Sunday, December 27, 2009

How I'm Thinking About Sherlock

I just got back in from seeing the new Sherlock Holmes movie.  It’s a pistol – as a fella I ran into tonight pointed out, Guy Ritchie started making good movies again once he broke up with Madonna.  It also totally taps one of my great preoccupations of late –the Western 19th century.  Pretty broad stroke, I know, but I’m still learning the fine grains of the history.  On my long drive to and from the family homestead for Christmas, I’m listening to two great books – Steven Bown’s Scurvy and Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map.  These books are about the development of modern science in an age of loose thinking and persistent superstition, the main point of my interest in that broad sweep, and a theme shared with Ritchie’s Victorian brawler. 

Sherlock Holmes is, even in this new, more physical adaptation, the very embodiment of reason and logic.  As he demands repeatedly in the film,

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Best (Glow-Fi Psych Pop) Singles and EPs of 2009

Gorilla vs. Bear have posted a rich year-end roundup of material not released on LPs, and it's pretty heavily biased to the year's "new sound" of fuzzy melodica.  Some of this stuff is certainly great, and maybe in a down year it's exactly what we need.  But, even though I love GvsB most of the time, wading through any "best of" list that's as uniform as this is a little disappointing.  I wasn't even particularly paying attention for most of the year, but the year-end rounds have in and of themselves started to wear out my patience.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Who in their Write Mind . . .

This is likely an instance of retroactively justifying something that I initially did out of desperation, foolishness, or because of a minor stroke, but . . . the reason I've spent the last six years pursuing a PhD is that I want a life that allows me to write.  As much of an assault on the ego as being on the job market is - as much as I feel threatened by the grim prospect of ending up with a 4/4 teaching load, or some other situation where writing isn't officially part of my job - even these grim scenarios include a quarter of each year spent with no competing responsibilities, in which I can work on the passel of essays on obscure topics knocking around in my head.

After I graduated from college, I made some brief, abortive attempts to become a freelancer for magazines.  I wasn't successful, and part of that was because

Friday, December 11, 2009

ATL RMX: The Weird Get Real

I never totally got why Adult Swim was so involved in putting together great hip hop compilations - but it's apparently somewhere in their mandate.  This new ATL RMX album has me, as the kids say, open, because it totally hits the sweet spot between gully and weird, with such beautiful train wrecks as Gucci Mane remixed by Health and Young Jeezy treated by El-P.  It's smart dumb, and it knocks - even the Health track is headnoddable.  Best of all, it's a free download.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snow Day!

School is cancelled today in Iowa.  I can't deny feeling a great thrill.  I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed lately, and work on revising my final two chapters has slowed massively.  Today and tomorrow are revision days!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Second Albums and First Loves: On Infidelity in Stereo

I was driving home today when, god bless ‘em, one of those lovely kids at KRUI jammed Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.”  It’s great to know that it’s still hooking ‘em all these years later, because the track meant a lot to me.  I think I first heard it when I was 15, or maybe even younger.  Friendless loser that I was, I spent a lot of Friday nights home, staying up after my parents went to bed, and occasionally catching a late show on CBS which would occasionally play “alternative” music.  One of these times I caught a video for “Fade Into You,” nothing but fuzzed out black and white footage, shakily shot from weird angles, equally blurry, burned-but-beautiful sounds, stuff I’d never heard before, really landmark for me.  I jammed So Tonight That I Might See for years after that.  (You can see the video here - it’s extremely weird for me to watch it now, all these years later, resonances of a person I barely remember being).

But when I picked up their followup, Among My Swan, I was massively indifferent.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

NCA 09: Putting the "Munitions" in Communication Studies

I just pulled into my place after about three days in Chicago for the 2009 convention of the National Communication Association (NCA). For those not familiar with how academic conferences work, the main attraction is panel presentations by scholars in the field, a great opportunity to present your ideas, catch ideas from others, and dialogue about them. There are also other elements including a trade show of new books and a job fair where schools looking for new faculty are available to talk with those seeking work. NCA is a huge organization, representing an incredibly diverse group of scholars, some of whom have essentially no theoretical or methodological common ground. As such the convention seems unable to satisfy all of the people all of the time (in general, the organization is pretty riven with controversy). But this year’s convention was a really good experience for me, even though (because?) I wasn’t presenting any work of my own, and despite an extremely controversial decision about early registration that cut hundreds of panelists and isn’t worth going into detail about here.

Two high-profile panels turned out to be winners, one featuring Robert McChesney, a well-known critic of media consolidation, and the other Lauren Berlant, essentially a feminist philosopher of identity. What I admired about both scholars . . .

Solange Knowles, "Stillness is the Move"

You read that right. This shit is pretty amazing.

Links are going up and down pretty fast, but here's one for now.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Let's warm this thing up again.

It's time to get rolling again. I haven't posted here in far too long, but I'm committing to getting back on track. This is late, but in a gesture at content, the centipede in a bottle over there is in reference to my participation in the Naked Lunch @ 50 celebration in Iowa City last week. It was a mess of fun, though we were all sad that our honored local noise-collage weirdos LWA weren't able to play due to illness.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Movie Review: Suicide Club

This is a really promising movie from the start, and though I think it has more than its share of problems, it ultimately left me with the sense of confounded, frustrated intrigue that makes me want to write about something. The basic story is of a sudden rash of suicides in Tokyo. It’s a serious topic, and the parallels to real life are obvious – Japan has the second-highest suicide rates in the world, and events very similar to that depicted here are common. These are on a huge, ludicrous scale in line with Japanese horror films, though – fifty girls at a time throw themselves in front of a train in the film’s opening sequence.

That sequence shows off one of the great choices made, the cinema verite camerawork that blurs the line between documentary and absurd horror. This isn’t the gimmicky handheld style spreading in movies like Cloverfield, but a much more neutral camera eye that, with its slight graininess and locked-off view conveys a different kind of “realness.” It makes the opening gut-wrenching, as it sets up the girls as strikingly everyday. Then it goes into splatter mode, drenching the train in corn-syrup blood. It’s a dichotomy – between the real and the absurd, the filmic and the lived – the movie goes on to play with quite compellingly.

The following hour does a great job of offering a view of what is, in the film’s own parlance, a jigsaw world, where the suicides are suggested as, at least possibly, having causes both concrete and more metaphorical. No punches are pulled in making this a story about Japan’s ongoing social malaise, as everyone in the movie guzzles crap pop-culture in the form of the preteen girl-group Dessert, people sadly hunt for companionship on the internet, kids follow fads without knowing the line between a joke and a commitment, and everyone on the trains looks like they’re about to kill themselves just on principle. There’s a parallel ambiguity to the detective story that pins it all down. Are these true suicides? Is something supernatural going on? A crazed teen fad?

All of this richness is what makes the film’s one hour mark at first galling, then rewarding, as it trots out a barely-developed, malevolent “villain” to take the fall for the ongoing rash of deaths. At first it seems unbelievably ham-handed, a narrative dues ex machina that explains far too much of what has come before. But soon, we realize that the film itself is making this exact point, as it spins back out into chaos and despair. We are quite bluntly being told that there are no easy answers, that, just maybe, the problems being described are far deeper than any mass murderer.

One thing that bugs the shit out of me with this movie, and with a lot of Japanese movies, is that even though one of the film’s themes is the manipulative pull of pop music, it uses some of the most saccharine film music, at some of the most obvious and pappy moments, of any film I have ever seen. It’s so ham-handed it’s almost like Godard’s satire of film music (I forget the name of that one). Further, the film’s closing trades in a few too many of the tropes of Japanese horror, as in its use of children and a descent into surrealism.

It does highlight particular social problems, and ends with a truly unfortunate ‘message’ moment about being ‘connected to yourself,’ as if, despite his earlier trick, the writer didn’t have the will to leave things truly unresolved. But it does retain a (to me) certain irresolvable status, a refusal to settle clearly on any ‘villain’ that reminded me a great deal of the recent “Dark Knight.” Perhaps ironically, while the film from supposedly individualistic America has a great deal to say about the role of law in society, the film from supposedly ‘collectivist’ Japan seems to locate all of the problems it depicts in problems of individual choice, behavior, and psychological orientation. This emphasis may ultimately suggest an exacerbation of the very problems of atomization and detachment that the film seems to bemoan.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

On Apollo, Dionysius, and Batman

In response to Paul's post on The Dark Knight:

The gap between the illusion/"hope" of justice, represented by Dent, and the ugly reality of enforcement and extralegality, represented both by the Joker and Batman, connects to some of the most fascinating issues I've been grappling with lately. It seems related to the Birth of Tragedy, as the division between the Apollonian and Dionysian is in one sense that between a comforting illusion of order and sanity on the one hand, and the brutal confrontation with the fundamentally chaotic nature of existence on the other. It ties in even more closely with a discussion I was recently having with my brother, who is a nascent libertarian. My argument to him (though I didn't put it in these terms) was that, ironically, libertarianism is founded on an assumed Apollonian worldview. That is, you can only argue for libertarianism if you believe that the world is subject to an emergent meta-order that develops from the unrestrained actions of many individuals. My contrary position, as a socialist, is essentially dionysian - that we live in a world and society that are ultimately chaotic, and that the important thing is to construct institutions that combat that chaos.
The Dent/Batman duality puts that division on slightly different ground, since Dent's status as the Lawgiver is both personal and institutional - he represents both humanity as Apollonian, and the forces of the state maintaining order in the face of the Dionysian, which is embodied in the Joker, but which implicitly exists in all of us (even Dent).
These two forces have historically traded off - a book like "A Canticle for Leibowitz" shows the episodic nature of human history, achievement followed by collapse ad infinitum. The solution proposed by "The Dark Knight," one that seems to accord with contemporary socialist thought, particularly Laclau, is that one possible way to eliminate this cycle is to make sure that the Dionysian and the Apollonian remain in balance. This requires that the Dionysian remain fundamentally 'outside' but still imaginatively accessible. This is the point of the end of the film - the best way Batman can help maintain order is to remain ultimately outside of order. All of the bat-imitators, even the bat-signal, are symbols of the integration of chaos into order, and that integration ultimately leaves the ordered universe itself less stable. I’m reminded of the chapter from “Freakonomics” about promiscuity – the point that large amounts of celibacy actually makes sex more dangerous by reducing the number of participants and increasing the risk for each one. Stricter and stricter order leads inevitably to its own cataclysmic collapse.