An Interview With Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam: Hollywood is just “gray, frightened people” holding on for dear life http://www.salon.com/2014/09/19/terry_gilliam_hollywood_is_just_%e2%80%9cgray_frightened_people%e2%80%9d_holding_on_for_dear_life/
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An interesting interview with one of my heroes, director Terry Gilliam. 

The Problem With Pitchfork

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I read reviews at Pitchfork, even though I rarely agree with them.  Pitchfork at least takes reviewing albums somewhat seriously in an age where reviews seem more like tweets than actual criticism.  More and more magazines and sites seem to be mistaking a half a paragraph as enough information to base an informed purchasing decision on.  I’ll at least give Pitchfork their due in that they put out an awful lot of longer form criticism.  The problem, however, is that most of the opinions you encounter there are ones that you can pretty much guess in advance, especially when it comes to rock music.  Their writers seem to disparage anything where actual songwriting is involved.  The more an album is a collection of weird sounds, and the less it actually features well crafted songs, the better chance it has of being highly rated.

The thing is, really great songs are hard as fuck to write.  We actually need more artists that are actually saying something in a way that reaches people.  I love all kinds of music as long as I feel an artist is doing something that comes direct from their soul and they are not just following trends.

Their is a band called The Knife that I like.  Their last album, Shaking the Habitual, was a really interesting record.  It dealt in avant-garde soundscapes much more than it dealt in pop songs.  If it were a painting it would be more of a Jackson Pollock than a beautiful landscape.  But do you know how many times I actually listened to the entire record in one sitting?  I haven’t once.  It’s pushing the envelope and that’s important, but it’s not really enjoyable other than as an intellectual exercise.  As a musician I really appreciate that kind of thing, but it’s a hard thing to love.  Pitchfork gave it an 8.4 and called it the best new music.  If you read the artwork that comes with the album you know that The Knife have a political agenda, but you would be hard pressed to really get that agenda by actually listening to the music.

Meanwhile the new Morrissey record is really subversive politically and in a way that anyone listening could get.  It’s because he uses the form of the pop song as his platform.  There are intelligent lyrics that tackle everything from gender politics to animal cruelty, but they are all delivered with melodies that are undeniably catchy.  His new album World Peace is None of Your Business has some really interesting arrangements.  The album starts with tribal percussion and a didgeridoo.  I’m Not a Man, perhaps the most subversive pop song that I have heard in some time, with an incredible melody, even starts with a minute and a half of strange noises.  What I’m getting at is that this isn’t simple guitar, bass, drums stuff, although I love traditional rock n roll as much as anything.  But I can’t help but think that Morrissey was punished a couple points by Pitchfork because he actually dared write memorable melodies.  His album was awarded a 5.9.

The new U2 album got only 4.6 points.  I wouldn’t say that the new U2 album, Songs of Innocence, is one of their top three albums, but it’s really good.  Every song features really strong melodies and great playing from musicians that play as a true band.  I personally like it more than probably any record they have put out since Pop.  I think Bono as a lyricist was at his peak between The Joshua Tree and Pop.  However this new album has songs that deal with IRA car bombs and the death of his mother.  It’s not exactly bubblegum.  But out of the three albums it is the most traditional in terms of writing and arrangements.  This is a rock n roll band album by and large.  But anyone that has ever written songs with things like guitars and melodies will know that what they are doing on this record is not the kind of thing that is easy.  It would be much easier to get a bunch of weird instruments and make an atonal soundscape.

I want a world where I can hear both.  I like that I can flick on my iPod and shuffle between The Knife and U2.  Out of the three records I like the Morrissey one the best as I think it is the one that straddles the gap between the intellectual and emotional the best.  But out of the other two, I can tell you flat out I am going to listen to the U2 one way more.  It’s more emotionally resonant.  And also, even though it seems more traditional, creating great songs is actually the harder magic trick.

I feel lucky though that as a music fan I don’t have to choose.  There is different music for different occasions.  Everyone has slightly different tastes and opinions.  However, I can’t help but feel that Pitchfork tilts the scales too far in one direction.  I feel like our mainstream culture has been dumbed down too much. If you look at the music of the 60’s you will see that this wasn’t always the case.  There was a time when music could be popular and important.  Now Pitchfork alone isn’t responsible for this.  A great deal of it has to do with other aspects of our free market culture run amuck.  But sometimes I wish the writers over at Pitchfork would realize that intelligence and subversive thought don’t necessarily have to exist apart from accessibility.

The Joy of Truth

The truth, or at least what I perceive as the truth, makes me happy, even if it is something that wouldn’t typically bring one joy.  I am talking about ideas and art, and not some kind of realization of some painful physical truth.  I am not insane, or not completely!   Meanwhile, things that seem false, unless they are an exaggeration to get at the truth, or an absurdity for comic effect, fill me with displeasure.  Euphamisms, sentimentality, and platitudes are things I have no time for.  Sure, there are always exceptions to every rule, but in general this is how I feel. 

So I could watch something like Apocalypse Now, which for all of its artistic liberties, feels like it is trying to say something truthful about the Vietnam War, and feel completely alive afterwards and full of inspiration.  Meanwhile I could watch a feel good movie, albeit one that is meant to manipulate you into crying, like Mr. Holland’s Opus, and die a thousand small deaths. 

That doesn’t mean if something is happy and full of joy it can’t also be true.  David Lynch’s The Straight Story is one movie I absolutely love that is filled with love and compassion. 

Although a great deal about the modern world troubles me, and I feel that humankind has the odds stacked against us, I am full of hope that the world can be better.  I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t think so.  If I was a pessimist I would simply write nothing at all. 

Comparing Songwriting to Drawing

I like to think of a song as a pencil drawing.  It is the most important part of the drawing, because it defines what it is you are looking at. But with good musicianship and the production, the colors and the frame, it can be made to resemble many different things.  You could draw a picture of a cowboy, but then you could color it in with strange colors and make it a psychedelic cowboy.  Or you could color it is with traditional instruments, make it rustic and dust worn, and it could be a traditional country western song.  You could put it up with no frame or you could put a frame up around it that makes it look as if it should hang in some expensive gallery.  That’s what musicianship and production do, they take that thing that is either great or not on it’s own, and make it presentable to more people.  A great song, like John Lennon’s Imagine, would be great in any form, whether just as a sketch or as the final product, produced by Phil Spector.  Meanwhile, you take something like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and although there is some song craft going on there, most of the true magic is in the production and the musicianship.  They are taking a simple drawing and making it into a piece of art through attention to detail.  Meanwhile I just looked at the Billboard Top 20.  Most of that stuff is like someone pissing on a canvas, putting it in an expensive frame, and then telling you it is is a portrait of Jesus.

The Beautiful Strange World of Hayao Miyazaki

Don’t call him the Walt Disney of Japan: How animator Hayao Miyazaki became a cultural icon by doing everything Pixar doesn’t http://www.salon.com/2014/06/23/dont_call_him_the_walt_disney_of_japan_how_animator_hayao_miyazaki_became_a_cultural_icon_by_doing_everything_pixar_doesnt/ via @Salon

The above article is a really interesting one about the famous Japanese animator.  His films can appear very strange to the Western eye.  After traveling to and reading I have learned about how the Japanese are more comfortable with abstractions.  Abstractions are part of their everyday language.  Because of their complex social behavior they often speak in abstractions and convey certain nuances through how things are said and facial expressions. 

I love Miyazaki’s beautiful and surreal movies.  They are art and entertainment all in one.  If you are looking to go someplace you have never been give his films a try. 

Complexity, Art, and Monsters

I feel a strange kinship with Michael Moore.  They’re trying to pit us against each other in the press, but it’s a hologram.  They really have got nothing to do with one another.  It’s just some kind of device, some kind of left-right.  He makes some salient points.  There was some very expert, elliptical editing going on.  However, what the hell are we doing in Iraq?  No one can explain to me in a reasonable manner that I can accept why we’re there, why we went there, and why we’re still there.  

The fear mongering we depict in this film reminds me a little of President Bush and his guys.  

I doubt very highly if, while reading the above quotes, you attributed them to Mel Gibson.  Jeez I get up to some strange shit at night.  Somehow at 1am I started watching Braveheart and then I went down the rabbit hole of IMDB.  I think Mel Gibson is an interesting figure because if you like his films, as I do, it brings up many interesting questions.  Should we separate the art from the artist?  Do we have the right to judge people’s whole lives on possibly momentary lapses of reason?  Aren’t people almost always more complex than our media portrays them?  I have defended him here before and these quotes again made me remember why I have.

Mel Gibson is someone that struggles from alcoholism and bi-polar disorder.  Having known people with both, I know that especially with alcoholism that people that are good and decent in most of their lives can turn into absolute monsters.  Most of us would say that alcoholism is a disease and that we should realize the good in people that are struggling against that disease and not condemn them completely for the monster that they may become.

I again am not supporting in anyway the awful things that Gibson has said.  He also has displayed extreme hubris by doing things like building a personal chapel on his own property.  Any of you that read this blog on a regular basis know that I believe in equality for all and also have politics that at times differ greatly from some of the things that Gibson has professed to.  However, what I do defend is his right to make art.  Whatever laws he has broken he has paid for.  I also read last night that after his drunk driving episode he was on probation for over four years where for several months he had to take classes four times a week.

If you look at our criminal justice system it punishes people long after they have served their debt to society.  Many poor people have trouble finding work after serving time or after receiving something like a DUI.  Someone like Gibson has the money that they don’t have to worry about those kinds of consequences.  He never has to work another day in his life if he wants to.  However, we have to be even handed in our justice system.  We should prosecute bankers that commit fraud just as we prosecute low level conmen.  Inversely if we are going to forgive low income offenders after they have paid their debt to society, which we do not but should, then we should also forgive someone like Gibson once they have paid theirs.

Also, I believe that one should try to separate art from the artist.  I am sure all of us own albums or watch movies that have saved our lives at certain times, where if we knew the personal behavior of their creators, might sicken us.  I remember hearing a priest one time on the radio talking about how art is often a thing created by people trying to heal themselves from their personal demons.  Because of that it is often an altruistic force that should be allowed to stand apart from its creator much of the time.  Therefore we should rightly condemn the anti-Semitism of someone like Wagner, but we also should not prevent ourselves from enjoying the extreme beauty of his music.

There is also a portion of our culture that is truly sick that capitalizes on the struggles of others.  On the high end this is represented by something like TMZ.  On the low end this is represented by something like Busted Magazine or any number of low level publications that print mug photos of our fellow citizens.  They capture people at their lowest and weakest moments and make sport of it for the rest of us.

People are complicated.  The world is complicated.  We live in a society that often values simplicity whether represented as left vs. right or good vs. evil.  There are times when we must make hard value judgments that come down on one side or the other of this divide.  However, when the world allows it, we should allow our feelings and interpretations of what we see to be, well, complex.

Kanye West, Paul Westerberg, and Self Defense

Kanye West Power Lyrics

I’m livin’ in the 21st century
Doin’ something mean to it
Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music

No one man should have all that power
The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours
Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power
(21st century schizoid man)

The system broken, the schools closed, the prisons open
We ain’t got nothin’ to lose, ma’f-cka, we rollin’
Huh? Ma’f-cka, we rollin’
With some light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands
In this white man’s world, we the ones chosen
So goodnight, cruel world, I see you in the mornin’
Huh? I see you in the mornin’
This is way too much, I need a moment

No one man should have all that power
The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours
Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power
‘Til then, f-ck that, the World’s ours

And then they (Go)
And then they
And then they (Go)
And then they (21st century schizoid man)

F-ck SNL and the whole cast
Tell ‘em Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass
More specifically, they can kiss my asshole
I’m an asshole? You n-ggas got  jokes
You short-minded n-ggas’ thoughts is Napoleon
My furs is Mongolian, my ice brought the goalies in
Now I embody every characteristic of the egotistic
He know, he so, f-ckin’ gifted
I just needed time alone, with my own thoughts
Got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault
My childlike creativity, purity and honesty
Is honestly being prodded by these grown thoughts
Reality is catchin’ up with me
Takin’ my inner child, I’m fighting for it, custody
With these responsibilities that they entrusted me
As I look down at my dia-mond-encrusted piece

N-gga, no one man should have all that power
The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours
Stop trippin’, I’m trippin’ off the power
‘Til then, f-ck that, the World’s ours

And then they (Go)
And then they
And then they (Go)
And then they
And then they (Go)
And then they (21st century schizoid man)

Colin Powells, Austin Powers
Lost in translation with a whole f-ckin’ nation
They say I was the obamanation (abomination) of Obama’s nation
Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start the conversation
At the end of day, goddammit, I’m killin’ this sh-t
I know damn well y’all feelin’ this sh-t
I don’t need yo’ p-ssy, bitch, I’m on my own d-ck
I ain’t gotta power trip, who you goin’ home with?
How ‘Ye doin’? I’m survivin’
I was drinkin’ earlier, now I’m drivin’
Where the bad bitches, huh? Where ya hidin’?
I got the power, make yo’ life so excitin’ (So excitin’)

Now this would be a beautiful death
Jumpin’ out the window
Lettin’ everything go
Lettin’ everything go

N-now-now this would be a beautiful death
Jumpin’ out the window
Lettin’ everything go
Lettin’ everything go

Now this would be a beautiful death
Jumpin’ out the window
Lettin’ everything go
Lettin’ everything go

You got the power to let power go

 

Paul Westerberg Self Defense Lyrics

Cheekbones and hormones
Your only self-defense
Lying through dinner
And your rock and roll teeth again
You’ve harbored a coward
Fed him full of broth
This nocturnal sadness
Leave you pale as this tablecloth
Careful don’t you spill your dinner
That would be a good defense
Then you wouldn’t have to sit here
On the fence

Cheekbones and hormones
He’s the accidental man
Tell you in a stage whisper
about the boy who cried benefit
As the poet drags the darkness
Within him to the light
It’s only in self-defense
That they drag you out into the night
Careful don’t you spill your dinner
That would be your best defense
Careful what you wish for

An idiot and a genius
Standing up to dine
Breaking manmade laws
Cause I only follow those that are divine
And only when you’re chased
Do you ever run fast
And it’s wrong to commit a suicide
It’s only in self-defense

 

I was listening to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy today while cleaning and the single Power came on.  The song is one half egotistical boast and one half cry for help.  Notice the lines at the end of the song after some of the more boastful ones earlier in it.  I started thinking about the Paul Westerberg song Self Defense from his Suicaine Gratifaction album.  Westerberg’s song is probably one of the best song’s ever about the self destructive streak in rock n roll music. 

I started thinking about how different works of art can allow you to interpret other works of art.  I was also thinking about how art can open up windows of empathy into other people’s lives. 

When most people think of Kanye West they think of an out of control egoist.  He may or may not be all of the things that people say he is, but I don’t know him.  Most people that are constantly bragging and puffing themselves up and bragging about themselves are hiding some kind of despair or lack of inner self confidence.  They are often overcompensating.  That’s not always the case, but it often is.  As an Eagles fan I remember watching Terrell Owens’s meltdown in front of the camera’s while he played for them.  On one hand he seemed completely wrapped up in his own ego and self confident.  There also seemed to be a tremendous amount of pain under all of that bravado.  

In rap music there is a ton of boasting and bragging, often by young black men.  Sometimes I discount some of this music because of this factor.  It seems excessive.  However, we live in a country where our prison industrial complex is out of control.  Young black men make up a disproportionately large amount of our prison population.  When people go to prison they do not simply pay their debts and return back to normal life.  Prison often follows people for long after if not the rest of their lives.  When people go to prison for nonviolent crimes it often punishes them disproportionately in light of the crimes committed.  Families are destroyed and chances for meaningful employment are often lost. 

We also live in a country where many people admit to crossing the street when they see a certain kind of black mail walking on their side of it.  Growing up under these circumstances, even if you are not directly affected, would be enough to drive anyone insane.  The culture surrounding you alone must be maddening. 

When you hear bragging and boasting in these songs can you not imagine that it is a way to overcompensate for the image that society has thrust upon them?  If no one is going to tell you that you are of worth, maybe you need to tell yourself.  My mom just sent me an email about how when no one would write reviews of Walt Whitman he just wrote reviews of his own work and later quote from those reviews as if someone else had written them.  Is this bragging and boasting not some form of self defense?