Saturday, June 28, 2014

Mars Attacks – Realism and Liberalism

Of the two cornball alien invasion movies to defile our cinemas the year of 1996, one grossed enough money to firmly cement its legacy in American pop culture and acquire a sequel nearly twenty years after the unfortunate day it reared its head; the other, alack and alas, was sentenced to wistful anonymity for much of the same period, baring eking out its monumental production costs by the end of its run and attaining only a slim following.  The former unpatriotic disgrace, ironically known as Independence Day or ID4 and brought to us courtesy of director Roland Emmerich, Will Smith, and Jeff Goldblum in a role he should regret to the grave, is unquestionably one of the stupidest movies I’ve ever seen and, by the same token, one of the most uproarious.  The emotional peak of the sci-fi film, which would eventually become a staple of the genre as highlighted in recent endeavors like Avatar and Pacific Rim, is defined by a rousing and poetic call to battle delivered by President Bill Pullman, an exhortation for “mankind – that word should have new meaning for all of us today –” to lay aside their “petty differences” and “unite in our common interest” to defeat an enemy of life itself, “to fight for our freedom… from annihilation, for our right to live, to exist”.
Should we win this fight, The Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night!  We will not vanish without a fight!  We’re going to live on!  We’re going to survive!”

ID4 is all too frequently mistaken as some kind of right-wing, jingoistic ode to American nationalism, when in fact it’s just the opposite, loudly trumpeting a laughable message of multiculturalism and an idealistic philosophy that human beings, when subjected to extraordinary pressure and trying circumstances, naturally rally to effect cooperative solutions rather than naturally splinter and mobilize to devour one another out of self-preservation.  A fantasy of liberal foreign policy distinguished by a glowing optimism in the durability of the human spirit, it shows us humanity not as it is but as the director imagines it to be, and does so convincingly enough that its tomfoolery has even reeled “Progressive” icons like Hillary Clinton into citing its fictionalized events as scientific proof of their Pacifism.

The latter invasion movie, an exclamatory satire of American political inefficacy entitled Mars Attacks!, also climaxes with a memorable calling for solidarity by the leader of the free world, but unlike President Bill Pullman’s admirably portrayed and carefully prepared pep talk, President Jack Nicholson’s appeals are purposely frazzled and contrived, brimming with political talking points and so hammily delivered by the tactful actor that they sound like the speech of a madman or a stoner.  Nicholson chides a party of three Martian warlords as if trying to reason with a class of disobedient children, inquiring in pithy, 3rd-grade fragments:
Why are you doing this?  Why?  Isn’t the universe big enough for both of us?  Why be enemies?  Because we’re different?  Is that why?  We could work together.  Think of the things that we could do; think how strong we would be.  Earth… and Mars, together!  There is nothing that we cannot accomplish.  Think about it… think about it.  Why destroy… when you can create?  We can have it all… or we can smash it all.  Why can’t we forget our differences; why can’t we work things out?  Little people… why can’t we all just get along?

Naturally enough, this dazzling oratory – this extemporaneous entreaty for togetherness and teamwork – reduces the foreign dignitaries to tears, prompting their leader to offer his right hand in peace, a gesture Nicholson proudly reciprocates, deeming this groundbreaking diplomatic settlement yet another victory for his administration.  But lo, the alien’s arm breaks away and scuttles around the unsuspecting president’s body like a spider, plunging its barbed tail straight through his back and raising a flag from his chest where he lies sprawled on the office floor.  All his efforts to negotiate with and appease the sworn enemies of his nation only result in his shockingly brutal and darkly comical demise.

Mars Attacks! is not just the artistic superior of Independence Day, delivering more exciting action and intriguing special effects with an emphasis on miniatures and intentionally crude-looking CGI, but its ideological antithesis in every conceivable way, gleefully deriding nearly every figure that Emmerich’s product had romanticized and exalted six months earlier.  As a comedy, though, it’s only rarely funny, while ID4 is a deadly serious action movie that continually provokes unplanned laughs.  In essence, the latter turns the old maxim on its head to demonstrate that all good humor is rooted in a separation from truth.  Mars Attacks!, being a snidely intelligent study of many Americans’ self-loathing and sympathy for those barbarians who would destroy them, advances a theory of Realism that makes it a very grim and humorless viewing experience in spite of its cartoony appearance, comedy, and camp; ID4, being a fundamentally absurd and blissfully ignorant Humanistic tirade, sponsors a foreign policy of Liberalism that renders its director’s aspirations to tell a moving war story thoroughly ridiculous to spectators.  It’s hard to chuckle at the one when it so harshly parodies our administration’s ineptitude, but it’s impossible to take the other sincerely when it distorts its heroes and humanity itself into godlike paragons of righteousness – united in the best of times, resilient in the worst, mutually respectful, stable, and cooperative.

Whereas most alien invasion saga assume an us-vs.-them backdrop where humans and aliens alike are fully committed to the extinction of the other, Mars Attacks! postulates a scenario where intellectuals, journalists, and officials are less concerned with finding and enacting the best strategy of repelling invasion than with proving their own culpability in the aliens’ violence.  Pierce Brosnan plays a professor (read “scientist” or “expert”) Donald Kessler who refuses to entertain the racist notion that such a technologically advanced, well organized, and visibly brainy people as the Martians could possibly have come with malign intent.  “Logic dictates that, given their extremely high level of technical development, they are an advanced culture, therefore peaceful and enlightened,” he lectures Nicholson in a White House conference. “The human race, on the other hand, is an aggressively dangerous species.  I suspect they have more to fear from us than we from them.”

Even after the Martians decimate the American welcoming committee, he urges the President to withhold from striking back, babbling that the invaders’ decision to fire their laser beams on U.S. soldiers was probably motivated by a “cultural misunderstanding” over a hippie who released a dove into the air, to which 15-year-old First Daughter Natalie Portman (in one of her first and, fittingly for this project, worst performances) helpfully pipes up, “Yeah, maybe to them doves mean war.”  Up until the moment they bear him away for experimental purposes, the Professor retains an unwavering trust in the Martians’ rationality and good will, believing to the end that he and his countrymen, not the bloodthirsty, lawless marauders, are the source of all the world’s problems.

Just so, the U.S. State Department and its minions in the media instinctively scramble to link acts of terrorism by real aliens with American foreign policy or constitutional liberty, as we’ve observed respectively with the Boston Marathon bombing, which networks first baselessly blamed on “right-wing extremists” angry over tax day before pointing to U.S. intervention in Iraq, and with the assault on the Benghazi embassy, which officials at all levels of the government infamously passed off as a spontaneous protest against an amateur movie trailer posted on Youtube.  Our government’s jerk reaction to any outbreak of violence is not to condemn and counteract but to examine and explain, to uncover not just “who did this” but also “why”, with the purpose of reforming American society so that the attackers won’t feel a compulsion to strike in the future.  The fault never lies with the aggressors, whose beautiful faith and rich culture, we’re told, clearly forbid the use of violence, but with the victims of aggression for provoking them to righteous retaliation.

So the Pacifists proclaim: truly we have less to fear from the Taliban and al-Qaeda than they have to fear from us westerners, rampaging across their lands and devastating their homes with supposedly indiscriminate drone strikes that give rise to the popular idea of “homegrown terrorism” subscribed to by the president himself.  As recently as last month in a much maligned speech to West Point Military Academy graduates, Obama suggested that the U.S. may be responsible for much of the anti-American sentiment abroad, saying, “We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield,” and adding in a later address, “We have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat – one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stir up local resentments.”  Early on in his presidency, when any hope may still have persisted that the Great Unifier legitimately planned to fulfill his promise of closing Guantanamo Bay, Obama dubbed the detention center a “symbol that helped Al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause” and “a rallying cry for our enemies”, drawing the sweeping conclusion that, “The existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained… the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American natural security.”

In the Liberal worldview of Professor Brosnan and President Obama, extended diplomatic relations between powers with competing interests is not just a desirable proposition but an altogether feasible one, and the only impediment to maintaining such relations stems from rigidly defensive and untrusting actions by one power.  In the worlds of both Obama and the professor, this willfully blind philosophy has propelled the decline of civil society and order the whole world over.  As political puppet John Kerry fiddles with an impossible agenda to unite first-world countries under a sadomasochistic Global Warming protocol, scolds jihadists for their wanton and juvenile commitment to sowing chaos, dines with Syrian overlord Bashar Assad, and begs other countries to refrain from arming radical Islamists, a standing Muslim army is subjugating regions the U.S. fought tirelessly to liberate for the better part of a decade, Iran is continuing to enrich uranium into bomb-grade material, and the Russian Prime Minister is amassing troops along the border of Ukraine.  All the while, the President of the United States neither ignores these crises nor makes a concerted attempt to rectify them, but vainly “reaches out” and talks to other leaders he expects will fix the matter for him upon their honor as selfless and incorruptible human beings.

Incidentally, the president of Mars Attacks! isn’t that far removed from our own, placing a greater value on rhetoric, the semblance of moderation, and publically appearing to solve a problem than on actually solving anything.  Independence Day gives us a larger-than-life portrait of a titanic leader who not only rouses the human race into a heroic stand against evil but even boldly leads the charge himself.  “I’m a combat pilot,” he drawls in one of the cheesiest quotes of all time.  “I belong in the air.”  Mars Attacks!, on the other hand, realistically portrays the president as a sheltered wimp and strategic stooge, ever subject to manipulation by his ignorant advisors and family while ordering his (admittedly unhinged) general to “Shut up.  Shut up.  SHUT… UP!”  The commander-in-chief of Mars Attacks! is shown as one who’s never governing but always being governed, asking his wife for military counsel, inviting his teenage daughter to sit in on important deliberative meetings, and eventually groveling before his enemies in a desperate appeal for peace and coexistence.  In the same way, our own president often takes a backseat to his dictatorial wife, who wages a belligerent war on that “biggest national security threat” of obesity, and to his girls, who haven’t yet reached voting age but nevertheless manage to shape around the dinner table what the president calls his “evolving views” on homosexual marriage.

That the whole cast consists of mega-stars and throwaway cameos makes the irony of each character’s false nobility even more hilarious.  Martin Short’s Stephanopoulos-like Press Secretary is privately a lascivious philanderer, bidding loose women he fancies on “personalized” midnight tours through the White House that culminate with an intimate stop in the aptly titled “Kennedy Room”.  Sarah Jessica Parker is a bubble-headed TV reporter who cultivates an amorous fascination with the elitist professor, one she refuses to release even after her head has been mounted on the body of a chihuahua.  Whereas Jeff Goldblum’s responsible and suave scientist in ID4 casually preaches a mantra of recycling (“You know how I’m always trying to save the planet…”), Mars Attacks! repeatedly maligns the Environmentalist agenda and its preoccupation with earthy over human welfare.  “I guess, like, now we just have to start over and start rebuilding everything, like our houses, but I was thinking maybe instead of houses we could live in teepees, ’cause it’s better in a lot of ways,” says dorky misfit Richie without finishing his line of thought in an acceptance speech preceded by a multi-cultural Mariachi version of the national anthem.

Typically of a liberal picture, ID4 casts not just a warrior president as humanity’s savior but also a stereotypical black dude dating a resourceful single mother who makes ends meet as a self-described “exotic dancer”.  In Mars Attacks!, the ultimate redeemer of mankind, the one who gets the girl, and one of the only major characters to make it through alive is neither a politician nor a soldier nor a scientist but a dimwitted country boy who does nothing for the entire picture and only discovers how to defeat the Martians by sheer coincidence.  This upsetting resolution is the film’s harshest blow to moviegoers.  In the end, man is saved neither by the brilliance of his leaders nor by a kindred spirit binding all his fractured nations, but merely by a stroke of dumb luck.  Contrarily, every single measure by which human civilization traditionally overcomes in these movies – every call for unity, every empty summons to battle, every pretentious plea for us to “put aside our differences”, “work together”, and “just get along” – in effect leads only to the savage, sometimes graphic, and well-deserved deaths of its proponents.

A cynical, morbid, and pessimistic parable of philosophical Realism, Mars Attacks! would be great comedy if it didn’t so closely mirror real-world conflicts and the ill-fated doctrine of appeasement that has enraptured Neville Chamberlain, Jimmy Carter, and now Barack Obama.  Independence Day will always be immensely more popular due to its optimistic and childlike faith in human endurance, but Tim Burton’s film is an eminently shrewder and more intelligent work, posing a keener understanding both of the corruption inherent to all governments and of the perpetual anarchy underlying foreign relations.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Author's Americana-indie-acoustic-country-folk-rock-hop-Playlist – pt. 2

Continuing The Author’s Files Folk and Awesome arc.

Scarlet Letters Album by Taylor Swift

Eight years, four studio albums, several singles that got played too many times, and a lot of gossipy tabloid publicity into her fairly illustrious career, I finally convinced myself to take a gamble on a Taylor Swift album after hearing I Knew You Were Trouble and Everything Has Changed on the radio.  One of these songs piqued my interest in hearing the rest of Swift’s offerings while the other made me want to run as far from them as possible, but we’ll get to that in due course.  In any case, the former impulse thankfully prevailed and I became an official latecomer to the fan club after growing up in the company of several avowed Swifties who may have let their imaginations get away from them and succumbed to the scientifically documented dysfunction of irrational celebrity-muse-crush-syndrome.

You’re probably thinking like Bugs Bunny right now: what a bunch of maroons!  How could any of them naïvely assume that such a desirable and well regarded noblewoman would even given them a second glance?  I would never fall victim to that kind of delusion.  But this is exactly what happened to my friends, who indulged their fantasies to such a degree that they gleefully memorized every line of her every album – every album that is, except the latest one, which many of her older fans reviled as a betrayal of her Nashville country origins and which I have one friend on record as calling a “piece of crap”, or something along those lines.  His evaluation was right to a certain extent, as a select few of Red’s 16 songs are little more than overly engineered, noisy, lyrically vapid crap, but Swift has still assembled a generally traditional, joyful, and well crafted collection of songs.  Red isn’t wholly pop or country in tone, nor does it attempt to meticulously recreate the many breakups and makeups she’s undergone just to placate her stalkers’ prying intrigue (which I as a cynical outsider had admittedly been expecting from my pre-conceived stereotypes), but it’s a kind of intersection of many styles and themes that’s worded with integrity (so far as I can tell, which isn’t far because I’m not a Swiftie), sung with feeling, and painted in daring, astonishing red

I don’t know what the heck that means either, but apparently it symbolizes something really doubleplusimportant to Taylor, what with all the emphasis she places on this “red” love in the disc’s appended lyric booklet.  Flipping through this and setting the needle on the record CD player, I confronted some onsets of proportionally doubleplusuncomfortable guilt, partially because I knew this thing was made mainly for lovestruck girls, partially because Taylor Swift is wearing way too much makeup in the booklet, which I’d knowingly spent good money on even as a member of the makeup-free community (and there is a community), but primarily because I felt like I was cheating on Lindsey Stirling.  Once I overcame that reservation, though, I found an album that was surprisingly pretty and easy to listen to if not especially deep or ground-breaking. Sometimes it gets to be a little cutesy and girlish for my preferences, but there’s also enough variety contained herein to sustain a guy’s interest through the weaker tracks. The totality of Red can basically be divided into three subgroups, the first of which we’ll limit to Swift’s straight-up, mostly undiluted country music, a sound that’s been gradually receding from her use with each successive release.

Disregarding the Swifty label’s insistent promotion of her as a country artist, the country influence on Red is dwindling at best and negligible at worst, appearing in prime form only on the titular track Red, the ironically named conclusion Begin Again, and All Too Well, which one could argue constitutes the pinnacle both of the album and of her career.  Out of the rich spectrum of country music, there are essentially two overarching extremities, viz. those that are just repackaged pop-dance music glorifying babes and booze and those that are, like the vast body of Romantic poetry, so introspectively concerned with recounting episodes from the singer’s own life that they’re not really relatable to anyone else.  Florida Georgia Line is probably the chief exponent of the former group in all its banal stupidity, customarily appropriating generic party songs by Lady Gaga or Pitbull, stripping out the synths, and adding some uber-masculine country truck-driving clichés just to call it their own.  Taylor Swift’s songwriting generally falls more along the other line, and while she’s great overall at building melodies around her personal successes and failures in love, I don’t really know what I’m supposed to extract from them myself – a frustrating dilemma to deal with in any kind of narrative-centric compilation.

Taylor may be in this sense the single most over- and underrated performer to emerge from the corporate music machine.  Her fiercest and generally most envious critics call her a talentless tool who can’t write about anything but the high-profile boy toys she leeches off of for financial gain.  In the end, they say, a lot of her songs just boil down to a connect-the-dots guessing game for those gossip hounds who think they’re savvy enough to spot the celebrity boyfriend lurking behind the words; there are legitimate blog articles out there on major media websites (we’re talking Yahoo! and the Huffingandpuffington Post here, the latter of which may convey its blogger’s theories through an obnoxious slideshow you have to repeatedly click through) devoted to dissecting and analyzing her clues line by line, verse by verse.  That generalization may be true, and Swift’s storytelling is far from the most intellectually rigorous or thematically diverse fare, being as it is based mostly on a long series of boyfriends, but who would say it has to be either of these things for the album to work?  You don’t have to be the world’s best natural code-breaker and/or Swifty fanatic to appreciate the underlying lyricism and verbal craft of her work, both of which the hateful hating haters hate upon without cause.  On the flip side you have Swift’s firmly twitterpated supporters who claim she produces the wisest and most accomplished music of anyone in her young age group, an equally preposterous fantasy.  What you get on Red is a mix of rather simple, sometimes trite, but altogether pleasant patchworks of a woman’s romantic entanglings that will have no relevancy to your life or much anything else in the world besides the artist herself.  I.e., it’d be a lot like Romantic poetry if it wasn’t so light on the brain.

Like any worthy poet, she’s certainly got a keen sense for the arrangement and sound of words in a sentence, even if her figures don’t always lift off the ground.  Red, for instance, compares a failed relationship to “driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street / faster than the wind, passionate as sin, ending so suddenly”, which is kind of corny as an isolated car reference but flows well under the context. The rest of the song, unfortunately, is nigh ruined by a torturous echo effect in the chorus that serves no conceivable purpose but to make “re-e-e-ed” the most excruciatingly robotic noise you’ll ever hear on country radio, though there are several much more asinine production choices on the record.  Swift’s songwriting is in top form on the slowly building sobfest, All Too Well, a lengthy, disillusioned, and reminiscing rumination on the brighter moments of a relationship that ultimately ended a wasted opportunity. “You call me up again just to break me like a promise,” she belts at a vocal peak, “So casually cruel in the name of being honest. / I’m a crumpled-up piece of paper lying here / ’cause I remember it all… too well.”  It’s a zinger that most singers would fail to deliver with enough weight – after all, J.T. tells me that people make promises, all the time, then they turn right around and breeeaaaak them – but Swift makes the pain she felt, rightly or not, startlingly apparent on this and the album’s other slower, more somber songs.

The majority of tunes, however, are an uptempo confluence of soft pop and rock with minor country touches. Holy Ground and State Of Grace, notwithstanding their oddly irreligious content, both feature great drum beats, vocal layering, and range even if they don’t measure up to the caliber of performances by conventional country rocker chicks like Carrie Underwood.  Treacherous is a delicate cautionary tale about the helpless sensation one feels when falling head over heels with someone against one’s good reason, when you know it’d “be smart to walk away / but [he’s] quicksand”.  Of course, Red wouldn’t be a complete album without a couple of feat. songs tossed into the set, here provided gracefully by Gary Lightbody of the Irish alternative band Snow Patrol and by Ed Sheeran of… well, himself.  The Lightbody track is very moody and grandiose, opening softly with piano before seamlessly flourishing into an explosive strings section and resounding refrain that succeeds mainly on account of his and Taylor’s emotionally taut harmony. Sheeran’s involvement on Everything Has Changed is noticeably smaller as he only gets a few short lines to himself before fading into the background, though it’s still an enjoyable song and definitely has a more acoustic vibe one might associate with the British singer.  Second to All Too Well, I’d say that both duets comprise the very best of the album’s selection, which is unusual given the overwhelmingly negative past precedent of feat. songs in popular music.

With that said, Red isn’t without its share of dreadful features, though all of them take place from beyond the microphone.  In addition to the obvious appearances by Sheeran and Lightbody, Red also flaunts the infrequent production credits of “Max Martin” and “Shellback”, a couple of DJ losers who have written or produced such masterpieces as Taio Cruz’ Like It’s Dinomite, Katy Perry’s California Gurls, Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, Katy Perry’s Dark Horse, and a bunch of other Katy Perry ‘songs’.  To be fair, they’ve also worked with the justly acclaimed P!nk on numerous occasions, but the key point to recognize is that their electronic-pop domain is thoroughly estranged from everything that Taylor had done up to this point. For this album they manned the keyboards and auto-tuner to produce I Knew You Were Trouble, a sufferable if shrieky and downright generic dubstep beat, 22, an intolerable party anthem whose sins are so plentiful they couldn’t be enumerated even on The Author’s Files, and We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, which I honestly like if only because it’s so self-consciously cheeky and inarticulate, being filled with valley girl-typical monologues such as the brilliantly penned bridge:

“So he calls me up” (there’s almost as much “calling” people on Red as on 24, come to think of it) “and he’s like / ‘I still love you,’ and I’m like / ‘I mean, this is exhausting, you know? / Like, we are never ever getting back together. / Like, Ever.’”

A lot of older Taylor Swift fans took that line as a signal of a waning career, but at least We’re Never Getting Back Together Like Ever was supposed to be stupid and had a giddy guitar riff supporting it.  The other two songs are just unimaginative, pitchy, synthesized garbage that taint an otherwise natural-sounding and thoughtfully written record.

Still, those songs are but a minor blight on Red in the grand scheme of things, a worthy if rather expensive* purchase in its entirety which should appeal equally to fans of pop and country-lite.  Swift’s voice isn’t the strongest out of all her contemporaries, nor are her lyrics the most clever, but what she does is very pleasant to listen to overall without insulting my intelligence or manhood.  Most of the time. Whenever it’s not so calculated to make the listener feel like a little girl, which is basically always.  Never mind that manhood part…

It has been too long.  Now let me just skip over that horrendous come-on by Tyler at the end.  Blech!

+/Plus/Addition/Crucifix by Ed Sheeran

I felt a little guilty listening to Ed Sheeran’s + for the first time, on one hand because I figured this thing was made primarily for lovestruck girls and on another because I felt like I was cheating on Lindsey Stirling.  If I were ever to turn coat on my biological calling and reap the associated benefits of Pride that come from choosing to deny my naturally ordained sex, then I’d probably do it for Ed Sheeran before anyone else.  I assume this not because he’s a blazing model of masculine beauty; by all counts, including his own, Ed is a rather funny-looking, perenially unkempt, and lavishly tattooed dude who under any usual circumstances would have a tough time getting a girl to woo him, let alone several thousand of them.  “I’m happy the majority of the world doesn’t look like me because maybe less people would be getting laid,” he reckons.  Likely so, and I speak as one so tremulous about his own complexion as to hide it behind a computer-generated space marine helmet.  Wherefore, then, cometh the corny and ill-considered moniker “Ginger Jesus”?  Unlike Sheeran, Jesus never sours his psalms with swear words to communicate his fury or impatience with mankind, nor does Jesus deliberately drape his poetry in references to drinking, drugs, and debauchery.  Unlike Jesus, who instructed the prostitute to go forth and sin no more, Sheeran not only forgives the sinner but enables and abets him in continuing his sinful ways, having written several tunes behind the scenes for that most godforsaken abomination against music called One Direction.

All these things considered and only these things, it’s frankly inconceivable how so many (female) people could become so enamored of a guy who seems to exemplify everything that’s hastening the downfall of society.  Maybe it’s his productivity they admire.  Unlike yours truly, who’s slacking from real work in the very act of writing this critique, Ed has been restlessly testing his human limits for most of the last ten years.  Ever since seeing Damien Rice in concert and picking up a guitar at 11, he had been self-publishing and selling albums on the street as a homeless teenager while playing hundreds of nightly gigs across the U.K. to spread his name.  In a move that must have brought his parents either great distress or great relief, Ed dropped out school and left his parents’ coop at 16 to make a full-time job of recording, performing gigs, and “selling CDs from [his] rucksack, aiming for the majors,” as he sputters in the autobiographical rap You Need Me I Don’t Need You.  “People think I’m bound to blow up / I’ve done around about a thousand shows, but / I haven’t got a house plus I live on the couch, / so you believe the lyrics when I’m singing them out…”  In 2009 alone, legend holds that Ed racked up a total of 312 gigs, “playing a different show every night in front of a new crowd” and accumulating a following mainly by word of mouth and several, broadly viewed stints for online music channels.  It wasn’t until he impulsively bought a ticket to Los Angeles at 19 (based on but a single contact, no less) and drew the attention of Jamie Foxx that his music began to gain traction outside of the various clubs he entertained.  Granting Sheeran free reign of his mansion’s recording studio may just have been the only worthwhile thing Foxx has accomplished in his life, as it led to the singer getting picked up by Elton John’s management company which led to an eventual contract with Atlantic Records which led to his debut album + and to enough legions of raving fangirls that he could conceivably subsist on merchandising sales alone.  “The game’s over, but now I’m on a new level. / Watch how I step on the track without a loop pedal.”  And yet he’s still lugging the loop pedal around for live shows, where he’s lately begun to incorporate precious few of the approximately 120 songs he claims to have written last year for his follow-up album X, currently en route to my residence.

From all the practice he’s accrued over the years, Ed has grown into unquestionably one of the world’s best solo acts, effortlessly orchestrating complex arrangements on the spot complete with bass and drum lines using just his acoustic guitar and the occasional beatboxing.  He’s also a masterful crowd manipulator, rallying his audiences into makeshift choirs to amplify the more tribal, monotonous chanting sections that pervade a few of his songs.  Another feature of his live shows is their extraordinary length; what songs only lasted 4-5 minutes in their recorded versions he’ll often elongate to 9 or 10 by adding furious guitar solos and extra verses, jumbling the instrumentation of certain parts, and raising or softening his voice above the standard for dramatic effect.

Perhaps it’d be more accurate to reason that Ed reduces his 9-10 minute songs for the final album cuts. After all, the stage is truly where he’s most in his element, singing and playing more passionately as well as maintaining a closer link to the audience than a digitally mastered and professionally produced track could possibly allow.  The biggest letdown with + as a studio album is precisely that it’s a studio album, offering markedly inferior or at least disappointingly conventional, band-supported versions of music that really sounds most poignant and visceral when performed solely by the artist who wrote it and how he wrote it – of music that in most cases you unfortunately can’t buy anywhere or listen to unless you have internet access or a concert ticket.  Then again, that the album withholds his very best renditions at least provides a compelling incentive to go watch Ed perform live, which is more than you can say of most records which strive to attain perfection upon completion.

Anyway, the degree to which Jake Gosling’s production/programming aids or detracts largely depends on whether it complements the base acoustic components of Sheeran’s artistry or obscures them.  Give Me Love, for example, benefits nicely from some backing strings and a sweeping bridge, normally severed from live shows, in which Ed is basically moaning and screaming, “Love me!” in desperation.  It’s an inclusion that makes you feel both uncomfortable and vulnerable, much as the singer’s leering wails for love do in the live recording.  Lego House trades some introductory ooohohs for a bit of a real piano and a lot of fake drums but ends up working all the same.  On the other hand, older tracks like The City, a vivid and painterly portrait of homeless life in London, and the aforementioned You Need Me are woefully disserviced by annoying electronic bloops and percussional walls that nearly block out the original guitar (though the live recordings of both these are obtainable by legal means).

But none of this is a comment on the music itself.  In reality, Sheeran is one of the most stylistically versatile and nonconformist singer-songwriters of our day, continually bridging the wide expanse between folk, pop, and what rappers like to call “hip-hop” because their real designation has always borne something of a negative connotation.  So it had for me until I heard this plucky white European guy’s blasphemous take on the “black art form”, the artistic value of which I would have vehemently disputed in the past.  Ed’s rap is less like the talky rhyme too often associated with the genre and more like lyrical poetry, arrayed with alliteration, internal rhyme, and metaphorical language while being genuinely sung rather than simply spoken or yelled, as the “best rapper of all time” Eminem is so prone to doing.  More than that, though, his verses actually relate stories with broader meaning than getting drunk, getting high, and getting girls in bed, though he certainly doesn’t mask over his aptitude in the first habit (the redundancy of alluding to alcohol and crack in half of the album’s twelve songs may be one of his weaker techniques as a writer).  You Need Me, I Don’t You is perhaps the most biographical and adaptable of all his songs, detailing his rise from a roaming, desperate busker to his present-day reputation as a British star, and one who’s been pressured by labels to marginalize his artistry for a more marketable sound.  A daunting and narcissistic tour-de-force in the very best sense, it’s undergone numerous revisions since its stripped-down debut on an EP back in 2009, reflecting Ed’s changing fortunes and accumulating new stanzas, guitar solos, and even superior, surprisingly contextual covers of rap lines from 50 Cent and his own cousin (“Plus I keep my last name forever, keep this genre pretty basic / gonna be breaking into people’s tunes when I chase it / and replace it with the elephant in the room with a facelift / into another rapper’s shoes using new laces”).  Even in the abbreviated album version, it’s a tightly and wittily written plea, nay, a searing demand for independence and integrity in a business that ardently suppresses each.  “I won’t stay put – give me the chance to be free / Suffolk sadly seems to sort of suffocate me,” he spews before seguing into the abrasively headstrong chorus that lends the song its title.

If You Need Me is Ed’s biggest act of rebellion against tradition and the musical mainstream, then songs like The A-Team and Small Bump are definitely more conservative, folksy songs, though their subject matter is anything but cheery.  The former, written in tribute to a woman Ed met at a homeschool shelter at a time when he admits he was rather naïve about the real world, is chiefly an empathy song but deftly veils its grim story of a drug-addicted prostitute with symbolic words (“In a pipe she flies to the motherland”), fragmented phrases (“White lips, pale face / breathing in snowflakes / burnt lungs, sour taste…”), and a sing-songy, rhyme-ridden beat that effectively lured radio stations in droves.  Small Bump, on the other hand, is hands down the most alternately beautiful and deeply tragic ode to an unborn child – “a scan of my unmade plans”, he addresses it directly – ever written, if the only one.  To give away the twist would blunt its impact, but the song more than demonstrates Sheeran’s keen intellect for writing moving narratives, here based on the experience of a once expecting friend.  Whether intended that way or not, it’s also a bold and unflinching appeal for us to respect the life, the humanity of those youngest souls among us, those most cruelly and commonly beaten to the wayside by social pragmatists who would deny the sanctity of any person’s rights in the eye of our Creator.

Contrary to what Sheeran himself might suggest in concerts, + isn’t an oppressively depressing or dark album, successively managing lighter moments on U.N.I., a rapid-fire but soft-spoken acoustic rap about his girlfriend’s decision to leave for college, Grade 8, a simile-laden and funky love ditty built around the comparison of a muse to a minstrel “strumming on my heartstrings”, and Wake Me Up, a highly personal, slow-crawling, almost stream-of-consciousness meditation that Ed confesses he wrote “in a very drunken state” and many have maligned for its seemingly spontaneous cultural references like “I know you love Shrek, ’cause we watched it twelve times, but maybe you’re hoping for a fairy tale too…”  I have also watched Shrek something like twelve times, and appreciate the song accordingly for sharing its author’s excellent taste with such vivid honesty.  Lego House is another happy song that demonstrates the variability of Sheeran’s voice, which can weave between rappy fast-singing and soulful crooning with the same remarkable control and ease he calls upon when potently leaping and diving several notes.  In this his second most-played song (before Sing, anyway), his voice climbs to a passionate cry in the bridge, shouting out, “I think the braces are breaking, and it’s more than I can take!” before abruptly dropping to a gentle intonation.  Drunk is another enjoyably rhythmic if none too prudent account of Ed’s propensity for drowning his loneliness away in drink.

But in spite of Sheeran’s prowess at relating light-hearted, upbeat stories from his life, the strength of + lies chiefly in its drama.  The haunting and – dare I say – epic closer Give Me Love is a minimally worded but musically lush masterwork of sexual longing that leans almost entirely on the singer’s ability not just to mimic but to feel and palpably channel emotion in their performance.  Oft covered but never equaled, it’s a lingering lyric carried by poetic simplicity and the passionate sincerity of the original artist’s vocals, leaving me no difficulties declaring it one of the best songs of all time.

I hesitate to use the word “genius” in reference to Ed Sheeran; such a designation, after all, has been worn so thin it now reeks of cliché.  The man probably said it best when he wrote, “My mind is a warrior; my heart is a foreigner.”  His lyrics are infused with a cutting wit, his guitar draws an orchestral depth of sound, and his voice wields a sweeping range of expression.  He’s a sinner unabashed to verbalize his sin, a lover with touching tongue, and an innovator amid a culture that incentivizes sterility.  He’s not the Second Coming by any means, but damned if he can’t redeem modern pop and hip-hop from their self-determined path of condemnation.

Reluctant heartthrob Sam Woolf says, “I can and have watched this video 100 times and am still as amazed as I was the first time I watched it.”   …   Agreed.  A caveat: there’s one F-word at the end if you care about that sort of thing, and it’s not “family” or “friendly”, though it’s probably the best application of the word ever in a song.

If you have a recommendation for where we direct the Podcast next, please leave a one-three sentence review of the Why You Gotta Be So Ruuuude, I’m Gonna Marry Her Anyway song in the comments section.  I’ll take the most amusing critics’ wishes into account, although I’m not leaving any options off the table and my cabinet will be looking at a range of possible actions.  Likewise, you readers can’t just load a banquet of favorite artists on a credit card and stick me with the bill.

* Forget Wal Mart.  Barnes and Noble is the pantheon of corporate greed.

Unrelated newsflash to oblivious radio stations: Nobody wants to hear that obnoxious Summer song just because it has the word “summer” in it and we happen to be in the middle of summer.  Why do you play Taylor Swift’s Back To December all year round instead of just on December?  Why don’t you withhold the Green Day Holiday song for dates that are actually holidays?  Don’t even get me started on Maroon 5’s Sunday Morning… assuming an average morning is 6 hours long, you’d have to play that one nonstop for an entire Sunday morning every week to compensate for the other 352 days of the year you’re not giving it any air time at all.  What’s that you say?  People don’t care about the flipping lyrics’ or song title’s connection to the calendar so long as it’s catchy?  Well, there you go.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Author's Americana-indie-acoustic-country-folk-rock-hop-Playlist – pt. 1

In case you didn’t know (you didn’t), this last week marked the esoterically-anticipated release of indie folk singer Passenger’s new album Whispers, and if the main singles performed so far have been any indication of what’s to come, it’s almost certain to be a great record.  Following in short tow is the return of acoustic demigod Ed Sheeran with X, which is already shaping up to be the catchiest album of the year just from the falsetto-laced Sing and brilliantly bitter revenge song Don’t.  It seems there would be no better time than the present to do a post in honor of these rising self-made rebels, boldly battling a mainstream that’s increasingly dominated by fake instruments, electronically altered voices, and faux “artists” who can’t or won’t write an original tune for their lives.  As neither of these releases have leaked to la Youtube yet (and I’m checking almost daily), I’ll have to settle for reviewing these old ones instead.  Here’s to my favorite made-up musical genre of acoustic-indie-Americana-country-folk-rock-hop… but we’ll call it folk and awesome for convenience’s sake.  Sorry – that was pretty lame…

The Lumineers by The Lumineers

… kind of like myself around Christmas, actually.  Alas, I was a bit of a Satan Claus this last Winterholiday.  While others were busy “giving back to their communities” by one self-congratulating random act of kindness or another, I was totally wasting my days away watching the same Lindsey Stirling videos for the fifth time, hoping for some new secret to materialize that I hadn’t picked up on before.  In the end, the only significant act of givingback I performed that season besides writing this blog was to buy my family a lame album by this virtually anonymous trio called the Lumineers.  Imagine the depths of their disappointment when they first laid eyes on this perplexingly simple B&W cover and later laid ears on the even more aggravatingly simple music within it.  It really served them right: if not for their outstanding naughtiness in 2013, maybe they would have received some real music by Lorde, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, or any of today’s more acclaimed electropop icons.  Something with bass, brass, sex, and sizzle.  Instead they got this old-timey, eccentrically unidentifiable coffee house material… with guitars, and clapping, and a cello, and real voices, and stories.

This is likely the leading cause of the Lumineers’ success, that their lyrics convey characters, conflicts, and emotions which feel substantive and real while also being irresistibly singalongable.  None of their compositions are especially intricate in their production or difficult in practice, as co-writer and -founder Jeremiah Fraites has stated that, “Anyone who can play an instrument can play a Lumineers song,” and lead singer Wesley Schultz has averred that the three original members are truly “minimalists at heart”. “We always just hated clutter.  If there’s a sound on the record, it’s meant to be there.”  Nor could anyone be blamed for misconstruing their first CD as a live concert album, as the recordings sound more or less exactly the same as the band would play them at a show, with nary a programming touch superposed over the small instrument set.  Rather than emphasizing volume or arrangement as the selling point of their music, the group concentrates on vivid narration through the stirring vocal delivery of monologues both dramatic and spirited.  Of what do they sing?  Pretty much everything: love young and love tested, WW2 paranoia, Vietnam, flapper girls, and, most amusingly, even proper barroom etiquette.  Listening to the Lumineers feels much like taking a time machine through the 20th century; while the album encompasses numerous periods and mainstay figures of American culture, Schultz and Fraites rarely inject their own relationships or experiences into the tracks, which is surprising given the sheer perseverance and daring both showed to secure a foothold in the industry, leaving New York for Denver with just the clothes on their backs and a van full of instruments and playing weekly open-mic gigs on top of their day-jobs until getting picked up by studio managers on a Youtube video of their best-selling single Ho Hey.  Not ones for obtrusive self-indulgence, they set themselves apart not by mining personal anecdotes for rhymes, something any wannabe poet can do, but by crafting engaging, usually concentrated stories which rely on strong visuals and simple truths relatable not just to the author but to the listener as well.

It’s an uncommon album in the modern age where you really have to carefully chew on the words to fully appreciate the beauty of the music.  The fleeting opener Flowers In Your Hair seems at first glance to be but another cheery love song on an album with a chorus vaguely mirroring that of Ho Hey.  It’s indubitably cheery, and certainly a story of love, but the lyrical content delves much deeper than that simplification gives it credit.  Short of being dark or downbeat and through a remarkable compression of ideas, the song muses on both the uplifting and corrupting aspects of human passion and the consequences deriving thereof when young people pursue it in folly, concluding pithily that “it’s a long road to wisdom but a short one to being ignored”.  The piano- and drum-driven Submarines uses the predicament of a man who witnesses Japanese vessels and can’t persuade anyone of his sightings as a kind of a humorous representative of all those who feel as though their cautionary appeals are merely screaming into the wind, vain and fruitless attempts to impress inconvenient facts upon unheeding ears, like trying to make an internationally indifferent, part-time homeschool judge care about the unchecked flow of deadly meth and coke into the United States by narco su– well, you get it.  Stubborn Love, which features probably the most powerful interplay of Neyla Pekarek’s cello and Schultz’ acoustic guitar on the record, has just as powerful a message about standing by the ones you hold dear and committing the fullness of yourself to them even when they’ve wounded you.  “She’ll tear a hole in you, the one you can’t repair / but I still love her – I don’t even care… It’s better to feel pain, than nothing at all.  The opposite of love’s indifference.”

The occasionally weighty themes of the tracks are complemented by Schultz’ raw and untouched vocals, which could for all intents and purposes have been captured in whatever room one’s listening from and retain the same quality.  He has a bit of drawl to his voice which sometimes obscures the exact lyrics, but he never mispronounces words to create rhymes or egregiously compounds syllables to fill up time in a line (not one of the devi-i-i-ices on this album).  The sparseness of the instrumental selection always makes the lyrical content the focus of the music, inviting audiences to chime along rather than just listen passively.

I can’t recommend The Lumineers by the Lumineers strongly enough.  Whether one sees them as relics of a lost golden age or harbingers of a coming renaissance, they harken back to a time when composing strong narratives meant more to artists than generating a catchy, radio-ready beat.  The cynical among us like to mope that real music is in its dying phase, progressively usurped and extinguished by electronically aided screaming, vapid lyrics, and wannabe tough-guy rappers.  The Lumineers, they say, are a dead sea, no longer relevant in the era of a president who lionizes the talent of Jay-z, Beyonce, and Ludacris.  That much is true.  The Lumineers are a dead sea, lifting our souls above the crashing, soulless tides and thundering noise of popular music, keeping American culture from finally sinking into the Laurentian Abyss and leaving no evidence of its former glory.  Maybe they were born to be a dead sea.

The Civil Wars by The Civil Wars

Besides pricing that’s 50-100% inflated above retail value, one of the many downsides to shopping for music at Barnes&Noble instead of a legitimate record store (something that’s been so nearly hunted to extinction by digital downloads that schools could practically spin a field trip out of visiting one) is its stockers’ abject incompetence at accurately recognizing and predictably classifying basic genres. For example, while The Civil Wars by the Civil Wars is located amongst the pop/rock CDs, a branch to which it most certainly doesn’t belong, Taylor Swift’s deliciously poppy Red is stereotypically relegated to the country music aisle despite the former group’s much more prominent country influence.

Granted, most anyone would be hard-pressed to pin the Civil Wars down within a single category, especially on this latest and possibly last endeavor, which can leap from a delicate and constrained folk ballad to a soaring country-tinged gospel lyric to a momentous, electric guitar-supported rock anthem and back again.  Most people will peg them as an Americana/folk duo, but such an assessment probably underestimates their music’s depth.  Rather than singing about any one people at one time or another and their own unique depravities, Joy Williams and John Paul White sing broadly about how messed-up humanity is in general.  Notwithstanding a precious few relieving love songs interspersed throughout the record, the Civil Wars’ second, self-titled album released just months after an astonishing breakup is incredibly depressing, brimming with betrayal, regret, rough men, and heartbreak; it’s not a happy album by any means, nor does it leave you with a very high appraisal of our mortal race.  I’d venture that it fits the “dark and brooding” bill better than any other album I’ve bought besides Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight and Howard Shore’s Fellowship of the Ring scores, which admittedly have it a lot easier as orchestral compositions.  This is artistry worthy of Lego Batman himself, the very paragon of dark and brooding music.

From the first track, The Civil Wars is primarily about the most cruel and torturous kinds of human relationships, those scarred and mutilated by infidelity, distrust, violence, and remorse.  The introductory single, which you honestly won’t have heard anywhere on the airwaves unless you listen to NPR (and if you’re reading this, odds are you don’t), ushers in the somber air with bristling electric guitar strings and melancholy, reflective confessions delicately delivered by Joy.  “I got caught up by the chase / and you got high on every little game. / I wish you were the one, wish you were the one that got away.”  Hereupon her voice crescendos into a burst of barely repressed, staccato cries: “Oooh, if I could go back in time, when you only held me in my mind – just a longing, gone without a trace.  Oooh, I wish I’d never, ever seen your face!”  John Paul’s twanging guitar strikes intertwined with Joy’s impassioned song of lament summons a sound so simultaneously beautiful and wrenching that it defies description, literally sending chills through my skin whenever I hear the chorus; like a glorious sunrise on a blood-strewn field of war, the harmonious discord they capture illumines both the mighty splendor of God’s creative design and the staggering evil that his fallen creation is capable of wreaking.

Appropriately enough, The Civil Wars is a slyly but deeply spiritual album, dealing in large part with the futility of seeking contentment solely through earthly fellowship and our yearning for a higher communion. With the exception of one related in the track Dust to Dust and possibly in Sacred Heart (which sounds fair enough in French though I’ve no idea what it means), all the love stories told herein are temporal and closed in tragedy, destroyed by death or by carnal impulses and leaving the lovers drifting without company, purpose, or moral direction.  I Had Me A Girl, with wailing vocals and instrumental volume to parallel the dramatic Barton Hallow, artfully compares an affair rooted in sexual lust to the fleeting euphoria induced by a drug. “I had me a girl / Like cigarette smoke, she came and she went… oh that woman taught me to pray / but for all of her wandering ways / she could ooooohhh…”  In Devil’s Backbone, one of the shortest and least instrumented songs, Joy pleads in quavering desperation for God to spare her partner from the natural consequence of his crimes, acknowledging with broken spirit that her devotion to that “man on the run” has either corrupted her discernment between good and evil or removed her ability to care about the distinction. Vainly she tries to justify his actions: “Oh Lord, oh Lord, he’s somewhere between / a hangman’s knot and three mouths to feed / There wasn’t a wrong or a right he could choose / He did what he had to do…” After a brief, swelling rise in the musical accompaniment, her voice slips to a breathy whisper: “Don’t care if he’s guilty, don’t care if he’s not / He’s good and he’s bad and he’s all that I’ve got / Oh Lord, oh Lord, I’m begging you please / don’t take that sinner from me.”  Oh Henry has a similar setup framed instead as a woman’s appeal to her wayward husband to renounce his reckless courtship with death and keep his vow to stay with her “forever ever and a day”.  The duo’s reworking of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm, aside from being one of the most transformative and chilling covers I’ve ever heard, turns something originally kind of annoying and whiny and loud into a powerful meditation on maturing youth and innocence lost that only escalates in force as it proceeds to its end.

In spite of all the dreary content, the album isn’t all doom and gloom, taking the occasional respite to impart some poetically beautiful imagery.  A relatively light-hearted song in the midst of so much pain and anguish, Eavesdrop envisions two people embracing one another in the open air, inviting the stars to watch and the wind to eavesdrop for as long as their fragile union may last.  From This Valley goes further, acting in many ways as a hopeful answer to the rest of the album’s frustrated nihilistic outlook.  Here Joy and John Paul sing of Paradise in simple but evocative pictures, symbolizing mortals’ yearning to join their Heavenly Father as the desire of valley-dwellers to flee their lowly pit and ascend a mountain high above. “Oh the desert dreams of a river / that will run down to the sea / like my heart longs for an ocean / to wash down over me.”

Never has a band convened a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than that the Civil Wars depict in this valley of deception and despair, where lovers condemn themselves to destruction by their own devices and can only pine for deliverance from above.  What they’ve accomplished here and on Barton Hallow transcends mere musical performance to become something almost cinematic; so sweeping is the vocal range and palpable the emotion both singers dedicate to their craft.  Together they’ve etched out a vein of music that’s uncommonly haunting, pensive, and hopeful.  If heaven has a sound, then the Civil Wars have come nearer to replicating it on this piece than anyone else I’ve heard.  In my judgment it’s the best lyrical album of all time, deserving to be celebrated alongside the likes of U2’s The Joshua Tree, Coldplay’s A Rush Of Blood To The Head, Adele’s 21, and Lorde’s Pure Heroine.

That was a joke, son.

Part 2 with reviews of Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran will be posted shortly.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Thorgettable World

Second only to Mike Mignola’s and Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy, Thor has to be my favorite mythological legend-turned-Hollywood hero in all of comicdom, if only because he and I have so much in common. Looking past our obvious differences in physical stature, fashion sensibilities, lineage, mortality, and occasional weightlessness, we both wrestle with a lot of the same personal issues – our highly flammable temperaments for one, but also our infatuations with beautiful women who are so far removed from our own cosmic dimension and species as to be unattainable anywhere but in fantasy.  Unlike your Author, Thor actually gets the privilege of seeing his otherwise hopeless infatuation requited for no reason other than that he’s a Marvel superhero and the plot compels an unlikely romantic entanglement.  Unlike Thor, I actually have a personality.

More personality, at least, than the Asgardian poseur from last year’s obligatory Marvel cash-in The Dark World, which seems to accomplish the impossible in turning the Avengers arc’s most intriguing, nuanced, and generally enjoyable cast into a rabble of one-dimensional and comically challenged bores.  Even the adorkable Darcy with her hilarious quips about pop-tarts, iPods, crazy homeless guys, and the mighty hammer Mewnew is so horribly bungled that the script eventually resorts in desperation to hooking her up with an “intern’s intern” who exhibits no defining characteristics throughout most of the movie, much like Thor, Jane, Odin, the warriors three, Loki, and the main villains.  The Dark World is a case in point of what happens when producers forego compelling, coherent, and emotionally engaging storytelling in favor of inundating the screen with as many chaotic green-screen fight scenes as they deem necessary to reel in swarms of brain-dead thrillseekers.

Like its predecessor and Fellowship of the Ring before that, Thor 2 opens unoriginally with a voiceover to a massive battle sequence which in this case doesn’t look remotely believable and does nothing to frame the internal conflict of the story.  That’s because, unlike Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, which was girded with elements of Shakespearean drama and was predominantly a story about Thor mastering his arrogant temper through humility and purpose, all the conflict posed in Alan Taylor’s Thor is strictly externalized, assuming the form of Star Trek-like red ether matter that makes your body explosive if you’re stupid enough to touch it and some sci-fi disaster event called Convergence, in which all nine realms of the universe align and sworn divirgins like Thor may get erratically vacuumed into portals while they’re in the middle of climactic battles for the future of earth.  Very simply, none of the main characters in this undergo any personal trials or transformations of note.  Instead of Loki’s fall from grace or Thor’s rise to honor, what we get is a repackaged and painfully generic narrative of absolute, constant forces of good vs. similarly constant forces of evil.  Filling in for the frost giants this time is an army of equally ugly but much more aesthetically boring “dark elves”, who are committed to exacting vengeance against Odin or seizing world domination or… something like that.

Do you remember those superfluous cutaway scenes in the Star Wars prequels (and originals to a lesser extent) which disrupted the progression of the narrative just to show us that the evil, systemically conniving Sith were indeed conniving in the background of all the action?  “At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.  Very soon.  Within the next two hours.  Whenever we stop talking about our plans for the stupid audience’s benefit and actually start to implement them.”  Thor: The Dark World seems to have ten times as many of these talky time-killers, none of them serving to clarify the muddied narrative or provide a fuller understanding of the characters’ motives; to this point, I have no idea what the bad guys in this movie even wanted to achieve, nor could I tell you what distinguishes them as the bad guys other than that they kill Thor’s mom, which admittedly isn’t very nice but leaves effectively no impact on the plot or on our emotions because her character is completely undeveloped, a wholly non-unique position to occupy within this woefully dark world.

If it’s good for nothing else, Thor 2 at least illustrates the stupid-sequel syndrome of calling back a roster of once appealing characters and giving them nothing new to do but fight a separate roster of new characters who aren’t remotely appealing themselves.  Compounding this crime is the screenwriters’ stunning misrepresentation of the heroes and heroines already inducted into the Marvelverse.  Trickster god Loki here is but a shade of his former devious self, passing up numerous opportunities to overtake his superiors and even striking up a literal bromance with Thor until he lets himself get “killed”, which is itself one of just two outstanding deceits he orchestrates in the plot and which never gets properly explained, as the truth of his demise emerges only in the final seconds as a presumed teaser for Thor 3.  Thor is no longer a befuddled fish-out-of-water around earthlings, nor does he make an especially interesting prince of Asgard, doing pretty much nothing in the way of governing or military leadership for the whole movie excepting those scattered occasions he takes to smash this rock monster or that orcish thug with his hammer, which he isn’t very good at either considering all the time he spends getting beaten to a pulp by foes who frankly pale next to the Destroyer, snow rancor, and other baddies present in the first film. Formerly a wise and compassionate ruler, Odin is hereby replaced with an impatient, unforgiving, and insufferable backstory-dispenser.  The vigilant and stone-faced gatekeeper Heimdall is given an expanded, wordier part that predictably clashes with his grave disposition, having no conceivable point but to appease the affirmative action lobby.  Even those characters who were arguably less developed, like love interest Jane Foster, have been robbed of whatever meager depth they once possessed.  Whereas Jane of Thor 1 was easily likeable as this ditsy, nerdy scientist whom Thor, by utility of sheer brawn and dashing good looks (she even says it’s “a good look”), eventually reduces to a girly mess of batting eyelashes and embarrassing remarks, Jane of Thor 2 has no distinctive qualities barring an Astrid-like propensity towards slapping the men who irk her (which it turns out she really did a couple times “by accident”, which makes one wonder why Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston were paid so well for a job with such respectable perks as getting slapped by Natalie Portman).  Maybe Ms. Portman understood this failure of the script during shooting and adjusted her acting accordingly in silent protest.  Her performance here is the kind of head-scratching puzzler that’s passable only as eye candy and can only provoke the question, “You won an Oscar?”

I could ramble on about Thor 2’s sluggish editing – particularly its insistence on telling action over showing it or, worse, doing both side by side – its uninspired art design, which looks like a highway pile-on of Star Trek, Star Wars, and LOTR, its persistently sub-par CGI, or its complete lack of any violin solos in the score, but I feel that such a dissertation would be a waste of your and – what is infinitely worse – my time. Another critic typecast this redundancy as Thor: The Endless Exposition, which isn’t altogether inapt a title for a film so laden with pointless dialogue and short of actual character progression.  You must be truly desperate to come to this for entertainment.

Grade rating: C-

Friday, June 6, 2014

Born Gay And Proud... of Being Gay

“I can’t change, even if I try, even if I wanted to…” ~ Homosexual rap by Macklemore, who isn’t actually homosexual but pretends to be in songs because he knows it’s foolproof awards bait

“The fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud.” ~ Anderson Cooper

“Incompossible, adj.  Unable to exist if something else exists.  Two things are incompossible when the world of being has scope enough for one of them, but not enough for both – as Walt Whitman’s poetry and God’s mercy to man.” ~ Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Applying for college scholarships can be a mind-wracking process, particularly if you happen to be a white, male, Republican-leaning, 10th-generation European immigrant.  In fact, if I was a respected movie star and could make any abjectly idiotic, shockingly offensive characterization I wanted with impunity on account of a doting paparazzi, I might go so far as to say that applying for college scholarships feels a lot like going to war.  So grueling is the mental toil it exacts from young people who just want to spend all their days out-hashtagging each other on Twitter or playing Candy Crush on their iPad Bses (if you count the median age of Candy Crush players as something like 60-years-young).  In any case, it gets even worse if you happen to be white, male, conservative, and right-handed.  It appears that leaders of the left-handed community have finally organized to demand fair and equitable treatment from the educational centers formerly dominated by the religious right-handed.  Chief among their measures besides discrediting and vilifying the opposition as bigoted meanies is a scholarship prize offered exclusively to left-handed persons who demonstrate exemplary commitment to left-handed causes.  According to left-handed activists, a person’s joint orientation is innately fixed in their blood from birth, a scientific fact which alone ought to preclude them from personal shame or social stigma.  Rather, members of the left-handed community ought to take pride in this uncontrollable biological condition which they had no responsibility for whatsoever, and the rest of us should sing their praises for doing so.

Ha!  What a ludicrous supposition.  The reason, of course, why Left-hand Pride movements haven’t yet penetrated the mainstream is because the very idea of congratulating yourself for a physical characteristic you theoretically have no power over is just as asinine and prejudiced as the idea of condemning some person or group of people for such a characteristic.  These dueling positions, 1) that left-handers are born with that distinction and 2) that they therefore ought to pride themselves on this uncommon aspect of their nature, are what American author Ambrose Bierce would term an incompossible union.  If it’s true that left-handers are born with this defining trait and fully lack the wherewithal to alter it, then what manner of personal achievement may they rightly claim through it to merit this sense of “pride”, which, under the circumstances, really signifies nothing more than satisfaction with the way one’s body works?  Likewise, if a man is to take pride in his left-handedness, would not that preference have to be a voluntary choice, undertaken by his own initiative and will rather than foisted upon him by external forces?

This brings us to the dilemma of so-called (Gay) Pride Parades, those celebrations of deviance and debauchery which ironically have either nothing to do with pride or nothing to do with real homosexuality. Incidentally enough, “Grand Marshal” Demi Lovatory of the L.A. Pride event kicking off this Friday isn’t even a lesbian but nonetheless says, “I have been an active advocate of the LGBT community [TLGB, according to the most innocent and unassuming promotional website of “LA PRIDE”] and am wholly committed to supporting individuality and being comfortable in one’s own skin.  I am thrilled to be a part of… a wonderful celebration of independence and self-confidence.”

Let it be noted that Gay Pride, as sponsored by its noble humanist dignitaries, shall hereby be construed as synonymous with “confidence and comfort in one’s own skin”; how else can the sponsors of this movement make it to coexist with the Gay Rights movement they support in equal measure?  Under any traditional definition of Pride, it would appear that Gay Rights and Gay Pride are based upon fundamentally estranged doctrines.  The former movement holds as holy scripture that people’s sexuality/gender/orientation/whatever is irreversible from birth and beyond the scope of human ability to change, usually demonstrating its earliest effects from the ripe young age of 2-5 years old, where children first start to experiment with their sexual identity by deciding which clothes they like to wear (that their parents buy for them), which toys they favor playing with (that their parents buy for them), and which social activities they most enjoy doing (that their parents sign them up to do).  Resistance to sanctioning homosexual unions, they argue, is steeped in the same irrational hatred that once outlawed interracial marriage and punished loving couples for merely physical attributes endowed on them by nature and fate alone.  After all the progress we’ve made (because human civilization, far from degenerating or becoming complacent towards liberty, always advances with time, contradicting everything we know from history and anthropology), who are we to tell two consenting adults they can’t love each for whotheyare, where one’s “love” is completely contingent upon procuring a paper certificate arbitrarily bestowed by a bureaucratic stranger and sealing such love in print?  These activists commission a multitude of pithy catch phrases and cardboard banners to defend their core convictions against overwhelming scientific, mathematical, and simply logical proof to the contrary, beating such slogans to death as Born This Way and God Made Me Gay, which would seem to credit divine providence for saving the hypothetical homo-gene from its natural, inevitably self-extinguishing course.

In contrast, the latter movement of Gay Pride must necessarily contend the opposite, that one’s sexuality is not immutably decided at birth and has to be chosen at some point in one’s life.  After all, what valid reason can a man possibly claim for priding himself on some physical feature that’s supposedly but a product of his DNA?  If, as the leftist platitude so often goes, his sexual lifestyle is no different than the color of his skin, then what, pray tell, is the basis for this pride other than a simple gratitude for one’s existence?  By this most conventional gay understanding of human sexuality, commending yourself for being gay, lesbian, genderquack, or transwhatsit is just as self-indulgent and petty and fatuous as congratulating yourself for being not-Caucasian, redheaded, left-handed, or any other purely aesthetic minority you can imagine.  Indeed, this is exactly the kind of self-superior smugness from which supremacist groups are made; as Gay Pride and Black (Democrat) Pride are increasingly hallowed as sacraments of American liberalism, Straight and White Pride will be driven ever further out of political acceptance, to the point where even declaring one’s heterosexual identity will be censured as hate speech that’s insensitive to the plight of LGBT ‘victims’.

L.A. Pride tries to weave its way around this patent absurdity with the explanation that it’s honoring the “history, courage, accomplishments, and future” of the LGBT community, but this is obviously a pretense. On the one hand, it’s fairly safe to say that most attendees of these parades have accomplished nothing very important with their lives, shamelessly frequenting what’s essentially a rolling strip club on floats that deliberately caters to every carnal fetish and lust.  On another, it doesn’t take any great courage to “come out” in a crowd at a rowdy festival populated mostly by like-minded and like-oriented people, nor is being openly queer all that much of a social crutch in a day and age where gossip magazines, web browsers, network morning ‘news’ shows, and the commander-in-chief of the United States of America all rush to prostrate themselves before anyone who unexpectedly gets the gay, be it Michael Sam, Jason Collins, Bradley Manning, Ellen Page, etc.  In the case of Ellen Degenerate and Robin Roberts, these groveling opportunists will even prostrate themselves before themselves while waiting for another heroic queer to emerge from the fray.  America’s media may be the most welcoming of homosexuals in the entire world, and celebrities are more than willing to game that standing for professional gain.  Many of Hollywood’s highest-grossing actors are “proudly” homo- or bi-sexual, and the music industry is likewise inundated in them.  As of this week, there is an official Google-sponsored hashtag, inaptly titled proudtoplay so as to insinuate that one’s physical prowess rather than one’s sex is the object, that’s expressly dedicated to that obnoxious subset of athletes who make a spectacle of their gayness as a diversion from or even cover for their actual talent.  Contrary to popular rumor, there is no legislative or statutory barrier to gay people participating in competitive sports and ogling their teammates in the locker room, nor is there is a resounding public countercurrent to homosexuality in the status quo, though critics of homosexuality and proponents of traditional moral views are persistently reviled and shamed as hateful bigots.  Those words which used to be regarded as a reasonable argument in favor of a functioning and virtuous society are now called “disgusting”, while that behavior which used to be regarded as disgusting is now called a virtuous, indispensable, and somehow valiant support of an open-minded, tolerant, nonjudgmentalist democracy.

What, then, are Priders so proud of to throw a party in recognition of their Pride, if not their courage, which, having no adversity to overcome, must exist in a vacuum, or their achievements, which, in most cases, simply involve doing the same things that heterosexual people do while vociferously reminding everybody that they’re homosexuals?  It can’t be their orientation – according to the foundational tenets of Gay Rights, one’s orientation is as inextricably ingrained in one’s biology as one’s pigmentation, and what man has no free will to determine he has no logical reason to respect himself for determining.  But what else could it plausibly be?  Gay Pride and Gay Rights are based on incompossible philosophies, the one professing that people should love themselves for their sexual tastes, the other that people can’t be held accountable for any such preferences.  The world of being, alas, has scope enough for only one of these delusions; the other must be judged a lie and a fraud.  If gayness is innate from birth, then it’s impossible to be truly proud of oneself for that coincidence, and the whole principle of these hedonistic vanity fairs implodes along with the faux heroism of those stalwart warriors for diversity in Hollywood and the NFL.  If sexual pride really exists as more than just a fanciful idea, though, it’s impossible to build a legal or logically coherent case for the natural right to “marry” anybody of any sex, especially when homosexuals already retain the same eligibility for marriage licenses typically claimed by traditional, procreative couples. When homosexuality’s own practitioners demonstrate it to be a matter of individual, free choice instead of biological necessity, the homosexual agenda instantly ceases to be a matter of upholding basic human dignity, becoming yet another case study in the corruption of financial profiteering by a small but vocal minority at the expense of their fellow citizens… and that’s disgusting.