Tuesday, July 10, 2018

"Solo" Redeems the Disney Wars – An Unexpected Appreciation

Even as an apathetic spectator of pop-culture, I regret that Solo: A Star Wars Story has incurred the most jaded reception in the series’ history. Internet geekdom long treated the very concept of a Han Solo standalone with derision, so after The Last Jedi literally and metaphorically killed the main story’s darlings, any attempt to resuscitate the franchise was bound to be met with hostility. Firing the original directors 80% of the way through shooting (an increasingly common business strategy for Disney) did nothing to abate the internet’s gravest fear, that Star Wars had finally gone to the graveyard of creativity, sent there by people who didn’t understand its appeal. Consequently, Solo became a bona-fide box office bomb, which is a darn shame, because Howard & Lord & Miller have created hands down the most spirited, unapologetic, and commendable Star Wars outing since Revenge of the Sith.

Before diving into the virtues of the newest film, a brief review of Star Wars would seem in order, since I have only weighed in on one installment. The credo of the Disney Wars films is well established by this point, as decreed by the dashing and unpredictable Kylo Ren. “Let the past die,” says the Millennial free agent to Rey in the most pivotal scene of The Last Jedi. “Kill it if you have to.” In other words, out with the Force Olds, in with the #ForceNews.

When The Force Awakens came out, fanboys celebrated (and later denounced) the conservatism of every creative choice and plot beat. J.J. Abrams had settled for rebooting the ’77 Star Wars with updated computer graphics, but he also had enough business sense to fortify his film with Marvel-esque banter and bland tokenism, accordingly ensuring good ratings from critics. In technique, pacing, worldbuilding, and characterizations, The Force Awakens couldn’t be further removed from George Lucas’ widely-loathed prequels, and disciples of the Mr. Plinkett reviews could have a field day checking off all the artistic caveats Abrams clearly borrowed from Youtube. Nonetheless, one could still make out the skeleton of vintage Star Wars; the influence of George Lucas may have been excised, the prequels effectively eradicated, but the soul of the original trilogy remained intact.

Disney would not commence systematically dismantling the classics until Rogue One, which felt like a joyless act of sabotage, trying to don the habit of a war film for grown-ups and looking like an expensive fan project in the process. The Last Jedi steered Star Wars in an even more revolutionary direction, from its demonization of a beloved, pre-established hero to its already dated political sloganeering. Ridicule me all you want, but right and left should be able to acknowledge the revisionist, leftist politics of the Disney Wars films. Oliver Jones of the Observer snarkily commented, “[The Last Jedi] pushed the corporatized franchise in surprising new directions and reexamined flyboy machismo central to the Lucas mythos… Plus it had the added bonus of ruining several people’s childhoods.” I won’t even graze the numerous, mostly well-substantiated blog posts analyzing The Last Jedi as a repudiation of White Supremacy and The Patriarchy.

Solo enters the overcrowded summer landscape at a time when Star Wars movies have been retreating ever further from their roots, boldly chasing the status quo with aspirations of socio-political currency. By comparison, this spin-off feels both traditional and ironically radical, a compelling argument for a return to a purer, more imaginative brand of cinema. For the first time in three years (and probably for a while afterwards), we have a Star Wars film that genuinely emanates pride in being a Star Wars film, that embraces the series with all its blemishes, and that doesn’t arrogantly aim to erase the prequels from history. Last Jedi apologists or general skeptics may write this movie off as “unnecessary” or “shameless fan service”, both of which may be accurate descriptors, but assuming that cinema has declined into reactionary fan service, at least Solo serves from a place of love instead of from corporate apathy.

If George Lucas brought anything to the table that Solo lacks, it would be pathos. Irrespective of Episode 3’s animated clone troopers, dated anti-Bush commentary, and intermittent slapstick shenanigans, nothing in Star Wars history has begotten so many man-tears as Obi-Wan, when he famously stood over his bisected padawan and cried out in anguish, “You were my brother, Anakin! I loved you!” The closest that the prequels come to high cinema may be a wordless scene in which Anakin and Padme stare forlornly across the Coruscant skyline at sundown, isolated in their respective frames yet joined by a premonition of the unspeakable evil that is about to consume him.

Solo seems to pay homage to these images in its penultimate scene, but with a romance hastily concocted over an action-packed two hours, it simply can’t drudge up the same tragedy as Sith, which had an entire racing sports film and romantic comedy building up to it. In fact, Ron Howard’s film has nothing approaching emotional vulnerability at all, and that should not be mistaken for a fault. The cold and stoic exterior goes hand in hand with the theme of the film, which many people may deny on impulse but which readily presents itself to anyone who’s paying attention. Unlike the increasingly absurd episodes, which glorify outnumbered heroes who triumph by courage, sheer determination, and unearned brawn, Solo magnifies the less attractive underbelly of the Star Wars universe—the street urchins, the convicts, and the dispossessed outcasts, who have to rely on their wits to get ahead in an unforgiving world.

Some people have deplored the lack of a central character arc, but screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan shrewdly forgoes the origin story formula that has reached a point of pablum. This is not a film about Han blossoming from a selfish thief into a dutiful servant of justice and democracy. On the contrary, it’s a film about a world-wise Han preemptively cheating the scoundrels who would try to cheat him first, about a man who lives according to Locke’s state of nature and can’t afford to give strangers the benefit of the doubt. Han’s decisive act of shooting first doesn’t necessarily surprise, though it does seem a little edgy and counter-cultural for a Disney consumed with propagating niceness and tolerance. How this series went from a mantra of “Love Trumps Hate” to “Don’t Trust Anybody” in the span of one movie eludes my understanding, but Solo solidifies itself as the most non-Disney movie released in years.

Armond White has noted that the opening text of Solo references a Raymond Chandler essay on the prototypical hero of detective fiction. Coming from the writer-director of the acclaimed neo-noir Body Heat, this allusion can hardly be taken lightly. I’ve seen people try to make sense of Solo as a “space western” or “heist film”, and while it certainly has components of those genres, Kasdan’s work is best interpreted as a neo-noir, live-action cartoon, perhaps the very first of its kind. Even Emilia Clarke has said, with some scorn, that Lord & Miller had such a vision in mind. Critical consensus seems to hold that Bradford Young’s cinematography herein is really bad, because there aren’t a lot of light sources, people’s faces are obscured in shadow, and the environments look murky and ugly. I can sympathize with that notion, particularly in scenes of the bad guy’s unostentatious lounge, though I demur that the dimness is a deliberate and motivated choice. Just look at some of the screenshots below and tell me I’m stretching to find justification for my arbitrary genre of choice.

The noir embellishments of Solo extend beyond the visuals to the story itself, and especially to love interest Q’ira, who represents one of the most positive backslides for Disney as a whole. It’s been well documented by this point that the state of women in Disney’s Star Wars leaves much to be desired. Even with the prolific and successful Kathleen Kennedy in the producer’s chair, these films had long struggled to introduce a single interesting or grounded female character, being more focused on upending gender norms and providing “strong”, “independent” “role models” for the most lucrative demographic of Star Wars fans: teenage and pre-teenage girls. The Last Jedi took this transparent agenda to a distracting extreme, but not in a satirical or jesting way. Much like David Lynch, Rian Johnson stuck me with more questions than answers, questions like “Why are 80% of the Resistance fighters women?” or “Why are all of the men in Star Wars now impotent, effete, or impetuous, while all of the women are icons of perfection?” If this series is based a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, let alone one ravaged by war, then why was it starting to veer so closely to a 3rd-wave Feminist utopia?

When film students of the future are writing “research papers” on the Disney Wars that they hastily plagiarized from popular YouTube video-essayists, one attribute they’ll focus on is the near-total eradication of gender distinctions from the universe. Thereupon do I base my case that Solo is the most realistic and human Star Wars film since George Lucas lost creative control. Granted, Q’ira can’t remotely hold her own against the beguiling dames portrayed by Bacall or Stanwyck (or even against late-century femme fatales, e.g. Sean Young in Blade Runner), but her presence in the wayward Star Wars breaks new ground simply because Kasdan allows her to be human: morally dubious, manipulative, sultry, and sexual.

This being a modern action movie, the directors can’t resist the impulse to have her beat up several opponents with kung fu, but at least Solo offers some sort of explanation for her fighting prowess, unlike the episodic films, wherein Rey and Jyn Erso are naturally gifted at quelling trained and heavily-armed soldiers. Daisy Ridley responded to critiques of her indefatigable, flawless character by playing the Sex Card and insisting, “I don’t really believe in weaknesses in people.” Solo responded to such criticisms by creating an intriguing, original character who could conceivably shoulder a movie by herself. One can argue that Q’ira is underdeveloped due to the story’s limited point-of-view, but her greatest asset critically lies not so much in physical power as in her propensity to leverage charm and deceit to get ahead.

I contend that many of the Disney Wars’ problems can be credited to the nebulous existence of sexuality, which diminishes their urgency and palpability. Consider that The Force Awakens and Rogue One feature nearly identical scenes of a male sidekick trying to save a female protagonist who promptly proves his help unnecessary. Consider also that all the young stars are trapped in strictly platonic, grade-school friendships, and whenever they manage to exhibit more humanity than machines (I refer to the shirtless Kylo Ren meme and the stolen kiss in The Last Jedi), it feels awkward and discontinuous with the sexless void that is the Disney Cinematic Universe. Solo marks the first time in 9 hours of live-action Star Wars material that gender and reproductive activity evidently exist. The film not only acknowledges and plays upon the sex appeal of Clarke, Donald Glover, and Alden Ehrenrich, but also introduces the concept of nontraditional relationships in a comedic and risqué way that I was not at all expecting from Disney. A supporting character establishes that robot sex is very much a lifestyle choice in Star Wars, bringing the world closer to 21st century society than any episode since the prequels, which dealt extensively with slavery, terrorism, and republican government.

While Solo is demonstrably more grounded than its predecessors, showing among other things that Star Wars has its own breed of social-justice warriors rallying around “droid rights”, it also revels in the weirdness and extravagance that space-fantasy makes possible—hence my cartoon label. I briefly thought that The Last Jedi had the right idea when Luke Skywalker was extracting green milk from the teat of a bloated alien mammal, but most of that movie took place on a spaceship, and it ultimately retreated into familiar settings. Team Lord-Miller-Howard, however, consistently surprise with unorthodox art direction and dialogue, harking back to the ramshackle indie vibe of the original Star Wars. Take Han’s criminal overseer Lady Proxima, a grotesque ten-foot centipede who burns when exposed to sunlight, or any of the gamblers in the scene below. Indeed, this rendition of Star Wars has more in common with Douglas Adams or Valerian than with the stale and well-worn fan service that Disney repeatedly commissions.
© 2018 - Lucasfilm Ltd.

This is not to suggest that Solo is free of fan service. I reiterate that this is the most referential and self-enamored Star Wars film in years, to an extent that will either irritate or enthrall. The film doggedly strives to demystify almost every element of Han’s backstory, from how he got his surname to why he has a pair of dice hanging over the Falcon’s dashboard. The explanations it proffers are almost uniformly lame, some of them begging the question of whether the directors or the Kasdans were wryly belittling the very concept of corporate-mandated prequels. Considering Lord & Miller’s hyper-reflexive, satirical resume (including The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street), it makes sense that a spirit of good-natured trolling should infuse Solo: A Star Wars Story, for which it is all the better.

Nonetheless, it lacks the anarchistic fervor of The Last Jedi, referencing other Star Wars films with too much enthusiasm. There are, of course, many obligatory callbacks to the original trilogy, both spoken and visual; I particularly like the way they paid homage to the kiss between Han and Leia. What I appreciated even more were the multiple shameless references to the prequels, which less convicted directors have tried to sweep under the rug, fearing their unpopularity. More so than Rian Johnson, the creators here seemed to grasp the importance of judicial precedent in storytelling, which is why lines like, “Well negotiated!” or, “I’m gonna be the best pilot in the galaxy,” routinely rear their heads in this film. The cameo towards the ending may evince scoffs and derision, though it arguably marks the biggest leap for Star Wars going forward, raising the possibility of cinematic entries that aren’t anchored to the Empire-Rebellion conflict.

In fact, Solo feels more connected to entertainment history as a whole than most blockbusters in recent memory. Many of these parallels could be coincidental, but I caught myself flashing back to Starship Troopers, Paths of Glory, Spongebob Squarepants, Barry Lyndon, Mad Max: Fury Road, Uncharted 2, A.I., Forrest Gump, and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, roughly in that order. The presence of such allusions doesn’t inherently seal the movie as fantastic, but they do comprise a nice reward for those who’ve been closely following genre films over the years. Both in its broader associations and in its sheer density of Star Wars references, Solo is firmly addressed to long-time followers, more than to “the new generation of Star Wars fans” or to opportunistic Salon bloggers who obsessively scrutinize race or gender in casting.

While being a noble, old-fashioned effort for a post-Lucas Star Wars adventure, Solo struggles to attain greatness, mainly on account of its divided personality. A few years ago, Lord & Miller were two of Tinseltown’s most commercially viable directors, practically a god-send for Star Wars or any franchise. It’s unfortunate that their fast-paced, humorous interpretation had to be diluted with the relative blandness of Oscar-winner Ron Howard, who still manages to deliver some exhilarating action. The film was obviously rushed into theaters over a very short timeline, as the macro-editing isn’t even finished. “Smile is the word,” says Q’ira to Han before their paths diverge forever. “I smile whenever I’m on an adventure with you.” This confession is clearly meant to serve as a dramatic pay-off, a la, “My name is Max,” but the conversation setting up the unspoken word didn’t even make the final cut. Oops.

The film also feels pressured to shoehorn in a “voiceless” child soldiers subplot, which feels abundantly redundant after the last three Disney Wars. So superfluous are the Rebels in Solo that they could be substituted for stormtroopers in a single scene and then removed without impacting the plot, but that would require Kennedy to frame these stories on some other pedestal besides eternal political #Resistance.

Perhaps that’s asking too much innovation from the current Disney regime, but I myself will celebrate Solo’s persistence, in spite of the innumerable odds.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Listening to Homogenic in 2017

This weekend marks two of the most momentous occasions of 2017. For most of the English-speaking world, it is a time for rushing out to dying retailers and buying scads of normally overpriced consumer goods, but for the more snobbish vestiges of the internet at large, it symbolizes the arrival of the tenth international studio album by Björk (counting Selmasongs). Having refrained from listening to the Utopia leak, I must admit that Björk’s public activities have put a bit of a damper on my expectations, seeing as she first contributed an older song off Post to the benefit vinyl “7 Inches For Planned Parenthood”, which is basically tantamount to gloating over homicide, then joined the trite coming-out party on social media for sexual harassment enablers and faux victims. I’m not ashamed to report that allegations about the character of Lars Von Trier, withheld for 17 years and unsubstantiated, haven’t influenced my opinion of Dancer in the Dark.

No matter my misgivings about the present-day Björk, I still can’t help being awestruck by her finer moments, and with Utopia garnering so much early attention, now seems like the perfect time for reflecting on her pre-shill discography. Coincidentally, 2017 also affords a reason to celebrate 20 years of her most acclaimed album, Homogenic, which didn’t exactly alter the mainstream of pop or electronica but certainly formed a landmark in its artistic cohesiveness. Now I’m far from the first to single Homogenic out for praise, and none of this explication should prove novel to those already versed in Björk. Most of my generation, however, isn’t versed in her at all, and it’s with the intention of initiating such people that I’ll hereby proceed to rehash what I assume is a lot of fairly common knowledge.

I can’t remember the first Björk album that broke my indisposition towards her voice. As a freshman trying to develop a tolerance for some of the more eccentric artists commended by an older friend, I understandably enjoyed most of the singles from Debut, catchy as it is, and found most of her music from Medulla onward unbearable. Now I’ve reached such a plane of enlightenment that I can safely regard Medulla as her second-greatest album, but I had to learn how to like Homogenic first. In retrospect, Björk’s third album may do the most to ease in wary newcomers, who if nothing else can at least absorb themselves in its lush soundscapes.

Homogenic’s overarching theme is the merging of the organic and the mechanical, a characteristic conveyed in its production, lyrics, and especially its music videos. For all the quaint, racially based hoopla raised last year over Beyonce’s “visual album” Lemonade, I think it bears mentioning that Björk and her collaborators were doing the same thing two decades ago, on a more cerebral and mesmerizing level. Consider the then-groundbreaking video for All Is Full of Love, which in its pristine white visuals clearly passes as a precursor to I, Robot and Ex Machina. The symbolism is a tad on the nose: two humanoid robots pining for connection consummate their mutual desire in a kiss, but Björk’s haunting overlaid vocals elevate the material above its simple, science-fiction foundation. The music videos for Hunter and Joga extend the technological tapestry of the album, distorting images of the natural, i.e. Icelandic landscapes and Björk’s head, into some hybrid reality by the virtue of computer graphics.

Björk opens the record on a softly ascending, swirling beat that immediately presages a more complex album than Debut and Post, the latter of which blared into the listener’s consciousness with an aggressive trip-hop sound. Her singing first enters in the wind-like backing vocals, signifying that her voice itself is going to be a important instrument in defining the palette of Homogenic. On Hunter, Björk impresses on us a state of restless searching and detachment, which will pervade most of the songs to come. Homogenic defies easy comprehension as a concept album, but the majority of the tracks seem to be articulating vexation or regret over a distanced lover, making the parting, New Agey hymn All Is Full of Love that much more satisfying. Björk’s romantic depression manifests in conceits both poetic and tactile. “While you’re away / my heart comes undone / slowly unravels / in a ball of yarn,” she muses in an emotional, spacey song, the expressed favorite of Thom Yorke. The next song, written by Icelandic poet Sjōn, piles on the metaphors to a degree approaching glorious melodrama, and the music unabashedly follows suit. Björk fluctuates here between hushed appeals to a man who keeps leaving her in ruin and unrepressed wails on the outro. It’s rare to see predictable rhyme and meter observed so faithfully in her discography, yet Bachelorette nonetheless condenses all the pain that Björk has been feeling into several extraordinary couplets.
I’m a path of cinders burning under your feet /
You’re the one who walks me, I’m your one way street.

On the instrumental side, foreboding piano keys and industrial programming crash against each other like violent waves, joined eventually by a swooning string section and accordion. Björk may not have got her feet wet on film scoring until three years later, but the musical peaks of Homogenic—Joga, Bachelorette, and All Is Full of Love—sound more like self-contained movies than anything else she’s recorded.

But one should not infer from these that Homogenic is all intensity and gloom. Before long it applies its central strings-and-beats formula to tracks that range from reflective and monotonous (All Neon Like) to elated and buoyant (Alarm Call). On the latter of these, Björk revives a little of the dance flavor from her previous albums, all while reveling in her carefree emancipation: “It doesn’t scare me at all,” she repeatedly exults. The instrumentals here particularly highlight her and Mark Bell’s versatility with electronics. Whereas the textures in the first half of Homogenic were cold, at times cacophonous, in Alarm Call they seem to emulate the chirruping of birds.

I didn’t initially favor the ninth track Pluto, which computerizes Björk’s voice for the first time and clatters along on a frigid, electronic drum pattern, but now I’m convinced that the whole wouldn’t function quite as well without it. More than just a breakup lament or a dubiously prescient enactment of the artificial supplanting the natural, Homogenic works because of its meticulous balancing of contrasts, and if I never had to suffer the artist’s theatrical, warped moaning on Pluto, then the ending surely wouldn’t fill me with such bliss. Björk has created one of a select few ironclad records that I sincerely believe would enrich the state of western culture if every person listened to it once, and preferably twice. Some people will no doubt find Björk’s vocal styling unpleasant and shrill, as if they’re being musically assaulted, and to these people I can say, “Me too, I’ve been there.” But if Danish film directors have taught us anything, sometimes you have to put up with a little discomfort to reap the best rewards.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

We Did Some Research Into Spotify, And Here Are The Five Worst Hate Bands That Came Up

Article written by George Stefano Pallas. Musical illiteracy and shareability practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

Spotify. You use it, we use it, it seems like practically everybody uses it. For the paltry sum of more than $100 a year, people can rent an almost limitless selection of music that doesn’t include King Crimson, Tool, or many film soundtracks, a limitless selection from which they’ll listen to maybe a hundred tracks and blissfully ignore the rest. Whether one is working out, making out, or getting turned up, Spotify has a playlist for pretty much every mood, making it the primary streaming service to beat up to this point.

There’s no denying the power Spotify wields over a society that almost exclusively listens to music from the last six months, and with that staggering power comes a huge responsibility to the people. As any parent who reads blogs aimed at single, unemployed millennials should know, music is one of the most instrumental factors in sculpting developing minds, which often don’t reach full maturity until the child enters his or her mid-20s. Intellectual experts agree that media can have profound effects on consumers’ psycho-social growth, so it’s absolutely vital to control the messages that kids are exposed to during this vulnerable period.

Spotify has recently taken strides to thwart the surge of Nazism in a sharply divided America, removing from its platform dozens of White Supremacist artists whom the credible Southern Poverty Law Center formerly condemned as Hate Bands. This is a noble effort that we’re sadly unaccustomed to seeing from major tech corporations like Google or Twitter, which have struggled to crack down declaratively on violent speech, but when it comes to pointing out hatred and bigotry, there’s always so much more work that can be done. Accordingly, a team of journalists for The Author’s Files undertook an extensive investigation into Spotify’s catalog to identify extremist Hate Music the company may have missed. These are the five most egregious artists we came across in our study.

5. Run The Jewels
Photo by wiredforlego.

Run The Jewels are cited as one of the most cutting-edge duos in hip-hop culture, and in many ways they exceed the reputation. El-P couldn’t put out a fire beat if he tried, and Killer Mike stands at the forefront of hip-hop activism, writing socially conscious songs about how the 13th Amendment enables slavery and endorsing Bernie Sanders for president – how much cooler can someone get than that? Unfortunately, for all the good that both these poets have contributed to society, they’ve had some missteps that make them undeserving of Spotify’s recognition. The most notable of these occurs on their biggest single to date, Close Your Eyes and Count To F***. Raps Mike (verbatim from the liner notes):
Where my thuggers and my crippers and my blooders and my brothers
When you niggas gon unite and kill the police, motherf___ers?
And take over a jail
Give them COs hell
The burnin of the sulfur goddamn i love the smell
Now get to pillow torchin
Where the f___ the warden?
And when you find him we don’t kill him we just waterboard him
We killin them for freedom cause they tortured us for boredom
And even if some good ones die f___ it the lord will sort em

Run The Jewels have done a lot of positive things for the artistic advancement of their genre, but literally calling for the indiscriminate murder of police officers and rioting in prison isn’t one of them. In fact, one could even argue that it crossed a line of basic decency, and hearing hate speech being espoused by Killer Mike is all the more disappointing knowing how erudite he is.

4. The Chainsmokers
Photo by The Come Up Show.

The Chainsmokers nowadays are known mainly for sugary, harmless electropop that appeals to the broadest coalition of music fans. They’re also one of Spotify’s most valuable artists, laying claim to two of their 10 most-streamed tracks of all time. What few people remember is that The Chainsmokers started out as a mean-spirited Hate Band of the lowest order, employing brutal satire to disparage and harass people they don’t like, especially women.

The duo first landed on the map via their misogynistic anthem, #Selfie, which callously pandered to the lowest clichés of anti-feminism. The single in question cruelly mocks the insecurities of girls over their appearances, a daily struggle to which most men will never be able to relate. “So like, what do you think?” rambles the speaker on the track, a vapid valley girl who rains shallow judgment on party-goers. “Did you think that girl was pretty? How did that girl even get in here, do you see her? She’s so short and that dress is so tacky – who wears cheetah?” The Chainsmokers clearly fail to understand the societal pressures on women to be beautiful, but instead of acknowledging their male privilege and whiteness, they treat women’s desire for acceptance as an object of scorn and ridicule.

The track only gets more crude and disgusting as it gets to the third verse. “Is that guy sleeping over there?” the singer continues. “Yeah, the one next to the girl with no shoes on. That’s so ratchet! That girl is such a fake model, she definitely bought all her Instagram followers.” Not content to simply make a selfie-shaming song, making a joke out of women’s self-esteem, The Chainsmokers glorify slut-shaming and attempt to erase the immeasurable progress that’s been made on gender equality.

Between the radio, TV commercials, and college dance parties, The Chainsmokers are inescapable pretty much wherever one goes, but that doesn’t mean that Spotify has to condone their hate as well.

3. Ministry

With a name like Ministry, it’s not surprising that this group would attempt to stoke the flames of controversy. Ministry immediately evokes a wide range of traumatizing religious terrorism, from the Islamophobic, blood-soaked Crusades to the innately Christian heritage of the KKK, but that’s not the full extent of their toxic prejudice.

The group started out a relatively innocuous synthpop act, riding the coattails of popular bands like New Order and Talking Heads, but when Ronald Reagan was elected president twice in a row, it emboldened them to bare their true colors and turn their music into a deadly weapon. Ministry officially reformed as an “industrial-metal” band at the nadir of the Reagan era, combining the well-documented white nationalism of heavy metal and the virulent fascism of the industrial genre, which arose out of the Greedy 80s and was a celebratory ode to the inhuman working conditions of the industrial revolution.

The first album the Hate Band put out under their new style was The Land of Rape and Honey, another reference to Old Testament fundamentalism and to the neo-Nazi tenet of divine selection, a.k.a. “the promised land”. In 1990, the band recorded a live version of the opening track, Stigmata, which climaxes in a profanity-laden attack on numerous minorities. For more than a minute Alan Jourgensen howls obscenities into a crowd, riling them into a frenzy of hate and rage. We’ve condensed this portion of the song for brevity and for the comfort of our readers.
F___ you! … F___ everyone!
F___ the church! F___ Jesus! …
F___ the Jews! F___ the Buddhists!
F___ the Hindus! F___ George Bush!
F___ his ugly wife! F___ Tipper Gore! …
F___ Gorbachev! … F___ all these a__holes!

Hate speech is not a victimless crime, and Ministry have made it a mission to wound as many people as possible with their words. Hopefully Spotify will take steps to prevent them from marginalizing any other defenseless groups.

2. Sublime

Now we know what a lot of you are thinking. Bradley Nowell died and Sublime stopped recording more than 20 years ago, so what’s the point in trying to suppress their music today? “Just let Bradley rest in peace,” fans might say, “He can’t hurt anybody anymore.” To some this would sound like a very common-sense proposal. After all, music does have cultural and historical value, and how is censoring music one doesn’t like any different than right-wing Nazis burning books, or uptight parents banning them from schools?

Unfortunately, Bradley’s crude and disgusting lyrics still have the potential to seduce the uneducated, which makes it all the more imperative to keep them in the shadows where they belong. Consider his notorious, self-loathing radio hit Date Rape, in which he perpetuates rape culture by saying that he “would never get laid” otherwise, or Wrong Way, in which he calls a 12-year-old girl named Annie a “whore” and gloatingly admits to taking advantage of her.

When it comes to Sublime’s problematic lyrics, though, nothing takes the cake more than April 29, 1992 (Miami), a graphic reconstruction of the L.A. riots wherein Bradley recklessly urges peaceful protestors to retaliate with violence. “But if you look at the streets,” he sings, “It wasn’t about Rodney King, in this f___ed-up situation and these f___ed-up police. It’s about coming up and staying on top and screaming 187 on a motherf___ing cop!”

A 1-8-7, for those who don’t know, is police code for a murder, homicide, or execution. In other words, Sublime is inciting violence against a group of state workers based on nothing more than their profession – the definition of hate speech. Would Spotify’s partners really approve of their advertisements being run on top of such objectionable Hate Music as Sublime’s?

1. Kendrick Duckworth Lamar

Kendrick Lamar needs no introduction. By far the most revered and musically progressive artist working in his genre today, or perhaps in all of music, he’s reaped resounding accolades from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Anthony Fantano, and even President Obama. At the same time, Kendrick has curried more controversy than pretty much any other recording artist, basically embodying an inversion of Kanye West. Whereas the latter has reveled in proudly Black, self-worshipping bangers like I Am A God, Jesus Walks, and Runaway, Kendrick has made a career out of self-loathing, subtly regressive songs that appear to promote Black Lives Matter but actually slander it.

Case in point: the penultimate track on his landmark, 79-minute record To Pimp A Butterfly, titled The Blacker The Berry. As in much of his art, Kendrick slyly inoculates himself against criticism, disguising his internalized racism as a denouncement of hate. “You hate me don’t you?” he repeatedly snaps. “You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture!” This refrain alone has convinced many critics – Brian Mooney among them – of the artist’s good intentions, but when one reads the lyrics more closely, Kendrick is telling a far different narrative. He once refers to himself as a “proud monkey”, casually dehumanizing people of his ethnicity, while he calls himself a hypocrite a total of four times. As the hip-hop rhythms dwindle, Kendrick’s isolated vocals takes on a new urgency, taking aim at Black culture itself and all of its most cherished traditions, including Black History Month and diversity in Hollywood.
So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State, “Marcus Garvey got all the answers,”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important

Yet Kendrick’s crashing wave of hate rolls on, taking a radically subversive turn in the last verse, when he abruptly draws a false equivalency between institutionalized racism and the specter of black-on-black crime.
It’s funny how Zulu and Xhosa might go to war
Two tribal armies that want to build and destroy
Remind me of these Compton Crip gangs that live next door…
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?

In one fell swoop Kendrick brushes aside the social significance of Trayvon Martin, a one-armed, black teenager who was murdered by a White-Hispanic neighborhood watchman and never received justice through a jury of his peers. Whether by accident or by design, The Blacker The Berry exonerates a system that persecutes blacks by suggesting that blacks persecute themselves, which somehow makes systemic police brutality OK.

The music of Kendrick Lamar isn’t going away anytime soon, and will probably wreak damage against downtrodden communities for years to come. Spotify cannot hope to silence him completely, but they can refuse to act as hosts for him, or any other Hate Artists of his kind.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Overlooked Asian Movies: Devdas, Metropolis, As Tears Go By

Devdas (2002)

Earlier in the spring, I told a friend I aspired to watch more movies hailing from India, not because of some trendy commitment to physical diversity or because Indians are aggressively marginalized as a minority – Lord knows Asian-Americans are the most overlooked opportunity for virtue signaling in the nation – but because I’m fascinated by the massive variance in filmmaking techniques around the world. The first stop on my tour guide through the region was the much-lauded Apu trilogy, actually originating from Bengal and resurrected by the good film fans at the Criterion Collection. I muscled through this 5.5-hour epic with a fellow tourist of short patience, who was staunchly fixated on sores like a repetitive soundtrack and remained unmoved by its depictions of maturity, loss, and life lived in accordance with simplicity. I appreciated the series as a whole, even though it died out (literally and figuratively) towards its end, but wouldn’t remotely call it emblematic of “Bollywood”, per my stereotypical understanding of it.  Clearly this wasn’t the key text for such sprawling crowd-pleasers as Slumdog Millionaire or Moulin Rouge, both made by western directors who were inspired to imitate the country’s cinema.

Fortunately enough, an Edwards multiplex in my mostly Caucasian area makes an inexplicable habit of showing Indian blockbusters every couple weeks, and so I drove out on a whim one night to catch a film from 2002 I’d never heard brought up in any forum. Devdas clocks in over three hours long with intermission – absolutely unfathomable for any American musical – and runs about an hour longer than any of the Apu movies, but feels less laborious than any of them. Just in terms of being compulsively watchable, it may surpass every film that stretches on so long, but lost in the nearly nonexistent conversation surrounding it is the wallop of cinematic splendor that its director lays over an extremely sappy story.

In its form, Devdas defies comparison to pretty much any American film besides Titanic, but content-wise it basically resembles an extremely expensive Hallmark or edgier Lifetime movie, focusing on love triangles, generational conflict, and class division. The story is much too complicated to recount accurately several weeks after watching it, but the plot heavily depends upon such familiar tropes as alcohol addiction, unreturned letters, avaricious siblings, unsympathetic parents, and arranged marriage, one of which is not as endemic to American entertainment. What raises Devdas on paper above and apart from standard made-for-TV fare is the immense verve with which it treats its subject matter, never once succumbing to condescension or laziness. There’s not an inkling of cynicism to be found in the movie’s monstrous length, and one can sense vicariously through the screen that Sanjay Leela Bhansali is fully invested in the star-crossed lovers’ fate. The creators’ empathy even touches archetypes who are stereotypically slighted, specifically a courtesan vying for Devdas’ love, depicted here as a lonely and compassionate soul rather than a jealous whore (as many characters malign her).

I get the impression that many self-tokened cinephiles dismiss Bollywood as a movement, either because traditional media ignore it altogether, because the posters look unappealing, or because they perceive it as uniformly ‘cheesy’. If sincerity is sufficient grounds to convict something of cheesiness, then Devdas definitely reeks of cheese, and should be considered all the bolder for it. One can draw a teachable contrast between this and La La Land, another film lauded for an ostensibly surprising ending that doesn’t really shock in retrospect. Damien Chazelle orchestrates his picture with a prevailing spirit of distance and elitist enlightenment; he isn’t fashioning a conventional musical so much as a commentary on classic MGM musicals, thinly veiled as just the thing he’s taking apart. I second Mark Steyn’s assessment of the film, calling it a “half-hearted semi-musical” by an author who doesn’t believe in the versatility of the form, and the twist ending of La La Land doesn’t register as much of a twist once one realizes how Chazelle has been skewering musicals all along. Unlike the newer movie, Devdas doesn’t deliberately slip out of musical mode halfway through to make a snobbish point about the harsh onset of reality. In fact, the movie commits even harder to the musical routine as it chugs along, reaching for ever greater emotional heights. Bhansali not only includes a drinking song as the last in the soundtrack but plays it completely straight, provoking laughs while shedding light on how far the alcoholic singer has fallen from grace. Devdas’ coincidence of mirth and seriousness reels viewers into a lengthy tale of unsanctioned love, and its over-the-top finale feels genuinely affecting having established that connection.

Notwithstanding its fairly formulaic narrative, the film is bursting with extravagant flourishes to make the most bombastic Michael Bay production look relatively restrained. The costumes and sets are gorgeously realized, of course, and the camera impressively remains in near-constant motion. The editing masks the runtime quite efficiently and makes creative use of match transitions, though the presentation is somewhat marred by ‘hard’ audio cuts-out that seem like they were plucked from an older movie. Otherwise the sound mixing is fantastic, and decidedly non-Hollywood. Instead of enlisting musically untrained actors to provide the soundtrack, as is the custom of today, Devdas delegates the responsibility to a different set of professional singers, soaks their recordings in reverb, and allows the cast to lip sync while emoting and dancing. As a result, the musical numbers relish their fakeness and come across as larger than life, averting the periodic plague of blatant over-dubbing that surfaces in La La Land or other movies sung by their casts that want to be taken as realistic. Seeing this in optimal viewing conditions with blaring surround sound, I sometimes neared a state of euphoria I hadn’t experienced since Arrival.

If there’s one word to encapsulate the effect of Devdas, it would be euphoric. As cheesy as it sounds, the film immerses people in a rush of Pure Movie Magic, and how could anyone fault it for that? Would that there was a respectable home video release to replicate my experience, but Devdas is pretty much out-of-print and can only be rented via arguably unethical sources like Google or Amazon. Even the subtitles in the theater seemed to have been translated literally by a first-year Hindi student who didn’t bother to make the English idiomatic (characters say, “Only if such and such…” when in English they’d say, “If only such and such…”).

On the bright side, this is the type of the story one can follow with or without understanding a word of dialogue, which might explain why Hallmark movies continue to find their crowds.

Metropolis (2001)

I’ve seen a lot of people online erroneously classify the Japanese anime Metropolis as a remake or homage to the silent film Metropolis, which nobody I know in person has seen. Perhaps they’ve been led to believe this because the movie is named Metropolis, and it’s inconceivable to them that a movie about a metropolis wouldn’t be related to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but the 2001 film is actually based upon a 52-year-old manga written by Osamu Tezuka, who never saw more than a still image from the 1927 one.

Regardless of inspiration, it’d be more fitting to peg the Madhouse production as an accidental remake of Akira, written by the same man who made Akira.  Self-plagiarism is real, alack and alas, and in Metropolis it’s working overtime. Consider that both movies are set in vaguely constructed future worlds, both incorporate corrupt bureaucratic officials abusing science, both concern the doomed friendship of teenagers on the run from the military, and both abruptly escalate to an explosive climax in which a super-powered mutant/cyborg unleashes chaos on the city in retribution. Maybe it’s unfair to knock Metropolis-the movie for this, considering that the comic series predated Akira by three decades, but Katsuhiro Otomo’s script still doesn’t deviate much from well-tested narrative structures: this is basically a cyberpunk amalgamation of Blade Runner and King Kong, the overlap becoming especially blatant in the last eight minutes.

Most of the praiseworthy attributes in Metropolis can be traced to its aesthetics. Tezuka more famously created the Astro Boy series, and the characters herein share the same rounded, wide-eyed features that place them firmly in cartoon land. The art designers deserve the utmost credit for imbuing each model with distinctive and immediately telling characteristics. Metropolis is an adult-oriented movie that has no moral qualms about teaching viewers to profile people by appearances; the scrawny, Boy Scout-ish good guys look like good guys, while the beak-nosed, sunglass-toting bad guys look like bad guys. The city itself has magnificent depth, stretching from a prosperous and colorful surface district overrun by levitating cars to a dingy, industrial underworld populated mostly by repurposed, robotic trash cans. Director Rintaro keeps a rather leisurely pace, content to wander about the metropolis’ many levels for the first hour, but injects just enough chases to sustain interest. For its lighting, hand-drawn animation, and grandeur alone, Metropolis more than justifies itself to a narrow demographic of animation devotees.

What makes Metropolis a vertically segmented film as opposed to the broadly appealing Devdas is its disjointed worldbuilding and preoccupation with sci-fi clichés over telling a compelling story. A hefty chunk of the middle act deals with left-wing “revolutionaries” leading a coup against the “fascist” government of Duke Red, in order to restore “the rule of law” and be recognized as a proper political party, but Otomo doesn’t visualize how any of the rabble are being oppressed, or even articulate what the ruling class’ policies are. Trying to pick apart the movie’s setting poses even more of a challenge in 2017, when our language has trivialized political terms like “fascist” to the point of making them vacuous. The rest of Metropolis wants to make audiences ponder over “robot rights” and the ethics of “robot labor”, without really developing a single robot character. The themes that come to dominate the film have been discussed so much better in so many other pictures that their inclusion in the anime feels rote and trite, like a tacked-on plea for legitimacy from American critics that wasn’t ever needed.

Rintaro and Otomo thus compose a beautiful and confounding shell of a motion picture, one that’s sure to alienate casual moviegoers but leaves on such a high note that fans of anime will readily forgive it. Akira and Metropolis are interchangeable in many ways – their stories, their visuals, their characters who constantly cry each other’s names in anguish – but for all the things the latter carries over, it misses the element of tragedy and unchained adolescence that’s made Akira a grandiose, disturbing classic.

As Tears Go By (1988)

Danny Boyle once remarked that the best film any director will make is his first one, precisely due to the imperfection of it. So reasoned the British director:
It may not be your most successful or your technically most accomplished, whatever.  It is your best film in a way because you never, ever get close to that feeling of not knowing what you’re doing again. It's guesswork, inventiveness and freshness that you never get again… The Coen brothers are geniuses, but they never made a film as good as Blood Simple.

Boyle is right to sing the praises of Blood Simple, a 96-minute beast of a movie that requires no defense, but As Tears Go By also makes a pretty sturdy pillar for his hypothesis. Wong Kar-Wai has gained a reputation in western media as a romantically-minded genius, mainly celebrated for leisurely, moody art pictures like In the Mood For Love, but Tears stands out as the kinetic, scattershot work of someone who’s still fermenting his style and eager to announce his presence to the world. It’s undeniably sloppy, but the shortcomings here are exactly what make Early Wong so likeable and entertaining, more so than the languid, critic-proof dramas he turned to making after Chunking Express.

The story, for those to whom it matters, concerns a mobster named Wah who’s attempting to balance his girlfriend woes with a hazardous lifestyle that frankly can’t sustain itself. One day he gets a call that his cousin will be staying at his place, which ultimately leads to a taut relationship that I’ll presume is much less controversial in Hong Kong than it would be in America. The narrative unfolds through a series of repetitive, increasingly violent bouts with rival gangsters, from which the protagonist has to whisk away his younger brother all while he feels drawn to leave the criminal life. As in Devdas, the movie primarily occupies a kind of fantasy land of the director’s imagining, wherein emotions are heightened and consequences downplayed, but a final act pivot takes the story in a direction that seems at first unsatisfying, yet inevitable.

If we’re being brutally honest, storytelling generally falls secondary to Wong Kar-Wai’s singular visual impulse, and why would he have it any other way? Critics love to prostrate themselves before the ambiguous or inscrutable for the sake of looking more perceptive, so Wong has shrewdly produced a string of pictures that eschew traditional narratives and don’t challenge his viewers’ expectations. Nearly 30 years ago, however, the man directed a relatively linear story that also retained the visual flourishes bound to become his signature. As Tears Go By, consequently, may be his most engaging and spirited creation, uncorrupted by artistic snobbery or melancholic brooding over detachment, the latter of which characterizes nearly all his later output.

If nothing else, and even if one deems the premise in poor taste, it’s simply a joy to watch a director flawlessly navigate and synthesize so many disparate genres. Part of the film is clearly taking after John Woo, besting all Wong’s other pictures for the sheer frequency of fists being thrown on screen. His favored step-printing technique (which reduces the frame rate and blurs the image for artistic effect) often distracts in his more grounded tales, but feels right at home in Tears, giving a vicious and strained quality to the action. When the violence abates, though, the film starts to play as an earnest romance, reaching peak melodrama in a glorious, nearly wordless sequence that’s scored to a cover of Take My Breath Away. At other points, Tears functions like a goofy parody of The Godfather or other American gangster films, which makes the ending even more of a left field closer.

The tension between the romantic and criminal sides of this madcap movie directly ties into its main theme, if Wong had one in mind.  Like a lot of Japanese and Chinese cinema, particularly in the gangster genre, As Tears Go By shows a concern with masculinity and femininity in modern society, juxtaposing the aggressiveness and impulsivity of its male characters with the fleeting tenderness of its female ones.  Wong certainly goes out of his way to showcase Maggie Cheung’s luminous beauty, and none of the men adhere to metrosexual ideals.  The film wouldn’t be all that smart if the paradigms merely stopped at gender, but I’d argue that they stand for more.  Andy Lau’s opposed allegiances, to his little brother and his cousin, don’t just symbolize a choice between two lives: a hard one and a stable one, one marked by competition, the other by love.  They symbolize a choice between youthfulness and maturity, the former being spent in isolation or platonic friendship, the latter in committed marital harmony.

Underneath the obvious generic dressings, this is at its core a coming-of-age story, reinforced by the vocabulary of the film itself. On one hand, the protagonist has his fraternal and filial duties to carry out, both in service to people who may or may not be related to him by blood (“The Godfather” figure and his “little brother”, which could be a term of endearment). On the other hand, he feels an irrepressible attraction to multiple women, with whom he might start an actual family of his own instead of idling his days away in the mock-family construct of the mob. Far more than just time-filler, Wah’s ex-girlfriend performs an indispensible part in his character arc. The uncomfortable scene where the two meet in the pouring rain and Mabel reveals that she’s married is brimming with Wong’s stylistic hallmarks, yet it also signifies a kind of epiphany for the hero, that the friends he’s grown up with are entering adulthood and leaving him in their wake. As Tears Go By presents several opportunities for Andy Lau to leave the quagmire of his youth, and how he deals with them forms the heart of the movie’s drama.

Wong’s first directing foray is certainly uneven and slapdash, the invention of a former screenwriter who’s still figuring out the craft. Its lack of precision may pose stumbling blocks to those who celebrate In The Mood For Love, which is more pristine and pruned to a degree that none can sneer at it, but the infectious energy and imbalance of As Tears Go By make it the creator’s most accessible and meaningful expression, a colorful, neon-drenched Blood Simple for a Romantic auteur.