Thursday, August 20, 2009

District 9 [Spoilers]

Briefly, the plot of District 9 is that an alien mothership drifts to a halt above Johannesburg, and after three months humans penetrate the interior to find a group of starving, malnourished aliens inside. They promptly relocate these unfortunates to the Soweto-like D9. There, tensions build between prawn and human until the government authorizes the mediocre-yet-sinister Multinational United to conduct a second round of resettlement to an encampment 200 miles outside the city.

Now, before I get all serious on you, I'd like to take a moment to reassure you that I did, in the darkness and comfort of the movie theatre, say things like "dude needs an AA for arm-eating" and "what the fuck are you doing Wikus, strap the fuck in!" In neither case did the movie disappoint. As a storming-the-barricades-with-energy-weapons tale of righteous redemption, it's everything you could hope for.

When you dig a little deeper into the scenery, however, District 9 starts to decay a bit.

The film juxtaposes the "honest" savagery of the Nigerian gangsters in D9 against the corporate condescension of MNU. The Nigerians relentlessly and shamelessly exploit the prawns, but they never turn on their own, and they seem to have a pretty sweet racket going on. They get to charge exorbitant prices for cat food, amass alien weaponry, and ritually consume the occasional prawn appendage. It's a living.

In contrast, MNU is possessed of a relentless hunger that's unchecked by any bonds. Throughout the movie, every act of brutality carried out by the Nigerians is matched or exceeded (either in scope or cruelty) by MNU. At the most basic level, this points to a problem of motivational incoherence on the part of MNU. Like the similarly-named Umbrella Corporation in the Resident Evil series, Multinational United completely embraces the "why do this right when we could do it EVIL?" approach to corporate decisionmaking.

Aside: Resident Evil 2 is the most baldfaced demonstration of that ethos. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Mila Jovovovovovich vehicle, the plot goes something like this: a bumbling Umbrella Corporation strike team unleashes the zombie apocalypse. An Umbrella corporate overlord decides to "handle" the situation by using Raccoon City as a proving ground for their most advanced bioweapon, and their very first test of that weapon involves straight-up murdering the entire Raccoon City police force.

Something rather similar occurs in D9 when the bigwigs decide that they need to liquify every ounce of Wikus' biomass to "get his DNA." (What?) Conveniently, they make this decision over the restrained-but-conscious Wikus, who somewhat predictably hulks out and escapes. It's also worth noting that one of the oligarchs is Wikus' father-in-law, who, two scenes later, demonstrates a heretofore unseen level of cunning by lying to his daughter ("Can I see Wikus?" "No." "Okay.") about her husband's condition. You'd think he might've had the presence of mind to plot the blenderizing of his son-in-law behind closed doors.

In other words, D9 capitalizes on cheap anti-corporate sentiment. Now, I'm not an expert, but in my experience most corporations don't randomly choose to diversify into the lucrative "horrible atrocities" market. The CEO of Whole Foods is not terribly popular at the moment, but not because he announced that he uses the tears of unborn children as a sweetener in the 365 line of products. By the time D9 gets around to MNU's poorly-secured alien corpse-fucking division the movie has already established a rich tapestry of disgusting colonial attitudes around MNU and the entire scene feels unnecessary.

In the end, D9 commits its greatest sin by mapping basic textures onto complicated themes. By the end of the movie we have a white corporate strike team storming a black tribal compound so that they can fuck up a racial/corporate Judas wearing an alien battlesuit.

On the other hand, I would (and did) pay $10 to see that.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Neil Hamburger: Western Music and Variety

Western Music and Variety with Neil Hamburger will be shelved under COMEDY, alongside DVDs by George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld and Weird Al Yankovich. Go ahead, watch it all the way through – you won’t laugh once. But that’s okay. Hamburger – or Gregg Turkington, the deep-cover actor who portrays him – couldn’t be less interested in chuckles. He’s after bigger – or at least stranger – game.

But what game is that, exactly? He wants to irritate you, that much is sure. Between his sour, pinched face, his broken comic timing and his baffling jokes (“Why are M&Ms filled with chocolate? Because it would be illegal to fill them with shit.”), watching or listening to him perform is an almost viscerally unpleasant experience, and intentionally so.

He’s been doing this absurdist anti-comedy bit for a while now, and it’s possible he’s beginning to run out of steam. Thus we have Western Music and Variety, in which he dons a bolo tie and Stetson hat and attempts a fairly straightforward C&W western album in his tuneless, warbling screech, punctuating the between-song banter with lines that are less jokes than inexplicable howls of hate. (“Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, finally joined the Mile-High Club… Yeah, he raped a woman in Denver!” Buh-dum-ching.) The bathos of the Hamburger persona feels surprisingly natural in a country music setting. And unlike the jokes, a few of the songs are actually sort of funny. At the very least, we can be grateful that there is now a song entitled "How Can I Still Be Patriotic (When They've Taken Away My Right To Cry)?"

But ultimately, the humor is incidental. Hamburger is less a comedian than he is a piece of performance art, a character study. But it doesn't quite work because he leans too hard on the jokiness of the persona, always reaching for the broadest possible bit of loathsome self-mockery, to the point where Hamburger is clearly a shtick, a one-note joke, not a character we can believe in or engage with.

While Andy Kaufmann’s anti-comedy persona Tony Clifton, Hamburger's closest analogue, was every bit as vile and hateful, he also seemed eerily familiar. Like most great satire, he was a recognizably figure -- the narcissistic, rageful small-time club performer whose overwhelming arrogance and self-love are exceeded only by his self-hate -- pushed barely beyond the boundaries of reality. Turkington, in his eagerness to annoy and disgust, has pushed his Hamburger character too far -- he's continually clearing his throat, gargling phlegm into the microphone, hocking his loogies into the same drink from which he continues to sip. For all the praise he gets from fans and magazines, for all the talk of meta-comedy and envelope pushing, Hamburger is an archetype older than Sophocles: he's the fall guy, the stiff, the bufoon. If we laugh, it's out of relief – bad as we might feel, at least we’re not him.

The most compelling moments are when Hamburger drops the pretense of humor and lashes out at the crowd in authentic anger. "Fuck you, you son of a bitch! Fuck you, you zipper-lips!" he roars at an unamused audience member. There’s something real in his tone, something authentically vengeful and horrifying, and for a moment we can see that the real appeal of Neil Hamburger isn’t comic, it’s tragic. He follows each laughless joke with a weird little beaten-dog whimper, a high-pitched, closed-throated squeak that betrays the bottomless pain underneath the snarling hate. There’s something there – I’m just not sure whether it’s worth digging through all the irritation and unpleasant mugging to find it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel

Legends run the risk of becoming gimmicks. When Aretha Franklin, befitted in her enormous hat, is trotted out at Obama's inauguration to sing the National Anthem, the effect is less musical than it is contextual. It's not about Aretha singing the anthem, it's about "Aretha" singing the "anthem." A voice that's iconic and unique and immediately recognizable can actually become a weakness. The voice will never be subsumed into the music, supporting and communicating the song. You will always be a celebrity first, and an artist second.

Willie Nelson has chosen an odd but effective strategy to combat this mummification of his image: debasement. If he duets with anyone and everyone in earshot, his singing can never become sanctified or inert. In a way, it's a canny strategy. The "legend" tag, while entirely earned and deserved, has always been somewhat at odds with Nelson's low-key persona as the ramblin' singer and guitar-picker, lover of life and devoted pot-head. So he just does everything, devaluing his myth by singing with Rob Thomas and Snoop Dogg, appearing in the Dukes of Hazzard, and campaigning for Kinky Friedman. It takes the pressure off and keeps the mothballs at bay.

His life looks like a hell of a lot of fun, but the resulting art isn't always good. His new album with western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel is a nice ride, as far as it goes. It sounds lively in the background -- all swingin' horns and jazz guitar underlying Willie's quicksilver voice -- but there isn't much there to listen to. There are a handful of great moments -- the brass-band carnival on "Hestitation Blues," the goofball joy of hearing Nelson sing lines like "I ain't gonna give nobody none of my jelly-roll" -- and Willie's in rare form throughout, loose as ever, richly amused, making the most unusual phrasings sound natural and obvious. But the album's ultimately predictable, polished, even a little phony. It has nothing to do with the outlaw country that made Nelson a star. It's great stuff for middle-aged people to put on at cocktail parties. I intend this as less of a condemnation than it probably sounds, but I don't mean it as a compliment.

To be fair, there are one or two terrific performances -- "Bring it on Down to my House, Honey" is a legitimately great hootenanny, freewheeling and alive -- but Willie and the Wheelcould have used more of the DIY, punky spirit of Springsteen's Seeger Sessions, which deflated what could have been a staid tribute by cranking everything to eleven, by playing it wild and loose. Asleep at the Wheel are far too expert for all that. A lot of the fun feels like "fun" -- studied, polished replicas of the kind of music that people loved without taking too seriously when it was organic and new. On "Oh! You Pretty Woman," When Jason Roberts sings "she made my heart go boop-boopy-doop" squeaking goofily on the last syllables, it sounds pandering, po-faced, like the mugging, forced mirth of a children's entertainer. It sounds self-conscious; It sounds like a recreation.

Respect and seriousness are poison to this kind of music. There's an almost finger-waggingly schoolmarmish quality to the goings on here, as though we're being told to eat our vegetables, when this stuff should be cotton candy, disposable, lighter than air, teeth-rottingly delightful. Willie brings everything he's got to bear, acquiting himself admirably in an otherwise miscalculated effort. He's the ideal singer for this sort of material -- but a magical voice like his just doesn't belong in such mundane, stilted surroundings.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

500 Days Of Summer

500 Days of Summer is another entry in the catalog of indie-rock movies that, were any of them old enough to join "My Best Friend's Wedding" on the broadcast TV circuit, would be labeled [Comedy/Drama] with [Hipster Themes]. The movie consciously self-defines as a paen to the nostalgia and hip self-awareness of TV and music literate millenials everywhere.

Summer Finn [Zooey Deschanel] and Tom Hanson [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] connect over memories of Knight Rider and boozy karaoke [Here Comes Your Man, by the Pixies] and the film follows their romance through comfortable tropes of twenteen existence: do-nothing jobs that we all suspect are beneath us, but are too lazy to leave. A trip through the Scandinavian depths of Ikea, including a detached, "scenes-from-a-normal-life" tour of the superstore's display rooms. And, of course, record stores.

Let me be clear: I've seen both Transformers movies, and I'll see the G.I. Joe movie--not because I expect (or expected) them to be good, but because they are the touchstones of my childhood. I'm moderately-to-severely annoyed in a summer featuring both a Transformers and a GI Joe movie, neither Arthur Burghardt (Destro, Devastator) nor the shambling corpse of fellow Jersey Boy Chris Latta (Cobra Commander, Starscream) were able to get any work. But, hey, Michael Bay gave Devastator some Trucknutz (tm), so there's that.

In other words, I'm the target audience for 500 Days of Summer, and I enjoyed it. While Zooey Deschanel plays the movie's eponymous character, the real star is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Summer remains a cipher, a cardboard cutout standing in for every quirky, good-looking girl you've ever dated. An early sequence goes to great lengths to establish her as the object of widespread (but undoubtedly non-derivative, authentic, indie-pop-loving) desire. We never really find out why that's the case, and the subtle objectification of Summer is one of the lingering flaws of the movie. As a result, we never truly understand the bond between the two characters; Summer exists as a commodity to be won, enjoyed, and (when lost) recovered.

To some extent, these are flaws inherent in the genre. The schematic of a human relationship is rarely an interesting document, and often lacks the sort of broad appeal that translates into box office success. 500 Days of Summer falters when it tries to straddle that divide, offering both the comforting architecture of a comedy/drama and an elusive whiff of authenticity. The result is jarring--moments of brilliance undermined by a structure that can't quite support them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Modest Mouse: No One's First and You're Next

Modest Mouse’s fourth album, 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, appeared at an odd, off-kilter moment in pop history. The walls between the mainstream and the underground had come unexpectedly tumbling down. Suddenly the freaks were storming the gates and such unlikely stars as the Arcade Fire, the Walkmen and Death Cab for Cutie were garnering radio play and album sales. The cause is unclear – it’s possible that the teen melodrama The OC is a much greater cultural arbiter than most of us would like to admit, or else it’s just a cyclical thing, no different from the grunge explosion that had the record-label suits raiding the Pacific Northwest, signing everybody in a flannel shirt and dirty jeans, or the early seventies, when the hippies and weirdoes reigned supreme. In any case, we had such a moment about five years ago, and it led to the supremely weird spectacle of slouch-eyed, misanthropic indie heroes Modest Mouse being covered by the entire cast of American Idol in a Ford commercial.

Singer Isaac Brock and his band of unmerry men walked right into the bright lights, unblinking. Good News… happened to be their catchiest and most accessible album, but it didn’t represent a major departure from their jerky sound or ramshackle aesthetic of millennial dread, speedball anxiety and gut-bucket poetry. It did boast the single "Float On", an ice cream cone of a song, their most delicious and hopeful track to date, a magical pop number by a little indie band that improbably found its proper home on the radios and in the ears of millions of listeners. But "Float On" was an anomaly – becoming the owners of a smash hit single didn’t turn Modest Mouse into a pop group. By the time their next album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts (!) they were largely back to their old miserablist antics.

Their new album, No One’s First and You’re Next, is a collection of odds and ends, recent singles, B-sides and outtakes. These are leftovers? They don't sound like castoffs to me -- they sound like album tracks. Half of the songs here are as good as anything on We Were Dead…. Impressively, these eight songs that didn’t make it onto the LPs could serve as a primer for Modest Mouse, showing a skillful and idiosyncratic band at the height of its powers.

Brock's trademarks -- his half-swallowed yawp, his catchy little melodies that get bitten off before they're able to resolve -– have been slightly toned down, but they’re still ever-present. "Guilty Cocker Spaniels" is one of the best showcases yet for his charming bozo squawk -- he yelps the talk-song at you, lending the shaggy-dog lyrics a palpable urgency. Brock sounds like the cranky drunk at the end of the bar, holding forth hilariously and slightly annoyingly on his philosophies and grievances, until, out of nowhere, a battalion of Johnny Marr’s buzzing guitars storm the place, nearly drowning out the semi-coherent rambling. It’s an unexpected moment, two unrelated songs suddenly colliding like ships in the night, neither willing to give way to the other; they somehow carry on together, half broken, sailing slowly off into the dark as the pieces fall away.

The rollicking, melodic “Autumn Beds” proves that even on auto-pilot, Modest Mouse can deliver the goods. Armed with little more than a lovely meandering banjo figure, a mellow country-rock rhythm and an endlessly repeated lyric ("We won't be sleeping in our autumn beds."), the track is unassumingly beautiful, pretty in a way that the group rarely is. Brock's increasingly willing to lay down his quirky vocal tics and just sing, reaching for something elegiac and lovely, if only for moments here and there. It’s a track that reminds you just how little these people need in the way of tools. Their usual moves – Brock’s anxious staccato guitar lines and odd vocals, Jeremiah Green’s rubbery, jazz-influenced drumming, strengths on display throughout the record – are conspicuously absent for this one track, and it’s one of their best. Maybe that explains the little grace notes, the sly smiles, the hints of increasing mellowness and accessibility that have begun seeping into Modest Mouse albums. Growing more comfortable with their talents, maybe they’re learning that you don’t always have to work so hard and worry so much. Sometimes, you can just float on.