Amoeblog

TRAILER TRASH

Posted by Charles Reece, August 2, 2008 09:05pm | Post a Comment
In W., the third in Oliver Stone's trilogy of "you're expecting a leftist nut, but really I'm just another bourgeois liberal" films (following Nixon and World Trade Center), our current President gets Stone's patented humane treatment:


The majority of Stone's post-JFK work points to something I didn't initially realize about that one truly great film of his, namely that its frenzied, foaming at the mouth and forgetting to breathe conspiratorial style came from a humanistic fear. Similar to those racialist conspiracies of Atlantis and other myths of ancient white civilizations that are grounded in the fear that non-whites might've advanced technology and world culture, Stone doesn't want to accept that another human being might be so foreign to his own humanistic beliefs as to behave in a manner that would call into question his own humanistic worldview.  Thus, he needed to fantasize about the machinations of a Big Other in order to fit the evil that a common man might do and has done into his provincial ontology. This approach de-humanizes evil by making it always one-step removed from its practitioners. As with white racists not having to worry about "savage" technology -- being explained away as the result of their own mythological Aryan ancestors -- humanism is inoculated from evil, since it's always something else causing it, never humanity itself. Instead of looking at how we might be just like them, Oswald, Nixon, Castro, etc. are made to be just like us. Little wonder why Natural Born Killers was so hellbent on blaming the media. A little bit of Saint Augustine's worrying about his dirty thoughts would be good for Stone.

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Go Forth and Replicate: A Few Thoughts on Advertising, Christian Rock, Mad Men and Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music (2004)

Posted by Charles Reece, July 27, 2008 10:17pm | Post a Comment
I've been letting my Movies We (I) Like blog languish for far too long, so before I get to my Batman critique, I'm adding not one, but two entries to it with in the next couple of days. I'm going to try to add one a week from here on out (we'll see how well that goes). Anyway, until they appear, I won't keep you in suspense: the first pick is the pretty darn good Mad Men (which is a TV show, not a movie, but it's better shot than most movies) and the other is the surprisingly thoughtful and balanced Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music (a documentary about the current Christian rock scene).


Beginning its second season today, Mad Men is about a third-tier agency on Madison Avenue in the early sixties, a time of radical (well, pseudo-radical) change in the world of selling stuff. The first season is set in 1960, following the recent appearance of the famous Volkswagen ads by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency. William Bernbach was a critic of advertising as a science, instead using it to convey emotions and deep-seated connotations to sell a product. His ads sold you an image of yourself, rather than a laundry list of the product's qualities that were supposed to appeal to you. The approach proved highly successful, and it's why we have the Super-Bowl commercials we do today.


There's a scene in the final episode of the first season where head adman Don Draper sells a campaign for a new slide projector to clients by using snapshots of his own family. So moving is his pitch that one of the other admen, who's currently undergoing some marital woes, has to leave the room lest he be seen crying. Ironically underscoring this heartwarming moment is the whole season where Don has been shown in the company of two mistresses. Advertising is an art that says less about itself or its creators than it does about the intended audience. It's art that's meant to be entirely consumable by being designed with the audience, not artist, in mind. If it's not understood by the target demographic, then it fails as art. That's why it's questionable to even call it art. It's not intended to offer resistance, only acceptance. Any resistance that it offers is purely manufactured, meant to play into a collective mind that wants to see itself as an uncollected group of free-thinking individuals. That Bernbach and others following him could and can walk that line -- selling individualism as a collective commodity -- is the evil brilliance of late-20th century advertising. 


I was thinking of Bernbach's movement and that scene from Mad Men while watching Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music, named after the song from Larry Norman. Norman serves as the inspirational spirit for the film, promoting God while still managing to make music that could exist on its own terms. I don't know about the rest of his stuff, but that song's pretty catchy. I love country songs about Jesus, hillbilly sacred harp, classic Gospel, old Southern and Negro spirituals, et al., but the closest I ever came to being inspired by so-called contemporary Christian was dropping acid at a Stryper show (someone had to do it, and therein lay my inspiration). When a womanizing boozer like Kris Kristofferson asks "why me, Lord," one gets the sense of some struggle going on between his beliefs and his actions.  That sort of struggle gives the song an air of authenticity. But when Michael Sweet and his band sing they're "soldiers under God's command," one gets the message that this is metal being sanitized for the easily contaminated. Little has changed since when they were on top.


Most of the bands featured in Heather Whinna and Vickie Hunter's documentary sound like particular secular bands, just with special lyrics. The ones escaping this marketing pigeonholing tend to do so by sounding so generic that they can't be ascribed a particularized label. That strategy was employed by Stryper during the metal heyday, obtaining secular acceptance by sounding blandly like the genre, rather than the Christian-Iron Maiden or -Van Halen. 


The fundamental problem with Christian rock is that, rather than build on an authentically religious tradition of struggle, it's made to serve two masters: mass culture and fundamentalism. It fails both because it has no soul, no aesthetic inner life, being entirely outwardly directed. Like a modern ad, it tells you no more than what you already bring to the table. On the one hand, it's designed to appeal to the "secular audience" (i.e., the largely Christian audience in the U.S. -- if the census is any indication -- that aren't Christian enough for the extremists). Here the connotation is that Evangelicals are just like you (evidently just as bland as you), and after conversion you can keep on liking the same stuff that you liked in your heathen days. This message is doomed to fail, I suspect, because it's saying there is no essential change in who you are when coming over to their side, so why bother? On the other hand, the music is designed to appeal to the "Christian audience" (i.e., those teens raised with a severe pop cultural immune-deficiency order) who really like music, but live in fear of its not serving God, only itself -- in a word, idolatry. By giving the fundamentalist youth what they want, the ability to rock, while only reinforcing their cultural seclusion, the music is depleted of its potential aesthetic-objective vitality, instead serving as agitprop. In making rock music easily consumable, the dialectic between beliefs and the world is cut short. The religiously conservative audience doesn't have to struggle with popular art any more, because it's now being made with only one message in mind: buy Christian. With the Christian rock scene, the religion has become just as much of a commodity as the music that it copies, easily consumable in one's leisure time.


Free To Do What I Want: Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible

Posted by Charles Reece, July 19, 2008 08:01pm | Post a Comment


Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog
is a 3-act webcast musical created by Joss Whedon with his brother Zack and half-brother Jed (the latter of whom also does the score). Hurry up and watch it, as you'll have to pay iTunes for the privilege after July 20th. Or buy the dvd. Or watch the degraded YouTube version:

 
This is Whedon in top form. Anyone who's watched Buffy or Angel or read his run on Astonishing X-Men knows that he does great set-ups, but never gives himself (or his co-writers) enough time to follow through with a fitting ending. This time around, he finally creates an effective resolution, and it's exceedingly morose, given that the rest of the story is a much lighter shade of dark comedy. (Don't worry, I'm not going to give it away.) 


This is the tale of Doogie Howser all grown up in a world that doesn't appreciate his eccentric genius.   Unlike in Doogie, Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) doesn't get a preternaturally chesty girlfriend who loves him for being an outsider with a weird, greasy friend. He still has a despicable sidekick, Moist (Simon Helberg), but the best Dr. Horrible can manage is to daydream in song while staring across the laundromat at Penny (Felicia Day), the whey-faced nerd girl on whom he's fixated. Otherwise, feeling like Klebold and Harris, he plots the destruction of the normalizing cultural institutions that have marginalized him out of existence. With each nefarious deed, he gets one step closer to being allowed membership into The Evil League of Evil, run by his hero, Bad Horse. But every time he tries something, he gets pulverized by the fists of the status quo, Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion). Things go from bad to worse when the cloddish attempts of Captain Hammer to stop a heist of Horrible's puts Penny at risk. Even though the bad Doctor is the one who saves her, it's the Captain who gets the credit and a date. When the beefcake good guy learns that Penny's the only thing his downtrodden nemesis cares about, he begins to torment him (in song, of course) saying stuff like, "normally I don't sleep with girls more than once, but I hear that the second time's when they start doing the weird stuff." Cue the chorus of Hammer groupies. That's more than the put-upon villain can take, so he plots the death of the hero. 


Some of The Evil League of Evil: Bad Horse, Fake Thomas Jefferson, Dead Bowie, Professor Normal and Fury Leika

There's nothing particularly novel about this story. In fact, it's real similar to The Villain (1979), itself a comedy Western spin on the Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons. In that movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a dipstick do-gooder protecting Ann-Margaret from the villainous Kirk Douglas. Douglas' character is wittier, more charming and all-around more creative than the dullwitted hero, but the forces of order are constantly working against him, just like poor Wile E. Coyote, super-genius. The Coyote is a fundamentally repressed part of the modern psyche, which has been stripped down and mass produced by the homogeneous order. We want to side with the villain against the stifling forces of control and celebrate true individualism, until we realize that cute bird would be eaten. The Coyote cartoons maintain the agony of the paradox (between desire and morality), whereas The Villain cheats and lets Douglas get the girl.
 

What the Brothers Whedon add is that line between sadness and funny one-liners that Joss and his writers regularly managed to walk on his TV shows. Unlike The Villain, they don't let you off the hook for wishing for chaotic freedom. Dr. Horrible, therefore, sides with Wile E. Coyote and our own moral reality.  And it's nice to hear dialog from his company that doesn't sound like the Buffyverse argot, which I was beginning to think was the only dialect they could write in (the diminutive form gets old really fast). The music is similar to the Buffy musical, Once More With Feeling. It still has that Rent-burnished pop sound to it, but the lyrics are funny and the music generically catchy enough to get you through. I'd say the music and singing are, at least, an improvement over the Buffy episode. If you hate Joss Whedon, none of this will change your mind, but if you appreciate his pop virtues, this is good stuff.

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I HATE DRUM MACHINES, OR GOOD 80s BANDS 1

Posted by Charles Reece, July 13, 2008 02:44am | Post a Comment
Before Hanoi Rocks, guitarist Andy McCoy and bassist Sam Yaffa were playing with the (locally) famous Finnish punk band Pelle Miljoona Oy. This is a 1980 performance of the song "Olen Kaunis":


The next clip is an early promotional video for the great "Motorvatin'" with original drummer Gyp Casino.  This was also the best hair period for singer Mike Monroe. Surely, David Sylvian felt so inferior that he cut his mop off, resigning himself an artsier David-Bowie-circa-Low 'do. Nothing will make one give up glam faster than seeing a much prettier rival with a better head of hair. Just ask Brian Eno.


The band replaced Gyp with the ill-fated Razzle on drums and the following is purportedly the first visual recording of his being with the band. They do "It's Too Late" (where they pretend to play each other's instruments) and The Damned's "Problem Child":


I searched high and low for a live performance of my favorite song, "Tooting Bec Wreck," but couldn't find one. As a second choice from their greatest record, Back to Mystery City, here's "Mental Beat":


I wasn't aware until traveling the byways of YouTube that a video for "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" existed, but here 'tis:


After Vince Neil "vehicularly manslaughtered" Razzle, the group broke up and went on to various other projects, the best of which was undoubtedly The Suicide Twins, featuring McCoy and fellow Hanoi guitarist Nasty Suicide. Their best song was "Sweet Pretending," which is the best acoustic glam song that Jesus & Mary Chain never recorded:


Monroe struck up a friendship with Little Steven from the E Street Band, which eventually led to a short-lived punk band, Demolition 23. Little Steven left before much recording was done, but they did write an über-catchy pop punk song, "Hammersmith Palais":


Finally, as McCoy was getting over a prolonged bout with alcohol and drugs (or, at least, learning to function better with them), he had a Finnish #1 single with the appropriately entitled "Strung Out":


Monroe and McCoy would eventually reunite, but about the best that can be said of the new version of the band is that at least it's not Him.

THE LATE, GREAT AXL ROSE

Posted by Charles Reece, July 9, 2008 03:17pm | Post a Comment
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