Amoeblog

METALLICA'S STRUCTURING ABSENCE, OR GOOD 80s BANDS 2

Posted by Charles Reece, August 23, 2008 06:24pm | Post a Comment
No wonder Metallica is so successful and so goddamn terrible now. What were you doing in high school?  Here's what Cliff Burton was doing with Faith No More's guitarist, Jim Martin:

 
Notice Martin's "Search and Destroy" riff in the second part:


Mmm.  I never heard anything like that at my high school talent shows. Closest anyone came was a spot-on Night Ranger cover band.

Joker's Wild, or Batman Degree Zero: The Dark Knight (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, August 10, 2008 10:36pm | Post a Comment
The Joker


There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheel-barrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves ... -- Slavoj Zizek, p. 1, Violence

I just happened to start reading Slavoj Zizek's new book, Violence, shortly after I saw Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and found both to serendipitously complement each other. Zizek begins his book with the little tale of theft quoted above, which he uses as a grounding metaphor in analyzing our approach to violence. Too often we're concerned with its subjective effects (who was hurt and by what, i.e., what's in the wheelbarrow), rather than its objective status (the symbolic order that gives form and definition to the violent act, i.e., the wheelbarrow itself). For example, an anti-semitic remark doesn't constitute hate speech -- isn't violent -- for a Nazi who exists in a context where "the Jew" is defined outside of humanity, and thus moral concern. It is the functioning symbolic order that allows everyday people to exist in a system perpetuating violence on others without seeing how their own normality is defined by what it violently excludes. This is what the Joker is getting at when he says to Harvey Dent:
 
Nobody panics when they expect people to get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.
 
Sure, we (represented here as Gotham City residents) might see the gangbanger's death as violent, but always as subjective violence, an act by an individual on another individual, not as a sign that the cultural system itself is violent. The difference between the violence against a gangbanger and against the mayor is that only the latter is perceived to be a threat to the normal order of things, whereas the former is already written into the cultural bill as the price of doing business as usual. The Joker is an agent of chaos, because he's the embodiment of pure objective violence. That's why he assures Harvey that killing his girlfriend, Rachel (Bruce Wayne's love interest, as well), and leaving him horribly disfigured as Two-Face was "nothing personal." As such, the Joker's actions can only be read as chaotic, senseless, or just plain nuts. He doesn't put Gotham's citizens (including its criminals) through a series of terroristic spins on the prisoner's dilemma for personal gain, revenge or as the result of some childhood trauma -- he's an ascetic without a real history. Rather, his only goal and source of pleasure is in making his victims face up to the abstracted violent substructure around which their culture is configured. Sounding like Jack Nance and looking like he's spent time in A Clockwork Orange and Ichi the Killer with fashion tips from Malcolm McLaren, the Joker provides a scarred face to the invisible logic of capitalism, with cracking make-up and a forced smile. He's pure desire without an object, paradoxically making the impersonal personal and invisible visible. Regarding this invisible and "fundamental systemic violence of capitalism," Zizek writes:
 
[M]uch more uncanny than any direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their "evil" intentions, but is purely "objective," systemic, anonymous. [Some stuff about Lacan's Real versus reality that I will spare you.]  We can experience this gap [between the reality of people and what's being defined as reality by the logic of capitalism] in a palpable way when one visits a country where life is obviously in shambles. We see a lot of ecological decay and human misery. However, the economist's report that one reads afterwards informs us that the country's economic situation is "financially sound" -- reality doesn't matter, what matters is the situation of capital ... -- p. 12-3, ibid.

Stocks wouldn't keep rising for a corporation that exploits third-world misery if that repressed misery took on a subjective quality for the investors. For capital to keep growing, said misery has to remain purely objective, an abstract cost that's been symbolically excluded out of our day-to-day concerns. The Joker is the same unbounded desire that drives capitalism. Without any object or goal to satisfy him, he exists outside of our rational system and can only be stopped with violence. He can't be beat, however, only beaten, because the solution to the problem he presents is the problem itself: repression of systemic violence. (Batman once tried to reason with him -- understand him -- in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke with miserable results.) At best, Gotham City can return to the status quo by forgetting him -- define him out existence as insane and lock him away in its local Id repository, Arkham Asylum. Or they could kill him, but Gotham's local hero of repression has only one rule: he doesn't kill.
 
The Batman

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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