A Child’s Gotham

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on March 9, 2009 by Adam

As NYMag mapped out New York’s most legendary comic book locales to celebrate The Watchmen and Gawker related the not-so-critically-acclaimed blockbuster back to the real NYC of 1985, it got me thinking about my own movie-induced childhood image of the city. While the real-life griminess shown in the Gawker post was the inspiration for Alan Moore’s original story, it was the youth-geared films of the 1980s  that informed my idea of NYC living. Now that I actually do live in New York, I can look back at most of the following (minus Batman, which I know, is not youth-geared; its inclusion is due to the face that I was allowed to watch it) as romanticized, somewhat watered-down visions of a city that, no matter how deep the economy dives, will never exist in such form again. That said, the Gotham in my very young mind was appealing enough to create a sense of magic that, while not often apparent to me now, I am sometimes reminded of and that serves as one of those pesky things that makes it hard to leave this godforsaken island.

Batman (1989, dir. Tim Burton)

Gotham City is sort of the pinnacle of oddly appealing dystopian New York in 1980s films. Batman wasn’t the first movie to showcase such lasting images as homeless people lighting trash fires, dark, rat-infested alleyways and ominously humongous building, but it may have been the finest.

Ghostbusters (1984, dir. Ivan Reitman)

Sure, it may not be as blatantly dark of an image of NYC as that of Batman, but the attention paid to Gothic architecture, supernatural terrorists and classic landmarks makes made this comedy classic one of the most interesting portrayals of Manhattan in the 1980s. The fact that the movie could hint at the scary underground of the city while simultaneously providing light-hearted escapism may have been its biggest strength.

Gremlins 2 (1990, dir. Joe Dante)

Make no mistake: Gremlins 2 is not very good. I would have liked to replace it with the first Gremlins on thislist, but it has occurred to me that the only scene from the original that takes place in NYC is the first one (which is a pretty awesome Chinatown scene).That said, this sequel also plays with the idea of an apocalyptic evil endangering the city’s streets, while also contrasting the grime of the previous decade with new Trumpian development.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990, dir. Steve Barron)

Along with Gremlins 2, this film’s 1990 release makes some of the grittiness slightly anachronistic, though not entirely. Regardless, the images of indoor spaces from this film may be more lasting in my mind than those outdoor ones of the others. Undergound dens strewn with pizza boxes, graffiti-filled arcade parlors, (presumably) coke-fueled news stations…this movie may, more than anything else, be responsible for my living in New York City right now.

Katie Couric’s Heart of Darkness

Posted in Music, Television with tags , , , on February 5, 2009 by Adam

The above interview of Lil’ Wayne by Katie Couric has been hitting the Internet pretty hard since last night, and the general reaction seems to be giddy amusement. Now I am not above this (see bottom of post), but I would feel odd if I weren’t to point out the King Kong-like overtones of sociological fascination and sexual curiosity that shine through. At numerous points in the video, you can see Couric take on the role of wide-eyed colonialist who has landed on foreign shores and tries to figure out the secrets of the strange culture upon which she has come:

“What does that mean when you say, ‘I’m a gangster.’?”

“Can you take me through a little journey of your face?” (Notice how we don’t hear about the teardrops.)

“And by the way, do I call you Wayne, Weezy, Lil’?”

“Tell me about this drink, Wayne, that you like…called syrup.”

And then there is bowling scene. The hand-holding, arm-grabbing bowling scene. Without making any declarative statements about the hormonal influence on this portion of the interview, I do think it’s undeniable that, when combined with the above bits of outside-looking-in curiosity, these moments reveal something about Couric’s approach to her subject. As does this.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed this interview. At times, Couric and Wayne had a very real, respectful rapport, and Weezy comes off as very likable. But, still, there is something patronizing about Couric’s voice, about the glow in her eyes, about the way she reverts back to softening things up. Best case scenario, it’s a testament to the fact that rappers, much like pierced punk rockers, are still seen as cultural oddities that are there to be studied. Worst case scenario, it’s a bit of Bamboozled.

Either way, as I said, I am not above any of this. When Lil’ Wayne talks, I am enthralled; I cannot stop listening. And for that reason, I am also curious to know what your favorite line or scene was. Comment below…

Hulu Saves The World. Or not.

Posted in Internet, Television with tags , , , on February 5, 2009 by Adam

One of the most talked-about commercials from last Sunday’s Super Bowl broadcast was Hulu‘s “An Evil Plot to Destroy the World” spot. Understandably–the ad was funny, it enlisted the star power of Alec Baldwin, and it had the dubious privilege of existing within a Bowl broadcast that produced few other memorable commercials. As you know, though, the real appeal of the spot comes in its startling acknowledgment of the kinds of critiques that have been leveled at modern media purveyors, namely, that the constant presence of screens in the modern life is making us less socially functional and more relying on technology to get us through our daily journey:

“And the best part is, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I mean, what are you gonna do, turn off your TV and your computer?”

I can only assume that Baldwin’s question forced a lot of people–many of whom were undoubtedly checking their Facebook page as they kept one eye on the TV screen–to stop in their tracks and think about how close to home the words were hitting. Yet, for every viewer who was appalled to be confronted by such a brutal truth, I believe there was another who shrugged and said, “Yep. I am addicted to having a screen in front of me.”

This acknowledgment may be the key to harnessing the wonderful access that our computers, phones, and television sets give us, using them to make us all the more intelligent about both what what we consume and what we produce. The fact that Meetup uses a digital, Evite-like program to put into effect their “Unplug Your Friends” screen addiction intervention program is a humorous reminder that turning off completely is both unnecessary and, ultimately, limiting. Gone are the days when it was trendy to say you didn’t own a television. Cultural literacy is, I would say, as valuable a form of social currency now as it has ever been.

And while I do not subscribe to Steven Johnson’s belief, put forth in 2005’s Everything Bad is Good for You, that today’s lowest common denominator media artifacts are significantly more challenging and rewarding than their counterparts of yesteryear, the abundance of screens has certainly raised the bar on the highest common denominator, both in quality and quantity–the more transistors, the more opportunity for consumer control. This consumer control is also made possible by the self-selection of time and place of consumption, a well-documented factor in the continued proliferation of digital forms of viewing. And, perhaps most importantly, the abundance of screens has given us a powerful cross-referencing tool, and the fact that we are becoming quite good at using this tool easily stamps out the notion that we are falling into passive realms.

It is the tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of these aspects of modern media–as well as their Luddite naysayers–that made the Hulu spot such a breath of fresh air. If more media outlets can intelligently acknowledge modern consumption and thereby encourage its most intelligent use, we will be on the right path to avoiding mental destruction.

UPDATE: It has occurred to me that all of these goddamned screens have, in fact, started to rot my brain and everything I said above is a lie that I was tricked into thinking I believed. Sorry for the confusion.

UPDATE: I just did some online research, and it now appears that the original post was both accurate and honest. Please disregard first update.

Updike

Posted in Books with tags on January 28, 2009 by Adam

Existence itself does not feel horrible; it feels like an ecstasy, rather, which we have only to be still to experience.”

Red Balloons

Posted in Film with tags , on January 27, 2009 by Adam

There are several narrative techniques that tend to alienate audiences all too quickly, and among them must certainly be counted all members of the reference family: self-, homage, allusion, etc. Whether it is because they go over one’s head or because they come off as overly pretentious, these tactics, especially in film, can be a kiss of death to the casual consumer.

Yet, when done properly, references can enhance a piece of art immensely, making the text richer and deeper while piquing the curiosity of some and giving a friendly nod to others. Hsiao-hsien Hou’s The Flight of the Red Balloon not only manages to do it properly, it manages to place itself in the same league as the works to which it pays tribute, and it does so with a joyful whimsicality and gentle restraint that move the viewer past voyeurism and into an unexpected place of personal familiarity.

The cinematic references span from, of course, Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic, The Red Balloon, to Tommy to Breathless, while making plenty of brief stops in between. More importantly, though, the movie pays homage to the art of filmmaking itself. By writing in a lead character who is a young art filmmaker, Hsiao-hsien decided to tread in murky meta waters, yet his film never gets bogged down by its within-a-film aspects. In fact, the scenes in which Song Fang, the aforementioned filmmaker character, records young Simon, the boy she has been hired to babysit, are some of the most honest and touching moments of adult/child interaction I have seen on film. The magic that emits naturally from her handheld camera, both when she is behind the lens and when Simon begins to take control, is a testament to the childlike sense of awe present in artistic self-discovery. While the eponymous red balloon does not take as central an on-screen role as in Lamorisse’s film, the camera, in addition to many other objects that make appearances in Simon and Song’s time together–pancakes, puppets, pinball machines–becomes enough of a vehicle of dreamy wonderment that the red orb’s greatest use in the film is that of a springboard into a discussion about modern film technology and editing trickery.

And while this kind of contemporary spin might sound as if it is doing Lamorisse’s objet d’art a disservice, Hsiao-hsien has actually managed, in moving away from the focus of The Red Balloon, to accomplish the very feat that Lamorisse did in 1956: to pay tribute to the joyous experience that is discovery. This time around, the discoveries are domesticated a bit, but we know that the real sense of wonder for Lamorisse’s Pascal was one of internal exploration anyway, and Simon keeps this intellectual curiosity very much alive. More importantly, Hsiao-hsien keeps alive the cinematic curiosity of Lamorisse and, with an unmistakable sense of love and admiration for the craft, honors the human passion for making–and watching–undefinable notions come alive on screen.

Eggleston’s Depth

Posted in Visual Art with tags , , on January 23, 2009 by Adam

This past weekend, I finally made it to see the William Eggleston Democratic Camera exhibit at The Whitney. I had seen many of his photos dozens of times, in books or on a screen, but this was my first experience seeing any prints in person.

There are so many things that can be striking about one of Eggleston’s photos. It might be the otherworldly glow cast upon a subject as she sits in an angled sun ray. It might be the seemingly immense scope of an everyday item shot from a low angle. But for me, the most striking thing about any of the work I saw at The Whitney was the visual jarring that occurred when looking at a photograph of branches. These branches, as I moved toward and away from the photograph, existed in a countless number of planes, and each time I tried to focus my eye on one part, my brain would be convinced that there was someplace else I should be looking, either in front of or behind that particular branch.

The result, in person, was an incredible visual sensation that actually made me a bit dizzy as I moved around the photograph. Because there were so many layers to the photo, my eyes found it difficult to process the entire image at once. As they scanned up and down, left and right, it felt as if my head was shaking ever so slightly, as if I were a bobble head about to become still once again. This sensation, rather than take away from the pleasure of the experience, enhanced it in a way that I could not have expected: it made this photograph, simple on the surface, a tormentor, daring me to level my gaze on one spot, and than grabbing me by the ears and tossing about the contents of my skull. That kind of interaction, I found, made the visit priceless.

Recollective

Posted in Music with tags , on January 20, 2009 by Adam

I’ve been sitting on Merriweather Post Pavilion for two weeks now, trying to separate my experience from those of the thousands of others who have chimed in. Yet I cannot, and I will recount two recent conversations I overheard and/or took part in during that same amount of time:

1.) In Connecticut, at a friend’s house, as we were sitting around listening to MPP, one of the people in the room: “I’m really glad our generation has this band.”

2.) On a public bus in Brooklyn: A minor debate, between myself and my roommate, as to whether 50% of American college students have heard of Animal Collective.

Now, let me make it clear that the friend quoted is one who does not generally subscribe to cliches; she was expressing a very honest belief that, in witnessing this band move from album to album, we of a certain age are in on some kind of shared experiential growth process. Namely, that we are witnessing an artistic career worth remembering.

Yet this shared experience she hinted at seems to take root in a countless number of very personal emotions and reactions that, while potentially easy to relate to, make it very hard to come to any definitive conclusions about the impact of the band. While this can be said for a good deal of art, for those who have a particularly vested interest in Animal Collective, objective separation exists at a distinct level of impossibility, at a point where the sonic aesthetics of the music come to take a backseat to the very unique set of associations.

In the above video, we can see hints as to why this sort of possessive engagement occurs. Quite simply, this band is not comprised of distant idols whose existences lie solely in a realm to which the listener dares not imagine visiting. Especially at a young age, such as they were in 2003, these appear to be people who, through their art, are reaching up toward something beyond their own lives, which if the conversation gives any clues, have their fair share of mundaneness. The language used is plain and earthly, with attention paid to extremely tangible things like rent and geography. And these earthly notions, when one listens to the music, are being left in the dust as these four men try to escape toward something difficult to place yet obviously beyond terrestrial demands.

This sense of escape from the mundane is, I think, what lies at the center of the band’s appeal. Even as the listener enters into a world made deep by the layers of sound, there is, after enough time spent with the material, a very great sense of safety. And while I hesitate to make musical comparisons to The Grateful Dead, there is certainly something to be said for the level of possibility inherent in the words and the music. While Garcia and Co. played the role of the elder guides who were always careful not to harshen things up by providing definitives–a point brought to my attention by an interview with Devendra Banhart in which he notes the importance of American Beauty opening with the word “Maybe”–AC seem to be more like the spiritual brethren whose occasional explorations of the darker aspects of life are reined in by a gentleness that comes as much from their pop tendencies as from the overarching themes of morality that have littered their recent work, Person Pitch included. This morality, combined with the demographic similarities between band and fans, has always made it incredibly easy for listeners to move beyond any challenging aspects of the music and imagine themselves as being in on the escape.

And now comes Merriweather Post Pavilion, what seems to be the band’s ultimate push for an escape, an album with themes–family life (“My Girls,” “Also Frightened”), the desire for youthful spontaneity (“Summertime Clothes”) and the costs of constant movement (“No More Runnin'”)–that are both comforting because of their domesticity and terrifying because they are a straightfaced acknowledgment of the pains of growing up. For every sweet sentiment there is a moment of nearly unbearable tension, and the accumulated emotional taxation caused by this doesn’t see any real release until the buoyant chants of closer “Brothersport” remind the listener to “Open up your throat”, as if to serve as a reminder that yes, while we are all horrified by the passing of time, we are all in on that journey together, and we must all do everything we can to not let the process strike us silent as we plot a way out of it.

Sonically, Merriweather Post Pavilion is an album that sounds equally deconstructed and harmonious, intriguingly identifiable yet layered to the point of mystery. Emotionally, it is an album that represents the plight of all those wishing to break from the claustrophobia induced by the body’s natural progression and the demands of a world that frowns upon a life simultaneously simple and full of exuberance. And because the men in that video seem so familiar to us, we listen with the hope that, together, they and we can get to that sunny place where escape is no longer necessary.