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by Rob Horning

9 Mar 2009

At 3 Quarks Daily, Asad Raza responds to philosophy professor Dennis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, a book that attempts to explain the existence of art in terms of evolutionary psychology. This thesis is probably important to argue if you have some stake in evolutionary psychology, less so if you are interested in art. Without having read the book, I can’t see how it can be useful for anything other than attempting to derive a depoliticized and faux-universal aesthetic. Art serves political functions; the sexual selection it may help facilitate is political as well—the signaling occurs within a given class structure and serve to reproduce it or react against it. Attention to the evolutionary aspect of artmaking (which ultimately strip the history out of art history; i.e. the stuff about art that is actually interesting beyond the sensual pleasure it gives) seems likely to divert attention away from the political aspects of aesthetics, which ideology about the supremacy and autonomy of individual taste already makes it difficult to perceive.

Raza points out some of the inherent problems of attempting to deduce the evolutionary significance of some supposedly universal tastes in art, focusing particularly on Dutton’s assertion that landscape painting derives from early humankind’s predilection for savannahs:

Your first chapter cites a survey finding that human beings are attracted to a certain type of landscape, which you point out resembles the most habitable savanna landscapes of the Pleistocene: “a landscape with trees and open areas, water, human figures, and animals.”  You hypothesize that people are attracted to such landscapes innately, and that is why calendars tend to feature them.  When we are pleased by such a landscape, you conclude magisterially, “we confront remnants of our species’ ancient past.”

Raza points out that this is an extremely short-sighted account of the variety of landscape painting the world has produced.

Obviously, some landscape painting is meant to be beautiful and thus pleasurable, especially in European painting between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.  But just because this particular genre of painting (lasting only ten generations or so) has some analogues in Eastern painting does not establish, to my satisfaction at least, that humans innately take pleasure in such pictures.  To the contrary, most forms of painting, including that which decorates the caves in Lascaux, do not depict perspectival landscapes.  Also, much landscape painting does not produce pleasure but fear and awe (think of Friedrich, or Turner).  Isn’t it just as likely that landscapes with a certain prospective view, from high ground, with sublime natural features such as high mountains at a safe distance, but with an enticingly serpentine river or path winding from foreground to background, producing a sense of exploration and travel, became popular when they did for historical reasons?  And, having become popular, were later spread around the world, after technologies for the mass reproduction of images were invented, in the lowbrow form of calendars?  Finally, even if you had a strong scientific case as to why humans take pleasure in looking at certain kinds of landscapes, that doesn’t explain why paintings of such landscapes have at some times in some places been considered art, which does not mean simply pleasurable things—what you are arguing for (a love of calendar landscapes) might be better called “The Kitsch Instinct.”

Regardless of the alleged science behind the pursuit of universal taste, one ends up with an effort to reject the plurality and particularity of actual aesthetics in action, and what purposes they serve and effects they have in a given sociohistorical moment, in favor of generalizations that efface history. Such critics have to generalize and universalize their own sentimentality under a series of scientific veils and recondite justifications. But that generalization inevitably results in kitsch, which is dehistorisized aesthetics. Kitsch is perhaps the only “universal” taste out there—it is what one is inevitably left with when one is prone to generalizing about what pleases everybody.

by Lana Cooper

9 Mar 2009

Hollywood Undead group photo

Hollywood Undead group photo

A mixture of rock and rap (while deftly avoiding the “nu metal” ethos of almost a decade ago), Hollywood Undead are deveoloping a rapidly growing fanbase with the release of their debut album, Swan Songs.  The group’s first single, “Undead”, was featured in the Super Bowl commercial for the upcoming G.I. Joe film. 

Bringing hip-hop’s love for their hometown to the table along with metal angst and hair-metal’s penchant for good times, Hollywood Undead’s sound is as unique as their look.  Keeping their identities secret beneath masks (à la Slipknot), Hollywood Undead are arguably one of the most interesting and exciting acts to hit the scene in years.

by Mike Deane

9 Mar 2009

In the early ‘90s, music videos had come into their own, and were big-budget marketing tools to solidify a band’s image and to help sell albums.  Jodeci have always been a mystery to me.  I’ve never been a big fan, but one night when watching all of their videos in a row, I realized that there’s a lot going on in ‘90s R&B other than the Boyz II Men syruppy slop. 

Jodeci were of the late-new jack swing era, which meant that they were producing more hard R&B songs as well as the sappy and slow softies. The videos that are representative of these two types of songs are the super-sensitive sounds of “Forever My Lady” and the weirdo, tougher but still sensitive sounds of “Feenin’”. This write-up is less to figure out what was going on with Jodeci at the time, or to figure out something about ‘90s culture, and is instead just to draw attention to the art of the ‘90s R&B video. 

“Forever My Lady” begins with soft lighting and contains the two main settings for the video: the sea side and some sort of cathedral or bath house.  It’s a great mix and what makes things even better are the costumes. It happens a lot with videos from past decades, when you wonder about the appeal of the fashion. In this first part of the video, the Jodeci boys are all wearing: white hats, white button-up sports jackets, white shorts, and black combat boots with white socks poking out above them. There’s nary a shirt to be seen.

The song focuses around typical sensitive ‘90s R&B themes of love, family and total devotion. Serious stand-outs for the video involve K-Ci skipping a rock into the ocean, K-Ci’s hand movements that mime the lyrics he’s singing, and Devante’s (I think that’s Devante) air-keytar solo at the end. He continues the keytar solo from ocean to cathedral, and back.

“Feenin” is way different and though it also hits with some muscular R&B, there are darker elements. The song focuses around how love can be so strong and addictive that you essentially become a drug fiend.  The drug fiend depicted in the video though is more like someone with serious mental problems that has been committed, and now lives in a padded room - there’s even a shot of one of the members, or an extra, wearing a diaper.

This video makes the mistake of trying to become some sort of narrative video, as shown during the star-studded poker game which attempts to explain the concept of “Feenin”.  Snoop Dog provides some very unnecessary advice (though Snoop is just making a cameo, Jodeci had other star affiliations with Missy Elliott and Timbaland both involved with the group before the song kicks into a heavy rock intro.

The song then gets into its proper form, strong drums with a really amazing sounding snare, and K-Ci’s singing providing a narrative while the video switches between scenes of him in what is possibly hell (or blacksmith forge), and in an insane asylum.

The video is half-horror movie and half-mistaken ideas about what an insane asylum might be.

Some real highlights are Suge Knight as an orderly bringing in food, the aforementioned man in a diaper, the group sing-along around the piano in the padded music room, and the topless escape scene at the end where they rip all of the padding from the walls.

Overall, I’m not really sure what these videos say about anything, or whether they do say anything, they more show the music video at one of its most confused and weird times.  The budget was there to make a big video, but people didn’t quite seem know how to do it.  A big budget just meant a couple of more costume changes and renting expensive sets.  Jodeci really took it to a weird level, and these two videos are entertaining examples.  Though for the most part it’s a good thing that the big-business music industry is failing, the one thing I’ll miss most is absurd and large scale music videos.  Animal Collective and Chairlift have shown how you can make amazing videos with a small budget, but the excessive nature of major label music videos in the ‘90s was something special.

by Bill Gibron

9 Mar 2009

So what is it? A hit? A flop? Something somewhere in the middle? At a mere $55 million in weekend box office, Warner Brothers (and those litigious hangers-on FOX) must be circling the spin wagons and preparing to pour on the positive publicity. Twenty years ago, making more than half of the notorious blockbuster number of 100 in one three day period would be almost inconceivable. Today, it’s a drop in a deep, debt ridden bucket. While the amount of money something makes is never a clear sign of aesthetic or critical accomplishment, Hollywood measures meaning in dollars and cents - and the sheep-like media, incapable of solid independent thought, publish said spreadsheet summarizations with schaudenfraude delight.

So what exactly does a $55 million take mean for the long-in-gestation adaptation? Clearly, when compared to the $100 million of Iron Man, or the $300 million of The Dark Knight, we are waltzing through middling motion picture territory. The revamp of The Incredible Hulk did about $55 million its opening weekend, as did the female niche effort Sex and the City: The Movie. Claiming that a similarly small and specialized fanbase should be ashamed for only half a hundred is ridiculous. Besides, Watchmen is nearly three hours (including previews and trailers) and walked into theaters with an incredibly hard “R” attached to its availability. Making $55 million with the local pre-teen crowd packing Cineplexes is one thing. Doing it with the 17 and up crowd deserves some kind of special consideration.

That won’t stop those who hate the film from filling their greenback ducts with bile and spewing a kind of planned propaganda about the movie’s destined destruction. Others will toss their hands in the air and wonder what more a filmmaker has to do to draw an audience. There will be revisions, considerations for Thursday Midnight screenings and IMAX attendance, but one thing’s for sure - the $55 million figure will become the benchmark of 2009, a number ready to be shot down by X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, and Public Enemies. Still, one can try and gauge the impact this opening will have on the talent involved, taking into consideration more than the amount of cash that fills the coffers. Let’s begin with:

The Studio(s)


Warner Brothers/FOX


For Warners, it was all win/win initially. They had the director they wanted (hot off the phenomenal triumph of 300), the screenplay they needed (wonky, but totally workable), a cast they could bank on (no big names = no big salaries), and a pre-publicity buzz that made marketers drool with anticipation. With both messagesboards and viral campaigns loaded for bear, there was no way a Watchmen movie would fail. FOX must have thought so too, since they jumped in during post-production to claim their piece of the potential pie in court. Now, no matter what happens, Warners has wondered over into lose/lose terrain. If Watchmen doesn’t make $200 million, it will be seen as a failure - especially when it comes to profit sharing time. And if by some chance it surpasses all expectations and makes much, much more, the numerous hands reaching out for a cut will be painful to any earnings margin.

The Source


The Graphic Novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons


Of all the questionable outcomes, the impact on Watchmen as a literary entity remains the most complex. Surely, the semi-success of any film adaptation will draw readers anew to the original graphic novel, and those not put off by the format will find a work of incredibly dense and discerning wonder. Moore’s prose is plaintive and philosophical, wrapping up many intriguing ideas inside a seemingly simple story of revenge. Of course, the Cold War setting will seem dated, and the notion of Nixon as a three term President could put many off their measured morning in America coffee, yet there’s much more here than parallel histories and wistful “what ifs”.

Still, there is a drawback to such attention and that’s the dreaded “s” word - scrutiny. There will be some who come to Watchmen and wonder why the book is so beloved. Others will see Moore as a miserly old coot who happily cashes the checks his works incur while cursing the various mediums making said money. Some will take his adaptation complaints to heart and boycott anything but the written word - and that’s too bad. The film version of Watchmen is an exciting and rather special epic. While commerciality is perhaps the bane of Mr. Moore’s creative existence, it’s also not the final defining factor of anything’s worth. If it was, his cult would be laughable, not legitimate.

The Writers


David Hayter and Alex Tse


For Hayter and Tse, the ultimate realization of a Watchmen movie means much more to both of them than any bottom line balance sheet. The former has been down this road before (he worked on both X-Men films and The Scorpion King) while the latter is experiencing the first brushes with popcorn fame. In fact, Tse is already hard at work adapting Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man for future Snyder consideration. Since they were given the task of remaining faithful to the graphic novel, and will be seen as doing same (one missing squid aside), there’s no real downside to their contribution. Even if the film went on to severely underperform, they won’t be pegged as the problem. Indeed, for many involved in the production, Moore and Gibbons will be given more grief than those charged with accurately bringing their vision to life.

The Director


Zack Snyder


For his part, Snyder has already won. Even if the eventual returns don’t cover the cost of production, the man behind Dawn of the Dead and 300 set out to make the best. Most believable Watchmen movie he could, and given the outcome, he did just that. Sure, you can argue over how he truncated the tale, and how successful something like The Tales of the Black Freighter will be both outside and included in the final DVD cut, but he bested noted imaginative individuals like Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, and Darren Aronofsky, and there’s something to be said for actually filming the “unfilmable”. Any primping on his part will be seen as studio swagger and the resulting returns on home video will guarantee at least a few more dream projects before the fiscal reality of a less than Dark Knight return sinks in.

The Stars


Jeffery Dean Morgan/Patrick Wilson/Jackie Earle Haley


Of the many names associated with the Watchmen movie, only three truly stand out. We can’t consider Malin Akerman or Matthew Goode because many thought of them as miscast, and with Billy Crudup disguised under a buff blue CG persona, his career clout is also limited. But there’s no denying the continued interest in Jeffery Dean Morgan (the Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Dan Drieberg/Nite Owl II) and especially Jackie Earle Haley (as the reactionary Rorschach). All three men should see their profile in Tinsel Town amplified significantly. All three give award worthy performances in a genre effort that rarely gets such a mention (Heck, SE&L is still shilling for Haley as a Heath Ledger like lock come Oscar time) and they provide the emotional core to the complex narrative. With only Wilson currently capable of walking the fine line between mainstream commerciality (Lakeview Terrace) and indie edge (Hard Candy), here’s betting the others find their phones ringing relatively soon. 

The Franchise


Sequels?


Oddly enough, this is a dead subject - at least from the purists’ initial position. Aside from the aforementioned side projects and an expanded DVD/Blu-ray run come five to seven months from now, Watchmen just does not lend itself to a sequel or series. Snyder approached it as a self-contained work, and the ending offered currently closes things off nicely. Still, Moore did allow for some continuation leeway when he ended on the discovery of Rorschach’s journal, and you know a cash flush studio - if there is a way to make another Watchmen movie and not totally alienate or piss off the predisposed demographic, they will do it. Here’s betting that multiple digital reconfigurations and special editions will be the most this movie sees of a supposed continuation.

by Chris Conaton

9 Mar 2009

Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers w/Shurman, Sunday, March 1, Houston, TX@ The Continental Club

Roger Clyne seems to hit Houston’s Continental Club about twice a year. And for the third time in his last four appearances, he was playing the club on a Sunday night. After going to a few Clyne shows in Austin and at Gruene Hall on weekend nights, it seemed like a little bit of a letdown to go to another Sunday night show where the crowd could be counted in the dozens instead of the hundreds. And at first, it seemed like it was gonna be roughly the same 80 people who always come out to the Continental Club. By the time the Peacemakers got started, though, there were well over 100 people in the crowd, many of them ready to sing along.

First up, though, was Shurman. This was our third time seeing them open for Clyne, and their fired-up country-rock is always a nice way to start the show. Shurman has recently relocated from Los Angeles to Austin, and their drummer stayed behind. So Peacemakers drummer P.H. Naffah filled in for the band’s 40-minute set. The set was typical, which is to say a lot of fun. I don’t know all of Shurman’s songs yet, but I always enjoy seeing them. The highlight of the set was probably a cover of Elvis Costello’s “What’s so Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?” Not just because it was a strong cover, but because the guy standing next to me was so excited that he was about to explode. Shurman playing that song seemed to blow his mind.

Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers hit the stage at about 10:45, a little later than planned due to the doors opening about an hour late. They opened the show with “Wanted”, a live staple that is generally the only song in the set to come from the second Refreshments album, The Bottle and Fresh Horses. Right away it was noticeable that despite wearing a similar black cowboy hat, the band had a new guitarist. Original Peacemaker Steve Larson has left and been replaced by Jim Dalton, a strong guitar player in his own right. Dalton’s influence was felt early on, as he sang a lot more backing vocals than Larson, and even used his microphone to speak occasionally. Clyne is often the only person talking onstage, so it was nice to have a bit of banter for a change. Dalton was also responsible for putting “Tributary Otis” in the set, a rare second song from The Refreshments’ second album. Later on, the band also pulled out “Sin Nombre,” an unprecedented third song from The Bottle and Fresh Horses. Seeing as that album is right at the top of my list of favorite Clyne albums, it was a nice treat.

The rest of the set was mostly standard-issue Peacemakers, which isn’t a bad thing by any means. The sweet “Down Together” featured the first of many great singalongs from the audience. Live staples “I Don’t Need Another Thrill” and “Mexico” also had excellent audience participation. This paved the way for Clyne to take an audience request, which led to the band playing relative rarity “Easy” for the first time with Dalton- they said they hadn’t even rehearsed it together. But it still sounded good.

A woman in the crowd spent most of the night yelling at the top of her lungs for “Green and Dumb”, the beautiful love ballad that doesn’t usually show up until late in the set, but is almost always played. She should’ve saved her voice, because, sure enough, the song showed up in the encore, great as ever. The band closed the show with their cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and said goodnight shortly after 12:30am. At a scant one hour and 45 minutes, this made it the shortest Peacemakers show I’ve attended- the band almost always goes over 2 hours. But since the show started late, it was a blessing that the band got finished (relatively) early, because I was able to get 5 ½ hours of sleep or so and actually function the next day.

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