Archive for December, 2006


Friday, December 29th, 2006

To say that I liked Volver is not, perhaps, to say very much; since I have long been a fan of Almodovar; I’ve seen all of his feature films, and liked all of them, more or less. As “more or less” goes, Volver is pretty strong among Almodovar’s recent films, it is better than Bad Education (which I wrote about here), and at least as good as All About My Mother; though it doesn’t quite reach the sublime heights of Talk To Her.

Volver, like much of Almodovar’s recent work, is an unashamed melodrama. People who complain that there is less of the campy, perverse, sacrilegious, over-the-top “transgressive” humor here than there was in Almodovar’s early films, or even than in the last few, are missing the point, I think. I love all that fun stuff, of course; but I also feel that it often played the role of a defense, a disavowal, an alibi: Almodovar put it in as a kind of cover, in order to get away with the melodrama that was his real cinematic passion. Far from agreeing with the cliche that his recent films, and this one especially, are more “normative” than all the ones about junkies and drag queens and fetishists, I’d say rather that Volver is more disreputable than (for instance) Dark Habits, or even Law of Desire (which remains nonetheless one of Almodovar’s greatest films), precisely to the extent that it doesn’t hide or deflect in any way its basic melodramatic drive.

Melodrama is one of those things that (nearly) everybody loves, but that nonetheless can never be spoken of approvingly in polite company. For instance, we’ve seen Quentin Tarantino lovingly resurrect such “low” genres as the revenge/splatter film, the blaxploitation film, and the martial arts flick — and even give these genres a “feminist” twist, as he argubly does with Pam Grier in Jackie Brown and with Uma Thurman in Kill Bill — but can you imagine Tarantino giving a similar loving reconstruction to melodrama? I can’t (though, of course, I’d be thrilled if he surprised me). In this respect I think that Almodovar remains the more radical filmmaker, even if his recent films, like this one, are superficially the kind of tony art film fare that people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a theater seeing a “genre” picture can say they like (not realizing, of course, that the “Euro art film” is as conventionalized, that is to say as much of a genre, as any sortt of film out there).

I’ve said a lot about melodrama at various times on this blog (most extensively, perhaps, in relation to Buffy the Vampire Slayer). I’ll try not to repeat myself; I’ll only point out here that, of course, for the last 100 years or so, melodrama has largely been the province of women and gay men. It’s disreputable because it isn’t macho enough. In Volver, Almodovar gives us an almost all-female cast. The films spans intergenerational relations — mothers and daughters — across three generations; and the film concerns the emotional ups and downs of these relationships, bringing them to a kind of resolution or reconciliation (not a redemptive one, but one in which the characters gain the ability to live with what they have felt, and what they have done).

Men are only onscreen marginally in Volver, and the only role they play in the plot, really, is that of the father-as-incestuous-rapist. In expelling this monstrous father from the scene of familial relations, the women in the film literally get away with murder — something which Almodovar clearly presents as ethically justified. I can imagine the Lacanians being up in arms at this, in sheer horror: what could be more narcissistic and regressive and New-Agey? where’s the Law of the Father? etc. etc. But I think that reading Volver in psychoanalytic terms is precisely wrong: any attempt to do so is short-circuited precisely by the way that the familial and “oedipal” dynamics of the film are so upfront, so obvious, so clearly and overtly “citational.” Everything in the film is something we’ve seen before: Almodovar does not proclaim any sort of transgressive liberation from oedipal dynamics, because these dynamics have already exhausted themselves as cliche — they are so omnipresent, so utterly evident, that they don’t even need to be “deconstructed” (deconstruction, in any case, is precisely a strategy of complicity with that which is being deconstructed; Almodovar doesn’t need to perform any such deconstruction of the oedipal, because he has already given plain evidence of its banality. He simply says “of course; so what?” and moves on to something else).

So far I haven’t been as clear as I would like. I said that Volver is citational; everything in it is something we’ve seen before. I should add, heard before: since Alberto Iglesias’ score is so self-consciously reminiscent of Hollywood non-diegetic music (particularly, perhaps, of Bernard Hermann’s great scores): the music doesn’t make us feel joy or sorrow or relief or tension and suspense, so much as it makes us self-conscious about the fact of hearing movie music that is supposed to signify and induce such feelings. That is kind of what I mean by “citational”: it applies to the screenplay and characters, and to Almodovar’s camera movements, as well. This heightening of a certain generic quality is itself one of the mechanisms of melodrama; emotions aren’t singularly personal, as much as they are transpersonal and enacted. They are states of mind, or (more physically) costumes and systems of posture and gesture, that the actors “put on” when they inhabit their roles; and that we the audience “put on” as well when we watch the film, identifying with those generic roles. And this kind of “dress-up” and obvious taking on of superficial roles is a way to inhabit emotions in their pure state: before they have been personalized, and given the heavy meanings and entrenched limitations of the oedipal drama. Melodrama, in this sense, is precisely the way out from tragedy. Tragedy is meaningful, and oedipal, and eventuates in catastrophe; but melodrama is entirely passional — and thereby, however painful, also purely transitional, rather than conclusive. (This is why melodrama is so familiar to us as a never-ending serial form, as with daytime soaps and Latin American telenovelas). There is always another act, another twist. Volver means “to return,” and the film’s conclusion is really just a situation where life will go on, with doubtless more twists and more convulsions. (There will always be more fathers, and they will always have to be murdered anew; but this is precisely why the oedipal drama is too banal to govern the film’s situations with some sort of Symbolic meaning; and why the relations of mothers to daughters are always ones of reconciliation, resignation, and continual renewal, rather than some sort of Imaginary reflection and fixation).

The film’s two divas, Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz, are both as prickly and annoying as they are charismatic, and this itself is part of the charm of Volver. Roles are fluid, emotions are as fickle as they are overwhelming, and even though acts always have consequences, these consequences are themselves negotiable and mutable. Almodovar invests everyday life with unaccustomed emotion; but he also renders emotion in so light and airy a way that — even at its most negative — it seems more an adventure than a burden.

Top Ten — Well, Seven — Albums of 2006

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

My music listening this past year was so scattered that I don’t even know if I can do a top ten… I have trouble remembering what I heard, and a lot of albums I never sat down and actually listened to all the way through; it would be, like, three songs one day, four more the next, three more a couple of days later… But I will try. Though I seem to have come up with only seven albums, rather than a complete ten. (I could well have forgotten something; often I cannot remember if I first heard a certain piece of music four days ago, four months ago, or four years ago).

1)Burial — Burial. This haunted, dense, downbeat album is the most beautiful, and the most moving, or affecting, music I heard in all of 2006. It is hard to put my finger on just what it is about these fragmented and discreet electronic rumblings and beats that is so powerful… except that this music is insinuating something that forever remains just beyond my grasp. In any case, I couldn’t say anything about Burial that k-punk and Mudede haven’t already said better than I ever could. Suffice it to say that this music has insinuated itself into my dreams, even though I cannot consciously recall or reproduce a single melodic line or rhythm-and-bass pulse from it.

2)Ghostface — Fishscale. Even though I am in that small minority that doesn’t find this album quite as compelling as 2004’s Pretty Toney Album (which I wrote about here), this is still a powerful album, and by far the most compelling hip hop that I have heard in the past year. The wider emotional range of The Pretty Toney Album didn’t sell very well, apparently, so Ghostface went back to doing what the rap audience knows the best, and expects most readily: selling songs and stories about selling crack. Lots of critics have written about — again, better than I ever could — what a great storyteller Ghostface is, his amazing way with words and with brilliantly observed details, so that he’s like a great noir novelist one moment, a whacked-out surrealist the next, an oulipean metafictionalist the paragraph after that. I’ll just add that there’s something amazing about his rapping voice, the way it continually modulates between wacky humor and tough-guy fatalism and romantic whining. And I’ll note, once again, that his use of samples, particularly 70s-soul-music samples (regardless of who is producing any given track) is like nobody else in the business — since he calls upon soul-R&B sounds neither out of nostalgia, nor in order to give his tracks an authority they would otherwise lack, but in order to register difference and distance, to create and express disjunctions, to tear a hole in the heart of the world (the ghetto he grew up in) that he is evoking with such economy and precision. Just listen to how he samples Luther Ingram’s “To the Other Man” in “Whip You With A Strap”; or, even more astonishingly — in a cut that was all over the Net last spring, but got removed from the final album (I presume because of clearance issues) — how a really nasty, knockdown battle-of-the-sexes back-and-forth argument gets built around a lengthy sample of the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes I Can Can.”

3)Kode9 and the Spaceape, Memories of the Future. Kode9 not only produced and distributed Burial’s album, he also released this collaboration with The Spaceape (Kode9’s electronic sounds and the Spaceape’s vocals), which also reaches a rare plateau of intensity — albeit these explicitly, ironically doom-laden visions are quite different in feel from Burial’s intimate intimations. Imagine a collaboration in which Linton Kwesi Johnson is produced by Augustus Pablo, with both the former’s poetry and the latter’s production re-engineered by Deleuze and Guattari. Kode9’s heavy dub is remarkably eclectic, melding together sounds and tones from pretty much everywhere; it’s bass-heavy, of course, but there are lots of things going on that aren’t just the bass. This gives the music, how shall I put it, a kind of resonating space that nonetheless is poles apart from the ganja-induced “spaciness” that we usually think of when we think of dub. The Spaceape’s highly stylized vocal intonations, somewhere in between Jamaica in 1980 and the UK in 2006, don’t quite sound like either, but instill in the listener (or, at least, in me) a hypnotically addictive sort of chronic dread.

4)Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds. Yes, I do listen to American pop music for the masses, and not just to Brit esoterica and hiphop cult figures. Justin is kind of bland and blah as a singer, as well as as a pop icon; but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it emphatically doesn’t mean that he is talentless or awful. Rather, he displays an eerie sort of neutrality: he is really the postmodern “man without qualities,” and for this very reason he is unique and irreplaceable: anybody else who sang these songs, whether they were a brilliant vocalist or a godawful one, would bring one sort or another of an identifiable quality (a nuance, an inflection, a particularity of tone) to the music — and that would ruin everything. You might say that Justin is an entirely generic singer, just as he is an entirely generic celebrity; but he turns the very notion of the “generic” inside out, by turning it into an absolute singularity. This is why he’s the most brilliant “blue-eyed soul” or “white-boy-does-R&B” singer ever. (Even if, as I recall reading, his betrayal of Janet caused him to lose his “ghetto pass,” he has still managed to rebound where she hasn’t). — But of course, what really makes the album is Timbaland’s production; Mr. Mosely’s space rhythms and off beats and odd textures have never sounded better, precisely because Justin’s positive blankness (if I may be permitted the oxymoron) is precisely the perfect foil to set them off. (Jane Dark is absolutely right to see the album — I mean, hear it — as a sort of slash fiction or homosocial exchange “between men”). (I should add that my 4-year-old daughter absolutely adores “My Love”).

5)Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones. Apparently most fans of the band were disappointed by this 2nd album, finding it much weaker than their first (which I wrote about, way back when, here). But to my mind, it was equally strong, even if less overtly punkish, and more (er, um) “mature.” Indeed, this was just about the only New-York-area-alternative-rock album I at all enjoyed listening to this year; the new albums by Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo were well done, but they both basically put me to sleep (this may well be more my fault than theirs — I’ve loved both of these bands madly in the past, and I fear that what has happened is not that they have changed, but that I have — my sensibilities have mutated to the point where I no longer find them satisfying the way I used to. They used to be axioms for me, and now they are just… lifestyle options). (I should also mention TV on the Radio’s album, which I sort of liked OK but which never quite came into focus for me — maybe it will, belatedly, next year).

6)Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury. Lamentably, I am in agreement with the music-critic cognescenti. For what it’s worth, or for what it is, this is really good. TIght rapping, and brilliant Neptunes production, with some gorgeous and unusual timbres (I am especially partial to the harp arpeggios and snare drums, or whatever it is — I’ve never been good at these sorts of identifications — in “Ride Around Shining”). But the continual boasts/dramatizations/expressions-of-regret dealing with crack dealing (at least, for anybody besides Ghostface) and bling are way beyond tired at this late date… hiphop today is in real danger of vanishing up the crack of its own ass because all it can do is obsessively recycle with microscopic variations the narrowest imaginable set of themes… is this really the only thing that sells? the only thing that the fans — white or black? — want? Who can be satisfied in such straightened circumstances?).

7)Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar. I was just talking about incessant micro-variations upon narrow themes. I suppose that is what Ornette has been doing for the last fifty (!) years as well; but this is the first new release in a decade from the world’s greatest sax player, who is also the world’s greatest composer; and his music is as beautiful, knotty, and exhilarating as ever.

Virtual Life, “Real” Life

Friday, December 8th, 2006

Interesting posts by both Kim Dot Dammit and, in response, Jodi, on how blogging relates to “real life.” The difference between the two is somewhat illusory. Even before blogs and the Net allowed for all sorts of virtual extensions, it was already the case that we aren’t always the same person in every situation and to everyone. I am not quite the same person to my wife, to my mother, to my kids, to my students, to my close friends, etc.; not to even mention my own sense of “self” or mental privacy. There are always degrees of multiplicity and difference. We are always being performative to some extent, though at times we are much more aware of doing so than at other times; and yet, all these performances are who we “really are.” We can’t separate them off from our “true selves”, even if sometimes we delude ourselves that we can. It is not an existential problem, but only one for certain (e.g. Cartesian) highly essentialized and reified notions of what it means to be a “self.”

Of course, the problem gets exacerbated to the extent that part of one’s life is “public”; as it inevitably is for me, for instance, both because of my job (as a university professor), and because I write this blog. The nature of the Net as a medium gives the illusion of being more distant than is the case with other forms of interaction. This, presumably, is why Kim was surprised to realize, after all, “that the distance component is very illusionary and that cyber words and actions can have as much impact as an actual physical presence.”

I think I learned this lesson when I was on LambdaMOO in the early/mid 1990s. It was a very weird period for me, which started when my first marriage broke up. On the rebound, and also exalted (if that is the right word) by the semi-anonymity and sense of freedom that the MOO offered, I got involved very quickly in some very intense and (it ultimately turned out) seriously misguided virtual relationships, both sexual and not, some of which remained virtual (and quite strange and difficult), and others of which crossed over into “real life” with calamitous consequences. All of this only ended when I met Jacalyn on the MOO, and then in person, in the flesh — and we are together to this day.

I think that I learned from all this that my “freedom” to reinvent myself, which seemed nearly infinite in the virtual world that was LambdaMOO, was in fact much more constricted than I realized, because my MOO persona could not be separated as much as I thought it could from “myself,” my physical body and my habits, neuroses, etc. Which doesn’t mean it was all for nothing — I did become something of a different person as a result of spending that time in LambdaMOO — but that all of these transformations, all of these performative explorations, all of these experiences of “growth” (in this case, I use the scare quotes because I don’t want to sound New Agey; but I guess that “growth” is not a word that I can entirely disavow) are still finite, relative, and limited. Or, in other words, it is not so much that they are still related to, or aspects of, who I am — but, more strongly, they are who I am. They are my history as well as the mutations in the course of that history.