Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tee-Construction: A brief history of the T-shirt

It all started with sailors. A century before Calvin Klein, the idea that underwear was an essential part of one's wardrobe didn't exist. In 1880, one Dr. Gustav Jaeger convinced what must have been a rather fragrant nation that regularly washed underwear might be a good thing. Still, most late 19th century folks got by with the "Spiral Bustle", not much more than an extended shirt.

In 1901, P.H. Hanes Knitting Company (now just Hanes) introduced two-piece men's underwear for catalogue sale. But it was the Navy, 12 years later, that inadvertently accelerated the evolution of underwear by issuing a revolutionary new item to its sailors. Seeking to avoid sexually scandalous sights exposed by its V-necked uniforms the Navy issued a garment that featured short sleeves, a "crew" neckline (hence "crew neck") and a vaguely "T"-shaped silhouette (hence "T-shirt").

A few years later, the influx of sailors on leave during World War I brought about the truncating of the popular civilian "union suit" into a "singlet" or "jersey." The price: 24 cents. The trend soon spread, and by World War II 12 million men were wearing the Navy's newer, less expensive tee, which quickly became known as "skivvies."

The nation grew accustomed (and secretly thrilled) to newsreel images of wartime patriots barely dressed in, what writer Valerie Steele described as, the "most significant and pervasive example of underwear as outerwear. Not only [did] it flaunt rules about hidden clothing, but it also [violated] taboos ... against male sexual display." Even at this early point in its existence the T-shirt became an empty canvas upon which anyone might project his or her sexual fantasies. In the words of Guggenheim magazine's Deborah Drier, it allowed individuals to indulge in "showing gender" and the "erotic presentation of the self."

By war's end, the phenomenon of the T-shirt — the one garment capable of displaying class, sexual orientation, cultural affiliation and the advertising of same — was born. Though 180 million were sold in 1951, the T-shirt's meteoric ascendance can be traced to, like many things American, the movies.

The seminal T-shirt film is Elia late 19th A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Marlon Brando's brutish portrayal of the lovelorn Stanley Kowalski riveted a nation as Brando's buff pecs and abs were revealed in graphic relief by a thin, stretched tee. According to Drier, the overall image created "a sexualized brutality ... a dangerous ... incoherent sort of manhood."

Four years later, the tee sewed its rebellious rock 'n ' roll roots with James Dean as he mumbled his anti-authoritarian way through Rebel Without a Cause (1955). In the '60s, toasted tee-wearing hippies took on the Establishment in Easy Rider (1969), while the Sexual Revolution of the '70s was given form (and visibly erect nipples) via Jacqueline Bisset's wet tee in The Deep (1977).

Even the '80s received its own chintzy signifier with Don Johnson's designer-tee and Armani suit get-up in Miami Vice. Considering the techno-fetishistic and corporation-friendly nature of the '90s, it is apt that the most memorable recent tee-film is Mission: Impossible (1996), with an androgynously pretty, synthetic-tee-clad Tom Cruise hanging from a wire in order to do some serious downloading.

However prescient Hollywood might have been regarding the tee, the advertising world took a while to notice the shirt's human billboard potential. Ever the innovator, the military caught on first. As if jar-head haircuts weren't humiliating enough, the armed services began stenciling rank and company on T-shirts. About the same time, Ivy League schools clarified the student body pecking order by way of the imprimatur of school fraternities on tees. The first corporate-advertising tee didn't appear until the '60s, when Budweiser featured a can of Bud on the company's T-shirts. Since then, however, advertisers have grown more savvy in terms of their demographics — especially the captive market of college students.

One example of how brazen companies have become with their T-shirt promotions can be seen at Northwestern University. Recent Northwestern grad Maura Johnston notes, "They'd give you free stuff, and the free stuff of choice was a T-shirt [with credit card logo]. Brilliant marketing! If there's one thing people in college hate to do, it's laundry. You give students T-shirts and they become a billboard for whatever product is being sold."

The on-campus tee, corporate or not, continues to define class and cultural orientation. "Phish shirts and frats are synonymous," says Johnston. "Then there's people who want to show they're 'ironic' by wearing Miss Piggy or some other childhood icon."

Today, rock T-shirt sales are an over $500 million business. Whether you're a stoner wearing the new Spiritualized tee, or a self-anointed outcast draped in the latest Marilyn Manson misery-wear, the tee continues to be the transmitter of instant cultural/psychological affiliation. The T-shirt is ubiquitous — from corporate sports gatherings to seedy leather bars to the runways of high-fashion, the tee continues to spell it all out. With the advent of inexpensive printers and appropriate software, the T-shirt has become an even more egalitarian mode of expression. And since anything can be printed on a T-shirt by most anyone, it hasn't lost its ability to shock. Or at least annoy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Greatness of the day: MYSTERIOUS SKIN

Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin does many things magnificently. It's a one-film curative for indie pederast apologia pathogen like L.I.E. and The Woodsman. It's American magical realism with poetry and bite. And in layer after layer of greyscale suffering and possibly not so happenstance balm, it negates Spielberg's pornography of false optimism. As in Scott Heim’s brilliant source novel, it argues that memory scars everything; only a truthful, ongoing engagement with the original wound does any good at all.

Skin is all about the victims of abuse and the life-long mangling of self and reality. In this case two, two small-town Kansas boys who were seduced, fucked, and abandoned by their baseball coach (Bill Sage).

Ten years later, teen Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) deals with his repeated rape by leaving the site of the crime for New York where his cauterized heart can, for a while, be an occupational plus.

The asexual Brian (Brady Corbet) blacks out the horror, believing instead that he was abducted by UFOs. In Brian, Araki locates the horror of nothingness, as Brian narrates, "The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life. Five hours. Lost. Gone without a trace."

Selective forgetfulness eats away at Brian even as it shields him from whatever horrors lies in those five hours. It also positions the audience in a constant, low-grade-anxiety situation.

Brought up on Oprah culture, we think Brian might be better is he just remembers and processes his troubles and ta-da!, recovery. But we see what the perpetrator coach did, and we see how Neil destroys himself, and we see how helpless Brian is, and we can't help but wonder if Brian can ever weather such monstrosity. At the same time, we can sense the consuming evil parting the curtains of forgetfulness to eat Brian alive and we can't bear to watch that either.

Araki allows us no way out. Not because he's the hipster nihilist critics have accused him of being, but because his respect for these boys is so absolute, he refuses to sell them short.

As the film floats through its daylit-dark, the boys’ lives intertwine, leading to a single, unforgettably heart-wrecking closing image that doesn’t exclude a whiff of hope. Whatever you think of Araki’s past queer-splotation movies (The Doom Generation, Nowhere) is rendered moot by an entirely new, pensive, luminous realism supported by Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd’s gauzy, gorgeous score. At one point, one of the boys says, "I wished with all my heart we could just leave this world behind. Rise like two angels in the night and magically disappear."

The wonderful, brave thing about Araki's film is that in a cinema dedicated to selected amnesia on certain topics, Mysterious Skin makes two boys magically appear, luminous, beautiful and no longer alone.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hipster lesbian twins vs. Christian teen-pop sisters!

Talk about weird cultural doppelgängers: The last couple of months [this was 11/8/2007] have seen the release of CDs by two sibling acts in an accidental double-niche-genre face-off: The Con by fashionista hipster lesbian twins Tegan and Sara and Insomniatic by Christian teen-pop queens Aly & AJ, 18-year-old Alyson Michalka and her two-year-younger sis, Amanda Joy.

Both are transitional recordings hitting the racks at a crucial moment in both genres. Indie has ossified into a clutch of subgenres stagnant in their inherent stylistic conservatism: the strip-mining of exhausted references (the Velvets, Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine, Gang of Four, assorted ’80s new wavers), studied amateurism and reliance on retro sonic signifiers. (Or in the case of the latest by the Arcade Fire and the Killers, it’s a matter of simulating Springsteen in the hope of broadening market share.) Teen pop, meanwhile, keeps benefiting from its post–Brill Building creative process by committee as it gleefully rummages through pop history to loot and reconfigure source elements to create a deliriously entertaining production line of Pro-Tooled Frankenstein monster pop. While indie sells “authenticity” and the presumed superiority of creative birthing in the garage, what we usually get in a duel of the genres is a choice between self-penned mediocrity and a great record.

Which brings us to both sister acts’ newest Mylar, which finds Tegan and Sara trying to do something more user-friendly with their creepy perfect stretched-elastic soprano harmonies, sing-along-averse melodies and hip detachment, and Aly & AJ giddily building on past brilliance. Without getting too deep into the opposing artists’ lyrics, it’s sufficient to say that Tegan and Sara tend toward the gloomy and introspective (the easy way to dubious legitimacy) and Aly & AJ toward witty relationship chronicles that are cathartic and anthemic.

Floridly produced by Death Cab for Cutie’s Christopher Walla, Tegan and Sara’s title track on The Con throws down a prevaricating gauntlet. A spastic acoustic guitar strum IDs this as the twins’ song, but there’s a new openness, a definite Hounds of Love–era Kate Bush airiness to the verse and a yummy pop chorus that the girls unfortunately feel compelled to ruin with an extraneous sprig of mood-demolishing angular guitar.

Similarly, the song “Nineteen” possesses a disarming prettiness that would be a tasty step forward were it not mucked up with rote New Order-y guitar noodles to nowhere, along with huge, gated reverb drums that suggest that Phil Collins is now part of the ironic indie quotation canon. Elsewhere on the release, we get the usual ’70s monophonic synths, unadorned Roland 808 beats and self-consciously fuzzy, sorta-’60s, sorta Frippy guitars, presumably because it just wouldn’t be indie without self-consciously fuzzy, sorta-’60s, sorta Frippy guitars.

Before we get to The Con’s true triumph, “Burn Your Life Down,” a word about the Tegan/Sara vocal technique: There’s a certain intensity to their land-speed-record melodies and bizarre harmonizing, but there’s no cadence and release in the technique. And there’s none of the satisfying separation and eventual merging of sibling tones that one gets in, say, the Everly Brothers. In a sense, it’s actually anti-musical, except on the mid-tempo “Burn Your Life Down,” which is just frickin’ great. That simple, lovely melody is supported by a no-bull four-piece; the harmonies circle in smart intervals around one another, allowing us to enjoy one sister’s slightly more raspy timbre and the other’s more flute-like qualities that on the super catchy chorus blend into something lovely. An entire CD of “Burn” – that would be something.

Insomniatic, Aly & AJ’s latest, is produced by Tim James and co-writer Antonina Armato, and as befits the genre that lives and dies by the single, is always enjoyable, but a few tracks flitter near filler. Indie kids are still in thrall to the notion and cult of authorship, which tends to result in teen pop’s dismissal by the hipster cognoscenti. But teen pop’s use of the finest producers/songwriters – aware of but not ruled by the same influences indie mimics – provide Radio Disney friendly acts with terrific material.

The first single is the brilliantly architectured “Potential Breakup Song,” whose title and conceit is postmodern. Stripped to component parts, it’s a superior Sparks song, complete with arch vocal delivery, and a diamond of Eurotrashy electronica with a minor-key melody that’s perversely cheery. Super-smart and crazy-catchy, it’s three-plus minutes of pop bliss. Tied for second-best are the tracks “Closure,” which uses those three “Hey Jude” outro chords to build a moving-on anthem, and “Like Whoa,” which opens as a bit of “Toxic”-like glitchy pop and explodes into speaker-bursting electronic-pop operetta delirium.

Aside from several ill-advised attempts to be “soulful,” Aly & AJ’s voices are unassumingly pretty and perfect for multitracking into shimmery pop choirs. Aly & AJ are less about their expression than your pleasure. Under no pressure to be cool, they’re free to be honest. The very talented but hipness-hamstrung Tegan and Sara would benefit greatly by following their lead.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

THE FAMILY GUY: Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike's extensive filmography is as sweet as it is strange


Singing and dancing zombies. Insane lactating mothers. Incestuous killer sisters. A son rebuilt by mad science from pieces of a father figure. A minotaur-licking loser. Two daughters literally joined at the hip. Images that mix literal, metaphoric and just plain bizarre Oedipal nightmares. Others that gush over-the-top gore and sentimentality in equal parts. In the course of films that shift from abject horror to slapstick comedy, one can easily miss the fact that Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike really is a family guy.

Best known in the U.S. as director of the relentlessly controlled patriarchal nightmare turnaround horror Audition, Japan’s ridiculously fecund auteur is as obsessed with family as Steven Spielberg, but with none of the obsessive kneejerk-normative impulses that mark the US master as an American filmmaker.

Sometimes a Miike family is a “normal” construct under siege by outside forces (The Happiness of the Katakuris). Sometimes, the nuclear family fragments on contact with spiritually void consumer culture (Visitor Q). More often, that “family” is a substitute unit — the Japanese yakuza crime families that fill many of his films. (If this seems a stretch, note that Miike has a yakuza franchise film called Family.)

In the most extreme instances — and when talking Miike, “extreme” takes on new meaning — you get something like Gozu, in which a lonely yakuza separated from his crime family gives birth to himself via a lover’s birth canal, which makes her his default Mom. Or something.

Miike’s family thing is a prime reason why, despite the cultural details lost in translation, his films sink deep claws into a Westerner’s back brain. Viewers can depend on nothing but knowing that the unexpected is the rule. Like an early Brian de Palma on amphetamines, even his most horrid nightmares exist cheek by jowl with tenderness.

Or as Eye Weekly’s Jason Anderson smartly summarized, “Takashi Miike is not just some sick bastard — he’s a sick bastard with heart.”

He’s also insanely prolific. Miike has finished two movies this year and is filming his third, while this month will see the DVD release of 2005’s The Great Yokai War. So, rather than attempt to be comprehensive, the following is a list of representative titles that might help you get a grip on a sizable filmography.

Miike masterpieces

The Bird People in China (1998) — Magical realism, tragedy and comedy blend as a salaryman and a yakuza travel on a Herzog-like upriver search for a mystery tribe. An amazing underwater CGI shot of a flock of turtles powering a boat and a strobe-lit gangster gunfight nightmare are early indications of Miike’s febrile invention, while a character sums up the director’s career-long modus operandi, “It’s a metaphor, dummy!”

Three Extremes (2004) — After two feh shorts by Chan-wook Park and Fruit Chan, this anthology becomes essential because of Miike’s Box, the tale of a woman novelist whose increasingly surreal/frightening memories of patriarchal incest are causing her reality to break into sad, conflicting bits. Elegiac and visually gorgeous in a way suggestive of an Asian Bergman, it’s a meditative, mature look at identity.

The Great Yokai War (2005) — Miike shocks by doing a Jim Henson-y, super-cute kid’s movie involving a boy from a broken family ending up in a supernatural battle between some supernatural creatures of Japanese mythology.

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) — The aforementioned zombie musical. What else can be said? OK — it’s a deeply spiritual, family zombie musical. With jokes.

Audition(1999) — Widowed patriarch systematically seeks new wife, finds sexually traumatized girl his daughter’s age. Multileveled hallucinations, mangled desire, acupuncture needles and knives meet body parts in less-than-conventional ways.

Visitor Q (2001) — An emasculated TV reporter tries to reconnect with his family via the creation of a documentary on family; incest, interfamilial lactation, necrophilia and worse follows. In the end, it’s actually an affirmation of familial happiness. Really.

Flawed but freakishly fab

Ichi the Killer (2001) — Thought Peter Jackson’s Dead/Alive was the last word in operatic gore? Think again. With one main character into lacerating S&M (when not blowing away roomfuls of yakuzas) and a meek programmed “assassin” who slices people sideways with his knife-enhanced Reeboks, Ichi is a reprehensible piece of manga slaughter that also manages to be, well, quite funny.

Gozu (2003) — A mystery woman indulges Miike’s lactation fetish, a character gives slimy birth to himself through his girlfriend’s birth canal and a minotaur haunts the director’s incomprehensible but hilarious idea of a road movie.

MPD Psycho (2000) — So there’s this detective suffering from multiple personality disorder. He goes after a cult with bar codes on their eyes and a killer who cuts off the tops of people’s skulls and plants sculptures in their exposed brains. Then Miike’s TV series gets weird.

Zebraman (2004) — This film is Miike in full-on adorable mode: A failed dad gets to “be” his favorite superhero. Despite or because of the loopy premise, it’s a sappy delight.

Fudoh: The New Generation (1996) — In his efforts to avenge the killing of his brother by his yakuza dad, a boy enlists the help of other teen malcontents, including a herm-aphrodite whose vagina shoots poison darts. While boasting unique set pieces and feverish, inventive style, Miike hadn’t yet perfected the mashing of melancholy, gore and comedy.

Other nonessential but fascinating offerings include 1999’s N-Girls vs. Vampire (virgin models become vampires), 2000’s The City of Lost Souls (a moody interracial gangster love story highlighted by a Matrix-style CGI cockfight) and Shangri-La (2002) a comedy that deals with, um, homelessness.

Miike misses

Look, the guy makes a lot of movies; some duffers are inevitable. These are titles you might want to skip. A good deal of these lesser efforts are yakuza films aimed to fill Japan’s ravenous direct-to-video appetite. The best (i.e., most perverse) of the lot is Deadly Outlaw: Rekka (2002), a gang turf–war/inter–crime family soap opera that is alternately dull and almost unbearably hyperviolent.

The most genre-recombinant is Full Metal Yakuza (1997). Equal parts gangster revenge film, RoboCop rip and Frankenstein, it’s a flawed jaw-dropper about an oafish yakuza who is killed trying to protect his father figure, a crime-family boss; a mad scientist “rebuilds” him with spare cyber-stuff and parts from the aforementioned boss.

Graveyard of Honor (2002), Dead or Alive (1999) and Kikoku (2003) prove that even Miike can be generic, and nobody will dis your Miike cred if you skip his competent but inessential J-horror entry One Missed Call and the extended J-pop video Andromeda.

But as career downsides go, and considering his astonishing production speed, these few off entries are small beer indeed. Especially in light of the fact that Miike is only 46 and just now hitting a new aesthetic peak as his ongoing family “project” is gaining a tighter focus. God only knows what images and ideas we’ll be gasping over when this article is hopelessly obsolete in, say, three months.

[NOTE: I wrote this in 2006. As of now, Miike has directed eighty-three (83) films.]

Friday, March 25, 2011

Oh! You Pretty Things: More thoughts on THE COCKETTES

In the late 1960s a young actor named George Harris moved to San Francisco. Harris was soon haunting thrift shops, donning gowns, furs, and jewelry, growing lots of hair and slathering on the cheap-tart makeup. After dragging up and knocking back a lot of acid, he reinvented himself as a queer hippie Christ figure named "Hibiscus."

Hibiscus and some other like-minded young nuts soon moved into a 10-room Haight Street apartment rented for the lordly sum of $30 a month. Like deranged Little Rascals, they started putting on shows at a North Beach bijou called the Palace, largely off-the-cuff messes of drag, deranged trash-deco costumes, and oft-nude chorus lines pumping it up to '30s standards and Stones songs. The shows bore names such as Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma and Hot Greeks. The troupe called itself the Cockettes.

Bill Weber and David Weissman's deft, happy/sad chronicle of the Cockettes' beyond-camp positive perversity offers the rare exhilaration of watching an entire subculture create itself from scratch. And, as the credits close, to linger with true dismay on the unlikelihood of anything so raw, crazed, so un-self-consciously contentious, rising in our relentlessly self-reflexive time.

Along with John Waters--who found one of his (and Divine's) first appreciative audiences at the Palace--The Cockettes is narrated by group survivors who charm with their continuing amazement at what havoc they once wrought. Total hams to a man (and a few women), they had the born drama queen's sense of extreme self import to document their every moment on cheap film.

In amusing vignettes, we find that they were predisposed against earning money, for reasons both mistily "political" (although Andy Warhol earns more reverence than Karl Marx in the Cockette view) and practical (even in the '60s, pretty things with shaved eyebrows and bare johnsons hanging from holes in their panties were a bit much for most potential employers, or paying audiences). Naturally, they were doomed.

Before their fall in '72, their shows grew ever more elaborate. They even found time to make the occasional sort-of narrative film, including a hilarious queer skewering of Tricia Nixon's wedding.

As local fame grew, the Cockettes received coverage in Rolling Stone, and future disco diva Sylvester joined the group. But their status as nouvelle-chic darlings led to a disastrous run in New York attended by the starry likes of Sylvia Miles (also one of the film's narrators), Anthony Perkins, Diana Vreeland, and John Lennon. In the end, it wasn't beauty that killed this beast (swollen to almost 50 members by the early '70s); it was drugs, other people's notions of success, and the inevitable internal bickering.

Thanks to their articulate subjects and fleet editing, Weber and Weissman never have to hammer points home. It soon becomes obvious that being a Cockette wasn't just a pose--it was a way for the intrinsically tweaked to survive outside an already ossified hippie milieu.

At one juncture, the filmmakers display cutting contempt for those who'd have their subjects tarred and feathered by cutting to a film clip of then-newly elected California Gov. Ronald Reagan sneering, "Grow up!" at people like the Cockettes. As the film shows, many of the Cockettes were unable to do that, as they died in the '80s from the "gay cancer" President Reagan would so vigorously ignore.

Of the survivors (one of whom died of AIDS during filming), we see middle-aged Cockettes adjusting to a more gray reality with varying degrees of oddness. Jilala, the Aleister Crowley figure of the group, appears in (relatively) conservative makeup only to later reappear as a Day-Glo Carmen Miranda. "Goldie" is a queen bitch to the end, while Peter Mintun (the Cockettes' favored piano accompanist) and "Fayette" (a female) look like normal folks, although a maniacal Cockette-ish grin blows their cover every few minutes.

After viewing The Cockettes, I wondered if every so often the culture currents simply carry a glittery gender-shifting corrective wind which, during the Cockette phase, carried with it the inspiration-stuff for David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust, the New York Dolls and Bette Midler.

I felt a sadness and even a muted anger that low cost, freewheeling Cockette culture had ultimately been sucked dry of identity power politics by Burning Man's Club Med style of desert alt.whatever, and deeply pleased that Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Lady Gaga's monsters get everything that mattered so very right.

As for that dismay I mentioned earlier--fuck me and my easy bitters. There's nourishment in this tale and the glitter of an aging Cockette's eye: the mainstream always loses to the good, brave and crazy and Weber and Weissman's document is that delightful, needed reminder.


The other day I was feeling perverse. When the new Korn CD showed up, I didn’t just hurl it, I got kinky. I played the damned thing.
And now I’m stuck, like the drowned sailer, waving my hands in a critical ocean of no-fucking-way. As in no fucking way this or any Kornrecord could be good, and even if it was, any self respecting metal-fan couldn’t find the time of day for it — or admit it was good. Really, there's so much awesome coming out every day from everywhere, who could give a fuck about some millionaire nü metal burn-outs?
Except…except…except if the tin didn’t read ‘Korn,’ I bet this would make many a critic’s Band to Watch lists. There are songs here that suggest a grittier, weirder Alice in Chains. Songs here that sound like percussion  done by unholy Roman chain gangs. There are songs here that even make you forget how lead yelper Jonathan Davis sounded in the bad old 90s.
Part of Remember Who You Are‘s spasmodic excellence is pure Kismet. At this moment, Korn in is the situation of being trapped between their fanbase’s slavering desire for more shit that sounds like oldKorn, a mass market-driven need to update the sound and an audible urge by the band to be artistically relevant. (Just saying, but when nü metal was Faith No More’s “Epic,” people had no problem with it, probably because Mike Patton presented a super cool version of how listeners felt they were.)
Don’t get me wrong — sometimes Davis still sounds like old Davis, with that crushed-balls, stuck-pig, tenor Trent Reznor thing. But about fifty percent of the time of  Remember Who You Are, his voice is the most unpredictable thing going and enhanced by the appealingly raw, four-dudes-in-a-room production style.
On the startlingly inventive “Are You Ready to Live,” we hear a war between musical modes, a battle between being a really good Slipknot song and a really good song by Low, as in the indie slowcore Mormons, complete with Davis sounding like a ringer for Low’s Alan Sparhawk. And you thought we lived in a time devoid of miracles.
Atop pit-ready, rattling track of “Oildale (Leave Me Alone),” which sounds more like a less Greek version of the most recent Rotting Christ CD than anything else I could think of, we get a Davis who’s successfully morphed into the Devin Townsend of Strapping Young Lad. No, for real.
But all is not well. “Pop a Pill” is pleasingly raw and weird with its cool Arabic-scaled riffs.  Unfortunately, it also has the most Korn-y ‘funk’ bass and a return to that vocal style that so troubled us in the 90s. And “Holding All These Lies” is just fucking god awful, not because it’s nü metal, but because it’s crap.
But then you get “Fear is a Place to Live,” which in one song reconciles old and nu Korn. Deep groove disco beat? Check. Indie-pop-ish chorus? Check. Self-loathing monologue (but not a rap)? You betcha. 
And so it goes, back and forth, from inspired to lousy and back.
That noted, successive listens had me thinking: if Korn are working so hard to move on, why are we so deadset on dismissing them, sound unheard?
Even in this edgy incarnation, the better songs here face-slap us with the reason Korn sold multibillions: the inglorius basterds can write a song, a for-real tune, not a mess of riffs crazy-glued together.Agoraphobic Nosebleed rules, Anaal Nathrakh rips, but it’s downright useful to have something that’s fairly brutal that you can hum along to while you’re being totally teenage and alienated.
And so, listening to the updated Davis machine, I got to thinking that instead of loathing Korn, we should really be grateful.
People seldom start their metal journey with BehemothMeshuggah or Napalm Death.  In the 90s, there was easy-to-digest Korn, just like with have  Crack the Skye‘s Mastodon with their ELO choruses, both working as catchy gateway drugs to the harder stuff.
Meanwhile, I think there’s another good reason why Korn makes the metal cognoscenti turn up their noses while similar but more arty, less emotionally naked bands like Deftones are accepted. And please, do feel free to say I’m full of something.
At about the same time the first Korn records came out, the literary world was exploding with its own form of nü metal. It was an abrupt gush of seriously fucked up dark young adult fiction (DYA) that was totally narrowcast at teens, really fucked up teens, or teens who saw themselves as really fucked up. Whatever.
DYA heroes and heroines, usually big music fans, wee often latchkey kids from wrecked families. Incredibly despairing and often literally goth, the books were rife with child abuse, violent incest, vampires who did not glitter but did rape your soul, mothers who either over-medicated their kids of sold them for quick cash and, incredibly, worse.
And so a generation before Twilight, authors like Charles de Lint  and Francesca Lia Block created full-blown publishing empires off this new generation’s seemingly bottomless need for tales of truly fucked up tweens and teens (why they were so fucked up is up to the sociologists).
Cut to: me, trying to cross 7th Avenue  at 8th Street in New York City in the mid-late 90s.
The street was clotted with hundreds of kids outside a Barnes & Noble packed with Charles de Lint books where one of the Korn dudes was doing an autograph session. All  with a copies of Follow the Leader andLife is Peachy cradled, gently, in their hands. Most of them wearing worn Slayer,  Metallica and Megadeth tee shirts, their  older sibling’ metal. Kids who needed to hear their angst mirrored/validated in Davis’ vocal middlebrow but still effective operatics.
And so I think another reason we might dismiss Korn is because they’re fucking embarrassing; neediness and desperation are not pretty. They’re the opposite of the cool swagger of a Devildriver or Five Finger Death Punch, the blustery maniac shrieks and barks of black metal, the cookie monsters of death metal.
So we have Korn as gateway to more awesome metal and  as accidental metal therapists (along with Remember’s “Are You Ready to Live” and “The Past,” Remember  features the therapeutic “Let the Guilt Go”).
But there’s more.
No matter how good they get—and on Remember Who You Are, they’re often pretty damned good—Kornwill always be the musical equivalent of a metaphorical photo of us at 14, 15 or maybe 16, faces sprayed with spots, hormones raging uselessly, porn sites memorized so Mom, whose probably been drinking again, won’t find them when on your crappy Acer computer. Look at it this way and the title Remember Who You Are almost feels like a threat.
But strip the new CD of all that incredible baggage, and what we have is a band trying and half the time succeeding in not sucking in a pretty unique way, a 2010 band and not a relic, and hitting an easy 7 on a scale of 1 to 10.
You can hate ‘em. You can point out that they’re metal Peter Pans, eternally stuck in angsty adolescence. You can accurately point out that Davis still sounds like a miserable stuck pig here and there and there would be no arguing it. But given all the positive roles Korn have played in the real and greater metal world,  and despite how irritating as they can be, and now as good as they can be, its time to finally accept them as one of us. Remember Who You Are indeed.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lohan before the fall: the wonderful GEORGIA RULES

Just when it looked like voracious indie product had sucked the juice and truth out of the dysfunctional family subspecies, along came the odd couple of director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman) and Lindsay Lohan to provide not only the best movie in the genre in ages, but one that could easily fill a Twilight Zone double bill withMysterious Skin

Lohan plays a hypersexualized teenage wreck whose alcoholic mom (Felicity Huffman) sends her off to Idaho for a stay with her own mother (Jane Fonda), an emotionally remote, amorphous Christian. (The image of Lohan passed out in virginal white under a sign reading "Welcome to the Land of the Famous Potato" is an early indicator of Marshall's gentle, weird humor.) 

After the basic setup, and a plot that has much to do with the repressed returning in spades, Georgia does things indies are too hiply full of the latest misunderstanding of the ironic gesture to countenance: Christians and Mormons are ribbed and respected; rural life is an amusing and viable option.

Most uncool in this embrace-the-abuse Rihanna moment, sexualized and just plain sexual violence has lasting un-pretty consequences and a mere movie, despite Little Miss Sunshine's delusional insistence otherwise, can only suggest the beginning of a solution to big trouble. While everyone is understated and ace in their roles, it's Lohan's exposed nerve of a performance that pays the bills here with interest. Soon we'd be treated to the spectacle of a 60s party girl like Fonda tut-tutting Lohan's entirely average nightlife as the overture to the onetime ginger-girl becoming celebrity bloodsport as the nation's latest sacrificial blond. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hateful Film of the Day: WORLD TRADE CENTER

Oliver Stone’s insidiously godawful, 9-11 exploitation picture, World Trade Center, requires its audience to forget how neo-conservatives repurposed Sept. 11 as a plummy excuse for Strausian mass slaughter all while urging viewers to indulge a sick, misty-eyed wallow in necro-nostalgia. It willfully ignores the fact that glossing over the political significance of this most horridly political event amounts to nothing more than simple artistic cowardice, while also using the real-world bravery and suffering of its real-life protagonists as a sort of critical extortion.

Nominally about the undeniable courage and endurance of two New York Port Authority cops — John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) — the film’s inchoate core of all-American righteousness, relentless Christian imagery and impotent fist-shaking is actually personified by Marine Sgt. Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon). Lantern-jawed, blue-eyed and a fanatically patriotic Connecticut Baptist, Karnes gets a calling from God himself to go to New York, save people and afterwards proclaim that “Somebody’s gonna pay for this!”
By film’s end, and after an “uplifting” epilogue, an entirely unnecessary title card informs us that the real Karnes served two tours in Iraq. The inclusion of that detail, whether the filmmaker wants to admit it or not, is commentary. Which suggests that either the once left-leaning Stone is pulling a Christopher Hitchens (thus the film’s gushing endorsement by far-right wags), or that the director views Karnes — inexplicably filmed through distorted lenses and at low angles usually reserved for movie psycho killers — as a well-meaning dupe of his superiors’ empire dreams. The first possibility is simply annoying, the other has elements of high tragedy, but Stone and company seem to entertain both, perhaps in the cynical name of hedging their bets.
Otherwise, World Trade Center accomplishes one amazing thing: It makes Sept. 11 boring. It’s not the fault of Andrea Berloff’s script, which in surer hands might have provided a decent armature. Nor is it the fault of Cage, who plays McLoughlin with a subtly self-doubting brand of taciturn that negates the actor’s tendency toward freakshow displays. Nor is it Peña’s Jimeno — also a heartfelt sketch — although one wonders why his white counterpart is granted film-long backstory flashbacks while the Latino Jimeno only warrants one quickie bit of exposition.
No, what’s wrong is 100 percent Stone. Center opens at dawn, with a montage of Manhattan street scenes — cops going through their routines and so on. It’s effectively nerve-wracking stuff in light of what’s to come. Then again,anything would be nerve-wracking in light of what’s to come.

Glad for small mercies, we only see the Center’s collapse from the limited POV of McLoughlin and Jimeno, who, after rushing to the Trade Center’s lobby, end up buried and immobile under tons of rubble and waiting for rescue.
After its money shots — including a single person jumping from the Towers in tasteful long shot and the urban abattoir of Ground Zero rendered as pleasingly free of bloodied dead bodies — the movie downshifts into a flattened style that’s meant to pass for seriousness with a big “S,” but instead calls attention to itself by way of its very dullness.
Between scenes of McLoughlin and Jimeno trying to stay awake in the darkness and rubble, their remarkably stoic wives — played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively — fret about their spouses from inside their bucolic New Jersey and New York State homes. (Bello’s character is only able to understand the fear and pain of possibly losing someone after being helped in doing so by an African-American woman. The Black Savant lives.)
Meanwhile, it’s really hard to listen to McLoughlin pointedly list all the disasters (both natural and terrorist-based) that the Port Authority was prepared to deal with — but “not this” — without also thinking of that “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” memo the Bush administration ignored. It’s hard for anyone but the filmmakers, apparently. Or maybe this is another, slyer bit of that political commentary the filmmakers claim not to be making.
In the end, all Stone really seems to be up to is using Sept. 11 to again mourn the loss of mythical white American innocence for what one assumes will be a predominantly white Boomer audience. And no doubt turning a pretty penny doing it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

NUCLEAR FAMILY WAR and Veronica Mars And Battlestar Galactica

[This was first written for City Paper in 2006 but I stil stand by the basic ideas]

TV needs to reflect viewer desire and perceived reality. Conservatives can make as much noise as they like about reanimating the traditional family to the point of obliterating alternatives; what matters to television is the reality on the ground. And it looks like this: According to Divorce Magazine, the percentage of folks married was, as of 2002, 59 percent of the population, down from 62 percent in 1990. The 2000 U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 13.5 million single parents had custody of 21.7 million children. Single-mother families increased from 7 million in 1990 to 10 million in 2000. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union, in a 2006 study, found that children raised in families "without fathers, both by lesbian mothers and by single heterosexual mothers," experienced a generally superior parenting experience.

Television depends on either a literal or instinctive grasp of such facts, which in turn helps explain why huge corporations have banked on such wide-ranging single-parent shows as EverwoodGilmore GirlsReba, andSupernatural. The success of these shows, assorted queer-themed programs, and HBO’s ironic inverse Big Love--about a polygamist with too much family--underlines the reality: The American family is radically redefining itself in ways immune to traditionalist scolding and wishful thinking.
In another very obvious way, TV’s reflecting nature pops up in the way it deals with post-Sept. 11 fear, helplessness, and government indifference. The CSI variations, BonesCold CaseHouseNumb3rs, and NCISserve up an endless array of implacable, invisible enemies that can only be dealt with by experts who buck The System--which is almost always assumed to be incompetent, corrupt, or both.
The finest television combines the problems of increasingly fractured social groupings and external threats and brings them to a fine boil in the cauldron of family. And nothing boils more than Denis Leary and Peter Tolan’s singularly seething Rescue Me. Leary plays Tommy Gavin, an underpaid New York Irish-American firefighter haunted by the ghosts of people he didn’t save at the World Trade Center. An epic drunk, Tommy screws his dead cousin’s wife, kidnaps his own kids, and tries to pummel red-staters out for a grief fix at ground zero. But he’s still a lifesaver, flaws and all.
While arguably an exaggeration--at least to those not raised in Irish-American families--Rescue Me creates an otherwise accurate, enraged, and aching look at the class and cultural stressors fragmenting blue-collar families. So much so that it’s the object of a jihad by the Parents Television Council, led by right-wing scold L. Brent Bozell, the idea apparently being that if you don’t show the truth it’ll go away. But like other shows about fragged families, such as those in Six Feet Under and the monumentally popular Desperate Housewives,Rescue Me reaffirms its audience’s sense of who they are, while offering the solace that their situation may be better in comparison.
Rescue Me’s firefighters constantly rib each other about being queer. While a defensive reaction to the reality of these mainly male firefighters spending most of their time together, it also helps them cope with the fact that they’re each other’s real family, united in mission and values and loyal to the core. And this idea is one only television, with its recurring characters and season-long tales, can do justice to: the metaphorical family unit.
Not just any group of biologically unrelated folks smooshed together constitutes a metaphorical family. While the doctors in House care about one another, they’re too self-immersed to cohere, and anyway, the show mainly exists to watch Hugh Laurie rip patients a new one. Metaphorical TV families, like the real item, are not about one person--or if they appear to be, that person is just an entry point to explore other family issues.
The defining figure of the new metaphorical family may just be Joss Whedon. His Buffy the Vampire Slayer,Angel, and Firefly were often about nothing but the struggles of metaphorical families to define and defend themselves. Look no further than the 2000 episode "Family," in which Buffy’s metaphorical family--blue-collar Xander, father figure Giles, and supernatural sister Dawn--band together to support Tara, the girlfriend of newly out Willow. Tara’s biological father shows up claiming she’ll become a demon if she doesn’t return home. Buffy and the gang reject his craven power play. Infuriated, he says, "We’re her blood kin. Who the hellare you?" Buffy: "We’re family."
"Blood kin" and metaphorical family fuse on Alias, in which double agent Sydney Bristow’s biological father is assimilated into her core family of loyal, beloved co-workers. More subtly, the cops on the wire in The Wire are more intractably connected to each other than their official families, and more overtly, the unrelated hotties ofSex and the City form a family to support their Gotham adventures, as do the queer families of The L Word,Will and Grace, and Queer as FolkDead Like Me, meanwhile, took the metaphorical family thing to delightfully ridiculous analogous extremes, with a clan of the deceased--a girl named George, Jewish father figure, slacker brother, and cranky older meter maid often reluctantly pressed into mother duty--easing folks’ passage to the afterlife.
Right now, the two shows that most elegantly fuse external and internal threats to the family--traditional and metaphorical--are unsurprisingly two of the best shows on the small screen: Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars and Ronald Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. Amateur sleuth Veronica (Kristen Bell) and dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni)--the most realistically positive daughter-father relationship limned in any medium for some time--live in a sunny Southern California town infested with moral rot, racism, and elitist cruelty, a microcosm of Bush America. For all Veronica’s plucky wit and the bedrock relationship between she and Keith, the show is incredibly despairing. The powerful and rotten often get away with their crimes--including Veronica’s rape. Veronica’s efforts to locate the truth are rewarded with smirks from the law and corrupt alike. The show’s most scary element, though, is Veronica’s inability to form an extended family.
Once upper but now barely middle class, she doesn’t fit in with the rich kids, while her dalliances with the few elite teens who aren’t outright bastards earn her the distrust of possible ally Weevil (Francis Capra), a poor Latino biker. And slippery race politics threaten her friendship with her African-American best friend, Wallace (Percy Daggs III). At one almost intolerably painful juncture, you’re led to think that Keith has died--this long after Veronica’s alcoholic mother has abandoned her--and Veronica’s primal weeping against a backdrop of city lights and black sky makes you realize, My God, he’s all she has. Aside from etching a raw line around the limits of the biological family, it makes you realize how much she bears beneath her quips, how alone she is, how brave.
Battlestar Galactica, meanwhile, is the show future media scholars will reference when trying to figure out what the hell was up with America after Sept. 11. It starts with the decimation of humankind courtesy a surprise attack by the man-made slave class of robots and human clones called Cylons. The titular battleship and a small fleet of human survivors spend the show trying to escape the superior Cylon forces.
What creator Moore does with this standard sci-fi armature is brilliant. Most everyone in the Galactica fleet has lost their biological families in the attack, and the show posits the survivors as the ultimate extended metaphorical family. This reading is boldfaced by episodes that play out like the Hatfields and McCoys in space, with the idealistic Galactica "family" up against the cold pragmatists of another surviving ship, the Pegasus. The defining difference between the two: The Pegasus crew tortures their female Cylon prisoner, while the Galactica folks try to figure out why she is what she is. Other contemporary concerns appear in SF drag--mainly, the place of democracy, surveillance, and open debate in times of war. But Battlestar Galactica is most acute in its observations on family and its kissing cousin, identity.
While there’s much to be gleaned about the fluid nature of family in extreme situations from the relationships between Galactica’s Cmdr. Adama (Edward James Olmos) and his surviving son and his dead son’s lover, the location of the show’s central theme is in the body and soul of Sharon (Grace Park)--or rather, the Cylon clone of Sharon.
As a Cylon, the Sharon clone hates humanity for its self-destructive cruelty, but she’s also in love with one of the ship’s pilots, is carrying his child, and constantly sees her belief of humanity as scumbags countered by Adama and company’s decency--and increasingly takes to helping that crew. Will she cave in to the wishes of her Cylon forebears or bond with the Galactica family? More importantly, can she rise above being "born bad" and craft her own viable, independent identity? 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cinema wonder of the day: EYES WITHOUT A FACE

Infusing the Frankenstein mythos with Nazi mad science and the incest subtext key to all great horror films, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) is one of the greatest acts of genre poetry committed to film. It's the type of film broken toy viewers will take to heart and hold dear for life just as regular folks will enjoy inexplicable wonders as well.

Appropriately directed by a man otherwise best known for an anti-animal-cruelty documentary, it shares with all nightmares a simple plot that seems more to float than unravel. A mad surgeon (Pierre Brassuer) has apparently lost his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) in a car crash. 

Actually, she’s alive, her face disfigured and covered with an inexplicably disturbing white mask, while her father sends out an assistant to kill young women in search of the right flesh for his grotesque fantasy of face replacement. The final, Cocteau-gorgeous shot of Christiane’s release from Oedipal horror amid mad dogs and a flurry of white doves is unforgettable. Like much of the film, you don’t know quite know why it’s so affecting, and that’s Franju’s genius.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Film Inspirational of the Day: CHRIS AND DON

The three-decade-plus romance between author/screenwriter Christopher Isherwood and painter Don Bachardy becomes, in Chris & Don: A Love Story, the most gracious, graceful, and inspiring love story in God knows how many years. Directors Tina Mascara and Guido Santi tell their tale using interviews with a still-spry Bachardy, chats with contemporaries such as Leslie Caron (still luminously wowza after all these years), plentiful archival footage, and Katrina and Kristina Swanger's crazy-cute animations of Isherwood as a sad old horse and Bachardy as a playful kitten. (The couple used similar images to sign their love letters.)
Isherwood as first etched here is a spiritually restless Cambridge grad drawn to the liberating debauchery of Weimar Berlin, which he captures in his 1945 classic, The Berlin Stories--which begetsCabaret, and so made all our lives a better place for all time. Isherwood makes it in Tinseltown as a screen scribe but yearns for a life partner until, in 1953, he meets Don, an alarmingly boyish 18-year-old beach bum/movie fan 30 years Isherwood's junior.
May/December reservations quickly dissolve as their love story of seemingly fated, mutually enriching symmetries unfolds. Isherwood's father was killed in World War I; Bachardy allows Isherwood to perform the fathering he never received, while giving Bachardy the love denied by his biological father. When young Bachardy understandably freaks after being introduced to Isherwood's rarified milieu--filled with the likes of W.H. Auden, Raymond Chandler, Montgomery Clift, and Igor Stravinsky--Isherwood responds by underwriting Bachardy's ambition to be a painter, which eventually renders the younger man his mentor's artistic equal.
Not everything is hugs and puppies. There's, you know, the entire world having issues with an out couple in the mid-20th century. Joseph Cotten, for example, comes off as a major kill-joy douche. Surprisingly accepting, though, is man's man John Ford, who invites the couple out to the shooting of one of his westerns. (Hollywood history geeks will have a serious cow at all the amazing candid footage of Burt Lancaster, Anna Magnani, and more.)
One thing the couple's love can't help is the mental illness that nearly destroys Bachardy's brother Ken. Once Bachardy's prettiness peer, Ken appears after years of electro-shock "treatment" as a lost, distracted soul still in love with the movies. A salving scene has the two appraising some Josh Hartnett photos before catching a matinée.
Of course, it ends in tears--Isherwood died of prostate cancer in 1986--but not before the movie closes with a final, literally death-defying act of art and love. If you're a couple, see Chris & Don to learn how to stay that way. If you're single, watch it and hope you're so lucky.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Hammer Films made its mark with color-drenched Gothics, but the British studio will forever have the gratitude of bizarre-cinema connoisseurs for emitting the mind-janglingly strange The Lost Continent, the only movie to locate the hidden linkage between man-eating weeds, busty Christian women, the Spanish Inquisition, and Freud's "vagina dentata." 

In film's the ho-hum opening, Capt. Lansen (Eric Porter) and his skeezy crew smuggle explosives on a threadbare ship packed with desperate but photogenic passengers with interesting names such as Unity Webster (Suzanna Leigh, also of Hanmmer'sLust for a Vampire). A storm hits, and what had seemed no more than a feh adventure programmer promptly loses its mind. In a mysterious mist, assorted passengers are attacked by the aforementioned weeds and some hideous killer mollusks, while others run afoul of conquistador survivors living on a Spanish galleon, also the home of a rubbery, sucking-pit orifice with very sharp teeth. 

And we haven't even mentioned those busty Christian girls, who, as luck would have it, are able to walk on water courtesy the big balloons attached to their shoulders. Screenwriter Michael Nash, who adapted Dennis Wheatley's novel, was never heard from again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Filmic No F_cking Way of the Day: PHASE IV

One can easily imagine a contempo screenwriter pitching Phase IV: "Like 2001, but with ants!" But famed movie-title designer Saul Bass (PsychoAlien), directing his first and only feature, made this in the fabled '70s, so high concept gives way to deliberately paced high-art effects, attaining a register of abstracted creepiness found nowhere else in invading-insect cinema. The plot is daft: In and around a trashy Arizona desert town, a group of scientists led by character actors Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, and Lynne Frederick build a biosphere so as to study the local ant population, grown hyperintelligent due to possible alien intervention. I know, I know, but onwards: Soon, minimalist-style anthills are surrounding the lab; the ants attack shapely Frederick and otherwise raise an anti-human ruckus, eventually leading to the ultimate evolution of man to a higher species, or something like that. Bass aims for Kubrickian scope, scientific accuracy, and slow-build chills; while he stumbles on the first two counts, Phase IV is ultimately a head-scratcher of the most unforgettable order. Plus, the scene where a whole mess of ants crawl out of a guy's hand is totally cool.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Filmic No F_cking Way of the Day: Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)

Many of the films of Mario Bava, one of the 20th century's most brilliant visual stylists, are also packed to the psychosexually twisted gills with fetishized murder, grue, and vertigo-inducing zoom-lens abuse. But it's a sin to miss Bava's scrumptiously glowing chromaticisms, where red is fucking red and blue is always the glowing sky-velvet shade of twilight, and gold is so rich it's better than sex (well, OK, as good as sex). Luckily, Hercules in the Haunted World has none of Bava's usual nastiness but keeps all the juicy eye caviar. The plot demands that Herc (Reg Park), a surprisingly clever sort of mythological strongman, and sassy pal Theseus (George Ardisson) go to Hades in order to save Herc's ailing love Dianira (Leonora Ruffo). To get there, he must secure the Golden Apple from the Great Tree (and what a great tree it is!) in the Land of the Hesperides, which is ruled over by--gads!--Christopher Lee! Things being what they are in myths, Herc also has to contend with ghouls, demons, taciturn rock creatures, and zombies. (This is a partial list.) Never childish or naive, Bava's film will ruin you in the best way for other self-trumpeting "visual feasts."