Archive for October, 2003

Gabriel Tarde

Wednesday, October 29th, 2003

I’ve been reading some of the books of Gabriel Tarde, a French sociologist of the 1890s, once famous, the intellectual antagonist of Durkheim (but Durkheim won). I started looking at Tarde out of idle curiosity, but now I’m glad I did…
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Groove Music

Tuesday, October 28th, 2003

I find that I like Erykah Badu‘s new album, Worldwide Underground, better than anything she has previously done; though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many (most?) of her past fans like it less. This (both why I like it better, and why others might like it less) is because it’s really groove music: that is to say, it deemphasizes melodies, or at least strong melodic profiles, and relies instead (or much more) on repeated grooves and riffs, giving the songs, and the album as a whole, a kind of warmly propulsive feel – except “propulsive” isn’t quite right, in that it implies progression, whereas Worldwide Underground eschews any sense of forward motion almost entirely. Also, it’s not even “propulsive” in the James Brown sense of funk that really makes you MOVE, even if in fact you aren’t going anywhere (i.e. you are vibrating in place, rather than going in a particular direction) – it’s way too laid back to be doing anything like that. Most remarkably, the album sustains this sense for 50 minutes or so even at the expense of de-emphasizing Ms. Badu’s rather formidable voice, which here blends into the mix rather than dominating it as it did on her previous albums.
I’m not sure where to go with this observation, aside from saying that I like the results. It seems too obvious and cliched, and thereby saying far too little, to classify this music in gendered, sexual terms, e.g. by identifying Badu’s “feminine” pre-orgasmic rhythms in opposition to “cock rock” (I’m not quite sure what the equivalent term would be for hip hop or r&b); nor am I quite able to classify it in drug terms in the way one can often do with music (I mean, in the sense that certain dance music is clearly linked to Ecstasy, or that D’Angelo’s Voodoo, to my mind the greatest-of-all-time example of laid-back groove music, is so clearly stoned-out). So I’ll just have to go with the flow on this one (can’t believe I actually wrote that).

More Songs About Love and Home

Friday, October 24th, 2003

Since I’m stuck with Windows for the time being (when I can afford it, I intend to go back to the MacOS, which I abandoned some years ago), I was very happy that Apple released iTunes for Windows last week. It’s a better tool for managing my iPod than ephpod was (not to mention infinitely better than the horrible Music Match Jukebox, which was the software Apple previously officially provided to Windows iPod owners). Plus, now I can buy from the Apple Music Store: though I don’t like copying restrictions in general, Apple’s seem less onerous than those that come with most of the other legal online music sites, so I suppose I can live with them.
Anyway, the first songs I bought from the Apple Music Store were a few cuts from Bubba Sparxxx‘s new album, produced by Timbaland: remarakble stuff, especially “Comin’ Round”, which somehow melds the razor-sharp hiphop beats Timbaland is famous for with Appalachian fiddling, a genius culture-meld I’ve never heard anything like before.
Among recent listens, I also like the latest from the always brilliant Go Home Productions, “Sly Beyonce Walks Like A Nerd,” a clever (and highly illegal) track that (as the title suggests) mixes Beyonce and N.E.R.D. (The Neptunes), with a little Sly and the Family Stone thrown in for good measure, to produce the ultimate neurotic love song.

Re_Invigorate

Friday, October 24th, 2003

Following the example of Jenny, I’ve decided to use Re_Invigorate to find out how many people are actually reading this blog. I suppose I could look at the raw data collected by my service provider, but I’m too lazy. I wonder what I will find out, and whether I really want to know…

Connected

Thursday, October 23rd, 2003

Connected.jpg
My new book, Connected, Or, What It Means To Live in the Network Society, is now in print! (Amazon.com doesn’t seem to have it yet, but I have received my own copies, and they now have it at my campus bookstore). It’s a book about cyberculture and globalization, in which I use science fiction novels as my main sources of social theory. The book discusses all sorts of things from copyright piracy to psychedelic drugs to evolutionary psychology to ubiquitous surveillance and corporate control to the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle.
I am hoping at some point to have the entire text of the book available online; I’m still negotiating with my press, which is willing to let me do this in principle, but would like for me to wait until the book has been for sale for six months or a year.

Kill Bill, Volume 1

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2003

Kill Bill is gorgeous and ice-cold. Pure formalism. Where Tarantino’s earlier films were filled with humanity, with unforgettable characters and genius dialog, Kill Bill reduces these to an absolute minimum. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the pure kinetic beauty of the fight scenes. That is to say, Kill Bill is to Pulp Fiction as Kubrick is to Howard Hawks. In fairness, Kill Bill never feels anal or constipated the way all of Kubrick’s films do. Nor is Tarantino doggedly repetitive, the way Kubrick insists on being.
All the set-ups, all the elements of cinematic form in Kill Bill are fantastic: the decors, the camera angles, the editing of the fight scenes are so brilliant that they reveal in comparison how lame and unimaginative nearly all other English-language action cinema is. Even Lord of the Rings, powerful and lyrical as it is in bringing to life its (admittedly) dubious source material, can’t hold a candle to Kill Bill in terms of sheer visual inventiveness.
As for the citations and allusions: I got the sense that nearly everything in the film was sampled from one or another obscure samurai or martial arts film that I don’t remember or (more likely) haven’t seen. The effect was like the best hip hop: the film is rich in its web of references, and this works even if you don’t know what the references are to.
But Kill Bill‘s formal mastery and meta-cinematic referentiality comes at a price. Near the very start of the film we read the title: “Revenge is always best served cold” (which Tarantino, with characteristic cinephile in-joke wit, tags as an “old Klingon proverb”). And this story of Uma Thurman’s revenge is indeed served cold. The film is so utterly devoid of emotion it feels reptilian. (Perhaps I am slandering reptiles?). The fight scenes are awe-inspiring, but they have absolutely none of the sense of fun that makes Tarantino’s models, the Hong Kong fight scenes, so exhilarating. Nor is there any of the sense of fatality that imbues Leone’s (and others’) spaghetti Westerns, another obvious source of Tarantino’s iconography.
Even Tarantino’s racial obsessions are cut to the bare minimum. Uma Thurman gets the people of color out of the way in Volume One, killing Vivica Fox and Lucy Liu; in Volume 2, to be released next year, she will get to go after the white villains, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, and David Carradine (unless Carradine is a fake Asian, as he was in the frequently-Tarantino-referenced Kung Fu).
So Tarantino has proved that he is as brilliant a visual director as he is a writer/director; but at what cost?

The Man Without A Past

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2003

Aki Kaurismaki‘s most recent film to date, The Man Without A Past (2002), is as good as anything he’s done. I’ve gradually come to realize that Kaurismaki’s films are inverted melodramas. That is to say, they are just as stylized and anti-naturalistic, just as reliant on music and decor, and just as socially critical as the melodramas of Douglas Sirk or anybody else; only Kaurismaki’s films are stylized by restraint, where traditional melodramas are stylized by excess. Kaurismaki’s deadpan minimalism – the way the characters are stoic and restrained, and do not indulge in any emotional displays; but also the way the scenes are framed, and the way the camera lingers on desolate details, or pauses while a melancholy song is being sung, but elides determinate action almost completely – all this formal restraint is almost Bressonian, although Kaurismaki is a humanist, and has none of Bresson’s spiritual severity.
The Man Without A Past is about a man (Markku Peltola) who suffers amnesia after he is attacked, and beaten severely on the head, by a trio of punks. He slowly and patiently rebuilds his life, although he has nothing. That’s just about it. As in more conventional melodrama, the characters are crushed and betrayed by social forces beyond their control — here, as usual in Kaurismaki, by the bureaucratic uncaringness of the state, and the ruthlessness of big Capital. But in this film, as in Floating Clouds and a very few others, Kaurismaki even allows himself a bit of hope at the end, which would be sentimental were it not so wry and understated. (Well, in a sense it is sentimental — this is a sort of melodrama, as I said, rather than Bressonian tragedy — but it is an entirely justified, “earned” sentimentality).
The film is devoid of the gorgeous youth you see in Hollywood movies. The female lead and love interest, as so often in Kaurismaki’s films, is played by the utterly sublime Kati Outinen, who has never looked so worn and haggard. (She’s older now – a decade older than she was in Match Factory Girl – and it shows).
Great soundtrack: the music is a mixture of 50s-ish rock (Finnish imitations) and more traditional melodies; usually a song is introduced diegetically, and then continues non-diegetically, which was neat.

Some music

Thursday, October 16th, 2003

Brief notes on a few things I’ve been listening to lately:
–Missy Elliott’s new single “Pass That Dutch” is the best thing out there right now, aside from Outkast. I’m not sure it is quite as brilliant and innovative as her last two monster hit singles, “Get Your Freak On” and “Work It,” but the Timbaland rhythm is irresistible, the monster bass is intense, and I’m still in awe as to how Missy manages to be so ecstatic and so down-to-earth at the same time.
–I pretty much like the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is the Love.” The sentiments, though noble, are too sappy; but it’s catchy and plaintive in a way I like. I’m not sure what I think about the rest of the album Elephunk, from which the single is drawn: it’s really catchy, beautifully produced pop, but I have the uneasy feeling that there’s something icky behind it all, as if Black Eyed Peas were saying that the answer to the negativity and nihilism of gangsta rap is upbeat party music for frat boys (not to deny that gangsta rap itself is all too often just party music for frat boys at this point).
–Hitman Sammy Sam’s “Step Daddy,” is hilarious in a sick sort of way; he’s yelling at his woman’s child to behave, and she isn’t listening; the chorus is a call-and-response, “you ain’t my daddy”–”shut up!”

Punktown

Wednesday, October 15th, 2003

The short stories in Jeffrey Thomas’ Punktown are eerie, and creepy, and sometimes strangely affecting. This is science fiction, set on another world, with many sentient species in addition to human beings; but with an emotional tone that is closer to horror. (The author’s note at the back of the book defines Thomas’ genre as “emotive dark fantasy”). Tone and feeling are more important than plot; the stories’ moods range from gentle melancholy to outright disgust and self-loathing on the part of the protagonists. Not all the stories in the volume are equally powerful, but the best ones are genuinely disturbing: such as “The Reflections of Ghosts,” about an artist whose medium consists of mentally crippled clones of himself that he sells to rich patrons to be tortured and killed, and “The Library of Shadows,” about a cop who has a chip in his brain that preserves all his memories in perfect and complete detail, so that he cannot stop remembering all the grotesque and sickening murders he has investigated. Strong stuff, all the more so in that Thomas does not revel in the horrors he invents, the way Poe and Lovecraft arguably did.

A new twist on immortality

Sunday, October 12th, 2003

Quite wonderfully, the conceptual artist Jonathon Keats (great name) has copyrighted his brain, and now is selling futures contracts on his neurons (via Die, Puny Humans). Since copyright holds for 70 years after the death of the creator, Keats is offering the rights to use his neurons for any computational purpose the buyer may wish, during that extended period. You buy now, and cash in when Keats actually dies (which may not be for quite some time, as he is 32). (The actual text of the IPO is available here).
This is brilliant on so many levels. In terms of “intellectual property,” and the commodification of art and intellect; in terms of what personal identity might mean, after death; and in terms of the expectations of artificial intelligence research and interfacing neurons with silicon chips. Keats poses all these issues in a quite hilarious and provocative way (even though, or rather precisely because, Keats insists that he wants to be taken seriously).
Since it’s only $10 for a million neurons, I sent in a check, requesting neurons located in the artist’s anterior cingulate cortex