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by PopMatters Staff

30 Jun 2009

The Fiery Furnaces
I’m Going Away
(Thrill Jockey)
Releasing: 21 July 2009 (US) / 24 August 2009 (UK)

01     I’m Going Away    
02   Drive to Dallas  
03   The End Is Near
04   Charmaine Champagne  
05   Cut the Cake  
06   Even in the Rain  
07   Staring at the Steeple  
08   Ray Bouvier  
09   Keep Me in the Dark  
10   Lost at Sea  
11   Cups and Punches  
12   Take Me Round Again

The Fiery Furnaces
“The End Is Near” [MP3]

by Jason Gross

30 Jun 2009

Recapping Jackson’s career is kind of pointless now as it’s been done thousands of times this week and you should know the facts by now anyway.  Even the balancing act of amazing art and terrible personal life ain’t exactly something new in show biz.  What’s much more interesting is the reaction to his untimely demise, which like the death of his one-time late father-in-law (who he’s compared to a lot) was both shocking but also unsurprising in a way.

I definitely understand anyone (especially non-fans) that are sick to death of reading Jackson stories now and the many ones to come but I think the good ones (and even some of the bad ones) say a lot that can help us understand something about pop culture and American culture in general.

  • Several sites and social networks buckled under the strain of users sharing news or searching for news.  TMZ, the tabloid trash haven, actually seems to have broken the story about his death and got overloaded with users for its trouble. Twitter similarly got overloaded and strained with messages and questions about him before the news became official.  What was also interesting about these two cases is that in both instances, questionable and unverified material was floated around, questioned, analyzed, argued, debunked and turned inside out.  Years before Web 2.0, you wouldn’t have seen all of this unofficial, behind the scenes frenzy going on so publicly.  The Net’s propelled the news process so quickly and publicly that this kind of event can’t be kept under wraps and will get swirled around until there’s some fact checking and verification.  For most people, when the L.A. Times finally confirmed the death, that was good enough even for most TV stations to finally report the same.  Expect this kind of phenomenon to happen more often with big stories like this.  As Craig Kanalley pointed out, Twitter did provide a valuable service then but fact checking is still needed. Daily Mail also had an extensive, well-researched time line about how the story broke and how it broke some of the Web 2.0 sites.

  • You expect the usual necrophilia in terms of album sales bump but this was pretty unprecedented. Amazon had Jackson’s records listed all of the top sellers and even then, they were out of stock for weeks on them.  As such, MJ was ready to storm the Billboard charts.  Of course, this wouldn’t stop anyone from buying the MP3’s from Amazon, iTunes (which also had him as the top seller several times) or elsewhere.  This tune-raiding may be another nail in the CD’s coffin but on other hand, you could also argue that the lil discs will also become collector’s items and reinforce (temporarily) the value of the CD as physical object (kinda hard to cherish MP3 files in the same way).  In either case, NYT columnist Rob Walker has an excellent article that explains the post-death sales surge.

  • Again and again (Chuck Eddy and Andrew Sullivan for instance), boosters would end their tributes by wishing that Jackson was finally at peace now.  Considering the circumstances of his death, that doesn’t seem likely.  Much as he probably dreaded the grueling show schedule that he was about to undertake in England, he wanted and needed a grand event as a comeback.  Though he prophetically hinted that the shows would be his last curtain call, he obviously looked to them as vindication of his lost years and a chance to become a beloved star again.  In fact, according to the people who were rehearsing with him on his last day (see this Time article), he was more focused than he’d been in a while about making a great concert and show that he still had the goods to a wide audience.  Instead, he never got a chance to prove that.

  • One point of fact that keeps coming up in his career is that he broke down racial barriers on MTV.  In a sense that’s true but it’s much more accurate to say that it was actually CBS Records honcho Walter Yetnikoff- he was the one who told the network that they weren’t gonna get ANY more videos from the label’s artists unless they put Jackson in rotation.  MTV caved in and it turned out to be a huge boost not just to Jackson but also to for the network. (NOTE: Daily Swarm, among others, have cast doubt on the Yetnikoff story, saying that MJ had inside people to help him with getting his videos on the air but even if that’s so, it still wasn’t MJ himself as a force of nature that technically made it happen)

  • Andrew Sullivan and Jeff Chang tailed off their otherwise smart pieces by making the readers and audience complicit in Jackson’s death. The ‘we-killed-him’ line is just melodramatic crap.  If you want to be more accurate, you might say that the tabloid media that he toyed with turned on him and then pounced on him, especially after he gave them plenty of excuses to do so.  That isn’t to say that they always treated him fairly (they definitely didn’t) but that he was confused and alienated by his own fame and that came out again and again in his rare public appearances.

  • Articles, blogs and tweets took to sum up Jackson by praising him for his music and art or damning him for having a messed-up personal life, struggling to try to reconcile the two, as if that needed to be done. Biographer Nelson George covered this aspect well (and immediately made himself unavailable for interviews) but Spin Magazine’s Steve Kandell probably had the best take on this, refusing to find a reason to reconcile the two sides of Jackson: “Iconic pop stars should be weird and unknowable, that’s what we’re paying them for… they should be shooting their televisions and comparing themselves favorably to Jesus and collecting African babies at will and sleeping in hyperbaric chambers with well-dressed chimpanzees and possibly, regrettably, kindergartners. Because we cannot. We need them to live lives we’ll never know, lives we shouldn’t know.” Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth tried to make the case that the nutty behavior was just part of his calculated attempts to play the press though that obviously backfired once child-molestation charges were brought against him.  Also note that as good as the level of writing was, the Village Voice‘s archive tributes are split about evenly between stories about his image and his craziness.

  • His death also proved to be a case study in news cycles.  Just a week after a fermenting civil war was brewing in Iran, 70’s icon Farrah Fawcett died (not to mention Ed McMahon and pitch-man Billy Mays) and U.S. media were planning to make her the lead story until Jackson died the same day, putting her off as a 2nd story afterwards.  Similarly, some wags noticed that South Carolina governor Mark Sanford was also knocked off the news for his bizarre behavior and had the media’s obsession with Jackson to thank for that.  Sad to say, as the media furor of Jackson died down over the weekend, Iran didn’t come close to making a comeback in the news.  On U.S. TV, three of the four major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) juggled their evening prime time line-up’s to do same-day specials on Jackson (admittedly most of the line-up’s were in summer repeat mode by that time).

  • In terms of political shows, the Sunday morning programs seemed to keep touting the same message- ‘why are people so broken up over Jackson?’  At least that’s what they said publicly.  On Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer lectured the audience ‘a society is defined by who it honors.’  He also talked of how he went on one of Jackson’s shows and how impressed he was with it.  But then he preached that “a tortured existence and weirdness are example of how NOT to live one’s lives… With Van Gogh, Barry Bonds, there’s nothing new about separating art from artists…”  Finally, he concluded “pop icons and American heroes are not the same thing.”  Somewhat in the same vein, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri tweeted this: “Is anyone else slightly uncomfortable with the amount of air time devoted to the sad death of Michael Jackson?”  Translation: our political matters are much more important than this story. 

    On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, the Jackson topic came up at the end of the round table discussion.  Columnist/speech writer Peggy Noonan spoke about watching the Motown anniversary with family and said that part of what we miss are those communal moments.  In the later Green Room discussion (online only), economist/columnist Paul Krugman said that he first thought that it’s ridiculous to devote time to this (echoing Schieffer’s thoughts above) and then reconsidered that to say that he/we needed to ‘lighten up… we need some of this…,” later calling him a ‘genius.’ Author Michael Eric Dyson said he was impressed that in the 70’s, a white woman (Farrah) and a black man could ‘seize cultural authority.’  Later, Dyson reasoned that Jackson had two childhoods- one that was denied by father who demanded work and a second one he tried to grab and make up later. Noonan returned with another poignant thought. “We live in media environment- it’s an easy to fill media time, put on tape of Michael dancing and Farrah laughing. When life is made easier for television producers, it changes what we see.”

  • There seemed to be a contest to convey the breadth of mourning among heads of state (including some anger over Obama not commenting soon enough), directors, actors, musicians, and fans around the world.  It became a game to see which story could amass the most impressive range of quotes, including stories from the New York Times  and The BBC. The Guardian even had listing of papers around the world covering his death.

  • Some of the best stories didn’t seek to sum up his life but looked at how he individually affected others. Spin Magazine’s staff shared their memories about encountering MJ’s work as did the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Defender’s Ralph Richardson, Mark Reynolds at PopMatters and writer Eisa Ulen (thanks to writer Rob Fields for expertly culling many of these articles and more).  Perhaps most chilling piece was from ex-wife Lisa Marie Presley, where she blogged about their marriage and how she tried to ‘save him from his self-destructive behavior.’

  • Also particularly moving where the stories that focused on his abused childhood and how that effected the rest of his life, including articles from Roger Ebert (particularly focused on his role in The Wiz) and Andrew Sullivan who loved the music and mourned Jackson as abused man-child.

  • Maybe writers and fans thought it kinda crass to bring up in detail when talking about Jackson’s achievements but there were also some fascinating articles about his finances and business dealings.  In addition to this NYT piece about his huge income and huge loses, there was also this Wall Street Journal piece about how he revolutionized celebrity sponsorship and this Harvard Business article about how he branded himself well (though it’s in bad taste to note that dying young was a good career move, even if it’s true).

  • What was also interesting was the things that weren’t usually discussed, specifically race.  That did come up in the career-spanning pieces, to say that there were obviously lots of turmoil and confusion about that in Jackson’s life, but there were not enough pieces dealing with race specifically.  One attempt was this report from NBC news about how the African-American community reacted, in the guise of the BET tribute and elsewhere.  Obviously, this still isn’t an issue that we’re comfortable talking about in general.

    Another issue that the NBC piece brought up was that Jackson hadn’t been a hot topic for a while, at least until the announcement of the UK shows came up.  Part of that had to deal with the fact that Jackson hadn’t toured or put out any new records in a while (or rarely did interviews)- mags/pubs are hard pressed to report on stars if there’s no fresh news.  The trials and scandals provided some fodder for that but definitely not the kind of coverage he was looking for.  A nice exception was Paste Magazine’s cover story on last year’s Thriller anniversary/reissue.

  • Kind of a coy note about pop star coverage here on PopMatters.  I’ve noticed that when writing about figures like Jackson, the responses are usually “how dare you question his artistry!” (from fans, natch) or “why are you wasting your (our) time on this?” (from detractors of course).  That leads me to wonder if these commentators actually read PM at all or just find this material through search engines since PM covers this type of thing all the time and it wouldn’t be much of a mag if just blindly praised everyone it covers.  Hopefully I’m wrong this time.

by L.B. Jeffries

30 Jun 2009

Discussing The Path without discussing spoilers is mostly an exercise in generalizations. The entire game design is a weirdly subversive content delivery system and abstaining from explaining that content doesn’t really do the game justice. Spoilers Abound, as always. The Path is a video game variation of the oldest known version of ‘Little Red Riding’ which you can find here. The moral at the end explains that girls who are just reaching maturity and are taken advantage of by, “The Wolfe, I say, for Wolves too sure there are of every sort, and every character. Some of them mild and gentle-humour’d be Of noise and gall, and rancour wholly free”. The wolf in the story is a metaphor for those who relieve young girls of their innocence, often as the story notes often by acting nicely as well as cruelly. The game is a literal manifestation of this: you play as six different girls walking to Grandma’s house. The game design entices you off the trail to discover a wide collection of secrets, one of which will prove to be the end of the child’s journey and the beginning of another.

The game design is setup to give the player a few key choices about how to conduct themselves. If you stick to the path you will make it to grandma’s house and see your young self sitting on a bed while an old woman still lies dormant. Off in the corner is a wolf frozen in motion. The game will rattle off all the secrets you missed and point out that you did not encounter the wolf. It is preying on the typical gamer habit of collecting secrets and the curious power that telling a gamer “You didn’t win” seems to have over them. Fire up the game again and you can wander off the path into a forest full of secrets. There are 144 randomly placed flowers that can be collected along with a set number of unlockable secret events for each girl that are unique. Throughout this exploration section a girl in a white dress will run about who will occasionally take you back to the path if you engage with her long enough. The forest itself is disorienting and visually difficult to navigate but eventually a mapping system takes over in the form of symbols of various wolf sites. Running causes your view of the surroundings to go away because the camera moves up so the best way to travel is walking very slowly. Depending on how many secrets you collect the final montage at the end of the game will change, particularly if you find the wolf event.

Finding a concrete interpretation of the game is surprisingly difficult for two reasons. The first is that the wolf varies from being metaphorical to literally drinking a few beers with a guy before the screen fades to black. Dark and disturbing noises follow before the girl wakes up on the path disoriented and walking slowly to Grandma’s house. Inside the house a linear rail sequence starts up that has you looking through a variety of disturbing rooms while lights flash that all echoes of David Lynch cinematography. There is, to put it lightly, a great deal of room for interpretation about what this is supposed to imply. The other problem is that all of this symbolism changes depending on how many secrets you chose to discover. 8 Bit Hack argues that each girl is a stage of the grandmother’s life. He explains, ““Each of the Riding Hoods play the role of one stage of the old woman’s young life, from the bright eyed Robin to the learned Scarlet. The wolf, in his many forms, represents the betrayal and cruelty waiting out in the world when you stray from what you know, what is safe, and what is easy.”

We got into an argument about how many of the girl’s scenes were implying rape (a similar one came up at Brainy Gamer) and realized that we had both seen very different imagery. Whereas he saw one of the girls tied up with razor wire and bleeding, I saw an image of a scarecrow chasing children underneath a bed. This then becomes problematic because although I usually tried to get two or three secrets per girl I rarely bothered to find every single one. Given how difficult such an act would be, the designers seem to have created an interesting method for insuring their imagery always remains vibrant or unique for each person. With the exception of the wolf scene, the game is actually quite open to interpretation because the game design generates its images based on the player’s actions.

It is also worth noting that the game plays with your relationship with these girls in a very unique way. The initial tropes of the game start off as role play, we empathize with the girl in the way one normally does with their avatar in a game. The initial shock and horror begins to fade as one becomes accustomed to the system however, leading to a certain kind of transformation in the player. The 99th over at Play This Thing! argues that the player themselves are becoming the wolf. He explains, “The core gameplay involves figuring out what the 3rd person characteristics are of each of the girls. Figuring these things out enables you to say “ok, I bet this girl would interact with that object”, which leads to results.” In this way we are a kind of seducer, studying the girl and taking her to the places we know will resonate with her. We discover little bits of information about them through poetic reactions to the items they discover or by what they’re wearing. And with this knowledge we guide them to their inevitable wolf, their violation and loss of innocence.

What is at the core of these numerous choices and unlockables is a story about the loss of innocence. When Scarlet sees flowers she opines about how dirty nature is, when she approaches a piano in the woods she muses, “Art is where the nobility of humanity is expressed, I could not live in a world without it.” As the grey haired musician teaches her to play the screen fades and we awake outside Grandma’s house. The final scene is to a clapping audience, a green curtain rising up, and a thud as the screen goes to black. Her juvenile views of music and art are gone, the child that would’ve been sitting on the bed next to the dormant old woman is gone. The young Robin contemplates, “People die. It’s hard to imagine for a kid like me. They die and we put them in the ground. Like flowers.” A hulking wolf wanders about the graveyard when we approach and Robin leaps onto his back just as she does every secret she has found in the woods. As funeral bells begin to ring out, wolf carries us to the top of the hill, and gives out a great howl in triumph. The final scene is us falling into a dark hole, a grave. Robin’s innocence is lost as she realizes the true nature of death and its inevitability. So it goes with the other four girls offering a new take on a development in a person’s life. Impressions about art, death, and for several sex are all explored.

I would ignore reviews that complain it is not a game or who take the imagery literally. Death is symbolically the mechanics of change in people, the current personality must die in order for the new one to grow and take effect. Michael Abbott once wrote that you can’t ever dictate the meaning of imagery to someone in a game because our relationship with these things is always unique. The point has merit, particularly in a game like this that is full of so much nuance and ambiguity. You can, however, accurately predict people’s relationship with game design elements. There is a path and if you stick to it the game will tell you that you did not discover all sorts of secrets. Irked, the player will go exploring on the second round, collecting items and trying to navigate the confusing forest. Making the controls minimal and passive will generate uneasiness in the player while large amounts of conduct and action continue to happen with little input from them. Eventually, you will be placed in a situation where you have no control at all and can only watch as the inevitable happens. Like a dream where the subject is helpless, The Path is a game that frightens you not with thrills but instead with how it makes you feel.

by Bill Gibron

29 Jun 2009

We all have our causes. Animal rights. Kinky sex. Health. Gay and/or National pride. Religious zealotry. Artistic expression. Self-actualization. And within said philosophies are a million individual interpretations, paths that can be followed (or ignored) no matter how odd or unusual they may seem. Passing judgment on how one fulfills their sense of social commitment - or in the privacy of their own boudoir, a more highly physical concept of identity - seems pointless, but as one rather rotund member of Springfield, USA once said, it can also be a lot of fun. Just ask filmmakers Isaak and Eva James. With their latest film, Hungry Years, the plights of the homeless, the autistic, the injured and the overweight are tossed into a whirlwind of big city egocentricity that’s so fresh, so effortless, that you wonder why more artists don’t tap into such a zoned out zeitgeist.

In this anarchic Altman-esque world, Ellen is a Restricted Calorie nutritionist. She believes that by severely limiting your food intake, you can live much longer - and healthier - than the average person. Her clients include Dale, an oil company CEO with a secret passion for sniffing soiled undergarments. He has a wife, Joyce, who has written a controversial self-help book that proclaims autism as the next “evolutionary” step in human development. She is aided by an assistant, Martha, who uses the aforementioned illness as the basis for her critically panned one woman performance piece - and her ongoing kvetching about life in general. Her brother Neil is also a self-absorbed loser, living at home and trying to drum up interest in his idea of building a self-contained robotic landmine sweeper. But with no money and little support from his aging parents, he has few viable prospects. Separately (and eventually, together) they try to overcome their personal issues while still supporting their varied social aims. 

Isaak James is clearly the future of sophisticated, smart cosmopolitan comedy. He’s Woody Allen without all the Me Decade angst, an incredibly talented hyphen (writer-director-composer-actor) who infuses the already idiosyncratic indie motion picture with his own uniquely observed sense of quirk. With partner Eva along for the ride, he finds the hilarious and often ridiculous truths in such outlandish ideas as mental illness, culinary self-sacrifice, and weak-willed altruism. With the flawless mock-doc Special Needs already under his belt, and a wide open window of creative opportunities present, the man who made the handicapped into heroes is now out to take down the haughty and the high minded. But just as he did with his previous satiric statement, he uses the know-it-all and the narrow-minded against themselves to brazen, brilliant effect.

At first, Hungry Years might seem like a cruel slam of all those people who believe too passionately in their own sense of charity and empathy. We see how Ellen faithful follows her regimes (and how devastated she is when others don’t). We witness her misplaced outraged reaction to a fly-by-night attorney’s desire to help the homeless by teaching them insurance fraud techniques (like he says, what are their options?). From the horrified face she makes at a friend’s dinner to the circumventing of a Meals on Wheels plan for the elderly (she delivers her own carefully prepared foods instead), she’s a walking, preaching example of everything that’s wrong with such personal prostylitizing. But because she is just one of many in the James’ joyful jesting, we learn to sympathize and even identify with her blinkered beliefs.

The rest of Hungry Years’ cast of crazies offer their own sets of unusual issues. Ashlie Atkinson’s Martha is perhaps the best clinically depressed diva ever to spout the F-word, while James himself plays Neil like the naïve nincompoop the man-child clearly is. Perhaps the best performance comes from Karen Culp, the deluded “doctor” who unleashes, Dr. Phil style, a kind of New Age nonsense about autism being a favored childhood ‘gift’ that’s horrific in its touchy feely foolishness. The near Messianic glint in her self-satisfied eyes more than makes up for Michael J. Burg’s pervert on the prowl pantomime. With equally strong work from the supporting players (and a couple of clever Special Needs cameos) and a script that is strong in both character and comedy, Hungry Years definitely defies the odds.

Most mainstream audiences think independent film is all navel-gazing and familial dysfunction. When it’s not indulging in a kind of post-traumatic stress stridency, it’s working through personal problems a therapist would have a hard time deciphering. But in the James’ cinematic purview, people and their peculiarities make the best subject matter, not the pain one experienced during potty training. Like Special Needs, Hungry Years is all about the set-up and the possible pay-off. It’s about the hubris and the comeuppance. We can’t wait to see Ellen put in her place, to see Martha and Dale and Joyce get raked over the coals by a public clearly capable of seeing through their ruse. But like the great artists they are, Isaak and Eva don’t go for the easy punishment. Instead, fate steps in and deconstructs the situation. No one really suffers, but we witness the hilarious realignment in all its secret-smashing, ego dashing glory.

The most important thing to remember about Hungry Years, however, is just how funny it really is. Unlike many proposed comedies, this is a laughfest that actually evokes the intended response. The Jameses do not go for the easy joke. They don’t produce gags just to knock down the predicable punchlines. Instead, this is observational wit worked into a stellar social commentary, an intelligent denouncement of the ‘new’ Me Decade baked into a cruel, creamy cupcake. You will see a lot of post-modern misanthropy here, anger that stems more from a position of personal defeat than communal criticism. No one here is a failure - they are just a mindlessly misunderstood winner. And just when things can’t get any more bizarre, Neil’s mom will show up and obsess on her adult son’s choice of pants. It’s all part of a controlled cleverness that reminds one of the days when a certain cinematic mensch would deliver his annual dose of Manhattan malaise.

With only his second film, James has literally redefined the concept of outsider creativity. Where most fledgling auteurs try to do the best they can under financially and artistically restrictive circumstances, he and his collaborators throw out such notions of struggle and simply make the finest, more cutting and imaginative film possible - budgets be damned. It’s clear that, sometime in the near future, this is someone whose name will be mentioned along with other important to big screen comedy. For now, Judd Apatow and Sasha Baron Cohen better take heed. Isaak and Eva James are coming with Hungry Years in tow. In a year that’s already seen several bright example of cinematic wit, this may be the brightest - and best. 

by Diepiriye Kuku

29 Jun 2009

Most so-called feminist critiques of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reduce men to husbands, and women to wives. Even progressive movements like the struggles converging on marriage for same-sex couples, centralize this biblical relationship, and in a biblical way, there’s nothing progressive about that. If we sincerely count gender and gender relations, we should count correctly. It may be a Christian fixation that prioritizes the heteropatriarchal marriage over all other relationships as individuals and with kin and Klan. In addition, in the Things Fall Apart society, these other relations were contributors to individuals’ identities. Certainly, this is riddled with conflict, the same as any relationship faces conflict, and perhaps confrontation. One might even argue that the misogyny in the pre-colonial society was, too, an unresolved conflict—a narrative within a narrative of conflict resolution.

Over four books, Achebe demonstrates a spiral of conflict and resolution, layering these stories, and having them mirror one another. This means that the internal conflicts mirror the ones the characters face in the world, and brilliantly, Achebe breathes life and depth to his characters by demonstrating how their internal dialogue informs their views of themselves as well as their actions. So, fate is a clear matter of cause and effect in the Things Fall Apart cosmological world.

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