Funny Games

January 4, 2010

I just saw Funny Games by Michael Haneke, (the 1997, original, Austrian version) and I was utterly blown away.  Granted, I’m not much a movie watcher nor do I normally like movies that much but this movie has a lot going for it … that is to say, I can appreciate it and the statements that it makes and the complexity with which it makes them.

As such, I endeavored to do some internet searching and see what other people have said about this movie—at least in public—and I have to admit I was extremely dismayed by the reaction.  Everyone seems to have read a critique of the horror genre and more globally, of violence in the media.  Sure.  That’s there.  I read it loud and clear and there’s hardly any mistaking it.  Funny Games has things to say about what characters we identify with when we watch a horror movie, about our lust for blood based on these identifications, about the way movies in this genre make us long to see violence and ache to see some sort of salvation at the end.

Some critics loved this, and, yes, I would fall into this camp if I had to pick sides.  The other side found it annoying.  One critic moaned about being blamed by a violent movie for liking violent movies and about how terribly reductionist such a “metacinematic critique” was.  Well I think the reductionism is in limiting the project of this film to a genre-based (re: generic) critique.  If you view it that way, then, yes … it kind of is moralistic and heavy-handed even despite its subtly.

**At this point I have to warn readers who don’t like plot elements of movies given away before they see them that I’m about to give away a whole lot, so, you know, just stop reading if it’s that big a deal and watch the movie, then read the rest.**

Anyway … so much of the film’s “metacinematic critique” derives from the fact that the main tormentor, Paul, is self-aware as a character.  And if you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly what I mean, but for those of you who braved the spoilers without seeing the movie, Paul occasionally talks directly to the audience via the camera and even at one point rewinds a bit of the action to literally reverse a reversal of fortune and play things his way.

On the one hand, it means that in relation to the other characters, Paul is the ultimate sadist.  His power within the world that he inhabits is absolute—his only restriction is that he still has to struggle to find the remote for a second in order to rewind the action.

Furthermore, this makes him not only the antagonist within the narrative in his relationship to the poor protagonistic family, but also an antagonist to the audience itself.  Paul denies the viewers what they want—namely a satisfactory climax—in the same way that he denies the family any escape from his sadistic games except death.

In other words, there is a completely different narrative underpinning the horror narrative of a family being tortured and murdered by two sociopaths—a character has undergone an existential crisis and realized his existence only as a character.  His sheer will to power over others—perhaps a two-dimensional character trait—has led to his realization of himself as a fictive character and has enabled him to declare himself the victor in the end.

The second level narrative is the one in which an audience and a set of characters are posited as characters in interaction with each other.  This is the level in which Paul winks at the camera, tells us the film is not yet feature length, etc.

The most important scene in the entire movie is when Paul and his servile counterpart Peter discuss a particular paradox in something that Peter has read or seen in a movie or on TV wherein one Kelvin is trying to warn his family of something, but, “the problem is not only getting from the world of antimatter to reality, but also to regain communication …” at this point, Paul notices that Anna—the wife—is trying to cut herself free from her bindings, and the situation is defused.  Anna is brought up to sit between Paul and Peter as they steer the boat and continue their discussion.

Peter likens the situation of the character he’s describing to being in a blackhole.  “Gravitation is so strong that nothing can escape it: absolute silence.”  Paul then unceremoniously dumps Anna, the last victim to die, over the edge of the boat, and the two move on.

Peter continues his exposition, meanwhile: “When Kelvin overcomes gravitation, it turns out that one universe is real, but the other is just a fiction.”  To which Paul asks,”And where is your hero now?  In reality or fiction?”  The answer? “His family is in reality and he’s in fiction.”  —But the fiction is real, isn’t it?  — How do you mean? — Well, you see it in the film, right? —Of course. —So, it’s just as real as the reality which you see likewise, right?

There is more subtly to what Paul is saying about truth and fiction than simply that when you see violence in a movie what’s to separate it from seeing violence in reality.  Of course, there is the phenomenon that when something catastrophically violent happens to someone, the reaction is always “it seemed like a movie.”  (Remember how many people said that on September 11, 2001?).  But the critique does not lie solely at the feet of violence and horror, though horror happens to be the particular vehicle of the message.

The point is that images of reality are indistinguishable from images of fiction.  Paul’s (and clearly Haneke’s) point wasn’t that the line between reality and fiction is blurry (otherwise, Haneke would be himself culpable for having made the film in the first place).

What are we left with, then?  The message is about manipulation, power, and agency.  The sadist, Paul, is the only character with agency, who follows a higher script that requires him to battle with the figure of the audience in order that his version of events comes out in the end.

But, ultimately, even this narrative is fictive.  The fiction/reality opposition ends up being more like dreaming of being a butterfly—it is an illusory paradox.  Just like the dreamer, as a butterfly, never wonders if it is really a man, Paul is incapable of thinking or doing anything that hasn’t been scripted for him.  Paul, though the all-powerful sadist in the world of media, is ultimately completely powerless.  He can only effect us by getting us to love his tormentees and to hate him.  Doesn’t power in a mediatized world work the same way?

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The Ideology of Justice

December 6, 2009

Since the guilty verdict was announced in the trial of Amanda Knox, accused of participating in a conspiratorial murder of British roommate Meredith Kercher, I have become fascinated by the details of her story.  To me, the trial of Knox has highlighted some key problems with how we, and I’m including Italian society in this collective, deal with criminal justice.  The issue at question is precisely justice systems.  The American media coverage of the case has focused on alleged flaws in the Italian justice system.

The chief prosecutor in the case, for example, is charged with criminal abuse of his authority in this office, one policewoman who allegedly slapped Knox on the back of the head for inaccurately recalling a detail during her interrogation is under investigation of a different instance of abusing suspects during questioning.  Furthermore, the Italian justice system has been characterized as derived from the Inquisition and based on the idea that a suspect is guilty until proven innocent.  It has been suggested that such a case tried in the American or British justice systems would have had no trouble acquitting Knox on the grounds of reasonable doubt.  And it’s this subtext of the American media’s defense of Knox which is most extraordinary to me.

I do believe that Knox is innocent, and I’ve come to this conclusion based on the evidence against her which has been published.  The problem is, though, she was found guilty in a criminal justice system not so different from our own.  The critical “innocent until proven guilty” distinction which separates our system from the Italians’ seems to me more a matter of superficiality or procedure and decorum than a fundamental flaw in the Italian system which America got right.

The basic structure of a criminal case in Italy is the same as in America.  In both systems, it comes down to competitive storytelling on the part of each side of the case.  Just as in the United States, each side argues its narrative to the jury and proves the objectivity of its case through various forms of documentation of facts deemed admissible and acceptable by the tradition of the court system.  I think this case in particular shows just how inconsequential evidence–material or circumstantial–is to the ultimate determination of a verdict and how plausible the narrative presented by each side is, which has more to do with intangible and subjective impressions and ideas free-floating in a given society than with the burden of proof.

And this plausibility is centered around the figure of Amanda as presented by each side of the case in court and in the media.  What is striking is that almost invariably the Italian press and authorities find it completely likely that Knox participated in Satanic rituals or violent sex games which ultimately resulted in her plunging the alleged murder weapon into the victim’s throat as her two male accomplices held Kercher down.  Myspace posts of short stories written by Knox are trotted out as proof that she had murderous, sexual ideations, supposed proud proclamations on the same page made by Knox about the number of sexual partners she had and other evidence of drug and alcohol abuse coupled with a high level of sexual activity are cited in the Italian characterization of Knox.

This is contrasted with the American reaction to the case which is usually of complete sympathy and empathy for a young woman caught up in a criminal case which she had nothing more to do with than the fact that the victim was her roommate and that the murder had taken place in the same flat where the two lived together.  The American version of Knox is an honest college student who worked three jobs to save up enough money to study abroad, who was an honors student at the University of Washington, whose scandalous nickname “Foxy Knoxy” stemmed from innocent soccer-field performances rather than bedroom ones.  Her behavior–the use of illicit drugs, the heavy drinking, and the promiscuity–is completely compatible, to us, with any ordinary college student.

So someone who is easily accepted as a sociopathic, sex-crazed, potential Satanist in Italy is just as easily imagined as an ordinary, hometown co-ed stateside.

Furthermore, this divergent characterization has opened, for Italians, the possibility of shocking sex games gone murderous.   The same picture painted with the strokes of the American brush seems outlandish and improbable.

Each imagining of Knox is, certainly, leaning heavily on common figures in each society.  The figure which the American character maps onto Knox is a party girl, a highly social, but not atypical college student whose illicit behavior (she was fined for underaged drinking at a college party in Seattle before going to Italy) and sexual impropriety is easily congruent with people who anyone who has attended an American post-secondary school in the past twenty-five years would easily recognize if not readily identify with.  Most Americans, even if they negatively judge such a figure, would not easily make the jump to expecting such a character to commit violent acts of murder and sexual assault.  The Amanda Knox of the American media is a figure not so much lurking in the shadows of college campuses, but hiding in plain sight as experimental forays to which all typical, white, middle-class Americans are subject to during their college years.

On the other hand, one has to wonder how the Italian figure is so powerful to the Italian zeitgeist and how she is so easily attached to an otherwise outrageous story.  A key component of this, I think, is the Italian, and more broadly European figurative association to Americans.  Europeans in general, I think, tend to misunderstand American students’ openness with their early adult experimentation.  European students that I have known have been just as much into this kind of behavior, if not more so, than their American counterparts, but I think that a certain traditional European morality represses the reality of this “immorality” into the recesses of the extraordinary.  European mothers and fathers deny that their college-aged students are the ones out drinking until 5 am and wantonly sexing each other up and transfer their own discomfort with this departure from tradition onto the Americans whose naive flaunting and lack of modesty seem to constitute a confession of living a hedonistic, sinful lifestyle.

To traditionalist, moralist Italians, this kind of immodesty and unabashed sinfulness is easily associated with more sinister elements in society, including sexual criminals and Satanists in the same way that it is easy for traditionalist, moralist Americans to think of places like France and Germany as dens of illicit sexual behavior where strangers hook up for sadistic sexual encounters.  One doesn’t have to travel to the Bible Belt to find this conception of Europe on the part of Americans nor do the same attitudes about America exist only in the most remote and isolated rural European villages.

In this respect, a similar trial with its miscarriage of justice doesn’t seem all that unlikely to occur in the United States, especially when considering the amount of death-row inmates in places like Texas that have been exonerated in recent years due to proactive efforts of anti-capital punishment activist groups.

As to the incredible and sensationalized version of the prosecution’s narrative, I have to wonder if a country plagued by heavy organized criminal activity and scandalized by underaged sex parties carried out by none other than its prime minister (and this isn’t Clinton ejaculating on Lewinski’s dress … it’s seriously orgiastic behavior) might have a certain propensity towards spinning tales of wild and lurid sexual conduct and furthermore whole-heartedly embrace such stories as truth.  After all, if the democratically elected leader and conservative authority figure is capable of committing such outrageous and traditionally immoral acts, the crimes of which an unabashed, promiscuous foreigner would seem capable might be unlimited.

Perugia, the site of the grisly crime, is a relatively small Italian mountain town dominated by the local University featuring a rotating, relatively large foreign population, which is certainly frequently dismissed and derided by the locals for being just what Knox claims to be on her myspace page.  That a murder would happen within this party-culture and that the murderer would be a depraved member of this same group is not in the slightest incongruous with the way that foreign students are often conceptualized by the residents of European University towns.

So the broader issue that this raises, though, is the care with which we must treat criminal cases whether they are highly publicized or unknown.  A criminal case is, largely, a battle of narratives, and the ability of prosecuting attorneys to tap into the figures which best represent the locals’ own frustrations and rage is strongly correlated to their ability to successfully indict a suspect, regardless of the objective evidence.

Likewise, even in a system where one is innocent until proven guilty, defense is still an uphill battle.  With programs such as Law and Order and countless other police and crime procedurals frequently underscoring that evil lurks in all easily characterized elements of society and that the police need to do everything in their power–including gross abuse of their authority–to indict these evildoers, this kind of rhetorical justice is increasingly likely.

But I would also propose that it’s not Law and Order’s fault that we view criminal justice this way, that it is rather drawing material from the fundamental reality of criminal justice as a necessary requirement on the part of society to scapegoat the evil of something as horrendous as murder onto the most likely perpetrator of that evil and exact what we deem to be an equivalent violence onto that person.  The result, even when we do get the bad guy, is invariably an application of our own refusal to accept collective guilt for what we consider to be wrong.

I am more certain of the innocence of Amanda Knox than that of Jesus Christ, and it is an utter tragedy that she is currently set to spend 28 years in prison in Italy instead of the one semester for which she scrimped and saved and worked three jobs to pay for.  Now, like all convicts, she is paying the debt that a society has deemed she owes it, and that debt was assessed based on the strength of a narrative on the public psyche.  Justice is a brazen and violent institution, but it is necessary for the maintenance of a coherent society composed entirely of contradictions, in order, precisely, to obscure those very same contradictions.  The overcoming of these contradictions should be our main goal, and while it’s noble to fight for the freedom of individuals like Amanda Knox, such violences as the Italian authorities have inflicted on her will never be eliminated until we achieve this goal.

Dogma

November 23, 2009

When I was confirmed into the Lutheran church around the age of 15–a point in my life when I was very confused about issues dealing with faith and religion and so on–I received a book which seemed to have all the answers.  It was called The Case for Christ, and it was one of those books you might get recommended by a religious friend or relative to whom you may have expressed some sort of criticism of the Christian world view.  It was an exposition of all the evidence that points to the real existence of Jesus Christ and the reality of his death and resurrection.

Though I have to admit that I only opened the book once (and just because I was bored at that, not because I had any real interest in it), I’ve always found this kind of apologetics fascinating, whether I was reading it to bolster my own beliefs when I was on the Christian side of things or if I was reading it on the atheist end looking back at the “dumb” things to which I used to cling in order to reconcile my Christianity with my more or less humanistic world view with which I approached all non-religious aspects of reality.

I was recently reading a promotional interview with an author who not too long ago wrote a book similar to The Case for Christ, and it really highlighted for me the rhetorical weakness of these kinds of apologetics.  If these people were really interested in science–or at least in getting at the truth–they should really abandon the kind of “the truth will set you free” attitude which to me just comes off as self-righteous as best and dangerously dogmatic at worst.

Here are some choice bits from the interview:

There was a lot of hostility directed at you with your last book … because you were taking direct aim at beliefs people hold sacred. But with this book, you’re using scientific evidence to show that something is true, you’re not trying to debunk anything else.

That is correct. And what’s more, not only is it not debunking, but also, I’d like to think, it’s kind of enthralling in its own right. It should be really exciting to see this evidence laid out. It is a very beautiful story. So you don’t have to think of it as debunking anything at all.

Yes.  First step to a successful apologetics: deny that you’re making an argument against an extremely widely accepted interpretation of the world and boil it down to a few convincing bits of “evidence” that, out of perspective, make your viewpoint seem so incredibly valid.  But, more important, I think, is the move towards “the truth is beautiful.”  How often have we heard about how beautiful the good news is?  This is a motif that goes back to the very beginnings of Pauline Christianity, even with the naming of the “Gospel” (old English for “good news”).  This is a theme continued and expanded in another response later in the interview:

Did you have any sort of a social or ethical motivation in writing this book?

For me, the dominant motivation is that the truth is beautiful. And it’s tragic for children to grow up being actively deceived as to the real nature of their own existence and why they’re here, where they come from, and the history of the world. It is such an enthralling and exciting and elegant story that it is a cruel deprivation of children not to tell them the truth now that the truth is known. In former times … the truth was not known. Now it is, and it is such a beautiful truth that everybody ought to be allowed the opportunity to know it.

Here the theme of Satan, the deceiver, comes in to counterpose the beauty of the truth.  The enemies of truth and goodness will try to destroy the truth and hide in lies and deception.  There is a false dichotomy being set up here in regards to truth and falsehood.  The idea that seems to drive this rhetoric is that evil is pitted against good and that it actively seeks to keep it hidden.  The author is dragging out the refrain to “This Little Light of Mine” (“Don’t let Satan *woo* it out!”)

But there’s more to it than that.  The enemies of truth are not only everywhere, but they’re after your children.  They’re indoctrinating them with lies and deceit that will divorce them from the beauty of the truth.  It’s all about the children and it gives them meaning. The story of the Almighty Heavenly Truth tells us why we are here.

Furthermore, it appeals to some primordial dark age before the light of Truth was in the world in order to reinforce a kind of imperative towards evangelism.  Think of how all those people lived before they knew the beauty and the wonder of the Truth!  Now that it is known, we must rejoice and spread the good news!  He is risen!  He is risen indeed!

One might pause to wonder–can’t this sort of orientation towards truth and reality, this kind of dogmatic, uncompromising, even unflinching world-view be easily manipulated to justify violence and bloodshed on a massive scale?  Let’s not forget the Crusades or the present Jihad that some Islamic extremists have led against the West, both of which motivated by this same kind of “this is the Truth and anything else is deception and it is a beautiful truth and you must love it,” paradigm.

Surprisingly, this is an aspect the interviewer addresses, and the author, a master apologist, simply turns it around to a tough love stance:

So even if some people are capable of interpreting [the Truth] to justify their own bad actions, that doesn’t make the idea any less true.

That’s exactly right. There are certain aspects of the [Truth] which are very unpleasant … there’s a kind of ruthless, callous cruelty about it, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

“Yes, my world view can be used to condemn marginalized groups in my society to torture and even death, but this is the nature of the truth.  It’s a hard truth.”

I also want to point out the two-sided coin that this figure of the Truth takes on in this  dogmatic mindset.  On the one hand, in the above two responses, we hear that the Truth is beautiful and wonderful and it will set us all free and it’s the greatest sin to hide it from our children, but now, once we address the issue of using this to justify “bad actions,” it becomes ruthless, callous, and cruel.  Of course, just because it is these things, “that doesn’t make it any less true.”  How convenient.

In order to drive home the point that I’m trying to make, though, I have to reveal a certain deception on my part.  Here’s the link to the interview.

This isn’t a book by a Christian.  Quite the opposite, it’s by a prominent anti-Christian.  Someone at the forefront of what the AV Club calls in its introduction “the new atheism” (thankfully, they also put this name in quotes … it should be regarded with suspicion).  The book is an apologetics for evolutionary theory, but Dawkins’ responses to the questions asked by the AV Club show the same kind of arrogant, self-righteousness as any Christian dogmatist would express about his or her personal understanding of Christianity.

The broader point, though, is the issue with Christianity–and with Modern European-style religiosity more generally–is whether the superficial assemblage of claims it makes is true.  To claim truth is the important gesture, and your means of propping up that truth, whether through empirical data or through spiritual experience, will only be as valid as the dogma tells you it is.  In any case, your attitude toward the truth is the important thing and your expression of dogma without entering into the minute details of uncertainty to which some scientists and religious scholars devote their lives and accept as an aspect of their belief in the system of truth to which they subscribe and without mentioning the reliance of your beliefs on both ignoring those details and on constructing a grand, over-arching and completely artificial narrative–a “beautiful story,” as Dawkins puts it–is what leads to these “bad actions” that people do for the sake of the narrative.

Where does Dawkins’ narrative leave us?  We are all on this Earth to procreate, to produce future generations that will be better, smarter, or in general more adapted (if we want to strip it of the implicit teleology as Dawkins would).  How is this any different than the number one directive given to us by God in the Christian worldview–“Be Fruitful and Multiply,”?  Or even if we take on Dawkins’ life mission of bringing Truth to the masses, aren’t we just following Christ’s call to “Make disciples of all nations,”?

The fact is, Dawkins’ worldview is just as potentially destructive and misleading as any Christian’s, and it leads to the exact same kinds of actions, rhetoric, and attitude towards the world.  More significant than the story itself is how we see ourselves fitting into that story.

But I can’t argue against creating narratives and stories.  In fact, I think it’s the most important aspect of our existence.  However, it is vital that we be aware of the narratives we are constructing and the roles that we and others are meant to play in these narratives.  We must be consciously creating beautiful stories, and not approaching them as if they exist out there somewhere to be plucked from raw facts.  That’s the fundamental movement of Christianity–to make the Truth impossible to grasp without adhering to the path of enlightenment.

The only difference between Dawkins and his detractors in this respect is that this adherence for him is following the scientific method while for them its following the Ten Commandments and the Gospel.  Either way, the truth is exterior to oneself and only accomplished after an act of surrender to that method, whatever it is, of accessing it.  And how do we know which method brings us to the real truth, which story arc we should belong to?  I guess for Dawkins it comes down to how close you live to the ocean.

Frida Hyvonen — Until Death Comes

November 18, 2009

For the longest time, I considered this album to be nothing but its first track–which, I’ll admit, is a great song–but to reduce this entire selection of songs to “I Drive My Friend” diminishes the level of poetry that Frida achieves (though a Swede, who, strangely, all have greater talent with English poetry than native speakers do, at least when it comes to  pop lyrics).

It was for this reason that I started coming back around to the rest of the album–that and my gradual enchantment with Frida’s wistful but powerful vocalization and her simple but elegant piano.  The lyrics themselves, as a whole, depict a bohemian lifestyle–comments on intellectualism mingle with alcoholic stories and references to poverty.  Altogether, music and lyrics, these tracks transmit a kind of Wintereisse melancholy.

I already mentioned “I Drive My Friend” as the initial stand-out track for me.  It tells the story of missed opportunity–two potential lovers revealing their deep-seated feelings for each other only the night before one leaves indefinitely for the North.  Lines like “Last night we were drinking in a tiny bar / Suddenly you kissed me I never felt so good before / Now, I’d never claim you but I’ll want you ’til I’m gone,” and the self-assuring “Love isn’t it just like air? You breathe it and it’s everywhere,” are particularly potent moments.  Meanwhile, the piano rocks back and forth on a few chords, a bit like the saddest polka band in the world.

The album title derives from a line in “Djuna!” (Barnes?), which is a somewhat ambiguous piece, apparently about entering a three-way relationship with two men, already in a two-way one.  Djuna appears to be the fourth figure in the story, the audience which Frida addresses for support.  The last verse ends with Frida telling Djuna that “Some day when I’m not broke / I’ll buy you a diamond ring / And we’ll celebrate our love / until death comes.”  The music has a similar rocking pattern as “I Drive My Friend”, but this time it is performed on a Rhodes and thus sounds more fey–yet without losing its sadness.

The sweet and simple “Valerie”, on the other hand, sounds the most like a blues or soul song yet, and bemoans the seduction of and by one Valerie.  It’s a very short song, with simple lyrics and a soulful, non-articulated vocalization.  Nonetheless, it presents a change of pace, though it’s not altogether extraordinary.

The highlight of the album for me, though, is the following track “You Never Got Me Right”.  Frida likes to pack her lines full of punch, and this is an example where she really shines.  It’s a bitter, angry screed against a former lover who thought s/he was just that much smarter and thought s/he could treat our narrator like shit.  I’d love to reprint the entirety of the lyrics sheet on this one, but that’d be a little tedious.  Maybe I’ll just pick my favorite verse.  It goes like this: “And then you said to me that I was cold and stern/ And said it like you meant I wasn’t a woman / and then you intellectualized my emotion / and called me baby baby baby baby in the wrong way,” which Frida considers “Such a lack of taste,” a comment which counterposes nicely to the first line of the song “Like when you told me that my love was just aesthetic …”  The ultimate conclusion?  “I’m never gonna talk to you and / I’ll never explain ’cause / You never get me right.”  Musically, this is also the most interesting track thus far.  While it still has what by now we realize is Frida’s signature plodding, see-saw chords, this is just for the quiet build-ups, while the emotional breaks (“Don’t you understand x3, how lonely it gets x4” ; “Such a lack of taste x8” ; “You never get me right …”) she pounds on the keys and almost screams the words, and most importantly, it doesn’t seem like a formulaic loud/soft contrast–it conforms with the emotional heights of what she’s singing–nor does it seem like a gimmick.  Altogether a well-executed track.

In the meantime, the song I’ve had the hardest time accepting was “Once I Was a Serene Teenaged Child”, mostly because the second line (after the title line) is “Once I felt your cock against my thigh.”  I mean … I get it.  It’s a calm and wistful song, as we’ve come to expect from Frida at this point in the album, and then all of a sudden COCK … as the listener you get the same feeling as the narrator of this song no doubt did upon feeling that cock against her thigh.  I guess I’m being a bit of a prude and saying that a jolting poetic inflection of rape is inappropriate even in a song addressing the subject.  The music touches the subject in a much less disorienting way.  Her voice skates from icy note to icy note as the piano climbs up and down the scale.

“Today, Tuesday” is a “jet-lagged insomniac” song along with all the requisite comments on “the buzzing unreality of airports” and how “the whole trip was reduced to a dream” which also indulges in the abstract beauty of lines like “I’m having a new watchtower built / different but not quite / so that the missing angles / might find their way home.”  The music aches with the same pain as the lyrics–a confused, disoriented and longing ache, with light, resonant chords fading into nothing at the end.

Frida seems to be doing her best Belle & Sebastian “Step Into My Office” imitation in “Come Another Night” which is a suddenly poppy, Hidden Cameras sort of tune with declarations like “Do you like the sound of steel on steel?  / I can make it with my heart!” and “I have no intentions but some bullets for my gun / I might just shoot you / and then ask you stand up and run / Dare me!”  It constitutes an odd break in the woeful wintry wandering we’ve been doing throughout the rest of the album, and is rather incongruous, as if a sudden burst of springtime emerged in the desolation of the rest of the album.  Not a bad song, but a little out of place.

With “N.Y.”, Frida adds to the genre of songs about New York that don’t really seem to be about New York at all, except that the name is mentioned a couple of times.  But maybe New York just gives everyone who visits a strange desire to sing about it, though it doesn’t really give anyone to sing about.  The closest Frida gets is the last line “I wanna be a part of you, New York.”  This track and the previous track both include something we haven’t heard much of the whole album: wind instruments.  In “N.Y.” it’s a muted trumpet which plays a blues-y line before disappearing behind Frida’s voice.

As I listen to this album, I realize that I really don’t mind this bouncy chord thing she does, because it comes out again in force in “The Modern”, which seems to have a deconstructionist bent to it, reminiscient of a whole slew of post-modern intellectuals, aside from the opening: “One day I wasn’t drunk / and the sun was shining straight / I went blind and ran my fingers down his face.”  Likewise for lines like “I like the word from the tip of his tongue.”  However, we’re in full academia when she utters lines like “Won’t be ashamed of language as if it was my fault,” and I’m certain that there is something Lacanian to be said about how this song brings together pregnancy, the Word, language, and the Modern.  My impression is that it’s a commentary on the Phallus as Master Signifier, but let’s leave that discussion for later …

We are in similar territory, though, with the album closer “Straight Thin Line” which injects into the the idea of liminality a feminine inflection (women have ” … the curves and the rhythm …”, anorexia “…Agnes said: Hunger is a must,” ; “I’ll outthink my flesh,” and the wonderful image portrayed in the verse: “One thing in life so far / I wanted most of all it was to / straighten out my bends and my curls / how to escape my shape / Become vibration.”  Finally she concludes that ” … the key to all my work is in none of it / But in the absence,” a contemplation which seems to steer the song towards a contemplation of Nothing.  Positive absence, that is.  The key to satisfying one’s hunger is precisely to eat Nothing.  An interesting philosophical interjection into anorexia and heteronormativity.  In any case, the music is a sort of twinkling, rising, floating thing, with a horn interlude at one point in the song, but not before it twinkles and floats off into Nothing.  The key is in the absence.  A beautiful closer if not a little “Hmmm…” when you think about the subject matter.

On the other hand, Frida isn’t afraid to address these kinds of issues: three-ways, poverty, intellectualizing of emotions, etc.  These are topics that she addresses with  poetic grace and inflects with a kind of wistful melancholy (two words I can’t avoid when I talk about this album).  The music itself is altogether fairly strong, though her piano playing is limited by her style, and mostly indebted to her singing, which has a haunting, hollow sound to it, aided no doubt by the wet reverb-y sound she’s given in production.

As to the album globally, it seems to have a couple kinks, but altogether it sort of lulls one into a wintry, bittersweet depression and contemplates a bohemian, happy-go-lucky lifestyle of drinking, intellectualizing, and impoverishment.  Maybe Frida is celebrating her own lifestyle, which would make her something of a modern-day beatnik I suppose, but more than likely there’s a lot of mythologizing going on here, especially when you consider “N.Y.” — “I want to be a part of you New York,” might be a line uttered in deep irony, but even if it were, let’s not forget that irony too often is just a mask one puts on to hide the fact that what one pretends to like ironically, one actually does like.  The engagement with ideas of femininity, however, is interesting, and definitely warrants a deeper investigation.

Off-beat but very pretty and very powerful, Until Death Comes is a good show of force for Frida Hyvonen.  I’m just disappointed that I haven’t been able to find anything of this quality in her subsequent work.  Oh well.

Stargate: Universe — “Lost” in Space

November 10, 2009

I outgrew Stargate at the end of high school.  As an adolescent, i thought it was awesome–a team of sarcastic explorers journey to exotic worlds based on ancient mythology that teach them lessons about their own humanity and then occasionally blow up some ancient Egyptian gods.  But as I matured and started to actually engage with the world more actively, Stargate became less and less appealing.  It started to seem less like an edgy take on exploratory science fiction a la Star Trek and more like a bunch of guys talking about archaeology and physics with crudely drawn characters that have little depth beyond a military uniform or a rubber alien mask.

So what happens when a Sci-Fi franchise grows up?  Well, apparently, the hokey action sequences full of explosions and energy burst guns disappear, the eccentric or puzzled aliens become much more mundane–a swarm of bees, for example–and the effort spent on drama and character development drastically increases.

As this description indicates, and as my title for this entry makes clear, the direction that the Stargate franchise went after exhausting the four-person-team exploring strange new worlds and new civilizations formula, is to take a page out of the book of J.J. Abrams and create a Sci-Fi show that feels just as much like a soap opera.  Draw in the hardcore space-and-tech fan-base with new technology and new planets, and draw in an entirely previously untapped–that is mainstream–audience with interpersonal tension and drama.

A mixture of curiosity, given my previous enjoyment of the franchise, and boredom (I have this week off from teaching the kiddies French) led me to watching “Stargate: Universe,” and I’m not sure why I watched all episodes in the season so far.  Probably for the same two reasons I started.

In any case, the premise is basically, “Lost” but instead of being on a mysterious island in the middle of the Pacific, they’re on a space ship in a galaxy far, far away.  Just like the island has a mind of its own in “Lost”, so too the ship (named “Destiny”, if you care to know the show’s most outrageously obvious–and possibly only?–metaphor) has a will of its own.

Like in “Lost”, they’re all trying to find their way back home, but instead of random weird shit getting thrown at them all the time (like “Lost”‘s tropical polar bears), the unwilling crew of “Destiny” are simply threatened constantly by destruction, and the titles of the episodes invoke the primal urgency of these issues in being named elementally “Air”, “Light”, “Water”, or “Earth”, and also whereas “Lost” unfolded a series of interconnected mysteries and puzzles to be solved by the viewer as much as by the show’s characters, SGU engages in simplistic problem-solving and conflict-resolution.  There’s no water, and so the characters just need to spend enough time looking for it on an ice planet with mostly poisonous ice but probably some non-poisonous ice (“Destiny” led them there for a reason, after all ….), or they’re running out of air and so they just need to find all the leaks and plug them up, or else they’re running out of water, and so they need to get rid of the insect things that are drinking it all up.

This creates a formula of “We got a problem …” followed by “There’s nothing we can do about it!  We’re just all going to have to accept the fact that we’re going to die!” then “I’ve got an idea!” (which is sometimes a person, sometimes just the ship), followed by the viewers seeing the characters trying really really hard (either as scientists at a computer terminal, or as soldiers, trekking across a desert) and finally a last-second “We did it!!” which is always qualified by a “but we are still just barely making it …”

The internal conflict, on the other hand, always stems from a person’s innate characteristics.  The violent guy is always doing something violent.  The secretive, untrustworthy but brilliant scientist guy is always doing something secretive, untrustworthy but brilliant.  The heroic, heart-of-gold soldier boy is always being a heroic, heat-of-gold soldier boy, etc. etc. etc.  There are no real surprises as the character drama progresses … development is introduced only through heart-wrenching moments when characters’ inner trauma surfaces–most of it is about being so far from home and not knowing if they’ll get back, some of it is similarly woe-is-me trauma surfacing from a character’s past.  Unfortunately, simply knowing someone’s hardships isn’t going to make me feel empathetic for that character.  So your parents died when you were young?  I still don’t see how that adds up to who you are today except that I learned something new about your past.  I’ve learned as much from ice-breaker games in college classes with strangers who I never got to know beyond that.

The characters, as I hinted at above, are additionally shallow archetypes.  Aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, there’s the commanding officer who’s “too old for this shit,” the sarcastic, fat, nerdy Jew who’s a “good friend” to soldier boy’s girlfriend, though he wishes it was more, and the aforementioned girlfriend, a fragile and delicate hottie, and even cruder sketches like doctor-woman who the commanding officer had an affair with, and Asian woman who is very business-like, as well as insubordinate asshole soldier who is only in frame when he’s being an insubordinate asshole.

Aside from these dramatic problems, there’s also the fact that “Lost” in space isn’t exactly “as primitive as can be.”  Despite attempts to make it seem so via faulty air filters, draining water tanks, and loss of power, “Destiny” is still equipped with space shuttles, waterless showers, bathrooms, tons of awkwardly placed lights, furniture, private “quarters”, and an observation deck.  Additionally unfortunate about the design of “Destiny” is that despite one main character’s insistence that this is an ancient and fantastic vessel, it looks more like a spacious submarine than anything ancient or alien.

Ultimately, though, whether its “SGU” or “Lost”, these kinds of ensemble cast, survival shows end up being about power struggles and social structure.  “Lost” argues that survival situations necessitate hierarchical power structures by having certain characters, at certain points, come to the forefront as leaders and organizers.  And certain characters make certain kinds of leaders.  “Lost” definitely gives itself a lot more play room with this idea than does “SGU”, though.  Its characters are all on a more or less even playing field when they crash land on the island.  “SGU”, on the other hand, consists of transplanting a joint military/scientific operation into a stranded environment.  The power plays only really happen between the head military officer and the head scientist–the hierarchical structure of leader and rabble was pre-determined.  Furthermore, the castaways in “SGU” are in full contact with their ranking officers back in Washington, through a hokey trans-galactic body switching device.  This makes the social structure of “SGU” about as interesting as the social structure on the International Space Station.  Furthermore, as in “Lost”, it also cements the idea that these sorts of power structures are benign, necessary, and only susceptible to the occasional breach of judgement.  There is, though, nothing wrong with having somebody in charge of all the major decisions, and, yes, in fact, our poor commanding officer has already had to deal with the burdens of leadership within the first seven episodes of “SGU”.  Poor guy.

So … aside from being a somewhat weak creative endeavor and probably not a solid investment of time–to speak in a consumerist tone–it is otherwise a purveyor of a certain machismo-loving, shallow view of humanity and human character which supports a highly structured social framework with power concentrated on a few elites.  Problem-solving is something that gets done and doesn’t take any particular testing of oneself besides trying really really hard until you get the result you were going for in the first place.

Music Literacy

November 3, 2009

As deep as a quick google search can dig into the vast landfill of obscure cultural information we call the Internet, the term “Music Literacy” doesn’t have any current significant usage.

There was one article that came up talking about the need to promote a general awareness of how to read and write music, and I have to assume that when this term has been used in the past, it has been in reference to this idea.

But my concept of music literacy is more along the lines of cultural literacy, and, in fact, I would consider it a specific species of that more general genus.  Anyone who’s been even superficially or passingly involved in “alternative” culture in the past fifteen years or so is aware of the importance of knowing about music as a key aspect to how much cultural capital one has ….

For example, what websites were spawned or at least popularized by this generation’s hip kids?  Pitchfork and Stereogum would likely top the list in terms of traffic, and I think even on down to the most obscure recesses of popular, “hip” circles, they would be music-themed.

But enough qualifying the importance of the idea, though–I hardly feel the need to justify myself at length to the featureless face of an unknown, unseen and especially, of course, unheard audience.

The tacit implication of the above discussion is that by music literacy I’m talking about what music you need to be familiar with and be able to discuss, debate, etc. in order to participate in a particular culture.

During one point in the not-too-distant past, I had convinced myself that this was the true key to human interaction–being able to talk about the music important to another, and so I set out to dramatically increase my music literacy by systematically listening to any and all music that I heard about from anyone.  The result was not that I became some kind of transcendent guru of divine music knowledge.  In fact, I seemed to have developed an anti-enlightened perspective, and though my music tastes certainly expanded, I ended up with a pretty pretentious attitude towards the music most people like and an iTunes library full of things that I found listenable but that didn’t necessarily “do it” for me.

The other unexpected outcome of this narcissistic hobby of mine was that it progressed quickly into an obsession.  I feel good to “progress” down the list and I feel guilty to indulge in listening outside of the list.  Neurotic, yes, but altogether not such a bad obsession.  At least I’m not washing my hands ten times a minute, kissing each piece of my collection of iconography before I can sleep, or something truly pathological like that.

All this–though I can cynically reflect on the failures of my efforts–rests on the impulse toward Music Literacy, which really is just an adjustment of my original desire to crack the code of cultural communication.

And I think that the reason why it can still be the cornerstone of my music list obsession/compulsion is because there really is a mustard seed of truth compelling me to continue moving my musical roots.  Perhaps I imagine myself in a group of people for whom music is much more important than for most groups, but even if you “just listen to the radio,” you have placed an importance on music in your cultural understanding of yourself and in the way you identify yourself, and so still, at the very least, in order to really comprehend your self-conception, the image in reference to which you construct your cultural identity, there is a necessity to be literate in the music which you like.

So music literacy, logically, contains the same problematic as cultural literacy in general, which is also the same as that contained in the ideas of culture and identity.  Cultural identity comes from an act of including yourself in a particular group–that is, from submitting yourself to the cultural rules of that group.  So, for example, if I want to be a New York hipster, I follow the cultural rules laid down for that prototype: I define myself by both the economic activities in which I participate  (i.e. the cultural products I consume) and my attitude towards those activities, music being a subset of those economic activities.  Whether or not I like a particular cultural product (music included) will depend on that product’s articulation of certain aesthetic criteria–markers of one’s attitude towards the general field of what one’s doing.  As an aspiring New York hipster (in our hypothetical situation), lo-fi, noisy rock with whispered vocals might fit the right aesthetic criteria which would signify that music as belonging to “my culture” and thereby produce the experience  of transcendence.

I believe that music is always doing this–articulating with a cultural identity in its aesthetics, and producing the sensation of transcendence (which is the feeling of cultural participation, oceanic feeling of oneness, whatever mystical or spiritual dimension you want to give to it).

So … back to music literacy … this is, then, the attempt to transcend even that–to catalogue the entire cultural landscape as it is expressed through music and to thereby dominate it, since once you have it all mapped out, you can easily dismiss such-and-such or so-and-so’s musical tastes as quaint or outdated and you can just as easily slyly reference such-and-such a track or lyric casually in a conversation and thereby signify to the conversant that you, in fact, are the superior cultural being.

On the other hand, music literacy also has the potential to effect the cultural landscape itself–if and only if it’s coupled with a critical apparatus and a cultural goal.  It can do so only if the music is analyzed to tease out from the aesthetic system it employs the image of cultural identity held within it.  What you get out of this is an understanding of the poetics of subcultures and how musical figures are used to produce a feeling of belonging and participation.

I don’t know if this approach will get me anywhere at all, but it’s the internet, so publishing is free, and on this blog, I’ll set for myself as one of my tasks to put the “research” I’ve done over the past few years to good use and try to produce strong, critical readings of music which is truly critique and not just recommendations on what to buy and what not to buy (or to steal).

Web Log

November 3, 2009

I thought I’d give this web log thing a shot, and I have to admit, the hardest part is definitely thinking of a name(s).  So … these things are random, but not entirely unjustifiable.  Murderapolis because that’s where I currently live, and Foundational Competencies because it was on the IBM propaganda notepad by my computer.