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Sunday, Dec 23, 2007

Many fans forget that Jackie Chan’s reputation is built on not one but two solid cinematic foundations. Sure, there’s the undeniable martial artistry and death wish stunt work, his crackerjack ability to defy gravity, physics, and human endurance to deliver some of the most mesmerizing set pieces in the history of Hong Kong action. But there is also Jackie Chan the comedian, the sensational throwback to the days when slapstick and physical humor ruled the motion picture landscape. Yet many fail to embrace that side of his performance persona. Thanks to his treatment by Tinsel Town, a myopic view that sees him as a trademark first, an actor second, he hasn’t had much opportunity to let his genial side show. Now, thanks to a return to his home turf, 2006’s Robin B Hood gives us the best of both Chans.

Thongs and Octopus are two of the most accomplished thieves in all of Asia. They are also two of the most troubled. One is a compulsive gambler, the kind that spends his money even before he’s earned it. The other is a craven womanizer, married and miserable while dating several other available ladies. Under the tutelage of their leader, Landlord, the trio makes a fine living. Too bad the cash disappears before they can really enjoy it. When a job comes along to kidnap an infant, the threesome initially balks. The $3 million payday has them quickly shifting into abduction mode. But when Landlord lands in jail, Thongs and Octopus must watch the baby for a week - and with the insane tycoon who hired them desperate for the child, they’ll have to battle the standard toddler growing pains, as well as attacks from some thugs and raids by the police, in order to survive.

Leaping from genre to genre like a freaked out frog and offering up every cinematic element in the book, Robin B Hood (also known as Rob-B-Hood) is a wonderfully overstuffed treat. Pursuing both comedy and tragedy, heartfelt redemption and cartoon like chaos, this is the kind of film that Asian audiences crave. Very much like the Bollywood productions from India that won’t settle for one type of entertainment within a single storyline, this fast paced farce is part Three Men and a Baby, part Police Story era thriller, utilizing everything from musical inserts to high speed car crashes to wow the viewer. Thanks to Genius Products, their Dragon Dynasty Collection, and its ongoing desire to provide Western audiences with the best in Eastern cinema, this new two disc DVD offers supplements and insights into why these sorts of films are so popular. It also illustrates how hard it is to pull one off.

The main element that requires getting used to is the massive shifts in tone. One minute, Chan’s Thongs and his pal Octopus, played brilliantly by Louis Koo, will be trading witty repartee and repelling off the sides of skyscrapers ala Hudson Hawk. The next, Chan will be facing a disgraced family while his partner tells his devastated wife to take a bus to have an abortion. You can have real melodrama one moment, fights with infant feces the next. These frequent filmic slaps in the face are definitely unusual to audiences used to consistent tone and narrative equilibrium. But in the fast paced production designs of Hong Kong, it is complete crowd pleasing on the grandest of scales. If you require a confrontation between father and son, or a moment of misogyny between husband and spouse, so be it. As long as it puts butts in the seats, everything is celluloid copacetic.

And there’s no denying how effective it can be. Chan is amazing here, running the gamut of emotions from good natured cut up to torn apart guardian. His last act pleading for the life of the child is almost too painful to watch. Many make little of this actor’s abilities outside of stuntwork, but Chan is a natural, adept at both acrobatics and emoting. Koo is equally good, giving a shamed sense of purpose to his outsized appetites. Even when his expensive cars are eventually towed, and his high living persona is punctured, he comes across as calculated and cocksure. It’s only when he connects with his tiny co-star that his real humanity begins to bleed through.

Director Benny Chan, working from a script co-written by his same name superstar, keeps the pace brisk and the action lively. There’s a first act hospital chase that’s filled with surprises, and a second act city street free for all that moves at the speed of a sports car. Of course, once we reach the amusement park and the strange estate of our lead villain, it’s one over the top fight scene after another. Oddly enough, the most memorable bits are the small, hand to hand moments - Chan moving about a doorway to subdue an attacker, his air conditioner to air conditioner descent down the side of a building. Even when the story gets squirrely (the whole reason for the kidnapping is telegraphed early and rather illogical), the man behind the lens keeps us connected, both visually and psychologically.

As part of the DVD, we get to hear from the filmmaker as he talks to film scholar Bey Logan. On the enclosed commentary track, they discuss the frequent forays into tearjerker mode, and explain the problems facing any film where a baby is endangered. On the second disc, Chan himself defends the need for drama and agrees with that age old adage about working with kids. We also get the standard making-of material that shows how incredibly complicated the stunt choreography is. One slip - and they happen too often for comfort - and an actor is bleeding from the head, or on their way to the hospital. It’s one of the subconscious thrills of a martial arts/Asian action film. There’s a real sense of danger as human beings, not CGI replications of same, shimmy off rooftops and flip through the air.

As he’s aged it’s clear that Chan is no longer the light footed, foolhardy risk taker he once was. You’re not going to see him vault between trains, or fall through panes of breakaway glass. Instead, his recent output has concentrated on bringing a balance between the daring-do that brought him fame (and undeniable fortune), and the clear limits placed on his 50-plus year body. Projects like The Myth and The Twin Effects films have shown that said equilibrium remains elusive. But by going back to the Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton influence of his earliest persona, and exploring every possible entertainment option, he’s stumbled upon a winner. There will be those who lament the lack of nonstop hardcore histrionics, wondering what’s happened to the real Jackie Chan. Obviously, they don’t know this multifaceted talent at all. If they did, they’d see Robin B Hood for what it is - pure Chan magic.

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Saturday, Dec 22, 2007

With all the top 10 lists I submitted to magazine polls, I never considered those to be my real year-end list. The polls are essentially just looking for some kind of consensus and what individual voters have to say is secondary at best. It makes it look like you only enjoyed ten albums each year and that you didn’t like or care about maybe dozens of others that also came out (even if that’s not really the case). It’s basically an ego thing to be involved in that and I admit that I ain’t above that yet. So on my other blog, I posted what I consider to be my real list of favorite albums of the year. But… even then, we always find out about releases that we missed months later into the next year so this is my definitive list as of December 2007.

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Saturday, Dec 22, 2007

In a year which saw more cinematic wind and whining wasted on the War in Iraq than any other issue facing our fading nation, The Kingdom can claim all the joyful jingoistic mantle. It’s an amazing movie, a rock solid thriller as brutal as it is blind. It’s randy ra-ra Americanism is so undeniably entertaining that you don’t even mind the Red State revisionism. Peter Berg, an actor whose ability behind the lens has been uneven at best, really delivers in big, broad action movie strokes - and when compared to the self-pitying pandering that passed itself off as “War is Hell” handwringing in 2007, its cheerful chest pounding is in the right place. It may not win us any friends across the sea, and definitely paints Muslims as indoctrinating villains, but we’re so blinded by the strategic stars and stripes placed before our sense of justice that we too call for blood.

When a suicide bombing destroys a US compound inside the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the FBI wants to investigate. Unfortunately, the government of the oil rich country doesn’t allow outsiders into their internal police affairs. This doesn’t stop Special Agent Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) from bringing together specialists Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). With a little blackmail persuasion, the Feds are given five days, and the help of a local police officer (Ashraf Barhom), to observe and then leave. Naturally, the Americans’ presence, along with the evidence they uncover, puts their own lives in mortal danger. And as foreigners on unfriendly soil, there is no guarantee of protection.

On the commentary track accompanying the new DVD release from Universal, director Berg acknowledges that there will be some who take this movie the wrong way. While prostylitizing writer Matthew Michael Carnahan may have the best intentions ever for all this anti-Arab race-baiting, (he’s as insanely ideological here as he was in his overwrought scripting of Lions for Lambs), what we wind up with more times than not is mustache twirling scoundrels decked out in Middle Eastern garb. Berg apologizes for any offense to sensibility, and wants to make it clear that this is as much a tribute to Saudi Arabia as it is a critique. Constantly referencing the cooperation he received, and the concern voiced by many Muslims on set, we are to infer that the resulting film is a formidable meeting of the minds. Sadly, that’s some specious conjecture at best.

Indeed, this film is brazen in its “all Arabs are evil” philosophy and unrepentant in showing the carnage that results from such a simplified stance, The Kingdom is like a James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger collaboration where neither party is participating. It’s manipulative, manic, and just a tad manufactured. It raises more issues than it ever wants to address, and boils all Muslim culture down to a series of backwards belief systems. Granted, as in all stereotyping, there are snippets of truth here and there, and when dealing with a crime that is merely mimicking actual events that have played out before, truth is a defense to such defamatory stances. But what’s most fascinating about The Kingdom is how readily we buy into the xenophobia, and how satisfying it is to see our brave men and women kick some true believer butt.

One does have to get over the hurdle of the opening atrocities, however. Without giving too much away, this pre-planned attack will shoot at single mothers, run over children, blow-up ball players and, eventually, elevate all three to something almost impossible to comprehend. The scale of this event is massive, and its impact on an audience is truly disturbing. Add to this the ineffectual CSI skills of the Saudi police (their main detecting device – beating confessions out of possible co-conspirators) and the basic mentality that what happens in the Arab world stays within the tightly wound region, and you’ve got a perfect storm of storytelling subterfuge.

Viewed as liberators – at least when it comes to the facts – Jamie Foxx and his group of high profile performers are actually quite believable as crime scene experts. Each gets their own important moment of detecting denouement, with the Oscar winner for Ray running ramshackle over the double talk speaking soldiers. It’s one of Foxx’s best performances, since it’s grounded in a reality that keeps him from being a total swaggering ass. Equally good are Jennifer Garner as a kind of forensics pathologist (she scans corpses for clues) and Chris Cooper, who’s the grizzled yet game old timer who really knows his way around a bomb crater. In combination with Bateman, whose nothing more than a computer nerd novice and a potential last act plot device, we have a no nonsense bunch who’ll get to the bottom of this case. And since the narrative is structured in such a way as to demand retribution, we can’t wait for these champions to divide and conquer.

And they do so in spectacular fashion. Over the course of his career behind the camera, actor Berg has become an accomplished filmmaker. Previous efforts like The Rundown and Friday Night Lights won’t quite prepare you for the motion picture professionalism he shows here. There are several spectacular stunt sequences that rate right up there with the best the genre has to offer, and his ability to mix in shards of humanity speaks to his growing artist acumen. In the commentary, he gives credit to his editors for making his many shots seamlessly merge together. And as part of the DVD packaging, a pair of onset documentaries goes into exquisite detail about the free for all finale, from brutal car crash to full blown bullet ballet.

Yet The Kingdom is such a strong entertainment, such a substantial us vs. them example of wish fulfillment that it’s easy to ignore the many mixed messages. Basically, the film is a brutal Wild West shoot ‘em up ported over to the Middle East and given a glossy, post-9/11 reading. It will invigorate the most dormant sense of citizenship, and have you cheering in places that should give you pause. Even the ending stacks the deck in favor of the fallen. It involves a single whispered sentiment, and how its meaning can be manipulated depending on the nature of the individual offering it. After all the cheering and jeering within the audience, it’s a weird way of providing closure. Clearly Berg and Carnahan think it’s clever. They may be the only ones to understand its true meaning. Viewers may misinterpret it as a call to arms.


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Friday, Dec 21, 2007

Previous Australian Prime Ministers and a State Premier Write Op-Ed Pieces on John Howard’s Downfall. And Political Cartoonist Bill Leak Gives a Lesson on How to Draw New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Cartoon by Bill Leak

Australia’s new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Cartoon by Bill Leak

Lumps of Coal in John Howard’s Christmas Stocking

“The refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol will almost certainly, in time, be remembered as the greatest failure of the Howard government—Tampa, detention camps and Iraq notwithstanding.” This quote was pulled from Tim Flannery’s 2005 essay, Beautiful Lies, and printed on the book’s back cover. The essay concluded: “It was a visiting American, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to literature as Mark Twain, who said that Australian history reads like the most beautiful lies. I think that Clemens felt that way because the histories he was given to read were indeed filled with romantic falsehood. From now on—for the next little while at least—the history we create must be more mundane. It should tell the story of a small country that did the best it possibly could for the people and the environment of the world.”

Tim Flannery has spent 2007 as “The Australian of the Year”. It’s a symbolic role bestowed on a figure nominated by ordinary Australians. Late last year the former Prime Minister, a climate change skeptic, announced a $10 billion plan to save the Murray Darling River region, which produces around 40% of Australia’s food. “With splendid serendipity the popular environmentalist Tim Flannery was named Australian of the Year,” journalist Mungo Maccallum writes in Poll Dancing, his book on the 2007 Australian election. “A week earlier this would have been an embarrassment to Howard: Flannery had been a constant critic of the government for its lack of action on global warming, and indeed warned that he would continue to be so. But in the circumstances, the front-page snaps of Howard and Flannery shaking hands seemed to presage a new dawn of environmental concern. You wanted the big picture? They don’t come much bigger than this. The $10 billion figure itself was more than somewhat suspect; it turned out that neither the Treasury nor the Department of Finance had been involved in its preparation. Indeed, neither had done any significant work on the problems associated with global warming and the consequent water shortages. It quickly became obvious that the figure had simply been plucked out of the air; after all, it was a nice big round number, eminently suitable for a tabloid headline.”

John Howard is being assessed as a man who understood the immediate usefulness of tabloid headlines and failed to grasp the long-term symbolic power of government. “If you have any doubt that the election of a Rudd Labor government has changed the country, consider this: a year ago, did you imagine that the Prime Minister would be sending an openly gay woman of Chinese ancestry to Bali, to ratify the Kyoto protocol on Australia’s behalf?” Mungo Maccallum wrote in the online journal Crikey on December 3. “Because that’s exactly what Climate Change Minister Penny Wong will be doing ... Kyoto, of course, has been one of the great symbolic differences between Labor and the [Liberal - National Party] coalition; another is WorkChoices, and Julia Gillard is already busy putting that to sleep so she can concentrate on what she rightly sees as her main job, implementing Rudd’s education revolution. And the third major symbol will be the long overdue apology to the stolen generation, now being prepared, as it should be, not just by the government, but in consultation with Aboriginal leaders.”

Some of John Howard’s harshest critics have been former Prime Ministers and State Premiers, some from within his own Liberal party, who were steadily critical of his leadership in the opinion pages of the nation’s newspapers throughout his rule. Two days before the November 24 election that John Howard resoundingly lost, becoming only the second Prime Minister in Australia’s history to lose his own seat, Paul Keating, the Labor Prime Minister he’d defeated in 1996, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald:

He has turned out to be the most divisive prime minister in our history. Not simply a conservative maintaining the status quo, but a militant reactionary bent upon turning the clock back. Turning it back against social inclusion, cooperation at the workplace, the alignment of our foreign policies towards Asia, providing a truthful and honourable basis for our reconciliation, accepting the notion that all prime ministers since Menzies had: Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and me: that our ethnic diversity had made us better and stronger and the nation’s leitmotif was tolerance. Howard has trodden those values into the ground…. Nations get a chance to change course every now and then. When things become errant, a wise country adjusts its direction. It understands that it is being granted an appointment with history. On this coming Saturday, this country should take that opportunity by driving a stake through the dark heart of Howard’s reactionary government.

Two days after the election, writing again in The Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Keating expressed relief that John Howard had been defeated:

Saturday night’s victory was not just a victory for the Labor Party, it was also a victory for those Liberals such as Malcolm Fraser, Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan, who stood against the pernicious erosion of decent standards in our public affairs. The Liberal Party of John Howard, Philip Ruddock, Alexander Downer and Peter Costello is now a party of privilege and punishments. One that lacks that most basic of wellsprings: charity. The French philosophers had it pretty right with the Enlightenment catchcry of liberty, equality and fraternity. There was not much liberty for the boat people or fraternity for the Aborigines or the Muslims or equality for the trade unionists who believed in nothing more revolutionary than the simple right to collectively bargain.

Tim Flannery wrote that the greatest lie that Australian history perpetuates is that it was an empty country when the first European settlers arrived. Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (1975- 1983) accepted refugees from the Vietnam War and was harshly critical of John Howard’s coldness towards refugees. Fraser has also been a great advocate for the rights of indigenous Australians believing that a formal apology from the Federal Government ” would help to rebuild trust and establish partnership. It is not the words that matter, so much as the acceptance of responsibility to put right the damage done.”

Malcolm Fraser controversially came to power after being instrumental in having former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1972 - 1975) removed from office by Australia’s Governor General. (Australia is not a republic and ultimate power still rests with the Queen of England through the Governor General.) Yet a couple of weeks before the last federal election Fraser and Whitlam collaborated on a letter protesting the erosion of privacy and the weakening of Australia’s freedom of information laws under Prime Minister Howard.

In the last two decades the constitutional principle that ministers should be held accountable for the failings of their policies or administration has been seriously undermined. No matter how grave their failings may be, ministers no longer resign. This principle is the bedrock of responsible government. In its absence, the capacity of the parliament and the people to hold a government to account for its actions is substantially weakened.

It is 31 years since the last official inquiry regarding the principles of ministerial accountability at a federal level. That inquiry framed the doctrine for simpler times. It could not anticipate the major changes in governance that have occurred since then. These include an enormous growth in the powers of the executive, the now pivotal role of ministerial advisers, the outsourcing of many crucial governmental functions and the expanding influence of the lobbying industry. The Freedom of Information Act, an important safeguard introduced in 1982, has also been undermined significantly by the practices of recent governments and restrictive interpretation by the courts.

Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam. November 12, 2007.

The Australian Financial Review reports in its Christmas Bumper Edition that John Howard, at additional expense to Australian taxpayers, became the only Prime Minister in history to choose to live in the Government owned Kirribilli House in Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, rather than at the Lodge in Australia’s political capital, Canberra. He also ran up a $10 million flight bill on Australia’s Air Force one, choosing to fly on the more luxurious plane between Sydney and Canberra, rather than a cheaper aircraft that had been intended for the Prime Minister’s domestic travel. During most of the time that he was Prime Minister the Premier of New South Wales was Bob Carr, of the Labor Party. In this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald Carr becomes the latest former leader to criticise John Howard’s legacy. 

To the Brits it may have had a touch of Little Britain. On March 28, Sir Nicholas Stern and his secretary were in a corridor of Parliament House. Suddenly Alexander Downer descended to enunciate: “So you’re the economist who is telling us we’re all going to hell in a handbasket.” Stern had just spent a week with the Indonesian President and his cabinet. He had been treated seriously and with respect. He shouldn’t have been surprised by the dismissive approach in Canberra. It was an approach that I witnessed first hand. ... In September last year when Al Gore visited Australia, Howard showed the kind of rudeness that was to inspire his foreign minister’s curt treatment of Stern. The two-term vice-president was “alarmist”: no meeting. Today I witness Australia’s decisive moves to international co-operation over climate change with pride, but with sadness at the lost years.

Bob Carr. Sydney Morning Herald. December 22, 2007

The Australian states have made gains in combating global warming that the Federal Government didn’t capitalize on. Carr writes that in New South Wales he introduced one of the world’s first carbon trading schemes, halted deforestation in some areas by preventing the removal of native trees, and required new buildings to be energy efficient and meet greenhouse standards. “When Howard and his ministers dismissed global warming they saw it as a battle in the culture wars, not a crisis in humankind’s relation to nature that towers above any left-right divide.Now we scramble to catch up.”

The Week in Review Section of The New York Times this weekend has a report on previous American Presidents commenting on their successors, starting with an attack Herbert Hoover made on Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.

“I do not suggest that Mr. Roosevelt aspires to be a dictator,” Mr. Hoover said in Columbus. “It is however understatement to say that he has builded personal power to a dangerous point in this republic.” He went on to compare the “sinister” and “insidious” accumulation of power in the administration to “the rise of every dictator in Europe.”

... By a mile, American presidents are not men of small egos. A wallflower could not survive the nomination process and the general election, especially its current 22-month incarnation. But as partisanship intensified in the 20th century, and politics became increasingly defined by the personalities of party leaders, presidents and ex-presidents have found it hard to remain offstage, silently watching their successors, or would-be successors, grapple with the job — especially during campaigns.

The stakes may have proved too enormous for presidents to remain silent. If they could no longer be the nominees, then they would be pundits of the first order — men with credibility on Oval Office matters by dint of once sitting in the chair themselves.

Patrick Healy. “As I Was Saying Before I Left Office.” The New York Times. December 23, 2007

Cartoon by Bill Leak

Cartoon by Bill Leak

Bill Leak Draws Kevin Rudd’s Head With a Compass

“March 2, 1996 marked the start of 10 long years of struggle for the nation’s cartoonists,” wrote Bill Leak on the tenth anniversary of John Howard’s reign as Prime Minister last year. “John Howard’s ordinariness is one of his most effective electoral attributes, but it is almost impossible to capture. It’s a bit like having to draw something that’s not there. As someone once said of British politician Gordon Brown, ‘when he leaves a room the lights go on.’ Howard seemed to us like that — or, as Paul Keating put it, ‘like a lizard on a rock — alive but looking dead.’ “

What we need is a feature to exaggerate to the point of absurdity, something — anything — to get a grip on … but, please, not ordinariness.

Journalists as well as cartoonists found it difficult to get a handle on Howard when he first rose to prominence in Malcolm Fraser’s ministry in 1977. Fraser himself, with his half-closed eyes lurking somewhere behind the hanging gardens of his eyebrows and his jaw, the length of which was restricted only by the amount of drawing space available, was a gift from God. But his Treasurer [John Howard] was a different matter.

Howard was mired in the 1950s, a man who came over all misty eyed when recalling those glory days when Australia was still hanging on firmly to Mother England’s apron strings, nice people lived in suburban houses on a quarter acre, a wild night was when someone broke free from singing songs around the piano and danced the hokey-pokey, and modern art was a foreign pestilence successfully quarantined from our shores. Cartoonists and journalists alike portrayed him as a man living in the past, defined by a series of tired clichés.

Bill Leak. New Matilda. March 1, 2006

“It’s a cruel business drawing caricatures. You have to be a bit of a sadist to get into it in the first place. There’s no denying the joy you get from ridiculing people’s physical features and knowing the hapless victims will have to see what you’ve done to them in the next day’s paper,” Bill Leak wrote in The Australian on May 21 this year. “What’s the first thing you look for when you start drawing a caricature of someone? The answer is shape. For instance, does this person have a big, square block of a head like Mark Latham’s, a soccer ball-shaped head like Kevin Rudd’s, or a Steeden football-shaped head like Petro Georgiou’s? Nick Greiner was one of those rare people whose head was like a horizontal football, the view you’d get if it was laying on a shelf. The things you look for next are the things that stick out: funny noses especially bulbous ones like Peter Costello’s; weird ears (thanks again Costello); whopping great chins like Peter Garrett’s; silly little chins like Mark Vaile’s which looks more like a lump in his neck; jowls like a frigate bird’s throat like Peter Reith’s, or bottom lips that poke out so far you wonder how their owners don’t drown when it rains.”

In The Australian yesterday Bill Leak wrote that he failed to grasp how important Kevin Rudd was going to be when he was named leader of the Labor Party in December last year because his appearance was so unassuming. The former diplomat’s mild manner reminded him of the earnest Belgian boy reporter Tintin, who overcame his opponents with brains, not brawn, and he began drawing him as Tintin, accompanied by a fox terrier who was a dead ringer for Snowy. “Rudd looks like the little bloke who is taking on the big adventure and who just might prevail in the end,” Leak explained [in a story reprinted by The Forbidden Planet] “All I did was add a bit of a chin to him. And sometimes a little bit of a firmness to the mouth.”

Cartoon by Bill Leak

Cartoon by Bill Leak

Moulinsart SA, which publishes the Tintin books owned by the Herge estate initially protested but reached a settlement with Leak that allows him to depict Rudd editorially as Tintin, but not sell copies of the cartoons. But, Leak wrote yesterday, when it seemed certain that Rudd would become Prime Minister he realized that the Tintin analogy had a “use-by date” and he’d have to start depicting him as his own man. The shape of Rudd’s head doesn’t give him much inspiration and he noted that he’s the only figure he’s drawn whose head is best drawn with a compass. Brendan Nelson, the new leader of the Liberal Party that John Howard left in tatters, inspires him however. His ascendancy to the leadership of the Liberal Party is a gift to cartoonists, Leak wrote, noting that Nelson has a head that’s a figure eight, and all that’s needed to bring him to life is a tuft of hair, like that of a toilet brush. Leak suggested that the Liberal Party might also be in need of tenaciousness and intelligence and drew Nelson as Tintin.







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Friday, Dec 21, 2007

The music industry is alleged to be dying, but a look at the scads of best-of lists makes it seem as though there is more good music than ever. The erosion of the big labels control over what we hear has been mirrored by an explosion of journalistic opportunities on the internet for people to espouse their idiosyncratic tastes. What emerges has less of a cram-down, lockstep feel to it than lists in the past would have, but it can still be bewildering and overwhelming if you fall like I do into the fantasy/trap of wanting to be aware of everything people thing is worth hearing. Just have a glance at Slate’s year-end critics roundtable series of posts. Intentionally or not, these critics make appreciating pop music—pop music, mind you—seem like a full-time job. No dilettantes allowed in the world of pop music.

And this is despite the writers’ palpable urge to relate to what ordinary people get out of music—it’s almost a desperate plea really (their irritating populist proclamations aside; these seem like overcompensation for being anything but an ordinary music fan) because thinking as much as they do about music is a sure way to forever alienate yourself from the natural, routine relationship with music, the one that is straightforward and brings those lucky enough to preserve it an uncomplicated joy. It’s enough to wonder whether pop music gets too much coverage, which threatens to suffocate all the pleasure out of it. More likely though is that I am too often in front of a computer with nothing better to do than read about music.

But it seems everyone now agrees that the music industry will no longer exist in the terms we know it, and this will inevitably change how both musicians and fans go about their business. David Byrne’s article for Wired about how musicians can adapt to changes in the entertainment industry is fairly comprehensive and surprisingly businesslike (it has infographics and numbered lists, in accordance with the assumption that businesspeople can’t process information presented in paragraphs or complete sentences). It’s extremely informative without being overly dogmatic, and It’s full of eminently sensible and realistic advice that doesn’t presume a draconian intellectual-property regime to protect intellectual property from technological despoilment. He highlights that the overhead labels used to cover is no longer an issue, and now all they have to offer bands is up-front money, which amounts to a life of indentured servitude as the bands give up control over what they create as they try to pay the money back.

Much of his argument has its roots in an idealistic definition of what music is, an inalienable experience that defies commodification and is essentially social.

In the past, music was something you heard and experienced — it was as much a social event as a purely musical one. Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context. Epic songs and ballads, troubadours, courtly entertainments, church music, shamanic chants, pub sing-alongs, ceremonial music, military music, dance music — it was pretty much all tied to specific social functions. It was communal and often utilitarian. You couldn’t take it home, copy it, sell it as a commodity (except as sheet music, but that’s not music), or even hear it again. Music was an experience, intimately married to your life. You could pay to hear music, but after you did, it was over, gone — a memory.
Technology changed all that in the 20th century. Music — or its recorded artifact, at least — became a product, a thing that could be bought, sold, traded, and replayed endlessly in any context. This upended the economics of music, but our human instincts remained intact.

That’s well-put, and in more philosophical moments, I tend to think of “real” music as being that pure. But I’m less optimistic that my “human instincts” are so intact. I sometimes fear that music is something I’ve never quite experienced because it is so foreign to the consumer culture that is all I have ever known. I feel I’ve had glimpses of music qua music—in impromptu jam sessions in a friend’s barn, or working on recording music on a four-track, or at a really inspired show when the band seems to be doing it for love. Reading old novels has given me intimations of this too, of women needing “finishing” so that they could supply music in the country houses that the characters in bourgeois novels tend to inhabit, of country fairs and balls being a much bigger deal to characters because of the occasions for music they presented. I would think about how much we take recorded music for granted and how it has robbed music of much of its enchantment. That you had to buy music, making it somewhat scarce, give it some ersatz magic, but it wasn’t like (so I imagined) when you had to know someone who could play or sing in order to hear it, when almost all music a person would hear in ordinary life was what we know would regard as amateur. And when you heard music, it was compelling; you’d never think to regard it as aural wallpaper. (Classical music, the product of this era, still demands that level of attention. Who has the time?)

Romanticizing garage bands and local scenes is part of pining for the “authentic: music of the days before music as product. Sometimes I fall for this notion, that before there were so many records and so many radio stations, local bands served a real function of supplying music where there was none, and their incompetence was lamentable but tolerated, rather than being kitschy or a perverse and deliberate badge of honor. One didn’t have to evolve contrarian tastes to prove one’s devotion to music, I imagine, one just had to show up at the high school gymnasium or the VFW or the church social, hear the covers of songs on the radio and maybe some songs that were new—to you at least, if not altogether original to the band—and be grateful that there was music at all.

The simplicity of musical taste is what seems so seductive to me, what makes the early 1960s seem a golden age. It’s easy to imagine that in the golden age, before the deluge, music appreciation was free of the posturing and calculation that is so palpable in, say, any publication’s best music of 2007 list. Making these lists forces on us a mentality where we’re listening to rate songs and rule music out and exclude things rather than embrace music and make taste inclusive. The selections on such lists are in earnest, for sure, but still they have a groomed, fussed-over quality. But these lists are so discouraging; the music alone ends up seeming insufficient. It feels obligatory to continue to discover new things, to broaden horizons, to incorporate more and more knowledge of what’s available. A list of good music seems like it should come across as a service rather than a challenge, but it always feels like homework when I read one. It’s no way to discover music; the best ways seem lost to the past—those days when your local scene and radio station dictated what you heard, and then all these surprises were still hidden out there in the world, things someone could bring back for you. Obscurantist MP3 blogs are probably motivated by the wish to bring that feeling of special discovery to people, but the instantaneous availability of everything tends to undermine it.

Part of this is the paradox of choice in action: because there is so much music, so cheaply available, I have a hard time growing too attached to any of it without feeling I’m missing out on something somewhere else. Plus, hearing so much music makes more and more of it seem similar and mediocre. When you have only 25 albums in your world, you can forgive a lot of flaws; but the more reference points one has, the more listening becomes a game of comparison and categorization. It’s the nature of collecting music; when it becomes a product, one starts to taxonomize it. It becomes information to be comprehended and organized, rather than a sensation to experience.

Ordinarily I try to reject this sort of dichotomy between intellectualization and spontaneous authenticity, between thought and feeling. If authenticity is going to be assigned to any kind of aesthetic experience, it should be to those which fuse thought and feeling and make them seem synonymous. It’s hard to explain what that even means, but I think of it as the feeling that comes when a new level to something becomes comprehensible, when a hidden order reveals itself. When I realize some innocuous line in a song refers to much more than it initially seems, and the broader implications are suddenly dazzling or devastating or overwhelming—understanding more and then at once understanding that you hardly understanding anything, that the work you are contemplating is inexhaustible. 

The assumption that thought ruins real experience is usually urged by those who profit by our impulsiveness, marketers and proselytizers of various stripes. And it’s not thinking (mischaracterized as a hyperrational urge to demystify everything) that reifies experience. But the illusion that we can have a shortcut to mastering the experiences that life has to offer by turning them into data to be processed and filed is one of consumerism’s more seductive lures. The promise is always the same and always a false one: that there can be pleasure without effort, that convenience is for its own sake. In this way catalogable information is the enemy of thought; it refuses to let thought become feeling.

Still, it’s impossible to imagine life without recorded music or to pretend that recorded music isn’t our primary experience with it. The “economics of music” that Byrne sets against human instincts can’t be ignored or separated from the experience of enjoying music. We can’t return to an innocent stage where we listen to music instead of consume it.



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