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Archive for October, 2007

Notes on Otherness, Part Two: M.I.A


Click here to download MIA’s ‘Paper Planes Remix’ featuring Bun B and Rich Boy.

I’ve held a strong dislike for M.I.A since the annoying ‘Pull Up The People’ and that mixtape that allowed kewl kids to listen to Ciara without really listening to Ciara (Jazze Pha > Diplo). It was mainly her smug politics, particularly her obnoxious tendency to claim third-world status and half-assed political sloganeering that passed for insight among back-patting progressive types. Then, a few weeks ago I saw her perform ‘Paper Planes’ on Letterman and really liked the song. It’s an easy song to like- looping the ridiculously great Clash song ‘Straight To Hell’- and it works, including M.I.A’s crappy “rapping” and the conflation of gunshots and cash register sounds with ‘Rump Shaker’ is clever and post-modern and really does say a lot…although it begs the question: Why is Uffie the most hated hipster rapper out there and M.I.A, a critical darling? Don’t answer that, I don’t care.

A little while later on one of Tom Breihan’s podcasts, he played a remix of ‘Paper Planes’ featuring actual rappers Bun B and Rich Boy. The song is really, really great, as Bun and Rich Boy destroy M.I.A on a technical level but also content-wise. Between this song, his really smart verse about out-sourcing on Devin the Dude’s ‘Lil Girl Gon’, and countless lines on ‘Underground Kingz’, Bun’s probably the smartest political rapper out there. Rich Boy’s verse is some particularly clever gun-talk delivered with socio-political anger that M.I.A is too cool to express. Breihan, on his podcast, talks about how M.I.A and Bun drop these sort of general verses about violence while Rich Boy is like, in it- which is half-right. The best that can be said about M.I.A is her verse is so general and her sloganeering so simple, it’s not too annoying. To suggest that she’s doing anything close to what Bun B does is a little offensive. I’m not sure who orchestrated this song but as a song, especially if you don’t think too much about it, is really great.

But on the topic of “the other”, ‘Paper Planes Remix’ reeks of exploitation. This is particularly fun to pick apart because it hints at some things that have always bothered me about M.I.A, namely, a certain hypocrisy when it comes to her discussions of colonialism, imperialism, and issues of the third-world. It’s cool that she took the time to pick out two smart, politically-engaged and still entertaining southern rappers, but another aspect of it just feels off. M.I.A, starting with ‘Piracy Funds Terrorism’ has shown a tendency to avoid more conventionally accepted “smart” American rap for Southern rappers. Recall that she declined working with Kanye on ‘Late Registration’ but has since collaborated with Timbaland, Three-Six Mafia, and others. Part of me think it’s wonderfully contrarian, a way to validate much-maligned Southern rap but another part sees it as similar to the moans about hipster celebration of crack rap over “smart” rap. Many blame this Southern rap fixation on collaborator Diplo and indeed, that makes some sense, but recall this moronic blow-up with with Pitchfork, where she minimizes Diplo’s influence on her music:”[It is] insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female or that people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blond-haired and blue-eyed [meaning Diplo].” To me, the situation reads more like M.I.A using Diplo. Indeed, many might credit Diplo for the southern rap influences but one another level, he will act as a shield for exploitation criticisms. The white dude will get the shit and not the British/Sri Lankan female. It’s convenient for M.I.A to lash-out against those who credit Diplo for her success after the fact; if what Miss Arulpragasam says is true, she used the white boy’s whiteness to gain acceptance: M.I.A is more successful and well-known than Diplo.

The weird issues of exploitation go further as her problems with the pretty much accepted producer/rapper relationship is just one of many examples of taking American rap and pop on her terms. The accurate and much-discussed conflict with European Americans in regards to their treatment of the other, be it individuals or a whole culture, is the expectation that the other should come to them or meet them half-way. In the case of M.I.A, it is she who expects the rap culture to accept her. Is there any rapper out there who does not suffer a little bit of credit due to collaboration? M.I.A just happened to choose a white collaborator, so she can invoke her gender or race when proper credit is not given; she doesn’t just accept it. In this Status Ain’t Hood interview, she complains about Timbaland’s interest in (gasp!) making hits and surprise, surprise…Three-Six Mafia suck at collaborating with women! Did she expect these production legends to bend over backwards because M.I.A showed up? She also sounds incredibly British (not Sri Lankan) when she condescendingly speaks of Three-Six’s limited travel experience and carrying around their Oscar (as if DJ Paul and Juicy J aren’t aware of why that is funny…).

In the same interview, she has a similar tone discussing Baltimore Club producer Blaq Star (“He’s really really soulful”) which brings us back to Diplo. Diplo has, rightfully, caught a lot of shit for what many in Baltimore see as an exploitation of the city’s music. I guess it’s cool that now M.I.A is going straight to the source but I don’t see how that’s any different from vaguely uncomfortable genre-hopping experiments from Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel. On the topic of that ‘Graceland’-level of exploitation, there’s M.I.A’s use of a Nigerian refugee named Afrikan Boy. When she describes the part of England from which Afrikan Boy comes, she sounds like some Long Island Jew who ended up in the wrong part of New York: “He’s this Nigerian kid, and he’s a refugee who lived in Woolwich, which is the worst neighborhood in London. I went there once in my life accidentally when I fell asleep on a night bus, and it was like the worst day of my life.” Besides the uncomfortable aspects of her description, it’s weird the way she uses conventional appeals to essentially “street cred” when describing the rapper. There’s also her use of Aborigine Kids on another track and the off-handed comment that now two of them are “in a young offenders’ institute.” I get the icky feeling that if M.I.A weren’t exploiting her own Sri Lankan heritage, she would be called-out for exploiting these kids and you know, not helping them out for anything beyond sticking them on her album.

What seems to excuse M.I.A’s cultural exploitation is her own minority status which, if she didn’t seem to constantly flaunt and address it, would be a little more acceptable. She was born in England and went with her family to Sri Lanka; her father was some kind of revolutionary. I would not disagree that her life was tough, but she was never as “third-world” as the people she speaks-up for. She eventually came back to England thanks to Western programs that aid refugees, got an education, became an artist and musician. Ultimately, her rather questionable connection to the third-world is fine but since it is she who plays games of “I gotcha” identity politics, she deserves to be called-out. She subscribes to and/or takes advantage of the rather weak assumption that all “oppressed” peoples share some kind of weird connection; Stanley Fish called this “boutique multiculturalism” meaning,: People weave in and out of differing “foreign” cultures, picking and choosing which aspects to embrace and which to ignore (like shopping in a boutique).

There’s a wonderful anecdote Fish uses to exemplify this kind of thinking and it comes from (I think) a Paul Theroux travel essay. In the essay, Theroux recounts traveling through a Muslim country and chatting it up with a cab driver who happened to have a Literature degree (this is off the top of my head, so the exact details may be off). Theroux and the cab driver waxed poetically about classics of literature and then Theroux, thinking he with a completely like-minded liberal-arts type, asked the driver his opinion on the Rushdie fatwa. Much to Theroux’s surprise, the driver slammed on his breaks and angrily ranted murderous threats against Rushdie. The point being, this moronic assumption that people all over the world who share certain qualities, be it oppression or education- are “just like us”, is wrong! One can imagine M.I.A in the foolish spot of Theroux and not the Muslim cabbie, as she sat in Three-Six Mafia’s studio and heard them preach “backwards” expectations of female rappers or stand in shock when Timbaland drops “baby girl, go to your teepee”…

Written by Brandon

October 4th, 2007 at 9:19 pm

Notes On Otherness, Part One: Wes Anderson

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When I first read that the new Wes Anderson movie was took place in India, I was nervous. My first thought was, it seems a grotesque catering to his twenty-something audience (of which I am a part), many of which (this part, I’m not a part of) idealize India and go there to “study abroad”. Just as Anderson enabled their love of everything from Asics to 60s pop, he was now indulging in their strange obsession with India. Within a few minutes of reading about ‘Untitled Wes Anderson India Project’, I readjusted my thoughts and considered Anderson’s previous four movies, all of which are reversals of expectations and essentially, genre deconstructions. As ‘Bottle Rocket’ parodied the heist movie, ‘Rushmore’ the youth rebellion picture, ‘Tenenbaums’ the screwed-up family drama, and ‘Life Aquatic’ the action movie, it is safe to say ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ will take an equally complicated view on the “going to a foreign country and finding one’s self” movie, making Jonah Weiner’s article for Slate ‘How Wes Anderson Mishandles Race’ all the more frustrating.

I’m not one to immediately dismiss claims of racism or “race mishandling” but I do like to take a close look at such claims because when the claims are unwarranted, it only makes it harder for the worthwhile accusations to be taken seriously. I haven’t seen ‘Darjeeling’ yet, so I’m admittedly talking half out of my ass here, but I’ve seen all of Anderson’s movies quite a few times, wrote an 80-page Undergraduate thesis about one but also wouldn’t exactly call myself a member of the Anderson cult; he’s a good, not great director. What annoys me about Anderon’s work is what annoys many, his twee-ness, his quirky obsessions, but what I love about Anderson is that in every movie, the quirks are ultimately demolished by real-world problems, emotions, and yes, social and cultural politics. Even as Anderson seems to be stumbling around in his obsessive, doll-house unreality, his movies are constantly poking at and highlighting aspects of our real-world. For example, Jeff Goldblum’s streamlined and cold scientist is a parody of Apple product-obsessed elitists (there’s a quick visual gag involving an iPod in ‘Hotel Chevalier’ too).

Anderson is an ironist, not in the sense of him not taking anything seriously, for his movies are very, very affecting but an ironist in the sense of being highly aware of himself and his movies and what they are doing. Anderson is well aware of genre, film history, and is Kubrick-ian in his casting of actors for their past filmography and their real-life personae. So, when Jonah Weiner reads ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ as simply “…beware of any film in which an entire race and culture is turned into therapeutic scenery.”, I can’t help but think he made this decision before seeing the movie with Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ in-hand. Of course, Weiner has seen the movie and I haven’t, but it seems to be a movie about movies in which white characters find themselves through another race/culture and not a movie in which that happens and is validated.

The basic plot involves three brothers, headed by Owen Wilson in what seems to be an update of his Dignan role, using India to find themselves. I know an ongoing joke in the movie is the way the characters are given laminated itineraries for the day, that will highlight the many “spiritual” places in India (Stanley Fish would’ve called the brothers’ actions “boutique multiculturalism”). The joke of the movie seems to be the way a bunch of white brothers search-out transcendent moments. The irony is of course, that one cannot contrive or seek-out life-changing events (reading the should-come-with-a-spoiler-alert article in the new ‘Film Comment’, it seems like the brothers lives actually become changed once they veer off-course).

Weiner essentially says this (“Sometimes Wes Anderson winks at the brothers’ fetishistic attitudes toward India, but he eventually reveals his own”) and then cites said SPOILER-ALERT scene as an example. Okay, so SPOILER-ALERT: There’s a scene where the brothers, at their lowest point, end up having to save three drowning Indian boys; one drowns, they attend his funeral. On an artistic level, I think Anderson is depending too much upon these kinds of “moments”; in the trailer I saw, I even spotted it as that “moment” because of the hand-held cameras…but as a part of the movie, this does not sound like a scene that suggests that some Indian boy had to die for the brothers to stick together but that it’s the point where they are suddenly immersed in the reality of India and reality of the world (DEATH.). It is at that point in the movie (if it follows Anderson’s past formula) where they can no longer sit back and objectify their reality (and India).

Weiner’s second problem with this scene is that comedy is derived from it. At the same time, he critiques Anderson for not “wink[ing]” at the scene’s obvious borderline offensiveness (forgetting the movie itself is in part, one huge wink) but Weiner’s thesis is how Anderson uses India and jokes- especially when the punchline is purposefully misinterpreted- become obvious examples of not taking an issue seriously. A joke that Weiner ignores that I recall from the aforementioned ‘Film Comment’ article is that one of the brothers, holding the dead child, says “I didn’t save mine.” If that isn’t a joke about (not at) the brothers’ cultural objectification, I don’t know what it is! Weiner instead focuses on a joke that comes after the un-winking funeral sequence, in which the brothers are shown in “gorgeous late-day sunlight” (signifying gained knowledge?) and then “the camera slowly zooms out to reveal a cartload of Indian porters behind them, carrying the brothers’ considerable baggage”. This is reduced to a “sight gag” by Weiner but it is a loaded sight-gag. Presumably one about how all that junk that just happened to the brothers, witnessing a drowning, attending the funeral, only kinda sorta changed their perspective; they are still blissfully ignorant assholes, in short, they are still humans (people like Weiner do not like movies full of humans, they prefer symbols). The scene is not a joke at the expense of those Indian porters but a joke at the brothers’ obliviousness (and a purposefully corny joke about literal and figurative baggage). Weiner makes the rookie mistake of conflating what an artist portrays with what he supports.

The next move is a willful misinterpretation of the “minority” characters in Anderson’s movies. I will certainly concede that Anderson is not the greatest handler of race, however I’d dare Weiner to name another Hollywood director that even makes an attempt to address issues of race and class. Anderson, in movies that are never directly about race (although often about class, Anderson handles this flawlessly), still finds places to subtly address and acknowledge it and for that, he is snarkily challenged…most apparently in a simplistic laundry-list dismissal of Anderson’s minority characters.

The first issue with Weiner’s list is the way that it only relates to brown or yellow people. Why is Klaus in ‘Life Aquatic’ not a mishandling of Germans? Ms. Cross of ‘Rushmore’ has hints of the cliche of the British intellectual but this is not a concern of Weiner’s. Anderson’s movies too, often do women a bit of a disservice, as they are either sexless or sexually overactive. By only reading those brown and yellow people as misrepresented, it puts Anderson’s work into a conventional Hollywood sense of race and representation the director has never subscribed to: Anderson’s movies use archetypes (and stereotypes) that apply to all of the characters, from Margaret Yang to Steve Zissou. It is very easy to reduce any of Anderson’s characters to offensive stereotypes if one is so inclined.

But that is a writerly sin of omission (however convenient it might be to omit European and Women characters) and Weiner’s big sin is commission, as he willfully misinterprets the minority characters he does address. Anderson’s minority characters are shown to be sane and rational in a way that his privileged whites choose not to or in more sympathetic moments, just seem unable to be. Yes, ‘Bottle Rocket’s Inez is a “projecting screen” for Anthony’s romantic ideals but this is never seen as a good thing. I would also say that very few movies that aren’t directly about Latino culture, give a better outsider’s perspective on the culture than ‘Bottle Rocket’ and this is obviously because Anderson is from Texas! ‘Rushmore’s lack of minorities is only appropriate, for it is simply a fact that you’re not going to find a lot of minorities at a prep school. Margaret Yang begins as a parody of the studious Asian but she turns out to be a lot like Max. Recall that Max sort of really falls for her when she admits she faked the results of her science project; she is NOT the studious, do-gooder Asian. If the movie were called ‘Margaret Yangmore’ I might have a problem with such a simplistic presentation but given her total of like 10 minutes on-screen, it’s fairly complex. Danny Glover’s Henry Sherman of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ is a true supporting character in the movie and is pretty much the only sane character of the bunch. Sherman does not “meekly endure” Hackman’s racist jabs, he strikes back screaming, in a scene that only ends when Etheline breaks them up. Hackman calling him “Coltrane” is a joke on the petty idiocy of racial comments: How is Coltrane even offensive? That’s the joke of the scene and reasons for Henry’s initial meekness: he’s unsure how he’s even being offended. ‘Life Aquatic’s multi-cultural crew is a nod to 60s or 70s concepts of diversity; one must remember that Anderson must cast a crew that Zissou would cast and Zissou is an out-dated guy so, he still subscribes to out-dated concepts of racial sensitivity. It is also frustrating that Weiner takes this jab at Anderson when Weiner’s perception of race is incredibly simplistic, the kind of faux “with-it” dislike of whiteness only found in a white person:”Wes Anderson situates his art squarely in a world of whiteness: privileged, bookish, prudish, woebegone, tennis-playing, Kinks-scored, fusty.” Other than “privileged” (and even that is up for debate) none of the other descriptors scream-out “whiteness”.

Weiner’s coup de grace is when he chastises Anderson for yes, in one way, “point[ing] out his characters racial sensitivities” but “ultimately [presenting them] as endearing quirks”. First, what separates Anderson from many of his peers is that his characters’ quirks end up being far from endearing. His characters begin as cute and quirky but those slowly become real-life fuckups that leave the characters stagnate. For example, look at something like ‘Garden State’ wherein Natalie Portman’s tendency to lie is shown as cute and endearing. That is never given a real-world perspective (in the real world, we call her a LIAR). Viewing ‘Hotel Chevalier’, it is clear that Anderson is playing off of ‘Garden State’s “quirkiness” and shows the downside of it, the manipulative, harsh side, exemplified by Portman’s cruel manipulation of Schwartzmann. So, the characters’ racial insensitivity is not an endearing quirk but simply a quirk, which you know, is sort of what it is. Anderson’s characters are rarely overtly racist (even Hackman does it out of malice, not racism) and show equal amounts of ignorance when they try to talk to others, consider others’ emotions, and even consider their own. The racial insensitivities of Anderson’s characters is rightfully presented as a minor, personal flaw which when lined-up with problems like dead parents, depression, suicide, incestual longings, etc. just makes sense.

Written by Brandon

October 2nd, 2007 at 5:42 am

Posted in Irony, Wes Anderson, iPOD