Monday, December 31, 2007

Is This Why Modern Music Sounds So Lame?

In a recent article titled "The Death of High Fidelity," Rolling Stone hypothesizes that some of the blame for current popular music's apparent lack of punch and pizzazz might be more properly assigned to the recording industry's questionable decisions regarding the CD mastering process. I've never been in too much sympathy with audiophiles (who rail about their obsessions in the highly entertaining comments section of this article), mostly because I believe the most important aspect of popular music is the content and not the sound quality. I mean, you can spend all the time in the world trying to make your music sound technically perfect, but if you totally neglect the emotional side of the performance, then all your technical know-how is in vain as far as I'm concerned. Hell, I spent years listening to my favorite music on cassette. Not even commercial cassettes, mind you. I'm talking third-generation, cut-off-in-the-middle-of-the-song-because-the-tape- ran-out-on-you cassettes. But I didn't care because the feeling of the music was there, damn it. Of course, if you can afford options, then by all means, you go for it. I just don't know if it should be the highest priority.

However, I have noticed that albums in the past ten years have mostly come on like a big gloppy pile of armadillo saliva. But is this because of the "loudness war" or just because of bad production to begin with? Or, hell, even just bad songwriting and performing? Is what we have on our hands...the perfect storm...of musical lameness?

I tremble at the possible answer.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Best Movies of the '80s: Clips [LE]

10. Sophie's Choice (Pakula, 1982)

9. Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)

8. The Right Stuff (Kaufman, 1983)

7. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989)

6. The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese, 1988)

5. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)

4. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985)

3. Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986)

2. The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983)

1. Gandhi (Attenborough, 1982)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

End-of-the-Year List Fatigue

Maybe it's because I'm not actually getting paid to be either a film or music critic at this point in my life, but somehow looking over all the year-end best-of lists on all the usual websites, I'm just starting to care less and less. It's all becoming too much of a ritual. Of course, it doesn't help that the studios now almost uniformily withhold their award-worthy films from release until the very end of the year, so suddenly we're inundated with all these critics saying, "Oh you simply must see this movie you haven't had a chance to see at all yet," and "Oh here's another movie that goes into wide release in a couple of weeks that will simply blow you away." I feel like critics are already walking into the screenings wondering how high a particular prestige picture will place on their "Best of the Year" list, instead of just walking into the screening just wanting to enjoy the damn movie. In a way, I'm glad that I don't have to add to the gigantic pile of year-end lists, and that I don't have to sweat about "how many stars" I'm going to give a movie while I'm actually watching it, and I can just enjoy a movie for what it is and worry about categorizing its quality later. Honestly, I think putting anything you've just experienced two weeks ago on a list is slightly ridiculous. I'm not above list-making, as anyone can tell, but I think good lists need a little more time to properly gestate. Sure, we did our Best of the '80s list, but some time has passed, you know what I'm saying? Some of these lists seem to operate on the questionable principle that the ten best movies of any year are roughly equal to the ten best movies of any other year. But honestly I think the best movie of 2006 would probably be about the 14th best movie of 1976. Yet these lists don't account for upward and downward trends in cinema and music. So no matter how good or bad a year it has been for movies, you're going to get ten films that are being presented to you as flamingly great. I'm starting to trust my own instincts more and saying to myself, "Hey wait a minute, that movie probably isn't going to be as good as the number of film critic awards it has accrued would suggest." Ready for some skepticism? This is probably a laughable exercise but here we go:

No Country For Old Men: The Coen Brothers have excelled in making movies that I've really liked without ever making a movie that I've really loved. I'll see this one anyway but I doubt it's as good at the critics say it is.

Sweeney Todd: Almost the same story here - so many of Tim Burton's movies are enjoyable but none of them would I include among my all-time favorites. So he's got great production design, big whoop. If I creamed myself over production design, then maybe I'd give a shit about Tim Burton, but otherwise forget it. I'm sure this is a competently entertaining movie but I'm not falling over myself to see it.

Atonement: I just read the book and thought it was a flaming pile of exhausted overly-literary pseudo-profundity (perhaps more on this later), so I'm not exactly lining up to bow down to its apparent cinematic greatness. But I could be wrong of course.

There Will Be Blood: Now here's a movie that I'm actually looking forward to seeing. Not all of Paul Thomas Anderson's films have been great, but as far as I'm concerned, they've all at least aspired to greatness.

Seriously, though, are these reviewers asking themselves this question: how good will these movies be in twenty years? Some recent examples (and of course no one will agree on such matters of taste, but it's my opinion so hey): After I saw Memento, I said to myself, "This movie will be just as good in twenty years." After I saw Chicago, I said, "This movie will not be just as good in twenty years." Ebert in particular is going nuts, writing: "It was a time of wonders, an autumn of miracles, one of the best years in recent movie history. One great film after another opened, and movie lovers found there were two or three, sometimes more, must-see films opening on a weekend. I gave up rationing my four-star ratings and went with the flow." Uh, have we been watching the same movies? It's been a while since I've seen anything that totally blew me away but maybe that's just me. I haven't even bothered to read Ebert's list, so at odds do I feel with his enthusiasm.

Then there's the end-of-the-year music lists. I looked at Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums of 2007 list and giggled, because I had only heard of about five albums out of 50, and had actually heard about zero. The worst part was that I felt the desire to listen to about zero as well. Their number one choice, Panda Bear's Person Pitch, was described by Yoggoth thusly: "It's like that song 'Broken Arrow' on Neil Young's Decade, except without all the other, really good, songs on Decade." So I can't exactly call that a recommendation. Much more interesting, and much more successful, in my opinion, was Pitchfork's 20 Worst Albums Covers of 2007 list. Now here's a list that truly captures the spirit of our age.

More list overkill:

Allmusic Editors Pick Their Top Ten of 2007

The Year In Film 2007 - The AV Club

The Top Ten Movies of 2007 - Slate

RT Editor's Best Movie Picks of 2007 - Rotten Tomatoes

The Best of 2007 - All Movie Guide

The Top Ten Films of 2007 - MSNBC

Sunday, December 23, 2007

How Do Other '80s Movie Lists Compare?

I thought it would be interesting to take look at a couple of other "Ten Best Movies of the '80s" lists and see how ours compared.

First I looked at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They, a website featuring a reasonably well-compiled list of the 1,000 greatest movies ever made, according to various film critic polls (we might call it the "snobby" list). Out of their 1,000 greatest movies list, I extracted the ten highest films from the '80s, which generated the list below:

1. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
2. Fanny and Alexander (Bergman, 1982)
3. Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)
4. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
5. Decalogue (Kieslowski, 1988)
6. Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985)
7. Ran (Kurosawa, 1985)
8. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982)
9. Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1989)
10. Brazil (Gilliam, 1985)

Then, over on the Internet Movie Database, I did the same with their own "IMDB Top 250," which generated this list (you might term it, by contrast, the "popular" list):

1. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
3. The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)
4. Das Boot (Petersen, 1981)
5. Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
6. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
7. Amadeus (Forman, 1984)
8. The Elephant Man (Lynch, 1980)
9. Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987)
10. Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore, 1988)

From here we can make several observations:

1. Only two films that appear on the They Shoot Pictures list also appear on either of our lists: Blade Runner and Brazil. Both appear on Yoggoth's list; no films from this list appear on mine.

2. Two of the films on the They Shoot Pictures list are films which neither Yoggoth nor I have ever seen: Decalogue, a ten-hour, ten part meditation on the Ten Commandments by Red, White and Blue trilogy director Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Shoah, a 570 minute documentary on the Holocaust consisting almost exclusively of interviews with Holocaust survivors. Suffice to say, I don't anticipate either of these films being viewed by us any time soon.

3. Only three films that appear on the IMDB list also appear on our list: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Shining. Only one film, The Empire Strikes Back, appears on both my list and either of these lists. This means that either I am out of touch with the current consensus on '80s cinema, or my opinions are blazingly original.

4. One film on the IMDB list I have never seen: Cinema Paradiso. I am not sure if Yoggoth has ever seen this.

5. The They Shoot Pictures list and the IMDB list, despite their wildly divergent compiling methods, are in truth not all that different. Yes, only one film overlaps between them (Raging Bull), but the IMDB list is actually quite respectable considering how it might have turned out. It swaps one Spielberg blockbuster (E.T.) for another (Raiders), while it swaps one David Lynch cult hit (Blue Velvet) for another (The Elephant Man). Kubrick and Forman films are nothing to frown upon either. In fact, if one continues down the They Shoot Pictures list, one will see many of the IMDB picks waiting in the wings (and vice versa with the They Shoot Pictures picks on the IMDB list).

6. These lists also confirm my opinion of the relative merits of '80s cinema when placed into the context of cinema history as a whole. Raging Bull, the top choice on the They Shoot Pictures list, is the 19th greatest film of all time according to their larger ranking. However, Fanny and Alexander, their second choice, is only the 62nd greatest film of all time. It's almost the same story over at IMDB: The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark come in at 7 and 18, respectively, but The Shining doesn't come in until 57.

And finally, I thought I would provide a brief explanation as to why I did not include each of these films in my own top ten list.

Raging Bull: You'll notice that I managed to include two Scorsese movies in my list, and neither of them happened to be Raging Bull. Critics seem to have a big boner for this movie, but I don't even think it's one of Scorsese's best movies. Sure, it's obviously good by ordinary standards, but it just doesn't seem to have very much to say about life, at least not the way Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and The King of Comedy do. As Yoggoth put it back in January, "I didn't care about the boxer. You get to the end and you say to yourself, 'Yeah that guy was kind of an asshole but he kept on an asshole, aaand so what?'"

Fanny and Alexander: This is the obligatory "movie made by a great master of cinema at the end of his career about his childhood" (see Amarcord). As such, it's very enjoyable, but I guess I didn't find it one of Bergman's more passionate, immediate works.

Blue Velvet: I remember being disappointed with this when I saw it; however, it definitely has stuck in my memory and I will probably watch it again sometime. Honestly, though, I have to say that if this is a movie anyone would want to put on a top ten list, then some people are just batshit crazy.

Ran: Here's a very handsomely made movie that hits all the right notes and yet, for me at least, lacks the oddness and specificity that I look for in my favorite epics. It's exactly the kind of movie that would have seemed really great in the '80s but comes off as just sort of pleasant now.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: Sure it's cute but I have very little desire to see this again, and that's got to be a bad sign.

Close-Up: Abbas Kiarostami is the Godard of Iran - heavy on the film theory, light on the story. He singlehandedly owes his career to snooty film critics. That said, this is the only movie of his that I've seen, and I actually liked it. I am not in any rush to see more of his films, however.

Das Boot: Basically a Hollywood-style film that happens to be in German. Nevertheless, it's like a really intelligent, subdued Hollywood-style film. A very, very good movie - that I barely remember watching.

Aliens: Here is the one arguably questionable choice on the IMDB list. Yoggoth always expresses his annoyance that this film receives more attention that Alien, which he feels is really the true masterpiece of the Alien series (and which I've never seen because it gives me the creeps). As for Aliens, I have seen it, but not in years, so I don't remember what I think. I will say that James Cameron is very good at what he does, though.

Amadeus: This is very, very close to a great movie, but somehow by the time it gets to the end I just don't care about Mozart anymore. Still, I reference it all the time and it contains some priceless insights on the nature of the artist (in particular its observations on artistic jealousy).

The Elephant Man: Great atmosphere, interesting story. A little too cold for me to truly love.

Full Metal Jacket: I must confess that I've never actually seen this all the way through in one sitting - but seeing as though it's basically two separate stories spliced together, I've never felt this was much of a problem. And I've always had the sense that its popularity has been inflated by young males who like this movie mostly because the first part is so "hardcore" and the second part has the "me so horny" line.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Best Movies of the '80s: Runners-up [Y]

1. Ghostbusters - This is one of those concepts that you simultaneously wish you had thought of while wondering how anyone ever thought of it. A group of PhDs dedicated to fighting paranormal activity in a humorous way--what possible precedent is there for that? I was very, very close to including this on my list but decided on Baron Munchausen instead.

2. Do the Right Thing - A good movie, but at the end I didn't really know what Lee was trying to say to me. What was the right thing? Is the answer that there was no 'right thing'?

3. The King of Comedy - If I had had more to drink while coming up with my list this would definitely be on there. De Niro's finest hour.

4. Top Gun - My brother and step-mom like it and recommend this for a first date. I haven't seen it.

So Whose Mojo Is Doing The Working Anyway?

Having been on a bit of a Chicago blues binge lately, I've taken a peek at some articles on Wikipedia about Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, etc. Apparently there have been several copyright disputes over Waters' macho classic 'Got My Mojo Working." A judge eventually ruled that "the concept of 'mojo' was public domain, and that the existence of references to mojo was not sufficient to justify a finding of infringement."

You decide. Here's the first version:

Got my mojo working but it just won't work on you
Got my mojo working but it just won't work on you
I want to love you so till I don't know what to do
I got my black cat bones all pure and dry
I got my four leaf clovers all hanging high
I got my mojo working but it just won't work on you
I want to love you so till I don't know what to do
(repeat format, with varied spells: hoodoo ashes, black snake boots, red hot tips, etc.)

Here's Waters' version:

Got my mojo working but it just won't work on you
Got my mojo working but it just won't work on you
I want to love you so bad I don't know what to do
Going down to Louisiana to get me a mojo hand
Going down to Louisiana to get me a mojo hand
I'm going to have all you women, getcha under my command
Got my mojo working, ...

Now, I have never heard the first version, but I have to say that its lyrics offer a little more practical advice. You do have to wonder, though, if "black cat bones," "black snake boots," and "red hot tips" really increase one's mojo - and if so, by how much? Also, the first version says "I want to love you so till I don't know what to do," which is a much different sentiment than Waters' proclamation, "I want to love you so bad I don't know what to do." Maybe I'm splitting hairs but this is mojo we're talking about people.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Came Back Alive

Well, as Ninquelote hinted at below, our trip was a success, although due to the rain and the convenient availability of an empty and well-equipped cabin at our campsite, we did not exactly go "camping" as I had suggested. Hey, it's December in Northern California, what can I say? I don't know about anyone else, but I left with two basic goals in mind: to get the hell out of the city and to win at least one round of Settlers of Catan. And I am proud to say I accomplished both goals. Highlights:

1) The Chicken Soup

Yoggoth and I stayed up late on Saturday night in order to cook the world's most bottomless chicken soup - Yoggoth having done a top-notch job of rounding up all the key ingredients (except, that is, for the chicken broth). The hearty concoction ultimately managed to feed four people, two times. And we didn't even have time to stir-fry the mushrooms!

2) The Cabin

Much hand-wringing was done on the way to the campground in anticipation of rain. Would we have to set up a tarp in order to cook? Where would we play our board games? How many people would fit in Ninquelote's tent? Such questions swiftly evaporated as we gazed upon...The Cabin. With a table, two bunks, and a woodstove, the only convenience it lacked was electricity. Ninquelote insisted we set up a tent, but Yoggoth turned to me and said, "Come on, is there any question about using that cabin?" Although it hovered around 40 degrees outside all evening, with a woodstove and a propane lantern running for hours the cabin actually had a propensity for becoming too hot. Now that's what I call roughing it.

3) The Marshmallow Cookie

In a supreme act of late-night indulgence, Yoggoth built for himself a sandwich out of roasted marshmallows and two Keebler's "M&M rip-off" cookies. I had been watching Ninquelote and the Mysterious Mister Ed take photos of every third redwood tree the whole day, but finally, I had seen something that was truly worthy of capturing on film, and I commanded them to get out their cameras and make Yoggoth's gluttony immortal.

4) Settlers of Catan

Many of you may be familiar with this new board game that is currently all the rage amongst the glitterati. I played it for the first time a couple of months ago and I knew my life would not be complete until I managed to parse its sacred secrets. Thus I was all geared up and ready to go this trip. After one swift initial losing round, I suddenly informed the assembled masses that I had formulated "a new strategy." They laughed, oh how they laughed. In the second round my new strategy was thwarted by a bad roll of the dice. But the third time was the charm, as I managed to build four cities and the longest road to amass the required 10 points for victory. The beginning of a championship run? Or an isolated taste of glory?

5) Powergrid

We consistently alternated all trip between Settlers and this newer game, similar to Settlers in many ways except the game runs about four times as long. Some players thrived while others dived. For my part, I couldn't understand how everyone else kept managing to generate more money than me at the end of each turn.

6) Late breakfasts on the road

There's nothing that makes cooking on a camping trip easier like eating meals at a roadside diner instead. Waffles, pancakes, breakfast burritos, coffee, toast, and eggs over easy taste that much better when you eat them around noon.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Gone Camping

We're off to a taste of some bona fide, genuine Cosmic America - of the camping kind. It might be cold, it might be wet, we may have no idea what we're doing, but no matter what, it's sure to be cosmic.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Stewie Sings Shatner

Bill Maher Picks His Own Asshole(s)

Dickheads of the Year: My picks for the biggest assholes of 2007 - by Bill Maher (Rolling Stone)

One thing that I've always liked about Bill Maher's sense of humor is that he doesn't just tell jokes, he injects his jokes with his own unique (screwed up?) moral viewpoint.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Morality of Gaming

I enjoyed this article at Gamasutra. It's basically a transcript of a speech given by Jonathan Blow about the present state of the video game industry. I've come to many of the same conclusions that Blow expresses in the speech. Most notably--game designers and publishers haven't acknowledged their major role in American, and worldwide, culture, and the unavoidable moral responsibility that comes with it. And no, I'm not talking about violence in Mortal Kombat, Manhunt 2, or their ilk. Check out the article; I think I'll write more about my thoughts later.


If you don't like Fogerty's political stuff, maybe this is more your kind of thing LE.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Best Movies of the '80s: Runners-up [LE]

Yoggoth and I will now be presenting our own runners-up for each of our ten best movies of the '80s lists. In most cases, for me, what ultimately kept these runners-up from being included among my ten official selections is not exactly easy to pinpoint. Some of these movies I haven't seen in a really long time, and thus I'm not sure if they are as good as I remember them being. Others are extremely entertaining movies that just happen to be missing that extra "depth," however you choose to interpret that. In addition, many of the films that made Yoggoth's list could also very well appear here, despite my having left them out.

In alphabetical order:

The Blues Brothers (Landis, 1980)

Here is a film that fits perfectly into the category of "entertaining movies that don't have anything particularly profound to say." Maybe there's a message in here somewhere: how about "Any amount of criminal activity is worth it as long as you're trying to save an orphanage"? No, it's probably a waste of mental energy to find anything more redeeming about this film other than the endless pile of car crashes, delightful celebrity cameos (Carrie Fisher, Steven Spielberg), killer lineup of classic soul legends, and jokes about Illinois Nazis. Hell, just seeing James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles in the same movie alone is like the ultimate R&B hat trick. And then there's Cab Calloway's gritty, definitive version of "Minnie the Moocher" (although I'm never been sure what it ever had to do with the "blues" exactly). Oh, and did I mention the endless pile of car crashes?

Born on the Fourth of July (Stone, 1989)

Stone's biopic of anti-war activist Ron Kovic made a big impression on me as a kid; I actually saw it twice and loved it both times. However, having since revisited a lot of Oliver Stone films and having found most of them less impressive on repeated viewing, I feel like I would need to watch this again before I could feel confident calling it a truly great movie. Let me just say that it's probably one of Stone's least sensationalistic, most character-driven political films. And if you're curious whether or not Tom Cruise can actually act, this, as far as I'm concerned, is Exhibit A for the defense.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Hughes, 1986)

Just about the perfect archetype of an '80s film, with endlessly quotable references I'll refrain from reiterating for the hundredth time. There really aren't too many ways this movie could have been any better. So why didn't it make my top ten, you ask? Well, it's just that, when I imagine this movie being released in the '70s, alongside M*A*S*H, The Last Picture Show, and Taxi Driver, I just...I's just not quite...there.

Field of Dreams (Robinson, 1989)

A movie so corny it literally takes place in the middle of a corn field - and yet, and yet, it's like the fluffiest, warmest cornbread your sweet Aunt Sally ever baked, or the crunchiest, most perfectly roasted corn dog you ever bought for 20 cents at the Topeka county fair. Truth is, the movie works because it knows it's corny, and the characters are just as skeptical as we are. "If you build it, he will come"? Yeah, sure, buddy, and I've got an iceberg I wanna sell you. Honestly, sometimes crazy, impractical dreams really aren't worth following, but with dialogue and acting this good (especially James Earl Jones as the misanthropic, Salinger-esque writer), who cares?

Fitzcarraldo (Herzog, 1982)

A mad dash of German insanity by way of the Amazon, this is the only "foreign" film from the '80s to be mentioned by me in this project, which means that either a) I need to see more foreign films from the '80s, or b) foreign films really stank during the '80s. You decide. At any rate, the story concerns a rubber baron whose dream it is to build a gigantic opera house in the middle of the jungle. In order to do this, he decides to lift an entire ship over a gigantic hillside. Ah, but here's the catch: Werner Herzog actually took a real ship and lifted it up a real mountain in the real jungle in order to film the movie. As you might guess, the filming was plagued with endless difficulties, much like its jungle cousin Apocalypse Now. However, having known Fitzcarraldo only for its gimmick and its tales of a troubled genesis, I was surprised to discover that it delivered a genuinely interesting story with a very subtle, dark humor.

Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984)

Everybody loves an underdog, and what bigger underdog is there than the unemployed scientist? Well, Peter is really only a quasi-scientist, but Egon is the real deal: when their secretary asks him if he has any hobbies, he answers "I collect spores, molds, and fungus." Who could have forseen, then, that when the entire city of New York comes under attack from some kind of paranormal Egyptian Annie Lennox, the ones to come to the rescue would be...these guys? Frankly, every time that theme song comes on, it makes me feel like I can go out and do anything.

Victor/Victoria (Edwards, 1982)

In 1930s Paris, a female singer can't find any work, so her gay friend suggests she try to find a man pretending to be a woman! Matters only become more complicated when a macho Chicago gangster begins to think he's falling for "Victor," even though he very well knows that she's really a man, right? One of the last truly good Hollywood musicals, and one of the most intelligent treatments of homosexuality in a mainstream film, the movie features delightful performances by Julie Andrews, Robert Preston (of Music Man fame), and James Garner (of Maverick fame), among others. Just be sure to keep your glass at a distance when Andrews starts into "The Shady Dame From Seville."

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Friday, December 7, 2007

Little Earl and Yoggoth's Top 10 Movies of the 1980s

Little Earl:

1. Gandhi (Attenborough, 1982)
2. The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983)
3. Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986)
4. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985)
5. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
6. The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese, 1988)
7. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989)
8. The Right Stuff (Kaufman, 1983)
9. Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)
10. Sophie's Choice (Pakula, 1982)


1. Brazil (Gilliam, 1985)
2. sex, lies, and videotape (Soderbergh, 1989)
3. The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
5. Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)
6. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
7. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Gilliam, 1988)
8. The Princess Bride (Reiner, 1987)
9. Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata, 1988)
10. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985)

Introductory Essay
Runners-up: Little Earl
Runners-up: Yoggoth
How Do Other '80s Movie Lists Compare?
Clips: Little Earl

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Number One: Brazil (Gilliam, 1985) [Y]

"Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away"

-Buffalo Springfield, 'For What It's Worth"

If Dr. Stranglove taught us how to stop worrying and love the bomb, Brazil is what happens when you stop worrying and learn to love paranoia. I remember a conversation with Little Earl over the work of Michel Foucault. In the book Discipline and Punish Foucault describes the Panopticon, a prison innovation used to observe all prisoners at all times. He then uses this as a metaphor for modern life. Our response: Who cares if someone is watching you as long as they aren't doing anything?

At some point it seemed novel for the government to spy on its subjects. Now it's old hat. I look at the set design of Brazil, heavy on ducts, and I recognize the local Chipotle restaurant. So does this mean Brazil doesn't have anything left to say to me? On the contrary, I think Brazil is the one movie from the 80's that transcends its decade completely.

The film moves back and forth between the protagonist's fantasys and his mundane life as a petty bureaucrat in a near future dystopia. As the film progresses it becomes more difficult to discern one from the other. The conflict of the film begins when Sam Lowry decides to do something to help a woman whose husband that has been arrested, tortured, and killed after a bug flies into a typewriter and the wrong name is recorded. The government intended to kill an insurgent plumber who fights against government utilities bureaucracy. In case you haven't seen the movie I won't say who plays him, but it's one of my favorite gratuitous cameos of all time. Along the way Sam meets a woman who looks just like a woman in his ever present fantasies and instantly falls in love.

After Sam decides to take a stand he discovers the real evil of the Panopticon. Sam's newfound morality and love attract the attention of the government that he has been trying to avoid through mediocrity. He takes a promotion secured by his influential mother in order to help the woman of his dreams. Unfortunately, every time Sam involves himself with the government's machinations he becomes more susceptible to their control. Terry Gilliam is protesting against this inversely proportional relationship in Brazil. As Vonnegut, another paragon of sci-fi dark humor, wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” You can refrain from being bad all your life, Sam. It's when you try to do something good that they get ya.

Love, morality, and social responsibility should be the high points of life, those moments we are most proud of. The totalitarian social system acts upon those elements of our lives because they stand out and make us vulnerable. Terrorist attacks occur regularly in the world of Brazil. Industry has destroyed the natural environment and business advertisements block the resultant vista of ash and smoke. The government responds with bumbling bureaucracy and feel-good consumerist torture, always delivered with a smile.

Brazil presents a mid-way point between 1984 and Brave New World. The future isn't run by an evil ubermensch like O'Brien with his party. Nor is it run by technocrats using biological alterations to split humanity into manageable subspecies. Instead, it's a predictably inept descent into manic nostalgia for past mediocrities. The powers that be don't even control themselves, much less all of society. The do violence out of fear and anger when they realize how little control they have. However, as pathetic as this is, that's real flesh they're destroying.

I can't avoid a short comparison between our current political situation and that of Brazil. The parallels are just too numerous to ignore - vast governmental and corporate ineptitude, strong social pressure to accept mediocrity as triumph, and an absurd and ineffectual response to terrorism.

P.S. I'm about half-way done with Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. I highly recommend it if you go in for Brazil/Catch-22/Dr.Strangelove style dark humor.

He's Working On It, Folks

Yoggoth's #1 pick for best movie of the '80s should be arriving any day people. Do not despair, oh ye of little faith. I can already see a couple of paragraphs in the "draft" section he's already cooked up. Just think, when that moment finally arrives, how much sweeter will it be? I know I, for one, can hardly quell my suffocating anticipation.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Ebenezer Hitchens

Cruising Slate this morning, I caught a new piece by Christopher Hitchens entitled "Bah, Hanukkah." Keeping in mind Yoggoth's words to me a few weeks ago ("I've only been reading the Christopher Hitchens articles that aren't about Iraq"), I thought, "Hmm, this one's probably a good bet." Indeed, the piece, subtitled, "The Holiday celebrates the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness," displays Hitchens in perhaps his most suitable role: that of the erudite Scrooge. Sometimes one has to wonder if Hitchens mistakenly thinks he is writing for the Onion. Nevertheless, intentional or unintentional, the man is definitely good for a Yuletide snicker.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Fogerty Testifies

Pitchfork has a great interview with John Fogerty up. I think of Fogerty as a litmus test songwriter: if you don't like his music, I don't have much to say to you other than "De gustibus non est disputandum." Knowing that Fogerty has found peace brings a bit of peace to me as well.