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by Bill Gibron

23 Nov 2009

We don’t always need a happy ending. In art, as in life, situations rarely play out perfectly, or painlessly, or fairly. Indeed, anguish makes up the very fabric of existence, and it’s a cloth few of us want to wear willingly. So when one imitates the other, it doesn’t always have to be pretty. Or enjoyable. Or cathartic. No, a modern, contemporary audience should be able to deal with the dark, the dour, or the depressing with relative ease. After all, it’s part of our individual make-up, the manner in which we typically trudge through everyday life.

But two current films are really pushing the limits of viable entertainment misery. Both are based on famous novels, and both feature brave individuals attempted to survive under the most heinous of conditions. A few weeks back, Lee Daniels drama of unholy urban blight, Precious, rocked viewers with its tale of child abuse and social disenfranchisement. In it, the title character suffers through horrific sexual, physical, and psychological abuse while trying to find a way out of her dead end situation. And this week, we see the arrival of John Hillcoat’s bleak adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning tome The Road. Dealing with a nameless father and son who are traversing a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, it’s a journey through starvation, cannibalism, and the desperate will to survive.

While both of these films couldn’t be more different in setting and story, each shares a startling spiritual similarity with the other. Both begin in horrific ways, placing our leads in personality-defining peril. Each then moves them through more and more torment - for Precious, it’s beatings at the hands of her worthless welfare mother; for the duo in The Road it’s the threat of disease, violence, and death. Halfway through, a sort of sanctuary is discovered. For Precious, it’s Ms. Blu Rain’s special school. For The Road‘s Father and Son, it’s an abandoned fall out shelter loaded with supplies. In each circumstance, a small glimmer of hope is established, a chance for each one of these put-upon souls to finally breakout and live, if only for a little. Then, a last act a-bomb of illness drops. Precious is diagnosed with HIV. The Road’s patriarch appears to be suffering from some terminal lung ailment and grows weaker and weaker until…

By the time they end, each film using the status quo as a statement of austere, undeniable everyday realism, hope has been quashed and all we can wish for is a significantly less amount of pain before the characters pass - and even then, neither narrative offers a guarantee. It’s the starkness of each statement (Precious will be another grave government statistic, the Boy may find another to care for him, but there’s little optimism in this rapidly dying world) that renders both Precious and The Road into tough emotional rollercoasters. By their very nature, tragedies are supposed to provide catharsis, a chance for the audience, through the events and their depiction, to purge themselves of the feelings fostered by the stories. Instead, both Precious and The Road sink under your skin, bothering you with their lack of humanity and undying sense of futility. And it’s an effective approach that’s hard to shake. 

Perhaps if they functioned as metaphor or allegory, maybe if they weren’t such onerous predictions of how people will de-evolve under the harshest of conditions, we’d find a way to make each film function as entertainment. Again, film doesn’t have to be all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, but it doesn’t have to be all rape, human sacrifice, and mutilation either. Or worse, it doesn’t have to lack a valid point within its atrocity. We will easily accept the desolate and the pessimistic if the message behind the wretchedness is clear. But in both films, there’s no clear counterbalance. All they offer is crime without any possibility of punishment - and then they toss in more wrongs to up the level of loss.

Take Precious, for example. This overweight teen is already dealing with the terrifying social prejudices produced by a country that doesn’t care about minorities. Indeed, she is seen as wallowing through a system that offers some compassion but little resolve. The character of Ms. Weiss, expertly essayed by singer Mariah Carrey, can only be as helpful as the bureaucracy she’s saddled with. When Precious really needs a friend - or even better, a savior - there are none available, present or possible. She’s not just mandated to suffer - she’s preselected to do so.

The Road is no better. Father has done everything he can to teach his neophyte child (a kid born after Armageddon and therefore unaware of the true nature of people) about trust and defense, and yet at every step, said strictures are tested. During one incomprehensibly nasty scene, the duo come across a human slaughterhouse - people herded like cattle in a basement pit, parts of their bodies removed or missing for the “butchers” who keep them there as captives - and food supply. The child doesn’t get it. Later on, when Father confronts a black man who he believes has been following him (and did indeed steal from them), he strips him naked in the freezing nuclear winter weather and leaves him to the elements. While his son wants to help, all Dad can do is rear back like a caged animal and defend his “territory”.

In both cases, the message is clear: “Give up all Hope Ye Who Enter Here!” Thankfully, the acting in both films is so fantastic, so nuanced and intricate that we accept the deliberate dire straights and are thoroughly engaged. But then the sneaky suspicious that all this suffering has been for naught comes crawling back to the fore. It’s almost impossible to escape the conclusion. After all, what has Precious learned? That life sucks? That her mom hates her for “stealing” her man (how the woefully misguided matriarch rationalizes the several rapes of her child)? That even the system build to protect her, can’t? That she’ll eventually die from an STD that was forced upon her and her child? Or how about the pair from The Road? That they are a constant source of food for the rest of the dying world? That nowhere is safe and nothing should be taken for granted? That humanity will turn into vicious, amoral monsters the minute normal protocol breaks down? That the next war will be the last? That the world, like its population, is dying for the final time?

Again, no one needs these films to find a happy way of wrapping up their stories. No one is asking that Precious find a man who loves her, or a loving home to take her in, or even a cure for her progressive disease. No one is asking for her mother to be jailed, her father to be castrated, or her social workers to be chastised for not finding a solution to her sad dilemma in the first place. Similarly, we don’t want Father to live, to discover a new civilized community along the shoreline of the Pacific Northwest, or raise his son to be the next President of the New United States. But what we don’t want - nay DEMAND - is a reason to go along with such suffering. We can gain enough torment from our own lives to create such a sour simulation. We don’t need an artform known for casting a reflection on the world to remind us of how unconscionably awful it is. Both Precious and The Road offer all pain and no gain. For some, that’s perfectly fine. Many will want a little more meaning in their misery. 

by Rob Horning

23 Nov 2009

Having looked at a few of these “best music of the decade” lists that are just starting to appear, I think you are at a big disadvantage if you put out an album in the last year or so, and the albums that are put out early in the decade are at a great advantage. The rest of the decade’s releases are viewed through the lenses focused by the albums that come out in the first few years. A teleology of trends is established to make for a conveniently packaged decade zeitgeist. Hence, London Calling, released in 1980, is regarded as one of the most important albums of the 1980s. In 1991, Never Mind is released in the “year that punk broke,” revolutionizing culture for the 1990s. Kid A, out in 2000, sets the agenda for the 2000s and is its most important album by critical consensus.

Perhaps a work’s “influentialness” has largely become a factor of external considerations like this—of how well the release date fits with the marketing culture, with publishers’ deadlines, with formulas for magazine features that are already established. Artists can start to produce meta-important works, works that presage the needs of the critical apparatus destined to arbitrate things like social relevance. They can help frame the narrative we want to tell about our times, which is anchored to arbitrary divisions like decades. If I wanted to release an album right now, I would most certainly wait a few months.

by Tyler Gould

23 Nov 2009

The Roots joined Elvis Costello for a performance of Get Happy! on Fallon, where he was promoting the second season of the Sundance Channel’s Spectacle.

by Jennifer Cooke

23 Nov 2009

On the TV show Project Runway, hopeful designers are given challenges to make fabulous fashions on a shoestring budget. Their faces invariably crinkle in dismay when they find they’ve only got $150 and 24 hours to make a gown worthy of the red carpet. When the results are evaluated, one of the most coveted comments from the judges is that a piece “looks expensive” even though it was created with very little money. The ultimate compliment is when Heidi Klum says something like, “I could walk right out of here and wear that to a party tonight.”

Being an unsigned band is kind of like being a contestant on Project Runway. You might have more time to produce a CD, but not a whole lot more financial resources. Most of the time, the results are a bit rough-hewn, raggedy around the hem, with an exposed zipper or puckered fabric here and there. But every once in a while, a little nobody band manages to produce a CD so good, so cohesive, and so professional that it could sit right beside the cream of popular music, today, as is. San Diego’s own Transfer has submitted just such an album, Future Selves, and if enough people heard it, I have no doubt it could walk right out of here and go to a party with Kings of Leon, Weezer, Muse, and everyone else on Billboard’s rock charts for November 2009.

by Lara Killian

23 Nov 2009

Public libraries can be a treasure trove of semi-forgotten texts. Recently I was wandering through the Classics section (800s, poetry, philosophy, that sort of thing) and an unusual volume caught my eye.

Winnie ille Pu. Something didn’t seem right. The classic story in Latin. Why else would A.A. Milne, sorry, A.A. Milnei be shelved near the ancient Greeks and other dead languages?

Now, I can’t read Latin, but I was so charmed by this 1960 volume that I took it out. Sometimes an old book needs a bit of fresh air, right? The pictures are all there, and the story I know, but can’t pronounce in this case. A few minutes investigation online told me that you can still buy the paperback version on Amazon, and this translation was actually a New York Times bestseller for 20 weeks following publication, reprinted 21 times!

A 1984 story by Edwin McDowell in the NYT Books section elaborates on the strange series of events that brought this beloved story back into print in a dead language. I’m glad it caught my eye, or I would never have known about what is possibly the only book without a word of English in it to be a NYT bestseller.

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