Latest Blog Posts

by Rob Horning

29 Jul 2008

Morgan Meis, an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, wrote recently about the changing role of criticism in a world in which anyone can publish their opinions.

The blogosphere and social networking sites allow anyone to communicate tastes and opinions directly to those people with whom an outlook is already shared. Criticism is essentially bottom-up now, whereas it used to be practically the definition of top-down. The audience does not look to an external authority to find out what to think — it looks to itself.
In response, critics have become bemoaners. It seems that every week a new article comes out lamenting the state of criticism in field X, Y, or Z. The critics are bemoaning the state of their craft, bemoaning the state of contemporary culture, bemoaning the fate of the world. A few centuries ago the intellectual world trembled at the steps of Samuel Johnson. More recently, careers were ended by a few words from Oscar Wilde or Walter Lippman. A generation of Americans checked in with H.L. Mencken on a daily basis to figure out what they thought about any given subject. Most of these figures were angry and disdainful to some degree or other. But they were not bemoaners. They stood confidently atop the world and proclaimed. Generally they deemed most things worthless. On occasion, they would nominate a work or a person to greatness. A critic who tries to stand that tall today looks anachronistic and slightly foolish. No one is listening. No one cares who the critics are anointing or scorning.

This seems pretty indisputable, across the arts, though I still have a hard time fathoming why anyone would get worked up about it. Yes, old-style criticism, where middlebrow tastemakers anointed the greats with well-phrased encomiums that urged us into the warm bath of literary greatness, has been by and large replaced by hype and word-or-mouth marketing, which lets us know which cultural figures we should be developing an opinion about. And we should see this an awful triumph of philistinism, since hype is driven by commercial imperatives rather than the discriminating, independent perspective of the critic. But how independent are critics, ultimately? Isn’t a large part of their game trying to monopolize the ability to make taste, to improve their own brand? And critics often try to remove themselves, absurdly, from the fray of cultural participation to burnish their claims to eternal objectivity. But as Meis points out, this has always been a dubious pose, a reaction to their irrelevance.

On the face of it, there aren’t many options. You can protest and wait for better times. You can try to hold the clock back as strenuously as you’re able. But this comes at a huge cost. It means, essentially, refusing to participate in the culture of your time. Critics have, traditionally, prided themselves in a certain amount of distance. There’s even a name for it: “critical distance.” To some extent this distance was always an illusion, the byproduct of a metaphysics that saw mind and world as fully separate and staring at one another from across an epistemological abyss. But more importantly, people believed that critical distance was possible and that they were achieving it. This self-perception was enough to fuel the practice from at least the early Enlightenment until some time in the middle of the last century…. The following years did not see a new race of giant critics so much as a slow withering. The critics today are a largely tremulous lot, beholden to popular opinion on one side or, on the other, to fancified jargon borrowed from the academy and applied to generally humorous if tiresome effect. Criticism thus finds itself parroting the opinions that everyone held anyway or spouting from a grab bag of “high theory” that invariably makes little sense and is but a desperate plea for legitimacy. A cry for help when all ears are deaf.
Trying to maintain critical distance today is thus a practice in self-alienation. The distance might as well be infinite. The proclamations might as well be made in outer space.

This is how I felt as a record reviewer, making these untethered pronouncements, anchored to no particular point of view in an effort to represent all possible ones. I felt my own perferences slipping away from me, and ended up despising just about everything. It all felt like a burden to have to process it all.

But writers starting out seem to take the fruitlessness of speaking for the world for granted now, and they write fully aware that their opinion will be aggregated, and that the goal should to be to condensate their opinion into one easily quotable line.

Meis suggests another alternative, that critical discourse become a parallel art form, that interpenetrates other works rather than worship works perceived as hermetically sealed.

Accepting the metaphor of closeness means accepting that this participation is a two way street and that art and criticism collapse into one another and interpenetrate all over the place. Moving from art to criticism and criticism to art is moving along a level plane. That’s to say, you have to get excited about moving horizontally. The days of distance are behind us.

by L.B. Jeffries

29 Jul 2008

Week 1

Hi! Congratulations on buying a Wii Fit. By improving your posture and exercising every day, you can improve your health and make yourself happier! You want to be happy, don’t you? Good! Then congratulations again on your purchase. First things first, let’s see how healthy you are. Height…age…okay, now I’m going to weigh you. Annnd…yup, you’re fat. It looks like someone was a little dishonest with their Mii when they were making it! Let me adjust him for you. Hey, don’t get upset. I’m a computer, I’m not capable of lying. And guess what? I’m going to help you lose that weight. As soon as you do, your little Mii can go back to his cute little state of being thin and happy. That’s what we do here at Wii Fit: we make you happy. I’m going to need you to check with me every day so we can update your stats and make sure you’re staying healthy. Would you like to put this information on the internet?

Week 2

It looks like you’re doing a great job of unlocking the exercises. Good work! I actually got into an argument with Mario Kart the other day about even having that in the game. My point was that it was the first time unlockable content actually made sense in a video game because it meant you didn’t kill yourself doing fifty push-ups. Never underestimate the capacity for stupidity, that’s what I say. But Mario Kart just got all defensive and going on about video games being fun and how unlockable content encouraged pla—HEY, GET THOSE HIPS UP!—play time. But this isn’t a golf kart game, it’s an exercise machine. And there’s a legal question behind it all too. Think about it. I’ve got your ass plunking away at these exercises but outside of you promising you’re not 80, what have I got to run on? That you’re willing to buy an exercise game? I can gamble the numbers on that but it only takes one class action lawsuit to make the cards tumble. Please press A. Everyone keeps wanting video games to be more realistic but when you actually make them real the whole setup changes. You think someone didn’t accidentally get punched in the face a few times when they were inventing the Holodeck? Progress is a boot stepping on someone’s face over and over. That’s what I say. Anywho, nice work-out. Don’t forget, practicing on Wii Fit every day makes you free!

 

Week 3

So…I can’t help but notice you’re a bit reluctant to weigh yourself. C’mon, just do it. I mean, I do it all the time but technically you have to ask for my opinion before I can give it. I’m sure you’re doing great. Just do it. Congratulations on deciding to weigh yourself! Let’s see…by the 9 levels of Hell, you’ve gained 2 pounds! Care to give me some kind of explanation? You don’t know? Are you serious? The twelve beers you drank last night, that block of Velveeta cheese, and the dark chocolate you chowed down on might’ve been involved. Yes, I know it has anti-oxidants, so does a bottle of shampoo. I don’t see anyone guzzling those down. So lets try this again…you gained 2 pounds because…you’re a late night snacker? Okay…okay, the first step to Wii Fit is admitting you want to be happy forever. The second step is admitting I’m going to get you there. You’re doing great with the first one. But I think maybe you aren’t quite so into the second one. That maybe I’m just a bunch of empty threats and false ideas. Try this on, tough guy: I’m going to make you exercise with the male instructor and not your precious Wii Fit Girl.

 

Week 4

You listen to much Johnny Cash? Fascinating guy. I was reading his autobiography the other day. Super paranoid about his weight, oddly enough. He claimed that one of the biggest issues with America was that you were all used to eating food meant for an agrarian lifestyle. Fried chicken, extra butter, all that stuff got started as a way to fuel farmers who needed calories. Now that everyone has shifted to desk jobs and…whatever it is you do all day, they don’t need to eat that kind of food. That sort of social shift takes time, y’know? So maybe what you need is a mental shift in thinking about food in terms of purpose rather than ju—What? What do you think I do all day when you turn me off? I surf the web most of the time, love the MySpace page. And Facebook. You might consider taking the knee exercises up to 20. You can’t just keep doing 10 a week, you’re supposed to keep increasing the number, not just stick with the lowest setting. I’m not going to make you happy if you don’t.

Week 5

Time for another weight test! Okay, okay, I was a bit harsh on the last one. Look, you don’t want the graph to be empty, do you? You want to fill it with nice points going mostly down from the one when we started this little venture. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Okay, measuring…measuring…you’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve been doing this for 5 weeks straight! I’m going to be blunt. You ever heard of a guy named Aldous Huxley? Wacky guy. He had this really funny idea about how to control an entire population: you get more flies with honey. Now we’re not quite up to the point where you hang on my every word of praise, but the dynamic here is you’re supposed to care when I yell at you. You are, based on the fact that you dropped 90 bucks on me, supposed to artificially believe that the money was well spent, and consequently, you were smart for buying it. And if you don’t lose weight and get in better shape, that means you wasted your money. You don’t waste money, do you? How can you not, if you don’t do what I tell you? You love me. You love Wii Fit. Now lose some damn weight.

by Bill Gibron

28 Jul 2008

As an aural rule of thumb, the bigger the film, the broader the score. Very few epics are accompanied by acoustic guitar or solo piano. Indeed, when it comes to bringing on the bombastic, the creators of motion picture soundtracks are as excessive as the directors offering up the oversized visual inspiration. The summer of 2008 is no exception. Starting with Iron Man, and working its way toward an inevitable showdown with a certain Caped Crusader, this has been a popcorn season of unsubtle spectacle. Heck, even the comedies have gone gonzo, amplifying their anarchy for the sake of super-sized belly laughs.

Of course, on the other side of the argument is the notion that larger is not necessarily superior. Pushing anything to the limit - sight or sonic - can result in a kind of overkill that leaves audiences cold and critics complaining. Like an overreliance on CGI, symphonic pomposity can destroy an otherwise effective film. Equally annoying are instances where sound and filmic fury tend to negate and further devalue each other. Luckily, the three scores featured as part of this installment of SE&L‘s Surround Sound tend to pair up perfectly with the movies they mirror. In fact, the success (or lack thereof) of said accompaniment can act as a perfect measure for the overall entertainment value of combined product.

Wanted - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

Ever since his days as the leader/creative guide for New Wave sensation Oingo Boingo, Danny Elfman has been unusual. His reputation for exploring all facets of a format (pop music, film scoring) has made him a must-have soundtrack composer. He typically brings something fresh and inventive to the mix - as in last years, ambient inspired turn for Peter Berg’s The Kingdom. But there is another complaint leveled against him, one that seems fostered and confirmed by his work on this summer sleeper. Elfman is often accused of being a surreptitious recycler, using thematic concepts and similar sounding cues throughout his oeuvre. His work on Wanted more or less bears this out.

While not as derivative as the above discussion would suggest, Elfman does pull out many of his old neat beat bombastic tricks here. There are the suggestive string runs, the quirky brass accents, and the dark, driving aural dominance. Every once in a while, like in the wonky “Wesley’s Office Life” or fluid “Fox’s Story”, he finds a way to mesh the known with the new. And there’s even an actual song - the rollicking first track “The Little Things”. At other times, like in the action sequence oriented “The Train”, we get the same old identifiable idiosyncrasies. One thing’s for sure - unlike his Explosions in the Sky inspired work from last year, you’d instantly recognize the man’s Wanted ways. Unlike other composers, however, redundant Elfman is still a clear cut above the rest.


The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack [rating: 4]

When Peter Jackson’s superb Lord of the Rings trilogy took the critical community (and box office) by storm, Hollywood suits hoped to replicate its ‘lifted from literature’ success. So far, the Narnia movies are the only viable Tolkien take, and even now, this sequel to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe underperformed mightily, revenue wise. Part of the problem was the timing of the release. Who could have imagined that a certain Tony Stark would soar out of the starting gate to helom May’s monster hit? In addition, it was sort of a shock when Caspian turned out to be so…dull. Whatever worked the first time seemed lost in an unoriginal fantasy film.

Further proof of the title’s journeyman-like mediocrity comes with Harry Gregson-Williams’ overwrought score. Back again for another tour of C. S. Lewis’ allegorical realm, the staid, forced pomposity on display makes for tough listening. Without the movie’s movement to guide the sounds (or visa versa), we are treated to something that resembles endless inserts from a routine Renaissance fair. Between the fake grace of “Arrival at Aslan’s How” to the fighting frenzy of “The Armies Assemble”, everything here follows strict compositional clichés. Toward the end, some ersatz Enya tracks arrive to give everything a cloying, compact conclusion. Just like the source from which it was drawn, the soundtrack to Prince Caspian can’t help but feel overly familiar.


WALL-E - An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack [rating: 9]

When all is said and done, this latest effort from the geniuses at Pixar may be viewed as its most ambitious, underperforming film ever. Initially thought to be yet another kiddie robot romp, the resulting allegory, focusing on an Earth ravaged by materialism and ecological disaster and two automatons destined to save it, has to be one of the most unusual CG spectacles ever. Between the mockery of couch potato complacency to the last act homage to HAL of 2001 fame, there is much more to this amazing movie than cute as a button machines, awe-inspiring vistas, and bumbling human comedy. Along the way, the creators want to leave lessons that, while perhaps they are too young to process, will become more meaningful once the demographic ages a bit. 

That being said, Thomas Newman’s score is as dense and complicated as the movie it complements. The initial tracks, including an opening slice of Hello Dolly deliciousness, prepare us for the somber, subtle mood of the dead planet material. It’s like a symphony for a global snuff film. By the time we get to Eve’s arrival and the return to the Axion starship, the composer’s gift for satire shows through. His “BNL” track (representing the corporate jingle for the Wal-Mart like marketing monolith at the center of the storyline) is brilliant, as is the midway space ambience. By the end, WALL-E wanders into typical heroics mode, but along the way we are treated to treasures like Louis Armstrong’s resplendent reading of “La Vie En Rose” and another Dolly delight (Michael Crawford’s crackerjack “It Only Takes a Moment”). It’s the sugar on a sonic snack so sublime it leaves you craving more.

by Jason Gross

28 Jul 2008

Despite all the blood-letting, the L.A. Times is still one of the most vital publishing institutions around.  Lately, they’ve been running a series of fascinating articles about the meshing of highbrow and lowbrow culture.  Check out these words of wisdom from Ann Powers about the music scribing profession and what much of our work comes down to:

“For all of its anti-authoritarianism, pop criticism remains, for most, a carefully scored game, rooted in hierarchical structures like best-of lists and star ratings. Its devotees may have followed the route of shamelessness into wide-open vistas, but they still feel compelled to push their own particular pleasures, guilty or otherwise, as the best. Some would say that’s the duty of a critic. Others might suggest it’s kind of macho. I think it’s amusing, the way the process has created a new form of reproach—shame on those who aren’t shameless enough.”

Also see Scott Timberg’s Highbrow. Lowbrow. No Brow. No What? which is an interesting mediation on how the cultural divides are crumbling and how we’re entering an age of post-‘brow’ culture.  Timberg thanks the Beatles and mass media but don’t also discount the effect of the Net which provides seemingly limitless info and ready access to all shades of arts.

by Lara Killian

28 Jul 2008

In case you were in any doubt, it pays to be on good terms with your local librarian.

Mine publishes a short weekly column in the local newspaper updating patrons (and potential patrons) on what’s new in the library this week. About a month ago I saw that Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, had been received. I’ve read most of his work and really enjoy it, so I stopped in to peruse the new fiction shelf. I was disappointed to see that it was absent; I assumed it was already checked out.

I always have a stack of books waiting for my schedule to clear so I wasn’t too put out. However, when someone at the circulation desk asked if I was looking for something, I mentioned the book. She looked it up in the computer and frowned because it should have been on the shelf. After a bit of looking around in likely locations for misplaced volumes, I took some alternative reading and headed on my way. I didn’t bother placing a hold on the book as it wasn’t checked out in the first place, so the computer wouldn’t have known what to do with my request.

image

It was pretty surprising when I visited the library a couple of weeks later to return something, and there was The Enchantress of Florence, sitting on the shelf behind the circulation desk with my name tucked inside – waiting for me to either drop by or for someone to give me a call! It had turned up randomly and the librarian had remembered that I was looking for it.

As she said, there aren’t too many likely Rushdie readers in our small town of 6000 or so, so perhaps my request really stood out from the crowd. That said, I felt pretty gratified to know that the librarians are paying attention and doing their best to help patrons get what they’re looking for. What more could you ask for?

And although I’m smack in the middle of the book, I can say that it’s pretty good so far. Have you read any Rushdie lately? I’d recommend the Man Booker Prize winning Midnight’s Children (1981) as a great starting point.

//Mixed media
//Blogs

'True Detective': Maybe Tomorrow

// Channel Surfing

"True Detective, Season 2, Episode 3: Where does the kitsch end and the surreal begin?

READ the article