Friday, November 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino)

Well, I don't quite remember World War II happening like this. But who's keeping track? My 10th grade history teacher was barely able to cover World War I, let alone World War II. On the last day of class he showed us three pictures. "This is Hitler. This is Stalin. This is Roosevelt. Got it?"

Anyway, just when you thought nothing new could have possibly been done with the World War II/Holocaust film, I believe Tarantino has actually gone and done it. This is truly a World War II/Holocaust movie I have not seen before. Give the man credit where credit is due.

I suspect Inglourious Basterds is also a film studies major's dream, in that a film studies major will have a field day with its treatment of the subject matter. I no longer associate myself with "film studies," so in one sense I could really give two shits. But this movie is begging to be attacked, defended, psychoanalyzed, deconstructed, and so on. The Holocaust is a subject most academics treat with the utmost gravity. Tarantino, suffice to say, has taken a different approach. I imagine there will be many useless and ineffective essays written by film professors and grad students along the lines of Dana Stevens' review in Slate, declaring this film misguided, irresponsible, and insulting. Let me tell you something, film professors: Tarantino is laughing at you.

This movie and Downfall would make a great double feature. The painstakingly accurate depiction of Hilter's last days vs. the completely ridiculous depiction. But I learned a lot from both. Personally, I think Tarantino's gleefully unfaithful approach to the World War II/Holocaust film actually made me think about that period of history in at least as many ways as Downfall did. Contrary to what some might say (including the enfant terrible himself) I think he actually takes the subject matter quite seriously; he just isn't stuffy or reserved about it. Basterds is like an emotional thought experiment. Just how would it feel to do this to the Nazis? Honestly I don't think it would have felt that great. Basterds was like the ending of The Wild Bunch minus the last scene with Thornton and Sykes. I don't think if the Nazis had really died in this way, we would feel any better about the whole thing. But see - at least now we have our answer!

Nevertheless, as strong as this film is, I feel there is a certain element missing that is present in most of Tarantino's other work: I didn't actually find any of these characters likeable. Aldo Raine and the basterds were on the "good" side, but I can't really say I was rooting for them. The Jewish girl was more like a symbol, not a character. There wasn't really a positive moment of human connection to be found anywhere. Tarantino does excel, however at showing just how much these characters really hate each other. When one character kills another in this movie, they do so from a place of pure, unfiltered, spontaneous rage. There is a scene where a young man is about to be spared from death, until, just for shits and giggles, he superfluously calls someone a "traitor" and he is shot (he would have been better off keeping his opinions to himself). That seems to sum up the whole driving force behind Nazism: "We lost World War I, we're angry, we want to take it out on other people, and we don't even care if we live in the end."

So even though this might not be Tarantino's most violent or disturbing movie, I found it to be his most nihilistic. "Come on, what about Reservoir Dogs?" you say. Was it just me, or was the misguided friendship between Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs amazingly poignant? In Pulp Fiction certain characters learned to grow and change. I even liked Bill in Kill Bill more than any character in Basterds. Yes, Tarantino has made a creative, interesting movie, but so has Lars von Trier. "Well, why should a World War II/Holocaust movie be life-affirming and joyous?" you ask. Honestly, very few of my favorite movies are World War II/Holocaust movies. Casablanca is a World War II movie but it's not about the Holocaust. Schindler's List is impressive simply because I'm sitting there the whole time wondering just how long Spielberg can hold that cold, distant tone without blinking. But have I watched it more than twice?

Final observation: What other director working today, besides Tarantino, possesses such name-brand drawing power, he can make almost no concessions to the audience and still pack the seats? Well, Grindhouse aside. Not a franchise, mind you, but a director. Peter Jackson? Martin Scorsese? Tarantino can pretty much do anything he wants at this point and the audience is willing to follow him there. Subtitles? You'll take it and you'll like it. Long passages of dialogue? Go ahead, get up and leave, I dare you. The poor girl next to me with a Bloomingdale's shopping bag lasted about 20 minutes. So, not everybody I guess.

Film critic rating: ***1/2
Little Earl rating: ***

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

You Ain't No Friend of Mine

If you haven't heard already the New Oxford American Dictionary has chosen their word of the year. What is it? 'Unfriend' - as in to remove someone you've 'friended' from your social networking sites. While this is an interesting pick that reflects our growing use of social networking sites (facebook, myspace, etc.), to quote another phrase culled from the internet: 'ur doin it wrong.'

Looks like people are getting fired up about the NOAD's choice of word because many people, myself included, have already been using the similar-yet-different word 'defriend'. In fact, I don't know a single person who says 'unfriend', yet according to the NOAD and Google, unfriend is searched for more often than defriend. Searching around online on this topic it's amusing to see people attempt to justify the usage of either word, often through complex grammatical reasoning ("unfriend is a negative participle!"). The folks at the NOAD say 'unfriend' has "real lex-appeal" which to me sounds like marketing-speak has invaded the dictionary world.

Ok, so the debate is fairly trivial, but that doesn't stop me from scratching my head at their choice in this matter. It would be like if a dictionary came out and said the proper word to use regarding the influx of cash into the economy by the federal government was to be called 'catalyst' instead of 'stimulus'. I wonder if this will turn out to be a generational thing. Perhaps one day I'll use the word 'defriend' around my grandchildren who will wince upon hearing my anachronistic usage. So, for those of us out there who do use facebook or whatever, what's your preference. Do you prefer to unfriend or defriend?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Bit of Variety

Our last three posts are about Pitchfork articles? Is this what our existence consists of?

Here are some other interesting things I've read lately:

Our brains are hardwired for math.

Corporatist ideology at work in West Virginia, where the state Chamber of Commerce opposes health care reform so that Obama won't have time to work on cap-and-trade environmental legislation.

Lebanese-American author Khalil Gibran's early story "Khalil the Heretic," in which the author's namesake, an obvious stand in for Jesus, confronts oppressive clergy and feudal leaders, inspires his fellow countrymen to cast off their shackles and seize freedom and prosperity, and is so generally wonderful that a young and beautiful virgin woman falls in love with him. It's nice to know that even successful people write embarrassing stories like this when they are young.

Only On Pitchfork

The capsule summary of their new Live in New York review:

"The much-maligned band makes a case for itself on this sprawling 6xCD collection..."

In the actual review we discover that in Pitchfork-land the Doors are "less hip than Journey."

The Doors are much-maligned and less hip than Journey? And they're going to redeem themselves with a six CD live box set?

I'm not convinced.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Lou Reed Outdoes Himself Again

Apparently I've only decided to post on Pitchfork interviews with '70s cult legends while recycling old blog post titles. Why mess with success? Here we have a very game Lou Reed being interviewed about Metal Machine Music. He's so jolly I wouldn't be surprised to spot him dressed as Santa Claus at the local mall next month:
Lou Reed: Hello, hi. How are you, Amanda?

Pitchfork: I'm great.

Reed: How do you say your last name?

Pitchfork: Petrusich.

Reed: Wow. A name name. That's a real name. You should be a movie star. What nationality is it?

Pitchfork: It's Croatian.

Reed: It's a great, great name. Are you married? What's your husband's name?

Pitchfork: Stetka. Which is a Czech name.

Reed: What's it like when you say them both?

Pitchfork: Petrusich-Stetka.

Reed: That's pretty good, don't you think?

Pitchfork: It's not bad.

Reed: What if you got knighted? That would be pretty good.
Say what you want, but damn it, I still like the guy.
Pitchfork: There's always been considerable chatter about whether or not Metal Machine Music was intended as a joke, or a stab at the record industry-- do you think the continuing conjecture about your intentions for the record is, now, as much a part of the art as the music?

Reed: The myth-- depends on how you look at it, but the myth is sort of better than the truth. The myth is that I made it to get out of a recording contract. OK, but the truth is that I wouldn't do that, because I wouldn't want you to buy a record that I didn't really like, that I was just trying to do a legal thing with. I wouldn't do something like that. The truth is that I really, really, really loved it. I was in a position where I could have it come out. I just didn't want it to come out and have the audience think it was more rock songs. It was only on the market for three weeks anyway. Then they took it away.

Pitchfork: Right, I read that it was the most returned record at that time...

Reed: It still may be the all-time champ.
See, fans? The man really cared. He wasn't just spitting in your face and mercilessly raping your ears.
Pitchfork: Were you anxious about Metal Machine Music's initial release? You must have had some sense that it was going to be shocking to people who bought and loved "Walk on the Wild Side" or "Sweet Jane".

Reed: I honestly thought "Boy, people who like guitar feedback are gonna go crazy for this." Count me among them. If you like loud guitars, here we are.
This reminds me of the closing line of the All Movie Guide's review of the 1978 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band film: "For those who want to hear Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees cover Beatles tunes, this is your Citizen Kane."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Domed One Speaks Again

Highlights from Pitchfork's interview with Brian Eno:
Brian Eno: I'm old enough to remember exactly what happened to ABBA. When ABBA were around, to admit that you liked them would have condemned you to absolute coventry. No one would talk to you because you liked ABBA, because they were considered to be hopelessly pointless pop. Now, of course, everyone likes ABBA. Everyone realizes that they made some great music, and you're allowed to like them now. Kitsch is a way that posh people admit to themselves that they like things that ordinary people like...they were completely popular with the people and totally unpopular with...artists. [laughs] People who were culturally aware. I can remember it very clearly, because I was part of the snobbery! I can remember really liking ABBA songs, and kind of resenting that I did! [laughs]

Pitchfork: Obviously the music you've made has been very influential, but it's tough to name people who are clearly "Brian Eno influenced."

Brian Eno: I don't know. A lot of people tell me they are, but they might be making it up! [laughs] I think if there is an influence, it's not in terms of style so much but in terms of approach to working. For instance, some quite odd people have said, either in interviews or directly to me, that they were influenced by me. Prince, for example, said Another Green World was a very important record for him, apparently, in an interview. I've never met him, so I don't have this from his own mouth, but it was in an interview. Now, that's rather surprising! Hank Shocklee, from Public Enemy, said that their whole thing really started with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. So that's a very surprising connection, I think. Another very surprising one is Phil Collins! He worked with me in the 70s, and he said it was then that he understood that he could make records himself. He'd always been in a band before, but I always went into a studio with nothing, really, and just kind of made something up there and then. He said he'd never seen anyone work that way, and it really started his solo career. He always thanks me for that.
And so we can thank Brian Eno - for Phil Collins' solo career. "Against All Odds" indeed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Music, or a Response to a Post Cryptically Entitled Thanks, Peter

Maybe everything that could be done in the Rock 'n Roll genre has now been done. The same basic thing happened with Jazz after the 1970s or poetry after the 1950s.

Ah, but the Marxist in you wants some sort of sub-structure explanation for this? Okay, kids aren't taught grammar and don't memorize poems any more. Playing the trumpet or the saxophone isn't cool anymore. Playing the electric guitar remains somewhat cool, but kids have more exciting things to do with their time. Such as playing video games. But video games are in the position that movies were in around 1940? 1950? It's very expensive to make an A-list game. Creative individuals can't compete in the market without adhering to some predetermined genre to secure funding. It's like those movies you watch because of some new development in camera lenses, or where the commentator spends the whole time talking about mise-en-cine instead of the plot or characters. The character model from the new World War X game has how many polygons?

On top of that, Rock 'n Roll isn't an alternative to anything. It's the default. There's no rebellion. Nothing to get hung about...

So who remains? The academics and the obsessives. That's why every new album sounds like a well-intentioned mush of other, better bands.

What can you do now to generate excitement? M.I.A. advocates terrorism and they put her on the Grammies. The great Rock 'n Roll swindle was a swindle, but at least it was fun.

Let's throw a test into this post for good measure. If the Smashing Pumpkins(a good lowest common denominator I think, at least I'm not prepared to go any lower...) are more fun to listen to than your band and the Counting Crows are more profound then just go home.

P.S. For Sarah and other people actually in bands: This is targeted at mass-market/media music. Live music is great, and is generally fun and worthwhile no matter the skill or creativity level. You got signed to a label and released an album even if only digitally? That sounds like a pretty good accomplishment to me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dolphins Are Actually Evil!

You knew it all along, didn't you? Behind those beguiling eyes and that innocent giggle lay the heart of a murderous beast. And who is their victim of choice? Porpoises. Those porpoises, who do they think they are? Perhaps dolphins have finally decided to help humans out in our attempt to destroy all known marine life. Hey, why go around killing porpoises ourselves when we can just have dolphins do it?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thanks Peter

I think I might actually like this BBC article more than the Pitchfork one, free as it is of any pseudo-academic posturing. John Harris is, I assume, the same John Harris who authored that Britpop book I quote all the time. I do take some issue with his purely celebratory stance, however. He claims this is the "golden age of infinite music." I would say instead that it may be the golden age of infinite music acquisition, but perhaps not the golden age of memorable music making. In order words, an idyllic time for rock scholars such as ourselves, who would like to hear Metal Machine Music and every bad '80s Rolling Stones album without having to pay any money to do so, but a bad time for anyone who wants to hear great new music that is challenging and honest and yet unites people on a broader social level. In one sense, yes, downloading is a rock scholar's wet dream. But as Newton once said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And if we take a step back and stop and think about what downloading has wrought, we realize, "! We'!" He writes:
For musicians, it's self-evident that there are all kinds of new openings for their music, but even if they break through, much less concerted attention will be paid to it. They may get an audience, but it will be very easily distracted. After all, endlessly playing the same album so as to extract your "money's worth" is behaviour that will soon seem like something from the dark ages. Woe betide the act that decides to make the kind of record that tends to be charitably described as a "grower" - something that may account for, say, the scant interest paid to the last U2 album. Certainly, as a record company MD told me a couple of weeks ago, stuffing your albums with mere filler is no longer a sensible option.
So why is it that, in an age where "stuffing your albums with mere filler is no longer a sensible option," how come every album now sounds like it is stuffed - head to toe - with filler? I would kill for a couple of "growers" right now, if by "grower," you mean "great album that I could play over and over again and rank up there with my other favorite albums." But there is no incentive in this current climate for a musician to put in the effort to make a "grower." A musician in 1968 could realistically have sat in his room and thought, "Well, if I could write an album's worth of great songs right here on this guitar, in a couple of months I could reach millions of people all over the world with my life-changing art!" In 2009, not even the Billboard #1 album reaches 300,000 people. Harris ends his piece by saying, "Really: what's not to like?" I'm not saying the "death of music" is something we're supposed to dislike, exactly. I'm just saying I'm not quite as excited about "the brilliant first album by Florence and the Machine" as John Harris is.