Friday, March 30, 2007

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Leaving My Hermit Hole

Photo by Kenneth Cappello

So I decided to end my self-imposed concert ban and went to see Bloc Party last night. (Actually, I still probably wouldn't have gone if a friend hadn't had a spare ticket and needed a ride). I avoid going to Boston on general principles - the last time I went into Boston I got into an accident. I hate driving in Boston. Sure enough, we got lost on the way to the venue but still made it with plenty of time (because we left really early, but that was wise foresight in this instance).

There are a couple reasons I haven't bee not a concert in almost two years. The first (and coolest) is that the last show I saw was Sleater-Kinney, on what would later become their farewell tour, and it was such an amazing show that, honestly, it sort of sated my desire for live music for a long time. Which leads me to the second reason - as much as I loved seeing S-K, I hated the show itself. I think I've discussed this before: concerts would be wonderful if not for the people who go see them. When you've already got a thing about crowds in general, being forced into the position of being in close proximity with the worse-behaved specimens of modern American youth is quite simply a harrowing prospect. This is part of why I am beginning to think that I shouldn't feel to bad about going to concerts rarely, even though I enjoy it when I go. It takes a toll, and when I'm done I feel the sincere need to go lie in a cave for a week.

Bloc Party put on a good show, even if I did cringe at some of the more hammy moments - Kele Okerke's crowd-pleasing shtick wore real thin real quick. Aren't British bands supposed to be famous for their business-like reserve in front of crowds? The problems were more technical than anything else, and I suppose I'm marking myself as a hopeless fogey for even mentioning them. First, the guitars were massively out of tune for the first four or five songs, and although the problem was fixed after that point there were still a couple of dodgy moments throughout the course of the show. Is it so hard to keep your guitar in tune? Really? Secondly, the show was very badly mixed, and the sound design for the room was abominable. Boston's Orpheum is a really odd venue for rock shows, because the balcony is very low and half the building's seats are positioned under the balcony. It's a challenge to design the sound so that the highs and the lows don't cancel each other out and end up echoing badly for half the audience. They didn't succeed very well, because for most of the show the prominent noise (for me) was high-pitched guitar noise bouncing off the walls and low ceiling, effectively dampening the drums and bass. Which is a damn shame because Bloc Party has one of the best rock drummers currently working today, Mr. Matt Tong. He seemed to be having a great night - he took his shirt off about halfway through the show, which was impressive - but I'll be damned if I could hear a fraction of the intricate detail work he provided.

It's not like it's impossible to get good sound out of the Orpheum. I saw Nine Inch Nails there a little over two years back. They were (as you may imagine) considerably louder than Bloc Party. I was seated in roughly in the same area for that show, and despite the volume the sound mixing was pristine and every element could be heard with perfect clarity. Damn shame.

But still, even with these caveats, it was a good show. I can quibble about the set list - "Song For Clay (Disappear Here)" is really not as strong an opener as they seem to think it is, and I would have switched around the encore of "Helicopter" and "Banquet" so that they played the latter last and not the other way around - sort of an anticlimax, as "Helicopter" never did strike me as one of the stronger tracks off that album, despite it's popularity. They didn't play "Price of Gas", but that's a small complaint. There are worse ways to spend a Wednesday night, especially if you don't have to pay for the ticket.

And now for something completely different,
quite possibly the greatest music video ever, ever*.

*Not really.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Greatest (Single-Issue) Comic Book of All Time?

Top Five Love & Rockets Characters Who
Aren't Actually Maggie, Hopey or Luba

5. Venus
4. Izzy
3. Errata Stigmata
2. Penny Century
1. The Motherfucking Sea Hog

I couldn't for the life of me remember why I had put Agnes and His Brothers in my queue, but I did enjoy when I watched it. The funny thing is, the movie is very, very similar to American Beauty, right down to a specific scenes. Like, seriously, there's a scene where someone thinks they're watching one character perform fellatio on another, except there's a plant in the way and the other characters are really doing something else totally innocent. There's a spooky kid obsessed with his camcorder, there's a divorce precipitated by a frigid wife...

The thing is, despite the obvious filching, Agnes is a much better film. While American Beauty sort of skirts around controversial subject matter in that smarmy way that middlebrow American films do so well, Agnes - despite the superficial similarities - owes a lot more to Pedro Almodovar in terms of tone (and not simply because the movie features a post-op transsexual in a prominent role). There's veiled incest, bestiality and semi-public shitting. The movie's most sympathetic character is a peeping Tom with passive aggressive issues toward his father who only finds happiness by becoming an adult film star, to give you an idea. I don't even mind that they lifted the closing sequence almost wholesale from Adaptation - it was still an interesting movie that stuck with me for far longer than I expected.

Monday, March 26, 2007

This and That

Just because I know some of you are soft on Endemic Treponematosis, I will point out this post on the subject of crazy girls. As every man knows, crazy girls are the spice that makes life's gumbo tolerable. Hell, I like the breed so much, I even married one (although my ex had purple, not red hair). They have the bright hair to ward off predators, incidentally.

Just off the top of my head, ten artists who should have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before U2 or Van Halen were even allowed in the building (not that it matters considering it's a mutual blowjob society for Baby Boomers, but still, but still):

- Captain Beefheart
(Longshot, but still)

- The Stooges / Iggy Pop
(I had to check, but yeah, neither are in...)

- Television
(Not a chance in hell, but still)

- The Replacements
(I'd say it's even money these guys might make it one of these years - too many people in rock nowadays built their careers out of aping the 'Mats for them to be so easily forgotten. )

- The Meat Puppets
(Pretty much ditto what I said for the Replacements, albeit with subtantially less chance of ever actually being inducted.)

- Kraftwerk
(This should have been a no-brainer - but then, I guess they just fucking had to put Stephen Stills and David Crosby in there twice.)

- New Order
(Joy Division is too cult, but New Order are legitimately one of the most influential, important and popular groups of the last thirty years. But they're probably too British.)

- The Cure
(Even the most rabid Cure-hater can't deny their influence, their popularity and their staying power. But again, too British.)

- Depeche Mode
(One of the biggest bands in the world, still packing stadiums to this day, and they're not in? Even when a HoF induction is the only chance in hell of ever seeing Vince Clarke play with the band again? Jann Wenner must fucking loathe Britain.)

- Larry Levan
(About as much chance of this as Hell freezing over, but you can't make a serious argument that he doesn't deserve to be there just as much as, say, Bob Fucking Seger. )

If you get the chance to see the replay of this year's induction ceremony, however, it's worth it, if for no other reason than to see Paul Shaeffer make an uncharacteristically awful fuax pas. You'll know it when you see it - simply amazing.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Next Big Thing In Law Enforcement

As a little-know provision of the Patriot Act renewal of 2006, clouds were deputized by state and federal law enforcement. Whereas flesh-and-bone cops are subject to conventional search-and-seizure regulations, clouds - as diaphanous globules of gaseous water - are not. Clouds possess the ability to enter any premises without warrant, because they are mist.

This has been a great boon to law enforcement. They can find that joint in your ashtray left over from the Christmas party where you invited your cousin. And then if you say you didn't even know it was there, they can get you for resisting arrest.

And the new clouds Force will finally enable the government to crack down on The Gays. In the past, sodomy laws were notoriously hard to enforce without photographic or, preferably, videotaped evidence (featuring multiple angles that you can toggle back and forth from with your remote control), because any Suspected Gay, when brought in to court, could always say they were "just kidding" about the Gay thing. But now that the very fog has been deputized, the Attorney General can finally take permanent steps to get The Gays off our streets.

Next stop, The Blacks, the Browns, the Yellows, people who vote for the Democrat Party and those other people who do that thing we don't like. Brought to you by the Justice Department, and the Cloud Police.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Make the Homies Say Ho and the Girlies Want to Scream

For a while now I've been meaning to discuss more animation on this blog. It's definitely "not comics", but animation and comics have always been kissing cousins. My enthusiasm for comics may wax and wane, but I've loved cartoons since I was a little kid. I still prefer watching cartoons, even bad cartoons, to just about anything else.

Anyway, advance screenings of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie are starting to leak into the press, and the reactions are, ah, mixed. Which shouldn't surprise me. What does surprise me is that they actually made an ATHF movie in the first place. I mean, it probably cost next to nothing, considering how cheap the show already is. But it's such a cult artifact... although the audience is rabid, it is probably considerably smaller than the audience for, say, Firefly. And the general bewilderment with which the property is meant by the general public does not indicate that it will be much in the way of a breakout success.

No, ATHF is a niche. But the thing that always gets me is how people who don't "get" the show always misjudge just what that niche is. I mean, I don't know everyone who watches it: I could be in the minority. But I think it's probably one of the most intelligent shows on television, in terms of the amount of thought that goes into the premise and the execution. At the risk of overstating my case, it's definitely one of the more self-conscious and self-aware shows in the history of television, a show which could not even exist without an extremely sophisticated, not to say jaded, awareness of pop culture history and the disposable absurdity thereof. Sure, you could say it was essentially a comedy for stoners to get high to - but then you'd be taking it at face value, which is exactly the type of over-literal thinking that creates the talking fast-food items that live forever in our cultural detritus. No, despite the occasional overreaches into toilet humor, the show is a much more postmodern take on the Seinfeld template - a pile of useless high-concepts spinning their wheels, doing nothing, existing in a Beckett-esque limbo (New Jersey) where everything, no matter how earth-shaking or destructive, is reset every twelve minutes.

It's a formula that never fails to amuse me. I don't like to buy DVDs very often, because I am one of those people who just can't stand to watch movies over again until I've totally forgotten them (with a few exceptions), but I can rewatch my ATHF DVDs over and over again and still enjoy them. For some strange reason, they tickle my funny bone like just about nothing else. Also, the series has remained remarkably consistent in a way that many of the other Williams Street programs have not - as much as I enjoyed the Brak Show, for instance, it probably ended when it needed to. Harvey Birdman probably should have ended a long time ago. But unless they change the formula radically the movie should be the most purely enjoyable thing I see in theaters all year - and that's even if they release a movie composed entirely of Helen Mirren and Irene Jacobs mud-wrestling while Neko Case plays Stones and Bowie covers in the background.

My dad, in an offhand comment, once made a brilliant insight towards encapsulating the show's appeal. We were watching a few episodes off my DVDs and he pointed out something to the effect that "all these adventures they show in the opening credits - they never actually do any of these things". And that is the point - the glorious, mind-numbing, borderline-autistic point. They are talking fast-food products who live in a world of mad scientists, aliens and wizards, and everything they encounter is as mundane as it can possibly be.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Soundtrack Meme

I usually detest most memes, but there was something charming about this one that piqued my interest. If it's good enough for a little stuffed bull, then it must be good enough for me.

I admit this is a purely mischievous impulse on my part; I bow to no man in my iTunes' ability to offer some really fucked-up, and yet, oddly thrilling juxtapositions when set loose at random.

(Also: it's rather depressing to realize you ate up the entirety of the 30 gigs on your mp3 player and could still fill it up twice over. I'm having to delete something every time I want to put something new on there; last night, Dylan's John Wesley Harding got the axe, I just can't love that album and am not sorry to see it go.)


Opening Credits
"So Many Ways" - Mates of State
Hmmm. This is actually somewhat appropriate. Sometimes I forget I put this album on here.

Waking Up
"If Music Could Talk" - The Clash
Nothing says "rise up to meet the day" like a dubby jam from deep in the heart of Sandanista!

First Day At School
"Almost Forgot Myself" - The Doves
Wow, the shuffle is being a bit indie today. Again, oddly appropriate, in a melancholy, John Hughes-meets-Cameron Crowe fashion. (I hate both John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, honestly. I'd have much preferred, say, some Gang of Four.)

Falling In Love
"We're No Here" - Mogwai
Now that's perfect. What is love if not blinding, pounding post-rock terror produced by Scottish people?

Fight Song
"A Winter's Sky" - The Pipettes
Yes. Perfect. This is the sound of me hurting you.

Breaking Up
"Ferdinand the Imposter (Demo)" - The Band
OK, this is not really a good pick . . . and yet, I guess it's got a plaintive thing going at the choruses. Not anyone's favorite Band song.

"Surge" - Funky Porcini
Maybe if everyone was taking a lot of speed and listening to a scratched-up copy of Birth of the Cool on the turntable.

"Art Bitch" - Cansei de Ser Sexy
Yeah, this is my life in a nutshell.

Mental Breakdown
"Haze" - Dan Mass
Yep. When I go nuts, I hear slightly goofy lounge-influenced house tracks. Again, I didn't even realize I had this on here.

"Inocular A" - Mouse on Mars
Driving in downtown Boston, yes.

"Black Flowers" - Yo La Tengo
Actually 100% appropriate, what a disappointment. I would have paid hard cash for the Chemical Brothers' "Flashback".

Getting Back Together
"Heaven Is A Truck (Live In Australia)" - Pavement
If love is a drunken car crash only briefly by flashes of wistful reminiscence, this is the soundtrack. It is, so this works.

"Wilderness (Live)" - Joy Division
Having been married once, this is pretty close to what I expect to hear if I ever have to go through it again.

Birth of Child
"Seen Your Video" - The Replacements
There are few moments in life that cannot be made better by the Replacements. Sure, if I had to pick, obviously "Bastards of Young" would be more appropriate (you're never too early to indoctrinate your offspring into the cult of crushing disappointment!), but this mostly instrumental track carries a nice romantic heft as well.

Final Battle
"Hoist That Rag" - Tom Waits
Ah, a rookie - I just put this CD in yesterday (bye bye John Wesley Harding). Again, appropriate, especially if you are me. But not quite as appropriate as it would be for my American Idol audition.

Death Scene
"Rebel Rebel (Live)" - David Bowie
This is the really coked-up, super-glammy version off the David Live set - a criminally underrated live album, featuring some of Bowie's most distinctive (read: did he even know where he was when he sang these songs?) vocals. Perfect for that long march into the white light, since there was sure a lot of white powder involved in the recording of this song.

Funeral Song
"Saturday Morning" - Meat Puppets
Yeah, not quite as upbeat as I'd usually want for my funeral procession. But certainly violent enough. I want the weeping and the wailing and the gnashing of breasts, dammit!

End Credits
"Sweetness Follows" - REM
OK, I cheated here because it was really a David Bowie song (the album version of "Candidate", in case you were wondering), and I'm of the old school - no two songs by the same artist on a mix, unless you've got a damn good reason for it. Anyway, I couldn't have picked a better track than this - the most depressing song in the entire catalog of a intermittently very depressing band. Anyone who sees a movie of my life should want to walk into the parking lot and wrap their lips around the exhaust pipe of their automobile, for despair from realizing they will never be as cool as me.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Now That's What I Call A Good Comic Book Cover

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lots 'O' Thots

- Is Marvel ever going to mention "The Other" again? You remember, that big crossover that was supposed to change Spider-Man, forever? That ran across three months of books and took less than an hour to read in total? That even the people involved didn't seem to know what it was about? Or is that weird Spider-demon thing going to have something to do with re-establishing Peter's secret identity? Even "Maximum Carnage" was more interesting and had a longer impact. I didn't even pay any money and I still want my money back...

- Finally saw Science of Sleep. I had read a few negative reviews that put me off it, but it was surprisingly good. Not just the whimsical twee-fest I had been led to expect - pretty dark in places. Reminded me of The Fisher King a little bit, never a bad thing. One of the better movies about mental illness to come down the pike in the last while.

- The new Arcade Fire is growing on me. I must admit I was really less than sold on their first album - more hype from the indie-music cognescenti - but this new one is really something. Definitely took a few listens to simmer, but pretty good.

- Today in the comic shop, in the space of about twenty minutes, I saw two different women - women, not girls, at least in their 30s - purposefully walk into the shop, head for the "B" section of the new releases rack, pick up the new Joss Whedon Buffy book, and head for the register. Didn't look at anything else, might as well have had tunnel vision as far as the rest of the store was concerned. There goes that "gateway" comics theory... (Although, if they are that committed, they might actually stick through with the whole series, which is more than retailers are seeing for the second Dark Tower book, apparently.)

- OK, looking through an issue of New Avengers in the shop - am I the only one slightly curious at the fact that this team of Avengers doesn't have a single charter member (or Captain America, who might as well be)? Is that a first as far as Avangers line-ups go? Am I the only person who notices crap like that?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Because There Are At Least Two People Reading
This Who Will Appreciate The Joke

Image courtesy of I Can Has Cheezburger.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Bringing an Atom Bomb to a Knife Fight

For some odd reason, recent events have brought the subject of fascism and the casual acceptance of fascist ideological elements in pop culture to the foreground of my thoughts. It's one of those subjects which most people either find entirely opaque or blatantly obvious: either you accept that images and symbols have weight and power beyond their immediate context or you don't. Both approaches have their risks: on the one hand, attempting to apply blanket moral condemnation across the vast spectrum of art invariably creates its own reactionary tendencies. But on the other, accepting all art as situational - parsing off certain experiences as more or less harmless in separate contexts - allows for the assimilation and eventual rehabilitation of harmful ideas into the broader discourse.

Few critics have understood this conflict as well as Susan Sontag. Rereading her 1975 essay, "Fascinating Fascism", it is amazing to see just how prescient she was in many ways, surveying the eventual atrophy of moral indignation in reference to gradually receding historical events which would, in turn, be drained of their power and transformed into acceptable objects of kitsch. But she was also painfully naive, mostly in presupposing that the differentiation between "elite" and "mass", already dying in 1975, could in any way survive the coming decades. "Elite" culture has dwindled to an almost vestigial nub, leaving the whole of mass culture to deal with dangerous and harmful ideas which are no longer even one step removed from reality.

I have quoted extensively from "Fascinating Fascism" in the hopes of illuminating certain general ideas which may be of interest; assumedly, all quotes © the estate of Susan Sontag.

(In discussing Leni Riefenstahl's 1975 book of photography, The Last of the Nuba:) Although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl's portrait of them evokes some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical. A principal accusation against the Jews within Nazi Germany was that they were urban, intellectual, bearers of a destructive corrupting "critical spirit." The book bonfire of May 1933 was launched with Goebbels's cry: "The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended, and the success of the German revolution has again given the right of way to the German spirit." And when Goebbels officially forbade art criticism in November 1936, it was for having "typically Jewish traits of character": putting the head over the heart, the individual over the community, intellect over feeling. In the transformed thematics of latter-day fascism, the Jews no longer play the role of defiler. It is "civilization" itself.

What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic. In Riefenstahl's casebook of primitive virtue, it is hardly - as in [Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques]- the intricacy and subtlety of primitive myth, social organization, or thinking that is being extolled. Riefenstahl strongly recalls fascist rhetoric when she celebrates the ways the Nuba are exalted and unified by the physical ordeals of their wrestling matches, in which the "heaving and straining" Nuba men, "huge muscles bulging," throw one another to the ground-fighting not for material prizes but "for the renewal of the sacred vitality of the tribe." Wrestling and the rituals that go with it, in Riefenstahl's account, bind the Nuba together. Wrestling ... is the expression of all that distinguishes the Nuba way of life. Wrestling generates the most passionate loyalty and emotional participation in the team's supporters, who are, in fact, the entire "non-playing" population of the village. ... Its importance as the expression of the total outlook of the Mesakin and Korongo cannot be exaggerated; it is the expression in the visible and social world of the invisible world of the mind and of the spirit.

In celebrating a society where the exhibition of physical skill and courage and the victory of the stronger man over the weaker are, as she sees it, the unifying symbols of the communal culture-where success in fighting is the "main aspiration of a man's life" - Riefenstahl seems hardly to have modified the ideas of her Nazi films. And her portrait of the Nuba goes further than her films in evoking one aspect of the fascist ideal: a society in which women are merely breeders and helpers, excluded from all ceremonial functions, and represent a threat to the integrity and strength of men. From the "spiritual" Nuba point of view (by the Nuba Riefenstahl means, of course, males), contact with women is profane; but, ideal society that this is supposed to be, the women know their place.


Fascist aesthetics include but go far beyond the rather special celebration of the primitive to be found in The Last of the Nuba. More generally, they flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, "virile" posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.

Such art is hardly confined to works labeled as fascist or produced under fascist governments. (To cite films only: Walt Disney's Fantasia, Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here, and Kubrick's 2001 also strikingly exemplify certain formal structures and themes of fascist art.) And, of course, features of fascist art proliferate in the official art of communist countries - which always presents itself under the banner of realism, while fascist art scorns realism in the name of "idealism." The tastes for the monumental and for mass obeisance to the hero are common to both fascist and communist art, reflecting the view of all totalitarian regimes that art has the function of "immortalizing" its leaders and doctrines. The rendering of movement in grandiose and rigid patterns is another element in common, for such choreography rehearses the very unity of the polity. The masses are made to take form, be design. Hence mass athletic demonstrations, a choreographed display of bodies, are a valued activity in all totalitarian countries; and the art of the gymnast, so popular now in Eastern Europe, also evokes recurrent features of fascist aesthetics; the holding in or confining of force; military precision.

In both fascist and communist politics, the will is staged publicly, in the drama of the leader and the chorus. What is interesting about the relation between politics and art under National Socialism is not that art was subordinated to political needs, for this is true of dictatorships both of the right and of the left, but that politics appropriated the rhetoric of art-art in its late romantic phase. . . . What is interesting about art under National Socialism are those features which make it a special variant of totalitarian art. The official art of countries like the Soviet Union and China aims to expound and reinforce a utopian morality. Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetics - that of physical perfection. Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in physique magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy.


In contrast to the asexual chasteness of official communist art, Nazi art is both prurient and idealizing. A utopian aesthetics (physical perfection; identity as a biological given) implies an ideal eroticism: sexuality converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers. The fascist ideal is to transform sexual energy into a "spiritual" force, for the benefit of the community. The erotic (that is, women) is always present as a temptation, with the most admirable response being a heroic repression of the sexual impulse. Thus Riefenstahl explains why Nuba marriages, in contrast to their splendid funerals, involve no ceremonies or feasts.

A Nuba man's greatest desire is not union with a woman but to be a good wrestler, thereby affirming the principle of abstemiousness. The Nuba dance ceremonies are not sensual occasions but rather "festivals of chastity"-of containment of the life force.

Fascist aesthetics is based on the containment of vital forces; movements are confined, held tight, held in.

Nazi art is reactionary, defiantly outside the century's mainstream of achievement in the arts. But just for this reason it has been gaining a place in contemporary taste.


Riefenstahl's work is free of the amateurism and naivete one finds in other art produced in the Nazi era, but it still promotes many of the same values. And the same very modern sensibility can appreciate her as well. The ironies of pop sophistication make for a way of looking at Riefenstahl's work in which not only its formal beauty but its political fervor are viewed as a form of aesthetic excess. And alongside this detached appreciation of Riefenstahl is a response, whether conscious or unconscious, to the subject itself, which gives her work its power.


More important, it is generally thought that National Socialism stands only for brutishness and terror. But this is not true. National Socialism - more broadly, fascism - also stands for an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under the other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders). These ideals are vivid and moving to many people, and it is dishonest as well as tautological to say that one is affected by Triumph of the Will and Olympia only because they were made by a filmmaker of genius. Riefenstahl's films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic ideal to which many continue to be attached and which is expressed in such diverse modes of cultural dissidence and propaganda for new forms of community as the youth/rock culture, primal therapy, anti-psychiatry, Third World camp-following, and belief in the occult. The exaltation of community does not preclude the search for absolute leadership; on the contrary, it may inevitably lead to it. . . .

Riefenstahl's current de-Nazification and vindication as indomitable priestess of the beautiful - as a filmmaker and, now, as a photographer - do not augur well for the keenness of current abilities to detect the fascist longings in our midst. Riefenstahl is hardly the usual sort of aesthete or anthropological romantic. The force of her work being precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas, what is interesting is that this was once seen so much more clearly than it seems to be now, when people claim to be drawn to Riefenstahl's images for their beauty of composition. Without a historical perspective, such connoisseurship prepares the way for a curiously absentminded acceptance of propaganda for all sorts of destructive feelings - feelings whose implications people are refusing to take seriously. Somewhere, of course, everyone knows that more than beauty is at stake in art like Riefenstahl's. And so people hedge their bets - admiring this kind of art, for its undoubted beauty, and patronizing it, for its sanctimonious promotion of the beautiful. Backing up the solemn choosy formalist appreciations lies a larger reserve of appreciation, the sensibility of camp, which is unfettered by the scruples of high seriousness: and the modern sensibility relies on continuing trade-offs between the formalist approach and camp taste.

Art which evokes the themes of fascist aesthetic is popular now, and for most people it is probably no more than a variant of camp. Fascism may be merely fashionable, and perhaps fashion with its irrepressible promiscuity of taste will save us. But the judgments of taste themselves seem less innocent. Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then. The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed.

Monday, March 12, 2007

This is Sparta, and This is the Mars Volta

I didn't go see 300 because I thought it would in any way shape or form be a "good" movie; rather, based on the previews and advance buzz, it looked like a very bad movie in many ways. But it did look like it might just be a hoot regardless of its quality, sort of a Snakes On A Plane for the sword-and-sandals set.

If you've read this blog for any amount of time you know that I am no fan of Frank Miller. I loathed Sin City in comics form and have had to repeatedly defend my disinterest in the film adaptation from otherwise well-meaning people who - unfamiliar with the man's work - naturally assume that there is method to his madness, a meaningful irony to be found in his assiduous application of overwrought sensationalism. But insomuch as it is possible to read an artist's intentions through the evidence of their work and their public statements, Miller is absolutely, painfully sincere. The alternative is to believe that everything the man has done for over two decades has been a kind of Andy Kaufman-esque performance art statement. Considering that the man is currently and enthusiastically busy on a project roughly hyped as "Batman vs. al Qaeda", it becomes more and more probable that books like Sin City, 300 and All-Star Batman are resolutely honest in their steadfastly reactionary ethical framework.

I went to 300 with a friend of mine who was very much looking forward to the movie. Totally unfamiliar with Miller's work, she is something of a military history buff. She had downloaded the trailer and watched it repeatedly, and really wanted to see the film simply on that basis. I tried to warn her: this is going to be an extremely bad movie. If it's as accurate as the filmmakers claim, it will be comically bad. Of course, oracles are often ignored in their own time . . .

About the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film we spent in total silence; me trying not to ruin my friend's enjoyment of the movie, her in shock from the first frame of the film and trying desperately to will the film better. But at a certain point she simply gave up: it was the scene where the Spartans are surveying the ruins of one of the cities ravaged by the Persian forces, and the little boy's shadow rising against the smoke looks like a giant Transformer robot. She started laughing hysterically, covering her mouth and hyperventilating so as not to disturb her neighbors. She leaned over and whispered in my ear that she had "never been so disappointed by a movie in her entire life". The laughing on both our parts did not end for the entirety of the movie's running time. Although the majority of the film's sold-out audience did seem quite sincere in their enjoyment, there was a small but vocal minority who along with us were hooting and laughing throughout the whole film.

I have to say that I enjoyed the movie a lot more than I thought I would. I was expecting it to be bad, but not this bad . . . in the annals of crap cinema, 300 has immediately risen to the level of Citizen Kane - a classic of crap, an ecstatic celebration of all the worst kinds of schlock. It isn't just that the acting is poor; it isn't just that the plotting is ramshackle and disjointed (betraying the weakness of the source material); it isn't just that half the things which occur on screen seem to happen without any cause or context; it isn't just that this is one of the most claustrophobic films in history, betraying with every frame the fact that every second of film was shot in a small room filled with green screens (some of the dialogue still carries the flat echo from being recorded indoors). Everything together conspires to create one of the most thoroughly incompetent film experiences in recent memory. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a film so much: although it may seem counter-intuitive, I highly recommend 300 to anyone and everyone. You won't have a better time in the theater all year.

It's the type of film that really makes you wonder just why, at no point in the process, no one involved ever thought to raise their hand and make an objection - "doesn't anyone else see just how silly this all is?" As my companion observed, 300 would be the perfect movie if everyone in the world was fourteen years old. Sure enough, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the film is well on its way to being a monstrous hit, winning the acclaim of the bulk of the movie-going population. It's not the first profoundly dumb movie to achieve massive success, but something about the sheer glee with which the conventions of history and storytelling are skewered in 300 places it a cut above the average moron fare. There's not a note in the movie that wasn't cribbed wholesale from another, superior film; there's not a single historical fact left unmolested when it could be warped to fit the storytellers' ideological agendas. I believe very strongly in the inviolability of history in art: an artist has the responsibility to either get the history right to the best of their ability, or to make changes in good faith with the understanding that an intelligent audience will be able to interpret the changes as necessary sacrifices to artistic merit. 300 merely changes history to suit its whims, and the majority of modern filmgoers will most likely never be the wiser, and will never know that Miller's omissions and elisions are in fact harmfully disingenuous, the kind of changes that would perhaps in a more skeptical era be attributed to rank propaganda. It may not - as many commentators have tried to suggest - be directly political propaganda, but it is ethical propaganda of the most egregious.

So we have a historical epic that presents a disastrously bad distortion of history, an epic spectacle that looks dinky and stupid, a special effects movie with poor special effects, a graphic novel adaptation that hews so closely to the source material that it slavishly recreates the source material's every fatal flaw. At what point did Frank Miller become a serious media mogul and aesthetic touchstone, and not just a hacky ideologue with a disproportionately large following? The world may never know. Why can't, say, Robert Heinlein get this kind of slavish devotion? Now there's a slavishly reactionary libertarian who could actually tell a story . . .

Perhaps I was biased walking into 300, on account of the fact that I have very recently read and enjoyed a surpassingly good account of the actual events that inspired the story - Tom Holland's Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. The Persian invasion of Greece presents one of the most fascinating military, political and social narratives in all of Western history, from the Athenian defeat of the Persian expeditionary force at Marathon, through the Spartan defeat at Thermopylae and on to the tremendous navel victory at Salamis and the final, decisive rout at Plataea (the battle alluded to in the movie's final moments). It's a great story and told exceedingly well by Holland. Anyone with even a modicum of interest in the real story owes it to themselves to give the facts a real hearing.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Conversation of 02/20, with Sgt. Star

(I'm "philip" because no way am I giving my name to the Army)

SGT STAR: Welcome Philip. How can I help you today?

philip: I was wondering what your opinion was on Marvel's CIvil War crossover.

SGT STAR: In combat, Soldiers work to accomplish the mission. The Army will provide you with time to rest and take care of personal matters.

philip: Issue seven hits stores tomorrow and the word on the street is that Captain America might bite it, but I kind of doubt they'll actually do that. Any thoughts?

SGT STAR: Here are some jobs in that category that might be of interest to you. To find out about the availability of specific jobs and what you're qualified for, log into the Army Career Explorer.

philip: The alternative is, of course, that something will happen to Iron Man.

SGT STAR: You have the choice between serving either on Active Duty, which is full time, or you can serve in the Army Reserve. Generally, in the Army Reserve, you are required to train one weekend a month plus two weeks per year, and serve when needed. Read this page to find out which option is best for you. >>

philip: I am thinking that regardless of how it ends most people are going to be seriously unhappy.

SGT STAR: That is a good question, however, I am not positive that I understand what you are asking. Try rephrasing your question. I understand simple questions best.

philip: Did you see the Ghost Rider movie?

SGT STAR: All Soldiers undergo eye exams for enlistment. Perfect eyesight is not a requirement and many applicants do enlist wearing glasses or contacts, the Army will re-evaluate your prescription and if needed will issue you two sets of glasses to wear during your intiail training when you arrive at Basic Training. All soldiers will also be tested for color blindness at this time. Many Specialties do have vision requirements, but if you wear glasses and they are corrected to the requirement, you will be Ok. >>

philip: I really liked it. It was very close to my platonic ideal of the perfect superhero movie.

SGT STAR: Here are some jobs in that category that might be of interest to you. To find out about the availability of specific jobs and what you're qualified for, log into the Army Career Explorer.

philip: This was, I believe, the first time since Christopher Reeve was Superman that they have been able to translate a character's visual appeal with such fidelity.

SGT STAR: Here are some jobs in that category that might be of interest to you. The Army Career Explorer can help you determine the job qualifications and availability. Try it now.

philip: Have you been able to look over the recent year-end Bookscan numbers at all?

SGT STAR: Hmmm, I've been trained to ask for help when I'm not sure about an answer. If you would like, you can ask another question or I can connect you to my supervisor if you click 'Ask Live Help.'

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Eternals #1-7

I have come to the conclusion that two things need to happen on this blog: 1) I need to write more reviews, and 2) I need to write shorter reviews. I've got this thing in my head about needing to write lengthy reviews, it's almost a neurosis, but it's really unnecessary considering that the majority of books that I read are not worthy of extended critique (sorry, Bondage Fairies). So I am going to try in most instances to be less like Jog - I honestly have to wonder how he finds time to eat and sleep; I mean, I live alone with a cat and work nights and I can't imagine devoting that much time to writing about comics if I wasn't being paid for it - and more like Tom Spurgeon, able to encapsulate the virtues and vices of any given book in succinct and unambiguous terms, and not without a dash of elan, either. (of course, my favorite image of Tom remains the Sam Henderson illo on top of the Comics Reporter site - I like to imagine that Spurgeon actually does walk around town yelling at people just like that, maybe even while smoking a cigar and brandishing a rolled-up racing form, as if to smack his foe as he would a poorly trained dog.)

Anyway, with all this in mind, I am going to review Neil Gaiman's Eternals in bullet-points, as every time I thought about sitting down to write an essay about the series' merits, it occurred to me that it simply was not consequential enough to deserve that much of a time expenditure. That alone can probably be seen as a damning indictment, but it need not necessarily be . . .

- The series kept my interest enough for me to buy all seven issues more or less as they were released. Considering my emaciated buying habits, that in itself is high praise.

- At the same time, I think that whatever residual halo hung over Gaiman's comic work in the wake of Sandman has pretty much fallen away. For whatever its faults - and there are many - Sandman is still a very good comic, mediocre in many places but downright brilliant in a few spots. Perhaps whatever it was that enabled him to write that series has faded, because nothing since then has struck me as being anywhere near as good. What little I've seen of his prose strikes me as, well, workmanlike and more than a little plodding. The less said of 1602 the better - I stopped buying that, I believe, after only two issues. I still don't know how it ends.

- But as good as Eternals is, it's still only really at the level of a very good mainstream comic, which can’t help but be something of a disappointment for those few back-benchers for whom Gaiman's name was enough to sell the project. But for the enthusiastic acceptance of the Marvel Universe's fantastic elements (the type of which the likes of Bendis have never really been very comfortable exploring), this could easily have been written by any of Marvel's current stable of go-to guys. It holds up well, without any major plot holes or jarring tonal shifts - better than you'd expect from Straczynski or Millar or Bendis, but that says as much about the lowered expectations of mainstream comics readers as much as anything else. When competence is the benchmark, the benchmark has fallen low indeed.

- But for what it does, it does it extremely well. None of Kirby's 70s work has ever meshed particularly well with Marvel's broader cosmology, probably because it was never really intended to, but Gaiman manages to smooth over not only the source material's tonal inconsistencies, but a whole raft of subsequent bad stories that only served to further dilute what was already a tough sell in the context of the greater Marvel Universe. You gotta give Gaiman some credit: you don't have to know that Sersi's most recent prior appearance was as a screaming cosmic harridan in some horrible Ultraverse crossover to appreciate the story, but if you do, the way Gaiman confidently resuscitates the character - who was as close as it comes in comics to soiled beyond redemption - can't help but seem masterful. Similarly, you don't have to have read Mark Gruenwald's Quasar to understand the character of Makkari, but it's obvious that Gaiman has, and is wise enough to base his interpretation of the character on Gruenwald's previous work. In a day when superstar writers are more than happy to throw out decades of established continuity for the biggest characters in comics, it is refreshing to see a writer - especially a writer with the kind of clout that could easily have justified any changes he wanted to make - paying heed to the work that preceded him on a group of D-listers for whom, honestly, no one really would have cared one way or the other.

- But with that said, it’s also worth noting that the overall plot was kind of familiar. Something very much like it was done with the Eternals themselves in a storyline in the early 300s of The Avengers. (It was the one where Gilgamesh gets clobbered by a lava demon and ends up in a coma, so the Avengers have to find the rest of the Eternals only to find that they've disappeared.) Also, something very similar was done in Journey Into Mystery in the mid-90s when it reverted back to the original title during Thor's year-long sojourn in the Heroes Reborn universe. I even recall seeing Odin as a homeless man with a pet dog. So, eh, good execution but no points for originality.

- The best part of the series was undoubtedly John Romita Jr's art. For some reason Danny Miki's inks reminded me of Vince Colletta's inks on Kirby's Thor - not the erased backgrounds and awkward faces, but the sense of slightly rustic antiquity that resulted from putting fine linework over Kirby's powerful pencils. (Of course, in a perfect world Colletta would never have been allowed anywhere near Kirby, but for what it's worth his inks did add a bit of atmospheric detail that seemed especially appropriate for Thor.) Romita's art on the book seems both majestic and slightly gnarled, and it really works in terms of selling the reader on the massive time scales at work.

- This series offered a rare example of a final issue that really did improve the rest of the series. After issue six I was ready to dismiss the book as an enjoyable but resolutely lightweight confection, but with issue seven Gaiman actually pulled off the neat trick of using a quiet denouement to pull the previous events into much sharper focus. There were even a couple moments that caught me totally flat-footed, offering glimpses of the same potency that Gaiman was occasionally able to muster for Sandman. It's still essentially a reshuffling exercise, but damn if it didn't end on a much stronger foot than I would have thought possible. In any event, I'm actually interested to see where these characters go from here, which is something I would have imagined on the outset to be frankly impossible. So, yeah, neat trick.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Got That Old "Don't Feel Like Writing A Real Blogpost" Blues

So check out this instead.

And this is fun too:

Just so you people don't think I'm dead or anything.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Introducing the Sensational Character Find of 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen, Milo the Cat.

(Not to be confused with this Milo.)

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Home Again, Home Again,
Jiggety Jig