The Shackles of Typification

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What?
Art is a constant advance, of cyclical invention and reinvention. Each new style or movement is formulated, “perfected”, denied, revised and rebutted. A great deal of discourse is appreciated only in retrospect, or as a depreciated style of work that served only as a necessary step towards superior form. In fiction, this is a wonderful past. A great arcing story of stories, told over and again, with fresh sheen from a new hand. To cast over all fiction that there is, or ever was, nets a beautiful, technicolour catch.

Naturally, such a vast discourse is sub-categorized. It is in our nature to set boundaries and definitions, to styles and movements. Appreciation of fiction as one great beast is a wonderfully compelling, but neatness and academia call for brass-tagged collars on the otherwise stray, movements and ‘genres’. As so many artistic platforms swaggered through the back half of the twentieth century, phases of postmodernity and a new space of creation began. Application of simple definitions has become difficult. Lines of demarcation between classes of fiction have become unclear.

What are you talking about?!

What are you talking about?!

Where we are now in terms of a ‘literary world’, one might contend that a liminal space has existed for sometime. That as we further define the nature of Postmodernism, so it becomes a retrospective; an account of a time that has passed. It only falls upon such academic classifications to exist, after enough literature exists to define the movement. Postmodernism is in full swing – or so they say – and in a decade’s time there will exist discourse of yet-unnamed movements occurring now. We the people are constantly looking to set constraints of periodization, and lay whatever mile-markers manageable  Thus there exists a freedom of discussion, as to the comprehension of the contemporary literary space. What a lark.
 
 
So?
Now all this is very well-to-do. Outlining a certain ‘freedom’ to discuss and define. What we seek to discuss, is the role of genre, in contemporary fiction. First, of course, one must speak to the phenomenon of genre. A handful of characteristics, a set of cornerstones, upon which to rest a work, or to define one by. Stylistic representations, translations and dilutions. The vanilla of Gothic Horror, sentimental, with its turrets, ravens, and perpetual thunderstorms. Men of harrowing intention and chilling gaze. Fashion abandons melodrama, to move to the explicit ‘Modern Horror’ – Cosmic Horror, Dark Romance, and gory hyper-intensive Splatterpunk. Genre has evolved with taste and experimentation, yet even with its evolution and the hybridity of new forms, its difficult for one to be satisfied with its being the sole qualifier.

Genre is a fickle thing. A useful measure in many regards, this is difficult to deny. Genre can serve to steer interest, assign flavour-names to books for when a certain part of one’s palette is whetted. Without genre,  to wander around a library would certainly be more difficult. But such lineated definition of anything can serve to alter the nature of the defined. With genre categorizations, comes the fencing of clear pens, to which works may or may not belong. Pieces which work with intention to these spaces are discussed as works of ‘Genre Fiction’, a term sometimes hissed by literary academics.

Genre Fiction requires little discussion, as to definition. These glossed paperbacks line shelves and satisfy needs, and are by no measure depreciated as a result thereof. A queer minority would enjoy leafing through Ulysses on every holiday or Sunday afternoon. Serialized works of Stephen King, Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, and our trouble-child George Martin, each fit the bill. Crime, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, all the block-letter signs of book shops.

The current prominence of genre is a far greater one than it has enjoyed before, and the future is blinding for Genre Fiction. The market of those looking for a read of formulaic satisfaction is growing, not only in literature, but similarly in film and television. There’s a grinning git somewhere turning a great crank on the machine of RomComs, and a board of chuckling executives bandying around outrageous ideas for fresh Reality Television. The issue really at hand, is that of other fiction being confused with, or eclipsed by, Genre Fiction. A work’s embodying a few aesthetics that also belong to a composition of Genre Fiction, may often lead to an immediate and holistic classification of it; the reading of a book by its cover. This is a sorry sentence for a work of individual style and application.
 
 
Therefore?
An apt example is that of the novel touched on during last weeks discussion, Slaugherhouse Five. It is both a work with elements of Science Fiction, and those of a War novel, but to classify it purely as either, is a gross misjudgment. For each phrase lugs heavy connotation. ‘Science Fiction’ immediately foregrounds all associations with the genre, the ‘woosh’ of doors, squealing of lasers, Area-51 and pale blue gimp-men with bulbous heads. We think of worn, tacky series’, heroes with bowl-cuts and cheap outfits, or plot-driven works, stumbling from climax to climax, because this is what we’ve been taught to do. Film, television, and written fiction, all share very similar terms of genre, the words are the same, and thus it is difficult to separate the semantics. In the case of science fiction, Star Trek is usually the front-runner of immediate association, and Slaughterhouse Five is certainly its own beast.

"Don't you tell me my own business"

“Don’t you tell me my own business”

Similarly suitable, and with a cinematic adaptation on hand, is Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Certainly the piece is placed in time beyond ours, with well-advanced technology, and a society that is foreign to us. But for Androids to be ham-fisted through a simple siv, diluted to ‘a Sci-Fi novel’, perhaps does it an injustice. Perhaps this is idiosyncratic or pedantic, for any author of a work – be it however true to a genre – may grit their teeth at linear interpretation. The difficulty with typification, is the immediate constraints that are inevitability associated. The natural tendency of people is to crave an overriding thesis, a theoretical discourse by which to digest a work in advance. The importance of a work to be experienced as it is, without being suffocated by genre, intimidation to “understand” it, each infinitesimal reference, or find a grand between-the-lines design, is a great one. Fiction is written to be read by each in their own way, and asks for little else.
 
 
Works to just, read:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

The Handmaid’s Tail – Margaret Atwood

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

The War of the Worlds – H.G Wells

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon

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When is a Crime Film Not a Crime Film: Genre Subversion in Gangster Squad

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You’re watching a movie. It’s one you’ve been looking forward to seeing for months. You’ve watched all the trailers, read all the press releases, and even watched a back-catalogue of the actress’ other films. Besides, you love a good Western and that’s what this is. Wait…now they’re in space. Why are they in space? Wasn’t this a Western? It’s got a guy on a horse in it, but now they’re in space? You’re so confused right now. You want to walk out but that’s rude, and then it hits you in the face. Your popcorn that is. Because you’ve just had a eureka moment that’s caused the involuntary spasming of arms in exclamation. This was never a Western. It was always a Sci-Fi. And they’ve been dropping little clues throughout the whole movie that this was only going to end in space.

But before you cry that Hollywood has made off into the sunset with your money via duplicitous means, and swear off ever going to the movies again – just stop. Take a deep breath, because this isn’t about the movie industry lying to you (well, it is a little bit). This is about the movie industry creating new and innovative ways to tell stories. It’s about putting so much lipstick on the pig that, while there may indeed still be some pig-like features under there, you can’t see them through all that Revlon.
 
 
Introducing The Bacon

A disgusted Emma Stone realised that even Ryan Gosling has a bad side...

A disgusted Emma Stone realised that even Ryan Gosling has a bad side…

Gangster Squad, Ruben Fleischer’s follow-up to the 2009 hit Zombieland, has everything a big Hollywood blockbuster ought to have. A plethora of big-name stars (a lot of whom are very, very attractive), a great script based on a book that of course is loosely based on a true story, and just the right mix of explosive action and steaming hot romance. That mix sees Sean Penn play Mickey Cohen, a crook bent on taking over Los Angeles, while other A-listers play the cops charged with bringing him down. It’s The Untouchables with Josh Brolin playing Sean Connery and Ryan Gosling trading quips with Emma Stone, making him…a sexier Kevin Costner?

On face value alone, Gangster Squad is an unabashed Gangster/Crime film – hell, the movie is called GANGSTER Squad. Gangster movies are okay. There’s nothing wrong with them. But unfortunately ‘okay’ is not good enough in the current market. ‘Okay’ skips by and then is never heard of again. This is why Gangster Squad does something remarkably clever to ensure that it doesn’t just skim across the surface – another gangster movie drowning in a sea of Goodfellas and The Sopranos. It doesn’t let itself be a Gangster movie. Yes, on paper this thing screams Gangster film, but just because it quacks like duck and looks like duck doesn’t mean it’s not a pigeon in a very good duck costume.
 
 
It’s A War Film With Gangsters In It
The opening moments of Gangster Squad begin with a date stamp over a skyline. Los Angeles, 1949. And that is perhaps the best indicator of what this movie is, better than the label on the DVD casing; better even than the title itself. That date says a lot. It was a time where the world was re-building itself. When the Second World War ended, it left a much deeper mark than its predecessor. This was a war that featured both genocide and the invention of a weapon capable of wiping out entire cities in seconds. And we arrive in film full of characters with these sorts of things lurking in their back-stories.

Every member of Brolin’s crack squadron of guerilla cops fought in the war in some capacity. Gosling’s Jerry Wooters was a pilot. Brolin’s John O’Mara was an officer. And while it’s never expressly mentioned what role Nick Nolte’s Chief Parker served during the war, it is clear from his mannerisms and phrasings that he served his country in some respect. It is all of these little pieces of contextual information that highlight Gangster Squad’s true genre allegiances. However it’s not just War film in terms of the historical context and character design; the film literally depicts a war.

The secret to the film’s genre lies not in its trench coats or fedoras, but the dog tags and battle scars that are hidden beneath.

The secret to the film’s genre lies not in its trench coats or fedoras, but the dog tags and battle scars that are hidden beneath.

Like Taratino’s Basterds and Captain America’s POW revolutionaries, the ‘cops’ in Gangster Squad aren’t doing things by the book. They aren’t there to gather evidence and start an investigation into the dealings of Mickey Cohen; they aren’t even working within the law. It’s established early on in the film that O’Mara and his boys are not doing this as police officers, but as soldiers in a guerilla war. They don’t have their badges to help them and Nolte’s Chief Parker makes it clear that they will be working on their own to dismantle Cohen’s criminal organization from the inside out. A team of soldiers dispensing their own form of justice to bring down an enemy invasion. Now doesn’t that plot sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound like a story ripped from the trenches and front-lines?

Hatchetman (Mickey Giacomazzi): You can’t shoot me, you’re a cop.

The film is peppered with War film standards. Sneaking into the enemy camp to find information? Wire-tapping Cohen’s mansion. A midnight ambush in the jungle? Ambushing the drug delivery trucks in the backwoods of LA. Blowing up the enemies central base/communications centre? Bombing Cohen’s central nightclub/bank. The goal of the squad isn’t to capture but to destroy, something that cannot be done if they were cops in a crime flick. There’d be something jarring seeing police officers committing some of the acts of violence demonstrated in the film, something unsettling that wouldn’t necessarily get the audience totally off-side but would certainly make it difficult for them to be totally on side.

This is negated by removing their badges and making them soldiers. When soldiers shoot the bad guys in the face with a shotgun in the street (as in above exchange between Gosling and a nameless thug), it’s a heroic act. If a cop does it, we fall into a murky trap of seeing these men lower themselves down to the level of criminals. So while Brolin’s merry men start off of as men in blue, they’re more Band of Brothers than they are Cops.
 
 
What About Sub-Genres?
Who’s teaching you all these words? Are you reading over that guy’s shoulder again? That’s rude. And no I am not avoiding the question. What about sub-genre? Well we’ve got a bit of a noirish thing going on there, and there’s a love-story buried amongst the bullets. If anything though, this film is a War-Western. Yes, a Western.

Looking beyond the bleedingly obvious example (there is a character who wears a cowboy hat, spurs and shoots like a maverick) we can find clues pointing to the genre of the Wild West. There’s the setting for one. The film takes place in LA, which is situated on the west coast of America. There’s a lot of sitting around in empty bars in the desert. There’s a final shoot-out/showdown that is an excellent execution of a Mexican stand-off (a Western favourite), and like I said before there is a guy who wears a cowboy hat, spurs and spins his goddamn pistols. SPINS THEM.

But looking at it from a more serious angle, one of the staples of Western genres is that the hero is usually a lawman or sheriff (formerly or currently) who has an almost archaic sense of justice, a justice that does not line up with the rest of the society they find themselves in. John O’Mara is so old school he bleeds sepia. It is his staunch and old-fashioned methodology that draws the attention of Parker and instigates the main plot. His sense of honour and justice conflict with almost everyone around him, including his wife, but he can’t help himself. The film’s protagonist is a cowboy through and through, a grizzled lawman fighting on a foreign frontier while his brand of justice is slowly dying out.

So while on face of it, genre sounds easy enough to understand, it is a tricky beast. Good films often have several and some films have genres solely designed for marketing purposes, but one thing can be sure of: just because it’s dressed like one thing doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the story. You might have to peel back a few layers of lipstick to see what sort of pig is hiding underneath.

And as for that title, well I don’t think Cowboy Soldier Cop Squad rolls off the tongue as easily…

“I want all the things”: Freedom is a Problem in Girls

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“Do you like the poster?” Shoshanna asks Jessa, gesturing to a slightly obscured image featuring the principle cast of Sex and the City. Jessa reveals that she has never seen any form of SatC, an act which Shoshanna likens to “not being on Facebook”. “I’m not on Facebook,” Jessa replies.

As innovative and original as it is, the pilot of Girls sets the tone of a series that revisits social norms established in texts that have come before it. As the above sequence will attest, HBO’s focus can be more self-involved than outward-looking. Shoshanna aspires to be as free as the women in Sex and the City, yet Jessa finds solace in a spirituality that deems Shoshanna’s desires unworthy of any empathy. It’s freedom versus freedom.

A shot early in episode three shows Jessa looking utterly uncomfortable in Shoshanna’s clothes. What else could be a geographical barrier between them but an out-of-focus Sex and the City poster?

A shot early in episode three shows Jessa looking utterly uncomfortable in Shoshanna’s clothes. What else could be a geographical barrier between them but an out-of-focus Sex and the City poster?

In saying this, it was tempting to discuss how the show reflects the self-involved values and lifestyle of its creator and leading lady, Lena Dunham, but then that’s nothing I didn’t really look at with Steve Coogan last week.

But the topic of this week’s analysis does consider this idea – in its universally applicable standing within modern first-world communities.

Girls consciously plays up to its female protagonists, demonstrating just how different circumstances are between its world and that in Sex and the City. The most central figure of Girls does evoke Carrie Bradshaw, in that Hannah is following a writer’s aspirations, but it’s what Hannah fails to write that becomes the emphasis throughout the series. Sexual autonomy is a badge proudly worn by SatC’s Samantha Jones. But STIs, an abortion story-arc, and an innumerable amount of awkward sex scenes in Girls seem to attest to a reality not nearly as idyllic as the one Carrie’s crew would have us believe in. Yet HBO aren’t necessarily rectifying SatC’s claims to 21st-century living in America. The cultural landscapes are the same in Sex and the City and Girls, but the characters in the latter are struggling in their environment. Freedom is as ubiquitous as ever, the girls in Girls just don’t know what the fuck to do with it.
 
 
What You Don’t Own
Hannah is struggling to pay it. Her best friend, Marnie, says it’s the reason she moved to New York. Girls is saturated with references to it.

Ladies and gentlemen, ‘it’ is RENT.

RENT was a display of artistic individuals who had their creative expression limited by financial constraints and the mortal shadow of HIV/AIDS. If RENT showed a fight for freedom, then Sex and the City and Girls show the spoils of the people’s victory. But for the characters in Girls, freedom seems an overwhelming responsibility to handle.

“I just wish someone would tell me, like, ‘this is how the rest of your life should look'”
– Marnie Michaels, one of the four protagonists in Girls, played by Allison Williams

For Hannah and friends, the next best thing to do in the face of their inability to deal with freedom is to pretend that they, like the vagrants of RENT, are in a serious struggle to claim it.

At the conclusion of episode two (the aptly named ‘Vagina Panic’), Hannah is being tested for STDs by her gynaecologist when she claims the following:

“Maybe I’m actually not scared of AIDS. Maybe I thought I was scared of AIDS, but really what I am is… wanting AIDS.”

Aside from being a terrible thing to say, Hannah’s suggestion is, in the grander scheme of things, a plead to be faced with a real obstacle – she hopes that it will give her resolve or inspiration to write or, at the very least, a real excuse to flail in freedom. Writer’s block, becoming financially cut off from your parents, and everyday relationship problems, are Hannah’s menial issues that don’t lend themselves to advancing in any particular social or career direction.

But above all else, what Hannah spoke aloud was downright abhorrent, and the gynaecologist rightfully pulls her up on it. AIDS is suddenly discussed with the serious tone that it deserves, and we are reminded that Hannah’s head-space is constantly segregating her from others. This is an instance of Hannah’s absurd self-indulgence at its worst, and her life can only deteriorate for it.

girls-weirdos-need-girlfriends-too_article_story_mainBut it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to RENT’s representation in Girls. One of the most lasting sequences in the series comes at the end of ‘Weirdos Need Girlfriends Too’, an episode that has seen Hannah’s boyfriend, Adam, suffer a burden to his creative expression at the hands of a pretty awful performer in their two-man theatre act. Despite his collaborator’s shortcomings, the whole production is completely aborted due to Adam’s temperament. By the episode’s conclusion, Adam means to make amends for his lack of care unto others, manifested in his epic display of apology to a driver he verbally blasted. At the street where he encountered the driver, Adam makes a ‘SORRY’ placard feature wall. Adam’s sublime creative expression, rendered in a RENT-like font, and meticulously composited embrace with Hannah, is a perfect unity of the bohemian values of freedom and love. But though Adam reveals his greatest potential for compassion and creativity yet, he is clinging to an unlikely chance that his victim will see and interpret his message of goodwill. Never before has there been a greater hope for redemption for one of the most self-imposed down-and-outers of Girls. It’s just a question of whether or not Adam will, like those around him, sacrifice too much along the way.
 
 
The American Dream
The season two finale of Girls sees romantically linked characters haphazardly reconcile with one another following conflicts established in its premiere season. One might think of this as an idyllic close to a fairly tumultuous set of events, but beneath the surface lies a tough reality to face. For starters, any conceived notion that the finale could be an elaborate dream is shattered with Shoshanna and Ray’s relationship coming to a grinding halt. The reunions of Hannah and Adam, as well as Marnie and Charlie, are a false ending. That’s not to say the craft of the show’s creators is poor. It’s anything but that when you consider these relationships as case studies in what happens when estranged yet lonely souls reach out to one another.

Marnie returned to Charlie upon learning of his successful sale of an iPhone app. As her lifelong aspiration to sing, and attraction to Booth Jonathan demonstrated, it’s career success that drives Marnie, and she’ll realise such ambitions vicariously if she has to.

Hannah and Adam reconnect at a time when both parties are in vulnerable states. Their intentions within the relationship become sporadic to the point that the relationship can’t settle down in the metaphorical or traditional sense of the phrase.

Still not convinced that Girls has a pessimistic outlook of its characters? Just look at Hannah, who has advanced no further than when we first met her. She’s blown every writing opportunity that has come her way and finds herself literally in the arms of the man she was attached to at the beginning of the series, without having really resolved what had separated them in the first place. What can be positively said of a girl who has experienced so much potential to develop and yet finds herself at square one?

Methinks we're looking at a consciously constructed cliché. This kind of look is just too good to last.

Methinks we’re looking at a consciously constructed cliché. This kind of look is just too good to last.

‘Together’ is a blunt season finale title to describe the circumstances that the characters of Girls find themselves in. There are physical bindings between people, but their self-infatuation often outweighs their love for their companions. The phrase ‘love conquers all’ traditionally refers to the notion that one’s love for another can overcome any obstacle. But in a world where achieving anything seems more possible than ever before, one can bear love for something (or, in other words, themselves), and such a love can come to conquer the things that, down the track, might be of greater importance than anything else in life.

HOUSEKEEPING EDIT: Music analyst Fletcher would like me to mention that I failed to mention him in my post two weeks ago. I’d like to mention that I didn’t mention Fletch because I wasn’t sure when to expect his first post. Welcome aboard, Fletch, you silly ass. Also, each of the contributors will take turns in having a week off from blogging; starting with me next week. See y’all next month.

Giving Life Back to Music: A Reading of the Circumstances Surrounding Random Access Memories

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In early March, keen-eyed viewers of Saturday Night Live bore witness to what became the musical moment of 2013. A fifteen-second clip of a generic disco guitar and two half-masks merging into one, sparked tongues worldwide. The blogosphere exploded, and music communities began to anticipate the return of Daft Punk.

daft-punk-630

Such suspicions were only further confirmed when, at the Coachella Music and Arts festival, a longer clip of the track was played. This time it featured disco legend and founding member of Chic, Nile Rodgers, and the king of collaboration, Pharrell Williams. Lasting about a minute, the track saw crowds of people flock to the stage as, unbeknownst to the crowd, Daft Punk and Pharrell watched elated fans scramble for phones from the barrier of the VIP tent.

The beginnings of Daft Punk’s advertising of their fourth record, Random Access Memories, were by no means unorthodox, but it’s hard to think of another record that garnered such universal anticipation.

If, somehow, you’re out of the loop, Daft Punk are a French, electronic music duo who are responsible for some of the biggest dance-floor fillers of the last twenty years. If you’ve been to a club or listened to popular music since the invention of the CD, chances are you’ve heard “Harder Better Faster Stronger” or “One More Time” being blasted into a crowd of drunken revellers. Their music has been soundtracked endlessly and the duo are in constant demand, recently writing the soundtrack to the Disney sequel for Tron, Tron: Legacy.

The music isn’t really what captivates fans when they think of Daft Punk, however. It seems more and more that their reclusive nature and strict image campaign capture the imagination of their fans. The duo rarely perform live, having not done so since 2007 on the massive Alive tour, and any public performance comes with the obligatory robot attire which the group are known for. In fact, few photos of the duo exist without, at the very least, the masks, making their concept just that little bit more romantic.

The guitars and soulful vocals which we were delivered in snippets ended up forming what will be described as the single of the year, “Get Lucky”. At six minutes in length, it joins a trend in pop music that has been apparent this year across a multitude of releases, from Justin Timberlake’s long awaited return to music, to the newest Kanye West offering, Yeezus.  Pop music has finally been given the go-ahead to explore concepts and riffs over an extended period of time.

getlucky

It wasn’t long after the unveiling of ‘Get Lucky’ that regional Australian town; Wee Waa was revealed to be integral to one of the biggest releases of the year. The 2,000 strong community was to play host to Random Access Memories’ launch party alongside an array of other regular events including dog high jump and crosscut saw competitions.
 
 
Just an average day out
The leaking of the album and it’s official release followed. But even before the statistics and accolades came out, it was obvious that Daft Punk were about to explode like never before.  It was the most successful marketing campaign for a record seen in many years.

In fact, it was so good that it didn’t matter what the product was, everyone wanted to own the new Daft Punk record and for weeks it was the only record I was asked about. Due to the resounding adoration for “Get Lucky”, it wasn’t going to matter how the rest of the record sounded, hell it didn’t matter what reviewers and music critics thought of the album – it was set to sell millions.

That being said, such hype didn’t come without its own risks. Had “Get Lucky” not been so warmly received, Daft Punk’s guerrilla tactics could have seen disastrous results. When the Big Day Out drip-fed their lineup in 2012 we saw people up in arms after it was rumoured to be the biggest lineup they’d ever had. That year, saw the festival lose significant amounts of money and the removal of the New Zealand show.

“Get Lucky” was enough to get me excited for Random Access Memories, but at the end of the day, I alongside a large number of other music fans, were left bitterly disappointed with the record. As a whole it lacked the cohesive nature of earlier Daft Punk releases with few singles that could live up to the lofty heights of the teaser trailers.

Despite an impressive list of collaborators, the compositions seemed contrived and rarely held me as a listener. Album opener “Give Life Back to Music” feels as though it’s a rejected B-Side to far too many 80’s electronic disco records. The introduction alone speaks volumes about the grandeur they regard themselves with, as stadium rock guitars tarnish what could have been a perfect example of sophisticated pop music. “The Game of Love” dissipates any sense of energy that Daft Punk captured in their introductory track. “Instant Crush” featuring Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, whilst featuring accessible, tangible melodies, feels a little too much like an offcut of The Strokes album Angles for my liking.

In terms of tracks that I love, I hardly need to mention “Get Lucky” – it’s hard not to get your groove on when that beast of a track starts to pump. However its’ stuck right in the middle of the record, meaning on my first few listens there was some time before I was going to get to a track I was really into. Thankfully, “Giorgio by Moroder” appears early on in the record and features what could only be described as a long overdue Kraftwerk influence. The Panda Bear – of Animal Collective fame – collaboration “Doin’ it Right” is sublime in both its syncopation and ability to retain both Panda Bear’s influence, as well as capturing elements of earlier Daft Punk records.

What becomes clear to me when thinking about the record in conjunction with the campaign that surrounded it, is that Daft Punk seem to feel as though they’ve been charged with reinvigorating popular music. The marketing of record alone brought a new sense of energy; few records have been so universally anticipated. I don’t think I’ve ever overheard more discussion about a record that hasn’t even been released yet. I guess I could agree that they gave life back to music in terms of the way it was discussed. I struggle, however, to see whether or not they’ve brought life back to music through Random Access Memories. A lot of tracks on the record just don’t live up to what many fans have come to expect out of the world’s premiere EDM group. Too often the record leaves me wanting something more and feeling as though I’ve listened to a messy assortment of songs as opposed to a unified musical experience. Songs feel recycled and reanimated – particularly the two tracks featuring Pharrell – and others feel as though they’ve been included for the sole purpose of releasing the record.

The two robots have never really stepped outside of their realm of expertise, rather sticking to what they know, a fatal flaw on this record. The last thing I would trust to put life into something, is something that has never lived at all.
 
 
If You Liked Random Access Memories You Might Like

John Talabot – fIN

Earth Wind and Fire – I Am

Kraftwerk –Autobahn

Empire of the Sun – Ice on the Dune

Grimes – Visions

Signed, Sealed, and Lost in the Postmodernity

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It’s a typical response to have someone show the white of their eyes when the postmodern movement of any artistic form is broached in conversation. It speaks to cheap whisky being swirled in the cupped hand of a twenty-something dickhead in an over-tight blazer, regurgitating a half-remembered syllabus. Hypocrisy, thy name is ‘me’.

But whether it is fine art, music, or literature, there is merit to be had in the discussion thereof. And if not the discussion, certainly in a personal appreciation. Sift through the pretentious application of this knowledge among young people leant against bars, and there are fascinating works to be enjoyed and bandied around. Too often it is simpler to turn one’s nose up in derision at such discussions, rather than to engage with, and appreciate, the beginnings, and touchstones of literary movements. For that is what is to be discussed, the nature of postmodern fiction.

Note the use of ‘fiction’, rather than ‘literature’. Not all engagement with the written word needs to be decidedly academic. In fact, the last motivation for this post is to be didactic. To read for enjoyment, should be just that, joyous. A little dramatic perhaps, but a quintessential truth. No one ought to read a book because they feel they ought to. This is a wholly different pursuit. Certainly tip the hat to someone with Ulysses or War and Peace under their belt, but one can guarantee this is rarely done for enjoyment. Quality fiction is not defined by its being a hefty hard-cover that people need recognise as fine literature. Brilliant works of fiction are often ca. 150-page gems. Defunct paperbacks that yellow and curl, never to find particular glory or fame. Luckily enough, this is not always the case.

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So it goes.

Postmodern Brevity
Such an example of something that will thankfully remain celebrated, is Kurt Vonnegut’s (dare I say) masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. A jarring title, something that sounds like a deformed fifth-child of a slasher series,. The title’s namesake is actually that of the shed in which everyman Billy Pilgrim spends the evening of the blanket bombing of Dresden in 1945. The infinitesimal significance of a single shed in the fire-storm that left the city a barren plan of melted wax and silence, speaks to the purport of the novel, and postmodernism itself.

Celebrated as anti-war in a remarkably original way, Vonnegut achieves a great deal in his postmodern archetype. It is a remarkably self-aware work, operating in a space of irony, that typifies the keen wit that is so often present in postmodern works of merit. Vonnegut, like similarly talented peers, employs effective brevity and sophisticated minimalism. A declarative style of removed story-telling, that so often names characters when subjecting them. This accentuates any use of pronoun as something that white-faces characters, making such use a vehicle of intentional anonymity. Stay with me.

Any reader who has been subject to works of romanticism, or some contemporary popular fiction that are turgid with rapt description, is familiar with the overwhelming wet-paint feel of an environment, character, or thought. These abject adjectives that seek to richen a text, often do so to sickly-sweet density, or dilute what is else-wise an enjoyable work. Postmodernism inherently avoids this, and is champion of economic prose, a style that is refreshing and engaging, bereft of needless ornamentalism. American novelists of this calibre are particularly skilled with this art of language. To hew only a single quality line from a paragraph that would elsewise impart the same information, does not suggest oversimplification if done with taste and time. Compassion, horror, and humour can be effectively handled in but a few phrases.

So it goes

Vonnegut’s work is at the vanguard of such stylistic efficacy, and he uses language to craft a metafictional wonder of dark humour. He writes a world around a man who is an optometrist, psuedo-soldier, and occupant of an alien zoo, always has been, and always will be, before and after his death. He plays with time, and an awareness of each moment being self-contained but omnipresent and ever-relational to all other moments. The story itself is prefaced with the narrator speaking to his writing of a war novel, and then writing the novel within Vonnegut’s, telling how the piece starts and ends, before it is presented to the reader. Thus the work itself begins and ends before we experience it, a concept that is intrinsic to the work itself, and the view of time and existence that readers are encouraged to adopt. It’s far less cryptic than it may read here, it is more arduous to express what is done, than it is to experience it. Treat yourself to reading it, rather than swimming in a stumbling decantation of what needs none.
 
 
Metafiction
It is difficult to steer around such phrases as ‘engaging with’, when seeking to discuss a discourse such as postmodernity, and a particular text, in such a brief piece. Similarly, I aim to remain conversational, and avoid this reading as a literary ‘review’ as such. It may be that this has failed. Regardless, lets discuss metaficiton. ‘Meta’ is derived from a Greek preposition meaning ‘of the self’, and is used in the English language as a prefix marking the subject as self-referential. Basically, something being some next-level shit. This has recently become prominent in popular culture through some box-office films, and has been apparent in text and cinema for some time.
Cabin in the Woods was a fantastic example of a ‘meta’ work, a film that was self-aware in its approach to horror, and appreciative of umbrella concepts of scepticism and tasteless tack. To engage with the latter two, is to disarm their critique of the film itself, for the writers and directors of such films have acknowledged the artificiality of the form, and both laugh yet appreciate the discourse of horror.

To speak specifically to metanarrative, and perhaps illustrate the nature of its operation, one may take The Place Beyond the Pines. Metanarrative is an idea of a higher awareness of story. Of each story existing within a grander one, and each narrative’s awareness of the other. Those who are familiar with the film, can appreciate its being a perfect example of this concept. Each story is in its own way self-contained, but contributory to the grander narrative. This lends an awareness of the intertextuality not only existent in the work, and works like it, but that of life itself. We each in our own lives experience small stories, which knit together to form larger ones, that overlap into those of others, trickling upward into the way of the world, the story.

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A dream, within a dream?

Oh yes, postmodernism is tasty, and is certainly a style that one will thankfully lose their feet in. It exists in the world of the moment of suspension after closing the back cover of a humbling read. With your sitting in the dark as kernel-covered film-goers file out of the cinema, and you’re not quite ready to go. I’m certainly not.
 
 
Recommended postmodern reads:

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson

Naked Lunch – William S. Burroughs

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

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Spilling Out Of The Closet: World-Building in Monsters University

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Hi, how are you? What about this weather hey? Yeah and that controversial social issue is just so controversial right now! Did you hear what that prominent member of society had to say about it? And the backlash? I know, right? Here, take a seat. Not that one; that’s mine. I’d offer you something to drink but we’re out of milk, and I don’t trust you enough to leave you alone in my house while I go and get some. Trust issues; YAY! Whatever. I’m Tom, not that Tom (fifth most popular boy’s name in the year we were born- source: my brain), and it’s my first time – please be gentle.

Anyway now that we’ve got the awkward introductions out of the way we can move onto the meatier parts of the conversation and get serious up in here.
 
 
There’s A World Hiding In Your Closet

And it's full of familiar faces...

And it’s full of familiar faces…

Last month saw the release of Pixar’s latest installment in its collection of highly successful animated hits: Monsters University, a follow-up to 2001s Monsters Inc. This prequel tells the story of how Billy Crystal’s Mike Wazowski and John Goodman’s loveable Sully became friends after meeting at University. It is also only the studio’s fourth sequel. This last statistic is perhaps the most intriguing considering that we live in a market where film studios enjoy flogging franchises to death once they’ve hit onto a good thing. It’s a market where we have four Shrek films, The Hobbit gets split into three movies and there are way too many Die Hards, which is something I never thought I would say.

Whatever that says about what we as an audience go and see, it says more about Pixar’s integrity that they have only made sequels where a sequel has presented itself. Considering their most recent sequel, Cars 2, bombed both commercially and critically you could understand if there was some reluctance to tread down that path again. Luckily, Monsters University delivers the goods on all fronts. It raked in a killing at the box office, and this big kid can assure you that it was full of those trademark Pixar moments that make you laugh and then force you not to cry in front of hundreds of school-kids who want to know, why that man is breathing heavily into his popcorn?

The reason for this is simple: The world of the monsters is beautifully realized on all levels. And thus we arrive at the POINT.

World-building sounds like a job for the art department. It sounds like something involving rendering and pencils and geographical scoping. And that’s a part of it. However creating a ‘world’ is so much more than just the visual aspects the audiences see on the screen, and a lot of it is done in the pre-production stages of a film. In fact, a lot of the world is established while the script is still being written, and so it should. After all, the world is one of the most important aspects of any film. It sets up more than just the ‘where’ but also more complex things such as social class, economy, rules and sets up how characters are going to interact within said world.

Monsters University has three excellent examples of this sort of world building.
 
 
1. It’s Animal House Without John Belushi

The film taps into our pre-conceived understanding of ‘college’ films and the stories told within those story worlds.

The film taps into our pre-conceived understanding of ‘college’ films and the stories told within those story worlds.

Yes it’s a movie about monsters, yes it’s set in an alternate dimension that is somehow accessible via, and yes one of its main characters is a centipede with wings – but at it’s heart this film is a college movie. It taps into the same world as Animal House, Greek and The House Bunny. This is why it works. Monsters University takes these conventions and story elements that we understand and indentify with, and works them into a world that is total alien – but still feels familiar because we’ve seen these world ‘tropes’ before.

The story hinges on the classic college experience. There is a rag-tag group of underdogs in a frat/sorority that we fall in love with. There is a group of much cooler people in another rival frat/sorority. There is even a hard-nosed Dean of Students, who has an open dislike of our heroes, looking to find any reason to turf them out the gates. And while this sounds like it is undermining the film by saying it’s been done before, it is in fact the opposite.

Monsters University builds a familiar world, and then using that as a blueprint it expands on it and manipulates it to create something new and exciting. These little additions are things like the letters of the frat house’s spelling out onomatopoeias like RAR and HSS, or that the traditionally crabby librarian is giant slug with monstrous tentacles, and they serve the dual function of building a world that makes sense for monsters and a world that makes sense for the college environment it is portraying.
 
 
2. Our World Is Worse

The monster’s world is bright, while our world is a dark place full of shadows were the monsters are forced to become much scarier.

The monster’s world is bright, while our world is a dark place full of shadows were the monsters are forced to become much scarier.

I wrote earlier about how one of the functions of world-building is to set-up the rules of that world. For example, in a film like The Dark Knight, one of the key rules of that particular world is that Batman does not kill anyone. This is set up early and is brought back into the film as a pertinent plot point. In Monsters University, one of the key rules of the world is that humans are toxic and that the human world is a dangerous place indeed. This is simply building on a premise underscored throughout the first film. The beauty of prequels/sequels/spin-offs etc is that elements of the world are already established:

“There’s nothing more toxic or deadly than a human child. A single touch could kill you.”
– Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn)

But of course you have to reinforce this. The above line is from the first ten minutes of Monsters Inc. In Monsters University, we again get a warning about the dangers of the human world quite early in the piece during Mike Wazowski’s school trip to a real working scare floor. So the key rule of the story world we are inhabiting is set up from the outset, and while it makes way for more rules during the midsections of the story, it is this rule that comes back into play in the finale, where we see Mike & Sully stranded in the human world.

Now this underpinning law to the entire world isn’t only demonstrated through spoken warnings, but also in character’s reactions. For example, even the unflappable Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) is panicked by the idea of something coming through from the other side. This adds another layer to the world’s key rule, but Pixar’s approach to the creation of worlds is a three-strike-punch and the final layer is indeed added in post-production.

Aesthetically we see from the outset that the monsters live in a vibrant world. They are brightly coloured and everything around them is fun and exciting. However, once they cross that threshold between home and the realm of men, they transform into something else. They become fearsome beasts with claws, that lurk in the shadows. This is because our world is a lot scarier than theirs. Our world is the place where they have to truly be monsters. This is also evident in the depictions of the real world as having a lot of dark colours and long shadows.
 
 
3. It’s Right Here In Our World
It’s not unusual for films to create websites or online spaces to advertise their upcoming blockbuster, but it’s usually a separation of the film world and the marketing world. However with Monsters University there isn’t this separation as much as there is just a branching out of the story world out into the real world. A bridge between the two, rather than two separate islands.

The Monsters University website (which I urge you to check out here) is set out like a university website with information on enrollment, classes and accommodation. There is even a merchandise store where you can buy four-armed hoodies (sadly this is restricted to shipping within the US). But perhaps this is the next step for world-building in films. To combine story elements and aesthetic elements, but to also then go the next step up and incorporate commercial elements into the world.

Monsters University does is. It bridges the gap into the audience and allows them in turn to add their own touches to world. To be a part of it. To go through to the other side of the closet…

“A long, hard look in the mirror”: Flaunting One’s Flaws in The Trip

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I’ve been turned off television shows for one reason or another. But nothing grinds my gears more than certain annoying, misbehaving or morally corrupt protagonists who survive by their own self-righteousness (I say certain here because there are some anti-heroes out there who find justifiable means to hang around for the full length of a series). I’d name names but this blog steers away from such criticism, so that I don’t shoot down major projects of television networks that I might one day work for.

With Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, I think Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are toying with my natural response to an arsehole protagonist. There’s a malleable awareness afforded by the program’s pseudo-documentary nature: every element of its structure can cut right to the core of Coogan’s deepest insecurities. Watching The Trip, I quickly realised that the program wasn’t trying to simply broadcast Coogan’s detestable qualities – it was trying to look at why they were there in the first place.

Steve rejects Rob's offer to saw the BAFTA statue in half.

Steve rejected Rob’s suggestion to saw the BAFTA statue in half.

Steve Coogan is Steve Coogan
The plot, locations and cast performances seem real enough to suggest that we are watching actual life unfold in The Trip. By signing on, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon more or less feature in an exposé of themselves. Yes, they’re portraying exaggerated and often scripted versions of themselves, but they’re still allowing the audience to understand them on a fairly personal level. For instance, the puzzled expressions of those enduring Rob’s endless impersonations is as much a comedic device as it is Rob’s declaration of the real Rob Brydon; one who doesn’t need to necessarily make you laugh – he’s enjoying himself nonetheless.

Although Rob is one of only two principle characters in The Trip, the focus is essentially on Steve Coogan. The series opens and closes with him cutting a lonely figure in his high-rise apartment. When the show does follow some sense of narrative, family and career matters in Steve’s life are propelling things forward. This is Steve’s trip, and Rob is tagging along as an antagonistic force to inspire change. Steve will never share Rob’s content in being an entertainer first, and perhaps never carving a meaningful acting legacy, but he does crave Rob’s personal satisfaction with all facets of life.

The facts in The Trip don’t have to correlate with facts in real life. Steve isn’t really in a rocky romance with an American girl but if he was, he might become infatuated with the idea of someone like Mischa and their relationship might unfold in the jealous terms depicted in the miniseries. Steve wouldn’t normally initiate competition between Rob and himself quite as often as he does (err… maybe), but his incessant attempts to put down and outdo Rob in The Trip suggest an actor’s internal battle within the real Steve. Every documentary faces the struggle of trying to represent an irrefutable truth. The second you point a camera at something, your ‘reality’ becomes in someway staged because the elements in front of the camera become conscious of its presence. The Trip steps around this issue by repeatedly demonstrating and exaggerating the characteristics of its actors.

“Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.”
– Robert J. Flaherty, documentary filmmaking pioneer

The Trip is a collaborative effort between two actors who, by abnormally pushing their own limits and each others’, agree to let their most profound personal issues surface to the small screen (in Steve’s case, anyway). There’s something to admire in a celebrity who, instead of opting to nurture an easily maintained image of invincibility, allows himself to enter a publicly vulnerable state.
 
 
Stuck in a Metaphor
Without understanding what has conditioned them to behave in such a manner, it’s hard to be sympathetic toward someone who won’t ever back down during an argument. Acknowledging this, The Trip capitalises on moments when its two protagonists are geographically separated. These moments of privacy take up the shortest amount of screen time in episodes predominately concerned with Steve and Rob’s restaurant banter and yet; without them, The Trip could’ve been reduced to a superficial case study in semi-improvisational comedy.

In ‘The Inn at Whitewell’, Steve responds to one of Rob’s many impressions with the following:

“I think anyone over 40 who amuses themselves by doing impressions needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.”

I don’t know whether this quote is scripted or improvised but in either case, it’s a stroke of genius in relation to constructing Steve’s identity. At the conclusion of two separate episodes, Steve stands before the bathroom mirror committing acts of physical self-preservation (brushing his teeth or moisturising the crow’s feet around his eyes) when he tries out the very technique he has chastised his colleague for doing. Hopelessly falling victim to contradiction, Steve is imitating Rob’s ‘small man trapped in a box’. Aside from working on a metaphorical level to suggest that Steve feels imprisoned within his own being, this sequence truly renders Steve a tragic figure because he is A) talking to himself; B) doing Rob’s talent no justice at all and; C) contradicting and tearing down the defences he’s constructed in his myriad exchanges with Rob. Rob indulges in marital phone sex while all this is happening, as if Steve’s failures weren’t exacerbated enough.

The second iteration of Steve’s mirror soliloquy unfolds similarly to the first, albeit with some form of resolution:

The voice Steve employs toward the end is his own creation – he is no longer undermining his own ideas by doing impressions. The smile to himself is proof that Steve is – probably for the first time in the series – content to be in his own skin and to act like himself.
 
 
Bumless Chums
We’ve seen personal development inspired by negative reinforcement when Steve is shown what he isn’t and what he cannot become. But there are some skills or aspects of knowledge that are never beyond Steve’s reach if he will only open up to his singularly most despised human quality: humility.

To Steve, knowledge is power. Throughout The Trip, he barrages Rob with mundane facts about anything from the history of deciduous trees to the intricacies of the late poet Samuel Coleridge’s life. Steve’s pride is quickly tested however when in ‘The Inn at Whitewell’, Rob criticises his wine-tasting etiquette. Steve’s defence mechanism is to suggest that Rob appears “camp” when trying to demonstrate the correct way to acknowledge that a wine bottle is corked or uncorked. He defers attention to his own lack of knowledge and the issue is promptly glided over.

The incident never rests easy on Steve’s mind however, and he actively seeks to redeem himself in front of Rob when the opportunity presents itself. Rob resembles a proud father when Steve gives the waiter a curt nod to confirm the quality of the wine. More importantly, Steve looks to Rob to ascertain whether or not he’s done it correctly. Such moments are few and far between but Steve shows that he can put aside his egotism in the company of others – even if only as a means to avoid future embarrassment.

There is an instance where Steve comes to empathise with Rob to a degree. After giving a geological lecture to Rob (and subsequently pissing him off), Steve decides to scale a limestone cliff face. At the summit, Steve tries to take in the stunning view – much like Rob tried to comprehend the cliffs when Steve launched into his boring monologue – when he is greeted by a fellow traveller. Pleasantries soon give way to the traveller’s own harangue on limestone. Steve’s frustration at being on the receiving end of a verbal spiel builds until he finds a semi-polite moment to exit. It’s important at this point to remember that the actor Steve Coogan is complicit in allowing this sequence to play out. He allowed himself to both self-righteously defend his geology speech to Rob, and fail in enduring a version of himself atop the cliff face.

It is a contradiction amongst many in Steve’s life, but in the context of The Trip, it’s as if he’s trying to come clean about a psychological condition of his. He is consumed by the need to know and be skilled at everything, and he’ll be damned if he crosses paths with anyone who exposes him as being anything less than that. Traditionally, I’d be deterred from watching someone so incensed with keeping up appearances, but under the circumstances in The Trip – which is, at times, a heart wrenchingly inward-looking psychological examination – it makes for truly unique television.
 
 
The Italian Sob
The Trip has been picked up for another stint in Italy. It seemed like a pretty definitive resolution where we’d left off; with Rob utterly at peace in the arms of his wife and Steve valuing his family over a role in an HBO pilot. I suspect, at the very least, we’ll see more of the same Steve stuck in a sad existential crisis. It would be confronting (in a good way) to see that, despite his best efforts, Steve continues to suffer under the expectations he has set for himself. Above all else, such poignancy makes embarking on The Trip truly worthwhile.

Is Steve interrupting Rob's best attempts at an Alan Partridge impersonation or are these two actually shaping up to be best buddies? Only time, and a trip in Italy, can tell.

Steve interrupting Rob’s best attempts at an Alan Partridge ah-ha? Or are these two actually shaping up to be best buddies? Only time, and a trip to Italy, can tell.