Tuesday, January 30, 2007

More on Children of Men

In my last post, I'd meant to include links to some other interesting responses to Children of Men. I'm glad I didn't; it gives me the opportunity to do so here, and say a little about them without overloading the original post.

At I Cite, Jodi Dean actually posted first about P.D. James' novel:
No more playgrounds or toy stores. The last generation moving through schools which are then boarded up or repurposed. Initial efforts to solve the problem as well as initial warfare, chaos, and espionage, are ultimately abandoned in the wake of an overwhelming global ennui. In a way, it's a strange sort of big Other--a big Other that knows that it is dying, that it will not exist. This makes me think differently again about the non-existence of the big Other today--it may not exist, but it posits its existence in the future.

Commerce, it seems, grinds slowly to a stop. The last cars are made about 15 years after the last generation is born. There is a geriatric science and various evangelists appear from time to time offering if not hope then at least momentary respite from the gray present. Academics give courses for adults. Apparently, the state sponsors pornography--people have lost interest in sex. Adults from less privileged countries are shipped in as guest workers and treated horribly. People become even more involved with their pets. Anglicans argue over whether pets can be christened. Could there be a stock market, a bond market, without a future? Mortgages? Is this a variation of the only way to imagine a[n] end to capitalism? Imagining only a lack?

This addresses, I think, some of the complaints some have had about the logic of the movie. Also, it occurred to me after writing my post, that one of the reasons Britain would have to restrict immigration--given the downward pressure on population worldwide--is that we are told that the rest of the world has more or less collapsed, while "only Britain soldiers on". If this is true, then Britain would be overloaded with immigrants--or, at least, anxieties . Jodi also posted a passage quoting Žižek talking about the movie; he will be featured on the dvd release. In another post, Jodie talked about Žižek and the movie again:
To imagine the world of Children of Men is to imagine an end to capitalism--no borrowing against the future. But it is also to imagine an end of meaning, the impossibility of sense insofar as the horizon that structures a world, that makes meaning possible, is missing.
The question of immigration and migration is also discussed at this excellent post about the movie at the naked gaze, and in the comment thread there.

k-punk's post about the film touches on, much more eloquently than I did, what I was trying to say about youth and culture. For him, the question the film asks is "how long can a culture persist without the new? What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?" Also from k-punk's post:

. . . the film is dominated by the sense that the damage has been done. The catastrophe is neither waiting down the road, nor has it already happened. Rather, it is being lived through. There is no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn't end with a bang, it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart.

[. . .] Children of Men is a dystopia that is specific to late capitalism. This isn't the familiar totalitarian scenario routinely trotted out in cinematic dystopias

[. . . ] public space is abandoned, given over to uncollected garbage and to stalking animals (one especially resonant scene takes place inside a derelict school, through which a deer runs). But, contrary to neo-liberal fantasy, there is no withering away of the State, only a stripping back of the State to its core military and police functions. In this world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.

alas, a blog also has a thoughtful response to the film.

Many of these posts have discussed, sometimes in great length, an aspect of the film that I did not address at all, its pretty overt Christian symbolism and imagery. It's not difficult to see the birth of a baby, symbolically, in terms of humanity's salvation, and Clive Owen's Theo plays something of a Joseph to Kee's Mary. Apparently, James' novel is a much more reactionary Christian work, which is not in as much evidence in the film. Žižek , in the item quoted in Jodi's post cited above, aside from saying that the film "gives the best diagnosis of the ideological despair of late capitalism. Of a society without history", praises the movie for subverting its reactionary source:
. . . Children of Men is a model of a kind of materialist subversion of a reactionary classic, because the novel is obviously a spiritualist Christian parable of resuscitation, bringing new life and so on. The novel ends with baptizing. It’s clear Christian parable. The film is a model of how you can take a reactionary text, change some details here and there and you get a totally, a totally different story. I would say that it’s a realist film, but in what sense? Hegel in his esthetics says that a good portrayal looks more like the person who is portrayed than the person itself. A good portrayal is more you than you are yourself. And I think this is what the film does with our reality. The changes that the film introduces do not point toward alternate reality, they simply make reality more what it already is.
Or, as the naked gaze put it:
through the use of Nativity and other Biblical iconography Cuarón performs a double inversion: sublating historical specificity in favor of quasi-ahistorical biblical iconography, but then taking that same iconography and reinvesting it with historically specific connotations from the recent past (thereby re-anchoring the film in contemporary political concerns inspired by not only the conflict in the Balkans, but also 9/11, the Iraq War, global immigration debates, etc.).


Friday, January 26, 2007

Children of Men (2006)

We saw Children of Men nearly three weeks ago, and I've attempted a couple of passes at writing about it, with little success. The short version is that it was the most visceral movie-going experience I've had in many years. I was emotionally affected by this film to an extent not at all typical for me. (In what follows, there may be some spoilers, if you're worried about that kind of thing, but not too many, I hope.)

Matt Zoller Seitz, in his mixed review at The House Next Door , wrote that the movie is "superbly crafted and compelling throughout, and filled with note-perfect performances", but that, finally, "it stops being about what it purports to be about and becomes a paean to its own proficiency". Needless to say, I disagree with the latter. But I bring up Seitz's review because he also describes the movie as "not so much an allegory as a depressive leftist projection". There is some truth to this. The movie, as any preview will tell you, takes place 20 years in the future, in a fascist Britain and a condition of world-wide (and unexplained) longterm infertility. Immigrants and political prisoners are rounded up and kept in camps or ghettoes. City bombings are so routine as to be virtually ignored. People go about their business while the world around them has already fallen to pieces. There are references to disasters: nuclear attack in Africa, "catastrophe" in New York, a flu pandemic. England itself looks like a constant warzone.

In various ways, then, the movie seems to embody many of the worst fears and nightmares we on the left (myself included) often have about "the way things are going". Economic instability, environmental degradation, political imbecility, current and projected resource shortages: all of these and much else contribute to a sense of hopelessness, that the problems the world faces are simply too huge, and the political will too lacking and elite power too overwhelming, to do much of anything.

The movie is often said to be about a "dystopian future", but my first instinct in describing the images is to refer to those we can see on the news or internet every day. In a comment to this Lenin's Tomb post (which is not about the movie but about "the death of liberalism" and is excellent; I highly recommend reading it), Richard Estes invoked the movie, writing that the post "highlights a curious aspect about the way the film has been reviewed. Critics consistently describe it as a dystopian vision of the future, while it is fairly evident that there are many people around the world who live in such conditions right now. [emphasis in original comment]" Indeed. Instead of merely being a "leftist projection"--except insofar as most of the privileged West largely does not currently face the conditions shown in the film--the film is about the problems of the world today. Images of prisoners with black hoods over their heads, of checkpoints, of references to "homeland security", make this point more explicit (too explicit for some).

So, the movie is political, but not in the sense that it attempts to articulate a coherent program for change.

A brief run-through of the story: Former activist Theo (Clive Owen), now largely apathetic, gets dragged into a plot by his ex-lover, Julian (Julianne Moore), who works with a group called the Fishes. They want him to procure travel papers for a young woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who it turns out is pregnant. There hasn't been a live birth in more than 18 years, so this is huge. Julian's plan is to get Kee to a shadowy group called The Human Project, which may or may not exist. The Fishes as a group have their own plans. Intrigue and action ensues.

As I mentioned, the movie appears to nod in the direction of present-day left-wing concerns, but its images of left-wing activity are problematic. The Fishes are just as murderous as the government, just as bad as the fascists. They are depicted as nothing more than an extreme radical faction, willing to use Kee and her baby for whatever political aims they may have, which are never really articulated. We don't know what their aims are, and it doesn't appear that we're meant to care. The apolitical Theo--the former activist, now a successful professional--emerges, with the death of Julian, as the only character with a functioning moral compass and the strength to take any positive action. So the film appears to scoff at the notion of any kind of collective solution to anything. Also, Kee's guardian is a woman named Miriam (Pam Ferris), who is a figure of ridicule, spouting New Age mumbo jumbo about everything happening for a reason, mocked in a scene where she stumbles trying to do T'ai Chi. And yet, she does sacrifice herself for Kee and the baby.

Some critics have complained that no explanation is given for the inability to procreate. Others have taken issue with some of the logic of the film. If the population is dwindling, for example, what reason would the government have to lock up immigrants? Would there not then be an excess of resources? (See this thread at Cinemarati). I don't think questions like these ultimately matter (though they are interesting). The movie makes no attempt to answer the many questions that it raises. It offers the idea of hope, in a world that appears utterly hopeless (in which people believe, with reason, that there is literally no future), but this hope is tentative, potentially illusory. For all we know, the much-anticipated Human Project doesn't exist.

A minor closing observation: all the music in the movie is "oldies", from 50 years ago to today. We clearly hear radio stations refer to classics from 2003, for example. I wondered about the role of music in a society and nostalgia. The society of the movie has no future, so nostalgia for the music of the past (when the future existed) is strong. Who makes art when there is no future? Does the question make sense? In the movie, the character who Theo visits to obtain the travel papers collects famous art or artifacts (Picasso's Guernica is on one wall; the floating pig from Pink Floyd's Animals tour can be seen outside the window). He seems to be protecting it from destruction (if memory serves), as if society no longer had any use for it. All the pop music, anyway, is old. Obviously, even those songs that are new now would be old then, but the movie seems to treat all of the music as nostalgia. No youth, no pop music, it's all looking back.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Inventing Authenticity

Dial "M" for Musicology, in a short post about "American Idol" contestants, who so often appear to believe that sincerity is the key to performance:
. . . performance isn't always, or even often, a matter of sincerity. George Burns is supposed to have said, "sincerity is everything -- if you can fake that, you've got it made." So true. In my classes I often like to point out that the artistry of singers like Bob Dylan is largely directed at fashioning a rhetoric of authenticity. You hear Dylan's hard-prairie voice on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and think, ah, the splintery authenticity. But the chewed-up R's and flat vowels and the moments of high intensity where Dylan overshoots the pitch are just as carefully crafted as the portamenti on a Frank Sinatra album. What's particularly impressive about Dylan's sixties albums is how he was coming up with a whole new vocal-performative code for each album. It's a remarkable acheivement: between 1963 (Freewheelin' Bob Dylan) and 1967 (John Wesley Harding) he invented half a dozen ways of being authentic.


End the War on Iraq

This Saturday, we will be attending this:

Please join us if you can.


Saturday, January 20, 2007


Via this discussion at Jeff VanderMeer's blog, I came across this entertaining list of "unfilmable novels". The list includes One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ulysses, Beckett, Proust, Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, etc. There are well over a hundred comments, with readers chiming in with their own pet nomination for unfilmable novel. I've had discussions like this before, and I always feel like people are talking about different things when they say a book "can't be made into a movie". Often people are simply worried that their favorite novel will be sullied by some hack screenwriter's attempt to force it into 90 minutes or two hours. Or they think that it's just too much, they could never "get it right". Something like The Lord of the Rings was thought unfilmable, I suppose, because of the sheer scale, along with the problem of special effects. In the event, of course, those obstacles were overcome, and yet, to hear some Rings enthusiasts (e.g., my brother, who has not only read the trilogy countless times, but has read The Silmarillion at least four times, which is just wrong) tell it, the movies succeeded on the level of spectacle, but missed the point--the essential theme--of the books (by, for example, leaving out the scouring of the Shire). Perhaps. But that's another thing readers worry about, the undermining of theme to please some imagined desires of a mass audience. Obviously, there's no rule that says this must necessarily happen, so it's not really relevant to the question of "unfilmability".

What, then, are we talking about when we say a book is "unfilmable"? I think that visual imagery (special effects) does not qualify; that's only a question of filmmakers' (and effects makers) imagination and ingenuity (which is not to say that any given reader would approve of a given filmmaker's interpretation). Similarly hugeness of scale: a novel's length might make it unlikely to be filmed, but that's not the same thing as "unfilmable". I think what we mean, in principle, by "unfilmable" is that we think that a film version would not be able to be the same as the book, would be unable to provide the same aesthetic experience, or even approximate the experience of the book. In some respects, I think readers need to get over this: movies are not the same as books. It seems silly to write it, but somehow necessary. Movies should be treated as independent of their source material.

Well, ok, we approach the movie as its own thing. Great. But I think the question of the filmability of certain written works is still of interest.

Jan at Jahsonic has attempted to define the characteristics of a novel that might make it unfilmable. He came up with two: plotlessness and philosophical introspection. And in an earlier post "on the nature of the 20th century reading experience", he described a kind of reading experience in which the book "is
so good that it provides a unique experience that cannot be duplicated in any other medium". In both posts he offers Martin Amis' Time's Arrow as a perfect example of this. It's an interesting selection. Certainly reading Time's Arrow (in which the story is told in reverse order) can be a disorienting experience. I recall having to adjust myself to the normal flow of the day after having been immersed in the book. And of course Amis has a distinctive prose style. But the story, surely a movie could be made of the story, including its reverse order? In the wake of Christopher Nolan's Memento? It seems to me that it could be, but that's not to say that the experience of reading the novel would be replicated. It would be a different experience, if possibly still disorienting. Here, of course, we end up reducing novels to their content--where's the story underneath all this literary gunk, anyway?

Looking at it this way, I think there are novels that can't be reduced so simply to their content (even so, I object to the reduction elsewhere), which are therefore effectively unfilmable. As mentioned above, Jan suggests plotlessness and philosophical introspection. Neither of these strike me as anathema to film.

In the comment thread to one of the Jahsonic posts, Harry Tuttle mentions Georges Perec’s La Disparition (which famously was written without the letter 'e'). And here I think we get to the crux of the problem. Experimental fiction. Formally inventive fiction. I'm thinking of the recent work of David Markson (what would be the point of a movie of This Is Not A Novel?). Or Gilbert Sorrentino. Or, imagine the "stories" in Stanley Elkin's novels without his wondrously inventive prose. Unthinkable. These narratives must be read. I think these books and many others highlight what is finally unfilmable about even more conventional novels. If too often novels are reduced to what they're "about", formally experimental novels draw our attention to how they are made, to how they achieve their effects, which might remind us to think more about how the others are made. I think that any book or story or whatever can be the source material for a film, but that which is literary about a novel--that which makes it a novel--cannot be transmitted to film, because reading is the whole point.

In the course of writing this post, I noticed that Steve at This Space has touched on this today, too. He says, in response to Jahsonic's question, What makes a novel unfilmable?:
"Being a novel" would be my first suggestion. A novel should be a novel because it cannot be anything else. The hype generated by an adaptation as an adaptation indicates a lack of faith in its original form, most obviously a lack in the original's cultural authority, but also the residual lack inherent to all art. A question borne on this lack is the one that excites me, drives my entire interest in writing: what cannot be written?
I like that: "a novel should be a novel because it cannot be anything else". Of course, the rest of this paragraph suggests much else to think about, many other potential posts (the kinds of writing we often find at Steve's blog). But, not wanting to be any more long-winded here than I already am, I'll end on this note.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Animal Collective

Scraps has finally had a chance to listen to Animal Collective, their 2005 album Feels specifically, and likes what he hears. This reminds me that I meant to post something about them last fall but did not, because I seem to be pathologically incapable of posting something quickly or spontaneously. . . Anyway, the occasion of that post would have been the re-release of their 2001 live album, Hollinndagain, which covers the period between Danse Manatee and Here Comes the Indian. I'd noticed an unfortunate tendency among reviewers to hail the release while lamenting the apparent turn away from the free-form noisy music of those records toward the more polished or, as some put it, "poppy" recent albums, such as Feels and Sung Tongs.

Don't get me wrong, I love the early Animal Collective recordings, especially Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished (which I was just cool enough to get when it was released by Avey Tare and Panda Bear, before the official Animal Collective name took hold) and Here Comes the Indian, and I would welcome a return to a more free-form approach. But not because there is anything wrong with what they've been doing. There is nothing to lament, not when they can make music as wonderful as that found on Feels. At around the same time that I meant to post on this, I spent about two days listening to that album's "Banshee Beat" on more or less continuous repeat. It might just be the most gorgeous eight-plus minutes of music released in the last few years.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Voice of a Generation

I have the Vintage paperback edition of Murakami's Dance Dance Dance, discussed in my last post, and, as is all too normal, the book comes with many review-blurbs touting Murakami and Dance Dance Dance to the skies. I enjoy reading blurbs. Sometimes they're so over-heated that they can't help but make me smile. Then there are the ones that appear on every book by a given author, like Updike's famous blurb on Nabokov, who, of course, "writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically." But most blurbs are fairly boring, and in more recent books, which have many, many blurb pages, only serve as additional voices in a chorus praising the book. Others make grandiose claims about the writer (who is invariably the next great whoever, or who combines the wit of x, with the crisp style of y, and the zing of z). The blurbs on the Murakami generally don't say much. He is compared to Philip K. Dick and Mishima. Sex and mystery and rock 'n' roll and sci-fi and "the future" are all invoked.

But there is one blurb I thought I'd share with you. It's right there on the front cover, and it grabbed my attention, in part because I have no idea what it means. From The Washington Post Book World: "A world-class writer who takes big risks. . . . If Murakami is the voice of a generation, then it is the generation of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo." It's bad enough when a reviewer writes about someone as "the voice of a generation", but it's not clear to me how Murakami, being 12 and 13 years younger, respectively, than Pynchon or Delillo, could be the "voice of [their] generation". If I had to guess, I'd say that the reviewer was trying to invoke Pynchon and DeLillo as comparisons and ended up with this trainwreck of a sentence. Or, by invoking them, the review is saying that Murakami transcends their influence. Murakami is like them, he or she might be saying, only better. Or, the reviewer was trying to say that Murakami is the Pynchon or DeLillo of his own generation. Or that he's the Japanese Pynchon or DeLillo. Not that any of these are of any help, either, mind you, but at least they make a little bit of sense.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Dance Dance Dance, Haruki Murakami

I want to try to post some shorter comments on books I read, instead of only writing about those books that I feel I can write about at length. So here goes.

Dance Dance Dance is the first Murakami book I've read. I really wanted to like it. For one thing, it was a holiday present from my father-in-law. I've been interested in trying some Murakami for some time, and he had no way of knowing this, so it was an excellent gift. Alas, I'm afraid I had a number of problems with it.

Murakami is often said to be in the vein of some of the so-called post-modern novelists, such as Don Delillo. Superficial evidence in support of this, I suppose, is that Dance Dance Dance is packed with pop-culture references, mostly Anglo-American, many of which seem to serve no purpose other than as surface noise. There's a mystery, and an element of the supernatural--an old hotel that "lives" inside a modern hotel. (I've noticed Murakami has been tagged with the "magic realism" label, too.) The novel opens with the narrator recounting a dream of this older hotel, which leads him to set off in search of a woman he'd lived with four years prior. This search doesn't seem to mean too much to him, nor does he seem to care all that much when he finds out what probably happened. He is adrift in his life, personally and professionally, and, indeed, he seems to drift from encounter to encounter in the novel, most of which are with a famous movie actor he went to school with, a thirteen-year-old girl and her inattentive parents, and a clerk at the new hotel, with whom he more or less falls in love.

My main problem with the novel was with what I felt was a flabby prose style. Of course, not having any familiarity with Japanese, I have no way of assessing the quality of Alfred Birnbaum's translation. (I am, however, aware of controversy surrounding the various translations of his work; as is so often the case, The Complete Review has a lot of links on this, as well as other Murakami-related items). The English is all I have to go on, and the English generally did not excite me. Often, it was just plain drab, barely functional. There were, yes, numerous isolated stretches in the novel, when it appeared as if the story might be getting somewhere, when the prose was much more crisp, and I found myself enjoying the plot, turning pages quickly, interested. But this rarely lasted long, and on many occasions I got bogged down and had a hard time continuing. The narrator's thoughts on ennui and the modern condition were rendered uninteresting by this flabbiness (I lost count of the number of times the words "advanced capitalism" appeared). There was a certain repetition of detail that could have served to underscore the narrator's position, but which the prose instead made boring. His conversations with the movie star, which often amounted to the actor complaining about how he'd rather have simpler life, were similarly repetitive and even more tedious. It's as if Murakami, as a writer, was more interested, or more skilled, in moving the plot along than in exploring his themes, and this was reflected in the variable quality of the prose.

I'm aware that I'm being vague here and that specific examples would be more convincing. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the inclination to go back and scour the book in search of examples of what I'm talking about. So I'll just leave off here (so much for "shorter", eh?).

Meme-y Goodness

For the first time, I've been tagged for one of those memes, by Dan Barrow at The End Times, which is a new blog to me. It's the old "five things you probably didn't know about me" meme. So, in the spirit of blogular community, then, here goes:

1. I hate both peanut butter and bananas. In fact, I'd prefer not to be in the same room with someone who's eating them. It's borderline pathological.
2. The first recording I ever had was a cassette copy of Waylon Jennings' Greatest Hits. It's awesome.
3. I have never smoked any kind of tobacco.
4. I've seen Gone With The Wind approximately fifteen times. I have no good explanation for this.
5. From the ages of roughly ten to 25, I spent most of my time playing, watching, or reading about sports. As a result, instead of, say, memorized poems or philosophical concepts, my brain is filled with huge amounts of more or less useless sports-related knowledge. This does help me when playing games like Trivial Pursuit, though, so I've got that going for me.

Ok. Now the passing this along part. I think many people have done this one, so I wasn't sure who to pick. But, anyway, I tag Parlando, New Moon Hazel, and my good friend over at Lilymania. Crucial update: Comments to my next post have reminded me that I'd meant to also tag Brandon at No Trivia with this important meme, but forgot, so I'm doing it now.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

One wakes within us

I have removed the drab "superficial thoughts, etc" line from the description above, in favor of a passage from Gene Wolfe's tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun; thanks to Scraps (in a comment on this blog) and Lars (in, for example, these posts) for putting Wolfe and this series on my map. Since I will no doubt change the description again, I also reproduce the lines here:
The difficulty lies in learning that we ourselves encompass forces equally great. We say, "I will," and "I will not," and imagine ourselves (though we obey the orders of some prosaic person every day) our own masters, when the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves.


Saturday, January 06, 2007

Wrong Again

American Pastoral is not my favorite Philip Roth novel, and I've complained about the fact that it is, in my opinion, consistently over-praised, while the masterful Sabbath's Theater, for example, is all too often ignored. That said, I do like it, and there's no question that it has some great writing in it. For a variety of reasons that I won't go into here, I feel compelled to post the following passage (which had been brought back to my attention via this interview with Peter Carey by Robert Birnbaum in 2003):
You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day?


Vital Musics

At his fine new blog Parlando, frequent Existence Machine commenter Scraps has a nice appreciation of Joan Armatrading, as part of his ongoing and interesting "Songs Project". I've never listened to any Armatrading; in the main, I haven't gone back and sampled much of the singer-songwritery stuff from the 1970s like I have other music from the past. Unfairly, it carries a negative connotation in my mind. No doubt just as unfairly, or at least inaccurately, I have Armatrading lumped in with Janis Ian, who I also know next to nothing about. Anyway, in his post Scraps writes that, of the singer-songwriter albums, it's one of the most underrated. He suggests that this might be:
. . . because an album by a black Caribbean woman in 1976 that wasn’t soul, reggae, or even folk — it’s just a straight pop-rock album — was bound to fall between the cracks. There’s nothing arresting about it, nothing eccentric or groundbreaking; there’s nothing special about it, except ten straight excellent songs; there’s nothing notable about it, except that it’s perfect.
Elsewhere, in an interesting mini-essay on generationality in music, as part of janedark's year-end music wrap-up (albums and singles, respectively; this is from the albums post), jane writes:
. . . to put the matter crudely, generationality happens where genres are both historical enough to have generations, and alive enough to be worth renewing. That aliveness is, of course, as much a story about money as about other kinds of emotional or libidinal investment. That hip-hop and country were the scenes of substantial generationality this year in one ways tells us what we already know: that these are the leading forms of indigenous music here in the hegemonoculture, where the greatest investments are made. Or at least it reminds us of that, since we seem to be so good at forgetting it every fifteen minutes. It’s not just that these musics are popular, and thus abstractly “populist,” and so should be reckoned with on those grounds; it’s also that they’re the most musically vital, the living forms, and if one’s way of measuring songs can’t recognize that, it’s the measure that’s got to go.
I admit that I don't always know what jane's talking about, and I'm not sure I do here. Somehow the implications of both of these posts are connected in my mind, where I have a number of questions percolating about music: What makes a music vital? Is it originality? Innovation? I do not listen to much pop country (though I have jane to thank for first alerting me to the awesomeness of Miranda Lambert), but what contact I do have with it does not make me think of it as terribly innovative. So I doubt that it's a necessary component to what he's talking about. How important is it? We seem to have certain ideas on what constitutes innovative or experimental anyway. I subscribe to and enjoy reading The Wire, which of course has the sub-heading "Adventures in Modern Music". And, while it does cover mainstream rap inside its pages, aside from the occasional primer, that's about it. At his excellent new blog, No Trivia, Brandon Soderberg writes:
If 'Wire Magazine' had any balls, if the magazine was honestly interested in “adventures in modern music” and dropped their elitism, their rap coverboys wouldn’t be lames like MF Doom or Edan. Three-Six Mafia would have made the cover a decade ago. So would The Neptunes and Timbaland, even Jazze Pha or Kanye West. Are Broadcast or Boards of Canada more “adventurous” than a Phizzle production like ‘So What’? The magazine’s year-end list might include ‘Late Registration’ or something, but it’s more like them conceding to it so they don’t look totally out of touch.
In his post, Soderberg (who I came across via the second comment to this entertaining Status Ain't Hood post by Tom Breihan; anyone who refers to J.D. Considine as "prick of all pricks" is worth a look from me) is writing about electronic musician Tim Hecker and rapper Young Jeezy. As it happens, I have one album by each artist, and like them both, though they are not the albums under discussion. Soderberg says:
While I was writing my Hecker review, I kept thinking of [Young Jeezy's] ‘The Inspiration’ and how 'Inspiration' and [Hecker's] 'Harmony...' are more alike than any of the other albums I’ve written about. If I had to compare ‘The Inspiration’, I’d say it is sonically similar to Three-Six Mafia ‘Most Known Unknown’, ‘M83’s ‘Before the Dawn Heals Us’, and the aforementioned Hecker album. A weird group, but seriously: What makes Tim Hecker avant-garde and Young Jeezy (and his producers) stupid mainstream rap? The music is primarily created through sampling and electronics. Those soundtrack to 'Thief' whips and beeps on [Jeezy's] ‘Hypnotize’ sound a lot like the in-and-out helicopter-sounding whooshes that provide the backing to [Hecker's] ‘Dungeoneering’. More importantly, the songs are after the same feeling: Some kind of claustrophobic, scary world-collapsing paranoia that occasionally breaks open into minor joy. The way ‘Dungeoneering’ lets up towards the end and segues into the next track is a lot like the feeling Jeezy provides with a defiant chorus or Shawty Red or Timbo provide the listener with through a change-up of the beat. What about those sub-level basstones that suddenly push forward on a lot of ‘The Inspiration’s tracks? Electronic music, especially the kind Hecker makes, is all production. The minor details and subtle shifts are what make it good. The organ stabs on ‘Whitecaps of White Noise I’ sound a lot like DJ Toomp’s now signature synth-tone. This stuff isn’t that different!
This is good stuff; he's saying a lot of interesting things here and in the rest of his post. Of course, I'm drawing attention to the point about avant-garde versus pop. The tendency to miss the innovation in pop, while hailing as "experimental" those underground moves that are finally not much different, or even merely recapitulate experiments of the past, is still strong. It's an interesting question as to why this is, one I'm not going to venture answering here, though I have my ideas. (In many respects, I think it's simply a matter of taste and exposure.) But, looking again at the quote from Scraps at the top of this post, I sometimes wonder why experimentation or innovation matter so much. Or maybe I wonder why they matter to me so much. I know I've sort of chased my tail a lot, trying to hear various so-called experimental musicians, attempting to keep abreast of the new. Since I've been forced in the last three years to recognize what critics and listeners like Soderberg have been arguing, that mainstream rap, and pop generally, can plausibly be shown to be as innovative or fresh as the most self-consciously underground music, the situation has become untenable for me; as a listener I am more overwhelmed than ever. Sometimes I just want the merely excellent, the satisfying musical experience.


On Writing and Not Writing

Many writers have written eloquently about why they write. For me, the more appropriate essay might be "Why I don’t write". In my life I've oscillated between two extremes of perception when it came to writing. On the one hand, writers have something to say and a burning desire to say it, and so they have to write, and, if the writer is sufficiently talented, art simply flows onto the page. On the other hand, writers work hard at the craft of writing, laboring sentence by sentence, page by page, burnishing the prose until it gives off its particular luster, unique to that writer. In the event, the truth appears to be some combination of the two poles. In the first instance, I haven't written, I've told myself, because I've felt that I have nothing to say and that I feel no burning need to write. In the second instance, I've had a hard time imagining myself doing the work.

Doing the work, that’s the rub, isn't it? In recent years, as I've become more and more immersed in literature, the problem has presented itself again, in a different form: the work needed now is how to become a better reader. Attend to the words on the page, follow up on allusions, write about what I read. These are what I know I need to do, what I want to do. But still, I perceive the kind of work that might be necessary to be a better reader, and by extension a writer at all, and I blanch at the effort required. All too often, I've been able to slide by with a minimum of effort. I have, indeed, tended to make something of a virtue of this. But writing, like life, is not easy. When I read what other people have written about this or that book that I've read, I overlook as insignificant those observations that I also made myself. William H. Gass, writing about Paul Valéry's prose pieces in his preface to his own Fiction and the Figures of Life, wrote that Valéry "dared to write on his subjects as if the world had been silent." Too often, I do quite the opposite. I don’t write because the world has emphatically not been silent. Many things have already been said about a great many things, so I discount my own thoughts as obvious or unoriginal, even when thinking or writing for myself. As if the obvious is not important; as if originality is to be valued above all else. As if the less obvious and more original ideas and writing magically appear unbidden without work.

I don't tend to make Resolutions, but one thing I want to do this year is be freer with what I write. I am continually astonished by writers and what they dare commit to words, to write down at all, let alone publish for others to see. When I say "dare", I'm not really talking about shocking or controversial content, although certainly I find myself amazed that Philip Roth, for example, writes about sex the way that he often has. Not because I'm a prude, but because often it's simply embarrassing. Perhaps not a great example. Here's another one: when I read fiction that plays with form, or where the writer has adopted an extreme form, I am often impressed with the commitment. I've started reading Thomas Bernhard's Correction and, once again, as in Bernhard's other works, there are the lengthy sentences, the huge blocks of words, the accretion of detail, the repetition.

And then there's the willingness to address time-honored subjects, "as if the world had been silent" or even in full acknowledgment of the distinct lack of silence. Last year, I read Walter Benjamin's memoir Berlin Childhood around 1900. At the end of the book, there is a brief piece called "The Moon", excised by Benjamin in the 1930s, but published anew with this latest edition. In "The Moon", he writes:
When the nightlight, flickering, then brought peace to my hand and me, it appeared that nothing more remained of the world than a single, stubborn question. It may be that this question nested in the folds of the door-curtain that shielded me from noise. It may be that it was nothing but a residue of many past nights. Or, finally, it may be that it was the other side of the feeling of strangeness which the moon had brought on. The question was: Why is there anything at all in the world, why the world? With amazement, I realized that nothing in it could compel me to think the world. Its nonbeing would have struck me as not a whit more problematic than its being, which seemed to wink at nonbeing. The moon had an easy time with this being.
I find this passage beautiful, but I'm struck by the commonality of the anxiety. Why the world? Not an original problem. Benjamin troubled himself to write it down, and wrote beautifully about it, yes, but it's the trouble to write it down that interests me here. In the past, I would have told myself that there was nothing especially interesting about the question, or about having had the question, and any thoughts I might have had surrounding it I would have consigned to oblivion, because I simply wouldn't commit the simple question to the written word, which meant, further, that I wasn't able to develop the line of thinking, that I was consigning all related thoughts similarly to oblivion, that I was therefore not developing my thinking. My modest goal for this year, then, is to allow myself to commit more thoughts to words, to write more. To overcome the amorphous fears preventing me writing. Seemingly simple, but a world away from my established non-practice.

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