As I am still listening to New Order’s excellent new album, Music Complete, I have also been diving back into their catalog. One of my favorite pieces of pop music ever is their song Temptation. It is one of those pieces where the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts. The lyrics and the chord changes are rather simple. Compared to modern records, the technology is primitive. The band members are musically capable, but are by no means virtuosos. But New Order, as they would continue to do so many times, were able to capture pure emotion on tape. Everyone plays the right part at exactly the right time. The melody is one of those simple, but unique melodies that are indestructible. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s the sound of ecstatic joy, mixed with the slight melancholy of knowledge that that joy can’t last forever. Not only does everything come together in this recording, but it almost seems to capture that moment in life; When everything seems to be happening, that exciting moment when the everyday is suddenly infused with magic. The ordinary is made transcendent. It could be those first moments of love, or seeing a place for the first time that you have always wanted to. For a brief time you are on the precipice of the new. Yet it can’t last and the seduction is that you want to find a way to live in that moment forever.
Last night I watched the movie The Last Detail staring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and an extremely young Randy Quaid. The movie is about two men in the Navy (Nicholson and Young) who are supposed to take the character played by Quaid to a military prison. Not liking the task they are given from the beginning, and growing to like it even less as the movie progresses, they take longer then they need to complete it. As the task at hand grows more distasteful, they decide to show Quaid’s character a good time, taking him out drinking and to a whore house, among other things. The movie was directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne.
I found out about the movie by reading Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. This is a book that examines New Hollywood, a period that runs roughly from the late 60’s with Easy Rider and up through the 70’s. Ashby was one of the directors who came up during this period, along with Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and others.
This movie is a good example of the character driven films being made during this period. The camera barely moves compared to modern filmmaking. Other than a few scuffles, there is very little action. Most of the movie revolves around the personality of the characters and the dialogue, which is fantastic. There is also a strong anti-authoritarian streak running in this film and others from this period. Watching this film is closer to, if not reading a novel, at least reading a well written short story. The language is realistic for the time, in markedly different contrast to older Hollywood films.
I wanted to mention the movie, as I believe, if you are interested in well written character driven films, that it is worth seeking out. However, this isn’t a review. I would just feel amiss if I didn’t mention it. Although I was at least aware of many of the movies in the book, this is one that I had never heard mentioned before.
I’m always interested in why certain forms of art flourish in different time periods. Although there are many reasons why the 60’s were great for music, the 70’s for film, and modern times have been described as the golden age of television, I think that the economics of a given era are always something to be considered. The more money that flows to creativity, the more interesting and creative things we will see made. Not only will those in a given field have more resources to give birth to their dreams, but more creative people will seek out a given medium. Again, although this is not the only thing that influences culture, this is a big factor that has been proven time and again. Biskind even talks about this near the end of the book:
Could another group of directors have done it differently, broken the back of studio power, created little islands of self-sufficiency that would have supported them in the work they wanted to do? Could a hundred flowers ever have bloomed? Probably not. The strength of the economic forces arrayed against them was too great. “We had the naive notion that it was the equipment which would give us the means of production,” said Coppola. “Of course, we learned much later that it wasn’t the equipment, it was the money.” Because the fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed. The New Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free. But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered.
The book goes on to talk about how the directors, even the truly great ones like Coppola, were selected by market forces. However, another interesting point is that the directors that were able to marry the personal with the commercial lasted longer than the ones that were making strictly personal films. Success seems to be dictated by those that had the strength to create something personal, melded with a flexibility to bend to the commercial forces. The Godfather is a perfect example. It was a studio picture that Coppola took, even though at the time he would have rather been making movies that were even more personal to him. However, he was able to infuse that studio film with enough personality to make it popular and unique for its time.
I don’t know if I have reached any definitive conclusion in all of this. But I think these things are interesting to think about. Another thing to consider is now, with so many people wanting intellectual property and artistic products for free, how does that affect the kind of culture around us? Many people lament the fact that films and music aren’t what they used to be. Why is this? Is this simply nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist? Or have we simply devalued things to the point where they can’t be created at the rate that we would like?
P.S. I couldn’t help but think that the movie, which I don’t want to spoil, is in some ways a great commentary on this whole period of creativity in Hollywood. (Even though the movie was created during the middle of this period.) If you watch it, pay close attention to the relationship between freedom and authority.
In the Age of the Short Attention Span, most pop culture reviews have ceased to classify as criticism. They are much closer to what I would call, “positive or negative blurbs.” Many reviews are now no longer than a paragraph or two. There’s not a lot of great deal of information that can be passed along in such time. Read many of the music reviews at Rolling Stone, who are by no means even close to being the only perpetrators of this. They include a few sentences that seem like they were taken from a press release. (Read multiple reviews of the same record, movie, or TV show, and look for similar information that is worded too similarly to be coincidence.) Then a writer will try to include a few sentences to show off their wit. Wit is great if it illuminates something, but not if its only purpose is to showcase a writer’s smug self assessment of their own intelligence. Then there is usually a quick summation that, whether positive or negative, is usually vague enough that the writer can backtrack if they have to.
Even a lot of the longer pieces of criticism out there about pop culture is simply terrible. Too many times criticism is more about the writer than what they are reviewing. (Rob Sheffield is notorious for constructing unfunny odes to his own ego, while conveying very little real information or knowledge about the piece of work at hand.) A writer should only include themselves in a review if it helps to illuminate some kind of idea that will help the reader understand the work better.
I do think critics operating in the blog form have a little more leeway in regards to including personal information. This is not simply to let myself off of the hook. (There are several reviews I have written that make me want to puke on myself.) This has to do with my views on how blogs differ as a kind of writing. I have written about that and will continue to do so. I think blogging is a more of an emotional reactionary and personal format that is meant to drive readers to other forms of more permanent writing and criticism.
I don’t say this all as someone that hates critics. I actually read a great deal of criticism. I still find a great many of the things I love through reading. And although there is no doubt that some writers are self involved, I also know that in these modern times the formats that they must work in also put them at a disadvantage. I’m going to again use Rolling Stone as an example, when really there are so many, but read the reviews that were written in the earlier part of the magazine’s history. Often the writers might get something completely wrong, but there was more space devoted to letting the critic explain themselves. Even when a critic is wrong, if they can write a long enough piece, there still might be ideas or information conveyed that one can gain something from it.
One of the things that I find so troubling in these times is when an album, movie, book, or show is destroyed by a critic without any real explanation. Sure, there are things created as merely cash grabs. There are also pieces of work that pander to an audience without any real artistic intentions. If someone is going to discount a piece of hackery with a few barbed sentences, that’s fine. But usually even flawed pieces of art have something to offer, some idea to communicate. Even if something fails completely, if there was at least some kind of real intention behind it, it may be able to teach us something about the medium or our culture. Unless Rob Sheffield wrote it, and then it is just about someone jacking themselves off…
Although, I don’t agree with their take on Restless, The Quietus has posted a great review of New Order’s new album, Music Complete. (The record has overall recieved positive reviews in the press.) This is hands down one of the best records of the year, an ecstatic pop record of the highest quality. It’s a mysterious and beautiful thing, equal parts joy and melencholy. I already know I will be coming back to it for years.
In the van reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids. I read the following paragraphs and found they mirrored thoughts I often have myself:
In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what is the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos – the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?
I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.
I don’t have any answers. But my very next thought was with a good book, film, or record I never feel alone. Surely that must count for something.
I want you to think about the world we live in for a moment: We live in a society where money is worshipped above all else. Yet income inequality is increasingly obscene. While healthcare and mental healthcare are slightly better due to recent laws, we still lag behind many developed nations. We have a mainstream entertainment culture that is largely vapid and meaningless. Schools are often not what they should be, especially when you consider that we live in an information age where critical thinking is more and more essential all of the time. Although technology can connect us to people far away, it can also isolate us. People can see with the push of a button, or a tap of the screen, all of the things that they lack. Change is happening faster than ever. Old orders are dying without anything viable to take their place.
On top of all this we have an insane amount of weapons.
When you add this all together, is it any surprise when someone goes on a killing spree?
I don’t mean to belittle what happened yesterday. It’s sad and troubling. But one thing it is not is surprising.
I want to try to drop politics for a moment. No matter how you feel about gun control, the simple thing is this:
We either need to address the amount of weapons being given out, or we need to address the underlying causes that lead to violent behavior. We either need a society that is more just and meaningful, where we take care of all of our community, or we need to prevent people from having the tools to live out their troubled inner lives. Otherwise the violence is just going to continue. The one option that I know will not work is to add even more killing machines into this modern cauldron of anxiety, created by all of the above issues. Although there are many people that are able to navigate the extreme absurdity of our modern world and keep it together, we shouldn’t be surprised when this same absurdity pushes those without the proper coping mechanisms over the edge.
On my last post I wrote about Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu. It was an album savaged by critics. A lot of my favorite pieces of art have been critically condemned only to find reevaluation years later. Terry Gilliam has a movie called Tideland that knocked me out when I saw it. It was one of the only times I have walked out of a theater thinking that I had just seen something completely new. I was excited, ecstatic even, only to read reviews later that tore the movie to shreds. This did nothing to alter my view of the film, I was only sad to learn that the film wouldn’t find a larger audience. I also felt bad that so many people had missed out on such a fantastic film.
This is not standard review, nor do I want to spend time relaying the entire plot. If you want to learn more about the movie here is the Wikipedia page.
One of the things interesting about the film is that it’s protagonist is a little girl and the movie is filmed with her perspective in mind. The little girl undergoes many trials including her dad dying of a heroin overdose in their rural farmhouse in Texas. If you view the film through the eyes of an adult, there are many uncomfortable moments in the film. There is a kiss scene where the girl kisses, innocently, her friend who is a boy that is mentally handicapped. Because we are adults, and adults are sexual beings, viewers may be inclined to view this scene with a sense of horror. But if you view the scene through the eyes of its protagonist, it is just an innocent kiss between friends. As with many Gilliam films, a theme running through the movie is how our imaginations allow us to survive the realities of the world, which are often less than ideal. Children, out of all ages, possess the strongest imaginations. Therefore, it only makes sense that in many ways children are more resilient than adults.
Although knowledge can, at many times, increase our appreciation for art, as we learn to understand the language of certain art forms, it can occasionally blind us to its true meaning. What we bring along with us, our psychological intellectual background, is important. This is often why you may see musicians, painters, filmmakers, appreciating different things than the general public. They usually are steeped in the knowledge of their particular field. They might have a better idea of when someone is breaking from convention to reach new ground. You don’t have to be an artist. It’s not some kind of secret club, just generally if you are making something you are interested enough to immerse yourself in it. A library card and a curious mind are all one needs to learn the language of any given medium.
However, outside of the language of a medium, there is also what we bring to a piece of art from our personal background. How we view the world influences how we view the themes of a piece of art. What I love about this movie is that Gilliam has created something that asks us to shake off our personal and cultural biases. He is asking us to be children again, to view the world with the same sense of wonder that they do. It’s a beautiful place if you can get into that headspace.
No one states this better than Gilliam himself in the introduction to the movie, up above. This introduction also played in the theater when I saw the film. Although sometimes overstating your purpose can be harmful, given the nature of this film, I really felt that it is effective. He is trying to get the viewers in that headspace of a child before the film begins, which is essential to a proper interpretation of the film. I remember thinking, upon seeing this introduction two things:
“Gilliam is throwing down the fucking gauntlet”, and “I’m in.”
I would cut my legs and tits off
When I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski
In the dark of the moon
It made me dream of Nosferatu
Trapped on the isle of Doctor Moreau
Oh wouldn’t it be lovely
One of my favorite albums from the last five years is Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu. Just the opening lyrics to the first song alone, Brandenburg Gate, make my heart sing. I’ve written about this record several times, but I never tire of singing its praises. Look, I understand the reasons that some people don’t like this album; The lyrics are disturbing, the music will go off at times into discordant soundscapes or heavy metal brutality, and at times Lou Reed sings without care for melody or pitch.
But in general I feel bad for people that don’t get this record. It is a beautiful, dark, fever dreamscape of a record. It’s a Viking raid, a horror freak show, a psychotic hallucination, an Edgar Allen Poe poem, Victorian London, and nighttime in the Tiergarten all at once. If it were a movie it would be Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. If it were a painting it might be by Goya or Bosch. The record is batshit insane in the best way possible.
But the record isn’t all dark. There is a sense of fun, of the thrill of reaching new ground, as well. Lou Reed was near the end of his life when he made this. He was physically in decline. He used Metallica as a way to go once more into uncharted territory. They were his musical armor. Like George Carlin, Reed kept growing as an artist. There was never any self-congratulatory victory lap or a watering down of his talents to finally cash in. He remained true to his vision right until the end.
But I don’t love this record, truly love it, because others don’t get it, or because I think the best art should always be bleak. I enjoy it. In it’s own strange way it is full of joy. It feels free. Reed is not bound by the normal conventions of society. He is out there on a limb, living in the new. After all, he’s just a, “small town girl.”
Occasionally this blog becomes my very own Stalinist propaganda machine, as I promote various projects I am involved in, but this time I have truly noble intentions when I tell you about the Ted Hawkins tribute record that is coming out October 23rd: Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins. Ted Hawkins is one of the greatest singers ever, his Watch Your Step album alone providing a lifetime of enjoyment. Hawkins never received the recognition that he should have while he was alive, and this record is just a small attempt to bring recognition to his great talent now. There are a whole brunch of great artists on this project; Even Felker, James McMurtry, Ramsay Midwood, as well as the wife and daughter of Hawkins himself, all make an appearance. And that is just a few of them. I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute bass to four of the tracks. I finally got a copy and it sounds great. Keep your eyes out for this project. But really, do yourself a favor in the meantime and get yourself a Ted Hawkins record, especially Watch Your Step.
One of my heroes, Laurie Anderson, just did an interview in Rolling Stone where she discusses her new project about Guantanamo called Habeas Corpus. (Listen to her album album Homeland if you want to understand her brilliance. I admit its not for everyone, but for those willing to dare, it is an exceptional piece of work, that examines American life during the Bush years.) For this project she worked with a former inmate of the prison. In the article she reflects on the horror and absurdity surrounding the prison, and the troubling nature of U.S. behavior regarding it.