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Burning Ambulance: Review of Drive


Phil Freeman was kind enough to let me rant about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive for his site, Burning Ambulance:

Quiet, kind, possessing a propensity to kick your fucking head in if need be, and sporting a bad-ass satin jacket with a big scorpion on the back, Drive‘s nameless hero, played by Ryan Gosling, is an anomaly on the current action movie landscape. The thing is, though, he doesn’t quite work within the niche of smart-dumb action flicks of the past that Nicolas Winding Refn‘s film fastidiously mines either. See, Drive isn’t chillwave applied to action movies, it’s a clever, contemporary riff on existential tough guy cinema, referencing the right seventies and eighties cult classics, building up the syllabus of nihilistic action flicks only to later reject their deathwish narratives…

Written by Brandon

September 21st, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Fandor: “Top Ten Films About Filmmaking, From Altman to Vertov.”


Fandor is now streaming Jim McBride’s excellent David Holzmann’s Diary and so, they polled the site’s contributors and put up a list of the best movies about movies. I wrote the entry on Fassbinder’s Beware Of A Holy Whore. Also, click here and scroll down for my entire ballot.

Fassbinder’s tenth film (in two years!) meanders around a movie set, depicting the cast and crew’s worst impulses as they manipulate and seduce each other and never quite come together to engage in the communal act of creating great art. Inspired by the sexual tension-filled production of his previous film, a polymorphously perverse Sirk-like Spaghetti Western called Whity, Fassbinder used the movie-about-a-movie conceit to illustrate the inevitable failure of utopian ideals. That a masterpiece was made about how hard and horrible it is to make such a masterpiece is oddly appropriate…

Written by Brandon

June 18th, 2011 at 6:22 am

Posted in Fandor, movies

Misreading Rap: Fish Tank & “Life’s a Bitch”


Two things comes up in pretty much every review of Fish Tank, a British film about a troubled fifteen year old girl into “urban dance” and nothing much else (that is, until her mom’s new boyfriend shows up): The apparently stellar performance from “non-actor” Kate Jarvis and the use of Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch” in a poignant scene between mom and daughter.

Whenever rap finds its way into a movie and it’s not as either source music or for a cheap laugh, it’s something of note, but what’s so cool about Fish Tank is how its given a bunch of film critics the chance to riff on the Nas classic. It’s a crucial part of the movie, so it’s sent critics previously unaware of the song to IMDB to figure out what it is and for most, a chance to throw in a sliver of rap criticism into their movie review. Unfortunately, most are misreading the song. Dana Stevens of Slate called it “unremittingly depressing”–AZ’s hook maybe, the song itself, not so much.

The biggest offender though, is Armond White, who lines-up the perceived phoniness of Fish Tank with Nas’ own “baby brother impudence”. Like most of White’s writing in um, the past ten years, his point is brave and valid (let’s reconsider Nas’ talents), he’s just building it all on a base that’s flimsy at best. Stevens’ descriptions and the many like it can be partially excused by the simplicity word counts often demand, but White’s just completely wrong.

The best explanation of the song, in connection with Fish Tank at least, comes from, of all places, Thinking Faith (the online journal for British Jesuits). Aaron Kilkenny-Fletcher begins his review with a quote from AZ’s verse and quotes the hook later, but is quick to explain that, “Life’s a Bitch” is, “in spite of [the hook], a song of hope and of escape.” Exactly.

“Life’s a Bitch” though, isn’t even that hard to “get” which makes all the misreading all the more frustrating. If there’s a common strain in the “Nas kinda sucks” revisionism that’s been wandering around in the past bunch of years, it’s fueled by the relative simplicity–and therefore, perceived insincerity–of his work. That doesn’t make Nas a bad rapper or Illmatic any less of a classic, but there’s a “teachability” to Nas’ work, that you know, would lend it to short-hand poignance in art films or a pretty mindless book if you peeped that Dyson disaster Born to Use Mics.

There’s still plenty of room for complexity in something teachable, and a lot of the power of “Life’s a Bitch” comes out of its adherence to structure. Really, “Life’s a Bitch” hinges on structure. It’s a song built on pieces that complement and contradict one another. AZ’s verse and hook are apparently all that many people hear–really, just the hook–and it’s easy to see the song as “cynical” or “unremittingly depressing” through that lunkheaded lens, but that ignores the shifting context of that hook, Nas’ entire verse, and the joyful coda that is Olu Dara’s horn solo.

Really though, AZ’s verse isn’t even conventionally “depressing”, it’s beyond “fuck the world” and all that. His verse is not only a celebration of making money, but a quick mini-history lesson on why that’s all he believes in (“we were beginners in the hood as Five Percenters/But something must’ve got in us ’cause all of us turned to sinners”) and a clear acknowledgment that indeed, it’s a fruitless exercise: “As long as we leavin’ thievin’ we’ll be leavin’ with some kind of dough”. The depressing part isn’t that he desires money but that he knows exactly why he does what he does and has no interest in doing different.

AZ’s verse and hook though, are viewed as the contrast or set-up to Nas’ significantly more “hopeful” verse, but that’s too simple too. There’s the same amount of vibrancy and intelligence at work in AZ’s verse as Nas’, it’s just being employed for a different end. Both verses sound good and are perfectly put together pieces of rapping. They are equally persuasive in terms style–they sound awesome but Nas’ verse could not exist without AZ’s–this is literally true if you read the XXL making of piece–because it’s through AZ’s acknowledgement of just how fucked things are, that Nas can come to his 20th birthday epiphany. That oft-quoted, “That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto” comes from a guy who’s spent a lot of bucks on bottles, you know?

When the hook returns after Nas’ verse–again, all about structure here and how structure highlights meaning–it’s nearly “ironic” because Nas has just rejected it or at least, found a way to not believe that “life’s a bitch and then you die”. This is the inverse of most songwriting wherein the “happy” chorus is undermined by the verses or a sad chorus is sung happily–there’s a real give and take going on here. Then it’s punctuated by Olu Dara’s horn solo which is happy, but hardly glorious.

And “hardly glorious” is precisely the kind of minor victory joy director Andrea Arnold’s at least trying to employ in Fish Tank: That good-bad, good enough, tension of the song transported into her film. Not sure where it falls in the white people/black music poignance meter–The Big Chill and Motown as a “1″, Schooly D in the Bad Lieutenant as a “10″–but there’s an attempt to wisely engage with the song’s tensions, which is more than what a lot of critics are doing.

further reading/viewing:
-”Automatic Pity for the People” by Armond White of New York Press
-Fish Tank by Dana Stevens for Slate
-Fish Tank by Aaron Kilkenny-Fletcher for Thinking Faith
-XXL’s Making of Illmatic
-”Deconstructing Illmatic” by Dan Love for Oh Word

Written by Brandon

January 18th, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Posted in Illmatic, Nas, movies

City Paper: Year in Movies, Gomorrah


One more thing. Actual blog content is soon to come. I wrote about Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah for the Baltimore City Paper’s “Year in Film”, it was ranked #2, right after Revanche, whatever that is…

“Sinners in the hands of an angry director. Eurotrash beats apathetically pound over scenes of sitting around and shooting all the same–and no self-justified, too-tan character is spared director Matteo Garrone’s scorched-earth disdain. Not the “just doing my job” money collector, the knuckleheads who think this crime shit’s like Scarface, or the guys in charge, stomachs spilling over too-tight DIESEL jeans. Even those far from Naples aren’t absolved when the web of corruption stretches to Oscar night couture and Camorra cartel investments in rebuilding the World Trade Center. Gomorrah’s biblical pun title is more than earned.”

Also, here’s my ballot:

1. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, United States)
2. Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (Tony Stone, United States)
3. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, Italy)
4. Madea Goes to Jail (Tyler Perry, United States)
5. Public Enemies (Michael Mann, United States)
6. Two Lovers (James Grey, United States)
7. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, United States)
8. Good Hair (Jeff Stilson, United States)
9. Tyson (James Toback, United States)
10. Moon (Duncan Jones, United Kingdom)

Written by Brandon

December 9th, 2009 at 5:28 am

Posted in City Paper, movies

The House Next Door, Music Video Round-Up: Interview w/ Severed Ways’ Tony Stone

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So, my music video column on “The House Next Door” finally returns and I’m going to keep up a regular pace with it and not like, one every four months at the best. The first returning one is a little weird because it’s not about music videos really, but it is an interview with the film director Tony Stone who directed the absolutely amazing Viking, Black Metal movie Severed Ways. Stone and I talk about digital video, Michael Mann, metal’s appeal, and lots of other stuff. If you’ve not seen Severed Ways, please go rent it or buy it, you won’t be disappointed…

“After confusing critics at festivals and brief theater runs over the past two years, Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America—a set in 1007 AD, shot on digital video, heavy metal-scored, Viking anti-epic—made its way to DVD this past summer. Though most certainly not a music video, it’s a movie not only dominated by the interplay between music and images but one that apes the quiet-loud dynamics of the heavy metal music that makes up most of its score. Music is at the movie’s core and in that sense, seems appropriate for “Music Video Round-Up.”

Like an art metal album abruptly but successfully segueing from low-end riffing to Brian Eno-esque ambience, director (and co-star) Tony Stone’s Severed Ways bounces between Malick-esque patience and pulpy, in-your-face bursts of ugliness. Laconic hunting and gathering makes way for heathen church-burning. Wandering in the woods moves to the side for an awesomely unnecessary defecation scene. Imagine the atmosphere of your quasi-historical, Dungeons & Dragons-inspired metal video sucked of all the bombast and almost entirely focused on tiny activities of survival.

The result is one of the most bizarre and strangely moving films of the past bunch of years. And the film’s artfully jagged merger of opposites extends to its creation too; conceptualized, studied filmmaking sent into the Vermont woods, forcing on-the-fly, improvisation. Tony Stone was kind enough to break-down these unresolved tensions and why it was so necessary to go “off the grid” to make Severed Ways and explain metal’s rarefied appeal.”

Written by Brandon

October 12th, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Pulp & History: Inglourious Basterds & District 9

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The intersection of movies wrestling with atrocity and the top-grossers of the week’s a rare occurence, but Inglourious Basterds and District 9 occupy the #1 and #2 spots respectively, while swiping some of pulp’s grammar to engage with the Holocaust and South African Apartheid.

If either of these movies actively worked within pulp traditions properly or respectably, this would actually be an advance from the usual Oscar-bait historical tragedy movies that are way more apt to gross big money. Paradoxically, there’d be some sense of sophistication and breaking down of categorical thinking if lots of people were going to see artfully trashy concept pictures about history. Thing is, Basterds and District 9 run on the same “historically important” fumes as Schindler’s List or Cry, the Beloved Country. Namely, a kind of sleight-of-hand trick that grabs lots of chin-scratching, simply because it tries to take-on the most taken-seriously events of the last century.

And because both offer some kind of “clever” flip on the expected, they’re celebrated for basically being particularly egregious. Basterds removes all the the confusions–the how’s, the why’s, the what the fuck’s–of history for a loaded “what if”, while District 9, sets real-life history next to made-up history, devaluing the former and gaining “clever” points on the latter. District 9 though, is pretty easy to dismiss. In short, the sci-fi metaphor–maybe the only sci-fi metaphor, aliens=outsiders/immigrants–makes no damned sense when you set the movie in the very place that doesn’t even need a metaphor–because it all really happened there. Aliens as shit-class citizens along with entire groups of people also marked as shit-class citizens sorta moots the point. These movies are “compassion fatigue” flicks, wrapping important things around too-clever so they’re stupid conceits and pretending it’s insight.

Tarantino’s WWII pulp-epic/cinematic essay is far more respectful and healthily problematic–that’s to say, you’re not a dolt if you defend it on thematic terms–but it does have that one “District 9 moment”. It’s the aspect that Jonathan Rosenbaum cited (see “further reading” at the bottom, a new tiny feature I’m trying out) and it has to do with carving swastikas into the heads of that one Nazi they don’t kill (so that he may spread the word of the Basterds).

A kind of reversal, though really a parallel, to Nazi perversity, it has the effect of over-extending something that totally doesn’t need to be over-extended to resonate. Like the aliens in District 9, swastika carving is beside the point, not a reinforcement of that point. When the reality of the Holocaust is as equally horrifying as carved-on skin and one can pick your favorite fucked-up detail of death (Mengele’s experiments, gas chamber concrete walls scratched by fingernails), there’s no need to up the ante any.

Of course, excess is a big part of Tarantino’s movie–District 9 however, grows more confusing the more you try to parse it out–and so, this critique and those like it are valid but nearly besides the point. Still, the whole sense of essentially turning Jews into Nazis and Nazis into Jews, despite being mindfully uncomfortable, doesn’t so much wrestle with “revenge” as it just totally advocates it–something even the pulpiest of pulp rarely does. Undoubtedly, the best movies or “films” about revenge are well, about revenge: What it does or doesn’t bring, the time spent and wasted enacting it, etc. Flat-out, this refusal to embrace rarefied Nazi evil is a key to something resembling solace for many Holocaust survivors–and you just can’t push that to the side…and you can’t lean on the implicit thick-headedness of pulp to skate by either.

further reading/viewing:
-Adam Katzman on District 9 vs. The Host
-”Film Threats” by Bret McCabe of City Paper
-Jonathan Rosenbaum on Inglourious Basterds
-”Blues in More than One Color: The Films of Quentin Tarantino” by Stanley Crouch
-Elem Klimov’s Come & See (1985)

Written by Brandon

August 26th, 2009 at 11:29 am

Posted in Tarantino, film, movies

I Should’ve Kicked Your Ass My Motherfuckin’ Self

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So, a new, ‘Special Edition’ of Abel Ferrara’s masterful ‘Bad Lieutenant’ came out on Tuesday and though it features a commentary with the always-fascinating Ferrara and a whatever whatever ‘Making Of…’, it still does not restore the original musical cues. That’s because it can’t. When it played in theaters and appeared on video, ‘Bad Lieutenant’ featured Schooly D’s “Signifying Rapper”, a song that interpolates Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”…then Jimmy Page heard it and got mad.

Not even sure how a non-sampled, played on real instruments version of “Kashmir” can constitute it being removed but well…it did/does. The power of big, scary lawyers. And so, the cheapo DVD that’s been floating around for a few years and yeah, this ‘Special Edition’ does not feature Schooly D’s crucial song. Still, cop/rent that shit. It’s like a Top Five movie for me, for what it’s worth.

Below’s a slightly fixed-up version of a pretty old post I did about the song and the movie and I figured I’d re-up it in honor of a slightly more respectable version of the movie coming to DVD. And if you do want to experience the movie with Schooly, find/rent a VHS copy and it’s still in there. Also, love me some (early) Werner Herzog but fuck this remake.

A decade before Puffy got Jimmy Page to recreate his own riff for the Godzilla soundtrack, Schooly D got some guitar player named Mike Tyler and some drummer named Andy Kravitz to recreate Jimmy Page’s “Kashmir” riff for “Signifying Rapper” off Smoke Some Kill.

The “beat” for “Signifying Rapper” is heavy like Zeppelin but tougher and scarier, due to the repetition and the rawness of the recording. It just starts and goes and goes for almost five minutes, only letting up for the final line: “I shoulda kicked your ass/My motherfuckin’ self”. Schooly is technically rapping–you can break the lines down and everything– but the storytelling aspect of his delivery takes over in full. He moves in and out of emotions, performing different voices, and he shifts his cadence to match the shifting tones of the story rather than the beat. More a kind of spoken-word performance–appropriate given its interaction with the history of the”signifying”, a longstanding, oft-discussed and intellectualized trope of African and African-American verbiage.

Clouding Schooly’s song in cultural history(s) further is its appearance in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and the subsequent controversy its appearance spawned. Though an explanation would work fine, it’s better to read the controversy in Ferrara’s own words:

“”Oh, yeah. I’ll strangle that cocksucker Jimmy Page. As if every fucking lick that guy ever played didn’t come off a Robert Johnson album. “Signifying Rapper” was out for five years, and there wasn’t a problem. Then the film had already been out for two years and they start bitching about it. And these pricks, when their attorneys are on the job, our guys are afraid to come out of their office. You’re not gonna fight their fucking warriors, you know what I mean? Can you imagine, this was down at a federal court in New York, with a 70-year-old judge, and they’re playing Schoolly D and Led Zeppelin to the guy? It cost Schoolly like $50,000. It was a nightmare. And meanwhile, “Signifying Rapper” is 50 million times better than “Kashmir” ever thought of being. And then, this prick [Page] turns around with Puff Daddy and redoes it for the Godzilla soundtrack. Here’s Puff Daddy, where every other song this boy sang was King Of New York this and King Of New York that. And I would never even fucking think of suing these guys. Why sue? You should be happy that somebody is paying homage to your work.”

Lotta good points there. First, there’s the whole aspect of what “sampling” really means. Wasn’t Page “sampling” Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson and others? Yes, Willie Dixon sued his ass at some point, making Page’s suit even more retarded…and Schooly D was certainly commenting on the Zep’s reckless appropriation when he decided to base a song around “Kashmir”. He’s smart like that.

Second, it’s messed-up because it seems directly related to Page playing on ‘Come With Me’. To me, it seems as if “Signifying Rapper” was wiped away as not to somehow compete or co-exist with Puffy’s “Kashmir”-sampling track. It becomes particularly egregious, as if someone really had a grudge against Ferrara because of course, Biggie called himself “Black Frank White” in reference to Ferrara’s hip-hop classic ‘King of New York’.

Third and most importantly, there’s the impact of “Signifying Rapper”s absence on Bad Lieutenant. Here’s a quick breakdown of how the context of certain scenes is shifted minus Schooly.

Scene I: “Get back, police activity!”

As the Lieutenant runs down the street, the Zep rip-off riffs of “Signifying Rapper” expand and compress in the background. A group of young black kids, one of which just handed off drugs to a moving car, run away from the Lieutenant. He chases one into an apartment and at the top of the steps, the chase stops. It was a ruse; the Lieutenant’s a customer (and occasional supplier) for the kid. The scene’s dark humor, it’s clever reversal of expectation (movie-wise and racially) is furthered as the Lieutenant shuts-up a complaining citizen as he takes a few hits from a crack pipe.

At first, you hear the super-identifiable ‘Kashmir’ riff and it maybe reads like some bad-ass theme for the white cop. Rock n’ roll blaring as justice plows through. Then, Schooly comes in and the song becomes a typical, Hollywood “ghetto” atmosphere-setting song: You play rap when white characters go to a black area. Once the Lieutenant’s revealed to be enforcing little justice, the song merges the two, shown-to-be-false binaries (law/crime, white/black, rock/rap). This aspect’s easily glossed over because the song’s context shifts through the characters’ quickly changing dynamic, Ferrara doesn’t do any indicating.

Scene II: The Rape of the Nun
One of the best thing about Bad Lieutenant is that it’s essentially plotless. Simply structured around a couple of days in the life of this wreckless character. Of course though, there are some threads to hold the flashes-of-daily-life moments together, namely the Lieutenant’s investigation of the rape of a Nun.

Ferrara presents the rape fairly respectfully. Although it is explicit, it is not gratuitous and it has an over-stylized feeling to it. Bizarrely idyllic, glowing light, strange slow-motion. It’s an odd choice but it works, almost like the movie’s trying its hardest to not succumb to the perversion playing-out across the screen.

A Virgin Mary falls to the floor in slow-motion. The entire scene is bathed in red light. Purposefully pretentious shots of Christ wailing interrupt the action. It’s sort of surreal and kind of reminded me of Alex’s biblical sex fantasies from A Clockwork Orange. Originally, this scene was accompanied by “Signifying Rapper” but on the DVD, it’s replaced with classical music. This is a real shame because the super-obvious visuals are moved into pretension by the music. In the original version, “Signifying Rapper”‘ acts as counterpoint to the super-serious religious imagery and was meant to complicate the scene.

Scene III: Walk To See the Nun
A long, wandering hand-held following shot of the Lieutenant as he navigates the hallways of the hospital to talk to the raped Nun. The most obscene part of “Signifying Rapper” blasts in the background, Schooly’s insults fully clear because there’s no real-life sound or dialogue to mask it. An explosion of raucous obscenity rumbling around in the Lieutenant’s head that also invokes the nun rape from earlier. This is a great example of how the movie loses nothing with the song removed, but how it gains so much with it added in there.

Scene IV: End Credits
The DVD version ends with a Dylan-esque song performed by Abel Ferrara but the movie originally ended with “Signifying Rapper”. The Schooly song, when the movie wraps-up, feels like the Lieutenant’s theme, a final explosion of aggression and confidence before the movie’s over. That it works more effectively than an actual “theme” written for the movie is telling.

Additionally, the previous two appearances of “Signifying Rapper” in the movie are jarring: The movie switches to a new scene as the drums and riff kick-in. Here, at the movie’s end, the song has a jarring but more organic, non-shock cut oriented appearance. A kind of semi-polite coda for the ultimate hard-ass. This works well, as it’s the Lieutenant’s final moment. It isn’t glorious but it’s not not glorious either. He’s not a likeable character, but he’s fully-exposed (literally and figuratively) and there’s an intimacy the viewer feels with him.

Written by Brandon

July 30th, 2009 at 4:54 am

Posted in Schooly D, movies

Bay’s Transformers 2 vs. Abrams’ Star Trek

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Even before the absurd racism rushing through the movie (A jive-ass robot…with a gold tooth…really?), Transformers 2 was problematic. We can start with the simple snobby point that it’s directed by Michael Bay, he of jingoistic characterization and imagery, or that it was based on a childhood cartoon that itself was pretty racist (something people keep forgetting) just now stretched to marketing-synergy extremes.

Still, simply by being so awesomely explosive and transparently, the party-dude of popular cinema, running down a checklist of audience-pleasing turns and self-justifying thematics, Bay is often sorta celebrated. Armond White’s review summed up a near healthy contrarian take on Bay–his review begins “Why waste spleen on Michael Bay?”.

As cool as it is when a notable part of the media jumps on some actually racist shit, it’s as much because Bay’s an easy target as it is actual social/cultural indignation. That Transformers 2 was vilified for its racial hard-headedness and Star Trek not celebrated for its pop-racial sophistication on this front, sorta negates any “searing” critiques of Bay’s directorial choices. Had Abrams’ Star Trek–written by Roberto Corci and Alex Kurtman (the same two guys behind Transformers 2) and the big, dumb, franchise blockbuster before Transformers 2 stomped onto the scene–not arrived just two months ago, White’d be right. But he’s not.

The differences between the movies are clear and fun to list: Meghan Fox’s bland beauty vs. Zoe Saldana’s rarefied allure, Bay’s leadfooted action cutting vs. Abrams’ embrace of hand-held chaos and roving single takes, the tension of saying “I love you” between Spock and Uhura vs. Mikaela’s cunty frustration with Sam for not uttering those words, the dopey slapstick of Transformers vs. the from the original series dead-pan weirdness. All of these show Star Trek to be both more artistically and socially sensitive than Transformers 2.

In part, this begins with the original show’s conceit and the decision to comment or not comment on it. In fact, both directors are essentially “faithful” to the original properties. Bay decided to continue the selfish excess of the 80s (it makes sense as little kids, we loved Transformers, we were 5 yr. old selfish pricks) and Abrams kept-in all the goofball sincere multi-culti 60s stuff of the original Star Trek. When it’s 2009 though, and you’re doing this, recontextualizing an old time-capsule piece of popular culture, it becomes political. It just does.

There’s a scene in Star Trek in which Kirk (at this point a stowaway on the ship, and a total jerk) and Sulu, along with a particularly gung-ho crew member, sky-dive (or something) onto the Romulan’s ship. Waiting to leap down, this gung-ho third member is bouncing up and down, full of adrenaline and hubris–in short, he’s a character from a Michael Bay movie–as Kirk and Sulu look at him strangely, maybe even sadly. Once they leap, he continues shouting extreme-sports platitudes, and eventually, misses the intended target and gets burned up in the Romulan ship’s jets. This scene illustrates what would happen if a Michael Bay character got dropped into Abrams’ more studied and realistic (for an action movie) world.

Abrams’ perspective in this scene is of course, made more complicated by the character of Kirk, ostensibly the movie’s main character and one defined by his daring and arrogance. That’s to say, a lot of the time Kirk acts like a Michael Bay character himself and so, having a scene in which a complete arrogant goon vs. a kinda arrogant goon is destroyed by his arrogance is brilliant. It’s all about the tiny little details.

Early in the film, we see a very Bay-like flashback to young Kirk stealing his step-dad’s car and speeding across a golden, Mid-West vista (it’s essentially awful, like, right out of a Bay movie) and it’s followed up by a later scene in which a drunk Kirk hits-on Uhura and gets in a fight. What would happen in most movies is that this early awkward assholism would be rectified or shifted to something resembling sensitivity and Uhura, despite her initial disgust for Kirk, would grow to love him…or at least sleep with him.

Not so much in Star Trek, as Kirk never gets “the girl”. A scene in which he’s shown making-out with a girl at Starfleet Academy is presented as fairly loathsome, sad, even robotic. Even more crazy is that it’s Spock who “gets the girl”. This shift is not only a “clever” re-up of an old series, but a mindful shift in sensibilities. Abrams’ Star Trek rejects Kirk the jerk in favor of Spock’s hyper-sincerity. When the movie ends with the famous “Space…the final frontier” and it’s spoken by the aged voice of Leonard Nimoy–we’re not working with clever revisionism but an ethical improvement on the past.

To base the movie around poetry-reading, In Search Of…-hosting Nimoy vs. the chintzy, hair-pieced, ego-tripping Shatner (the movie’s Kirk, when he’s at his worst, most selfish, acts Shatner-like) is fascinating. Cynics might chalk this up to some kind of “wussification” of American culture or something, but they’d be missing the nuanced evolution of Kirk’s character–both a core decency he clearly gleaned from his father (who we meet before we meet Kirk) mixed with a fuck-it-all sense of confusion a very specific kind of American radical individual feels.

Even at his worst, Kirk’s never the gung-ho asshole incinerated by a Romulan ship, but it’s through experiences on the Enterprise and the interaction with the ethnically diverse crew that he (and all of them) come together. This is where Star Trek’s wizened and realistic understanding of patriotism usurps Michael Bay’s U.S of A. belligerence.

Where characters and images in Bay’s movie act as short-hands to re-instill played-out, long-internalized values, Star Trek seeks to remind Americans of the importance of plurality and understanding–the rejection of black and white for grey. The Enterprise begins as a sort of “Team of Rivals” and they slowly come to realize their similarities. The merger of Spock and Kirk is, when it finally becomes civil, simply pragmatic, but from that pragmatism it spins into something lasting, true, and worthwhile. Differences are more than accepted, more than celebrated, they’re seen as vital.

In this sense, Star Trek indeed, functions like a product of filmmaking or television from the progressive 60s or 70s–what Pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty called, “platoon movies” (100). Platoon movies, Rorty explained, were a byproduct of the pre-60s (pre-P.C) left and “showed Americans of various ethnic backgrounds fighting and dying side by side” (100). About the only other successful “platoon movies”, that’s to say, not movies simply playing on this trope of an ethnically diverse crew working it all out, but really internalizing it, that I can think of in recent years would be Wes Anderson’s movies–especially The Life Aquatic.

The movie itself is pragmatic, both giving viewers what’s necessary (a ton of action, Saldana in her underwear, bad jokes, old-show reference irony, ethnic jokes) and flipping the script in weird ways, as to never topple over from the unfortunate stupidity necessary for a big-budget movie. Notice the way it glosses over the alien races or nearly pushes all characters not Spock or Kirk to the side, all the while maintaining their humanity…not in a quest to maximize whiteness on the screen, but to treat diversity as a foregone conclusion of life. Abrams is not interested in “other”-ness, even the villains though darkened and evil-ized, get a decent enough reason for their actions beyond simple “evil”–precisely the kind of primitive value system that is literally Bay’s meal ticket.

Just as Michael Bay’s Transformers 2 begins its second week of hyper-visibility, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek makes its way to your city’s “dollar” theatre. The decision to see Star Trek maybe again, maybe a third time, over Transformers 2, is not only financially savvy and aesthetically wise, it’s ethically prudent too.

-Rorty, Richard. “Achieving Our Country”. First Harvard University Press, 1999.

Written by Brandon

July 1st, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Posted in film, movies

Hip-Hop & Whiteness: Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers

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Last summer, I did a piece called “Beyond The Wackness: Hip-Hop & Whiteness at the Movies”. The focus was predominantly “white” movies that successfully integrated hip-hop music and culture, either as a central plot device or through minor, but telling scenes and details.

James Gray’s Two Lovers is certainly the latter as hip-hop only appears once, when main character Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) does a freestyle and rocks a bunch of throwback dance moves to impress love interest and neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). But Leonard’s “freestyle” will echo through the rest of the movie for any viewer with a working knowledge of hip-hop.

The scene comes a half-hour in, when sad-sack, stuck-at-home Leonard shares a cab with Michelle and her friends, on the way to the club. Leonard, characterized by a mix of inward darkness and flip-of-a-switch, contrived charm, tells the already-giggling girls about a rap routine he and his friends performed in their teens.

Leonard half-recalls the rap, but barely gets past the point where his (presumably) fellow Jewish private-school attending teens would’ve spelled-out his name (L-E-O-N-A-R-D), fumbling through the first few lines, then laughing it off. What could be a scene about a character recalling a goofy teenage anecdote turns into an obsequious hustle, as it feels more like Leonard knows he’s forgotten the routine well before wistfully mentioning it to E-pill popping Michelle.

Out of the cab and into the club, Leonard dances with the nearly-rolling Michelle, punctuating moments of typical rub-your-dick-on-a-chick grinding with killer breakdance moves including a reverse worm, some robot swiped from the Rocksteady crew, and a ton of Freestyle for good measure. In short, dude’s routine is all powermoves.

In these scenes, the film lights-up and the raw energy of Phoenix’s fun but uncomfortable raps and dances makes it wonderfully unreal. It’s almost as if we’re in Leonard’s head here, as the club itself, despite modern dress and cell-phones and all, feels like a flashback to the late 80s–when Leonard probably learned his moves and raps–as there’s a cipher going on and everyone’s bugging out like it’s a Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam video or something. There’s actually a bunch of points in Two Lovers where Gray like, time-travels and plays with modern technology (cell-phones are key to the plot)–the first time we see Leonard’s family home, it feels like it’s 1912 in the Samsa household, but that’s another essay really…

As these like genuinely hallucinatory few minutes played-out though, Joaquin Phoenix’s third-rate Borat/Andy Kaufman schtick from Letterman or on TMZ was hard to forget. This is something that’s plagued all publicity for Gray’s not-what-it-looks-like masterpiece, but especially these scenes, where hip-hop’s part of the movie.

If this “I’m a rapper” thing is somehow real and sincere, then Gray’s even more of a genius for playing off of Phoenix’s instability and bizarre whimsy, and if it’s not, it’s interesting in contrast to the small bits of hip-hop ephemera Gray sprinkles into Two Lovers expertly. Namely, the very same actor brilliantly balancing a hip-hop joke with some character background history and an ugly sense of charm and deceit, running it into a played-out gag about how white people rapping is really funny and silly.

The thing about rap’s inclusion in Two Lovers is, it’s a quiet but key piece of characterization and the kind of thing that doesn’t need to be there, but is there, and is used for more than just goofball laughs about a white dude doing hip-hop, which is the only reason–outside of actual mental illness–for Phoenix’s rapper gimmick.

It’s important to note that Leonard’s rap is some crappy version of a Busy Bee routine, dating his experience with hip-hop significantly. That, coupled with his break-dancing moves, gives you a good sense of the late 80s scene Leonard stumbled into, and given the sense that he had some kind of routine–however terrible–and some genuinely killer dance moves, Leonard at least sorta worked-on and cared about rap at some point.

This tiny sequences gives you a sense of how Leonard spent his teenage years, which given his current situation, gives deeper biography and makes his current, miserable, confused existence more palpable. This hint of a hip-hop past, like his half interest in photography, or the photo of a fiance’ that left him, reach back to a time when Leonard was a little more together but just as wrongly motivated.

In his current state, any and all Leonard’s interests revolve around getting closer to one of the two women in his life. Photography gets him talking to the other girl in his life, Sandra and leads to a chance to get buddy-buddy with her family (always a good look with the ladies), and his old experience with hip-hop becomes a a way to sheepishly charm Michelle. In a scene that’s something of a parallel to the freestyle sequence, Leonard learns that Michelle likes opera and we see Leonard opening one of those sad, like $4.99 “Opera’s Greatest Hits”, and playing it–an embarrassingly sincere (but also manipulative!) attempt to connect with her.

Opera is Leonard’s recent, temporary obsession (at least for a scene, everything Leonard does seems dominated by the fear of permanence, some real “Ode on a Grecian Urn” type shit, which Gray explicitly references in one scene, but that too, is another essay) and if the movie worked-out differently, he’d probably develop into an insincere savant on the subject. Opera, like hip-hip is one more way towards acceptance or opportunity. As it stands, he stops at a Wal-Mart compilation on Opera, another sad, subtle detail that builds up to something greater in Two Lovers. The same way he half-asses his freestyle, or just the very palpable sense that Leonard and Michelle are a little too old for this kind of bizarro romance, Leonard’s opera interest is pathetically superficial.

Gray (and Phoenix) place Leonard in that first generation for whom hip-hop wasn’t underground or was above-ground enough for some young Jewish kid to grab onto, and could easily be a phase of his teenage years (like punk or being a Deadhead). Neither the earlier generations still half-baffled by hip-hop or later generations that were simply born into it by way of Dre or Puffy or Kanye or whoever. Less the “culture” it started out as or would re-develop as a result of it going “pop”, it was just the cool, weird, dope thing for Leonard and his teenage friends with easy access to the subway to be a part of. This kind of, off-the-cuff, not a big deal approach to rap in movie speaks volumes about Leonard’s character and comments on hip-hop’s disposability amongst a certain milieu just as well.

Written by Brandon

March 19th, 2009 at 4:44 am

Notorious & The Authenticity Myth

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Over a beat that turned the glossy synth-funk of Mtume into something glossier and funkier as only Puffy and pals could do, Biggie dedicates “Juicy” to “all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothing…to all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustling from that called the police on me when I was just trying to make some money to feed my daughter, and all the niggas in the struggle” and then, raps a bittersweet song of big-time success, minor victories, and hazy hip-hop memories. The joy, the pain, and all that stuff’s palpable and it’s still pop enough for the radio!

Cynics and even-handed fact-checkers have long pointed out that Biggie’s upbringing wasn’t as bad as his songs made it out to be. That he followed a long line of self-mythologizing, kinda fake-ass rappers was as much an obnoxious cliche as the corrective to the fake-assery: When he’s rapping it, you totally believe it, and that’s what matters. What struck me though, hearing this song Saturday on a college hip-hop station (sandwiched between “It’s Supposed to Bubble” and some T-Pain “banger”) was how even that introductory dedication, which sounds totally sincere and isn’t hip-hip “cool” like crack sales or poverty, ain’t true either.

Biggie’s daughter T’yanna Wallace was born on August 13, 1993, after Big had a record deal. The year before, he’d popped up in The Source’s “unsigned hype” and on Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” remix. The movie Who’s the Man came out in April of 1993; the soundtrack of course, featured “Party & Bullshit”. Not that a rapper with that minor level of fame couldn’t–or wasn’t–still hustling, but that the truth behind Biggie’s affecting dedication’s a little more complicated.

Unbelievable, Cheo Hodari Coker’s excellent book–and the basis for the new movie Notorious–confirms Biggie’s return to dealing upon news of ex-girlfriend Jan’s pregnancy. But the story Coker presents has a similar feeling of “print the legend” or at least, smooshes some stuff together for the unfortunate pragmatism of a readable biography. Biggie went to the relatively less competitive crack game of North Carolina–he’d done time there for dealing earlier–and apparently, got an angry call from Puffy urging him to come back, forget about dealing and work on his music. And Biggie did it.

He later got news that the very place he was staying in Raleigh got busted by the cops. Big took it as a sign and got real serious about rapping. Perhaps that’s just a story that really happened as is and just sounds like a movie. And maybe it’s Biggie turning his real-life anecdotes into legend just as he did with his raps and maybe it’s Puffy and friends making real-life, scary events capital-R romantic…something you can’t blame anybody for doing when the real life’s that of their murdered friend/husband/father/lover.

The point is, the real-life event was weirder, less and more dramatic, and less and more complicated than pages 77-79 of Unbelievable or the people involved make it and now, you’ve got this movie Notorious, based on the “real-life” events of a now-dead dude hyper-aware of his importance and legend, supported, exploited, and everything else by people that too understood the significance of a good story, whose memories are additionally clouded by years and idealization of a dead friend, claiming to have worked closely with these very unreliable sources to tell the guy’s “true” story which is marketed as big, exciting Hollywood bio-pic in the vein of Walk the Line or Ray.

This is simply what happens to all of our “old” favorite pop-culture, but the whole thing’s particularly silly and–outside of money–a fruitless endeavor, even more so because Big was a guy who balanced the whole selling the dream and breaking it apart thing pretty well. Biggie’s discography’s his biopic. And while Ready to Die and Life After Death don’t contain songs where say, a disheveled Faith Evans opens the door to see Biggie with a groupie, anybody with ears and a brain gets a more affecting and uglier, more-real version of a scene like that on say, “One More Chance” or that blowjob skit at the end of “Respect”, complete with all-too-real blowjob noises and a moment of touching reality where Big and the girl share a mid-sex laugh.

A scene where Biggie and Faith are shown deeply in love will use the same all-too-obvious romance signifiers as Academy Award-grabbers like Benjamin Button or Revolutionary Road (subpoint: An essay just like this one could be written about the disconnect between Yates’ novel and the Mendes film), but you’ll get a more touching and affecting version of fucked-up but all the more stronger for it romance on “Me and My Bitch”, a song where Biggie’s totally adopting the voice of a drug-dealing don married to the kind of girl Tony Montana thought he had without idealizing her at all (his deconstruction of the word “bitch”, the mini-story about using his toothbrush to wash the toilet).

The bottom-line focus of even art-oriented Hollywood pictures mixed with the idiotically obsessive attention to structure that’s infected even “good” screenwriters wouldn’t allow for a makes-the-song details like the point where Biggie (or his character in the song), despite being sure something truly fucked up’s happened to the girl he adores, still “make[s] the U-turn [to] make sure [his] shit was clean”. To be real (and real pretentious) that’s some like Auerbach’s Mimesis-level of storytelling complexity type shit.

And if it isn’t reality or representations of reality that you’re into and you want to see iconic Biggie, well, you can see the actual videos and performances…why you’d want to see actor-ly approximations of stuff that happened ago a decade on television re-performed by melty-looking versions of the real icons, I don’t know.

If you care about hip-hop for the right reasons, because it’s affecting and full of ugly-true, smart, touching, just over all affecting details that bypass bullshit terms like “real or authentic” and concern themselves with the real bottom-line (emotions) all the while, being fun and catchy enough that corporate interests that ran/run television and radio couldn’t deny, skip out on Notorious. We don’t need a semi-mainstream but still “authentic” version of Notorious B.I.G because that was the very line he balanced and tested for all of his short but brilliant career.

Written by Brandon

January 6th, 2009 at 6:56 am

Posted in Notorious BIG, movies