There is Always Something Worth Seeing

I watched the movie The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology for a second time tonight with my brother.  Wanting to learn a little about the film’s star, philosopher and narrator Slavoj Zizek, I read several articles about him.  This is one that appears in The Guardian:

www.theguardian.com/culture/2011/jul/15/slavoj-zizek-interview-life-writing

I am linking to this one not because it is the best, I am just discovering this subject, but I really like the last paragraph.  Here it is quoted in full:

It is time for him to leave. “My son and I are going to see Transformers.” He means the third and final installment of the dismal film franchise. It’s apparently terrible, I warn him. “I have been to terrible films before. There is always something worth seeing.”

There are good and bad movies.  However, all movies say something about the society in which they are created in.  This is not to say that I don’t personally try to avoid bad movies, but that in seeing them, if I get stuck in a theater watching something I realize I shouldn’t have gone to, there is usually some idea to be gained from watching them.  Although movies might have several layers to them, the explicit and the implicit, they usually either champion or subvert the dominant culture in some way.  It may be scene by scene even, but there is something to take away from every film experience. 

The last movie I saw in the theater was Godzilla. (Spoilers to follow.) I didn’t enjoy this movie in any kind of entertainment way.  I kept remembering I was in a theater watching a movie instead of getting lost in the world the film created.  On a level of entertainment it failed for me.  However, it had much to say about the culture we live in.  It was a technical marvel that also seemed to me to be largely empty and meaningless.  So much of the modern world is like that.  We can be wowed by our technical achievements, but also feel spiritually empty much of the time. 

The movie was also a piece of military propaganda in some ways.  It did acknowledge our mistake of dropping a bomb on Hiroshima, but it seemed to say that the new military establishment had corrected its ways and that our commanders, represented by David Straithairn, would do the right thing when necessary.  It also painted the average soldier as always being brave and intelligent, when we know better from incidents like Abu Ghraib to not always be the case. 

The movie also had a very slim environmental message, although one that was diluted by Godzilla saving our civilization at the end.  The movie contained the idea that nature is larger than us and that we were arrogant to think we could control it. 

Both of these themes, a sort of subtle catering to both the right and the left, take place while untold carnage and destruction happens, because of the monsters that have been released.  However, even this destruction is rendered largely meaningless as there is great amount of destruction and death without there being any real carnage.  The violence is never made horrifying or visceral.  Our government does its best to prevent images of the violence that we perpetuate from reaching the general public.  We may see a building exploding, but true human destruction is often kept slightly out of the frame.  The movie did this to earn a PG-13 rating so that it can gross as much money as possible, but it is telling of our times that we cannot confront violence head on in any realistic way.  If we were to do so in reality we would surely not let the military industrial complex get away with as many of it’s recent past and current sins as we do, at least I hope so. 

Anyway, I’m not telling you to seek out bad movies looking for meaning.  I am only hoping that if you do find yourself in a movie that you are not enjoying, it may be worth more of your time than you realize.  Often low brow movies can reflect who we are as much as high brow movies.  Keep your eyes open. 

Dreaming the Wrong Dream

Contains a small spoiler for the latest episode of Mad Men.

It’s been raining the last few days in Austin.  My writing production has been slow.  Ideas can only be dispersed if you are busy collecting them.  Prepare to be inspired as David Milch says.  Last night I had one of those rare nights where you watch TV all night and everything is inspiring.  I watched The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Werner Herzog’s batshit insane My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, and the latest episode of Mad Men.  I have been slowly picking my way through the book version of Under the Skin and James Joyce’s Dubliners.  Musically I have surprised even myself by becoming obsessed with Kanye West, especially his new album Yeezus.

Although I’m not far along enough in Dubliners to comment upon it, many of these works deal with the idea that the modern world creates the wrong kind of dreams in one way or another.  We are searching for a connection all while being told by the dominant society to crave material things that bring us no lasting happiness.  The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology dealt directly with these themes.  Mad Men and the work of Kanye West both explicitly deal, in different ways, with the world of the material, but also both show its shortcomings.  The Herzog movie dealt with a character who searches constantly for something to cling to only to finally be driven to complete insanity.

If you are a fan of Mad Men than this review of this week’s episode over at Salon is really good:  http://www.salon.com/2014/05/26/mad_men_finale_recap_the_moon_belongs_to_everyone/

I’ll leave you with lyrics from Mad Men’s Bert Cooper’s strangely delivered farewell song.  On one hand they can be seen as too sentimental.  However, in the overreaching story of the show they seemed powerful to me:

“The moon belongs to everyone.
The best things in life are free.
The stars belong to everyone.
They gleam there for you and me.
The flowers in spring, the robins that sing.
The sunbeams that shine, they’re yours they’re mine.
And love can come to everyone. The best things in life are free.”

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Review

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is an incredibly powerful film.  It is somehow able to pack in all of the ideas of a great book or the best of a college course, while also being highly entertaining.  It combines films, philosophy, religion, psychoanalysis, history, and politics.  Although the film was directed by Sophie Fiennes, whose visual mastery should not go unnoticed, the film belongs to the narrator and star Slavoj Zizek.

Zizek uses films such as They Live, Full Metal Jacket, The Sound of Music, and others to dive into big ideas.  Clips from the films are shown interspersed with shots of Zizek appearing on recreations of the sets of the same films.  Zizek’s narration is powerful because he is able to make even the headiest of ideas understandable.  The movie is so packed with interesting ideas that I feel that I would be doing the film a disservice without watching it again, or several times, before I tried to list all of the things it covered.

One of the biggest ideas in the movie is that all power, whether that is in the form of religion or even totalitarian atheism, drives from peoples’ belief in the Big Other.  The Big Other could be God or history or any idea that exists outside of the self that allows people to follow orders without questioning them.

He also talks about having the right and wrong dreams.  We often dream of an idealized version of the reality that is presented to us, a dream which would not make us happy if achieved.  In order to make the world a better place we need to change the kind of dreams we have.  An example is our common thinking that we would just be happy if we had more money, etc.; when it is very possible that the organizing principles of our society are what bring about so much unhappiness.  He focuses on ideology because from the very beginning he talks about how trying to see outside of ideology is painful and we often resist it.

He also talks about capitalism vs. environmentalism.  He asks the question why is it easier in some ways in our existing order to imagine the end of life as we know it rather than make a few small adjustments to our economic system.

Even if you end up not agreeing with Zizek, if you are the kind of person that welcomes big ideas this film will leave you with plenty to chew on.  I feel as if I am not doing this film justice.  This is a subversive, intelligent, entertaining movie that should be watched if you are looking for something stimulating.

P.S.  Make sure that if you watch the film that you watch through to the end of the credits.  This film is available for streaming on Netflix currently.  

Anti-War Novels and Movies

In honor of Memorial Day I thought I would give a short list of films and books that deal with the subject of war.  I am picking things that are not only showing the absurdity of war, but are also thematically and morally complex.  There will be no mindless flag waving here.  The best way to support our troops is to not send them into harms way unless it is absolutely necessary. 

  1. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes – Matterhorn is one of the best books about Vietnam, and the best work of fiction that I have ever read on the subject.  In the book Matterhorn is a hill that the soldiers are defending in the beginning.  They give it up to pursue another mission only having to absurdly take it back at the end of the book. The first half of the book is more about the terrible conditions the troops had to endure in the Vietnamese jungle while the second half focuses on the truly horrific reality of battle.  This book is an absolute masterpiece.  A depressing read, but also a very engaging one. 
  2. Dispatches by Michael Herr – This is another Vietnam book, however this is a work of nonfiction.  This is also another masterpiece.  This book influenced the movie Apocalypse Now and Michael Herr also worked on that screenplay.  There are things in this book that could only be described as batshit insane. 
  3. The Thin Red Line – This is a movie directed by Terrence Malick.  It takes place in the Pacific theater in World War II.  It is a very contemplative film that uses the beauty of the nature as a backdrop to the corruptive influence of war and man.  Man is in the Garden of Eden and he is destroying it. 
  4. Why We Fight – This is a film directed by Eugene Jareki.  This movie is about the military-industrial complex and how they play a role in sending us to war since World War II.  It begins with Eisenhower’s famous farewell address and leads up to our invasion of Iraq.  Absolutely essential in understanding why we should be vigilant as citizens in doing our homework before our leaders take us to war. 
  5. The Bothers by Stephen Kinzer – This is a book that talks about John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles.  They were Secretary of State and head of the CIA under Eisenhower, respectively.  Before they held these positions they were corporate lawyers.  There have been times when this country has meddled in the affairs of other countries on behalf of corporate interests.  They also started us down the path to our modern day interventionist policy. 
  6. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut was actually in Dresden when we fire bombed it during World War II.  The book follows a soldier named Billy Pilgrim who also is present at this event.  This is a satirical novel that, with Vonnegut’s usual intelligence and dark humor, shows war to be the absurdity that it is.  Although this is a work of fiction that uses elements of science fiction, many of the events that take place in the book were things that Vonnegut witnessed. 
  7. Starship Troopers – This is a film directed by Paul Verhoeven.  This is the one entry that is on the lighter side and some might say it is not serious enough.  It can be viewed as just a science fiction action movie.  However, there are many satirical elements to this movie, especially the commercials in the movie that that mimic real life propaganda.  Though action takes center stage this movie is a critique of fascism.  The young and beautiful are sent off into the meat grinder by the older members of society.  You don’t need to know anything about history to be entertained, but you do need to know a little to get the subversive elements that Verhoeven puts in.  By the end of the movie one of the main protagonists is wearing something that pretty closely resembles a Nazi uniform.
  8. Apocalypse Now – I thought about not including this on the list because it is so obvious, however it may be my favorite war movie. It parallels Joseph Conrad’s novel down river into the Heart of Darkness.  I prefer the four hour long director’s cut.  This movie is extremely dark but there are also moments of dark humor as well.  This movie shows war’s corrupting influence on man and paints war as nothing short of pure insanity.  One example is to watch how the character of Lance, a young all-American surfer boy, becomes a spaced out drug casualty by the end. 
  9. Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – This is another novel about Vietnam.  Denis Johnson is a very gifted poetic writer.  Tree of Smoke is an expansive novel packed with many ideas.  One that I keep returning to is that in the wake of World War II, a “good war”, America believed itself on the right side of history and therefore allowed us to wage more wars still believing we were doing the right thing. 
  10. Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides – This entry is the only entry that is not a war book or movie.  It is an account of Martin Luther King and James Earl Ray.  The book is also largely about the manhunt for James Earl Ray after he killed MLK.  The reason why I chose this is it shows the power of King’s nonviolence and contrasts it to James Earl Ray’s pathetic character who uses violence to achieve his aims. 

These are just a few of the many entries I could have picked.  I believe all of these are worthwhile for one reason or another. 

Also take a listen to Billy Paul’s stunningly beautiful song Peace Holy Peace:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=4flGGVrWfts

Istanbul Single Review

I have waited a couple of days to review the new Morrissey single Istanbul because it felt like a grower.  My initial assumption is right after not being initially sure of what to make of the song.  The song is not as melodically captivating as the first single, World Peace is None of Your Business, but its melody slowly creeps into your head until you can’t forget it. 

The lyrics are very interesting.  Morrissey is singing in the third person, which he doesn’t do a great deal of, although he has done it before.  The song is about a father searching for his son in the title city.  The son has become a prostitute.  The lyrics are full of regret and empathy.  It appears the father drove the son out for being gay, though I could be reading into that as it is not made expressly clear.  The father has had a change of heart and wants to find the son before it is too late.  In the beginning the father talks about how the mother died when both were younger.  There is also a lyric about the father having a child when he was too young, implying that he feels he did not do as good of a job as he was supposed to.  This song tells a story from beginning to end with the father tragically finding the pine box coffin that the son is in. 

In many Morrissey songs, like When I Last Spoke to Carol, tragedies have a slight degree of comedy.  It is often the divine comedy of life, as it relays the absurdity of the human condition.  However, in this song there is no comedy.  It is a story again told with a great deal of empathy. 

Both lyrically and musically, although I will have to wait until I hear the full album, it seems as if Morrissey is branching out.  Don’t get me wrong, the things that have made Morrissey unique and the reason that those of us who love him have followed him, are still there.  However both the lyrics and the production of these songs seem more outward looking than ever before.  Most of Morrissey’s early work took place in Great Britain.  Whether they were personal reflections or story songs they were very firmly rooted in his homeland.  His last few albums have broadened his lyrical palette in terms of place.  You are the Quarry was very much an LA album despite having lyrics about Camden and the British legal system.  Ringleaders of the Tormentors charms had a lot to do with his then current home of Rome.  On these first two singles he again seems to be looking out at a much larger world and the problems that are taking place within these times. 

While Vauxhall and I will always remain my favorite, this album seems to be branching out musically as well and it is very exciting and interesting. The track Istanbul features field recordings from that city.  There is also a great musical moment when he sings of street gangs and an army of congas rise to the front of the mix.  Although he has used the sound of a storm before, in Life is a Pigsty, in this track, along with the other examples I have used, the sound of the song conjures up visual imagery of the title city. 

It should also be noted that guitars and bass sound particularly tough and sinewy.  Along with all the added textures this is the sound of a well tested road band playing at the height of their powers.  I simply cannot wait for this album to come out. 

Good and Bad Film Adaptations

When translating a book into a movie I think it is much more important that the spirit of the book is translated than the actual literal story.  Right now I am reading the book version of the new Scarlett Johansson film Under the Skin.  Although the very basics of the story are similar so far, a female alien in the guise of a human drives around through Scotland picking up hitchhikers, much of it is different.  However, they both create a similar mood.  (And I admit that I am only partially through the book.)  There is a sort of contemplative melancholy to both, although both occasionally feature very subtle dry humor. 

In the book the main character is sort of bizarre looking, aside from her large breasts that keep being mentioned.  In the film Scarlett Johansson is a femme fatale whose beauty lures men to their doom.  There are also differences in the story itself.  In the movie she takes the men to a house and in the book it is a farm.  However, again the emotional feel of both is very similar.  In that way I feel the movie is true to the book while being something unique and worthwhile in its own right. 

Meanwhile, despite I know a lot of people loving it; I did not enjoy the movie No Country for Old Men.  Had I never read the book I feel that I might have.  However, I felt the movie, while being a faithful adaptation in terms of story and character, was simply a visual retelling of the book without the inner dialogue that made the book so fascinating. It was too literal of an adaptation.  But that emotional truth, the kind that is represented by the inner thoughts of the characters, seemed lacking to me. 

There is not necessarily a right way and a wrong way to adapt books to film.  However, I definitely lean towards the idea that it is much more important to get the emotional content of an adaptation right than to literally retell the story.  Movies can never be books.  However, I am satisfied if I walk out of a movie feeling the same way I did after reading something I liked, whether or not the story is the same. 

War of the Gods

In talking to a musician friend of mine tonight I was reminded of a little known but completely unique soul album.  That album is Billy Paul’s War of the Gods.  It was on the Philadelphia International label.  All the songs were written by Gamble and Huff.  However, this album is far stranger than a lot of the Philly Soul stuff, all of which I love.  It’s soul music mixed with gospel music, but even more interesting is a heavy psychedelic influence.  It’s like Nina Simone got together with Pink Floyd, but weirder.  At the same time the melodies are really beautiful.  Below I will post a link to the opening track I See the Light.  The ten minute title track is also exceptional and much weirder.  The closing song Peace Holy Peace is simply stunningly beautiful.  if you click on the link check out the album cover.  It is one of the strangest ever.  Even if the music wasn’t so grand the cover would be worth the purchase alone.  

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=billy+paul+i+see+the+light

Video

Old Town by Phil Lynott

The always great Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy singing his solo song Old Town. I can never be in a bad mood when this song is on. The video is fun as well. I thought I would post this as some of the posts from the last week or two have been a little on the dark side. It’s important to always remember the things that make us happy. Even though it’s cheesy I can’t help but smile every time he makes the girl smile in the video with the trumpet solo. Someday I will drink at that bar in the breakdown.

How to Sell Out

It seems that in the current music business and the arts in general it is very hard to make any kind or real money unless one dances with corporate America.  With the record business and radio in decline, even though pubic radio is becoming more and more viable for getting artists heard, one of the best ways for young artists to get their music heard is through commercials.  Many film directors also get their start in commercials. 

In the past, because record companies actually had money to promote artists that were not top tier moneymakers, and because the power of radio, it was seen as selling out if one sold their song to a commercial.  Artists like Bruce Springsteen still do not allow their music to appear in commercials.  I highly respect him for this, but let’s be honest, he has enough money that he doesn’t need to do that.  I also read that Kanye West does not allow his work to be used in commercials.  Whatever one things of him that is to be commended at least.  But again he is someone that doesn’t need the exposure or the money. 

I grew up highly influenced by punk rock.  There still seems to me, even though I realize the rules of the game have changed, something disheartening about putting songs in commercials.  It seems to have a corrupting influence on art, as once you hear a song in a Cheetos commercial or whatever, it can be hard to disassociate that song with that product.  Art should also speak truth to power, not walk hand in hand with it.  However, I do know that Hank Williams did commercials, and no one doubts that he was one of the greats.  There are also more ethical ways to sell out.  Moby allows his songs to be played in commercials, but then he uses a fraction of the money towards causes that he believes in.  For instance he will allow his music to be in a car commercial, but then use some of that money for environmental groups.  He is using the money of the company in direct opposition to what that company does. 

After watching a few really awful commercials at the AMC theater last night, I thought of an even better way to sell out.  The one commercial was a bunch of musicians making really bad music with coke bottles or some such nonsense.  Part of my brain slowly died during that shit.  So I think that artists should only allow their art to be used in commercials if they are given enough money to purchase a high end military vehicle like a tank.  Then they should personally drive that tank to the corporation headquarters that gave them the money and blow it up.  The artist would get paid and get exposure.  Meanwhile the general public would not have to watch any more stupid fucking commercials by that company.  What do you think of that? 

P.S.  The last paragraph is a joke if the NSA happens to be reading along.  I swear!