Thursday, April 24, 2014

Talking Back to "Old School" by Andrew Marantz

Talking Back is an occasional series wherein I respond to an article or essay published in a media organ that I typically value and respect. “Old School” was published in the New Yorker, April 7, 2014.

Perhaps Andrew Marantz derives all of his knowledge of hip-hop music from his subject, “The D.J. Peter Rosenberg, hip-hop’s reigning purist,” as his subtitle has it, because he doesn’t challenge any of Rosenberg’s biases about the form. Rosenberg is a DJ on Hot 97, New York’s most popular hip-hop station. Marantz presents Rosenberg as one of the last voices defending “underground rap--or, more contentiously, ‘real’ hip-hop,’” without discussing how the music was created or how it evolved into the style that Rosenberg advocates for. From the title of the piece on down, Marantz present the style of rap Rosenberg happens to like with the music’s origins, calling it “Old School,” when it’s really something much closer to ‘middle school.’
“Rosenberg frequently aligns himself with the purists,” Marantz writes, “defending old-school craftsmanship against the encroachment of pop hooks and lowest-common-denominator rhymes.” Hip-hop’s actual origins relied heavily on the repetition of stock phrases and simplistic patter passed like memes from one emcee to the other, all in service of rocking the party or park jam, e.g., “throw your hands in the air/wave ‘em like you just don’t care.” Marantz doesn’t seem to know this or other essential facts about the earliest form of hip-hop, claiming, for instance: “Some African-American forms, like disco, grew so popular that they merged with pop music and effectively disappeared,” when in actuality disco, along with funk, was one of the two main currents feeding into old-school hip-hop. To use the jazz metaphor introduced by Marantz (and beloved by music critics everywhere), what Rosenberg is actually advocating for is a return to bebop, not to jazz’s beginnings; a return to an acknowledged Golden Age of complex artistry. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, until you start claiming that you represent the “real,” the original strain, without acknowledging the two decades of development previous--and especially when you attempt to limit the advancements made by younger artists because of your conservative viewpoint.

Which is precisely what Rosenberg attempted to do to Nicki Minaj. The conflict is one of the main focuses of the piece. It centers around Minaj’s track “Starships,” described as “featur[ing] singsong vocals and a Eurodance chorus.” Rosenberg calls it, “one of the most sellout songs in hip-hop history,” and says, “Nicki was supposed to be one of ours. I didn’t want young kids looking at this dance-pop song, going, ‘This is what rappers do.’” In his attempts to deprive Minaj of her right to make her own artistic choices, the straight white male Rosenberg came off like quite an asshole. “I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later,” Marantz quotes him announcing from the stage of Hot 97’s annual festival, Summer Jam (emphasis mine). “I’m not talking to y’all right now.” Because women enjoy trivial pop music of the type represented by Minaj’s scheduled performance on the main stage and wouldn’t understand the “real hip-hop shit” Rosenberg was presenting on the side stage? Compounding his apparent insensitivity to how ridiculous he can come off, when he and Minaj sat down on the radio to make nice a year after the Summer Jam incident, Rosenberg made the classic ‘some of my best friends are...’ bigot’s comment, claiming, “I was a women’s studies minor in college!”
Worse, perhaps, than Rosenberg’s tone-deaf stupidity in regards to his own attitudes, is the way Marantz treats him like the hero of the situation, never pointing that out that a DJ is a selector of music that, by curating a certain group of music to his taste, is already a gatekeeper. By limiting the aesthetic choices of artists, he is going too far. Marantz ends his profile of Rosenberg with a vignette depicting him going to rapper Joey Bada$$’s house and choosing which songs will make it onto his album and which songs are too pop to fit the ideal of hip-hop he has in his mind. Minaj, during the radio summit with Rosenberg, is quoted as saying, “I’m choosing to get back to my essence and just feed the core hip-hop fan,” and Marantz follows this with: “If Rosenberg’s goal had been to steer her away from dance-pop, this was vindication.” After Minaj’s surprise appearance at the next Summer Jam, Rosenberg is quoted as saying, “I don’t take full credit--but she didn’t sing or dance, did she? She didn’t do any silly voices, did she? Straight up-and-down rap.”

There are many problems with this statement; I’ll attempt to unpack some of them. For one, Marantz and Rosenberg both seem to completely miss the irony in Minaj’s performance and in her persona in general. Marantz writes that Minaj appeared on the Summer Jam stage “Wearing a baseball cap and shredded jeans--a remarkably straight-forward outfit for a woman who once dressed as a gumball machine--[then] rapped two verses, struck a street-thug pose, and left the stage.” I would argue that there was nothing “straight-forward” about Minaj’s outfit or performance--it was just as constructed and carefully chosen as any other outfit she’s worn or performance she’s given. Minaj operates on a postmodern level where identity is constructed and was performing a certain ‘authenticity’ to make a point about the statements Rosenberg had been making about her. Heather Havrilesky, in her “Riff” column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine for May 5, 2013, gets at precisely this aspect of Minaj’s persona. “[H]er overall fakeness--the constant rotation of purple, green and pink wigs; the visible yellow push-up bra; the seven-inch platform heels--is celebrated precisely because it’s fake.” Havrilesky writes that, for Minaj, the most important thing is to “be obvious in your pretending.” When she struck that street-thug pose as Summer Jam, it was precisely that--a pose.
The other important thing to point out about Rosenberg’s comment that Minaj didn’t “sing or dance… [or] do any silly voices” is that these qualities don’t seem to be inherently bad to Rosenberg--only when they are coming from Minaj. Rosenberg’s beloved Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant 2012 LP Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is deemed a timeless classic by Rosenberg--and is also a record on which approximately 90% of the tracks feature Lamar singing and/or using (arguably silly) vari-speeded vocals. What is it about Minaj’s use of these techniques that Rosenberg finds offensive, while Lamar not only gets a pass but is showered with praise? I would argue that it is again Rosenberg’s attachment to notions of authenticity or ‘realness’--witness his use of the passe term “sell-out” to describe what was wrong with Minaj’s “Starship.” Kendrick Lamar doesn’t present himself as a gangbanger or drug dealer, but he continually deals with those subjects from a street-level, authentic point-of-view, while Minaj’s postmodern persona calls into question her ability to speak from that same plane of authenticity.

It’s not an unusual trait for someone approaching middle age to begin viewing the culture they experienced as a voracious youth as the best that things will ever be. The further away we get (in time) from the music we loved as teenagers, the more those sounds become imbued with the rosy glow of nostalgia. I don’t believe that anyone truly invested in an artform can be wholly immune to the idea that the works that first made them fall in love with that artform are somehow special. And not just special to you, but intrinsically and inherently special in and of themselves. I am only two years younger than Rosenberg, and so we are essentially from the same generation of hip-hop fandom (not to mention the fact that we’re both straight white males who grew up obsessed with the culture dominance of New York, especially as it pertained to that artform).
Over and over in the article, we’re given evidence of Rosenberg’s obsession with “the gangsta rap of the mid-nineties.” Schoolboy Q points out that, “He likes real music--Wu-Tang, Nas,” i.e., artists that first made a splash in ‘93. Rosenberg’s morning show segment wherein he propagandizes for his point of view, “The Realness,” uses as its theme music “a 1995 song by Group Home.” That, and the Jeru tha Damaja instrumental mentioned by Joey Bada$$ near the end of the piece, were both, in all probability, produced by DJ Premier, the master of mid-nineties New York boom-bap. Like a lot of hip-hop geeks from our generation, many, many of my favorite examples of the form were released between 1993-1995. How could it not be? I was 12, 13, 14, just getting into hip-hop--into music--and was thus impressionable to a degree that I probably never would or could be again. Plus, shit was good. It’s not for nothing that The Source magazine (Bible of rap geeks in those days, mentioned by Rosenberg as being carried under his arm throughout high school) deemed 1994 The Golden Age of Hip-Hop.
BUT--when you love an artform, you want it to be alive, to progress, to be exciting and new all the time. Marantz quotes Rosenberg as saying, “I want a future where hip-hop is still relevant. But I want that music to be related to what hip-hop originally was.” Unfortunately, his idea of “original” extends back only to the period when he originally discovered the music, not all the way back to its beginnings. The music began with a group of young people taking pre-existing music and--with both love for that music and disdain for keeping it pure and precious--twisting it into something new, into an expression of their own creativity. As an older hip-hop fan, when I hear new rap songs that alienate me, that sound foreign and incomprehensible, I am excited all over again by the infinite possibilities of the form. If only Rosenberg and hip-hop’s other conservative gatekeepers could remember not the sound of the music that first made them fall in love with the artform, but the feeling of falling in love with it.

(Images were found using Google image search and may be subject to copyright. Please contact me to receive proper accreditation.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#97)

The plot--two couples caught in a love rectangle--initially seems telegraphed, making Drinking Buddies all the more rewarding when its complexities sneak in.

Drinking Buddies (2013); dir. Joe Swanberg; starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston.

Monday, April 21, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#96)

Romy & Michelle meet Candide and Pangloss. Ass Backwards gamely sticks to its lowbrow character humor through hits and misses. Up the funny ladies!

Ass Backwards (2013); dir. Chris Nelson; starring (and written by) June Diane Raphael & Casey Wilson. With Alicia Silverstone, Jon Cryer, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bob Odenkirk, Brian Geraghty.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#95)

Judging by Kon-Tiki’s credits, it took the entire population of Norway to make, but it was worth it: Charm, adventure, and a history lesson.

Kon-Tiki (2013); dir. Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg; starring Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Agnes Kittelsen, Gustaf Skarsgard

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Proper Human Specimen: The Final Member

The Final Member, a documentary directed by Jonah Bekhor and Zack Math (opening today in select locations around the U.S.), is a portrait of three men with intense, and wildly different, relationships to the penis. Siggi Hjartarson is the founder and curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum which, he says, “started as a joke, with a bull’s penis given to me by a teacher in 1974.” But, after nearly forty years of collecting, it’s anything but a joke to him. It’s his life’s work, and the world’s largest collection of mammalian penises, lacking only one specimen to be considered complete: that of "a proper human." Ten minutes into the film--but twenty-five years into the history of his collection--two contenders come to the fore. One is a famous Icelandic explorer. The other, a strange, lonely man in California.
Pall Arason, the explorer, is very much attached to his image of himself as a trailblazer and an adventurer. “I’ve been the first in so many ways,” he says of his desire to have his penis be the first human specimen in the museum. “Womanizing” (the word he and several other men in the film use to describe his sexual history) is part of that image he has of himself, and of the men he is descended from. He claims to have slept with over three hundred women, “not counting prostitutes and such,” and shows off the book where he has documented all of their names. Siggi is shown sitting around with some of his friends debating how many women Arason has actually been with. They can’t agree on an exact number, but do agree that he’s certainly the most legendary womanizer in all of Iceland. Considering that the entire country only has a population of 300,000, that means a considerable percentage of the women there would have already seen his penis, even before its possible display in the museum.
But Arason has competition. Tom Mitchell, the lonely Californian, is also determined to be the first to have his penis displayed in the Phallological Museum, and his desire is so great that he considers donating it before his death. His relationship with his penis, which he calls “Elmo,” is complex, to say the least. He says, “I’ve always had a dream of not only Elmo being placed on display in a public place, but, as a result, possibly some fame and fortune. Not for myself, but for Elmo.” The journey that Mitchell goes on to complete this goal is one of the more winding ones that the film depicts, with many twists and turns, so I won’t spoil it any further.

For Siggi, it is not his own particular penis that is the issue. He has a scientist’s dislike for taboo surrounding the human body, and having a museum dedicated to the penis “helps in decreasing taboos about this organ.” A friend and fellow academic, Terry Gunnel, Ph.D., explains that, “Anything that Siggi comes across that mustn’t be talked about, as far as he’s concerned, it must be talked about straight away.” But there is also something of the scholar’s need to find a new area of study--or even the explorer’s need to find dark areas of the map--in his work. At one point he comes out and says, “I try to provoke people, to make them look at things differently. You want to explore things that other people don’t.” Having the human specimen will complete the museum, and thus his life’s work. Even after a full academic life, writing or translating twenty-two books, he feels he will be a failure if he doesn’t leave behind the complete collection. Is it, in the end, a monument to himself, to his own greatness, and thus a substitute penis?
It is to the film’s great credit that none of this is necessarily played for laughs. Even when it is funny, there is no hint of disrespect towards the subjects. The desire that Siggi has to complete his collection for the edification of the world; that Arason has to continue breaking new ground as an explorer even after his death; that Mitchell has to have his penis “be the world’s first true penis celebrity,” are treated as serious motivations befitting serious people. It is up to the audience to choose which horse they wish to see win the race, or whether the completion of the collection is a worthwhile goal at all. This viewer, for one, started out with my head in my hands over the absurdity of it all, and ended up in a state of rapturous attention, hoping against hope that Siggi, at least, got what he had wished for all those years. The Final Member is rewarding viewing for those who wish to see penises discussed for the length of a feature film, and, in the spirit of Siggi’s taboo-smashing, essential viewing for those who don’t.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#94)

A nice variation on the “girls can be sexual too” theme. Plaza proves she can play roles far removed from her familiar TV one.

The To Do List (2013); dir. Maggie Carey; starring Aubrey Plaza, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Donald Glover, Andy Samberg, Clark Gregg

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#93)

A how-to for indie screenwriters: Simple plot with strong character motivations, set In a World... both immediately recognizable and not overly familiar. Take note!

In a World... (2013); dir. Lake Bell; starring Lake Bell, Demetri Martin, Fred Melamed, Ken Marino, Rob Corddry, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro.

Monday, April 14, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#92)

While her talent was never in doubt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings such an impressive subtlety to her performance that I'm tempted to say she's underrated.

Enough Said (2013); dir. Nicole Holofcener; starring James Gandolfini, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#91)

A little bit funny and a lot of heart. None of the inventive CGI is as impressive as Adam Scott’s performance--or his beard.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013); dir. Ben Stiller; starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn, Kathryn Hahn, Shirley MacLaine 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Zona: (a discussion of) a book about a film about a journey to a room

The great irony of Geoff Dyer's Zona--purportedly a book-length discussion of Tarkovsky’s Stalker--is that it is almost never interesting when focusing on the subject at hand. The bulk of the book reads like an exhaustive plot synopsis written by an overeager fan on Wikipedia, or a sophomoric book report that keeps drifting away from its topic to discuss the author’s great desire to have back a knapsack he once lost, or behave differently the next time the possibility of a threesome presents itself to him. Those are both actual examples of the sorts of things Dyer digresses into, by the way, but it’s in some of the digressions that the book’s pleasures are to be found.

The book is organized such that the footnotes running beneath almost every page--and sometimes taking over whole pages in a row--are of the same size and font as the main text, reinforcing the idea that one is not more important than the other. Which parts get relegated to the footnotes, which put in parentheses, and which left in the body of the text, however, can seem entirely random. For the most part the main body is given over to the interminable, shot-by-shot recitation of the film’s plot, but then we get pointless bits like “For a long time I thought that American men always slept in their underwear.” (11) Typically, discussions of other films or novels will go into the footnotes, unless we’re suddenly treated to, in parentheses, a tidbit like this one: “For Strike, a character in Richard Price’s novel Clockers, a movie, any movie, is just ‘ninety minutes of sitting there’...” (15)

Often the book seems to be about Dyer’s struggles with writing the book (“I had intended breaking this little book into 142 sections… corresponding to the 142 shots of the film. …[but] I kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began.”) or with which book to write (“ a sense this book is a catalogue or compendium of proposals for potentially interesting studies…”). (31, 49) This wouldn’t be a problem--I myself am not allergic to postmodernism--if Dyer didn’t tell us, in that same passage on pg. 49, that a study of quotation within film “wouldn’t be that interesting after all [because] one wouldn’t get that far without the word meta cropping up and turning everything to dust.” This seems an odd attitude to take considering the form of the book itself, and at one point he seems to equate self-reflexivity with poor quality when writing off another of Tarkovsky’s films, calling Nostalghia “so bad--so far up itself…” (146)

At other times, he seems to reverse himself and offer something like a half-hearted apology for just such a formal approach: “It’s the one part of the film that seems to lack conviction and momentum, as if Tarkovsky is trying to make up his mind what to do and where to go next. This is not necessarily a bad thing, strengthening the impression that film is in some way about itself, a reflection of the journey it describes.” (123) But why would it be a good thing for the film (or the book) to be about itself? And how would it be possible for a work of art to be a “reflection” of its own subject--wouldn’t that actually make it the opposite of itself? It wouldn’t matter so much that these types of ideas are introduced without being thought through and worked out if this weren’t a text strewn with references to Merleau-Ponty, William James, Slavoj Zizek, Milan Kundera, et al. Just as the flippant tone and references to threesomes wouldn’t be so striking if the subject of the book weren’t such a serious, reverent work of art--one that the author claims to have for many years seen only in visits to a theater, like “a cinematic pilgrimage.” (143) Could you imagine making a pilgrimage to a work of art you revere, only to stand before it grousing about how you hate the smell of burnt matches and can’t see someone drink a beer in a movie without wanting a beer yourself?

More insulting than the strangely offhand tone chosen to discuss such a self-serious work (that the author himself ostensibly takes very seriously) is the occasional revelation of a willful ignorance on Dyer’s part. After briefly discussing how his subject is an art film version of The Wizard of Oz, he abandons this fruitful comparison, writing, “I’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz, not even as a kid, and obviously have no intention on making good that lack now.” (57) How is that obvious? If I were undertaking a book-length discussion of a film I’d probably get around to watching one of it’s “much-discussed” forerunners. Just as I would also take the two or three minutes required to Google something I had brought up, e.g.: “Przewalski’s horse (whatever that is).” (77)

Maybe it’s simply that Stalker’s charms are ineffable--so much of what we find beautiful is--but Dyer doesn’t seem to know what it is about the film that has kept him thinking about it for thirty years. He constantly makes hyperbolic assertions on its behalf and then makes no attempt to justify them at all. As if it were enough to simply say, “There follows one of the great sequences in the history of cinema” (44) and then move on from an uninflected description of the shots without telling us what exactly it is about the sequence that would make it particularly interesting to us--or even to him--let alone great. That Dyer seems to understand he’s failing doesn’t make it any easier for us to watch him doing so. He writes, “So what kind of writer am I, reduced to writing a summary of a film?” (149) But there is no vindication in this, we don’t cheer at his admission. We merely nod our heads sadly in recognition that much of what has gone before has been little more than summary, synopsis.

And yet… as to the matter of those constant digressions. They can be fascinating, whether the topic is a personal one--like the discussion, beginning on pg. 35, of Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris that digs into the book’s essential themes of how a work of art changes for a viewer over time, or can have odd, extratextual personal resonance--or a critical one, like the discussion of boredom on pgs. 20 and 21. Dyer writes:

“ wonder[s] how quickly a film can become boring. Which film holds the record in that particular regard? And wouldn’t that film automatically qualify as exciting and fast-moving if it had been able to enfold the viewer so rapidly in the itchy blanket of tedium? (Or perhaps one of the novelties of our era is the possibility of instant boredom… as opposed to a feeling that has to unfold gradually, suffocatingly, over time.)”

Passages like these prove Dyer’s reputation as an interesting thinker, a writer whom you would happily follow down the rabbit-hole. So provocative are these ideas on boredom, tossed off one after the other, that I’m tempted to abandon this review of Zona and begin to engage with them on their own terms, digressing off onto a whole new topic. And this is the real worth of the book. If a great piece of criticism is one that makes you want to immediately return to the work under discussion, then this one is an utter failure. I have no desire to see Stalker again in light of what Dyer has written. If, however, a great piece of criticism is one that makes you want to get into an argument--either for or against a particular assertion being made--then Zona is great many times over.

On that note, I’ll end with a long and strong assertion that I’ve been mulling over, and may just go and write a whole ‘nother piece in response to:

“I suspect it is rare for anyone to see their--what they consider to be the--greatest film after the age of thirty. After forty it is extremely unlikely. After fifty impossible. The films you see as a child and in your early teens… have such a special place in your affections that it’s all but impossible to consider them objectively… To try and disentangle their individual merits or shortcomings, to see them as a disinterested adult, is like trying to come to a definitive assessment of your own childhood: impossible because what you are contemplating and trying to gauge is a formative part of the person attempting the assessment.” (124-125)

All page references are to the first U.S. edition of Zona by Geoff Dyer, published by Pantheon Books, 2012.

Stalker (1979); dir. Andrei Tarkovsky; starring Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlich

Thursday, April 10, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#90)

Fear of progress is endemic to communities committed to conservation of certain artistic practices--it's even the theme of the song "Please Mr. Kennedy."

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); dir. the Coen Bros.; starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver, and a cat.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#89)

The overstuffed About Time contains fully three time travel plots, inciting laughter and tears in equal measure. Bill Nighy is as charming as always.

About Time (2013); dir. Richard Curtis; starring Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Joshua McGuire

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

24 Words Per Film (#88)

Russell precisely impersonates Scorsese throughout American Hustle to demonstrate his theme: authentic emotion can often be found behind even the most transparent of cons.

American Hustle (2013); dir. David O. Russell; starring Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Pena, Louis C.K.

Monday, May 28, 2012

24 Words Per Film (#87)

Neat trick: equal emphasis on realish protagonists and cartoon environment. Nicely satires the pushy, manipulative side of hippies, and the awkwardness of total openness.

Wanderlust (2012); dir. David Wain; starring Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Ken Marino, Kathryn Hahn, Joe Lo Truglio, Alan Alda. 

24 Words Per Film (#86)

The central conceit is rather clever, but the narrative itself doesn't always betray the same consideration. Kristen Wiig is, as always, totally frickin' brilliant.

Paul (2011); dir. Greg Mottola; starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig.