Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Krakthulu (Pirates of the Carribean: Part III)

This is my last note about Pirates of the Carribean II. I'm tired of pontificating about media literacy issues, so this will be a shorter post.

Sometimes it seems like attributing "influences" to popcorn movies is giving them too much credit. When you compare something ridiculous, like The Emperor's New Groove, to something important, like Mitt Liv Som Hund, it's almost like saying that the contemptibly franchisey movie is deep, too. But then again, when something reminds me, however distantly, of something I really like, it's bound to get it some brownie points.

Take, for example, Davey Jones in Pirates of the Carribean II.

Did this guy look familiar to any of you other nerds? Especially you nerds with gothy or occultish tendencies? Did it make you want to speak in tongues and gaze into the ocean, wondering about non-euclidean islands that appear once every millenium? It made me do those things. Why? Because he screamed H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulu.

If you don't know about Cthulu, take a moment to look him up. Don't just stop at the silly nerd culture references on t-shirts and in webcomics (here too), either... read some of Lovecraft's stories, which can generally be found around the Internet. He's a brilliant ambient occultist, and his prose deftly demonstrates that the most frightening things are the empty spaces, the margins of our perception and understanding.

There have been some movies made out of Lovecraft's mythos, but they mostly all suck.

Lovecraft's most famous character is a demigod named Cthulu, characterized as having a "pulpy, tentacled head," usually rendered with the tentacles hanging down from the jaw or thereabouts. Sound familiar? I can't but assume that this image was the inspiration for Davey Jones' octopustastic goodness, and I have to say, it resonated with me.

But the unlikely convergence of Disney and occult horror brings some other scenes to mind. For a slapstick swashbuckler, Dead Man's Chest had some surprisingly dark edges... the shipwreck, manned by insane sailors, precluding Jones' introduction, was reminiscent of Lovecraft's Innsmouth. Davey's heart was gut-wrenchingly realistic. The Kraken wrought a compelling level of destruction upon the sea-vessels, and Disney didn't seem to hold back on the deaths at sea. Even Tia Dalma (see previous post) was a dark turn on the Magic Negro archetype.

In this film, which was pretty cotton-candyish, this dusting of morbidity hardly scratched the surface. What it DOES give us, however, is a new reason to hope for the best out of the third movie. It's going to be called "Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End," and from that title, I sense that the Lovecraftian undercurrent isn't going to fizzle out between episodes. Like Lovecraft's stories about death and sublimation, I expect the third Pirates to be filled with a more profound sense of anxiety and unknown. There's the hint of a compelling journey, the simultaneous geographical / psychological exploration of the unknown, and I hope it's realized.

As far as I'm concerned, this movie has made promises. I expect Mr. Bruckheimer to deliver on them.

To be Black and Magic (Pirates of the Carribean: Part II)

So in Pirates of the Carribean II, there's a character named Tia Dalma. She's a black vodou witch who lives in the middle of a jungle swamp, collecting strange artifacts and bartering for occult curiousities. Her sole purpose in the story seems to be to give prophecies to the all-white cast of pirates, so they can get on with the freakin' plot already. Seriously, she's great... after the big catastrophe, the whole pirate crew can all go chill at her crib without even asking.

(side note: she has dredlocks, black teeth, and wild red eyes... how the hell did they still manage to make her sexy?)

Anyway, do you feel like you've seen this character before?

That's right, Tia Dalma is a perfect example of a film archetype. She's 100% bona fide Magical Negro, along with such classics as Bagger Vance, Cash (The Family Man), Candelaria (The Punisher), God (Bruce Almighty), and... you know... however many others. If you're not familiar with the term Magical Negro, here's what we mean:

Magical Negro is an archetype, a common character mold that's been put to use in literature since the 1700's and in movies since movies were produced. It's generally discussed in critical commentary on race in story narrative, and the point is that this is a role, given to black characters by white writers and producers, that superficially empowers the black personality while still keeping it subservient to the white protagonists. So it's a subversive way to keep racist typecasting in "enlightened" filmmaking. The Magical Negro is based on the following characteristics:

1) It's a black character (especially one whose personality is based on "being black") in a predominantly white movie... like Tia Dalma in Pirates of the Carribean II.

(1a) The character is usually at a lower class or economic status than the other characters. This is part of the "black thing," and it's also related to the idea of the character "overcoming social oppression."

2) The character has a spiritual nature, possibly including supernatural powers, that he or she uses to further the white protagonist's progress through the plot. This may include unexplained medical abilities (Candeliria), supernatural abilities (Morgan Freeman as God), or inexplicable prophetic powers (Tia Dalma, the Oracle, etc).

3) This spiritual insight, or these powers, are used to help the white protagonist overcome problems, recognize his/her own faults, or move along in the plot.

There are some other common characteristics... the black character is often called upon to make a sacrifice because he/she helped the white protagonist. The spiritual powers are often related to the character being "closer to the Earth" or something like that. Some characters are on the outskirts of this archetype... Whoopi Goldberg's character in Ghost is a questionable example, because she fulfills the requirements, but she's more fully characterized and seems to have her own instincts and motivations. So like any category, it's a useful landmark, but it gets fuzzy at the edges.

Tia Dalma, on the other hand, is spot-on. She fulfills all the core requirements, and if you really consider her role as a character, there's almost nothing there except a thin plot device. Candeliria, Cash, the Oracle, Bagger Vance, and other such characters further prove the point. So I'm not going to argue whether or not this archetype exists... personally, I'm pretty convinced. Rather, I'm going to try to bring it into perspective, so the criticism can find some balance.

Personally, I think the critical discussion, which sees this archetype as a racist throwback, tends to forget two important facts. Here they are:

1) Archetypes serve a purpose.

Like it or not, a filmmaker, especially one doing two-hour-long popular movies, only has so much screen time to devote to characterization. I'm kind of glad I don't know the full story about Jack and Tia's sordid background, which would have thrown a wrench into a well-paced movie. For every character with dialouge, the writers have to start with something recognizable... usually a pre-established role... and build on it to create a believable character. Long before a character counts as "interesting," that character has to count as "intelligible," and flat but digestible characters have to come from somewhere.

That "somewhere" is usually an archetype, and archetypes usually default include ethnic identities. Just as the "prophet of the Earth" is usually black, the "pompous rich asshole" is usually white, because it's easy to digest.

It's a little sad that we have to think in over-simple terms now and again. It's sad that we do so much of our thinking through loose association (black = "closer to the Earth"? Pretty regressive). However, we all pull our preconceptions from somewhere, and lack of creativity shouldn't be confused with racism. At least archetypes go down without a fuss, and we should praise the filmmakers who deconstruct those archetypes, instead of condemning the ones who rely on them now and then.

2) Criticism in terms of archetype can blind critics to true storytelling.

There's a problem when critics are looking too hard for a concept. I can accept that Tia Dalma is a perfect example of a magical negro, and I'm happy to use her as an example of black typecasting. But a few articles (Black Commentator, Audrey Colombe) use Morpheus of The Matrix as an example of a Magical Negro.

Seriously, WHAT?

Morpheus is one of the best-defined characters in popular film. He's not distinguished either by blackness (he's a very politically strong, behaviorally neutrel character) nor by an excess of inexplicable magic (he just happens to be very good at the things every other character is capable of doing). Based on his approaches and attitudes, and on his centrality to the power dynamic in the movie, Morpheus's blackness seems almost incidental, contributing to the general racial neutrality of the Wachowskis' vision. At the same time, his strengths... faith and certainty in the face of an adversary, the ability to inspire his colleagues... reference some of the most important black personalities in civil rights history, like Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. In Morpheus, there's a refreshing black-white power dialectic that does great service to the strength of his characterization.

PEOPLE... if you're going to identify a Matrix character as a Magical Negro, why don't you take a look at The Oracle? She's neck-in-neck with Tia Dalma as the perfect example of the archetype, a generally useless character who occasionally pops in to tell the characters what to do next... lower-class than the other Matrix citizens, earthy, and she has to make sacrifices to do her service to the white(-ish) main cast.

This is the danger of getting stuck thinking about archetypes. The critics who called Morpheus a Magical Negro were manipulating that category around his blackness, rather than genuinely evaluating its appropriateness in this case.

So ultimately, what we need is some perspective on archetypes in film. If we're going to critique a filmmaker's use of pre-written roles, we need to account for that filmmaker's narrative needs, and for his/her attempt to deconstruct those roles. An awesome movie is made even awesomer if we don't oversimplify its narrative nuances in the interest of criticism.

Pirates of the Carribean: Part I

I took a bit of a break since I looked at A Scanner Darkly. During that break, I saw the next big blockbuster, and I think it's worth discussing. That blockbuster, ladies and gentlemen, is the new Pirates of the Carribean.

In the spirit of trilogies, I'm going to write two more entries on this movie. The next will be on Tia Dalma, the brilliant voodoo witch character and black archetypes in contemporary cinema, and the second will be on the connection between Pirates II and H.P. Lovecraft. First, though, I'm giving a general overview of Pirates II, along with a response to the most common criticisms that have been leveled at it.

I'd like to lead off with a lovely quote from Tom Long of the Detroit News:

"Yes, it's brightly colored carnival fun. But this ride, in the end, only goes round and round and round. Which is ultimately more ho-hum than ho-ho-ho."

It's more "ho-hum than ho-ho-ho"? First of all, Mr. Long, you're reviewing a Pirate movie, not a Santa Clause movie. If you put a "Yo" at the beginning of your colloquialism, it would make a little more sense. Aside from that, though: unfortunately, Long's review is no less fluffy than the movie he's reviewing. He repeatedly points out that Pirates II is "one whale of an amusement ride" with stunts and effects that are "crazy cool." Then, without explaining what he was looking for in this movie, he goes on to tell us that we may find ourselves "missing certain things."

Obviously, Tom Long doesn't know me very well.

When you've got a two-hour summer movie that ends on a total cliffhanger, the last thing you want is the drag of emotional exchange. Somehow, after this monster of a movie, I was still feeling fresh and ready for the third chapter, and that's what you get when you keep things moving in a film like this.

So here are a few things I liked, and one in particular (a minor point) I didn't like:

PRO #1: As much as Long would like to portray this movie as a high-seas action movie romp, it had some compellingly dark edges. The dead sailors in the shipwrecks were mad and creepy, the pathos of Bootstrap Bill was genuinely tragic, the mayhem wrought by the Kraken was extensive, and Davey's heart was gut-wrenchingly realistic.

PRO #2: Pintel and Ragetti. These goofballs conducted a mockingly philosophic sideshow that I genuinely enjoyed. They were among those resurrected from the original Pirates with a strikingly different role to play: in their case, it was a "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" dialouge that paid homage to the lack of deep thought in pirate-land.

PRO #3: Character design. Despite all Depp's interesting roles (Once Upon a Time in Mexico comes to mind), he's never looked cooler than he did with eyes painted on his eyelids. The Hammerhead and Puffer Fish pirates were pure gold, and Tia Dalma's black teeth and red eyes... well... tune in later for more commentary.

CON: There WAS one place where this movie lost me: one of the primary conflicts was Jack Sparrow's challenge to prove his moral worth. I'm all for this type of conflict of character, but Disney never convinced me that Sparrow was all that bad in the first place. Whether in this film or in its predecessor, I was never too concerned about Jack's moral character. He's a rogue, but he's no villain, so the film sputtered as it was trying to build up his big moral moment (which will presumably come in the third film).

As per its middle-stage status? Pirates worked as a "popcorn flick," and its quick, almost subliminal pace made it work well as a transitional movie. Tom Long makes the jump of comparing it negatively with The Matrix Reloaded, which I thought was another great middle-child movie. I'll have to comment on Reloaded in another blog post, because I think it more than deserves a strong voice in its defense. At any rate, the sudden ending of Pirates II was ballsy, and it took me right off guard. I actually wasn't aware that Disney was planning a trilogy, so when the credit screen jumped up I practically passed out. This film made me more than ready for a third, and I hope the next one concludes this series the way it should be: as another two hours of "brightly colored carnival fun."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

This must have been awesome

Just a quick post on a news post I found on Fark, the particular item being available here. You might want to read it before going on... it's so short that I'd feel silly describing or paraphrasing it.

Here's what caught my attention:

1. The gunman started with the phrase: "This is a stick-up."

That's awesome. While most bank robbers are watching Dead Presidents and listening to DMX, this guy is clearly a Sinatra fan who's been watching Humphrey Bogart movies. I hope they put him in a striped pajama suit when he recovered from his head wound.

2. The gunman shot himself in the head.

Oops. "Just my luck, out of two wild shots, one hits me in the head. It's like a ballet dancer, and the one time she trips, she lands in a big pile of dog crap."

"Well, you should still be thankful, dude. Most people who shoot themselves in the head... you know... DIE."

3. They slugged him four or five times with a jar of apple sauce.

This suggests that despite repeated smashings in the head, enough to knock a 190-pound man unconscious, the jar didn't even break. It's reassuring that they're making them so tough these days.

Update: It's been brought to my attention that Motts Apple Sauce generally comes in a plastic container, rather than a glass one, for safety reasons. Lethal safety reasons.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly is in theaters right now, and I checked it out last weekend. I thought it was a solid film, with an array of disparate elements brought together effectively. I was a little chagrined by its 61% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so I took a look at the reviews to see where I differ from 40% of them.

Besides in the fact that I'm a sci-fi movie pushover.

Below are some of the comments I found. They represent a sampling of the criticisms about this movie... most were expecting something faster-paced and cleaner-cut. Some of the issues that arose were the inevitable criticisms of drug culture movies... people want the depictions to be more compelling, or less preachy, or both.

I think the core problem is that these reviews don't reflect the desire of this story to be literary, rather than filmic. Stories, especially Dick's stories, have advanced to a much subtler point of storytelling than mainstream film has attained, and usually this means they're much more introverted and reflective. Literary stories are generally drawn-out, emotionally subtle portraits of people interacting with a social environment, rather than event-driven jerks through a world of faceless adversaries (a.k.a. "extras"). And strangely enough, I think that's what Richard Linklater's version of "A Scanner Darkly" managed to achieve.

Here are three of the most common examples of negative reviews:

"The artiness gets in the way of thrilling plot twists; we're still trying to sort out images when we should be sorting out facts." - Michael Booth, Denver Post (who still manages to give credit to the idea that this was the point)

"Arctor's split-brained existence turns 'A Scanner Darkly' into a Möbius strip of bizarre, sometimes amusing psychological dilemmas, but it ultimately lacks any cohesive impact." - Jeff Shannon, Seattle Times

"But where the earlier film had the luxury of abandoning plot for a more free-form structure, Scanner is stuck between experimentation and a narrative that never gets a chance to move." - Chris Vognar, (also says that ASD was 'dour' compared with Minority Report)

I think this happens a lot: in criticizing this movie, these comments actually cite the characteristics that make it cool. Booth alludes to the fact that this film is atmospheric, without a bunch of Encyclopedia Brown-style hints dropped. Vognar is complaining about the fact that this story has to wade through confused everyday-life scenarios in order to get to its plot points. These are things that aren't allowed in sci-fi and action films. The opponent is expected, and required, to be identifiable, and the sequence of steps needs to lead to a resolution.

But what this movie managed to show, for people who felt like waiting for it, was the way an environment loses its immediacy in the face of addiction and authority. That's why it started with so many orbiting conversations... the ennui of a home life dogged with addiction, the mind-warping alienation of working for a faceless authority... these things feed into Bob Archter's complex throughout the movie. Finally, at the end of the film, they collapse on him. It's not a violent climax, or a sudden salvation... it's the end-point of being caught between two forces, both of which pull you away from yourself. A key aspect of that alienation is the hazy, disconnected thread that links elements in this movie without really demanding your attention.

The treatment of drugs was an important point in A Scanner Darkly, and it caused a lot of the critical backlash. For instance:

"Though it gets around to addressing all of Dick's pessimistic ideas concerning the cyclical nature of addiction and the erosion of individual privacy, the pic arguably misses the boat by not linking its themes more explicitly to the political realities of the present, particularly when issues of unlawful surveillance have rarely been more relevant. Technological advances aside, this feels very much like a film that could have been made in 1977." - Justin Chang,

and a similar name, but a directly opposed criticism:

"Unfortunately, as imaginative and eclectic as its aesthetic sheen is, 'A Scanner Darkly' is emotionally stolid and, in the final scenes, so preachy in its anti-drug stance that it might as well have had the financial support of D.A.R.E. during its production." - Dustin Putman,

It seems to me that Justin, from, was looking for a message about drugs, which he didn't get so much. Drugs were an ambient force in this movie, hanging over everything like smoke, but they weren't the kick in the face that they were in Requiem for a Dream. Dustin, the second critic, wanted a more realistic portrayal of drugs, something to humanize them and the personalities of their abusers. However, this film wasn't about humanity in its multi-faceted brilliance... it was about an evasive epicenter of humanity, getting lost in the haze of self-denial (the job) and self-indulgence (the drugs).

Ultimately, this movie captures some literary elements that almost always get lost on the way to film. The ambient effects of environment and influence, and the disconnected forces that seem to ripple through reality... ESPECIALLY through a semi-conscious reality... are at work here. It's notable that this is one of the only movies, aside from Blade Runner, that's really paced like a Phillip K. Dick story, with the gravitating uncertainty of life on a speculative frontier.

I think this guy gets it the best:

"Richard Linklater sticks to the narrative flow of Philip K. Dick’s novel without embellishing it with current sociopolitical realities that the book foreshadowed. In so doing, Linklater contains the author’s enigmatic work as it pinpoints all-consuming aspects of our modern existence--the pervasive use of drugs and surveillance to stifle freedom of thought and action." - Cole Smithy

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Future's So Bright... (Transformers and Ghost Rider trailers)

This seems like a good time to gush about some upcoming movies that I'm irrationally excited about. I'm looking forward to a bunch, but there's two in particular I want to talk about, because they're adaptations, and there's something about them that's managed to catch my eye.

First, a note on adaptations.

The nature of the adaptation makes it a dangerous endeavor. It's complicated enough to judge any old movie, given the myriad criteria for awesomeness... atmosphere, pacing, effects, characterization, cinematography, sound, script, acting, etc. Then along comes the adaptation, introducing the new element of "referentiality." It's inescapable. No adapted conceptual basis for a story can escape from its original referent, and in a lot of ways, I think this is a good thing. After all, creative work deserves respect, and shitty remakes of good work should be judged with contempt (vis a vis most Stephen King films).

This isn't just a simple a versus b comparison, either. There's merit in staying loyal to your original, but there's also merit in manipulating the material in such a way that it takes on a new cast. I'd cite Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet as a strong resetting of the classic material. On the other hand, I'd cite Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy as an example of a movie where changes to the basic setting and idea only served to water down the (very) original source material, making it predictable at the expense of its personality.

At any rate, some adapted and derived movies might deserve to be judged in a vacuum, but none of them get that privilege. Your original always haunts its resurrection.

Here are the films I'm excited about:

Ghost Rider - I got pretty excited about this one when I ran across it on Apple Trailers. Okay, so casting Nicholas Cage as Johnny Blaze doesn't seem like a prime choice in my opinion, but the producers and effects people clearly put feeling into this one. Watch the trailer, and note the focus of all the Rider-centered visuals: it's all fire and chains, which is exactly what it should be. They're not messing with rickety old graveyards or full rendering of the figure of Ghost Rider... they're making him a big, messy explosion of otherworldly sounds and colors. Sweet.

Transformers - Just heard about this one. There's not much to go on, except for a deliciously vague trailer, and the fact that it's being produced by Michael Bay. Some critics have said he's only good at explosions and metal-on-metal, as indicated by the huge success of The Rock with its target audience. As far as I'm concerned, he sounds perfect for a Transformers movie.

And aside from just thinking these are both cool ideas for movies, I also think these sources are good starting points for adaptation. Why? Because neither of these sources are too connected to specific, nuanced stories at the root of the respective franchise. Ghost Rider is an old comic that's been watered into a haze by a slew of artist and writers, and really, what we comic book people are left to remember are motorcycles and chains and burning skulls. Transformers is a similar deal... the franchise was so distributed across media, from television to the movie to comic books to action figures, that there's no longer a direct connection to the characters or the nuances. What I'm saying is that both of these franchises are really just remembered by the impressions and sensory memories they evoke, and this is a perfect starting-point for a film.

Contrast this with X-Men and Spiderman. Both of these franchises are still fawned over by their fan bases, who still have strong emotional loyalties to particular characters, and even to particular costumes. There's a lot of complex substructure in the X-Men, so these movies can't help but rub fans the wrong way. There's so much to disrespect. Incidentally, I think the X-Men movies have really been hard for fans to digest, so they've gotten a lot of second-degree flak. Spiderman did a better job of appeasing the die-hards. There's a new trailer out for that, too, by the way.

So, anyway, I can't wait for some shit-eating, head-breaking, effects-driven action, and I have great (though very simplistic) expectations for these movies.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Rock for easy digestion (Head Automatica's Popaganda)

Here's a common case in the current music world. Head Automatica's new album, Popaganda, is getting good press from critics, who understand the relationship between a project and its product, but it's getting complaints from those niche listeners who tend to post album reviews on web sites... probably because those listeners only know how to judge an album based on their own understanding of genre and artist loyalty.

Head Automatica is essentially the pet band of Glassjaw's vocalist Daryl Palumbo. Glassjaw was an insane hardcore band, one of those rare acts that I respected but had trouble listening to. In this, Palumbo's more recent work, he's taking a new direction. Head Automatica's first album, Decadence, was a disco-inspired punk album ripe for dancing and club nights, and this flavor was influenced strongly by Dan the Automator, Head Automatica's DJ collaborator. For Popaganda, Head Automatica's second album, the band spins further off on its tangent, dropping the angst and soothing the digestion. It's an extremely, unabashadly pop album, sugar coated on every side, and considering the title, I can assume that this was intentional. And guess what? It works.

Now, I've noticed some confusion among fellow listeners as to the definition of "pop." If you're not clear on this, you might have real trouble appreciating Popaganda. Thus, this post: I'm going to explore "pop" as a genre, rather than as an economic distinction or as a deragatory word, and I'm going to cite definitive moments from Popaganda to demonstrate my points.

Okay, so most people know that "pop" comes from popular. This can be a useful starting point if it's not taken too literally... after all, there are a million subgenres that use "pop" as a modifier (power-pop, synth pop, electropop, pop punk, indie pop, and apparently "dream pop" is one, now, too) and most of these hardly get five seconds of airplay every decade. So if they're not popular, what makes these genres "poppy"?

The answer is that pop music, including tons of lesser-known artists like Head Automatica, derive a lot of their musical techniques from popular sensibility. Mass consumption has given birth to a number of musical devices and tendencies, and if you're playing pop, it means you're using these devices out of concern for the mass digestibility of your music. Contrast this with "experimental," which is when you push your boundaries beyond the public appetite for the music, or "traditional," which is drawn from a certain musical heritage and is designed to speak directly to that niche.

These pop music devices are, generally speaking, oriented toward the following characteristics of the music:

1 - Grab: Pop music is best if it's immediately recognizable. The faster you can filter, understand, and appreciate a melody, the more it qualifies to be in a pop song. Certain songs are awesome after a few listens (consider, for example, the Rx Bandits' album The Resignation, or anything by The Mars Volta), and this may make them brilliant, but it doesn't make them pop. You should have a sense of a pop song after the first verse and chorus, or earlier, if possible.

2 - Cling: This is what makes commentators call something "catchy." There's a strange deep-deated motive in pop music to get the chorus stuck in your head, so you can't stop fucking singing "Oh Baby Baby" on the subway, no matter how much you hate Britney and/or Kevin Federline.

3 - Buzz: A pop song should make you feel better for listening to it. Whether it does this by making you happy (a la The Beach Boys) or by sympathizing with your sadness (a la the book/film High Fidelity), pop should be there for you. It's your best friend. You can never let it go.

Those are the abstract goals... grab, buzz, and stickiness. I've got a copyright on that terminology. Those goals have, in turn, given rise to some devices that can be found, in various forms and sequences, throughout the history of pop. As much as this might sound like it limits pop to a few neat tricks, that's not the direction I'm trying to go. I'm sure we haven't even seen the beginning of the thousands of ways a band can pick up with a hook and climax with a big moment, and we, the listeners, have an infinite appetite for all the variations of a simple three- or four-chord riff.

So here are those devices, which I feel are at the core of pop music:

1 - The Hook:

You may notice a certain affinity between the word "Hook" and the word "catchy." It's TOTALLY not a coincidence. A hook is a singular moment in a song that is designed to catch the listener's attention so that the riffs (see below) can get stuck in their head.

For some of the best hooks in recent songwriting, check out Ultimate Fakebook. In their song When I'm With You I'm Okay, there's a moment when the instruments drop out, there's a pause, and then the singer kicks in all alone with the title line, followed by the full-force chorus. It's a singular moment in hook-writing history.

Compare the hook at the heart of "Nowhere Fast," whose chorus comes in with the line "I got away with murder last night in the parking lot..." This is a little darker than Ultimate Fakebook's sunny day shit, but it works the same way, as a sick, sick, hyper-simple minor-key chorus that kept replaying in my head while I was walking to get lunch. A good hook should be there to grab your attention after it's slipped during the verse, and "Nowhere Fast" does it with style.

2 - The Riff

A riff is a simple, repeatable musical fragment, often at the heart of a good pop song. The point is that it can be repeated, elaborated upon, it can ground the vocal progressions, and you can hear it just below conscious level enough times that it gets impossibly stuck in your head. Michael Jackson's classic "Smooth Criminal" is profoundly riff-laden... the opening chord progression, leading up to the phrase "Annie, are you okay?" keeps repeating, and every time we hear it, we want to hear it again. It's perfect modular songwriting, broken into simple, repeatable fragments that are predictable without being monotonous. He is the king of pop, after all.

Riffs perform myriad functions, often as the root and baseline of a more fully-fleshed song. That's where Head Automatica ws going with "Lying Through Your Teeth," which has a nice 3-chord riff at the opening, and bridging practically every gap. It does its job, acting as a strong root for the song and an anchor point for listener recognition.

3 - Major Chord Progression

Despite some notable exceptions, the major key prejudice is one of the undeniable elements of pop music. The major key is the one that sounds... you know, nice. Happy. C - E - G. All the old pop musicians, like the Beatles at their earliest and sugariest, Elvis Costello, and the founders of pure pop relied on major scales and harmonies to give their songs a perfectly unhealthy deliciousness. Moving on down through pop history, pop punk never escapes from this major chord tendency, from Green Day to Blink-182. One of the things that marks "What's My Age Again?" as painfully poppy punk is the fact that the chorus puts 150% of its emphasis on a three-note major key melody.

Enter Graduation Day, the opening, and perhaps the most impossibly pop melody on Popaganda, the epicenter of its flavor. That chord progression that keeps getting repeated in the chorus is exactly what pop sugar has always been about.

4 - The "Money Note"

I heard this term in some music article, and I've decided to adapt it. There's a moment in a lot of songs, especially ballads, where there's a sudden jump from one key to another, or a sudden turn from minor to major.

Popaganda has subtle moments like this littered all through it. Most are subtle pick-ups that borrow from the money note formula... Daryl Palumbo is good at twisting his voice at important moments, like at the breakdown in "Million Dollar Decision," around 2:40 into the song. The cut in Palumbo's voice does something that alternative balladists (Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey) should be familiar with... it grabs the listener and yanks them back into the song just before the resolution.

5 - Sharp Edges

Come on, if you want music to get its teeth into people, it has to be razor sharp. A sad but pertinent example: the modulations in New Found Glory's second recording of "Hit Or Miss," which were surreally (artifically) on key. Palumbo himself is the master of the sharp edge... it was blunted a bit when he was in Glassjaw and all he had were crunchy guitars and gut-wrenching screams. It came out a lot better in Decadence, where he had a good opportunity in "Beating Heart Baby" and other vocal-weighted tracks.

In Popaganda, Palumbo's single-note sharpness comes across perfectly, complimented by crystal clear guitar work in almost every track. She's Not It is a fine example, but it's just because that's the one I happen to be listening to right now. Palumbo holds all his notes and his voice modulates all over the place, but it always keeps its tone.

Pop shouldn't be limited by these devices... if there's anothing the history of popular music has taught us, it's that a pop sensibility can be overlaid on any serious sound. Sometimes such experiments can fail miserably (for instance, 7 Seconds' The Music, the Message). Still, these devices work in country and techno just as well as they work for Hanson and NOFX. Popaganda borrows its sick, greasy melodies and its molasses hooks from every point in a shifting genre, and it results in a record that's hard to put down if you really appreciate a simple, clean, slick piece of power/pop/punk. That was the project... Popaganda. And that's what happened.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

From the Ashes (X-Men: The Last Stand)

At the risk of destroying my comic book cred, I'm going to point out all the triumphs tucked away in the most recent X-Men movie. First, though, a nod to the critics, with whom I agree on a number of fronts:

1 - Strange pacing: this movie couldn't really settle on a conflict, so it jumped around between internal and external confrontations without ever really distinguishing between them. I mean, maybe there's merit in this... who really knows where the line is between themselves and their adversaries? Where does Prof. X end and Magneto being? Even so, this film had serious pacing problems... we got a good climax, but we never really got a sense of build-up.

2 - No respect for characters: I'm pulling out the comic book nerd card on this one. Hollywood really had NO respect for certain characters, like Cyclops, Wolverine, and Rogue. In particular, Wolverine does NOT take on a responsible leaderly role. That's Cyclops' job (sadly unfulfilled in this series of films), and Wolvie's lone-wolfiness is always what separated him from the team. And Rogue as a wilty teenager? Sad.

But I'm not here to complain. Even with these faults, this movie had moments that really glittered through, and these happened to be profoundly well-rendered characterizations, strongly contrasting with the problematic ones sketched above. I need another tangent, though... I want to mention the interesting recycling of politics in X-Men 3.

The adaptation of a "cure for mutants" was thoughtful, I must admit. There were at least three real-world references tied in here. First, a line of mutants being harassed by their own kind is strongly reminiscent of abortion clinic lines, as two social fronts clash on decisions of responsibility and morality. Second, the idea of a "cure" for something that's not a disease reflects the homosexuality debate, and through it, the issue of self-acceptance and social approaches to normalization. Third, Magneto's video is obviously a terrorism reference... and just enough sympathy leaks out of this film that it doesn't come across as a flat demonization of the terroristic intent. If anything, this film weighs Magneto's approach against Professor X's, and Prof. X comes out on top.

These were just details, though. The meat of the film's merit was in the portrayal of certain pivotal characters.

First, Dark Phoenix. The worst thing this director could have done was to water down Dark Phoenix so that she was just a powerful mutant that could hurt people. Instead, her explosive scenes successfully cast her as inhuman, as a force of nature that could annihilate whole crowds of people without a second thought. Both her physical rendering and the portrayal of her power were compelling and frightening, and the capricious killings of hundreds of mutants in the final scene was sufficiently disturbing for my taste.

Second, Professor X and Magneto: This film centered annoyingly around Wolverine and Storm, and the only thing that made up for this was that Professor X came across as a true patriarch, a spirit that pervaded the pathology of the film. His calm slow-motion glance before his sudden death was the touch that made his final scene really worthwhile, and I would argue that this scene is one of the best in the series, and perhaps one of the best in superhero movies. The death was jarring and surreal, just as a father's violent death would be in real life, and this nuance was one of the diamonds in this movie's rough.

Finally, against the powerful spirit of Professor X, Magneto's character as a misguided idealist really came into relief. His quote in the face of Dark Phoenix ("What have I done?") was a little limpid, but the scenes dedicated to him... his rejection of Mystique, and his final scene of pathos before the chess board... were perfect to bring his personality out of his plastic helmet. Even in his cruelest moments (with Mystique, in particular), I had a strange sympathy for him, and this was especially true in the last scene of the film. Sympathy for the devil is a surprisingly common sentiment in comic books, and it's rare that comic book movies manage to capture it.

This film doesn't stand on its total structure, and if you look at it disinterestedly, as a whole, you probably just see a bit of a mess of writing and acting. It's only when you get into the film at its pivotal moments that its merit shines through, and if you missed out on these moments, it's probably worth watching a second time.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Let's Roll (Sunday Bloody Sunday)

I have to say something about this post, which has blown up on Google and Video Bomb...

George Bush sings Bloody Sunday

There have been lots of "mash-ups" floating around recently, some of which have been brilliant, and some of which have sucked, and I have to say, there's something uniquely compelling about this one.

Here's the thing... it's not a nuanced political statement. It doesn't really have anything to do with Bush's policies or priorities, and it doesn't say much about the Democratic or liberal agenda, either. It's just about jarring images, a memorable melody, and words that are just meaningful enough for us to recognize them.

But that's what politics is about these days, too.

Look at Bush. His media presence, orchestrated by media outlets and public appearances, has nothing to do with the actual decisions he's made as an official. Ultimately, he's a two-dimensional representation of military strength and family values. We don't talk about politics any more... we talk about symbolic presences, and we THINK we're talking about politics.

The value of this video, and of videos like it (Gay Bar was another good one) is that it manipulates this spin-doctored symbolism in a way that deconstructs it. It's only effective because the viewer is presented with the twenty-first century symbol of military might, along with his mechanical cabinet, and he's manipulated to sing one of the most iconic anti-war songs of the MTV generation.

So there's something weird about it. Strangely enough, it almost made me want to cry, because Bush's presence made the imagery of war and tragedy all the more acute. I've gotten over that initial emotional reaction (I'm not a knee-jerk pacifist, I promise), but there's still something to be said about the jarring simplicity of these images and the melody that accompanies them.

Some further comments:


It's so weird hearing this song in Bush's smug voice. I must admit, he's good at making us feel like he's confiding in us, and that what he's saying is personal and important. This quality is one of the most effective elements of this piece, because we're so unaccumstomed to hearing Bush talking about something that actually invokes a personal response. Bush's rhetoric is self-important and generally unconvincing, so when you make his voice say words that somebody was really passionate about, it's like hearing a cat barking in your ear.


Excuse the obscure academic reference, but there's something about the standing congresspeople that reminds me of Walter Benjamin's The Mass Ornament, or Fritz Lang's Metropolis. These people, both allies and opponents of the president, stand mechanically, on cue, to punctuate his flaccid political talking points. The pace of this video makes them seem like pistons, showing how their bodies have become part of a big grinding political machine. It's creepy.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Basic Idea

Pop culture criticism is a growing industry. Ever since critical theory made mass culture a valid object of criticism, people have been sifting through the dregs of entertainment media, looking for critical themes like biologists looking for microbes in animal shit. The "critical" perspective has invaded all sorts of media commentary... lit crit has taken a recent interest in graphic novels, film crit struggles to find patterns in plebian Hollywood cinema, and music reviews have become more and more like academic treatises, depending on historical musical references so obscure that you have to be a pop music scholar to really appreciate the commentary. This is the real merging of high-brow and low-brow, when mass media is so pervasive that it doesn't make much sense to bullshit about anything else.

Of course, the critics aren't ready to be associated with the consuming masses just yet. As a result, most criticism is written from a compulsively external perspective. Nobody can just talk about what a cool movie Rear Window was... they have to talk about it in terms of Freudian and Lacanian theory. No action movie is left to shimmer in its brutal, goofy glory... it has to be couched in gender theory, discursive theories of violence, and analyses of symbolic colonialism. No punk album gets away without being compared, either positively or negatively, to some landmark indie outfit from the '80s.

Perhaps you can tell, from that paragraph, that I've done all this shit myself.

Mass media also faces the problem of presumed guilt, just on the basis of its being highly marketed and popular. This is particularly true of adaptations, which is why it's so dangerous to make a comic book movie these days. Fans of the actual comic book/graphic novel hate seeing their messiah's work marred and mutilated by an action flick director. Sequels have the same problem. Garfield: Tale of Two Kitties is out right now, and no matter how much an improvement it is, I doubt it will escape from the influence of its pitiful predecessor. Compare this with films like the Matrix sequels, which weren't given their due credit because the original was so FREAKING good.

These are obstacles in mass media criticism that I intend to confront. My background qualifies me to tear mass media apart, but it also gives me the secret ability to find its subtle strengths and accomplishments. This blog is going to be a critical tribute to mass media... I'm going to use it to comment positively on the little media packages that make up our everyday lives. The focus is going to be movies, music, and Internet memes, and I'll try to focus especially on media that's getting bashed, rejected, and shafted by reviewers and critics in the general community.

A friend said this idea was like a "pop culture apologist blog," and that's fairly accurate. Let's put it this way: I love mass media, and with this blog, I intend to meet it on its own terms and judge it according to its own rules and merits. At miksimum, media always gets the Benefit of the Doubt.