See where all my folly’s led

07 January 2011 by Kári
image via Wikipedia
Reluctant Decemberists fan that I am, I was cautiously optimistic to learn that they had a new album coming out this month. What with the new Iron & Wine album, entitled Kiss Each Other Clean¸ coming out a week later (on the 25th), January is shaping up to be a promising start to what will hopefully be another Good Year for Music, as bloggers and critics alike seem to agree 2010 was. I certainly thought so, but those of you who saw my year-end list may have noted the conspicuous absence of all things Kanye, Sufjan, Beach, Vampire, and Arcade.

Now, it appears I was the only person who liked the Decemberists’ 2009 offering, The Hazards of Love, and I suppose you might chalk that up to a combination of my appreciation of folksy concept albums à la Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and my unwavering devotion to Shara Worden. When I saw the Decemberists in concert in June of 2009, they played the whole of their opus, much to the chagrin of some members of the audience, my girlfriend Susanne included, before moving on to more crowd-pleasing hits after the interval, by which point Susanne had gone home, citing a headache but urging me to stay till the end. Which, I confess, I did, and was thus treated to a fantastic cover of Heart’s guitar hero epic “Crazy on You”, with Shara and Becky Stark sharing vocal duties and just generally kicking arse. After another break, the Decemberists returned, this time with none other than Peter Buck in tow, who joined them for a cover of “Begin the Begin”. Underwhelming, on the whole, methought—although Buck’s presence on stage was not nearly as weirdly superfluous as James Iha’s had been at that Serena Maneesh concert in Green Point a few years ago, but that’s a different story—but perhaps it just didn’t bear comparison with the fireworks that had gone immediately before.

More generally, however, it occurs to me that I’ve never spared Peter Buck a second thought, really, certainly not as a quote-unquote “great guitarist” whose distinctive style or sound were to be admired and emulated. But I also realise that I’m probably doing the man a grave injustice by saying so. Nevertheless, I couldn’t see what his presence on stage that night really added to the music. Now that I’ve heard the Decemberists’ new single, “Down by the Water”, however, I’m beginning to see how I might re-evaluate his contribution. Buck plays guitar and mandolin on a number of songs on the new album, which, says Meloy, started out as a flat-out tribute to R.E.M.

Even if he hadn’t said that, though, it would soon have been clear enough, because “Down by the Water” is, when it comes down to it, an R.E.M. song. The first line of the pre-chorus, “The season rubs me wrong” is pure Meloy in its phrasing, but after that we’re firmly in R.E.M.-land, and, as if to cap it all off, Buck [edit: or maybe it’s Chris Funk; apparently Buck plays 12-string on this track] adds little arpeggio lifted verbatim from “The One I Love”. As soon as Meloy and Gillian Welch have sung “down by the old main drag” and that arpeggio has rung out a couple of times, I always half-expect Michael Stipe to yell “Fire!”

See what I mean?

So, is this a factor of Buck’s distinctive guitar playing, or simply due to the fact that Meloy & co. were writing an R.E.M. parody/tribute?

Answers on a postcard, please.

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2010, a Year in Music

05 January 2011 by Kári
A number of last-minute entries delayed the publication of my year-end list of the best albums of 2010, but I hope you won't mind. The delay was also prompted by my realisation that the list I published last year did not in any way reflect the actual best albums of that year — for instance it completely neglected to mention Other Lives, whose eponymous début album was secretly the best album released in 2009, in my humble, and now revised, opinion. (Here, give "End of the Year" a listen; it seems appropriate).

Now where was I?

10. Sun Kil MoonAdmiral Fell Promises (Caldo Verde)
Mark Kozelek seems to have taken some time off to take classical guitar lessons. Or maybe he's always been able to play like this, but at any rate, this is a solo effort, just him on nylon-string guitar and his distinctive, cotton-wool infused voice. This is a late-night album if ever there was one. Turn out the lights, pour the wine, and let Kozelek lull you into a mellow, candle-lit stupor. This is easily the most low-key album on this list, and although there is nothing quite as haunting or unshakeable as "Heron Blue" off 2008's April, for all its calm and sombre moods, there is something vital about this album. Good luck trying to understand a word Kozelek is singing, but that won't stop you feeling he nevertheless has something to say. Something, moreover, you won't mind taking the time to hear.
9. VictoireCathedral City (New Amsterdam)
Victoire are a Brooklyn-based all-female quintet to whose existence I confess I was not alerted until I read NPR's list of this year's best classical releases. Which is to say, this album is a bit of a late entry into my year-end list, here, but that needn't dissuade you. Describing themselves as a "chamber-rock ensemble", these ladies produce some truly intriguing instrumental music. Similar, I suppose, to other post-rock groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, particularly in the use of obscure vocal recordings in the background, Victoire nevertheless do not indulge in the endless cycle of crescendo and diminuendo that often threatens to undermine whatever impact these bands might otherwise be striving for. Instead, we have a more quiet and subtle, multi-layered collection of post-classical as well as post-rock compositions.
8. The Tallest Man on Earth — The Wild Hunt (Dead Oceans)
Swedish troubadour Kristian Matsson is not, by all accounts, particularly tall. Strap an acoustic guitar on him, however, and he becomes a giant, capable of captivating large audiences on the strength of his finger-picking prowess and infectious songwriting alone. Then, of course, there's that voice of his. All Songs Considered recently broadcast a solo show of his from New York, and as the announcer rightly noted, it is a rare musician who is able to hold an audience like Matsson did on that occasion. Now, in the past I've often felt that he was playing a little too much up to the obvious comparisons between him and Bob Dylan, on this album (and especially on the 5-track EP released later last year, entitled Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird), he has stepped out of the shadow of his predecessor and has begun to come fully into his own as a singer and songwriter in his own right. (At least he dropped to regrettable propensity for glissando and vague stabs at high notes that by turns delights and dismays Dylan's fans and detractors). Matsson is actually both a more technically accomplished guitarist and a better singer than Dylan, and on this album (and the EP, which, I suppose, should be jointly listed here) his melodies are now starting to catch up with his talent. Have a listen to these two songs, one off the album and one off the EP, which showcase his various talents quite neatly.
7. AssSalt Marsh (Static Caravan)
Why anyone would choose to perform under the name "Ass" is something of a mystery to me, I must confess. Supposedly it is short for Andreas Söderström Solo, but that doesn't make it any better, really. I first became aware of Söderström's work via his previous album, My Get Up and Go Just Got Up and Went, an, as the press release has it, "quietly intoxicating" album of acoustic guitar noodling and not much else besides. Salt Marsh finds Söderström still in a hypnotic, melancholy mode, but this is a more ambitious record in terms of the different layers of instruments used. My favourite track on the album, "One Piece Concept" reminds me of TNT-era Tortoise. But don't take my word for it. Go listen to it yourself.
6. Anaïs Mitchell — Hadestown (Righteous Babe)
Whoever Anaïs Mitchell is, she certainly knows all the right people. This "folk-opera" presents a retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and features the vocal talents of Justin "Bon Iver" Vernon (who is simply everywhere these days) and the righteous babe herself, Ani DiFranco, amongst others. The result is a somewhat startling mixture of genres and styles which nevertheless makes total sense from start to finish. It seems Hadestown was originally a stage show, and it definitely has that feel about it, but it doesn't feel like a disembodied soundtrack to something else. Rather, just as the Drowned in Sound review puts it, "it creates a world you’ll want to return to time and time again".

5. ClogsThe Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton (Brassland)
Clogs, which, you'll forgive me for saying so, is a stupid name for a band, is a sort of side-project for Bryce "The National" Dessner. Although it would be possible to assert the opposite, since he and Padma Newsome have been producing beautiful pseudo-classical music since before The National ever played a note. In the past, their music has been largely instrumental, frequently composed on the basis improvised studio jam-sessions, or so Wikipedia tells me. On Creatures, their fifth studio album, they've enlisted the help of Shara Worden, who, as you probably know, can do no wrong in my eyes. Or my ears, for that matter. And she doesn't disappoint here either. The album was included on NPR's list of the 5 best genre-defying albums of last year, where it certainly belongs, but, in my opinion, it is also quite simply one of the 5 best albums of last year tout court.

4. Strand of OaksPope Killdragon (eMusic Selects)
"Alex Kona was twelve feet tall / His mother got killed by bowling ball / As she skipped across the wooden lane / Two frames from a perfect game". Thus begins the fifth track on Timothy Showalter's (aka. Strand of Oaks) second album, Pope Killdragon. Showalter, who mostly just sings and plays the guitar, seems to have also borrowed Vangelis's synthesizer for some of the tracks. It's a curious mixture, really, but it works nonetheless. Casting the otherwise straightforward singer/songwriter vibe in a distant, cinematic haze. At the end of the fifth song, Alex Kona remarks that "You don’t understand / What it’s like / Growing up here", whereupon he picks up his electric guitar and launches into the monumental "Giant's Despair", an apocalyptic barrage of distorted guitar and drums worthy of anything Black Sabbath might have come up with in the mid-Seventies. It was here that I realised I was in the presence of greatness.
3. Get Well Soon — Vexations (City Slang)
Like Strand of Oaks, Get Well Soon consists almost entirely of one man, in this case Konstantin Gropper, a 28-year-old multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter from South-Western Germany. His début album, Rest Now, Weary Head! You Will Get Well Soon, came out two years ago to some critical acclaim, and in January of 2010 his second offering, Vexations, was released, which is also when I first heard of him, via the music video for his song "Angry Young Man", taken from this album. Gropper's baritone is often eerily reminiscent of Matt Berninger's (of The National fame), and in some ways the two bands are also similar musically, in particular with reference to The National's more epic compositions. But there is also a certain playfulness about Gropper's music which prevents it from becoming turgid or self-indulgent, although he certainly does sail quite close to the wind on that count on several occasions. Above all, it is quite clear from the 22 tracks which make up (the deluxe edition of) Vexations that there is a precocious and extremely fertile musical imagination at work here, such as on stand-out track "5 Steps / 7 Swords" which transforms Pergolesi's Stabat Mater into a Balkan brass-band dirge and pits it against a driving rhythm, while Gropper intones whimsical lyrics about death and the afterlife. If that sounds over-the-top, perhaps it is, but it works, somehow, nonetheless. The pair of songs which open the album provide a key to understanding the dynamics which underlie what follows. Track one, "Nausea", is a slow, dreamy waltz, introduced in storybook fashion by a young woman recounting how, on a "bright and beautiful morning in spring" she had gone out to collect wood for the fire when she "stumbled upon this strangely formed root...". Three minutes later, the drums kick in with an irresistible 4/4 beat (reminiscent of Blur's "Song #2") and the album takes off from there. There is much to explore here, and I have only begun to scratch the surface.
2. Shearwater — The Golden Archipelago (Matador)
Rook, Shearwater's previous offering, was without a doubt the best album of 2008, and I listened to it more or less non-stop from the moment I first got my hands on it, following a recommendation from Blog Meridian's John B. And so it was with great anticipation that I cranked up the volume on their latest album, The Golden Archipelago. Initially, I was ambivalent. The didn't seem to flow into one another as they had on Rook, they all ended a little too abruptly, as if the musical idea driving them suddenly ran out. But as I persevered with it, I came to appreciate some of the nuances which I had missed on my first few listens, and tracks such as "Meridian", "Black Eyes", and "Landscape at Speed" began to open themselves up to me. But the album as a whole hasn't come together in quite the same way as Rook did; the songs still seem to end too suddenly, and Meiburg's voice at times veers a little too close to the mellifluous (let's call it the "Chris de Burgh-factor"). That said, this is still the second best album of the year, in my opinion, and there is no question that Shearwater are among the most interesting bands currently making music in the Western hemisphere. Just, if you're new to their work, give Rook a go first, and the likewise excellent Snow Leopard EP.
1. Agnes Obel — Philharmonics (PIAS)
One reason this list is so late is that at the last minute I was forced to reassess my entire top-ten because of Danish singer/songwriter Agnes Obel, of whose existence I was entirely ignorant up until the 29th of December. Obel, who is 29, lives in Berlin, and released her début album Philharmonics in early October, receiving rave reviews in the Danish independent music press. She recently announced a series of six concerts in Denmark in February. The tickets were gone in a flash. At first blush, such excitement may seem extreme. Obel's album consists of sparse, downtempo, piano-and-vocal meditations; hardly the sort of thing that usually sends an entire nation into raptures of ecstatic anticipation. Naturally, I had to figure out what was going on here.
I must say, this album cast its spell on me even before I had heard half of it. (Basically as soon as I heard "Riverside", the second song on the album). There is something irresistible about these deceptively simple compositions. I haven't checked to make sure, but I would say that fully half of these twelve tracks are in waltz time. The instrumental tracks and the title track in particular invoke Erik Satie and fin-de-siècle orientalism, and in general there is a music-box quality to the songs, a sort of nostalgic fragility which is at once mournful and comforting. You know I'm a sucker for that stuff.
Honourable mention:
  • Woven Hand — The Threshingfloor (Glitterhouse/Sounds Familyre) | David E. Edwards continues his post-16 Horsepower pilgrimage to lands dark and foreboding. The unrelenting, earnest intensity is still the driving force behind his music, plus, of course, that voice. Shades of darkwave (Dead Can Dance, in particular) here and there, which suits his customary brooding style admirably.
  • Hurray for the Riff Raff — Young Blood Blues (eMusic Selects) | Another interesting release I discovered on eMusic this year was this album by New Orleans-based folk/blues/alt. country outfit Hurray for the Riff Raff. Cat Power-esque vocals plus accordions and banjos... a rollicking good time was had by all.
  • Sarah Kirkland Snider — Penelope (New Amsterdam Records) | I suppose I felt I could only go for one album featuring Shara Worden on vocals for the top ten, and the Clogs album is just a little better than this one. Needless to say, however, anything to which Ms. Worden lends her voice is worth your time, so by all means give this a go.
  • Zoë Keating — Into the Trees (self-released) | Minimalist cello-looping, as singularly compelling and hypnotic as anything one has come to expect from Ms. Keating. I was a big fan of her first album, One Cello x 16: Natoma, and she doesn't disappoint on this one either. Go listen.
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Begging the Question

15 October 2010 by Kári
One of the challenges in designing Neytiri was...Image via Wikipedia
The deadline for submitting something to next year's NeMLA has already passed, and having looked at the panels on offer, I decided not to submit anything. Unlike the ACLA where everything is post-colonial this or gender that, NeMLA tends to attract extremely conventional topics ("Calvino and the city: new critical perspectives", for instance), and perhaps that is true of approaches to national literature in general. But there was one panel I was intrigued by:

Understanding Avatar: A Movie Made for the Masses
Are the primitive yet "linked-in" Na'vi of Avatar the manifestation of a form of nature now dreamed about by modern "users" dependant on the Internet for their understanding of the world? Did James Cameron select obvious metaphors and recycled themes to ensure Avatar would be understood by bloggers and "textrs" no longer capable of subtlety or wit? Does the popularity of Avatar represent to the "erosion of language" prophesized by Sven Birkerts as a morbid symptom of the electronic age? Please submit 250-500 word abstracts to ...
What a bizarre panel proposal! Its alleged object of inquiry, James Cameron's 3D epic Avatar, is seemingly just an excuse to rehash conventional fears about the degeneracy of Western culture, the decline of literacy and the intellect in the face of the unmanageable proliferation of text on-line. Who says "bloggers and 'textrs'" are "no longer capable of subtlety or wit"? The CfP begs this question entirely. Of the three rhetorical questions here, only the first is potentially interesting with regard to the film itself: A sort of reverse-ethnographic study of the "primitive yet 'linked-in' Na'vi" can indeed offer revealing insights into naive Western attitudes towards the 'natural' and the 'primitive'. The whole film is essentially a gigantic heap of white guilt, a redemption fantasy, where the white colonialist gets to 'save' the natives and save himself in the process. The story is a sad one, told many times. And, as Slavoj Žižek argued persuasively at the time, it has serious racist resonances. But even that is as old as the hills. There is nothing "new" here, and singling Avatar out as somehow more deliberately simplistic and indicative of cultural decline than any other Hollywood blockbuster seems blinkered and self-defeating.

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Annals of Translation, Pt. IV

24 August 2010 by Kári
Last year I taught a class called “German for Reading Knowledge”; a curious class, really, which trains (primarily) graduate students to read academic German with the aid of a dictionary, even if they’ve never heard or spoken a word of German in their lives. It is a requirement in many graduate programs that you demonstrate reading competency in one or two languages beyond English and whatever your primary language may be. Art historians and musicologists are explicitly required to take German, mostly, I suspect, because a great many of the foundational texts of those disciplines were written in Germany in the nineteenth century. It seems slightly absurd if, like one of my students, you’re studying contemporary African art (in which case French or Swahili would probably be more relevant), but those are the rules.
This stamp is in the public domain in Germany ...Image via Wikipedia
To supplement the textbook, I would often give my students headlines or captions from gossip magazines to translate (“you have five minutes to tell me what this is about”), and sometimes, as a special treat, I would hit them with something completely untranslatable. Some people may feel that giving students in a translation class something untranslatable to translate may be of dubious pedagogical worth, but I beg to differ: one misconception about translating that I was at pains to dispel is the view that translation is a form of code-breaking, and that as long as you know the code, then all you have to do is decipher the text to reveal the “real” meaning. This is how machine translation works (or at least did until Google translate come along), but it is also a view commonly held by people, especially, in my experience, native English speakers, who don’t speak any other languages. This passage from Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress is a good example.
And so it was that one day, I presented my students with this little gem:
Früher war es Potentaten und Staatsmännern vorbehalten, »ich habe es nicht gewollt« zu sagen, wenn sie einen Krieg angezettelt hatten. Heute beruft sich schon jeder Filmschreiber und jeder Lagerblockwart darauf und braucht nicht einmal mehr zu lügen. Jeder ist sich selbst ein Würstchen. Unverantwortlichkeit ist kein Privileg mehr. Das Unheil ward total.
—Theodor W. Adorno, »Unrat und Engel« (1952)
(Unfortunately, I haven’t got the “official” translation of this passage to hand—it’s in Notes to Literature, you can go and look it up if you like—but it doesn’t get it quite right. I might post it as an addendum once I’m back in New York next week).
A little bit of background is in order here. Two things: first of all, I initially came across this passage in the context of my friend Tim’s perennial search for sausage-related quotes by German philosophers and cultural critics. It’s all for a hypothetical book he’d like to write on the role and status of Wurst in German culture and society: suffice to say that this is a vast topic, and one which will have to wait for another blog post. The tentative title for this opus is, of course, Wurst Case Scenario.
Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel in 1930, Ge...Image via WikipediaThe second thing you should know, is that this quote comes from an article Theodor Adorno wrote as a follow-up to an open letter he had written in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (I think) concerning the republication of Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat as Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), the title of the famous film starring Marlene Dietrich, which was based on Mann’s book. It was, in other words, an early instance of the now-common film tie-in edition (“Now a Major Motion Picture” etc.). Adorno felt that this was unconscionable and served only to illustrate the absolute dominance of the Culture Industry and the erosion and degradation of Western Civilisation. Now, it appears that in the wake of this initial complaint, several senior editors at the publishing house (whichever one it was; Fischer, probably) announced that they had been against changing the title of the book, and that it was therefore not their responsibility, and if they’d had their way, the title never would have been changed. Except, of course, that everyone he spoke to said the same thing: it wasn’t my idea, it’s not my responsibility. So who, Adorno wanted to know, had made this abominable decision which all the senior editors at the publishing house had been against? The passage quoted above, which I gave to my students to translate, is the last paragraph of an article entitled “Unrat und Engel”, which in and of itself is difficult to translate, since on the surface it simply alludes to the two titles of this work, but can also be read as “Rubbish and Angels” (the plural of Engel being Engel).
Here’s my attempt at a translation:
It used to be the prerogative of potentates and statesmen to be able to say “I didn’t want this” when they had just started a war. Now every screenwriter and every camp warden can do it without it even being a lie. [Jeder ist sich selbst ein Würstchen]. Irresponsibility is no longer a privilege. The disaster was complete.
“Das Unheil ward total”, with its sudden temporal shift, and the archaic past-tense form of “werden” (today you would say “wurde”), catapults us into quasi-Biblical territory. This is the End of the World we’re talking about here, clearly. I mean, steady on Theo! All they did was change the title of a book! But that, of course, is just as barbaric as writing a poem in 1952. The people writing scripts for the culture industry are the same as the people who were overseeing the prisoners at Auschwitz less than a decade before (and, in some cases, they might even have been not just equivalent but actually identical). This is the total calamity which has befallen us. There is no difference between writing a poem and filling a mass grave. At least it seemed that way to Adorno, and to a lot of people in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the Second World War.
But what do we do with the Würstchen? As you no doubt noticed, I didn’t translate that sentence, mainly because I don’t know how, exactly. And this is precisely why I gave this passage to my students. Short sentences with relatively simple syntax, and yet so hard to translate into anything resembling English. I’m not even particularly happy with “I didn’t want this” or “it’s not what I wanted” for “Ich habe es nicht gewollt”; it would probably be more idiomatic to say “my hands were tied”, but that doesn’t fit the broader context of Adorno’s wholesale indictment of post-War German society and ultimately of all of Western civilization. If your hands were tied, it implies that you were forced, by powers or circumstances beyond your control, to perform some action. Whereas “ich habe es nicht gewollt” also applies to the editors at Fischer, who were against changing the title of the book, but watched as it happened anyway. The difference is perhaps subtle, but those editors wouldn’t have said “our hands were tied”, because that would imply that they actually did this. But that’s not what they’re saying: “we didn’t want this” and if it had been up to us, we would have put a stop to it. It this disavowal not only of personal responsibility but also of personal agency and authority which feeds into the problem sentence.
So let’s start at the beginning: “Würstchen” is the diminutive of “Wurst”, so it’s a small sausage, a hot-dog, or, if you will, a Wiener. To call someone a “Würstchen” means they’re a wimp, a loser, someone who can’t or won’t stand up for themselves. If sentence were “jeder ist ein Würstchen” it would mean “Everyone is a Wiener”. But the deceptively simple reflexive pronoun “sich” means that it’s actually closer to “everyone is a Wiener to him- or herself”. But what does that mean?
Now, this sentence echoes the proverb “Jeder ist sich selbst der Nächste”, which literally means “Every man is his own neighbour”, a somewhat cynical inversion of the Christian dictum of loving thy neighbour as thyself (Liebe deinen Nächsten wie dich selbst), and thus corresponds roughly to the English saying “charity begins at home”: i.e., when it comes down to it, we’ve all got to look out for number one first. But now instead of being your own neighbour, you’re your own Wiener. Or rather, you are a Wiener in relation to yourself. In other words, you don’t have to guts to stand up for yourself in the face of your own cowardice and selfishness and take responsibility for your actions and the actions of others. This, essentially, is what led to the Holocaust.
But how do you condense all of that into one English sentence involving sausage? I have no idea.
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« Tour de Horse, part deux: My Little Phony »

04 August 2010 by Kári
My Little PonyImage via Wikipedia

(Part one here)

My good friend Jan Küveler, who writes for German news daily Die Welt, has just published a little piece on the My Little Pony IMDb mystery, entitled “Lügen haben kurze Beine [lit. “Lies have short legs” (like ponies, get it?); in English, of course, lies have no legs at all]. After explaining the concept of My Little Pony to his German-speaking readership, who may not be familiar with the little pastel-coloured plastic ponies, as well as the democracy-in-action fact that the open rating system on IMDb is usually a fairly good indicator of whether a film is worth watching, he offers his appraisal of this curious hoax (my translation):

It is unlikely that this is a case of the production company trying to promote a bad movie, as one of the few “genuine” reviewers supposes. The other reviews are too absurdly over-the-top for that. None of the reviews ever mentions the actual content of the film, presumably because none of the reviewers has actually ever seen My Little Pony: The Princess Promenade. This is clearly all a big joke, an internet hoax, a sort of digital flash-mob. […] But what this prank really reveals is just how easy it is to manipulate ostensibly unimportant, marginal information on the Internet. Wikipedia and the IMDb only work when there are lots of attentive users who will not hesitate to raise the alarm as soon as they smell a rat. But where there is no-one looking, the door is wide open for wild distortions and ruses—whatever their motivation may be. But when some unsuspecting soul finally does come along, they’re all at sea. And when even someone like Roger Ebert can be affected, then no-one is safe. Be that as it may, one thing is for sure: it’s a hoot (or rather a whinny).
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Wish Someone Would Care?

03 August 2010 by Kári
I’ve been meaning to write something about Treme since about the beginning of June but for one reason or another never got around to it. Since topicality is something I may strive for but rarely achieve around here, I figure now is as good a time as any to say what’s on my mind.

I came to Treme with the most favourable preconceptions imaginable: not only am I huge fan of The WireDavid Simon’s previous HBO series, but when the first episode of Treme premièred on 11 April, I had just returned from a conference in New Orleans (photos here, and above) and had just watched Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke. If there was any doubt at all, in other words, I was prepared to give this series the full benefit of it.

Things got off to a somewhat slow but, to my mind, quite promising start, with a diverse collection of characters trying to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The dramatic possibilities were potentially endless. But as the season wore on, the story and the characters not only appeared to lose momentum, it was almost as if the writers were deliberately sabotaging their own story.

For instance, Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), in many respects the main character in the series, is dissatisfied with the way things are going in New Orleans and decides to record a protest EP, using local musicians. The EP is a huge hit, and some of Davis’s more politically inclined acquaintances encourage him to run for political office on the strength of the grassroots support his music has garnered. So far so good. Davis doesn’t really know anything about politics, and is mostly determined to have a good time at all costs, but the potential for a political awakening storyline is ripe for the picking. Or so I thought. But how do the writers handle this narrative capital? They squander it, as Davis is paid off by a representative of some other candidate for the same office who offers him a “get out of jail free card” if he’ll drop out of the race. Which he promptly does, and all political ambition—his and the series’—ebbs away and instead we get another overlong musical sequence, with pictures of people having a good time, indicative, I suppose, of the unique tradition and atmosphere that makes New Orleans so special.

Davis’s political non-career is by far not the only non-starter in the series. LaDonna’s roof gets fixed by some out-of-towner for no apparent reason (except that the storyline wasn’t going anywhere and they needed to resolve it somehow) and she and Terri eventually manage to figure out what happened to her brother but then she doesn’t want to press charges and the entire foray into the bureaucratic and governmental quagmire is aborted at the last minute. After having spent an entire season sewing a new Mardi Gras costume, Albert Lambreaux misses the big day because he’s in prison for staging a protest against the local government’s decision not to open up the projects to let poor black New Orleanians return. Again, it looks as though this will provide some insight into the socio-political situation but ultimately he just sits back down and sews while Davis, who’s got is job at the radio station back, plays some long-forgotten New Orleans song. When they finally go out in the streets wearing their Indian get-up, there’s no one there to see them, and whatever significance this minor parade might have had is completely lost on the audience—or it was one me, at any rate: are we meant to see this as a vindication of Albert’s hard work and dogged determination? What exactly is he trying to achieve here?

In episode nine (“Wish Someone Would Care”, June 13, 2010), the high-point of dramatic action is a thunderstorm, which ruins Janette (Kim Dickens)’s chances of ever establishing herself as a kitchen on wheels following the forced closure of her restaurant. In the meantime, Davis throws a party, which takes up a large portion of the episode and is about as interesting as watching a recording of some other “great” party you didn’t go to. Realising that she’s had enough of New Orleans (because of the thunderstorm, not because Davis’s party was so boring), Janette pays a visit to Davis (with whom she has a sort of on-and-off relationship). The following morning, as they lie side by side in bed, it becomes clear that she has made up her mind to leave New Orleans and go to New York.
Davis: Not that again. You can’t be serious.
Janette: I am.
Davis: You’re a damn good chef.
Janette: I am better than good, but this town beat me. Much as I love it, I’m not trying to fight with it anymore.
Davis: But New York?
Janette: I want to see how I stack up against the big boys, you know? Without all these broke-ass levees and blocked gas lines and…
Davis: May I quote the author of La Cuisine Creole? I believe it’s your professional bible.
Janette: Jesus, Davis do you ever stop?
Davis: New York is very fashionable and fast, so fast that you can’t even stroll through it. You just get pushed along. And don’t plan on getting invited to any backyard barbecues. ’Cause there ain’t no backyards.
Janette: You don’t know that!
Davis: Everyone dressed in business suits, working, working, working, and of course the, uh—what do you call ’em?—the financials are very strong.
Janette: Davis…
Davis: Would you rather have a strong economy, or a four-hour lunch? Would you rather have a Macy’s Day Parade, with fuckin’ Bullwinkle floats, or an impromptu second line, where you dance your ass off with your neighbors?
Janette: Is your check from the tourism board in the mail?
Davis: There are so many beautiful moments here.
Janette: They’re just moments. They’re not a life.
Yes, exactly. They’re just moments. They’re not a life, and they’re certainly not a TV series!
Looking at the synopsis of this episode on the HBO Episode Guide (it is significant, I think, that the List of Treme episodes on Wikipedia stops providing plot summaries after the seventh episode: after all absolutely nothing happened in the eighth episode, “All on a Mardi Gras Day”), one line in particular stands out: “Creighton struggles to write”. Creighton Bernette (John Goodman) has been struggling to write his novel about the 1927 flood for the entire series, but mostly spends his time writing and recording rants about post-Katrina New Orleans and posting them on YouTube. He is an English professor at Tulane, and his rants and invectives frequently serve as more or less transparent vehicles for David Simon’s own views on the whole situation. He’s been unsuccessfully trying to write this novel for the past several years, we learn, but in the wake of Katrina his publisher wants him to add something about the current situation.

Cut to another shot of Creighton struggling to write. As less and less happened in the series and more and more of each episode was taken up by long musical sequences with little or no content plus the occasional shot of Creighton sweaty and pained staring at a blank Word document, I couldn’t help feeling that this was all somehow an allegory for the screenwriter’s inability to come up with a decent story about the 2005 flood and its aftermath. When, at the end of episode nine, Creighton appears to commit suicide by jumping off the edge of the Algiers ferry, it became clear that the screenwriters had just committed collective dramatic suicide. As the LA Times put it, “Did he really jump? Do you really care?” In fact, I’m inclined to read the title of that episode, “Wish Someone Would Care”, as a sort of pre-emptive plea from those same writers. But if the best they can come up with is a thunderstorm and a completely (narratively) unmotivated suicide, then I’m afraid I find it pretty hard to care about any of this.

I gather Treme has been renewed for a second season. I hope they come up with some actual stories to tell this time around, or some new and interesting characters. Each season of The Wire was devoted to a different aspect of Baltimore society—the police department, the schools, the media, etc. Let’s hope David Simon and co. decide to do something similar when Treme returns next spring. A more institutional approach might do the series enormous favours, and perhaps deliver on some of the political and social promises which it hinted at in the beginning.
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“Tour de Horse”

28 July 2010 by Kári
My Little Pony: The Princess PromenadeImage via Wikipedia
On his Twitter page, Roger Ebert has shared an interesting link: the IMDb reviews page for My Little Pony: The Princess Promenade. Writes Ebert, ‘How can “My Little Pony” possibly be this good? IMDb? Hello?’ Well, having read some of the reviews, I find myself asking the same question. User mudkiprex, for instance, writes that he wasn’t expecting much from the film when his girlfriend convinced him to watch it , but that he was “pleasantly surprised”.
The plot it amazingly insightful without being too pretentious or condescending. If Orson Welles had made a movie about talking ponies, this is the movie he would have made. I can't recommend this movie enough. Anyone can appreciate it and it works on so many levels. The visuals are really amazing, especially considering the budget. The voice actors were all spot on. And the pacing is perfect. I was almost moved to tears by its innocent and simple beauty. I didn't want to cry in front of my girlfriend because it would have been embarrassing to cry during a pony movie, but it was just that good. Do not miss this hidden gem.
This is by far not the most effusive praise this direct-to-video animated feature has received, and nor is it the only 10-star review. Another review states that it is “Second only to the film classic ‘Last Tango in Paris’ in terms of its cutting edge cinematography and intriguing and highly original plot”.

So, like, what gives?

My first thought was that this must be some kind of Internet flash mob. A quick trip to Wikipedia confirms my suspicion:
The film has considerable critical acclaim for a direct-to-DVD animated movie aimed specifically at children. The film holds, as of July 2010, a score of 7.8 on the Internet Movie Database from a total of 4,357 votes. Out of the votes, a total of 3,269 gave the film the highest vote of 10. One voter left a review of the film stating it was a “staggering masterpiece” and “[a film that was] able to move me to tears of exultation and utter, boundless joy.” There has been an unproven suggestion that these high scoring votes and extremely positive reviews are a hoax. Evidence pointing to this again comes from the reviews: “The graphic sex scene was also masterfully executed, with the camera moving over our copulating couple with smooth grace and majesty as their bodies ripple and throb before us.”
As the final quote indicates, quite a lot of these super-positive reviews share a distinct tendency toward the absurd and grotesque, but the interesting thing is that there is seemingly no way of proving that this is a hoax. I mean, it must be—right?—but what, if anything, can or should be done about it? How did this thing get started?
Answers on a postcard, please.
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Don't Tase Me, Sis!

by Kári
Gawker recently reported that C.J., the young boy accused of murdering his whole family on Staten Island, had been acquitted posthumously, but not in time to stop a media frenzy surrounding this boy’s “life of rage” etc. Now, of course, everyone wants to know why everyone was so quick to blame the son, even though he’d had his throat cut like his two siblings. One of the comments struck me as particularly concise and perspicacious:
It is S.O.P. to blame the closest male when there is a murder suicide. You can always tell who did the killing in one of these cases. If the news says “Monster kills family and takes coward’s way out” it was the dude, if they say “couple killed in apparent murder-suicide” it was the woman.
This implicit bias (or differential emphasis, if you prefer) made me think of a story I read on Friday in the Danish centre-right newspaper Berlingske Tidende which reported that one in six young women have some kind of weapon in their handbag when they go out at night in Copenhagen. The story was picked up by Politiken and all the other major newspapers and completely dominated the evening news on television. Now, It’s not long since politicians in Denmark instigated a new policy regarding the possession of weapons on the streets of Copenhagen. Provoked by an alleged increase in gang violence, special control zones were set up, where anyone was subject to random search by the police, who, if they found a weapon on you, were entitled to send you to prison on the spot for up to one year, no questions asked. The press coverage of these new measures tended, as it so often does, to focus on the danger to ordinary Danish citizens posed by “unassimilated” young immigrants, who were cited as the prime reason for the recent upsurge in gang violence in the Copenhagen metropolitan area.

This new system of control zones has largely been a failure. By all accounts, there are still just as many knives, guns, and other weapons circulating in the Copenhagen nightlife as before, since the ones with the weapons also knew where the control zones were and thus simply avoided them from then on. I suppose you could see it another way, namely that the fact that these dangerous elements are now avoiding the spots designated as requiring special police control is a positive development, but the fact of the matter is that violent crime has simply been pushed to the outskirts of these zones.

All in all, the debate surrounding the increasing number of people armed with knives, etc. in the Copenhagen nightlife, was about how dangerous this was for ordinary unsuspecting citizens and how it should be criminalised and strictly enforced. All of which is fair enough: it is a dangerous and lamentable trend. But at no point in all of the coverage of the 1-in-6-women-are-armed story did anyone (that I could see) draw any parallels between this story and the recent crackdown on weapons in Copenhagen. Not even to suggest, say, that one reason for this is that women are afraid of the number of knives and guns that these gang-members are bringing into the night. Nor was there ever any mention of the fact that any women found carrying a Taser or a knife could go to prison for up to a year.

I’m not saying that’s even the point. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the dangerous elements that the new law was meant to prevent are not these same girls who feel they need to protect themselves when they go out. All I’m saying is that there are some fundamental assumptions at work here that affect the way these two armed groups are perceived and represented, when these two things are by no means unrelated.

Women's Liberation Front

29 May 2010 by Kári
"burqa"s are sexyImage by thomasbrandt via Flickr
Over at The Stranger, Lindy West has an insightful, amusing, not to mention damning review of the new Sex and the City film, which, I should mention, I haven't seen, nor do I have any plans to do so in the immediate future, especially after this review. Writes West:
In order to escape their various imaginary problems, our intrepid foursome traipses off to dark, exotic Abu Dhabi ("I've always been fascinated by the Middle East—desert moons, Scheherazade, magic carpets!"). When they arrive, Carrie, because she is aprofessional writer, announces, "Oh, Toto—I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!" Each woman is immediately assigned an extra from Disney's Aladdin to spoon-feed her warm cinnamon milk in their $22,000-per-night hotel suite. Things seem to be going great. But very quickly, the SATC brain trust notices that it's not all swarthy man-slaves and flying carpets in Abu Dhabi! In fact, Abu Dhabi is crawling with Muslim women—and not one of them is dressed like a super-liberated diamond-encrusted fucking clown!!! Oppression! OPPRESSION!!!

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Vox bestiae

24 May 2010 by Kári
08/05/2010Image by Sakena via Flickr
Upon returning to Denmark last week, my attention was drawn to the latest political advertising campaign by Dansk Folkeparti, which adorns the backs of buses all over Copenhagen: three little piglets peek out over a blue ribbon bearing the Dansk Folkeparti logo, and on either side, in slightly amateurish cursive script, the slogan: “dyrene—vores ansvar” (animals—our responsibility). This is accompanied by the rhetorical question: “her dyrene en stemme?” meaning “do animals have a vote?” The answer, of course, is: “hos Dansk Folkeparti har de” (“at/in/with Dansk Folkparti they do”).

It’s curious, to say the least, to see a far-right party like DF advocating animal rights—traditionally such a left-wing cause. What’s going on here? The question, “har dyrene en stemme?” is noteworthy, not least because a stemme, meaning both vote and voice (just as those two English words ultimately derive from the Latin vox), is precisely that which non-human animals do not have—it is, moreover, precisely that which the Western tradition must deny to non-human animals in order to legitimise itself. The question of the animal voice is thus always inherently political, and the affirmation of the animal’s voice, especially when it comes from those in power, is grounds for suspicion.

People of the 90s... (part deux)

30 January 2010 by Kári
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