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by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2009

Rowan Atkinson’s brilliant Blackadder franchise, consisting of four fabulous series and a couple of clever one-offs, is frequently misjudged by the press. No, not in the lists of British Best-Of, where it frequently gives other English classics like Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and The Young Ones a run for “greatest sitcom ever” accolades. And not in the arena of available talent. Along with the future Mr. Bean, we get stunning, starmaking turns from Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry as well as creative input for comic savants Ben Elton and Richard Curtis. In fact, when wedged up against those previously mentioned UK laughfests, Blackadder typically beats them all. So why is it never a true part of the pop culture discussion? Why does it take something like the sensational new DVD release of remastered episodes to get the show some significant international love?

Of course, it’s a massive hit back home, recently voted the second favorite comedy of all time - and this might explain some of the disconnect. One of Blackadder‘s major selling points is its twisting of British history, retrofitting the facts (and occasional tall tales) to turn the adventures of a conniving little cretin named Edmund, his manservant Baldrick, and the various incarnations of the man throughout traditional English folklore into sidesplitting satire. The first series, simply entitled The Black Adder sees the secret record of Richard III/Richard IV’s reign used as a backdrop for Atkinson’s seminal sneak. Blackadder II is set during the court of Elizabeth I and amplified the character’s sinister nature. Blackadder the Third finds the Regency Period utilized as a means of highlighting the relationship between the Prince of Wales and his butler, our scheming antihero. We shoot forward a century to World War I, where Captain Blackadder Goes Forth, trying to find ways of avoiding his military duty to God and Country.

As with most UK series, all four Blackadder offerings consist of six individual installments. They cover subject as intriguing as the authority of the Church (“The Archbishop”), witch hunts (“Witchsmeller Pursuivant”), baby-eating bishops (“Money”) and intoxication (“Beer”). By the third go round, we get plots revolving around politics (“Dish and Dishonesty”) old stage superstitions (“Sense and Senility”) and The Scarlett Pimpernel (“Nob and Nobility”), while the final tour of duty presents tales of pigeon murder (“Corporal Punishment”), aviation (“Private Plane”), and music hall variety (“Major Star”). In addition, the DVD set also offers the masterful Blackadder Christmas Carol take-off, the 15 minute Blackadder: The Cavalier Years set during the English Civil War, and the time travel extravaganza Blackadder: Back and Forth. Along with a wealth of bonus features (including commentaries, interviews and documentary features on the show and its impact), we get an in-depth lesson in all things silly and snide - and it’s all absolutely brilliant.

Indeed, what one takes away from such an overview is how radical and revisionist Blackadder really is. Imagine a series that poked gentle fun at American ideals and factual truisms, all for the sake of a character that is mean, neglectful, incorrigible, cutthroat, bumbling, brazen, devious, shrewd, and on more than one occasion, completely off his nut. Without Aktinson in the lead it would never work. Though he is usually the butt of the situational joke most of the time, Blackadder (in all his carnations) remains a significant comedy creation. He’s not just the man you love to hate - he’s the slimebucket you obsess over like a moonstruck school girl. There is just something so amazingly awful, so delightfully despicable about the man that you can’t help but hang on his every wicked wisecrack and/or deed. No matter if it’s aimed at royalty or a peasant, Blackadder does not suffer fools - not lightly, not bloody likely.

Though great almost from the beginning, the series did struggle a bit at first. The BBC did not like the high cost and low return of The Black Adder, and then demanded changes before the second set of shows was okayed (and even then that took nearly three years to accomplish). Aside from the casting, which saw the heroic Brian Blessed replaced by more comic-oriented actors, the character of Blackadder was altered as well. Instead of a blundering fool who seems to fall into treachery, Curtis and Elton reconfigured him as a more astute and cunning antagonist. Much of the moron material went directly to Tony Richardson, who mined the always filthy manservant Baldrick for all he could. In was also discovered that Atkinson was a master at making already idiotic people look even worse than they really were. Thus the constant state of stupidity surrounding Blackadder, from a dim Elizabeth I to an insufferably dense Prince of Wales.

By Goes Forth, the writing was so polished, the performances so honed and perfected, that the series never misses a beat. Even when dealing with a subject as tricky as war, Blackadder finds the truth and then turns it on its crazy, crackpot head. Even better, with each new generational jump, the historical elements become an indirect supporting character. Another reason the show often suffers in syndication is that many of the quips are incredibly insular, known to only those whose country is being deconstructed and/or those familiar with the eras and events. Granted, the dialogue is not all dates and declaration. The Blackadder series is sublime in its unique and complex insult strategy, a combination of scatology and dead-on satire. It’s not every show that can work a statement about feces, incest, and the failed Feudal system into a rejoinder, but that’s the beauty of Edmund and the gang.

As the DVD set points out, the series was a truly labor intensive affair. Actors had to learn to ride, wear ridiculous, epoch appropriate garb, and trust the intricacy of the scripts vs. adlibbing at will. Injuries where suffered and opportunities missed, and many have fond memories of the results if not the specific means of achieving them. During a few particularly poignant moments, several members of the cast are visibly moved by their memories of their show. Aktinson, a rather reclusive star who rarely gives interviews, uses the new bonus features to address rumors, quash misinformation, and generally make his final statement on the show, period. Oddly enough, there have been rumblings both pro and con for another series of the show. While many recent comments argue otherwise, the material here seems to suggest that, if the right subject came along, and a network was willing to back them up, there’s a contingent that’s keen to do it.

And why not - the Blackadder conceit seems to work no matter the time or place you put it in. Like most classic comedies where one character spends his or her time looking down their nose at the rest of the rabble, only to realize their as guilty of being as plebian as they are, Rowan Aktinson successfully argued for his place as one of Britain’s greatest living humorists. While his next outing, Mr. Bean, would reinvent slapstick for the post-modern age, it’s his time traveling through various phases of UK lore that will always illustrate his truest gifts. No matter the lack of universal respect, Blackadder remains a singular achievement. It’s great, because everyone involved is as well. You can’t argue with that kind of creative strategy.


by Christopher Guerin

27 Oct 2009

One of the great times in my life was the ten years during which I read to my daughter Julia every night before her bedtime. (My wife enjoyed the same with our daughter Alice.) Along with many other picture books, fairy tales, poetry collections, even The Hobbit and the first Harry Potter book (one was enough for me), we made our way through all the Frank L. Baum Oz books. Wildly uneven, each Oz tale had its own treasures, and we didn’t think even one of them a total dud.

Gregory Maguire, of course, is the new standard bearer for the Oz kingdom, with his ongoing series of “Wicked” novels. (Here’s my PopMatters review of the latest in the series: A Lion Among Men.) 

Maquire has made a career retelling, or, more accurately, re-imagining great stories, such as his novel-length versions of Snow White and Cinderella. He can also concoct his own strange brews, as he did with the scintillating Lost.

Now he’s written Matchless, A Christmas Story, a brief “reillumination”, as he calls it, of “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen. The bleak story of the poor little Match Girl who imagines she sees her dead grandmother as she freezes to death is left largely intact (though it’s her mother she sees here), but is framed by the story of Frederick, a poor little boy who also comes close to dying from the elements, but is saved by the Match Girl’s guiding spirit. He goes on to live a somewhat improved existence when his mother marries the Little Match Girl’s father and their fortunes improve.

Matchless is a clever rescue of the Andersen story, bookending its sadness with a more hopeful tale, and, by changing the time frame from New Year’s Eve to Christmas Eve, making it much more appropriate for young children.

With many somewhat clumsy but effective illustrations by the author himself (Maguire’s usual illustrator, Douglas Smith, being perhaps too dark for the purpose), Matchless was written to be read aloud and is the perfect length for a single bedtime reading.

I’ll keep my copy and look forward to reading it to Julia’s children someday.

by Eleanore Catolico

27 Oct 2009

Hailing from Bordeaux, France, punk rock tandem Caroline Martial and Orion Bouvier make up the tantalizing Kap Bambino. Drawing upon the likes of Suicide and Nirvana, Kap Bambino fleshes out unruly noise rock for the masses. Revel in Kap Bambino’s “Batcaves”, which Martial helpfully describes as “a call to all the bats out there”, as well as a list of their North American tour dates. The band’s new EP, Batcaves, is set for a digital release on November 16th, and their full length album Blacklist is due 2010.

Kap Bambino
Batcaves (Jackson Remix) [MP3]

by Rob Horning

27 Oct 2009

Having spent the weekend in a Hilton hotel in Hartford, Connecticut, this essay from Travel & Leisure by Peter Jon Lindberg, about “bad” music in corporate spaces open to the public, resonated with me (via NYT Ideas). The Hilton was particularly aggressive with the piped-in smooth jazz, which blared in the lobby and the coffee shop and the bar and the elevators and the indoor pool and the fitness center and possibly even the business center, which incidentally was basically an extortion scheme for those poor businesspeople who break their laptops during their stay. (The center offers you the opportunity to rent an old computer at the rate of 99 cents a minute. And don’t think you get internet access included with that, or with anything having to do with your stay with Hilton. In fact, the Hilton was out to nickel-and-dime patrons at virtually every level of service. Parking for $18 a night? $15 for the internet? This is not at all how the resort is portrayed on Mad Men.)

Lindberg’s essay is an intermittently amusing exercise in fussy snobbery:

Some people are irked by bad lighting, excessive AC, the reek of European men’s cologne. I’m hopelessly particular about music. Background sound tracks can make or break my impression of a place—and these days every place has one, from wine bars to Williams-Sonoma. Too often it’s employed with alarming incompetence…. I’ve walked out of otherwise appealing shops that elect to blare Maroon 5. I’ve hung up on reservations lines that put me on hold to “Groovy Kind of Love.” I bring earplugs on planes to block out not the roar of the engines but the insipid pabulum of the boarding music.

You get the idea. His taxonomy of Muzak is spot-on, though—Bebel Gilberto, Gypsy Kings, Amadou & Mariam. The idea is to evoke thoughtless, non-intrusive cosmopolitanism, the fantasy that global homogeneity is just one slick programmed beat away. Lindberg reserves special opprobrium for Sade, whose 1984 release Diamond Life was one of the first non-rock cassettes I ever owned. Like Hiltons across America, I believed it would make me seem sophisticated.

Lindberg ends up focusing on Muzak as professionalized aural branding for corporations trying to negotiate the diverse tastes of their clientele, and he even celebrates it, as long as it is “hip”—that is, suits his indie-rock tastes. That seems like a cop-out, but after all, the piece was published in Travel & Leisure, not Adbusters or something. But along the way, he cites an academic paper by business professors Alan Bradshaw and Morris B. Holbrook, “Must We Have Muzak Wherever We Go?: A critical consideration of the consumer culture,” which argues that the copious deployment of background music “support concerns that culture is degraded by marketers as a means of social control.”

By methodically testing the effectiveness of certain types of music to elicit certain behaviors in commercial spaces, canned-music suppliers instrumentalize music, make it “deployable” instead of listenable. Simply schematizing our emotional responsiveness to music may ruin it—giving credence to the frequent complaint that music criticism kills what it anatomizes. Music is “de-aestheticized”: The songs remain the same, but the uses to which they are put (as “retail atmospherics,” in the marketing jargon) irreparably alter how we can hear them. We can’t pay attention to it with the goal of immersing ourselves in it. It becomes background music everywhere—it gets iPodded, etc. Further, when music is deployed in this way, we no longer have the option of simply listening to it, of having an unmediated response to it. Music retains its emotional efficacy, but that efficacy is co-opted and used to achieve the ends of those deploying it. When we choose to hear something, we are giving our consent to be moved by it, but when it’s foisted on us, we are vulnerable to those properties in music that slip by our conscious defenses. We are moved against our will, to purposes that aren’t our own. These include efforts to make us buy more and buy specific things, but more surprising is the suggestion that “less pleasant music” affects our perception of time and theoretically makes waiting in line seem to pass more quickly. Bradshaw and Holbrook, pictures of academic neutrality, put it this way:

Apparently, more distasteful music will make the queue appear to move more quickly. Really loathsome stuff should make the wait breeze by in a jiffy. So can it be that the onslaught of diabolically annoying sounds that typically assaults the unwilling victim on such occasions – the most offensive canned drivel imaginable, epitomized by garden-variety vanilla-flavored squeaky-clean middle-of-the-road bland-as-blazes Muzak – actually makes the time seem to fly?

This speaks to Bradshaw and Holbrook’s more general point: Background music is meant to manage us, not entertain us. Whether people “like” it doesn’t figure in to the decision to pipe it in. They cite Adorno’s lament over our loss of the right not to hear music. (This puts a different spin on Keats’s verse: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”)

If background music can be so effectively instrumentalized, is its ultimate purpose not any particular local effect but a general conditioning of consumer-citizens? Is it subliminal orientation to our role in the totally administered society, or some such? “As we have demonstrated, music plays a complicit role in creating this conveyor-belt style of organized consumption, coaxing customers to travel at suitable speeds through a retail setting dependent on the manager’s manipulation,” Bradshaw and Holbrook write. They critique “consumer-culture theory”—that version of cultural studies that regards consumerism as a form of expression and rejects ideas that social control could be implmented top-down through cultural products. Consumers, to that view, are “more than capable of defending themselves against the onslaughts of commercially-entrenched brain washing.” But the efficacy and ubiquity of background music suggests otherwise. Consmers don’t transform it; they tolerate or ignore it while it works semi-subliminally. Music helps regulate our internal rhythms and synch them with the necessary flow demanded by capital. Often, we ignore background music, which suggests it’s working as it should and we are in that flow. When we notice it, when it galls us, we have become sand in the gears of postindustrial society.

I used to think this meant we should complain loudly and often about piped-in music, to prove that we are still alive. The melodrama helped me regard a gesture that cost me very little effort as something truly revolutionary—that is where I would take my last stand, against Natalie Imbruglia in the supermarket. But is this a matter of my performing my discontent, which gives me a stake in the persistence of background music, to give me my rebel identity? Bradshaw and Holbrook note how resistance is typically co-opted, and perhaps only registers when it is available for co-optation:

despite the tendency toward market resistance, the ultimate performed resistance is ironically market-mediated (Kozinets 2002) so that resisting one market discourse of power merely generates another (Thompson 2004). The phenomenon of a countercultural brand community entails a basic paradox.

The problem with resisting Muzak is that it plays immediately into self-presentation, how we use our tastes to market ourselves. The critique of background music is always already defused by the fact that the credibility and motives of the complainers can always be questioned. Many things in consumer society seem to work this way. The idea that we are all “brands” engaged in our ongoing identity projects, just like the corporations, levels the moral playing field and preempts resistance.

by Dave MacIntyre

27 Oct 2009

Back in early March, I saw The Airborne Toxic Event perform at the Mod Club in Toronto.  Despite being flu-stricken, lead singer Mikel Jollett sang his heart out.  I remember later reading that the band had cancelled multiple dates prior to the show and that Jollett had vehemently refused recommendations from his doctor to cancel the Toronto gig on the grounds that Toronto simply wasn’t a city you cancelled over the flu.  I also remember thinking to myself that he didn’t seem that sick to me because the show was so good.

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