications - the farts weren't incidental to the parody, they were its strongest line of defense, warding the prudes away from the TV not unlike Tarkovsky claimed his slow beginnings scared the philistines out of the arthouse.

Part of this devotion was imagining my beloved show in competition with its closest kin, the way superhero universes are pitted against each other, and hence the undeservedly low regard in which I held The Simpsons.  Yes, it's funny and clever, I reasoned, but if it's tame enough for primetime, what's the point?  How fatally could it really mark its targets?  Mostly, it was a sort of contrarian move against my counterparts in The Simpsons camp, who charged South Park with riding the coattails of the former's innovations - a charge to which the latter pleas wholly guilty in sixth season classic "Simpsons Already Did It" (pictured below): as supervillain alter-ego Professor Chaos, Butters' would-be dastardly schemes are repeatedly revealed to have happened already on The Simpsons.  In all honesty, though, I was speaking in ignorance, as I had seen maybe a season's worth of The Simpsons in my entire life.  Now that I'm working to correct this egregious oversight, I can finally appreciate how ridiculous that dismissal really was.

More to come.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Half-assed Pitchfork Write-up, Part II

Continued from Part I.

One does not take the recommendations of a French punk in high heels lightly, and so I floated back to the red stage for Swans as soon as Savages had packed it in.  Until seeing them play the Melt! Festival outside Berlin a couple summers ago, I knew of them only vaguely as that late 80s goth band a bit artier and far less camp than Sisters of Mercy (an assumption I would later learn didn't even begin to do them justice).  After seeing the tectonic black magic they stirred up live, though, I was an immediate convert, making them one of the few groups I'd go out of my way to see more than once.  What I remember blindsiding me and my two Finnish companions, who (so I thought) were even less familiar with them than I, at Melt! was the uniquely visceral nature of their sound: it had the bludgeoning power of death metal but the deceptively sparse arrangements of a modernist string quartet.  Not that they were exactly minimalist - they enlisted the services of two drummers and three guitarists at any given moment and were fond of tubular bells - but their tightly wound, hypnotic attack had a way of sneaking up on you and forcing you to respond, rather than offering itself upfront for dismissal as a type of music you simply don't care for.

"ARE YOU READY TO ROCK?!"
The approach was nearly identical in Chicago.  It's a solid strategy, not least of all for a band that, after a fifteen year hiatus, needed to capture the attention of greener ears, to supplement a fanbase that is both aging and probably pretty modest to begin with (they are no, say, Breeders, who were busy setting up at the main stage).  For said greener ears it's therefore hard to discern whether their current sound is the way they've always been, or whether they're simply leaner and meaner now that the stakes are higher on moving bodies (especially since moving units, in the age of Spotify, is next to impossible).  Lydia Lunch claims the latter, and manages to disparage my generation's tunnel vision when she does so.  So too did Swans frontman/mastermind Michael Gira (all silver mane and crow's feet these days, like Nick Cave and Jeff Bridges' love child), albeit a bit more benignly, via a mid-set comment about our "tight britches" paired with a rhyme that the day's first joint wiped from my short-term memory.  And let's be honest: the Pitchfork Music Festival is basically Easy Target Central, whether your pleasure is the plaid dude behind me extolling NPR's manifold virtues ("It keeps my mind sharp on long drives") or the suppler yields of "Urban Outfitters assistant managers" offering generous rump cuts to the Windy City's hungry eyes.

By the end of Swans I found myself once again alone, and so took the opportunity to buy beer, sweet potato fries, and an inexcusably bullshit hot dog.  As I took my meal under a grove of trees where many others were doing the same, I thought back to riding the CTA bus to get to the festival earlier that day.  Specifically, I thought of the kid overheard on the phone reporting his ETA and firmly instructing his friends to "not take the thizz yet."  He endeared himself to me in that moment on a few levels.  First, he couldn't have been any older than nineteen, and was very possibly younger, thus absolving him of any trespasses he might make against public dignity in my moral universe.  (To put things in perspective, I'm of the immovable position that no inquiry into whether George Zimmerman was technically acting in self-defense could advance past the simple fact of Trayvon Martin's age.)  Second, he made no attempt to euphemize his and his cohort's upcoming ingestion of controlled substances.  Did he think "thizz" was code enough?  Did he judge the double baker's dozen that boarded at North Ave. with him to be just old and out-of-touch enough not to know raver slang?  Or had he simply persuaded himself he wouldn't be judged?  Although the safest conjecture would've been none of the above, that he was a white North Shore suburbanite blissfully ignorant of the big city's don'ts and be carefuls, my more democratic impulses much preferred to think that he looked around himself and decided that he was among friends.  Looking around Union Park at the walking talking signifiers for the music snob taste community, I figured that if I were ever to feel that way, it would be here.

Kim Deal, I think.
In that way the Breeders, the day's second-to-headlining main stage act, was Pitchfork in quintessence.  Their meat-and-potatoes indie rock isn't Great Rock 101 the way, say, Pixies is, and rather than applying old tricks to new tunes the way, say, Swans did, they were playing a classic album in its entirety.  In short, I doubt the kids came to see Kim Deal: this set was for devotees of the 90s and all its treasures.  Not that this audience was in short supply, if the enormous crowd worshiping the hems of her mom jeans were any indication.  They just averaged more towards house-buying/baby-making age, their youthful follies behind them, settling into a midtempo groove - kind of like the Breeders, actually, who I like but don't love.

You'll have to excuse Andy Stott but Farmville is serious business.
In stark contrast was Andy Stott, a Manchester producer playing over at the low stakes blue stage (where Low had been overlapped with the Breeders in what can only be presumed to be contractual passive aggression).  This region of the festival was generally reserved for hip-hop and techno acts as part of the Pitchfork empire's backhanded attempts at diversification, but other than a description solicited from the couple behind me ("kind of really chill downtempo kind of thing"), I had no idea what to expect, although judging by the demonstrably teenaged crowd around me, it was meant to be danceable.  The decidedly undanceable tidal waves of bass and agonized screaming that greeted us were therefore a happy surprise, most of all because I could imagine it was hardly so happy for anyone else.  Eventually he settled into serviceable but rote deep house - throbbing 4/4, anonymous chanteuses - but for a brief, blissful, blitzed-out moment I was able to imagine that this super-hip club headliner was as antisocial as I was.

Great Scot, it's Stuart Murdoch!
My shortlived schadenfreude was but a palate-cleanser for the all-inclusive togetherness I would feel at the final act of the day, indie-pop elder statesmen Belle & Sebastian.  Having "discovered" them in college, I was a late convert to their deceptively straightlaced, distinctively Glaswegian style of AM pop, which had peaked critically sometime between the late 90s and my junior year of high school.  This theoretically made me doubly abstracted from what was designed as music for disaffected youth: not only was I already a few years past the age dramatized, but this Dylan-by-way-of-Lee-Hazlewood stuff was already a nostalgia trip to begin with.  But somehow that's pretty much the opposite of the almost overwhelming affect that overcame me when the familiar chords of "Boy with the Arab Strap" greeted the floodlit night sky.  Blame it on the booze, the weed, or the generous good vibes.  Or maybe blame it on Stuart Murdoch's way with a sheepishly sardonic lyric, which goes from Donald Fagen at inception to Nico at delivery (although his years of showmanship have rendered him more of a Jarvis Cocker these days, and that's no criticism).  For my money Belle & Sebastian's are among the relatively few rock lyrics I bother paying any attention, and "Judy and the Dream of Horses" is one of the best epitaphs of lost innocence I've yet to hear, which is to say nothing of that elegantly elementary strummed acoustic that ushers in Murdoch's lisped lament and the Burt Bacharach horns that pay it off.  Most remarkable of all, however, was the active involvement of an attendant constituency visibly too young to have been contemporary even with Dear Catastrophe Waitress.  Murdoch pulled a large group, wisely mostly female, onstage near the end, and though one did feel inspired to strip down to her bra, remarkably (mercifully) none felt inspired to twerk.  Like the enormous crowd at ground level before them, they looked nothing other than caught up in the unironic joy of it all, some of them even close to tears, maybe even yours truly included, but that's just between you and me, okay?

Occasionally my mind wandered to that kid on the Ashland bus.  Surely the ecstasy had taken its intended effect by now.  Whatever I was feeling, I could only imagine he and his cohort were feeling it times ten.  Assuming they were at Belle & Sebastian, that is, and not at the blue stage, where another Glaswegian, Rustie, was playing.  Come to think of it, that's probably exactly where they were.  Fucking kids these days don't know how good they have it.

*Photos once again courtesy Pitchfork Media.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Half-assed Pitchfork Write-up, Part I

Solo is what I prefer, or so I tell others as a defense mechanism for being a loner.  At the movies this is actually the case almost without exception due to stubbornly inconsistent attendance practices (read: preemptive buyer's remorse) but also the fear, occasionally validated, that I will find myself accompanied by a chronic phone-checker.  For live music I'm much more flexible (read: desperate for human contact), but the often prohibitive nature of ticket costs and the even more prohibitive nature of my taste in music make that sometimes an even harder sell.  So, I prefer solo, accompanied only by the internecine drives to drink and to be somehow productive when- and wherever I go as materialized by my trusty Moleskine.  This is how I expected to spend the Pitchfork Music Festival this year only to find my solitude interrupted by friends wandering into and out of my vicinity.  But committed I was to documenting the experience, and committed I remain, so here are, dear reader, my notes.  From one of three days.  After arriving late.  Attached to photos I found on the Internet.*  A week and a half after the fact.

Plans to arrive relatively early and catch well-recommended bands like KEN Mode and Parquet Courts were quickly jettisoned by attempts to graft a Platypus of Evan Williams onto the interior of my backpack.  The result was a mess of duct tape attached to a belabored alibi that my bag was a piece of shit requiring layers of adhesive to keep it from disintegrating upon contact.  Why bother with such a high maintenance accessory, you ask?  Well, officer, I won't be missing it if it gets stolen, will I?  Foolproof.  As the multipartite ruse no doubt suggests, I am a novice smuggler, held hostage by a lousy poker face and healthy fear of the law.  Many a college day I've spent admiring my more seasoned peers from afar, swigging proudly from expertly holstered hip flasks as I exchanged double market value for lukewarm beer like a sucker.  Now was my chance to avenge younger me against every grabby rent-a-cop ever to gain my deference.  Said rent-a-cop turned out to be a less-than grabby fat teenager with braces, who seemed hard-pressed to notice that I even had a bag to search.  But the booze got in, which is a success, you know, in consequentialist terms.  It was a moral victory.  Get over yourself, younger me.

...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead lead singer Conrad Keely demonstrates his creative process for 2006 LP So Divided.
My arrival coincided with ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead taking the stage.  I wandered into their modest crowd in the middle of "How Near, How Far."  Source Tags & Codes was the gateway drug for me, as it was for most indie rock guys of a certain vintage, so those syncopated snare fills and Conrad Keely's melismatic vocals brought me right back to about eight years ago, when a little free time and a lot of pot made this stuff mean a whole hell of a lot.  Indeed, Keely especially seemed to have never left 2002, unless Patton-Oswalt-fronting-Fallout-Boy was the look he was always cursed with.

Part of the band's torrid legacy - rife with major label disillusionment, intra-band squabbling, burnouts and rebirths - was a live show reportedly punctuated with the onstage destruction of expensive equipment.  Age (that or pesky liability clauses) seemed to have tempered their rich kid anarchism, but their show was still no less forceful and vivacious than a college kid looking for the midpoint between hardcore and post-rock could hope for.  ST&C was the most heavily represented album, as far as my ears could tell, but they did end with "Totally Natural," one of my personal favorites from their underloved sophomore LP Madonna.  They also played a tune from Worlds Apart, which gave band co-founder Jason Reese the opportunity to bite the hand that fed them by remarking that it was Pitchfork's favorite album (hint: it was not).  Sophomoric, yes, but pointed, especially in the context of curation carefully tuned to reflect the music mag's notoriously fickle taste.  When the festival was starting out back in 2006, Trail of Dead's music was getting regularly tepid responses from Pitchfork, after having earned a perfect 10 out of 10 from them with ST&C.  Hence, no invitation to Union Park was forthcoming, not until they could clean up their act and please the gatekeepers once again.  I'd be a little bitter, too.

Savages lead singer Jehnny Beth calls you out for your obscenely positive worldview.
After I had visited the beer tent two graduate school companions joined me and we headed to the adjacent stage to hear Savages, a recent beneficiary of the Pitchfork hype machine.  As much as I hate to admit it, though, they deserve it: in an overplayed field - post-millennial post-punk - their debut, Silence Yourself, could easily stand with Unknown Pleasures and The Scream, and they lived up to it live.  The sky was blue and the sun was out, hungrily seasoning grateful trees and the ample exposed flesh, but you'd hardly know it from Savages' seething, seedy gloom.  The old cliché about post-punk is that it's what happened when real musicians started playing punk, and that's what sets these five ladies apart from any number of likeminded nostalgists.  Even their drummer, whose performance on the kit was loose to the point of sloppy, fit the ensemble perfectly, lending their melodic discord an almost precarious brittleness.  The icing on the cake, though, was realizing that the lead singer's pitch-black jumpsuit was capped off with bright yellow stilettos, neither of which appeared to hinder her progress as she stalked the stage, daring the world to knock her off her pedestal.  Bitching.  By the time she had bowed and urged us to follow her over to Swans at the red stage, I was forced to acknowledge a few greater-thans by proxy:

1) all-chick bands > all-dude bands;
2) overpriced cold beer > dirt-cheap warm bourbon; and
3) standing in front of musicians with company > standing in front of musicians without company.

The final one hurt my pride the most but as they say, the first step to solving a problem is to admit that you have one.

To be continued...

* Photos courtesy Pitchfork Media.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

PopMatters: Fuck Buttons, SLOW FOCUS



Three and a half years playing the LARP of music criticism and I still haven't leveled up much, considering both the relative infrequency of my contribution to the field, and my frankly inexhaustive knowledge of music.  Maybe that's why I'm extra careful when applying numerical scores to new albums: as the one quantifiable measure of subjective appraisal, they exclusively invite perspiration when inspiration is the hard part.  Besides, thanks to review aggregators like Metacritic, these arbitrary  values mean much more than they really should, so I reserve superlatives often in resistance to the promiscuous praise some critics have no qualms giving out.  Call it balancing the field.  Hence, in my three-and-a-half years writing for PopMatters' new music section, only two albums have earned a 9 out of 10.  The first was the remaster of Bowie's Station to Station, and in retrospect, I'd say it really deserved a 10, considering the minor nature of its shortcomings and the major stature of the art.  The second is Fuck Buttons' Slow Focus, the greatness of which I have become unexpectedly convinced.  An excerpt:
For Slow Focus, Hung and Power have nuanced their approach, and the difference is tremendous. Where Tarot Sport alternated between mirth and agitated “palate cleansers,” in the words of Dusted Magazine’s Jennifer Kelly, Fuck Buttons’ third full-length is founded upon anxious slasher synths, ominous hip-hop breaks, and everything in-between, like a soundtrack co-written by John Carpenter and RZA is music buff heaven. In mood, meanwhile, Slow Focus explores a more robust and inventive iteration of Street Horssing‘s slow-burn menace, which was potent enough, but bound to tried-and-true tactics like tribal drumming and the aforementioned screaming. In both cases, Fuck Buttons rested perhaps too easily on blunt notions of the ugly and the sublime. Slow Focus represents a departure into more mature territory.  The result is an album that stands up to many, many listens, despite its basically repetitive nature.
Read the rest here.  Below, the video for lead single "The Red Wing":


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Saturday Evening Post: Cat Chaperoning


Tonight witnessed, in order of cosmic significance:
  • Paranoid vigilante Nathan Bedford Forrest George Zimmerman found not guilty;
  • UK soldiers in Afghanistan found killing themselves at higher rates than dying in combat;
  • Several highly fatal commercial transit accidents across the world;
  • The Iowa Supreme Court's confirmation to the rest of the country that yes, it's okay to fire someone (read: a woman) for being way too hot;
  • Two hapless civilians run over by Chicago's signature downtown gentrification annual;
  • Our cat Ariel (pictured above) repurposing our bathtub as a toilet.
Given my own infinitesimally minor role in the grand farce of existence, it is this lattermost event that requires me most urgently - a fact for which, as my mother wouldn't hesitate to remind me, I should probably be thankful.  Adult supervision is my Saturday night which means, of course, drinking and reading, which means, of course, reading stuff on my computer screen.  The first item was a defense of radical feminists from accusations of transphobia so rhetorically and intellectually head-and-shoulders above the Jacobin piece that purports to call it out that I am forced to accept that I should probably keep my mouth shut about the whole thing (especially because the aforementioned journal is getting sued for their efforts).  The second was an absolutely searing piece co-written by Mal Ahern, whose acquaintance with me has been reified as actual friendship by capitalism's most cost-effective intelligence agency.  I'd be lying if I claimed it didn't inflame my contrarian impulses on more than one occasion, especially as a flesh-and-blood sometimes-symptom of the version of man-child she and co-author Moira Weigel semi-ludically propose.  But I'd be remiss if I didn't also recommend the piece as a humbling, sterling polemic on the boy's game of academic leftism.

"Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child" is structured as a damning critique of French Marxist collective Tiqqun's screed Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, whose title its parodies.  Some especially wounding excerpts:
"Tiqqun offers an edgy update to such misogynist metaphors deployed for the purposes of demystification. At times, it speaks longingly of women who have not been utterly corrupted by capitalism. But when it learns what it knew all along—there is no outside; all human relationships have become reified—its disappointment at finding no one authentic to grow old with intensifies its vitriol. “It wasn’t until the Young-Girl appeared that one could concretely experience what it means to ‘fuck,’ that is, to fuck someone without fucking anyone in particular. Because to fuck a being that is really so abstract, so utterly interchangeable, is to fuck in the absolute.” Tiqqun’s language may be obscene, but its point is nothing new. The failure to see women as “anyone in particular,” or as subjects endowed with their own ends, has allowed men to fuck women over for centuries." 
"When we look at the comment sections where men fantasize about violating and decapitating female bloggers, or ­OkCupid diaries where they rant about dates who spurned their sexual advances, we recognize immediately that the Nice Guy doth protest too much. Typos make it easy to call a sadsack sociopath a sociopath. But we imagine that our male colleagues at cultural institutions are aware of how women have been exploited.  So when one asks whether we would like to co-author a paper, undertaking all the translation for it because he does not “do languages,” we try to shake it off. He cannot ­really imagine that we spent years of our adult lives mastering foreign words and grammar just so we could do the tedious housework of gathering sources while he takes credit for the conceptual heavy lifting. (Even his verb choice—“do”—makes it sound like this was a hobby, like tourism, as if we just happened to get off on playing with textbooks.) When the co-organizer of an exhibition calls to ask, on a few hours notice, whether he can borrow sheets for the futon on which he volunteered weeks ago to put up a visiting artist—it was just coincidence that he called us and not Patrick or Andrew, right? We want to believe this. And yet, we look at the female faculty who seem to participate in every committee and conference and supervise over half the dissertations in their departments, and we feel afraid."* 
"When we accept the knowingness that the Man-Child trades in, we put off thinking about how differences of gender, sex, and sexuality operate in diverse lives. That sort of thinking takes work, work that many of us would often rather avoid. Because utopia never arrives, this labor gets passed on to the exploited, who do not have the choice of temporarily ignoring the question. In many workplaces, including academic departments, this means that race becomes the “job” of people of color; sexual politics the “job” of people who are female and/or queer and/or transgendered."
*I imagine the "co-organizer" and colleague who "does not 'do languages'" know who they are; one only hopes they read The New Inquiry. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"Can We Stop Worrying About Millennials Yet?"

Fellow child of the boomers Matt Bors has penned an outrageously on-the-nose generational rebel yell and published it on CNN.  I will exploit my relative media invisibility to post it in its entirety.  And yes, I do so fully guilty of (ab)using the term "millennial" to signify a generational Other, not least of all in my most recent post on Spring Breakers, but with insistence that I still include myself among these teeming navelgazing masses.


Friday, July 5, 2013

SPRING BREAKERS


“How the hell do we sell this?” a pen-twirling stuffed suit asks across the boardroom table of my imagination, apropos of Harmony Korine’s flashy nightmare vision of kids these days. The trailers that preceded the late night screening I caught suggested they never quite figured it out: Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain, the final Hangover entry, and a post-apocalypse comedy starring the dick-wielding half of Judd Apatow’s stable – i.e. this summer’s raunchfest tentpoles – were apparently AMC’s best attempt at narrowcasting. Not that its promo campaign has promised anything other than nonstop titillation, accented with the vaguely highbrow cred of, say, Vice Magazine, which incidentally mounted a great deal of said promo. Butts are in seats accordingly: the hip iniquity draws desirable demos, while anyone who’s seen Kids or Gummo comes just to wait for the other shoe to drop – if, in fact, it ever does.

Whether it does remains teasingly uncertain. Most write-ups, Jeff Sconce’s excellent analysis included, take for granted that Korine’s indulgence is critical, if not outright satirical, because how could it not be? But I’m not so sure. If Spring Breakers assaults the senses, that’s because its world consists entirely of sensation; no wonder that it shares a cinematographer, Benoît Debie, with Gaspar Noé’s neon epic Enter the Void. But whereas Noé frames flashing lights and throbbing flesh with unambiguously sleazy censure, Korine seems much more ambivalent. Benjamin Halligan observed in his superb piece on the “neo-underground” that Gummo, Korine’s ‘97 paean to hillbilly ennui, is neither entirely freakshow nor plea for social justice, instead subordinating both functions to an impressionistic “stylistic anarchy.”[1] This didn’t stop critics from accusing the film of one or praising it as the other, but it took the keen eyes of my undergrads to see the subtle resonance between the squalid tableaux of Gummo and the star-studded hyper-montage of Spring Breakers.

In other words, to claim Korine comes to bury or to praise is to deny any alternatives. Mimesis in extremis is typically understood to make satire, but the pop vocabulary Spring Breakers enlists – Skrillex’s ham-fisted beats, beer-doused breasts in over-saturated slo-mo – incorporates hyper-acceleration as a formal principle.  Whatever scans as subversion in Spring Breakers by virtue of excess is virtually indistinguishable from the crass mass culture that would be its target. Maybe lumping the film with The Hangover Part III is a cannier move than first suspected.

Anthony Lane gripes that Korine falls prey to the instant gratification he sets out to expose, which is about as predictable a high-brow reaction as I can imagine. Maybe it really is a generational thing. It shouldn’t elude anyone that the final shootout – in which the two most hardened reveler-cum-criminal tarts dispatch a small army of black gangbangers without breaking a nail – strains credibility. But whereas someone whose knowledge of hip-hop peaked in the 90s might read James Franco’s cornrowed wigger clown Alien as an update of Jamie Kennedy’s B-Rad G, it takes being weened on Myspace to place him among Riff Raff, Lil B, and even Das Racist: rappers who reject “the false dichotomy of jokes vs. serious shit,” to quote the latter, and yet are taken no less seriously for it.

Above all, consider the four leads. Their minimally-clothed bodies have decorated advance press and claim the lion’s share of Spring Breakers’ ninety minutes. Consistent with the film’s penchant for having its cake and eating it too: ticket-selling pandering functions also to critique the very same. But a comment I overheard in the men’s room afterwards is instructive. Three young men were working the film out over the bathroom sinks, and one asked the others: “What do you think they meant to do by making the girls not-that-hot?” I laughed, of course – to myself and my urinal – because the judgment was patently ridiculous: two of them former Disney Channel princesses, one of them a Pretty Little Liar, and the other Korine’s wife, these women are without a doubt among this species’ finer specimens. He’s right, though, in that they fail to conform to Hollywood’s tunnel vision of female beauty, especially of the bikinied variety and especially of the supposed-to-be-teenaged variety. Casting fully-grown women as high school seniors has long been the means by which high school sex comedies ogle at the underaged while sidestepping indecency. The heroines of Spring Breakers, on the other hand, look like actual college freshmen. In the place of impossibly leggy supermodel types are averagely petite girls adorned in the implements of Lisa Frank-style infantilized femininity. They evoke less our visual repertoire of screen teen queens – the Molly Ringwalds, Jennifer Love Hewitts, and Emma Stones of the world – than the “barely legal” cottage media industry, from the garish banners garnishing porn aggregators to the lad-mag features delivering soft-core centerfolds to the salivating masses upon a B-lister’s 18th. That Spring Breakers effects the graduation of Vanessa Hudgens and the baby-faced Selena Gomez from children’s television to cultural adulthood emboldens the point. The spring breaking of these pseudo-virginal bodies isn’t dialectical, it’s par for course.

Again we have that nagging accusation of cake-having and -eating. Instead of putting distance between itself and lamentable pornographic conventions, Spring Breakers dives right in. But of course it does. I’ve long suspected that insofar as we’re called upon to judge a cultural problem, satire and social critique make things easy for us. A duller filmmaker might have given Spring Breakers a viewpoint identifiably smarter, or at least more analytical, than its coed bacchanals. Perhaps the black bystanders of Gucci Mane's scenes would’ve been given more to do, beyond looking on in vague incredulity; or, more lazily, Alien and the girls could be made the butts of broad farce. But Korine offers nothing of the sort. Vacuous sensibilities are taken utterly seriously, conveyed with a lyricism that’s been duly compared to Terence Malick. When that means a motif of “Spring break forever!” and its verbal variants chanted monastically in voiceover, Spring Breakers approaches astringent absurdity, which is, I think, why it works and why it’s of a piece with Korine’s cinema of transgression. We’re forced to experience this world as is, only amplified, looped, and polished to an art cinema sheen. There’s no safety valve. Anyone who’s weak to the allure of underage girls, wet t-shirt contests, and Britney Spears’ “Everytime” is openly confronted with that uncomfortable fact. My screening companion wasn’t buying it, but I for one would rejoice in a future where summer tentpoles begin to look more like Spring Breakers, and we stop kidding ourselves about the ethical imperatives of eating cake. 

[1] Benjamin Halligan, “What is the Neo-Underground and What isn’t: A First Consideration of Harmony Korine,” ed.Xavier Mendik and Steven Jay Schneider, Underground U.S.A.: Filmmaking Beyond the Canon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 150-60.

Monday, May 27, 2013

PopMatters: Disappears, KONE EP; Bibio, SILVER WILKINSON


This quarter is annihilating me in ways I've never experienced.  To break the monotony, here's a couple of reviews.  The first is a short one, tossed off-the-cuff and, to be quite frank, mangled by my editor beyond comprehension - not to mention attached to a lower score than I intended (a right the powers-that-be at PopMatters reserve, but still).  The whole thing:
These Chicago indie rockers cut three LPs doing PIL the way Interpol did Joy Division: all the gloom but none of the snarl, with mopey persistence taking its place. On Kone, they go full krautrock and subsequently come into their own. The 15-minute title track takes its time summoning creaking U-boats and air raid sirens from guitar squall as cymbals swell and crash overhead.  A down-tuned riff and vocals drowned in delay circuits and angst, together introduce something resembling a melody around the 6:30 mark, but it isn’t until the surf rock of “Kontakt” that Kone offers anything resembling a song, though even that doesn’t last. Disappears is far more interested in whipping up the most suffocating, resonant, prickly post-punk tempest anyone can manage 36 years after “Frankie Teardrop”  and judging by these bearings, they’re well on their way.

The second is a long one, written in the charitable auteurist spirit of knowing I like this guy's work and thus giving him the benefit of the doubt.  An excerpt:
With Silver Wilkinson, [Bibio] seems to be reeling in his widely cast net and reversing his metronome to demonstrate in the exposed details his well-honed mastery over diverse styles.  What that mastery yields, though, is a strangely detached listen. The sound is rich with the carefully patterned interplay of organic and digital, human and inhuman, melodic and moody, and it sometimes produces an assertive splendor, as it does towards the middle, at which album singles “À tout à l’heure” and “You’ are conjoined by the lilting “Sycamore Silhouette”. But it’s just as often kind of listless. If Ambivalence Avenue and Mind Bokeh were scatterbrained stylistically, they also compensated by cohering tonally. Mind Bokeh especially sustained a consistent and stimulating sense of melancholy as it veered jarringly between laptop pop, arch soul, and psychedelic folk, as if conveying a story—or, at least, the intimations of one—through studied genre collage. Silver Wilkinson is a slicker effort, and yet plays similarly to Bibio’s earlier ambient efforts: almost willfully failing to grab our attention, it recedes happily and wispily into the background.
On the other hand, one of the album's better cuts, set to scraps of 8mm (natch):

Friday, April 26, 2013

PopMatters: Junip, JUNIP


This quarter is pitilessly handing my ass to me and hence the infrequency of my posts, but that didn't stop me recently from investing some time arguing with assholes on the Internet.  It's not that I usually resist the temptation.  There's not usually a temptation to resist.  Sometimes, though, in the kind of venue of arts discourse where readers and writers mingle with mutual intellectual respect, something approaching an honest-to-goodness public sphere emerges, and the Internet redeems itself for all its many broken promises.  When a compulsive naysayer enters these spaces, engaging him (or her, although I'm convinced trolling is generally the domain of bored and emasculated men) can be a valuable opportunity to exercise my critical faculties and indulge some bitter wit for the entertainment of my imagined peers, at the expense of either A) a casual sociopath or B) someone much, much too attached to the cultural object in question.  Having experienced this experience's modest rewards before, I thought I might give it another go on my colleague's review of Iron & Wine's latest soft-rock crowdpleaser.  No such luck; it didn't seem I had much of an audience, besides the author and one other likeminded interlocutor.

Anyway.  From my latest review, an uncontroversial take on a thoroughly uncontroversial  band, an excerpt:
Junip is José González’s band because the band is more than happy to let González – as singer and songwriter and, to a lesser extent, guitarist – take the fore. It’s not that he does the heavy lifting, it’s that there’s no heavy lifting to do: on their several EPs, Fields, and now Junip, Junip commits to a kind of coffee-shop psychedelia, in which students of Nuggets buy minivans and behave themselves. Whatever heady flourishes drummer Elias Araya and organist Tobias Winterkorn do work up never divert González’s MOR navigation. His singing splits the difference between Stevie Nicks and Nick Drake, and the band’s sound follows suit; if Junip leans in the direction of Fleetwood Mac’s slick pop affect, like Pink Moon, it’s still quiet no matter how loud you crank the volume.
As in the review I wrote just prior, the best thing about this album is the music video that preempted its release:



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

PopMatters: Bonobo, THE NORTH BORDERS

"You're waiting for the what to drop?"
To break one hiatus by breaking another: my first blog post in a month, linking to my first music review in three-and-a-half.  An excerpt:
If anything, Bonobo continues on his latest to forgo the kind of fashionable displeasure that might attract readier critical favor. But ifThe North Borders sustains attention with deceptive simplicity, that deception is itself deceptive. Green’s intricate arrangements—melodic but never quite melodies—cue ears to listen closely, but rewards are scant; as evasive as they can be, these tracks aren’t for chinstrokers. Perhaps the album will prove to have long-term potential, but for now, The North Borders might be too modest for its own good.
Although this album didn't exactly knock my socks off, I will vouch wholeheartedly for some tracks, such as "Cirrus," especially the cool-as-shit orphan media psychedelia commissioned for it:


Note: the producer of the record I reviewed is not, in fact, a dwarf chimpanzee.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

KILLER JOE



William Friedkin may be the only working filmmaker still capable of giving me the heebie-jeebies.  I’m told his mid-80s-to-early-00s output has been spotty, but it seems he’s found a muse in the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Tracy Letts.  They first joined forces on 2007’s Bug, a pressure-cooker by virtue of its central folie à deux alone, to say nothing of its single-room setting and breathlessly manic monologuing.  With Killer Joe, they recapture much of the same visceral, unrelenting energy for a story that wouldn’t necessarily promise it, of life insurance fraud gone horribly, unavoidably awry .  Like Bug, Killer Joe is Southern-fried noir structured by a series of verbal standoffs alternately seething and shrill but always enthralling.  The Dallas trailer-trash cast’s attempts to outsmart one another proceed on the shaky premise that there’s any intelligence present to thwart.  The lone exception is the eponymous avocational hitman, played with such easy menace by Matthew McConaughey that you wonder if the role, written when he was only just thinking it'd be a lot cooler if you did have a joint, was somehow conceived with him in mind.  Thomas Hayden Church also stands out as the slack-jawed patriarch whose deadpan delivery gets the lion’s share of the film’s laughs.   But here I am talking about performances when all you want to know is whether and how it earns its NC-17, that great slayer of box office prospects.  The answer to the first part is both yes and no.  Yes, it is a nasty, violent piece of work, but not significantly more so than anything else Friedkin has done – certainly not Bug, with its tooth extractions and graphic Foley art thereof.  Sex was clearly the tipping point: Gina Gershon is preceded by her merkin in her first scene, and forced to perform fellatio on fried chicken with a broken nose in her last.  I’m all for according sexual violence the most restrictive of ratings, and besides, I’m certainly no Puritan, but I must echo Roger Ebert’s thoughts from his (positive) review of the film: if anything can earn this dubious honor, shouldn’t violence alone?  Absent a sufficiently coherent Other against which to classify itself, as pornography provides film vis-à-vis lusty bodies, it likely never will.  All the squirmy moralist deep inside me is left to do is throw his hands high, resigned, sigh, and surrender to Friedkin's resolutely amoral, skin-crawling thrills.  I can think of worse fates.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

SKYFALL and the Pleasure of Pedigreed Sexism



Do we ever need a caveat emptor for a Bond film’s mean-spirited sexism?  Mais non, fans of the latest cry, it’s just a bloody Bond film!  And so it is, meeting its duties with the canny panache of a first-rate ad agency.  The timeworn brand iconography is present and accounted for: the man, the music, the martini; exotic locales, improbable stunts, nefarious villainy.  But of course they are.  What really gives 007’s 23rd (in year 50) the market advantage is director Sam Mendes’ art film polish.  Or rather, cinematographer Roger Deakin’s, a Coen brothers favorite: from a birds-eye-view of a train in Turkey to the depths of a frozen lake in Scotland, this is one good-looking movie, owing no small due to the countless, nameless set designers, costumers and lighting technicians at hand (although the shadowcast fisticuffs in Shanghai I’m willing to credit entirely to the cameraman’s genius).  It is also about as middlebrow as they come, which is to say, as lower-middle aspiring to high.  Consider how M reads Tennyson during a cross-cut crosstown chase.  Or how megalomaniac Silva’s interrogation room shamelessly apes Hannibal Lecter’s.  Or how Silva, Bond, and M are triangulated into a Freudian standoff for Mommy’s love.  (Is it an accident that when pronouncing M’s name, Bond stretches it to sound like ‘mum’?  You tell me.)  Openly gay screenwriter John Logan has curried much favor for writing Silva as a complex gay villain, meaning that a preening homo scarred by maternal neglect is ‘complex’; who knew? 

This is not to say Skyfall isn’t all admirably well-played, -written, -delivered, and so on and so forth: it’s as tailored to prevalent concepts of quality as Tom Ford’s suit is to Daniel Craig’s sinewy body.  But what are we supposed to do with the fate of Berenice Marlohe’s bodacious Severine, righteously called out by London Times critic Giles Coren in a banned editorial?  Her cavalier treatment would cast a pall over any film, but in the context of a PG-13 prestige blockbuster peddling a nostalgia that culminates in men’s restoration to their rightful sovereignty – Ralph Fiennes takes Dame Judi Dench’s place when M expires; Naomi Harris’s Moneypenny relinquishes her rifle and happily takes a desk job after Bond suggests “field work isn’t for everyone” – Severine’s victimization is the nasty apex of a thoroughly reactionary two-and-a-half hours at the movies.

What seems cause for concern, I think, is how little concern this has caused.  Many hands have wrung this week in the wake of Seth MacFarlane’s boorish hatchet job hosting the Oscars, and rightly so, but a curious blind spot persists in the riled blogosphere, epitomized by the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson: “it’s notable that two of the better moments in the show involved Bond films.”  It is notable.  Davidson refers to Shirley Bassey’s performance of “Goldfinger” and Adele’s of “Skyfall,” which partitioned a midshow retrospective of the Bond franchise, and she’s right: here are instances of abundant dignity for women onstage, neither of them conforming to the standards of beauty snidely upheld by the host, the red carpet, and the culture industry writ large.  But how do we cope with this dignity’s enlistment in honoring cinema’s most evergreen icon of alpha masculinity? 

We don’t, fans of the series reply, it’s just a bloody fantasy.  And so it is, but that fantasy doesn’t consist only in Bond’s amply bestrewn gentility.  It consists also in the social relations that gentility preserves.  There’s the Eurocentrism, of course, and there’s the upper-snuff pedigree; he never reads but we must assume he's an Oxonian.  And then there’s the sexism.  The Bond girls - all fully grown women, I seem to recall - and their habitual undress; his burning through them; his occasional corporal discipline when they get out of line.  The slapping has generally ceased by now, but Bond’s rough way with Séverine in Skyfall is one (uncomfortable) nod to Bond’s legacy (From Russia With Love in particular, winked at also by that aforementioned Turkish train) in a film that boasts many.  I would buy the disavowal - that we know it's all imaginary, thank you very much - if the legions who saw it seemed to value some kind of critical distance, but that’s clearly not the case.  On the contrary, the positive critical consensus has overwhelmingly valued the poetic realism, the unmannered acting, and the thematic nuance of Mendes’ film: in short, the capacity to get swept up in it in spite of it all.  (I am not innocent of this: although I resisted Skyfall, I remain a fan of Casino Royale, the first Bond with Craig - playing a much more sympathetic 007, I might add.)  It's the magic of the movies, if you will.  Precisely the mass-market enchantment the Oscars exist to legitimate.  Precisely the enchantment from which we must waylay the world’s MacFarlanes with severe prejudice.  But the only way the two ultimately differ, in the near-infinite access their antediluvian worldviews have to us - the one in PG-13 wide release, the other in primetime broadcast - is that we take pleasure in one, and most certainly not the other.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

LIFE OF PI/DJANGO UNCHAINED




The 85th Academy Awards Ceremony is an hour away from airtime well underway so I guess that means it’s time to offer my thoughts on the final two Best Picture contenders I’ve seen, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  These films are lumped together only incidentally but they do share a handful of prominent features.  Both are the latest event movies (if any movie can really be called that anymore) from modern auteurs who have managed the increasingly rare feat of both popular and critical acclaim.  Both fantasize an alternative history, of sorts: the one, an encounter with nature on its own turf in the midst of a modernizing world; the other, revenge for the abject racial subordination that continues to assert itself a century and a half hence.  And both are basically good but way too damn long, nearly compromised by excesses unique to their helmsmen – which is where they are, like Lee and Tarantino, very different.

Life of Pi is 100 minutes of eye-popping wonder augmented by 20 going over what we learned today.  Even Yann Martel, scribe of the original novel, has qualified his gushing approval by bemoaning Lee’s unambiguous ending.   And indeed it, like the rest, is Lee’s: the maritime exploits of Pi the human and Richard Parker the tiger are absorbing in that just-shy-of-genteel way I’m assured those of his I haven’t seen share with those I have.  Even an admirable attempt to épater with a POV piss-take (in both senses of the term) seems well within the well-established PG family film lingua franca.  (The funniest parts – involving where the protags got their names – belong entirely to the source material.)  That being said, even if a bit sterile, the passages at sea are just about the best evidence yet for the specious argument that digital 3D is truly the next ontological frontier for cinema – or some tunnel-vision idea of it, anyway.  (Fittingly, the shipwreck scenes recall another technological milestone in the medium’s history, Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion.)  But then Lee has to go and bookend these passages with present-day narration that pulls a reverse Big Fish on us and passes it off as metaphysical critique, reconstituting the whole squeaky-clean war-horse as a big steaming pile of horseshit.

Django Unchained deserves a post of its own, especially in light of Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams’ impassioned recent broadside against Tarantino’s neo-grindhouse genre mashup.  I hope to address the piece at length at a later date, but in brief, Williams pounces on the Weinstein’s cherished wunderkind’s lamentable talent for embarrassing public speech, and questions whether he really deserves so much credit for returning slavery to the American cultural conversation.  No, he doesn’t; no argument there.  But Williams rehearses the shopworn assumption that portraying atrocity in the context of pleasure is always already complicit in evil.  He goes on to juxtapose Inglourious Basterds with Django and ask why the former wasn’t as stoked on pain and epithets.  That assumes black slavery and the Holocaust are somehow historically commensurate, which I’d argue they mostly aren’t.  (Also, has Williams seen Inglourious’s opening farmhouse massacre?)

But more on that later.  My beef with Django is that, even more than Death Proof, it sometimes scans as a fully-funded spoof of Tarantino rather than the man himself.  The breathless carriage of Christoph Waltz’s overstuffed lines is one instance, Herr Waltz’s otherwise excellent work notwithstanding.  The Mel Brooks-cribbing proto-Klan sequence is another.  And I wonder how many minutes of exploding squibs could have gotten nixed without anyone really noticing?  (I protest it’s not bloody violence I'm losing my taste for, just the boring kind.)  On the ideological side of things, I also wonder if Tarantino couldn’t have cut white trash a tiny bit of slack.  Don Johnson’s line about treating Django “like Jerry” is the only reference made to the underspoken fact that hillbillies had only a little more to gain from antebellum society than their black, enchained counterparts.  But I guess asking Quentin Tarantino to flatter my Marxist biases is a little like asking Ang Lee to scandalize me: in short, an exercise in futility.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ARGO/SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK


These All-American crowd-pleasers don’t have much in common except for their utterly shameless crowdpleasing.  Not that I begrudge said pleasing, mind you, but the highest cinematic honor in the land merits at least a little of the kind of cruel scrutiny that ingratiation doesn't often quite bear.  So, let us consider one scene from each.  In Ben Affleck’s Argo, the last minute discovery of our heroes’ covert escape leads to a chase down the tarmac and cross-cuts between the airline cabin and hysterical guards with potboiler music shaking the subs as the Iranian convoy gets closer and closer until the nose tips, the wheels fold, and finally ah!  Sweet, sweet international airspace, and US foreign meddling lives to see another day.  But D.W. Griffithizing a civilian extraction is A/V club stuff compared to a scene late in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, in which every single character in the cast gathers in one room to work out as methodically as any script doctor can humanly manage how the resolution of each and every plot thread in the film will come to rest on the outcome of an amateur dance competition.  This sequence works overtime covering its tracks with seriocomic bluster; about three minutes of sparring Philly accents made me want to cut my fucking ears off.  Yet of the two films, I preferred Russell’s, probably due to screwball humor soundly outranking patriotism among my viewing priorities (but possibly due to the delectable Jennifer Lawrence).  That's not to say I loved or even particularly liked it, but protagonist Pat's violent response to A Farewell to Arms' feel-bad ending absolves many sins, not least of all the hilarious concept of a man with a heavy Hindi accent observing that "DeSean Jackson is the man."  Affleck, for his part - as director and as dashing leading man - plays a farce premise straight, presumably to honor its origins in truth, which begs the question: is a formula thriller’s litany of contrivances really more dignified than satire?  All the operative tastefulness leaves over for the funnymen on hand – John Goodman and Alan Arkin, of whom the world is enjoying a welcome resurgence as of late – are hollow laughs flattering received wisdom on what makes Hollywood tick.  My colleague Zach Campbell pegs their banter as not so much witty as “witty” (echoes of Richard Jameson’s screed against “style”), and that's really the last of anything that ever needs to be said about it.  Its politics meanwhile leave me cold, which is to say neutral, but Kevin B. Lee lays down the law on that eloquently enough.  Incidentally, he also thinks Silver Linings deserves Best Picture, "because it's a revealing reflection of the world we live in," which is about as simultaneous a naive fantasy and harrowing omen you're likely to get this Oscars season.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD





A reshuffling of American cinema’s sacred archetypes over the past decade has dealt us a hand of new superheroes, vampires, and arrested adolescents, so it was really only a matter of time before NOLA delta dwellers Hushpuppy and her hooch-swilling daddy Wink took their posts as the 21st century's Magical Negros.  Between handheld camerawork, heaving performances, and heavy-handed mise-en-scène – our six-year-old heroine converses with a paper cutout she’s dressed in her mother’s clothes – there isn’t much room to breathe in this tale of abject Southern poverty.  Beasts wants really badly to pull you into the everyday goings-on of its off-the-grid world, but its whimsical neo-primitivism can be a hard sell.  Timeout Chicago’s Ben Kenigsberg reads the parable as a magical-realist apologia for Bush's failings,” and when, following a Katrina-like flood, Hushpuppy’s carefree mixed-race neighbors reject social services as a matter of principle, I’m inclined to agree.  But if the first act is dubious and the second infuriating, the final third, an elegant slide into unrestrained fantasy, is sublime.  Clueless marketers have already spoiled Hushpuppy’s climactic porcine encounter, but the last twenty minutes dissolve space and time into ambrosia of likeminded reveries.  In these moments first-time director Benh Zeitin makes good on the promise of Spike Jonze’s fatally awkward Where the Wild Things Are, and the lead performances, from first-timers Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, lend the starry-eyed enterprise more credibility than it really deserves.  Everywhere else, though, what materializes is the kind of problematic vision of hardship-as-mythos that only, well, a white guy from Queens could believe in.