CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sexism v Racism

I haven't seen much of Sex and the City; I caught a few episodes with my flat's feminist in England. I thought its use of voice-over was much better used than in a show like Grey's Anatomy. By placing each episode within the framework of Carrie Bradshaw's column, the writers found a way to center the episode on a certain theme without it feeling overly contrived. We view things from Carrie's perspective, so she picks what to include or exclude from her column, and so what we see. I have nothing against the show. If I were channel surfing, I would gladly settle for it, though I would never actively seek it out.

I haven't seen the Sex and the City movie, nor do I plan to in the foreseeable future. Though they had little effect on me, the reviews, combined with the expected large box office gross, raised an important question: Does this film deserve its success? At first glance, the answer is a resounding no. But we must also look at the broader cultural context into which this film is being released. I don't think of myself as a feminist, but I do believe that there should be more films about women and for women, if not for everyone. Looking at the releases of the past months, only Baby Mama stands out as something with a female name attached as something more than the love interest or victim. This is a film made for an underserved portion of the audience, and there should be more. In order for there to be more, we need more films like this and Baby Mama to succeed at the box office. Therein lies the dilemma presented whenever a film like Little Miss Sunshine breaks out for indie film: Is it a good thing for indie film (or films starring women in this case) if a bad one manages to become a big success?

Before you answer this, consider an additional dimension to this problem. One of the first things I read about the film was that they had cast Jennifer Hudson in her first post-Oscar role as Sarah Jessica Parker's personal assistant. This strikes me as simply wrong. In the midst of this glorious ode to feminism (I'm not going into the politics of the show. Armond has done enough in that regard) sits the ultimate symbol of the racial divide in the city and this country: a black woman practically a slave to a white woman who is obsessed with shoes. If we're talking about gender equality with a film about four women, then we need to talk about racial equality and typecasting the only prominent black woman in the movie as a personal assistant.

Given this summer's lineup, I would be inclined to give Sex and the City the benefit of the doubt. We have no films between now and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2 coming out in August that feature a woman as the main attraction (where is the original entertainment? But that's a whole other rant). Should we settle for mediocre product simply because it is centered on female characters? Buying a ticket suggests I am comfortable with more bad movies about white women and don't mind the casual racism apparent from the advertising. Not buying a ticket indicates that I don't care if Hollywood doesn't give us another female oriented film for months. What is a boy to do?


Monday, May 19, 2008

Sundae Monday's Grungy

I am not a big fan of Nirvana. It's a generational thing. This post is entirely about Nirvana. Before I get into it, I feel that I should provide proper context, starting with 70s punk. For the record, when I refer to the Big Four, I mean the most popular grunge bands to come out of Seattle in the early 90s: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains.

I have always lived in the shadow of Nirvana. When Kurt Cobain shot himself and essentially ended the grunge movement, I was seven years old and had just seen my first music video on MTV (for the record, it was Green Day's "Basket Case"). I didn't learn who Nirvana was for a long time, as I was brought up in a home that favored the works of Billy Joel and James Taylor. By the time I finally did get a chance to listen to Nevermind, Nirvana has already been proclaimed the greatest and most influential band since the Beatles. Nevermind is now the usual runner-up in any list of the greatest albums ever made, behind some Beatles album, usually Sgt. Pepper's. With my expectations placed so high by the rest of society, my first couple of listens inevitably led to disappointment.

Since then I have found it difficult to approach Nirvana's work, in much the same way that I find it hard to try listening to the 60s work of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. You can yell at me that I need to listen to these "seminal" works immediately, but that only makes me shrink from the discs. When something is so highly rated, especially works that require a certain context, it becomes increasingly difficult for a modern listener to hear these works with fresh ears. Some bands that play important historical roles can be appreciated on their own terms, like the Sex Pistols. Listen to "God Save the Queen":

You don't need need to see their appearance with Bill Grundy or the context of the 70s to see them as outrageous and rebellious. It's harder to appreciate the works of the Ramones without recognition of how their simplified song structure flew in the face of the growing movement of progressive rock, as exemplified by the works of Pink Floyd, Yes, and King Crimson. Listening from 30 years in the future, the Ramones sound like surf-rock on speed: faster with more edge. Just compare the Ramones' "Rockaway Beach"

with the Beach Boys' "I Get Around":

Where the Sex Pistols had a distinct message that was carried through their lyrical content and their musical style -- anarchy reigned in their music -- the Ramones had a much subtler message. Their revolution was strictly musical. Blitzkrieg Bop stands as a message on the state of music at its time. It's a call for simplification that seems just as relevant now in the face of the music of bands like Tool.

Nirvana's music came as a similar call to arms. However, the excessive musicianship of prog rock that punk reacted to had been replaced by the superficiality of hair metal in the late 80s. Nirvana wasn't about returning rock music to its simplistic roots; it was about removing the sheen exemplified by Poison, Def Leppard, and Bon Jovi. In this way, the grunge movement wasn't the changing of the guard that everyone thinks it is. Nirvana simply replaced one style with another. Deliberately inane lyrics ("a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido") replaced overwhelmingly stupid lyrics ("every rose has its thorn, just like every night has its dawn, just like every cowboy sings a sad sad song"). The movement was one of stylistic concerns. There was no return to the good old days when rock music was just three chords. Nirvana's sound stemmed directly from the underground music scene that had blossomed during the 80s.

With the exception of Alice in Chains, each of the Big Four is immediately credited with a distinct set of influences. Pearl Jam's relatively clean sound and big guitar hooks echo the late 60s work or the Rolling Stones and the Who. Soundgarden, before breaking big with Badmotorfinger, were labeled a Led Zeppelin/Black Sabbath hybrid. Nirvana is the most distinctly punk-influenced of the Big Four, as noted in Kurt Cobain's statement that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is his version of a Pixies' song. Nirvana never developed a musical team like Mike McCready and Jeff Ament or Kim Thyil and Ben Shephard. In fact, it often feels as if Cobain prides himself on how simple the music is. One of the most interesting things about the video for Nirvana's "In Bloom" is how it directly references pop music from the 60s when "In Bloom" is one of the most strikingly pop-y songs of the grunge movement:

Kurt Cobain wrote good pop songs and then slathered them in distortion. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, musical break, chorus. Though this template is unavoidable in all music, Nirvana's use of this structure was particularly apparent. Verses were often quiet, and choruses were usually much louder. If I were to intellectualize this to an absurd degree, I would say that this is Cobain's way of emphasizing the traditional pop song structure so as to make his audience recognize the utter sameness in the songs they normally listen to. I think that this is giving our friend Kurt a bit too much credit. I think he just like a good pop song but wanted to hang out with the cool kids. If you want to look at a nice twist on a normal pop song template, look at Soundgarden's Rusty Cage:

Here, the musical break never really ends, as it changes the entire rhythm of the song. That is what draws me to Soundgarden rather than Nirvana; Soundgarden attempts to make more than simple pop songs. Nirvana never really seems interested in the music they make. It's hard to look at Nevermind as a good album without placing it in its context. Even so, of the albums released in 1991 by the Big Four, Nevermind comes in a distant third to Badmotorfinger and Ten, respectively. Nevermind isn't as interesting rhythmically as Badmotorfinger or musically as Ten. Without a personal stake in the music, I lean away from Nirvana's simple style.

A quick thought on my earlier comment about one style replacing another; look at these two videos:

Look at the way shots of the band are intercut with death. The band isn't presented in glamour shots like they would in a Poison video. The Toadies use stark lighting as if to highlight their flaws, and shots of Soundgarden are often dominated by the lights in the background in an effort to hide the band. These techniques are common in grunge and alternative videos, as they reject what was once considered the standard for a rock video and try to rebel by fitting another sort of conformity.

Though I would prefer to listen to Badmotorfinger or Vs. on any given day, I would say that the one album that just gets better with every listen is Alice in Chains' Dirt. Often listening to that album, I feel like this is what Hell should sound like:

Layne Staley sounds like he is screaming in pain, and the guitar sounds like a car revving up about to drive off a cliff. Even songs written by Jerry Cantrell that don't thematically fit in with the majority of the album, which is devoted to Staley's heroin addiction, never sound out of place. The prime example is Rooster, which to my mind is the ultimate song about the Vietnam War:

Dirt is an unrelentingly bleak album, but its sound and lyrics cohere so perfectly that it transcends its boundaries to become truly beautiful. It is an album born of pain, so its grand themes suit it well. I never get that sense with Nevermind. But before people just think I hate Nirvana, I want to present what I think is Nirvana's best song:

I don't hate Nirvana. I just don't get it. I feel like someone is trying to tell me a joke and ends it with "you had to be there." Can someone tell me from an objective point of view, what is so good about Nirvana?

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Sundae Monday's Back in the US

That Nirvana post is definitely going to be coming in the next week. It may end up as next week's Sundae Monday with the amount of videos I intend to include. I would have done it this week but things have been too busy with returning home from London and everything that goes with it. So this week I present a very nuanced and accurate portrayal of the people whom I called my neighbors for nine months.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sundae Monday's Film Marathon Part II

The Sundae Monday that was too big for one post or for Monday. Let's just call it Two for Tuesday. Part One can be found below, or here.

Days of Heaven

Alright, I admit my philistinism. I don't get it. It is certainly beautiful, and some passages have a near biblical feeling. The birds work wonderfully, and some symbols are graceful in their presentation. That said, some elements just don't work for me, especially Linda Manz. I would be happy to entertain a defense of the film, and I'll gladly take a beating from critical society if it makes me appreciate the film more. I'll stop embarrassing myself now by declaring the locust scene simply amazing:

A Generation

This is certainly a good way to start a career. Andrzej Wajda takes Italian Neo-realism and moves it to the east in this tale of communist resistance to the Nazis in Poland. In some ways, especially in its use of characters, this is the most distinct of Wajda's war films. Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds fit more comfortably into predetermined narrative structures, and so they are much easier to digest. A Generation, however, provides little by way of plot, playing out as a series of disappointments and losses that are the inevitable result of war. Though the blatantly communist propaganda is awkward (got to get it by those censors somehow), it is insignificant when placed against the rest of the film. I couldn't find a clip from the film, so I will let this nice girl tell you about Wajda:


Well that is certainly a step in some direction. I'm not sure if it's forward, and I'm not sure if this direction is the right one. Wajda is certainly more sure of himself than he was in A Generation. Sometimes, such as in the film's opening shot, the aesthetics stifle the narrative. In a sense, the film is too well-made. It's formal excellence overshadows any attempts at genuine suspense in the story, though the setting of the sewers makes for wonderful dread and atmosphere. If there's one thing this film doesn't lack, it's atmosphere. And nihilism. This is one of the most nihilistic films I have ever seen. Have fun:

Ashes and Diamonds

If A Generation was a bit too raw and Kanal was too polished, then Ashes and Diamonds finds a happy medium. There is a set narrative here, and its visual style never overshadows what is going on. The film also provides one key ingredient that is lacking in the previous films: laughter. With his first writing credit on one of his directing efforts, Wajda reveals a sense of humor that provides a nice counterpoint to yet another WWII tragedy. It also sets up a crucial narrative point, making it a narratively economical way to to add something extra to the film. This is also the first of Wajda's films to feature a fully developed romance. Ashes and Diamonds deals in a certain amount of imagery that, depending on your view of the film, is either pretentious or gloriously epic. I think you can guess which side of that fence I fall on.

This was fun. Now that I have a little bit of free time, I hope to write a bit more, depending on what tickles my fancy. Finals limited my cultural intake to the television, music and political worlds, so I need to get back into film. This was a good start. Have a good week.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Sundae Monday's Film Marathon Part I

Finals are over! Have been since Thursday. Almost as if to celebrate my freedom, the Prince Charles Cinema hosted a marathon of films in celebration of Europe Day. After that, I caught Days of Heaven at the National Gallery, and the Wajda War Trilogy at the BFI Southbank. This would make for a total of 11 films, except I fell asleep for most of Persona and Knife in the Water, so I'll go with 9 1/2 films consumed this weekend, only two of which I had seen before. This week's Sundae Monday will give me an opportunity to collect some of my thoughts on these films while providing you with some wonderful accompanying visuals. This section covers the 5 1/2 during the From Europe With Love film marathon.

La Belle et la BĂȘte

This film is like a play on screen. The sets are wonderful, and the actors EMOTE in a way that you just cannot find these days. The use of technology is admirable, but the most impressive thing about it is how seamless it is. The dissolves are absolutely stunning for the time, and they help to elevate the film in its realism, even as it reminds us that this is a fairy tale and cannot be real. The film is technically impeccable, but it never overshadows the story at its heart. Here is the first meeting between Beauty and the Beast:

8 1/2

8 1/2 is much better than it was a month ago. Who would have guessed that a film mired in dreams, fantasies, and symbolism would be better on the second viewing? The harem scene is an incredible way to show how our memories and fantasies must compete for our attention. I was a bit surprised to look upon an early dream scene and feel that it could have been ghost-directed by Ingmar Bergman. More on that connection later. Since that scene is unavailable on YouTube, so instead I present the single most stunning image in a film full of them. Pause at the 15 second mark.


Director Szabolcs Hajdu is certainly one to watch, if you get a chance. His shots are relatively long and well composed, and his narratives are certainly unique. If I were judging solely by Hajdu's technical abilities, I would have nothing but glowing things to say about this film. Alas, the plot is very challenging to someone unfamiliar with a Hungarian point of view, and I don't think that should necessarily be praised. Perhaps the film's weakest aspect is its sense of humor. It trots out stale jokes; some of them are beaten to death, and some of are revealed to early, draining the humor from what could be an entertaining situation. Even so, I would heartily recommend this to someone looking for new talent. This clip doesn't have subtitles, but you don't really need them.

Rhythm Is It!

I can't wait for the inspirational film about inner city students who learn to express themselves through dance that will come from this documentary. Another lobotomized "based on a true story" film that will suck the soul out of what is actually an interesting story about an English dance teacher in Berlin and his counterpart leading the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The film executes its climax very poorly, and I'm not even sure why they included the section focusing on the conductor of the orchestra except to introduce the music the kids will dance to. That said, most of the film is an interesting look at how teens react to discipline and challenges that doesn't come from their normal lives. However, more than anything else, this film reminded me of how much I love Fantasia, particularly the scene scored to The Rite of Spring. As a child, I was obsessed with dinosaurs, and I watched this part to no end. With that massive bias in mind, this may be the single best scene in cinema:

Don't Look Now

My first thought after this film ended: Don't you hate it when you accidentally look into the future and see your own funeral? I get that all the time. Pisses me off. But seriously, this is a masterpiece of atmosphere in the uniquely 70's horror sort of way. 70's horror films used the zoom and little twinges in their soundtrack in a way that seems foreign to a modern viewer whose main horror intake has come from the post-Alien/Halloween era of horror films. I'm not sure if this is my cup of tea, but I plan to explore it further when given the chance. Enjoy the opening:


As I mentioned above, I missed most of this when I fell asleep at 3 AM. I saw the beginning and the end. In fact, my viewing experience is remarkably similar to the first time I tried to watch La Dolce Vita (There's that Bergman/Fellini connection again). Based solely on those two viewing experiences, I would have to side with Fellini. Persona mostly overwhelmed me with shock imagery, while La Dolce Vita started with a helicopted carrying a statue of Jesus. What's not to love? I woke up to a image of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann merged together ala Brudlefly and spent the rest of the time confused. The final scene didn't depend on context and felt profound and moving, even without the preceding film. Based on these very limited experiences, I have to go with La Dolce Vita, though I hope to see all of Persona soon (since that first experience I did get a chance to see La Dolce Vita in full. Worth the wait). In that vein, this is what I woke up to:

I have no thoughts on Knife in the Water at this time. Expect Part II soon.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Nine Inch Sundae Monday

As I increase my confidence in the Chinese Remainder Theorem and Sallust's history of the Catiline Conspiracy, I figured I would take a short break. In case you didn't know, Nine Inch Nails is pulling a Radiohead. Their new album, which was announced two weeks ago, was released on their official website today. I figured this would be as good a time as any for me to actually discover some of their music. I know their main radio hits and have liked a number of them, so I'm looking into actually trying to listen to what Trent Reznor has to offer. What is most surprising to me is the fact that radio stations don't play "Closer" often, despite how big a hit it was. Rather, the three most often played songs are:

Head Like a Hole (talk about quick and annoying editing):

Down In It (slightly less headache inducing):

and The Perfect Drug (Reznor channels his inner Zappa):

to finish, here is the video for Nine Inch Nails' new single "Discipline". Proof that Trent Reznor has a sense of humor. Who'da thunk it?

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