Music video commentaries (4) – Rihanna

Here are the latest notes for my music videos class.

Rihanna has done so much that I can only give a small selection of her videos here. Earlier in the semester, we have already watched Pour It Up (Rihanna, 2013), Sledgehammer (Floria Sigismondi, 2016), two versions of Stay (Sophie Muller, 2013), and two versions of David Guetta, f. Rihanna, “Who’s That Chick? (Jonas Akerlund, 2011).

Umbrella (Chris Applebaum, 2007). Rihanna already had two albums and half a dozen music videos under her belt before this single from her third album. But Umbrella was her first mega-hit, the song and video that established her as a major artist. It is in order to introduce her to a wider audience that Jay-Z presents her at the beginning of the video. I think that the video closely follows the logic of introducing Rihanna, as well as adhering to the structure of the song. I will explain this by giving a more detailed formal account than I usually do. We get a series of images of Rihanna, each one presented in multiple edits before we move on to the rest. The video starts with Rihanna seated in profile and wearing a large hat, with backlighting and smoke effects; this image alternates with that of Jay-Z and backing dancers on a stage, in front of digitally sylized streaks of rain. We cut to Rihanna whenever her “eh…eh” punctuates Jay-Z’s rap. When the first verse of song proper begins, we switch to close medium shots of Rihanna wearing all black (latex?) and dancing, which quickly rack in and out of focus. When the song reaches the chorus, Rihanna is seen in an all-white outfit; full body shots of her dancing alternate with closeups of her face, while the screen is awash with digital effects of water washing over her image. In the second half of the chorus (when she famously sings “umbrella-ella-ella-eh-eh-eh) the digital effects continue, together with a return to quick movements in-and-out-of-focus, and face closeups alternating with full-body shots; but Rihanna is now dressed in black, with her dance including en-pointe ballet steps, and with her holding an umbrella and using it as a sort of dance partner (unavoidably recalling Gene Kelley in Singin’ in the Rain). At the next verse of the song, Rihanna is now seen indoors, dancing in a space backed by wood panels and chandeliers; she still holds the umbrella, but she now wears a tight dress with buttons across the front and fishnet stockings. This setting and costume continue into the first half of the chorus. But when we get to the “ella-ella-etc” second half of the chorus, we are introduced to an extraordinary new series of images: Rihanna nude, and her body entirely covered with silver paint (this is the most famous series of images in the video). She is no longer dancing, but instead gives us a series of near-poses (she moves her arms, or her head, but not her entire body): she is crouched like a runner waiting to start a race, or her upper torso and face are doubled, facing each other across the screen, or her body is framed by a large triangle. These flash by quickly, almost in black-and-white, and sometimes with alternating negatives. The next part of the song is the bridge, and for this section, we have closeups of Rihanna’s face as she looks directly into the camera; again, the editing is rapid, Rihanna facing right and left in alternating shots. Then we come to the final chorus, and the video pulls out all the stops: now we see Rihanna for the first time with backup dancers. She is wearing black pants, and a black vest with a silver-white tie, and once again holding the umbrella and using it as a prop. During this section with the backup dancers, the screen is once more awash in digital effects: white streaks in back of the dancers that provide a stylized image of rain, and splashes on the soundstage floor, which seems to be covered in an inch or so of water. During the outro, as the song fades out, we see more shots of Rihanna in front of the stylized digital rain; in some shots she seems to be ascending into the air while everything is blurry; in other shots, she is on the stage, and beckoning to the camera/audience, wearing white partial gloves. — If you are interested in thinking about this video in greater detail, and especially in questions of how it portrays race and gender, see Robin James’ article “Robo-Diva”, accessible with your Wayne State ID here: https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/doi/full/10.1111/j.1533-1598.2008.00171.x

Disturbia (Anthony Mandler,2008) This is one of sixteen music videos that Anthony Mandler directed for Rihanna between 2007 and 2012. (Mandler has an extensive videography for other major artists as well). I wrote about this video at great length in my book, so I will only summarize briefly here. The video takes place in what looks like a Victorian insane asylum, with all the brutal images (archaic torture devices and jail cells) that such a location implies. (In the past, students have compared this look to that of the video game “Silent Hill,” which is set in a similar location). Rihanna appears both as the apparent director of the asylum, and as some of the patients. Most of the video is dark and murky, aside from the highlights on Rihanna’s face. This fits well with the lyrics of the song, which speak of sexual jealousy and torment that the singer cannot escape from, as well as the music, with a brutally insistent beat. The one exception to this overall look is in the first half of the chorus, when the vocals also soar: we see a group of dancers holding up Rihanna’s body, as if it were a human sacrifice, into bright orange light streaming from above and behind. The rest of the time, the images of Rihanna’s various iterations are disrupted by various densly layered superimpositions: streaks of light (simulating scratches on film stock), flames, multiple images, and so on. There are also a number of horrifically memorable weird images: Rihanna held by chains, on all fours, and snarling; Rihanna with her lower arms apparently burrowed into the wall itself, while spiders crawl over her upper arms. All in all, the video gives us an astonishing nightmare vision.

Rehab (Anthony Mandler, 2008) This is another video directed by Anthony Mandler; the song is composed and produced by Timbaland (best known for his work with Missy Elliott and with Justin Timberlake), and contains vocals by Timberlake as well as by Rihanna. The lyrics concern a relationship gone bad; the singer compares her ex-lover to a drug she was addicted to, which is why she has to go into rehab to get over it. The video consists largely of Rihanna and Timberlake in sultry poses. It is set in the desert. We see Rihanna walking in slow motion and then (clad in green bikini top and shorts) leaning against a red convertible. Timberlake rides towards her on a motorcycle; he arrives just as the music proper begins, gets off the motorcycle and takes off his helmet. He is clad entirely in black, including a leather jacket over a tank top. Also in slow motion, he moves over to an outdoor shower, rinses himself off, then approaches Rihanna. Nothing really happens in the video; Rihanna appears in different costumes, and Timberlake is seen both with and without the leather jacket. Quite unusually for mainstream music videos, Timberlake is objectified by the camera as a sexual object at least as much as Rihanna is. The two of them stalk around one another, and at times embrace one another, but they both move glacially, often keeping poses for longer than would be ‘natural’. Rihanna and Justin both exhibit a smoldering sexual passion that never quite ignites. The video is incredibly striking visually; color shots alternates with black-and-white one. The colors are highly saturated at some points, and diffuse at others; in both these registers, they are pushed almost to the point of abstraction. The black and white image is generally clear, but often slowed down. The color image is continually disrupted, or at least nuanced, by lens flare and other sorts of vibrant reflections in the preternaturally clear desert air. There is a greenish tint to the sunlight, a purplish glow inside Rihanna’s trailer, and an evanscent reddish gleam illuminating the performers’ faces in outdoor nighttime scenes. This video is one of my favorites, because of the way that everything feels suspended, as if it were on the verge of some climax (sexual or narrative, or both) that never quite arrives.

Rude Boy (Melina Matsoukas, 2011) Melina Matsoukas has directed videos for both Rihanna and Beyoncé (most notably Formation); most recently, she was the director of the great 2019 film Queen and Slim. The song is upbeat and filled with Jamaican and other West Indian beats and inflections (reflecting Rihanna’s roots in Barbados). The lyrics are filled with sexual swagger and innuendo; Rihanna taking control of the sexual action, and tauntingly asking her man, “can you get it up?… are you big enough?” The video, unlike anything else of Rihanna’s that we have seen, is aggressively graphical. Cut-out images of Rihanna dancing, and/or playing percussion, and/or riding a motorcycle or a variety of stuffed animals (all this presumably shot in front of a green screen) are juxtaposed with other graphic elements, including bright, zigzagged colors, a backdrop representing a giant boombox or a sound system’s enormous speakers, and words scrawled graffiti-style across the screen. Most of the time, Rihanna appears alone, but sometimes her image is accompanied by those of male models. Often Rihanna’s image is split or multiplied into identical or mirror-image figures, sometimes of different sizes, sometimes of different colors, sometimes of different degrees of transparency. And often these multiple Rihanna images are jerked quickly back and forth like an animated GIF (or like the visual equivalent of turntable scratching). There are also detached closeups of Rihanna’s lips, at one point multiplying and graphically stylized in the manner of an Andy Warhol painting. During the song’s bridge, Rihanna is dressed in a black-and-white bodysuit filled with the sorts of semi-abstract swirls we find in Keith Haring’s paintings; the background is also a Haring-esque design; and Rihanna is seated on a stuffed zebra, with its black-and-white stripes resonating with the Haring swirls. The return of the final chorus also returns us to the vibrant, colorful graphics of the earlier portions of the video. All in all, the rhythms of both song and video are unyieldingly hard; but also exuberant, energetic, and excessive.

S&M (Melina Matsoukas, 2011) Another pushing-the-boundaries video directed by Melina Matsoukas. Rihanna mostly appears as a dominatrix, with various outfits and hairstyles. (Though there is also a sequence near the end where she is seen bound up). The lyrics reference sex directly, but in the visuals Rihanna’s s&m relationship is mostly with the press. One central repeating image in the video shows her in front of a room, wrapped in plastic, while the reporters interviewing her all have gags in their mouths. (Though there is also a sequence with Rihanna walking a man like a dog). The music is upbeat electro, and the actions depicted in the video come off more as comedic excess than as a serious exploration of the dynamics of BDSM. And let’s not forget the shots in which Rihanna simulates oral sex with a banana and with strawberries. Alll in all, Rihanna is challenging taboos — but playfully, rather than with anguish and tragic intensity. It’s her way of saying, in effect, ‘I can do whatever the fuck I want, and have fun doing it too.’ This is an empowering statement for a black woman — though it might not be for the likes of, say, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, or Brett Kavanaugh. The whole point of the video, it seems to me, is that powerful white men get away with stuff all the time, whereas minorities (like black women) get held to a very different standard. Here is a good article, written shortly after the video’s initial release, about the hypocrisy and double standard that were revealed by the controversy over the video,

We Found Love (Melina Matsoukas, 2012) Another video by Melina Matsoukas. The song was written and produced by Calvin Harris; it is based around one insanely catchy short riff (accompanying the line “we found love in a hopeless place”) repeated over and over again. (Calvin Harris appears briefly in the video, DJing at a rave, at approximately 2:06 and 2:10). There are two stretches in the song where we hear an accelerating soar — the rhythm pounded out more and more insistently, with synthesized sounds repeated at an ever-higher and higher pitch — followed by an abrupt drop (1:45-2:00, and 3:37-3:52). These soars are common in 21st century EDM (electronic dance music); they are one of Calvin Harris’ specialties, and he rarely does them better than he does here. A soar like this suggests mounting sexual excitement, culminating in a moment of orgasmic release. Note how the video’s editing follows the music by becoming more and more frenetic during these two stretches of the song: the shot lengths become shorter and shorter, and also much less linear. Quick shots of Rihanna and her boyfriend (played by the mixed-race model and boxer Dudley O’Shaughnessy) having sex (in the first sequence) or arguing (in the second sequence) are interspersed with shots of fireworks, of drugs (pills floating through the air; the lit tip of a joint in extreme closeup), of crowds in big cities moving at accelerated speeds, of the pupil of an eye dilating (again in extreme closeup; dilated pupils are often taken as a sign of drug use, though they can have other causes), and (in the second sequence) of a nuclear explosion.
Aside from this, the video gives us an entire mini-narrative. Though some critics have compared the videos to various movies about obsessive sexual relationships and substance abuse, what is striking to me is how the story is told without making use of narrative film conventions. Instead, Matsoukas uses radical montage, built up over the insistently repetitive nature of the song. Before the song proper begins, we get slow piano music and a voiceover (by the British actress Agyness Deyn) that foreshadows the entire video, with its reflections on love and loss, and on how good and bad moments in an intense relationship seem inextricable from one another: when it’s over, “you almost wish that you could have all that bad stuff back, so that you could have the good.” There is a montage that includes shots of council housing (UK housing developments for poor people) alongside shots from scenes that we will see in more detail later; but the shot lengths are much longer than they will be in the video proper (they match the slowness of the piano music and the spoken narration at this point).
At 0:45, a shot of lighting and sound of thunder signal the beginning of the song proper. This shot is quickly cut with one in which the strobe of the lightning is superimposed over Rihanna standing against the wall in a bedroom; then we cut quickly to a video game screen. Through the rest of the video, we see the relationship between Rihanna and her boyfriend in fragments. The earlier parts of the video show them deeply focused on one another, first playfully and then more intensely sexually; these shots are increasingly interspersed with representations of drug use (e.g., lighting up multiple joints at once, blowing pot smoke into one anothers’ throats, closeups of a pill bottle being opened and of the pills themselves) and of other illicit acts (e.g. shoplifting). In the later parts of the video, these sorts of shots are increasingly accompanied or replaced by ones of the couple arguing or even fighting, of them sulking at one another, of them in separate shots, both pouting or looking angry, in order to emphasize their separation. These are also accompanied by quick shots of police lights, of a building imploding, and of surreal images, like the one of Rihanna puking up streamers (4:03-4:04). There are also shots where Rihanna singing is superimposed upon background images of clouds or fire (the important thing here being that Rihanna is not in the background locations, but the separateness and semi-transparency of the two shots is emphasized – a similar thing was done in Mandler’s video for Disturbia, discussed above). The work of telling the story is done through montage, without necessarily having linear relations from shot to shot. Instead, the frequencies of the various sorts of shots change in the course of the video. The last sequence of the video is the closest we get to linearity, as Rihanna enters their apartment, sees the boyfriend passed out on the floor, and gathers her stuff; he wakes up and grabs her leg in an effort to get her to stay, but she hits him with her bag and leaves. Even this sequence, though, is cut with blurry shots of light strobing over Rihanna’s face, and with several closer shots of Rihanna singing (evidently not in the same location as where the action is taking place. Finally, the music ends. We get one final shot — held for about five seconds and then fading — of Rihanna sitting scrunched up in a corner of her room, head in her hands, facing the wall.
There are still a lot of things in the video I have not mentioned — a complete shot breakdown would be much longer — but I hope I have said enough to show how the music-video-montage style of narrating really works (many videos do similar things, but Matsoukas does it with particular skill and emotional force), and how different it is from other kinds of cinematic storytelling. The music video works because of how it modulates emotional ups and downs so powerfully through audiovisual means. Rihanna and Matsoukas convey a vision that is at once deeply romantic and ecstatic, and yet also utterly desolate.

Bitch Better Have My Money (Rihanna & Megaforce, 2015) This is an amazing and weird song and video. The video, with its extreme violence, was certainly intended to provoke controversy and outrage, and it succeeded (see, for example the horrified review here. But what such critics didn’t get was how Rihanna is playing with, and messing with, quite familiar movie tropes: above all, the genre of revenge fantasy. (Think of most of Quentin Tarantino’s films, for instance). Rihanna links this tradition to the frequent hip hop theme of demanding to get paid (for some earlier examples, mostly involving male rappers, see here.) This also relates back to the financial self-sufficiency theme in Rihanna’s video for Pour It Up, which we discussed (at looked at some readings about) earlier in the semester.
Of course, as always with music videos, we need to consider the music and other sound alongside the lyrics. The video is seven minutes long, much longer than the audio of the song by itself. At the beginning and the end, we hear nature noises accompanying the shot (only fully revealed at the end) of Rihanna lying in the case filled with money. There are also diegetic sounds as Rihanna drives through the night with the trunk. There is also elevator music playing (with sarcastic implications) while the accountant’s wife (played by Rachel Roberts), white and affluent, finishes getting ready to go out. The song itself has a harsh rhythm, and repeated lyrics (the title of the song) over some really bizarre sounds: what Robin James aptly describes as a “woozy carousel synth loop.” During the time the song is playing, we see the kidnapping of the accountant’s wife; although some of these scenes are sadistic in content, they have a comedic edge to them. As Rihanna and her associates move and manipulate the kidnap victim — for instance making her appear to wave when a cop walks by — I was reminded several times of the 1989 grotesque comedy film Weekend at Bernie’s. The shots of extreme luxury (as when they are on the yacht), and the shots of drinking liquor from the bottle and smoking from a bong, also recall many (usually male-dominated) hip hop videos, even as here they are being enjoyed by Rihanna and her all-woman gang of kidnappers. Though Rihanna messes with the kidnapped wife, the latter part of the video, and of the song, deals instead with her violent revenge against the accountant himself (played by Mads Mikkelsen, a Danish actor probably best known in the US for his role as Hannibal Lecter in the TV series Hannibal). An onscreen note identifies this character, rather than his wife, as the “bitch” the song refers to (while we see this, the catch-phrase of the song is phase-shifted so it sounds like a deep masculine voice). He is helpless, bound in an easy chair, while Rihanna takes her time looking over her various tools of torture. All in all, Rihanna is taking images from revenge fantasy movies and macho hip hop videos, and reclaiming them for her all-woman crew over the nightmare-dementia of the song.
There’s a lot more to say about this video, but I will stop here. For a more complex and more complete take on the video than I am able to offer, see the discussion by the philosopher and music theorist Robin James; part one of her discussion here – the page also contains links to the other two parts.

Calvin Harris f. Rihanna, This is What You Came For (Emil Nava, 2016) This, like We Found Love, is a collaboration between Rihanna and Calvin Harris, but this time Harris gets the main credit, with Rihanna as the featured artist. The song is an exuberant club dance number. (Fun fact: the song was actually written by Harris in collaboration with Taylor Swift). The video is directed by Emil Nava, who has done over a dozen videos for Harris, together with work for other well-known artists. The video opens with a glitchy video test signal, and then it gives us several distant views of an enormous cube, standing in various wilderness settings, but also at one point seemingly on a soundstage, surrounded by strobing spotlights. For most of the video, we see Rihanna singing and dancing either inside the cube, or just in front of it. All five walls of the cube (aside from the open, sixth side where the camera is located), behind, above, and wrapping around Rihanna, are video screens depicting everything from the wilderness outside to crowds at a rave, to different abstract colors. The colors may remind us of Director X’s video for Drake’s Hotline Bling (2015). But that video’s cube was sleek and minimal, restricted to glowing in various pure colors. In contrast, This is What You Came For expresses a go-for-broke maximalism; even when there are only colors on the wall, they contain mixed and varying hues. At times, it is hard to determine whether the images are projected on the walls of the cube, or whether the cube is just transparent, showing us what lies outside it. (There are also some shots of a car under the strobe lights; it does not seem to be inside the cube). On the other hand, though Rihanna seems to be dancing and walking inside the cube, more physical than whatever might be projected on the walls, her image also occasionally glitches, reminding us that it is a video construction as well. Overall, the video blurs the line between what is ‘really’ there and what is just a computer-generated imagery. The song seems to celebrate the technological possibilities of continual transformation.
A close reading of the video by Brad Osborn, including a careful breakdown of its visual and musical parameters, can be downloaded here.

Music videos, 2019

Music videos, 2019: I don’t do top ten lists, because my viewing/listening is just too limited. There could well be — and indeed, there undoubtably are — great videos made this year that I haven’t seen and don’t know about. So here are my favorite music videos of 2019: an entirely subjective list. I mention artist, song(s), and (director in parentheses). Most of the comments are fairly short; a few are somewhat longer. (I can’t help it, I always get carried away when it comes to FKA twigs). The videos are not listed in any particular order. (If I see any additional ones that I really like, after this has been posted, I will add them).

(I am not doing a favorite films list at all this year, because there is so much I haven’t seen. But this list should bear witness that there is at least as much invention and creativity overall in music videos going on right now as there is in movies and in television series).
NOW UPDATED WITH LINKS!

  • Solange, When I Get Home (Solange). This is a long-form video, incorporating most of an entire album, in the manner of Beyoncé (Lemonade), Janelle Monae (Dirty Computer) and Tierra Whack (Whack World) in previous years. It is pretty impressive on first viewing, though I haven’t watched it enough yet to really comment.
  • FKA twigs, Cellophane (Andrew Thomas Huang). The first sounds we hear, before the song begins, are applause and the metallic click of high heels. The music, once it begins, is quite spare: FKA twigs’ high-pitched, breathless singing is accompanied just by a few piano chords and irregular percussion. The whole song is an erotic lament: “And I just want to feel you’re there,” with the “I…” drawn out; or in the chorus: “Why won’t you do it for me/ When all I do is for you?” FKA twigs walks backstage, peers through a curtain, then passes through and displays her body to an audience we hear but do not see. Once we get through the curtain, the stage is immaculate: sepia-toned and highly reflective. FKA twigs flexes on the ground, and then starts pole dancing. She wraps her body around the pole, ascends, turns herself upside down, exchanges places with her own reflection. Audience forgotten, she rises along the pole into an open sky, where she meets her cyborg insect doppelgänger. The contact is fatal: she falls, falls, falls, her body still rotating wildly, sometimes around the pole, other times through air, at one point maybe even through water. The camera work is gorgeous: sometimes blurry, sometimes with strobe effects, sometimes circling rapidly around her, other times contemplating as she seems to float gracefullyh downwards. Finally she falls through a hole in the earth. She lands in a large circle of richly oozing, ochre-colored mud or clay. Masked women crawl toward her, and rub the ochre substance all over her body. Behind the song, we hear twigs coughing and panting. The panting continues for a few seconds after the music ends, while the camera fixes on a close-up of twigs’ face. The video is mythical and carnal, all at once. We seem to have moved through a ritual of ascent, descent, and grounding, or of death and (perhaps) rebirth; but despite the performativity of the pole dance, and the special effects of the ascent and the fall, we are left with the shocking intimacy of FKA twigs’ body and voice.
  • FKA twigs, Holy Terrain (FKA twigs and Nick Walker); Home With You (FKA twigs). FKA twigs has made some of the best music videos of any artist, consistently, all the way back to her debut in 2012. This year she released two other videos besides Cellophane, both self-directed or self-co-directed, and both really good, even if Cellophane overshines them.
  • Tierra Whack, Unemployed (Cat Solen). This is the only video Tierra Whack released this year. But the combination of gross and whimsical horror is totally her sensibility. She seems to be a captive chef, and the food talks back to her, or at least shows terror when she tries to prepare it. Have you ever had a nightmare about potatoes?
  • Yves Tumor, Lifetime (Floria Sigismondi). The music feels viscous, yet with violently dislocating rhythms. The visuals are as baroque as anything Sigismondi has ever done: dark hues, extravagant costumes, glitch editing, a dance of yearning and confinement; it feels like an odd but intense ritual for some unknown religion. Yves Tumor is alternately dressed in drag, and pulled upon by multiple ropes while wearing devil’s horns.
  • Stormzy, Vossi Bop (Henry Scholfield). Rapture: delirious and mostly mobile long takes, matched across multiple London locations, as Stormzy raps and dances with a backing crew of hundreds. Inspirational. “Fuck the government and fuck Boris.”
  • Chemical Brothers, Got to Keep On (Michel Gondry and Olivier Gondry). The music could have been beamed in from thirty years ago; the multicultural dancers, with their moves and the costumes, at first seem equally, charmingly retro, until… something happens… alien metamorphoses, but somehow still joyous.
  • Brockhampton, Sugar (Kevin Abstract). Coitus interruptus, a grumpy cartoon Sun, alien sex terrorism, green goo with the consistency of jello, the kitschy flames of hell, spinning cameras, suggestions of flight in a balloon, and the yearning-r&b vocals of the world’s greatest boy band: “Do you love me, love me, love me?”
  • Haim, Summer Girl; Now I’m In It; Hallelujah (Paul Thomas Anderson). Haim is a really good band whose music just doesn’t resonate emotionally with me very much; Paul Thomas Anderson is a great filmmaker whose movies I admire more than love. But Anderson made three music videos for Haim this year, and they are all beautiful and evocative: loopily performative, showcasing the charisma of the Haim sisters, and adding to the storehouse of my cinematic (imaginary) vision of Los Angeles.
  • Moses Sumney, Virile (Moses Sumney). Moses Sumney dances frenetically, bare-chested, in a meat locker (though the space is occasionally seems to be dressed as a sort of perverse shrine to dead meat). His body tenses and spasms, as if he were at war with himself. (The lyrics and the harsh music suggest that he is at war with the suffocating social stereotype of masculinity, which he hates, but within which he is trapped). The camera bobs and weaves around him, aiming for his torso, almost like a boxer; and the harshly chopped-up editing adds more layers of discomfort. The latter portion of the video shows Sumney running through a field, while menacing (CGI) insect swarms roil the sky behind him. And it ends with Sumney lying on the ground, the camera moving in on his face and torso, as beetles crawl over every inch of his flesh. Astonishing and devastating.
  • Kesha, My Own Dance (Allie Avital). I described this video on twitter as being “ferocious and abject, all at once”; the director favorited and re-tweeted me. The song, with its poppy melody matched to a brutal beat, is Kesha’s kiss-off to her haters: don’t tell me what to do, “don’t circumcise my circumstance” (!!!). The video shows a tacky Los Angeles apartment complex; Kesha is out of generic dry cereal, so she sashays over to the convenience store, passing apartments with creepy twins out of The Shining, musclemen exercizing and making out, furry sex orgies, narcissists chilling by the pool, and other iconic instances of sleazy Los Angeles night life. And the video ends (as it must) with Kesha submerging herself in a kiddie pool filled with generic milk and cereal. Wow.
  • Billie Eilish, bury a friend (Michael Chaves); bad guy (Dave Meyers); you should see me in a crown (Takashi Murakami); all the good girls go to hell (Rich Lee); xanny (Billie Eilish). Billie Eilish released five music videos in 2019, and they are all great. What’s more, though they are all made by different directors, and even though one of them is anime, they all project a consistent aesthetic. Along with the minimal, skewed bass lines, the childlike singsong melodies, and the vocals that are both whispery (suggesting intimacy) and heavily electronically processed (suggesting alienation), we get goth horror tropes, sometimes pushed to the point of absurdity; stark color schemes, sometimes minimal, nearly black and white, other times garishly contrasting; a kind of wallowing in morbid materiality (blood from a nosebleed; slick and thick oil stains, flames); and acts of impersonal aggression (hypodermic syringes plunged into Eilish’s back, burning cigarettes stubbed out against her face).
  • Matt Ox f. Chief Keef, Jetlag (Al Kalyk). I am tempted to say that, in this video, Al Kalyk does for digital post-processing today pretty much what Eisenstein did for silent film editing ninety years ago. I leave it to others to consider which director offers a more severe critique of capitalism.
  • James Massiah, Natural Born Killers (Ride for Me) (Ian Pons Jewell). The world reaches its solar climax or heat death: exhaustion and extermination. The ever-inventive Ian Pons Jewell shows us amazing architectural tableaus of human bodies, exquisitely lit, oozing with sweat, on the edge of transformation, in various postures of stasis and liquefaction.
  • Christine and the Queens, Comme si (David Wilson). A fantastic solo dance video, set in a natural pool fed by a waterfall. It starts with a visual allusion to Millais’ (in)famous painting of Ophelia; but this Ophelia rises from the dead, as Christine says, “to express her desire and madness with exhilaration” through an amazing dance in which she jumps and splashes, shadowboxes, and moves with wild gestures, emulating Krump dance style. There are long, fluid takes at first, but by the end the camera is also dancing and lunging, while waterspouts explode out of the pool. And Christine herself has never looked more butch, androgynous, or trans (I am not sure which is the best word here).
  • Clipping, All in Your Head (C. Prinz). I don’t really understand this video, or know how to describe the experience of watching it. Clipping’s barrage of noise and feedback, and savage rapping by Daveed Diggs, is supplemented by black womens’ voices: the deranged preaching of Robyn Hood and the yearning pseudo-gospel of Counterfeit Madison. The Clipping men themselves don’t appear in the video, but Robyn Hood and Counterfeit Madison do: the former refracted into multiple mirror images, while we spy upon the latter through a glory hole. The video also features two other black women performers, Jazz Washington and Jantae Spinks. We see one or the other of them twirling their long braid like a lasso, gyrating in front of a car, in multiple iterations stapled to the walls as living sculptures, and walking down a corridor, carrying a hooded hawk at some moments, and a living flame at other moments. The editing is as fractured as the sound. The video is both haunting and disruptive, even though you wouldn’t usually expect these qualities to fit well together.
  • Charli XCX f. Christine and the Queens, Gone (Colin Solal Cardo). The song is a beat-heavy feminist anthem, angry but ultimately affirmative. Charli and Christine dance intimately together. Colin Solal Cardo, who has made great videos for both artists separately, pulls out all the stops. We have both artists bound with ropes on top of a car (but escaping); we have rapid-fire dance montages; we have banks of harsh lights; we have artificial rain pouring from the ceiling; we have a ring of fire. It’s almost a parody of the spectacular grandiosity of so many (male) rock performances and videos; but the absolute, furious conviction of the artists and the director pulls it off.
  • 21 Savage f. J. Cole. a lot (Aisultan Seitov).Double consciousness, and double actuality. Scenes of an African American family reunion, with all its joys, affirmations, and aspirations, are intercut with briefer shots of police murders, incarceration, criminal activity, etc. A sweet soul sample underlies 21 Savage and J. Cole rapping about the harshness of their lives. “How many times did you cheat? – A lot. How many times did you lie? – A lot… I’d rather be broke in jail than be dead and rich.” It’s worth noting that 21 Savage has been harrassed by ICE (he was born in the UK, though he grew up mostly in Atlanta), and that the video’s director comes from Kazakhstan: what we call the American Dream is most fervently believed in and pursued by the very people whom the current regime seeks to exclude or imprison.
  • Lana Del Rey, Doin’ Time (Rich Lee). I find this fantasia irresistible. Giant, movie-monster Lana, enjoying the summertime as she strides over LA, comes to the aid of 1950s Lana at the drive-in. It’s corny, it’s cheesy, it’s archly self-reflexive, and it’s too disingenuous by far — but it works.
  • Flying Lotus, f. Denzel Curry, Black Balloons Reprise (Jack Begert). Flying Lotus and Denzel Curry have both separately released music videos with horror-film and surrealist imagery before. And Curry has released two previous songs/videos that center upon the menacing image of the black balloon. Here, the combination of Lotus’s electronic sounds and Curry’s desperate vocalizations is dense and implosive — both sonically and visually. The video is a quick nightmare tour of Los Angeles, as a mouth grows on the back of Curry’s hand, and a Christian cross radiates from his chest. He also draws figures directly on the screen: cubes and pentagrams within which he then finds himself imprisoned. Black balloons rise into the air, expand, blaze and give off smoke, and change their skins; often these metamorphoses flow across the screen while Curry himself seems trapped as a still image.
  • Kelsey Lu, Foreign Car (Vincent Haycock). This video is very nearly a series of static tableaus, as the singer poses, wearing extravagant costumes, and usually surrounded by gorgeous bare-chested men. Though sometimes we just get contemplative glimpses of a man or men by themselves; and sometimes Lu poses in front of a bright red Ferrari (presumably the “foreign car” of the title). Lu is easily as glamorous as any of the men — though they are clearly spectacles for her delectation, rather than the reverse. (Also, Lu disdains to shave her underarm hair).
  • Sevdaliza, Martyr (Marlou Fernanda and Sevdaliza). The song lies somewhere between angry and mournful, with sparse instrumentation (mostly violin), brooding vocals, and lyrics about abandoned love. The video is in black and white, the frame mostly quite dark except for the light on Sevdaliza’s face and (sometimes) arms. The fluidly-edited shots are from a variety of angles: but they are always close to Sevdaliza’s body, ranging only narrowly from regular closeups (we see all of her body as she crouches hunched up on the floor) to extreme closeups (her face filling the frame). Sevdaliza does not lip-sync the song; instead, all she does is slowly writhe and twist, in a kind of minimal or not-quite dance. The effect is smothering: extreme intimacy as we feel so physically close to Sevdaliza as she expresses emotion directly; yet we still somehow remain at a vast distance from her inaccessible inner self. Like the lover she addresses in the song, we have abandoned her.

Robert Markley on Kim Stanley Robinson

The University of Illinois Press’ series Modern Masters of Science Fiction continues to provide the gold standard for recent science fiction criticism. I have previously written about Gerry Canavan’s book on Octavia Butler and Gwyneth Jones’ book on Joanna Russ; I have just read another excellent volume, Robert Markley’s book on Kim Stanley Robinson. Markley gives a thoughtful and comprehensive overview of Robinson’s voluminous output (even though KSR is one of my favorite currently active science fiction writers, there are still a lot of his books that I haven’t read; Markley covers all the novels — except for the latest one, RED MOON, which was published after Markley’s volume was already written — and several important short stories as well). Markley traces the intertwined themes running through Robinson’s work: his socialist politics, his largely positive view of science and working scientists, his historical imagination (which leads him to write revisionary histories of the past as well as speculative histories of the future), his concerns about the environmental crisis and visionary efforts to imagine ways of dealing with it, his broader vision (both scientific and spiritual) of ecological interdependence, and his accounts of dreams of interplanetary exploration, travel, and settlement, together with his counterbalancing sense of our necessary groundedness in the Earth. Above all, Markely charts how Robinson seeks to nurture possibilities for hope amidst all the dystopian dangers that we face, and his sense of utopia as a process, rather than a destination. Perfection is impossible, and limits are inevitable; but this doesn’t mean that we need to settle for things being as bad as they currently are. Markley both gives us insightful readings of Robinson’s fiction, and sends us back to that fiction, asking us to read or re-read it, and to ponder it more deeply.

Sue Burke, Interference

Sue Burke’s new science fiction novel Interference is the sequel to her previous book Semiosis. That book introduced us to Pax, a superhabitable Earth-like planet some fifty-six light years away. Human colonizers, fleeing an ecologically and politically ravaged Earth, arrive on Pax; they must learn to get along with the native life forms. These include, most notably, intelligent plants. All the plant species on the planet are sentient to varying degrees; they are often engaged in Darwinian struggles against one another as well as against the animals who feed on them. There are also a number of language-capable animal species too, including the predatory eagles and the scavenging bats. (The colonists give names reminiscent of Earth species to all the life forms they discover, even though their biochemical makeup and descent are quite different). Pax also has a population of large arthropod-like beings known as the Glassmakers; intellectually and culturally, they are at least the equals of Homo sapiens, though their manners and outlooks are unsurprisingly quite different. In Semiosis, the human community learns, over the course of several generations and about a hundred years, that in order to survive they must give up their colonialist/pioneering/conquering mentality, and instead negotiate ongoing relationships with the other species. By the end of the novel, a stable community of human beings and Glassmakers has been established, with both species in effect playing the role of “service animals” for Stevland, the intelligent bamboo species that dominates the portion of the planet on which they live.

Burke draws on recent scientific research that has discovered that, already here on Earth, plants are sentient in the sense that they actively sense and monitor their environment, they are able to learn and remember, they make decisions among possible alternatives, and overall they respond flexibly to the situations in which they find themselves. Plant neurobiology is a real scientific subfield. For more on this, see the recent books by Daniel Chamovitz and by Monica Gagliano. Only animals have cells specialized as neurons, but non-specialized plant cells exhibit the same physiological bases for thought — electrochemical reactions and transmissions from cell to cell — as animal neurons do. Of course, Burke’s intelligent plants on Pax are extrapolated far beyond anything that actually exists on Earth. But such further specialization, on the basis of already-existing biochemical processes, is not wildly implausible. Intelligence in varying degrees is a useful adaptation, evidenced to some extent in all living organisms on Earth, and there is no reason why it could not develop further. On Pax, plants have cells specialized in similar ways to animal neurons {Another science fiction novel that includes speculation on neural cells added to plant architecture is Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier}.

You definitely need to read Semiosis first in order to make sense of Interference. But given that, the sequel at least equals the previous book, and adds layers of richness to Burke’s world-building. Interference picks up the story about a hundred years after the end of Semiosis. The human/Glassmaker/bamboo community is largely doing well. Life on Pax is not quite a utopia, but it arguably allows for a greater degree of flourishing than most of the actual social formations we are familiar with here on Earrh. There are all sorts of minor injusticies, power differentials, and petty disputes and jealousies. And there is a lot of work to be done: many advanced technologies have been lost, and metals are generally not available. Nonetheless, the small society on Pax, organized around one single village, offers a lot of room for personal idiosyncrasies. Many things are done collectively, and resources are shared on a mostly equal basis. Everyone has access to food and shelter. People accrue obligations to one another, but there is no money. Glassmaker society is matriarchal and somewhat hierarchical; among the human inhabitants there seems to be gender equality. Humans and Glassmakers together make decisions on a more or less democratic basis, though there is no doubt that Stevland, the intelligent bamboo, has ultimate authority.

But Stevland is not a dictator; it understands that its own well-being is entirely intertwined with that of the two other sentient species, as well as with a wide variety of other plant and animal life with which it remains in communication. The politics of Pax rests upon the biological conditions of commensalism, mutualism, and symbiosis. One of the best things about both novels is the way that Burke imagines such relations arising out of Darwinian competition. Burke’s vision stands in opposition to selfish gene theory, but it is in general accord with more recent theories about the evolution of cooperation, multi-level selection, and ecological webs of multispecies dependencies. Burke does not skimp on the horrors of predation and parasitism; some of the competition among species described in both volumes is violent to the point of extermination. But the novels also insist on the ways that mutual dependencies are also a crucial part of evolution; cooperation itself evolves, and complex forms of life could never come to exist without it. Most importantly, perhaps — at least from a human point of view — is the fact that the multispecies community on Pax maintains a more or less steady state, in terms of energy, ecology, and economics. It does not strive to endlessly expand in the manner of all too many human societies on Earth, ranging from ancient and early modern despotic regimes all the way to contemporary capitalism.

The ground for all this was already established in Semiosis; but Interference pushes things a lot further. The second book has a wider scope than the first. Interference starts on Earth, and we witness a near future involving massive genocide followed by the establishment of an ecofascist regime. This helps us appreciate, by contrast, the positive aspects of life on Pax — despite its dangers, and its lower levels of technology and material well-being. At the start of the novel, Earth has lost contact with Pax; a spaceship is sent there on a scientific mission, to find out what happened as well as to check on the animal and plant life. This allows Burke to avoid the danger that is often attributed to utopian fiction: a portrait of a more or less stable and satisfying social situation can lead to a boring, conflict-free narrative. Instead, we get massive cultural and political conflict, already among the human beings on the spaceship, even before they arrive; and all the more so, once they have arrived, between them and the humans on Pax, not to mention all the other species.

I will avoid spoilers at least to the extent of not recounting any of these conflicts in detail. I will restrict myself to several observations. The book extends the range of sentient species further than had already been done in the first volume. Imperatives of both violent conflict, and grudging or active cooperation, together with instances of both understanding and misunderstanding, continue to ramify in Interference. Burke does not extend her vision of sentient diversity to the extent of radical incommunicability, i.e. the existence of intelligences so different from one another that they are unable to communicate at all. But she does try to imagine how sentient arthropod (Glassmaker) intelligence might in fact be quite different from ours, and plant intelligence even more so. This is highlighted in Interference by the way that each chapter of the novel has a different narrator: we get Earth humans, Pax humans, Glassmakers, and plants. The ongoing events are described from vastly varying perspectives. Interestingly, it is the human narrators who come out the worst: they range from badly misunderstanding what they experience, to seriously delusional, to outright sociopathic. The Earth humans come out as far worse than the Pax humans, though the latter also show serious limitations. The chapter narrated by a Glassmaker is somewhat more understanding and sensible than any of the human ones; and the chapter narrated by Stevland is the most rational, observant, emotionally balanced, and self-aware of all. We also get, from Stevland’s perspective, a powerful sense both of the plant’s stable rootedness and rhizomatic proliferation, and of the constriction it feels from being unable to really travel.

In short, Interference gives us an absorbing and exciting story, but it also asks us to think about how things might be otherwise than what we take for granted, both for better and for worse. In particular, it thinks about emotion, intelligence, and the problems of living with others in both a biological and a sociological register. It neither reduces social processes to biology, nor pretends that biology is irrelevant to our own species being (or to those of presumptive other intelligent beings). It extends Darwinian perspectives to the social and intellectual realm — and it does this in ways that are opposed to, and offer a useful counterpoint to, the nastily reductive fictions of’ so-called ‘evolutionary psychology.’ All in all, Interference, like its predecessor, is science fiction at its best.

Remembering Kathy Acker

This weekend is the Kathy Acker in Seattle symposium, exploring her visits to Seattle in 1980 and 1989, and the influence she had on younger writers, artists, and musicians. I was unable to attend, but I participated in the symposium via Skype. I read an essay/chapter that I wrote about Acker a long time ago, a text that I am still proud of – it is probably the greatest success I have ever had in not commenting on another writer, but mingling their prose with my own (thus mimicking Acker’s own technique as a writer). I am not sure how well it all went: there were sound issues with the Skype transmission, and I read much faster than I ought to have done, in order not to overrun my time slot.
But in any case, I prefaced the reading with a short remembrance of Kathy Acker, how I met her, and how I saw her both as a writer and as a person. I am reproducing this here:

I want to talk about Kathy Acker as a person, somebody I knew; but also about Kathy Acker as a writer. The two are not identical, though it is difficult to disentwine them. Indeed, Acker’s construction of her public persona as an avant-garde punk-feminist icon is certainly one part of her accomplishment as an artist.

But I still wish to put the emphasis where I think it belongs, which is in Kathy Acker’s accomplishments as a writer. There is something overwhelming about her fiction, which has to do with the way that it combines emotional intensity with rigorous and incisive intellectual abstraction. These qualities are generally considered to be entirely incompatible with one another. You can be raw and immediate, or you can be distant and reflective; but you aren’t supposed to be able to be both at once. And yet this is what Acker accomplishes in her writing. She conveys the urgency and excitement of sexual arousal, and the pain and rage that come from a lover’s betraying you. But she also takes us away from all these feelings — estranges us, as the old modernist critics would put it — in order to stop us from taking things for granted. Instead, her writing forces us to think, for instance, about how gender stereotypes work in our society today, and about how oppressive and constraining they are.

In literary terms — which always mattered to her, though they are not the only things that mattered to her — Acker is equally an emotivist and a formalist. She is widely known for being sexually explicit and vulgar in her writings, and for giving voice to womens’ feelings that were scarcely allowed to be expressed so openly before. But she deserves to be equally well known for the ways that she takes pre-existing materials, tears them apart and assembles them into new configurations. She makes new realities out of the debris of old ones. “Art is this certain kind of making,” Acker once wrote; “a writer makes reality, a writer is a kind of journalist, a magic one.”

Autobiographical material certainly plays a large role in Acker’s fiction, as Chris Kraus shows in her recent biography. But all sorts of other materials play a role too. Acker describes her writing method as piracy. She adapts, transforms, or “plagiarizes” a wide variety of sources, including novels, plays, movies, histories, philosophy texts, and so on. To give an almost random example, just because I happened to be reading it the other day: on page 16 of Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker splices an account of how her biological father abandoned her mother when she was pregnant, with an account of the suicide of the French Romantic poet Gerard de Nerval. Both of these are then juxtaposed with a reading of the Hanged Man card from the Tarot deck, together with a passage lifted from James Miller’s biography of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, explaining why Foucault retained an interest in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, despite the latter’s having been a Nazi.

The staggering result of these combinations is a vertiginous, unexpected new narrative. Tarot plus Foucault and Heidegger plus Nerval plus autobiographical trauma leads us to someplace we have never been before. Through this web of references, Acker invokes “the act of turning inside out, reversing, traveling the road into the land of the dead while being and remaining alive.” This is an impossible quest; but it is one that resonates throughout Western culture, from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (the explicit subject of one of Acker’s last writing projects, left incomplete at the time of her death) to the writings of the 20th-century French avant-garde writer Maurice Blanchot (whose work was always a touchstone for Acker). All this from a single page from just one novel.

To put this more broadly and abstractly, Acker is accusing our contemporary American way of life of being a culture of death. And she is asking — here and throughout her fiction — if there is any way for us to remain alive, and to be open to life and love, even as we are unavoidably stuck in this culture of death. Nobody would call Kathy Acker a utopian writer; she is too acutely aware of all the obstacles we face, both from existing social and economic structures, and from the unruly passions of our own hearts. Neverthelss, she continually asks us to envision new ways of living and loving together: to imagine a time “when there’s human pleasure in this world” (Pussy, King of the Pirates), or when “there’ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn’t just disgust” (Empire of the Senseless).

I started reading Acker’s novels at around the same time that I moved to Seattle, in the mid-1980s. The first book of hers I read was probably Great Expectations, which was published in 1983. It was also around this time that I first saw Acker give a reading, at an art space in San Francisco. I didn’t get to meet her in person then; but I become sufficiently obsessed with her writing that I tracked down and purchased everything that she had published up to that point. And I started buying and reading all her new books as soon as they came out: Don Quixote in 1986, Literal Madness in 1987, and Empire of the Senseless in 1988. Each of these was an important event for me: a communication from beyond, you might say.

I was thrilled, therefore, when Larry Reid invited Acker to come to Seattle in 1989. I wanted to hear her read again. But also, in order to meet her, I offered to interview her for the art journal Reflex. I scarcely remember the details, any more; and I don’t seem to have preserved a copy of the article I wrote. We met in somebody’s apartment on Capitol Hill. The interview went well; we hit it off. This was partly due to common literary interests; Kathy and I were both in love with the transgressive French writers of the mid-twentieth-century, like Georges Bataille and Jean Genet. In any case, though she was quite different from me, or from anyone else I knew, by the end of the afternoon I felt like we were soulmates. We chatted for several hours, indiscriminately, about life and art and books.

I should point out that Kathy didn’t make any distinction among these topics. She wrote from life, and she also wrote from books. She rejected those all-too-common cliches that would oppose life and art to one another. She was, among so many other things, a voracious reader; she knew a much wider range of books than I did, or than I ever will.

Shortly after Kathy left Seattle, I received a letter from her, saying basically, let’s keep in touch. And we did. Not long after her gig in Seattle, she moved to San Francisco, where she remained until 1996. Kathy seemed to thrive in San Francisco; in those days before extreme gentrification, the city was something of a multicultural, queer, feminist utopia. I had lots of friends and relatives in the Bay Area at that time; I would go down there a couple of times a year. Whenever I went, I made sure to get together with Kathy. Sometimes I would visit her at her apartment in the Haight; other times we would meet at a restaurant, and she would show up on her motorcycle. We had dinner, or went to clubs, or to the movies. I remember seeing Jean Claude Van Damme’s Double Impact with her, on the day that it opened in 1991. She told me that, as far as she was concerned, Van Damme had “the perfect male body”; but she was disappointed in the film, because (in contrast to his previous ones) he didn’t give sufficient recognition and respect to the Asian masters who had taught him martial arts.

During her years in San Francisco, Kathy taught creative writing at the San Francisco Art Instutute. She challenged and excited her students, and in turn she was invigorated by her contact with them. Acker inspired a lot of younger writers and artists — predominantly women — both as a role model and as a teacher. The downside to her job at the Art Institute is that she was horribly underpaid. In those years, she was always looking for a teaching job at a college or university, anywhere in the United States, that would give her adequate pay and medical benefits. But nothing ever turned up.

Kathy left San Francisco in 1996, shortly after she learned that she had cancer. The last time I saw her was once again in Seattle, during the Labor Day weekend 1996, when she came to perform with the Mekons at Bumbershoot. This was a live performance of the album that she did with them: a musical version of Pussy, King of the Pirates. Acker was a writer above all; but she was keenly interested in other media, and especiallly in the new multimedia environment that was just coming into existence at that time, due to growth of the Internet. She told me that she was interested in adapting Pussy into a virtual environment or a video game.

I do not want to claim any special insight here. I would not say that I knew Kathy Acker extremely well; she had broad social networks, and at various points in her life, lots of people were closer to her than I ever was. But I got to know her well enough; and I can confidently say that she was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. She was interested in so many things; she was curious about everything and everyone. Her thinking was fresh, independent, and idiosyncratic. With most people, alas, once you get to know them a bit, you can pretty much tell in advance what they will say about any given subject. But Kathy was one of those extremely rare people whose takes on things you couldn’t possibly predict. I was always surprised, and stimulated, by her insights and opinions.

Kathy was a very demanding person: she expected a lot from others, just as she expected a lot from herself. She could be quite imperious at times: even (or especially?) when she was also feeling vulnerable and desperately needy. This often led to fallings-out with people she had been close to; or in my case, to bouts of anger, eventually followed by reconciliation. To this day, I am not really sure what she saw in me, or why she valued my friendship. But I think her liking for me might have had something to do with what she accurately perceived as my social maladroitness; or even with what could be called (in contemporary terms) my mild gender dysphoria: my failure to adequately perform straight masculinity, even as I am unable to imagine myself in any other terms.

One final, possibly embarrassing, anecdote. When Kathy was on her deathbed, in an alternative cancer treatment clinic in Tijuana, I called her to say goodbye. But being, as usual, socially maladroit, I said just about the stupidest and worst thing I could have said under the circumstances. When I got her on the line, I said to her: “Kathy, I don’t know what to say.” She responded, in a weak voice, ravaged by her illness, that I could at least tell her whether or not I loved her. So I said to her, “Kathy, I love you.”

Favorite Movies, 2018

These are my favorite movies of 2018. I won’t call this a best films list, since there are so many movies I still haven’t seen (for instance, Mandy, Let the Sunshine In, A Star is Born, Vox Lux, If Beale Street Could Talk, Suspiria, and others I am probably forgetting). But among the ones I did catch so far, these are the ones that most impressed me, more or less in (vague) rank order.

  1. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley). Clearly my choice (despite all the ones I have not seen yet) for best film of the year. The closest we may well come to a comprehensive vision of racialized capitalism today: both how it works and how it feels. Satirical, surrealistic science fiction is the only way to be adequate to contemporary social reality.
  2. Bodied (Joseph Kahn). Social commentary on race combined with exuberant formal inventiveness. Kahn is a great music video director, and his earlier feature film Detention (2011) is one of the most important American movies of the twenty-first century. I reviewed Bodied for Cinema Scope journal: http://cinema-scope.com/features/joseph-kahns-bodied/.
  3. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles). Though Orson Welles shot this movie, and began editing it (until it was taken away from him) in the 1970s, it is still remarkably prescient about our media situation today. I won’t say it is as great as Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil, but it does update Kane in the light of the new media landscape that was just emerging then, and that is in full force today. Dazzling more than moving, but definitely brilliant and relevant. I discussed it at greater length here: http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1532.
  4. Annihilation (Alex Garland). Beautiful, speculative, and depressive. Different in many ways from the novel by Jeff VanderMeer on which it is based; but it makes a similarly resonant statement about the alienness of the world that is a (counter-intuitive) consequence of the ruination imposed by the Anthropocene. Filled with haunting moments, like when Tessa Thompson becomes a tree, and when Natalie Portman confronts her spectral double. “It wasn’t destroying. It was changing everything. It was making something new.”
  5. Blindspotting (Carlos Lopez Estrada, Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal). Another brilliant take on race (the inescapable central subject of American life today) and gentrification. Embedded in social reality, but at the same time brilliantly stylized (as when the dialogue turns into hip hop rhymed lyrics). Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have rightly been praised for their screenwriting and performances; but I would like to give props as well to Carlos Lopez Estrada, one of our best music video directors, who powerfully articulates the story in his first feature film.
  6. Blackkklansman (Spike Lee). Spike Lee has been struggling in the past few decades, compared to his earlier successes. But even his misfires have consistently been cinematographically fresh and formally inventive. Here he plays it straight more than he has for a while, and the result is an effective, audience-arousing, pop-mainstream movie on a subject (yes, racism once again) that big-budget Hollywood still won’t touch. This is a far better old-fashioned movie— the kind with characters you can root for and identify with — than any of the ones that overtly reach for that role.
  7. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker). All I can say is that this movie actually delivers on something that all too many experimental films unsuccessfully strive towards: it makes us see the world in a fresh new way. Unprecedented, and yet something we have long needed without realizing it. Something of a 21st-century update of Jacques Rivette, with similar concerns about the nature of performance, or the relation of acting to actuality. I have written a bit about it here: http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1501.
  8. Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor). I haven’t seen Mandy, but it is hard to imagine Nicholas Cage giving a more stirringly and crazily over-the-top performance than he does here. I will never think of the “Hokey Pokey” the same way again. And the movie works effectively as social commentary, as the best horror films so often do — here, a reflection on the dynamics of the suburban nuclear family. (A vision I cannot fail to be disturbed by, speaking as a parent myself). Sharply directed, inverting and deconstructing all the cliches of the genre, by the great Brian Taylor.
  9. Cam (Daniel Goldhaber, Isa Mazzei). A clever and well-made (semi-) horror film about sex work, and what happens when your online account is stolen and you are locked out. In other words, everyday life. (It is refreshing how the movie treats sex work as everyday life in the manner of any other job). This is the sort of movie that I find emotionally compelling and (as my students would say) relatable.
  10. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont). The best French-Catholic-movie-by-an-atheist (yes, that is a thing) since at least Godard’s Hail Mary (1984). I have never much cared for Dumont’s slow-cinema movies: I saw the first two, and then gave up on him. I watched this only after John Waters called it his favorite movie of the year; and I immediately fell in love with it. What’s not to love about a spare, but beautifully photographed, avant/heavy-metal musical, set in peasant landscapes of the early 15th century, with mystical visions and acrobatic amateur dancing, and with a screenplay taken from the gorgeously hyperbolic and pleonastic poetry of Charles Péguy?
  11. Black Panther (Ryan Coogler). The only recent blockbuster since Mad Max: Fury Road that I can really get behind. Here the action editing is serviceable (though not anywhere near as good as Mad Max), and the plot is just okay (I am in agreement with those who say that Killmonger’s anti-imperialism ought to have been given more sympathy and attention). But the worldbuilding is stupendous, creating the vision of a Black world not crippled by colonialism and enslavement.
  12. Upgrade (Leigh Whannell). Cartesian dilemma: Logan Marshall-Green’s body does all this slick martial arts stuff, while his face registers his mental horror and pain at the fact that he is killing all these people without wanting to.

New Suns (speculative fiction anthology)

New Suns is a forthcoming speculative fiction anthology edited by the great Nisi Shawl. I was able to acquire and read an advance copy, thanks to Netgalley. This book contains short stories by writers of color. Some of the writers are already well known to me, while in other cases this was my first introduction to their work. The anthology reflects the fact that so much of the most dynamic and powerful speculative fiction at this point in time is being written by people of color. The writers in this anthology radically revise familiar traditions, both western and other. They do what speculative fiction, whether future-oriented (science fiction) or past-oriented (fantasy fiction) at its best generally does: suggest alternatives that speak to our possibility of survival in a world currently ravaged by neoliberal capitalism, with its racism and its assault on the environment.

I cannot write about all the stories individually in this comment, but I will mention the ones I particularly loved. Tobias Buckell’s “Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” gives a satirical and very funny description of a future in which the entire Earth has become a backwater that subsists entirely on tourism from wealthier and more technologically powerful species from other planets. This story brings home post-colonial dependency to American readers who might well themselves be on the other side of the equation (as tourists in poorer countries themselves). Kathleen Alcala’s “Deer Dancer” shows how indigenous ways might give the best hope for survival in a decayed post-climate-catastrophe landscape. Minsoo Kang’s “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations” is a witty parable about surviving the stupidity of the powerful, and about the limitations of scholarly and historical reconstruction, in an Asian-based fantasy world. Steven Barnes’ Come Home to Atropos goes along well with Buckell’s story, as it is a sarcastic take on the tourist economy of poorer, post-colonial countries seeking to attract dollars from the affluent white world; in this story, even suicide becomes a fancy and “exotic” experience. Jaymee Goh’s “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” brilliantly rewrites the mermaid tale in terms both of white/Asian colonial relations, and of some rather unusual (but actual) facts of biology. Lily Yu’s “Three Variations on a Theme of Imperial Attire” sarcastically rings a number of social and political changes on Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Those are my favorites, but in fact all the stories in this anthology are really good.

The Other Side of the Wind

Quick impressions after seeing The Other Side of the Wind for the first time.

I think it might be interesting to see The Other Side of the Wind as a late-career revision of Citizen Kane. Both movies are centered on an enigmatic powerful male figure (this is, of course, a recurrent theme in Welles: cf Mr Arkadin most obviously, but also Touch of Evil; and in a certain way, Chimes at Midnight). The crucial duality of Kane is that 1) we cannot really KNOW Charles Foster Kane, all we can get is a series of outside, partial perspectives; yet 2) Kane himself is a massive physical presence at the center of the film thanks to Welles’ performance. Stylistically, Kane juxtaposes German Expressionist lighting and camera angles, and sound editing intricacies that came from Welles’ experience in radio, with all those unbroken long takes in deep space (and I am entirely convinced by Deleuze’s contention that Welles’ exploration of deep space is also an exploration of deep time, making Welles one of the inventors and pioneers of what Deleuze calls the time-image).

Now, in The Other Side of the Wind we find a similar structure, but with the elements redistributed. The enigmatic figure at the center is John Huston’s Jake Hannaford. Huston doesn’t have the same massive presence as Welles’ Kane; whereas Kane seems too massive for us to get beneath his skin, Hannaford’s toxic masculinity is instead expressed in an inverted form; he is like a black hole that sucks in all light and energy and gives nothing back, except the blankness that guarantees power and fascination. [It is worth noting that Huston appeared in his other greatest acting role, in Chinatown, right in the middle of the extended period when he was acting for Welles in The Other Side of the Wind]. You can see this in all of Hannaford’s interactions with both men and women (most notably, perhaps, in the way that Peter Bogdanovich’s hanger-on speaks “for” Hannaford by recounting anecdotes and playing tape recordings), and in the central enigma of his sexuality. Instead of the half-dozen long narrations of Kane’s life by his associates, we get a multiplicity of cameras, recorders, etc. capturing the action simultaneously. In a more recent media age (pre-digital, but with cameras already multiplying and light weight enough to be manipulated in multiple ways – Bogdanovich’s voiceover introduction, recorded and set in our present of 2018, makes a point of this), perspectives are multiplied to the point where we can’t really keep track of how many there are, or entirely differentiate them from one another. Instead, we get the dazzling editing that combines multiple film stocks, both color and black and white, from multiple angles. This movie features a sort of radical editing style that I have scarcely seen anyplace else, either when the film was made or up to now. (I read one account online that said that Oliver Stone saw a rough cut, and this may have influenced his somewhat similar style in Natural Born Killers). (Welles apparently edited only about 30% of the film himself, but I presume that Bob Murawski, who edited the rest of the film in the past year or two, was following Welles’ instructions, much as Walter Murch did for the posthumous restoration of Touch of Evil). So my overall claim here is that Welles’ unprecedented radical montage works as an update, for a new media situation, of the perspectivism of Kane.

As for the long shots / long takes that were the other half of Kane‘s stylistics, these get translated into the film-within-the-film, the incomplete Hannaford film that is being screened in segments. This entirely dialogueless erotic thriller has to be seen as more than just a parody of Antonioni or whatever. It leads nowhere, but it is compelling and weirdly expressive in its bright colors, its extreme angles, and its open landscapes with strange architectures. (It is mostly in long shots and long takes, but there are also highly edited sections like the brilliant sex-in-the-car sequence). In any case, the cinematography, the editing, the lighting, and the frequent wide open spaces of the film-within-the-film contrast with the claustrophobia and the intense clutter of Hannaford’s birthday party. Perhaps the splitting here can be related to the ways in which our current media regime offers us a sense of temporality as different from that of Deleuze’s time-image as the latter was from the previous movement-image. The deep time of Bergsonian duration and “time in its pure state” is no longer directly experiential, but only works insofar as it is aesthetically framed and relegated to the distance. Meanwhile, there is a new, third sort of time (what I have previously called the rhythm-image, and what Steen Christiansen has more recently called the morph-image) that we experience today in the Internet age, but that Welles already had intimations of in the 1970s, and that is embodied or expressed in The Other Side of the Wind in the dazzling multiplicity, with a vacancy at the center, of Hannaford’s birthday party. We no longer dig into the ontological past, but instead experience the shock of space-time compression as all of Hannaford’s half-century of filmmaking and experiences of manipulating others is compressed into a single night….

(Obviously these thoughts are subject to revision as well as elaboration when I get the chance to watch The Other Side of the Wind a few more times….).

Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker)

MADELINE’S MADELINE is amazing, disturbing, and ultimately both exhilarating and devastating. It is Josephine Decker’s greatest film to date. The film is so experimental/abstract, yet at the same time so visceral/intense, that I don’t really know how to talk about it. I am trying to give my impressions, but everything I say may well be entirely misguided and beside the point.

Decker invents (especially here, though it was already present in her previous films) an entirely new formal language, to express an entirely new sort of subjectivity, here embodied in her teenaged protagonist Madeline (the utterly brilliant an remarkable Helena Howard). Shallow focus, often fuzzy, roving camera, strange angles, strange edits, soundtrack interpolations (including both heavy breathing sounds and the amazing music of Caroline Shaw) – even to the extent that I can describe them, I cannot explain how they add up to something both entirely fresh and greater than the sum of its parts.

The movie is about acting (including its own) and the mystique of improv theater (something I am not very enamoured of in other contexts, or perhaps due to my own ignorance; but it is overwhelming here). At their highest point, intense inner feeling and its completely fictive simulation become indistinguishable, and that is what happens here in the course of a teenage girl’s relation with her two mother figures (one the biological and legal mother, played surprisingly against type by the great Miranda July, the other the mother substitute that the head of the improv troupe becomes, played by Molly Parker).

The film recounts incidents, rather than anything that is shaped like a conventional narrative, but it builds to a completely logical and shattering climax – which then in turn transmutes into something vivid and powerful but also dreamlike and almost ungraspable (theater returning to its roots in Dionysian ritual? I am grasping at straws here).

One could say that MADELINE’S MADELINE is deconstructing oppositions between real life and theater, or between authenticity and performance, or whatever – or even between human and animal, since the film features repeating exercises in which the actors try to channel animals, especially cats – there are pig masks as well, not to mention may closeups of actual cats – and in fact the film begins with a warning, delivered to us in extreme closeup, about the nuances of identification and possession (it is only a metaphor, you are not really the cat, you are IN the cat) –
I could say all that, and it would be sort of true, but it is totally inadequate as a description of the movie, because MADELINE’S MADELINE is not just a deconstruction of identities and oppositions, but a positive expression of some new sort of identity (which is female, and biracial, and other things, but isn’t ONLY all that) that we don’t have words for yet. Which is why I will not be able to shake the memory of this film (and will have to watch it again, a number of times) (all this I felt more obscurely already in the case of BUTTER ON THE LATCH, but here it is magnitudes more powerful and more perplexing).

(originally posted on Facebook, but I think it is important enough to also post here)

Monster Portraits (Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar)

Sofia Samatar is one of the most interesting of the new(er) generation of writers of speculative fiction. Her two novels, A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA and THE WINGED HISTORIES, radically rework the conventions of heroic fantasy, both in terms of race/ethnicity and gender, and in terms of narrative conventions and questions about literariness and about the writing of history and of ethnography, not to mention questions of written vs oral more generally. Her short story collection TENDER contains stories straddling the divisions between science fiction, fantasy, and other genres; my favorite of these stories, “How to Get Back to the Forest” — also available for free download here — both moves me and freaks me out every time I (re)read it.

Sofia Samatar’s new book, MONSTER PORTRAITS is a collaboration with her brother Del Samatar. It’s a book of short sections: each section is a short description of a monster, or an even briefer series of mediations on what it means to search for monsters; Sofia Samatar’s text is accompanied by gorgeous (& sometimes gruesome) black-and-white illustrations by Del Samatar. The overall effect is quite poetic. The short sections are mostly fragmentary or nonlinear, combining weird descriptions (weird in the sense of “weird fiction”) with (real or made-up?) autobiographical reminiscences, and citations from a large number of earlier texts (these latter are listed at the end of the book; they range from a Victorian translation of the Odyssey to Frankenstein to Amiria Baraka and Aime Cesaire to Helene Cixous and Roland Barthes).

The result of all this is a text that is kaleidoscopic or dreamlike. It roams in many directions, without ever choosing just one. MONSTER PORTRAITS is a meditation on the varying senses of monsters and of monstrosity. Monsters can be scary, but also misunderstood. “Creating monsters is an act of faith.” Anything that deviates from socially-imposed norms (anything, for instance, that isn’t white cismale heterosexual etc) is a monster; and to identify with monsters is to “identify” with that which escapes or refuses traditional, socially-sanctioned forms of identification. But the endeavor to impose norms, to make everyone and everything alike, to stigmatize anyone who in any way is different, is also essentially monstrous. “The monster evokes, in equal measure, both compassion and its opposite.”

The book moves delicately between these different meanings (or efforts to escape from meaning). Insofar as it is arranged like a catalog — each chapter describes a particular monster, both in prose and in the illustrations that are listed by number — Figure 1, Figure 2, etc. — MONSTER PORTRAITS is reminiscent of Borges’s famous “Chinese encyclopedia”, divided as it is into multiple, incompatible classifications.

This incompatibility is itself the real subject of MONSTER PORTRAITS. At one point in the text, Samatar warns us that: “In the realm of language, the opposite of a monster is a catalogue.” The book takes the form of a catalogue that it is impossible to catalogue. Overall, I find this book pleasurably and frustratingly enigmatic: it teases me with the prospect of an overall comprehension that it continually and finally denies me. In reading it, I find myself passing through thickets of beautiful but unsummarizable prose, interrupted at times with startling pronouncements that jump out from this woven background:

“What joy to be a parasite instead of a host.”

“Her heart bore a pair of claws that were useful for nothing, she told me, but scratching at itself.”

“Exiles and insomniacs share this feeling: that each is the only one.”

“Try as much as possible to conform and you will be saved by a wily grace. Imperfection is your genius.”

And many more. Despite being such a short book, MONSTER PORTRAITS defies closure and summary.