Friday, November 30, 2007

For pondering, with future resolution

How is it that, in an age of ipods, ringtones, and general crush felt on our attention spans, the most immediately identifiable aspect of popular music today is anything but the classic pop HOOK, which makes an attempt at immediacy and attention-grabbing, but rather the monotony and repetition of PRODUCTION, often unchanged for the entire song?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

"I'm Not There": new Bob Dylan pseudo-bio-pic

A film by, for, and about douchebags.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Albert Ayler Documentary @ Anthology

Last week I went to see My Name is Albert Ayler at Anthology Film Archives. It is a Swedish-made documentary about the American free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, best known for his short time in Coltrane's later bands, and for his album Spiritual Unity, a landmark in Free Jazz.

A theme running throughout the movie is that there is some kind of timeline by which radical music gets eventually appreciated. For his entire career, it seems, Ayler's shocking and annoying music was far more popular in Europe than in America, where his bands often struggled to get by. And the interviews from the time are peppered with statements like, "If they don't appreciate it now, they will," while at the same time, there is no idea that Ayler *ever* got his due. His family, shown in the film, are certainly not living off royalties.

It is hopelessly to be trapped in the 1960s to imagine that we exist on a trajectory of progress, of innovation in music (or anything). The 1960s always will be more radical than what follows. It is not that this period opened the door of total freedom, from which we have all proceeded, expanding and taking ever further the ideas of that time. Instead, we have retrenched, and the least creative effort that can be made is in trying to resuscitate that explosion.

This, of course, is completely counter to the baby-boomer narrative, whereby our victory in the Cold War, scientific progress, the smaller and smaller size of our cell phones, all suppose an equivalent in cultural progress (which is nowhere to be found).

Enough about that. The most important idea in the Ayler film is that Ayler himself was always exploring new sounds. He was on the move: from the unpleasant, blasting, and soulful music of Spiritual Unity, to the larger group with his brother Donald and a violinist, to a kind of rock/r'n'b experiment (which evidently was disastrously unpopular). The same can be seen in Ornette Coleman's career, too: the incorporation of every possible new element to try out a sound. And the idea for Ayler was that the audience would somehow "catch up," that American audiences would at some definite point arrive at the appreciation held by Swedish and Danish audiences. But, there is equally an emphasis on the necessity for learning to listen. One has to figure out how to approach this music that does anything but beckon one to approach. The real lesson about free jazz, for me, (and obviously I don't know anything), is not objective--how the bands work without confinement or composition--but rather subjective--how do I get rid of my set ways of listening to music? how do I get past the confinement of the categories by which I hear everyday music? Precisely the idea isn't how to somehow turn it into something acceptable, something that can fall back into modes of understanding we already possess. Free jazz confronts the non-free listener with a severe epistemological question, or demand: hear differently. What is necessary is a deconstruction of the terms by which western music has been constructed as natural; one that I am not at all interested in embarking upon, or even in reading!

So, that all could be said about free jazz, and would leave out the important moment in black consciousness that it represented, as well as somehow implying that free jazz has anything to do with any identical-sounding music made today, because the whole point is that this was an open field, and these artists moved very quickly. What I am more interested in is the way that, for myself at least (but I hardly think just for myself), we really do ourselves a disservice, not by having this kind of openness in our understandings.

I am proposing a kind of mobile synecdoche: free jazz is a moment in the development of jazz, but at the same time it recapitulates the open-ended development of jazz (roughly) as a whole--increasing improvisation, smaller groups, less danceable--as well as its restlessness. Exactly so, one's own encounter with *any* music is an encounter wherein one can only affirm one's restlessness or settledness. Not that everyone has to like free jazz, but I hardly think it is a matter of "personal taste" when someone doesn't. I don't even know that I do in a way that anyone would respect or give credit for, but it is NO COINCIDENCE AT ALL that bourgeois white America, the most settled society ever known, did not "go for" Albert Ayler. And as it begins to look like there is no "right side of history" to be argued here, and as I want to be a good Hegelian, I will just refuse to be settled in that particular way, in every encounter, so far as I can.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Shitty Movie Review

New York Times review of "Fred Claus"

Not a "review of a shitty movie," although that is also undoubtedly the case. Manohla Dargis trashes the movie, sure, but spends about 1/2 the review acting as though this movie were a waste of talent.

Mainly it's a lackadaisical mess, though one graced with welcome talent, including Paul Giamatti and Miranda Richardson. (Here's hoping these indie stalwarts pocketed decent studio checks for keeping their gifts in idle.)

Let's look at the facts here. Paul Giamatti has been in the following movies:
  • Shoot 'em Up (an action film bomb with Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci)
  • The Nannie Diaries
  • Lady in the Water (the most recent M. Night Shyamalan film, starring in which puts Mr. Giamatti in a class with Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson)
  • The Ant Bully (a computer-animation bomb that made back less than half its $50 million budget)
  • Cinderella Man (a film so uninteresting to the public that the studio offered to PAY audiences their money back if they were dissatisfied)
The only reason, then, that Paul Giamatti is not the biggest name in Hollywood, its biggest star, the farthest thing possible from an "indie stalwart," is that EVERY MAJOR, BIG BUDGET FILM HE MAKES IS A COMPLETE DISASTER AND FLOP. His "successes" were in movies like Sideways, a film universally reviled by anyone who does not do all their shopping at Whole Foods, and American Splendor. But his list of embarrassments stretches back further than those successes: Storytelling, a masturbatory Todd Solondz film that no one liked; and an astonishing number of small parts on major blockbusters:
  • Big Momma's House
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • My Best Friend's Wedding
as well as some less-popular Hollywood fare:
  • Planet of the Apes (remake)
  • Donnie Brasco (a great film, but released in a February and so denied any Oscar glory)
  • Duets (a Gwenyth Paltrow vehicle with Huey Lewis)
That is to say, an honest appraisal of Paul Giamatti's career shows that he has been in almost more terrible films than any living person, excepting Angelina Jolie, that in his early career he was a mainstay of smaller roles in extremely big-budget films, and that after his success as the star of two "indie" movies, has continued to act in extremely large-budget films, only with zero success and (now) zero credibility.

Rather than saying, "I'm so surprised that this independent film stalwart, this rock of taste and integrity, Paul Giamatti, has sunk to starring in Fred Clause" (Dargis, paraphrased), what any reasonable person should say is, "I'm surprised this annoying character actor, having signed on to whatever project came his way for his entire career up to the present, an undiscriminating hack, should have happened to make two well-respected (but uninteresting, pretentious) independent films at some point in the early 2000s."

Thus, the most insulting part is *not* buying into the hype of Oscar-Winner Paul Giamatti, but:
  • believing there is anything noble about making garbage like Sideways or Storytelling
  • hoping that Paul Giamatti "pocketed [a] decent studio check" for his work here. THAT'S ALL HE DOES. He pockets decent studio checks like it was going out of style. The man was in the Frankie Muniz vehicle Big Fat Liar, for fuck's sake!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Books that Changed My Life

The NY-based literary magazine N+1 recently put out a pamphlet for first-year college students, entitled "What We Should Have Known: Two Discussion," compiling two pointless and rambling, rather sophomoric panel discussions about college and what one should get out of college.

Why anyone should care what these people think is one question, and I could cite several completely arrogant and pretentious moments in this text, but for the most part it is completely banal and full of platitudes: "You shouldn't read fancy critical theory just because it's fashionable." "I wish I'd had the sense that history was still ongoing." "I'm sounding very postmodern right now." "So you have to add Gandhi to the list..." "Back then, I was going to be a poet." In short, a bad conversation that I would have been bummed out to overhear, and am disappointed to see published.

But the most annoying part (besides the name-dropping), is the bullshit "Books that Changed My Life" lists. They follow a fairly set pattern. One or two books of philosophy, Eric Hobsbawm, one or two books of "literary essays," and some 20th century fiction or short stories. A couple classics (Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare) and filled in by totally pretentious, random dinner-party books.

David Copperfield is one of my favorite novels, but I have NO CLUE what it means to say, "It changed my life." It didn't, and I don't see how it could possibly.

So, here are authors, not books (less pretentious?), who have changed my life:
  • Karl Marx
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Roland Barthes
  • Martin Heidegger
  • Jacques Derrida
  • Noam Chomsky
  • GFW Hegel
  • Marcel Proust
  • Michel Foucault
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Plato
  • Franz Fanon
A list you may as well title, "Books My Father Has Not Read." The idea of a book changing my life can only mean that it changes my *ideas* about the world. Every author on that list stresses the unmasking of ideology, of the appearance of the world, of the bourgeois order, of the thoughts we were brought up with, of how things seem, of common sense, of strict eternal definitions (here I except Plato), and stresses the endless need for reflection, analysis, and reconsideration of how things, so various and motivated, came to be presented as the bland "order of things." Proust is on there because his account of human erotic relations is to me the most convincing, and Plato for his insistence on thought and the deception of appearances. While I have learned a great deal from fiction in my life, I cannot say that even a deeply inspiring book like Middlemarch has "changed my life."

The list may seem like a "Great Books" list. I want to say, it is the opposite of the prevalent American idea that "everything I know I learned in kindergarten"; that I am very unsatisfied by the view of the world that was handed to me by my upbringing, and that everything important in my thought has come in the form of these revelatory ideas which have turned on their head the conceptions I was most comfortable with while growing up. And I am very unembarrassed by this list, although Chomsky is a cheese, and Plato is "obvious."

In any case, this list is a list of most white men; it is either very unpretentious or extremely pretentious (somewhat along the lines of declaring the Iliad to be my favorite book, as opposed to (n+1) Finnegan's Wake or Donald Barthelme). Anyways, so this is an honest list and everyone should read these books. I can recommend some other good books, too.