Sunday, November 15, 2009

R.E.M. Double Live

There aren't a lot of people around these days that care much for R.E.M. At least I don't run in to many of them. The people I talk to either hate them (in my opinion, because they are homophobic) or they think they used to be cool, but now they suck. I've heard that one since Out of Time. Lately I have been wondering how this came about. I suppose they did just get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whatever that means, and I know that if they went on tour it would be a stadium venture that would sell out everywhere. But we know that people go to shows who don't care about the bands. I suppose I just expect R.E.M. to hold the same status as U2. Perhaps I'm showing my age, but that is how I always experienced them. These were my two favorite bands for as long as I can remember being aware of their existences. I have always thought of R.E.M. as our, meaning America's U2, as the most important American producer of rock and roll since Bob Dylan.

I don't wish to dwell on all this, I just want to let you know who it is that is reviewing their new album, a double disc live set from a theater in Dublin. They call it a rehearsal, go online and read the details, I want to talk about the songs.

Merely to read the names of the tracks on set list offers many surprises. There are songs from the newest album and a few here and there from most of the albums back to Life's Rich Pageant. But the set is dominated by songs from the first three albums and the EP that preceded them. Songs from Chronic Town, Murmur, Reckoning, Reconstruction of the Fables (of Reconstruction) are performed with clarity and completeness the early recordings lacked. I would not say either version is better, just that the new performances of the old songs come alive in different, often unexpected, ways. There are no different arrangements, just details: you can understand the lyrics now, Mike Mills' backing vocals are more self-assured and more frequent and there are more textures of guitar. There are just more sonic layers overall which, again, is not to say that the songs are better than they used to be.

I listen and do not really here songs that are new to me, but performances that sound like the songs are new to the artists. These are not aging rockers going through the motions of playing their old shit. R.E.M. seem to have discovered that they wrote some very good songs 25 and 30 years ago. They don't trot out these tunes the way the Rolling Stones trot out Satisfaction. The songs from the first four recordings are vital, energetic and urgent. Perhaps this is why there's barely anything in the set that would count as a hit. No “Losing My Religion” or “Shiny Happy People.” No “Stand,” “The One I Love” or “End of the World as We Know It.” They perform “Drive” but not “Man on the Moon” or “Everybody Hurts.” All the quasi-hits are the old hits, but even then they are few and far between. “So. Central Rain” and “Driver 8” appear but not “Don't Go Back to Rockville” or “Radio Free Europe.”

For me this may be the best album they could have made. It makes me dream of the possibility that the bands I love will see this as an option. No Line on the Horizon is great, but I wonder U2 would make of October and Boy these days? I think this is one of the unique possibilities rock and roll affords. One need not be forever coming up with new material. Revisit and re-imagine the old material. Find new vitality in it.

Further Notes on the Contemporary American Man

My intellectual life is aimed directly at confronting Hollywood and everything it represents. My whole ideology is set in opposition to the values it represents and helps to indoctrinate. Even on an instinctual, emotional level I am predisposed to hating that which the mainstream. Somehow my life has brought me to this strange place: I have a sustained social interaction with an acquaintance who works in the writing branch of film studio. His day job as I understand it is to make notes and punch up scripts. This is the meal ticket for his freelance work that includes mainstream online publication at a major sports news outlet and selling a romantic comedy to a studio. Our interactions, which take place entirely over the internet, are sometimes polite and tolerant, but often bitter and sardonic. I don't like him, mostly because I have no respect for his work, but my dislike is exacerbated my fear that anything I say against him will be interpreted by others as jealousy.

Part of the problem for me is the self promotion. When he recently posted a link to an article he had written, I was immediately annoyed. The people in our peer group are generally a creative bunch. Most of us write; some of us perform, but none of us fish for compliments and/or brag about our successes save for one. Against my better judgment I followed the link and read. It was pretty typical of everything else on the website, which I may as well reveal is ESPN Page 2. All of it is nonsense more or less, inflating that which barely matters in human existence to life or death proportions. It is the raison d'etre of Page 2 to treat sport as if its shallow emotional resonances were deep, as if its mathematical calculations of statistics were intellect, as if the seriousness with which we look at it is spiritually appropriate. The best stuff on Page 2 has always been by Chuck Klosterman and the late Hunter S. Thompson precisely because they don't love sport. They are more interested in mass love of sport than in personal fandom. Little wonder that they are few and far between at Page 2, and that they were well-established cultural critics in their own right before being invited to contribute to ESPN.

First Notes on the Contemporary American Man

I recently had to cut off the tap that ran from ESPN into my brain. At least the so-called “analysis” portion which is really just guys who talk about their fandom and grossly overestimate the value of sport. I recall Dave Damashek once musing: “In these troubled times I fell sorry for people who don't have sport. What do they do? How do they escape?” These guys worship uniforms. And the question Damashek asks is buried so deeply beneath a foundation of unknowing, I would have no idea how to answer him in terms that would make sense. People read books, Damashek. They try to figure out what the hell is going on instead of hiding from it. They try to learn how to live life rather than escape from it.

I'll still watch a game or twenty, but my days for listening to podcasts are over. Except for Bill Simmons. I should explain. It isn't that I consider him an exception to the standard idiocy; in many ways he is a champion flying the Idiot flag. Though I am sympathetic to him in some ways, and though he occasionally offers genuine insight (but only when talking about the NBA), I would not call him a good writer. He knows a little about sports. I feel sorry for him when he talks about music. I cringe for humanity when he talks about movies. It is not that my standard is high, just that it is a standard at all. This is the problem with Page 2, with culture at large, everyone is just going through the motions.

I read Simmons because to me he represents the Contemporary American Man, and I have to keeps tabs on that spirit/ideology, because I regard it as what I am up against. He is the champion of the middle brow. The Contemporary American Man loves his any art that makes him feel smart and greets anything that confuses him with suspicion and hostility. Simmons loves mediocre sentimentality in movies and resents anything that looks like it may have been made by someone smarter than him. He has two phrases for this: “artsy-fartsy” and “too cool for school.” These terms cover anything that makes him feel stupid. This infantilism is the affliction of the Contemporary American Man. I suffer from it too, but my advantage is that I have diagnosed it correctly.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Here We Go Again....

Some weeks ago I was explaining to a friend why I will never watch Saving Private Ryan. To me it seemed pretty self evident. I regard Spielberg as a hack, and I detest gratuitous violence. I would define gratuitous rather broadly with regard to film. The Cinema's propensity to depict graphic images of violence and sex is its cross to bear. Sex and violence are only the most prominent cliches a visionary film artist must overcome. Many filmmakers who would call themselves visionary mistakenly believe that the path to overcoming is through immersion. My aforementioned friend refers to the first twenty minutes of Private Ryan as “sublime,” and I suspect that Rob Zombie, who has churned out another Halloween remake, would like savvy viewers to say that about his torture movies as well.

What exactly is measured by the degree of violence I can tolerate? Is it my intellect? Is it my coolness? Like Quentin Tarentino, Zombie would probably say that I'm dumb if I don't understand how cleverly he uses violent imagery. If he thinks that he is making “classic slasher films,” whatever that means, Zombie may be right, because the point of the genre has always been to create for teenagers, or anyone else with an adolescent mentality, a carnival spook-house. I imagine Zombie thinks he is making his audience confront their fears, and therein lies the value. The problem is that Zombie's fears are the fear of an adolescent boy. No. I am misrepresenting adolescent boys. Zombie's fears are the fears that adolescent boys use to distract themselves from their real fears.

I fail to see a substantive difference between the violence he portrays and that which Spielberg portrays.

Happy Labor Day!

I grow weary of the ideological debate everyone else seems to be energized by these days. It is particularly sad to see my liberal friends slide ever deeper into the us vs. them quicksand. It is an illusion. This country is run by business interests and nothing besides. The corporate masters are interested only in dollars, and in that fundamental sense they are a-political. They are disciples of Milton Friedman before they are anything else. This is not a Cabal by design, but the system is very good at protecting the rich by constantly pitting superficially opposing sides against one another in the media and in the government.

Consider that almost every Hollywood actor, producer, writer, director; every so-called (by Fox News) liberal journalist or reporter all serve media conglomerates. This by the way is the heart of my effort to constantly debunk mainstream film. It's nice that George Clooney and Julia Roberts do a lot of charity work, but their films (their REAL work?) espouse a different ideology. It is nice that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas say the “right” things in their films, but the very style of those films espouses a different ideology. None of them or their peers would ever make the following accusation, and I doubt many would understand the implications it, but if you think that there is a meaningful difference between the CEO of Wal-Mart or Nike and the CEO of Dreamworks or Miramax, you are fooling yourself.

The point is that the system would fall apart if either side was to fully win their apparent war. Further, the conclusion is that neither side can ever win, because the system seems to be perfect. So when liberals talk of this country turning into Hitler's Germany, I think they are missing the big picture. Do they not realize that the right wing is also making that claim? Perhaps liberals would say they are merely using it as rhetoric, but that claim would only betray a fundamental lack of respect for the people they supposedly wish to help via education and information.

These doomsday predictions are distracting whether they come form the left or right. Our situation is dire enough without worrying about the possibility of a fascists takeover. I suspect, in fact, that we find ourselves trapped in a system perhaps too perfect to change. Surely the unshakeable, resilient nature of the beast is more frightening than an ideological structure that is unstable enough to allow or even encourage change? We may not have a way out of this.

From Rome to the Nazi State it strikes me that all comparisons of the United States to historical empires are inaccurate. The picture that I am starting to see more clearly all the time, is that there has never been anything like America. Perhaps it is not merely the nation, for there has never been a power structure like the one that rules us – there has never been multi-national corporate power; and there has never been a media conglomeration that walks hand in hand with this power in the guise of its antipode – there has never been a Hollywood. I simply do not think anyone knows how this ends or if it even can, and that should be a lot more terrifying than the remote possibility of fascism.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Invisible Hand of the Market Continues to Dominate You

In previous entries I have suggested that if we do not determine aesthetic standards and apply them to art works diligently, if we do not assert values the market will do it for us, or rather, to us and our culture. I said this in relation to watching and reading Žižek , because I think his aesthetics lack evaluative terminology, or rather, since the whole of his thought is aesthetical, as one of my philosophy professors once told me speaking of Nietzsche, he does not develop specific terms of aesthetic judgment. I argue with friends and colleagues about Žižek's writing on film, and they continue to remind me that he does not do film criticism; he uses popular film to illustrate Lacanian ideas. I continue to assert that this does not excuse him. Žižek is one of the most prominent intellectuals alive who writes about film. He has a lot of influence in other words. I am certain that he could put together a course in Lacan that would elucidate some of the most sophisticated aspects of his theory entirely through a study of Hitchcock. This is well and good, but I still wonder at what point does it become yet another class devoted to the single most studied and most overrated filmmaker in the history of the medium at the expense of a chance for students to see Ozu, Akerman, Dreyer or Bresson?

Last night I was talking to a colleague about his summer course on the Vampire Film. He tells me its a theory course. He tells me that vampires are the hottest thing going these days, and it is a good way to introduce students to various ideas. Again, it is well and good to introduce students to “important” ideas, by which I'm sure he means the ideologies popular throughout academia – feminism, Marxism, identity politics etc. At some point, however, film departments teach nothing but these courses. The ideas of individuals such as the filmmakers listed above no longer matter. More importantly, we no longer teach how to relate to art properly. And if you don't think this is a case of the market determining cultural values, consider that my colleague told me, “Look, I don't want to teach Vampire Film, but I have to offer something that will put butts in seats. The difference between six and twelve students taking my class is two thousand dollars in my pocket.” Yes, the university pays its instructors per student. Do I have to explain why that is fucking obscene?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ode to a Great Contrarian

People often ask me why I don’t like anything – music, movies and the like. As I have said before, this question usually means “Why don’t you like the same things that I like?” The chances are good that I have addressed that problem on this very blog. It is called The Contrarian after all. Today I don’t want to be contrary, though. I want to give you one good reason to read everything you can get your hands on by Lester Bangs: he takes no shit. Reading his interviews with Lou Reed in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung is a deep cleansing breath fresh air. Given the current state of discourse in our culture, Lester Bangs seems like a revelation. Because we are living in a time in which criticism (as the word is used in common parlance) is immediately taken as disrespect, the fact that Bangs would try to start an argument with someone he clearly admires, that he would take to task a hero, is stunning. Imagine being face to face with an artist and telling him which of his works are mediocre and why. Of course Lou Reed doesn’t just accept this criticism dumbly; he dishes it right back to Bangs, explaining that he is not as good as he used to be either. Granted each and every scenario is embellished if not made up entirely, but the point is that Bangs envisions a world in which honesty is a possibility. Standards don’t come into it any more than decency. The important thing is to call it like you see it. Or rather that’s the first thing. It is an important consideration in this age when everyone who knocks out any old piece of “creative work” is entitled to praise and thanks as Jamie Kennedy and many of the artists he interviews suggest in Heckler. That is the zeitgeist isn’t it? Everyone should be creative and their creativity should be praised? I don’t like it. I mean our Lester Bangs is Chuck Klosterman, and he goes out of his way to resist judgment at every turn. Klosterman wants to “observe and report,” because who is he to judge? So goes the sentiment. I think if you asked Lester Bangs that question he would say: “I’m Lester Fucking Bangs and I’m smarter, sharper, quicker and more perceptive than you; that’s why I get to judge.” I know it gets sticky once you claim to have a right to judge, but that’s life. It gets messy. Is it particularly interesting to sit back and let everyone have his own opinion? Is it good for culture? As Zizek says, “I’m entitled to my opinion” really just means “leave me the fuck alone.” We have to have dialog, and there is no such thing as dialog without disagreement.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Unsatisfied Fools

I am new to Karl Pilkington. That is to say I have yet to read the books, and I have only just ingested the years of radio shows and podcasts. Of course I have also spent considerable time searching out clips on youtube and the like. While I certainly enjoyed the three part program I found on youtube (probably originally for BBC TV) entitled Karl Pilkington: Satisfied Fool, I think it is rather misnamed. Surely the point is that he is unsatisfied. Is it not this quality of his that makes him so interesting? Most fools (by which I mean most people, but I will get into Karl as a representation of the population at large in a moment) are entirely satisfied, at leas the appear to be. They don't ask questions, they don't make documentaries about their quest for answers to questions (however stupid those questions may be). Perhaps Karl named the documentary himself?

In the program Karl searches for an answer to his question: “Is it worth it to be smarter?” Since Karl is an idiot, he naturally thinks that being smarter means knowing more stuff, so what underpins his asinine question is the belief that if he worked harder at being smart i.e. if he read more, he would amass a repository of more facts and bits of information and thus would be smarter. Of course he leans toward not doing this, toward not learning, because what little he does pick up from reading – and it should be mentioned that he is a terrible, terrible reader with no attention span and no sensitivity to nuance – does no make him any happier. This is also crucial – he thinks knowledge should equal happiness.

The fascinating thing about all this is that it seems irredeemably idiotic when you watch this man bumble his way through these ridiculous questions, but somehow he represents a fundamental human problem. I think we all have it in our heads, even those of us who try to exercise it like a demon, that happiness is the ultimate goal. Whether one views it as a birthright or a responsibility, we treat life as a quest for happiness. Every other activity gets filtered through that lens. Will knowledge make me happy? Will money make me happy? Sex? Drugs? Marriage? Religion? Health? Hobbies? Instead of attempting to balance these these things to achieve some semblance of a whole human most people focus on one or two. Most of us do not have sufficient time for emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical fulfillment or satisfaction. We pick the area that tickles us, the one that is easiest, and focus on that. The reason why this never results in happiness is that the other aspects of existence or consciousness have been neglected and the simple fact of the matter is that all need to be nourished. The intellectual lives in quiet desperation, unable to relate to his fellow human beings emotionally. The poet dies young because he neglects his body which he sees as the cage that traps his spirit. And so on.

Karl is not going to keep his desperation quiet and this is his illuminating quality. He is a fool, but perhaps no more so than most people. (One could argue that the title card inserted at the end that shows his Mensa test score of 83 in relation to the average score of 100 would indicate that he is indeed stupider than most people.) It's just that most people keep their mouths shut. My junior high school science teacher was fond of telling us, “You know if you didn't open your mouth, no one would know how stupid you are.” Alot of us learned that lesson despite the deluge of reality shows in which people give vent to every fleeting eighth-grade emotion and inane notion in their heads and despite that we are taught that self-expression is the supreme purpose in life. This contradiction causes a problem: when people do open their mouths they have a delusional sense of entitlement because they have learned that every utterance is a sacred expression of self-hood than no other person has a right to judge. Nobody wants to speak up, but when they do, you had better thank them for it.

I go through this in every course I teach. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's attempts to educate Karl sound like exactly my experience with students who are supposedly much smarter than Karl is. I beg them to talk. I try to interest them in anything so I will have a point to jump in. But somehow they think that it was the talking that was the important thing in itself. When they start talking and I correct them or critique them in any way, they are flabbergasted. Why am I talking if I am not going to receive adulation and affirmation? In one season of the radio show, Ricky would give Karl books to read – little introductions to various historical figures of note like Churchill and Rasputin. The comedy of it was that Karl kept thinking that he was supposed to get out of it whatever he got out of it, when Ricky was trying to get him to learn specific, key points about the subjects of the books. A lot of this has to do with Karl's reading comprehension and short attention span. This is why Karl's “search” is ultimately doomed to fail – he isn't really searching because he does not how. I think of the student who refuses to accept a single premise proposed by the course, but insists that he is really trying hard. Trying is not only a decision. It is also a skill. Learning is not the addition of information. It is acceptance of ways of knowing that sometimes nullify the ones you used previously.

Karl believes that Knowledge is a collection of facts. In his conception the only advantages to being smart are for “chat” and to avoid coming across “daft.” Substitute “chat” for “classroom discussion” and “not coming across daft” for “getting a good grade” and you have the average college student. Almost every student I ever had wants me to tell them a list of things they can repeat to me in class and in papers. They just want to know what it takes to impress me. How can I not think of Karl exclaiming to the man who quotes Socrates, “See? That's what I want to be able to do.” All of the people Karl interviews tell him the same thing: intelligence is not merely knowing a bunch of stuff. Karl just does not get it. He glazes over like a dog shown a card trick and says, “Yeah but I just think if I had some quotes....” He thinks being smart is the same as impressing other people with quotes. The rub is that a lot of academics think so too! Karl might be better off though, because he knows that he just wants to appear to know stuff, where academics typically think they know a lot of stuff.

I am drawing parallels to the academic world, but it should be clear that Karl's inadequate understandings are indicative of what we might call, for lack of a better term, “human nature.” Perhaps “human tendency” would be better. We all want recognition. What is recognition but an appearance? When a student tells me he really is trying so hard, he is usually merely putting on the appearance while resting firmly within previously established boundaries. These limitations are precisely what stops learning from ever happening. One of the worst arguments I had with a student was over a paper she had written about Stranger Than Paradise. In the prompt I carefully specified that her essay should address the slow pace of the film without using the word “boring.” I regard this as a fairly straight-forward technique. The idea is to encourage the student to think about a very conspicuous aspect of the work without the facile category she would want to plug it into. Perhaps forcing one to use different words will engender new ideas. “If you are bored, you're boring,” someone once said. John Cage said if you are bored for two minutes, try it for four minutes; if you are still bored try it for eight more, and so on. I said that Stranger Than Paradise is slow but it isn't boring. Explain why it is slow. You can imagine what she wrote. After she saw her “D” she screamed at me about how she's entitled to her opinion and all the familiar excuses against thinking and learning I mentioned at the beginning.

Gervais is in Satisfied Foool for about 30 seconds, and he says simply, “Karl won't learn anything from this.” Maybe it's because he really is stupid, and maybe my student who thinks Stranger Than Paradise is boring is stupid. We are not all created equal. Yet there is something fundamentally human about the way Karl will ask a question, but not accept the answer because he already has an idea of what the answer should be. I think of the time (I don't know if it was the podcast or the XFM show) Ricky tries to convince him that dinosaurs and humans never shared the planet and he just cannot entertain the notion. “Surely their paths would have crossed at some point,” he says. He does not conceive of how vast the past is; he only knows that it happened before he got here. In some form or another, we all have that problem. We all know we don't know everything. Most of the time we are dissatisfied with our inadequate understanding of life, the universe and everything. It is only when we are being told answers that we suddenly feel protective of everything we already know.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hazards of Academia Part 249

Just a heads up to draw whatever attention I can to a couple essays recently posted on my website:

One of them is the result of a commission of sorts gone haywire. I was asked by a scholarly journal to write a review for Black Dog Press's Tarkovsky Anthology. No easy task for me to tackle a collection so disparate and voluminous and treat all the contributions fairly and equally. I gave it a shot, but in the end my ideas of fairness and equality did not match those of the editors. I believe the phrase "conclusionary screed" was used. Moreover, and this was the irresolvable conflict, the essay I submitted was too damn long. The version that appears at my site, which I cut several pages from, comes in just over eight thousand words. Apparently I was to shoot for something closer to 4500 maximum. I was given the chance to trim it down to 5500, and they even gave me a headstart by slashing the first three or four pages which constitute the entire aesthetic foundation as far as I am concerned. In the end I was unable to hack it up to fewer than six thousand, and I found that version to be a semi-cohernet rant at best, an author by author denunciation of each essay in the Anthology. I had hoped to publish that hatchet-work version then post a link to it so that readers could compare the two essays side by side, and perhaps learn something about academic freedom. Unfortunately, it was not to be and I can offer only the "original" review.

The other essay is something I wrote years ago about Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter I suppose that I am primarily a film scholar insomuch as I usually write about films. On occasion I do write about books. I have some training in that discipline after all. Recently I unearthed this essay which I had submitted as partial completion of my Master's degree in English. Surprised at how good it was (I had not considered anything in it for six or seven years), I punched it up and sent it to a major American literary journal that shall remain nameless. Upon rejection I decided to post the entire text at the website. Some might say I should have tried another journal, but the old song and dance that accompanies nearly every rejection I receive i.e. "lack of critical engagement with recent scholarship" has won the day. I cannot fight for everything, and besides needs some fresh content. So I'll let you be the judge. Does the piece need "a better sense of the contemporary and ongoing debates" over the novel in question? Would it benefit from a more up to date bibliography; the editor used the phrase "since the 1980's"? (I should note that all quoted passages above are cut and paste from the email I received from the editor.)

Please check out the essays. Perhaps you will find them amusing.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Variety is a Good Place to Start Figuring Things Out on Your Own

I have written before about the illusion of freedom of choice as it pertains to the cinema. Rosenbaum calls it a conspiracy; I recognize it as the invisible hand of the market. Yet it speaks of something else as well. Just look at the Oscars: Kate Winslett, Sean Penn, Ron Howard; Nazis, oppressed minorities, important historical moments – the same people doing the same thing year after year. If it is a conspiracy it is one that we are all too happy submit to. It is every bit as much a psychological yearning as cultural one that is answered by repeatedly rewarding the same people for the same accomplishments. Quite simply, we (do I mean “Americans” or do I mean “humans?” I am not sure) like to be reassured that important stuff is important, that our tastes are refined and that we are in on the good stuff. Any stream of criticism that interrupts the flow reassuring hegemony (never recognized as hegemony of course) is quite naturally met with resistance. That there is a wide world of endless variety not sanctioned by the forces that shape cultural norms is denied at seemingly every level of discourse.

I know this is true because I read guitar magazines. There are basically two of them that dominate the scene, Guitar Player and Guitar World. After reading both for a number of years, I have reached the conclusion that they exist to put Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Jimmy Page, Dimebag, Zakk Wylde and Metallica on various lists: fastest guitarists, most influential guitarists, greatest song, greatest album etc. It is not just the uniformity; it is that they would give the impression that they are inclusive. Of course they are anything but. In a recent anniversary issue the editors apologized for being caught up in the “grunge” moment in the early nineties and over-estimated the importance of the likes of Thurston Moore, Lee Renaldo, Kim Thayil and Billy Corgan. Thankfully they found the way back to real guitar players like Zakk Wylde.

For the moment my point is not whether one kind of guitar playing is better than the other. My discussions with people about movies and music often lead to the accusation that I must not like anything. “You don’t like Van Halen? You don’t like Nickelback? You don’t like Steve Miller? Jesus, you must not like anything!” Part of this is the simple problem of equating what one likes with all that is available to be liked. But beyond this is what I would call the real problem we have culturally and psychologically: all that different stuff we like really isn’t that different from each other. That is what drives me crazy about these guitar magazines. They occasionally give us a break from the onslaught of Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads to talks about the guitarist from Disturbed or Slipknot or Avenged Sevenfold. What about Peter Buck? Robert Smith? Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto? Is playing a lot of notes really fast the only standard by which we judge?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the meaning of taste, and all I come up with is that the word needn’t be used anymore. Most people cannot really be said to have “taste” since all that they “like” is all that is familiar to them, and everything is judged by how well it fits in with what they already know/like. Little wonder that most of us the same things i.e. sports, sitcoms, reality shows, Grammy music, McDonalds. That isn’t really taste. It’s just cultural conditioning. Taste is never a meaningful position; it is always an out. We use phrases like: “Not my cup of tea,” “Not my thing,” “not what I’m into” and the like to insulate ourselves from criticism and avoid reflection and conversation. For most people not liking something amounts to a rejection of that which is unfamiliar. It is easy to see how we conflate this with taste, because it lends itself to an analogy with food: I don’t like this flavor in my mouth because it is unfamiliar to me. That’s why little kids and a lot people we grew up with spit out new bites of food. The problem with the word “taste” as it is used in common parlance is that it conflates a sense of cultivation and erudition with taste buds on the tongue. It attributes taste buds to eyes, ears and ways of thinking.

Thinking about taste led me to go back and re-read a chapter from Giorgio Agamben’s Man without Content about the “Man of Taste.” Agamben has his own ideas about the role taste plays in aesthetic consciousness and how that role has changed over the last 350 or so years, and some of them are interesting. I recommend this book to any interested reader, as I am not interested in summarizing Agamben’s thoughts, but in a path not taken in his essay. Early on he says that what has developed into something called “aesthetic judgment,” in our times, began in seventeenth century Europe (mostly France and Italy) as something called “taste.” I would emphasize the notion of development because it would mean that aesthetic judgment is the cultural maturity of taste, NOT that aesthetic judgment is ultimately reducible to taste. The significant conclusion to draw from this, for my argument, is that we don’t really have “taste” anymore. There is no substance to the notions of good and bad taste, and in any event we don’t use the word to mean anything like what it meant when it first appeared. I think what we have now is a spectrum of better and worse aesthetic judgments, and we call them personal taste to avoid submitting them to the kind of critical inquiry one would expect of an aesthetic judgment.

Let me save aesthetic judgments for another time. The point is not that I like R.E.M and U2 better than Slayer and Metallica, but that I can listen to both. Life is about being open to the new and the other. It is about trying food that you would not normally eat, going places you would not usually spend your time, talking to people you may not immediately like and soaking up all the art you can find. But this is not merely an issue of quantity vs. quality. Rather I would argue that one learns about quality from quantity. The curator of the Metropolitan does not think that all the paintings in the collection are equal. A place is made for all of them so that people can learn by comparing and contrasting. A lack of difference atrophies perception and clouds experience. A person who listens to nothing but the fast guitarists that Hard Rock and Metal have to offer will lack not just appreciation of Music in general, but will ultimately lack any real understanding of Hard Rock or Metal either!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Against My Better Judgement, Here's This:

I’ll keep this short and sweet. The basic shape of the thing is this: The first third consists of talking heads, mostly other comics, commenting on how they deal with hecklers. Suddenly the subject shifts as Kennedy informs the viewer that he equates criticism with heckling. Now the talking heads give their thoughts about critics and Kennedy throws in some footage of himself confronting various people who dismissed his film Son of the Mask. There’s also some footage of Uwe Boll boxing people who don’t like his movies.
All in all I think Jamie Kennedy is duping me. I think this movie is a put-on. However, the irony, if that’s what it is, doesn’t make it a better or worse film; it just makes it a different kind of stupid. If this movie is for real, as every reviewer at Netflix and Rotten Tomatoes seems to think, then it is offensive. If it is a put-on, a sort of mockumentary, then it is merely dimwitted.
There is a clip of Reagan telling someone to shut up while he’s trying to give a speech, and I can’t figure out why it is there. Am I supposed to think Reagan is cool in that moment? Never mind that he taxed the poor and deregulated corporate oversight. Never mind the multiple covert wars. Forget that he invited fundamentalist Christians to dictate social policy so we end up with things like the war on drugs and the “pro-life” movement. Forget that before he was a politician Reagan was a B-movie actor whose claim to fame was his position as informant for Joseph McCarthy. Reagan needed to be heckled. He is exactly the kind of person that deserves all the heckling he can get. It would have been interesting if Kennedy had thought a little bit about heckling authority figures as a form of criticism. It also would have helped if he had remembered that every comedian got his start by heckling his teacher in school.
It could be that I am a simpleton and the movie is so masterfully ironic, that it critiques that footage of Reagan. What it fails to do is define its terms accurately, and this is why, mockumentary or not, it is superfluous. Simply put: Criticism is different from reviewing. Reviewing is only another part of the promotional program for film. Whether of the professional or anonymous on-line variety, the reviewer is not a critic. A critic does not waste his time writing about Son of Mask. He has bigger fish to fry.
Put-on or not, as the movie continues it turns into my own personal anger machine. From taking Bill Hicks out of context (Kennedy should really have more respect for the Gods of Stand-Up) to appearing to praise Ronald Reagan to showing Boll pummeling teenagers for not liking Alone in the Dark, a movie in which Tara Reid portrays an archeologist, the underlying message seems to be that I should not criticize rich people when those rich people are trying their best to just entertain me. I feel like I could put Heckler in my DVD player and churn out a rant any time I get stuck. It is in that spirit that I dedicate the rest of this commentary to world-class blowhard, George Lucas, and his ten-second appearance in the film.
Lucas tells Kennedy, “There are two kinds of people in the world, creators and destroyers… (dramatic pause) I prefer to be a creator.” I wonder how many times Lucas has trotted out this line to insulate himself against criticism of his hackey, B-movies. Granted that it is impressive that he can, with a straight face, refer to the way in which he injects his understanding of a book by Joseph Campbell into a puppet show for pre-adolescents as “creation.” However, this is precisely the problem with Lucas’ statement. He is not a creator at all; he is a maintainer of the status quo. What he does with Campbell is literally the definition of kitsch. According to Clement Greenberg, who defined the term as we use it today, a distinctive feature of kitsch is the predigested quality of all the knowledge contained in the work of art. Applied to Lucas’ Star Wars films, this means that his art does not arise organically and then require a Joseph Campbell to unpack all of its mythologies. Quite the contrary, Lucas read Campbell, and used his theories as a template. That is not how mythologies are made. Nor is taking an idea you read somewhere and grafting onto a story a process for creating a work of art.
I imagine Lucas did not read Campbell enough to get to the part where he talks about Indian/Hindu mythology. Had he made it this far, Lucas might have a different idea about destroyers. It is evident from his tone that Lucas views the dichotomy between creator and destroyer as interchangeable with that between good and evil wherein creation is good and destruction is evil. Suffice it to say, without launching into a summary of eastern philosophy, that this view is excruciatingly one-dimensional. If Eastern philosophy is not your cup of tea and you do not feel like reading the Vedas or the Tao Te Ching, take a look at William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It is little wonder that a man with such meager intellectual, spiritual and emotional chops would be capable of little more than eye candy for children.
Here is where I would continue my rant against Kennedy for bringing to his cause every hack and lightweight he could find. Director Michael Addis has espoused the belief that documentaries are not supposed to profess a position about their subject, but merely transmit information. I would ask: what, then, is editing? It seems like a cop-out to me. Also, I would not put it past Addis and Kennedy to continue confusing the issue in interviews and other personal comments about their film. For all I know it could part of a massive ironic performance piece. This is why I am trying to limit my comments to problems that are legitimate regardless of the ontological nature of the film.
There are two fundamental problems. What makes them fundamental and crucial is that they are unacknowledged. This is why the film does not work for me as a put-on any more than as a sincere tirade against critics and bloggers. The first problem I acknowledged already: no distinction is made between critic and reviewer. The second problem, or perhaps it is part of the same problem – that being the mistake of making intellectual arguments without distinct intellectual categories, is that so many of the talking heads in this film, folks like Henry Winkler, Joel Schumacher, Carrot Top, Joe Rogan and, most notably, Kennedy himself, think that having good intentions insulates one from criticism. Comic after comic and rich Hollywood producer after rich Hollywood producer keeps repeating some version of the idea that the people who criticize have no respect for how hard the entertainer has worked to come up with something to entertain them. How dare the audience be so ungrateful! This is when I am almost certain that Heckler is a mockumentary. They can’t be serious can they? Their feelings are hurt when they try so hard to entertain me and I tell them that I’m not entertained? And all their money doesn’t help? As someone with ten years experience teaching 100 and 200 level college courses, I think I know a bit about working very hard to present ideas that I think are very important and being met with disdain. I know about dealing with people who a totally ungrateful and uninterested in what I am trying to give them. And for my troubles I was compensated to the tune of about $1000 a month.

And this is why I think they must be joking. Surely no one is that narcissistic. But then I remember that they are all in Hollywood, and I think, of course they are not joking. If they were not really that narcissistic they would not be in Hollywood in the first place. So it is for the rest of us, those of us who lack the pathology toward fame, that I issue this reminder: Everyone has good intentions. That should be printed on the jamb above your front door so that you have to read it every morning when you leave the house. And not because it should encourage you to give everybody a free pass! Jamie Kennedy when he makes this movie, J. Knecht when he writes about that movie, George Bush, Dick Chaney and Donald Rumsfeld when they make up a reason to go to war, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot when they ship undesirables and dissidents to concentration camps – WE ARE ALL TRYING TO DO THE RIGHT THING. It is a mistake to judge someone according to his or her intentions. In some cases it is a grievous error.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What Are the Chances That We Are Going to Grow Up Sometime Soon?

Just a quick thought about David Denby and his new book, Snark. He was talking about it on the Diane Rehm Show last week, and I quote from the website: “The author argues that a certain mean spirit is infecting the national conversation and debilitating America.” Are we running out of things to talk about in this country? Or is it rather that we cannot turn our attention to things that really need to be discussed? I can accept that a certain degree of grace and tact, what we used to call manners, facilitate discourse. But are these things ultimately so crucial? Isn’t the real problem in this country not that people say things in mean ways, but that they really have nothing to say beyond their attitude? Isn’t the problem that so many people with a public forum are all personality and no substance? Is this not less a question of mean spirit and more a question of weak mind? I cannot stand Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly either, but their problem is that they are wrong about everything, not that they are mean. The question of mean spiritedness is entirely subjective. It is really just a question of one personality responding to another in a positive or negative way. The problem with criticizing mean spiritedness is that it then becomes an out for any encounter one may have with an unwanted idea. In other words, if you tell me something I do not want to hear, it is now very easy for me to accuse you of being mean to me. After all, if you were nice you would agree with me, yes?

Heckler: A Pre-View Review

Last week I was listening to Adam Carolla Show co-host, Teresa Strasser, praise Jamie Kennedy’s documentary, Heckler. At first I was intrigued because she said that Bill Hicks was in it, and I am always interested in any archival footage of Hicks that is unearthed. Strasser started to lose me, however, when she described an extended sequence in which Uwe Boll boxes, and reportedly beats senseless, several online writers that trashed his films. She said it was really satisfying to see him beat these men after the terrible things that had said about his movies. Wait. Did a Jew just praise an German for beating on people who disagree with him? Maybe she should choose her words more carefully. Never mind. What is really at stake in her assessment is class allegiance. Clearly Strasser was taking sides with the “artist” against his “critics.” This problem is underscored by the trailer for the film which features the line “the battle between those in the spotlight and those in the dark.” I will wait until after I see the documentary for a more detailed review, but it does seem that Kennedy has already tipped his hand in the preview. I should admit that I am wary of the film, because it seems to be based on the idea that entertainers should not have to suffer criticism from the unwashed masses.

I put this movie in my Netflix queue and then did something I have never done before: I began to read the user reviews. I have no idea where this urge came from. I do not read use reviews, because the “users” are typically an uninteresting lot. They tend to praise mainstream movies that everyone else in the world praises, and they tend to find art films boring. If one of the points of Heckler is that the internet gives people who have not earned their voice the opportunity to express their opinions, I certainly agree. I have a lengthy C.V. that attests to my authority as a critic, and I will admit that I do not like the idea that anybody with an internet connection can spout off about things they do not understand any time they feel like it. What Kennedy needs to understand is that this is a purely intellectual problem. He seems to turn it into a status problem. Where I would simply choose not to read what idiots have to say, it seems that Kennedy wants to prove that they have no right to say it.

In any event, I read these Netflix reviews, and the majority of them did not like the documentary because they disagreed with Kennedy’s attack on critics. At first glance this seems intuitive enough. If they perceive him to be attacking their rights to spout off, certainly these anonymous critics are unlikely to support his position. On the other hand I happen to know for a fact that most people hate critics, and I wonder why I found not one review that praised Kennedy for finally sticking it to them. This would involve some cognitive dissonance to be sure, but I would expect nothing less from the average online reviewer. I would add that it takes a remarkable degree of cognitive dissonance for Kennedy to make this film in the first place. Comedians, so far as I understand, are social and cultural critics. I wonder if Kennedy defines his art this way, and I wonder how thoroughly he delineates the relative values of his kind of criticism (if indeed one would call it that; I have never seen his act) versus the opinions of lay persons.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pop Culture is Easy!

I was again thinking about Kurt Cobain and how sick to death I am of hearing people mock him for killing himself, complaining that they don’t understand “the whole tortured artist thing.” The problem with this is that Cobain was not a tortured artist. He was a tortured person for certain. He was a person who rose to fame and fortune thanks to the dollars of people who he despised. A possible conclusion to reach when one is unpopular is that popularity is evil. Deep down Cobain must have felt that if so many people liked him he must be doing something morally wrong. This is well enough documented in popular magazines and television documentaries. What goes unnoticed by those who call him a tortured artist, is that it was always his fame that tortured him. Cobain’s particular neurosis had nothing at all to do with his art. Van Gogh was a tortured artist. He painted in such a way and with such devotion to his vision that there was really no place for him on this planet. Van Gogh was compelled by an internal truth to change the way humanity looks at the world. Cobain just wanted to make music that made him happy.

Popular music is great not because it gives birth to new forms, but because its forms arise democratically. One does not need to be trained to write a song. On does not go to Conservatory to learn how to write a pop song. One does not need to know music theory to make music. One does not need to know how to read music to write songs! One gets a hold of a guitar or a piano, learns three chords, then hums a melody over the chord progression with maybe a few words about love or about Rock and Roll or about the government. Do this and you become a songwriter.

It is little wonder then, that appreciating good pop art is so much easier than appreciating fine art. I can break this down into two questions one needs to ask of popular art to decide if it is worthwhile.
1. How many hands are in on the creative process?
Every good band is either a group of people writing songs together or one person bringing in a song he or she has written and teaching it to the rest of the band, hammering out individual parts and so forth. Every good television show (and these you can count on one hand) is the same. The best shows are sketch performance and cartoons. Both tend to be made by writer/performers, in other words performers who do their own writing. Dr. Katz was basically three people. Home Movies was basically three people. Monty Python are six guys. Kids in the Hall are six guys. This is why the original SNL was the best. Most television, most movies, most mainstream music, by which I mean the garbage that litters the various awards shows, is all soulless and watered down. All of it is created by teams of writers and producers to be given to someone else to perform and direct. These works are more marketing campaign than art. They are not the expressions of individuals or small groups but huge corporate endeavors designed for focus groups and target demographics.
2. How well do the creators of the work know the rules of the game?
Bands like 3 Doors Down, Nickleback, Matchbox 20 and Creed are not formed by record companies like all that American Idol/Brittany Spears nonsense. They make their own name for themselves, but they do it by making music that is strategically mediocre. They care more about making it big than making music. Though I have said elsewhere than film is a Salon art and not a popular art, we can apply this rule to the co-called autonomous directors in Hollywood as well. It is true that Spielberg, Scorsese, the Coens and the like can make whatever they want, but only because what the want to make are blockbusters. They may be autonomous financially, but intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, they have nothing original to offer.

No Country for Men Who Think Violence Is neither Cool nor Funny

I wanted to write a pithy little review of No Country for Old Men in which I mad following argument:
I am Tommy Lee Jones, unable to understand the world in which I suddenly find myself living. The Coens are Anton, ruthlessly doing as they please as if guided by some higher morality that renders the rest of us expendable, sub-humans.
But I waited to long and now I don’t care anymore. I am growing tired of writing about movies that are about nothing and say nothing. A friend of mine thinks this movie is deep. Deep what? Can the Coens be deep without being cool? Can they be cool without being violent? Is violence cool? Is cool deep? These questions keep coming up as I continue to watch movies that are not worth my time. What gets me every time is that so many people who strike me as politically and socially savvy, manage to look at culture from a decidedly lower vantage point. The left wants to change the world but they think they can do that by keeping their entertainment dumb.
The problem is that they don’t think their entertainment is dumb. This is the paradox. In the larger picture the Hollywood responsible for all the movies beloved by so many left-leaning folks is a significant part of the machinery of domination. Anyone who does not think Hollywood is part of the cultural hegemony is not looking at it very closely. It is pretty basic Gramsci. Chomsky has explained it a million times through his numerous critiques of the media. Do the liberals not think he’s talking about their favorite Tarentino movie when he says that in a so-called democracy, as opposed to a totalitarian state, thought control takes the place of force? This is pretty easily demonstrable if one puts down the Spivak, Sedgwick and Dyer for five minutes, and picks up some Adorno, Benjamin and Marcuse.
But the question is also interesting psychologically as well. Don’t liberals abhor violence? Why then are so many of them interested almost exclusively in Scorsese, Coppola, Spike Lee, Cronenberg, the Coens, David Lynch, David Fincher, Quentin Tarentino? Are there no interesting filmmakers that make movies about things other than murder and violence? Is it murder and violence that makes a movie important? Is there no other serious subject matter? Is it because they would argue that all these movies are not so much celebrations of violence, but rather critiques of violence? My guess would be that they think ironic celebrations of violence function as artistic statements against violence. But they are fooling themselves. A History of Violence is a celebration of a violent person, a portrait of a badass. Just like Clint Eastwood, he’s the man who does not want to fight – above all else he does not want to fight! – but if you make him fight, so help you. How many times to we need to eat up that cliché? In No Country for Old Men, Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, The Godfather Trilogy and on and on, violence is cool and/or funny. Violence makes a character interesting. This betrays a rather limited imagination, yet it has been the fuel that has powered popular American cinema since the 1960’s. It only took Godard and Truffaut a few years to work this junk out of their systems with movies like Breathless, Alphaville, and Shoot the Piano Player. The Coens, Scorsese, Cronenberg et. al. never got over it.
I am thinking of this in relation to the Coens especially. Maybe I got old too fast, but I say for Black Comedy go back to Dr. Strangelove. Burn After Reading is ironic enough. I suppose one could describe it as dark, though that seems to me to be giving it rather too much credit. But comedy it is not. Is it hilarious when the boastful Harry shoots hapless Chad in the head, then freaks out bout it, because he’s never shot anyone before? Did you laugh and laugh when Osbourne Cox was hacking away at gym manager Ted in his shorts, slippers and bathrobe? Oh and it was extra clever because the scene was a reference to the scene in Fargo where Grimsrud burst out the front door wielding an axe after Carl, only this time you actually get to see the hatchet split open the prone victim’s head. Then the two CIA agents recount all the violence so matter-of-factly. People are dead everywhere and they couldn’t care less. Hilarious! What a goddamn hoot! Or is it biting social commentary that isn’t meant to be funny at all, but make me think?
I don’t know what these movies are about anymore. All they seem to do is remake their own movies. Burn After Reading is Fargo set in Washington DC. No Country for Old Men is more or less Blood Simple part two. It seems to me that they have just been spinning their wheels post Barton Fink. Not that that film was particularly earth shattering. There was hope in it though. It was clear that the Coens were very clever with respect to certain narrative conventions and that they where somewhat inventive in terms of visual style. One sees in Barton Fink and the films that preceded it the potential to make interesting films. Instead they got bogged down in their own cleverness. The way that they wittily re-write genre and break down generic conventions has become it own genre. Almost Every new movie is a Coen Film Noir that says nothing about anything. I would call it eye candy, but it is rather much more bitter than sweet. This makes their success all the more puzzling to me. In the absence of something to think about, there should at least be something to enjoy.