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by Josh Timmermann

27 Nov 2007

One of the best new rock bands of the year, Springfield, MO’s Ha Ha Tonka are only one impressive CMJ showing and a few critical raves away from being a buzz band. Think: Drive-by Truckers or the Hold Steady, though Ha Ha Tonka sound only a touch like the former and almost nothing like the latter, aside from a flair for regional specificity. Their debut, “Buckle”, is clever but never smug about it, melodic yet pleasingly rough around the edges, reasonably diverse and cohesive, and smart enough not to wear out its welcome.

by Rob Horning

27 Nov 2007

The Hollywood writers’ strike certainly helps throw this in relief, but it seems clear that the commercial entertainment industry is in trouble. Digitization and dispersed internet distribution has made it impossible for them to control supply, and the intellectual property concepts their business models depend on seem likely to come under attack or undergo extreme revision in an era where anonymous collaboration and open-source development become more and more customary. Not to wax too utopian about it, but it seems like the idea of commercial artists working for industry middlemen is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and as that changes, the means by which our society defines what makes for an artist or entertainer will change as well. Reality TV and blogging are just the most obvious examples of semi-professional and, in some cases, post-commercial entertainment supplanting the work of pros. The expectations we have of polish and high-end production values may continue to become more and more relaxed; what lo-fi indie rock helped pioneer could become acceptable in every genre and every medium, as YouTube would suggest. (Though all I ever seem to use YouTube for is watching old clips of bands from the 1960s and 1970s appearing on European TV; it’s become sort of a random-access collective memory. In fact, I can safely say that the internet, by enriching my access to obscure culture detritus from past decades, has guaranteed that I won’t pay any attention to contemporary culture for the foreseeable future.) While paid ads still support part of the distribution medium for these works (i.e. Google’s ad brokering makes it worth its while to host all this junk), the creators themselves, who are confronted with very little overhead for making and self-distributing their own product, are not necessarily compensated monetarily and seem to have attention (becoming more and more measurable, more and more useful as a means for status competition) rather than monetary reward as their motivation. This seems like a good thing, at first, but is it actually a license or a prod for all art to become even more about ego than communication? in other words, is self-expression as a goal wildly overrated, especially now that it’s so easy, now that we are in the so-called age of microcelebrity Clive Thompson notes in this Wired column? Is art being subsumed to an even greater degree by the (commercially derived) ideology of personal branding? Are we getting the worse of both worlds—the superficial, narcissistic culture without the discipline brought on by the need to make money?

In his book In Praise of Commercial Culture, economist Tyler Cowen points out that on the 18th century, when the printing press was having similar effects on culture as the internet is having now, critics worried that the commercialization of art, the market for books, would erode the power of fame as an incentive, without which writers would produce nothing but trash. But with fame devalued now that the trappings of celebrity are open to all, it seems like money and the professionalization that went along with it were last-ditch means to uphold standards. In Cowen’s view, 18th century critics sought to impose aesthetic standards and use fame as the reward that would induce writers to adhere to them. In a similar fashion, centralized cultural production enables a few media corporations, or the state (as in China, Soviet Russia, etc.), to impose similar standards. In a market economy, mass popularity seems to justify after the fact those decisions made early on about which works met the approved standards and were worthy of being supported. But mass popularity, or monetary reward may not be as significant when you can bask in the recognition of a niche audience and feel righteous about not having sold out. The “microcelebrity” thesis perhaps bears out Cowen’s argument that there is not a limited supply of fame, and that technology and the density of intertextual references multiplies the amount of fame there is to go around, albeit in ever finer measurements. But conversely, the demands on our attention may be stretched to the limit, leaving us in even greater need for filters and organizers of what’s available. Commercial gatekeepers once served this function; perhaps now social networking tools (linked in to targeted advertising) will replace them. Nothing, though, stands to discourage anyone from producing culture and “cluttering” the public sphere with it. I waver between thinking this is a pervasive triumph over passivity and fretting that it’s a disaster that’s made self-branding and the commercialization of our intimate identity commonplace—an eagerly sought accomplishment that we hope to confirm in the public sphere.

Having cheered for so long against the culture industry Goliath (without ever really suspecting it was actually vulnerable), it hasn’t often occurred to me to consider what we lose with its decline. The need to make art that will sell is usually derided as forcing artists to pursue the lowest common denominator and compromise their vision. But it may also have required artists to focus, to consider how effective their work would be on audiences. Respect for the bottom line typically makes people more receptive to criticism, and criticism from invested parties generally improves things. And the commercial entertainment industry performed a useful filtering service, putting hurdles between artists and audiences that eliminated some poetasters (and, unfortunately, some talented but easily deterred entertainers). One could be critical of what made it through that initial filter, but usually the fact that it made it through meant it was worth taking the time to criticize—it had been chosen and produced among thousands of other contenders. But free from the restrictions of commercialism, artists can ignore criticism and be as self-indulgent as they choose, selecting self-referential topics and making no effort to generalize subject matter so that others may get more out of them. Instead, artists can develop the expectation that others should be interested in their work for the sake of person making it, that it be interesting only on a personal level, the way Facebook pages are supposed to be.

by PopMatters Staff

27 Nov 2007


This week: When you get out there on the field, you’re not just playing soccer… You’re going to war. Whether it’s with dealing with personal demons or bullies with brass knuckles, you gotta be prepared to play with this bunch.

Every Tuesday PopMatters will be offering an exclusive early look at a new episode of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.

by Jason Gross

27 Nov 2007

Why is it that we have a tradition of rock and pop stars who over-indulge in vices and yet we still love them so much?  Maybe it adds to their mystique or we like to live vicariously through them or by now, we just think it’s part-and-parcel of who and what they should be.  Whatever the reason(s) might be, I was wondering this after reading endless headlines about the antics of Amy Winehouse.  I happen to like AW- she’s a fine singer and songwriter.  So, it kind of distresses me when I hear about the gallons of boozes and mountains of narcotics she liberally dabbles in and the resulting embarrassing behavior (canceling shows, drunken appearances at other shows).  What’s a fan to do?

by Bill Gibron

26 Nov 2007

When Bobby Darin went from teeny-bopper “splish splash” to pseudo-Sinatra swing, he brought along a vampy, jazzy update of an old Louis Armstrong number with him. Reinterpreting the lyrics to give the tune a ring-a-ding-ding kick, and working all the Brecht/Weill out of the thing, “Mack the Knife” became the singer’s signature song. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, sold a million copies, and went on to win the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1960. Yet few, if any, knew of the original source material. In fact, Dick Clark warned Darin against cutting the track, telling him that if fans ever found out it was taken from an “opera” it would destroy his rock-n-roll cred.

Of course, he was wrong, but even today, the 3 Penny title will throw anyone not aware of the legacy behind Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s riotously influential stage work. Indeed, even a modern revival from 2006 featuring Alan Cumming, Jim Dale, and New Wave chanteuse Cyndi Lauper failed to ignite much interest. Perhaps if people had a chance to see G. W. Pabst’s brilliant interpretation of the material in his 1931 film, they’d realize how phenomenal The 3 Penny Opera really is. The movie is indeed one of the slyest, most striking masterworks ever.

On the day of his wedding, MacHeath, also known as Mackie Messer, otherwise notorious as Mack the Knife, wants everything to be perfect. After all, he is marrying longtime girlfriend Polly Peachum. It’s a very advantageous pairing - she’s the daughter of an infamous London racketeer who controls the beggar trade and his status as a heel remains intact. Also, he’s allowed to carouse and womanize (if only a little) on the side. While finding a preacher willing to enter his literal den of thieves is tough, Messer manages to get hitched. But when Papa Peachum finds out, he is livid. He demands his son-in-law’s head, and propositions corrupt police chief (and Messer ally) Tiger Brown to frame the felon.

When the lawman initially won’t cooperate, Peachum plays his ace. The Queen’s Coronation parade is a few days away. If Messer is not in prison and headed to his death, there will be a poverty row rebellion to interrupt the pomp and circumstance. With all sides playing against and into each other, it will take more than treachery and deception to outwit one another. As in any 3 Penny (or poverty) Opera, it’s the little things overlooked, and the twists of fate unexpected, that end up counting.

G. W. Pabst’s adaptation of Weill and Brecht’s 3 Penny Opera is an astounding cinematic experience - like watching M the musical as filtered through a neo-realistic view of silent-film German Expressionism. At first, you feel overwhelmed by the arch, stylized approach to the story. Told by traveling minstrels and lacking the initial elements of explanation and exposition, it immediately tosses us into London’s seedy port district, a locale overrun with scum, strumpets, and the scoundrels who take advantage of same. As we are introduced to the main characters - master thief (and murderer) MacHeath/Mackie Messer, his gal pal Polly Peachum, and the various members of the twosome’s felonious entourage - and watch the preparations for their soon-to-be grand wedding, we wonder where all of this is going.

For many, the 3 Penny is an unknown quantity, a non-traditional songfest that closely resembles the arcane entertainment referenced in the title. Indeed, the first few numbers - including the instantly recognizable “Mack the Knife” - resemble a Wagnerian war against Gilbert and Sullivan. They’re more arias and sextets than chorus/melody making. While each one of the drawn-out dirges is packed with psychological subtext and social protest, it all comes across as overblown and obvious. How the movie will manage from this point is anyone’s guest.

And then we are introduced to Polly’s corrupt father, a man who actually controls and licenses the beggars in the city. No one can work the streets without his permission, and such a setup is instantaneously intriguing. We want to know more and need it ASAP. But the story does something even better. It takes the situation and amplifies it one outstanding step further. Peachum has a list of possible panhandling personas - the cripple, the crazy, the mute, etc. - and candidates can only choose between those that haven’t met their citywide or regional quota. In one stellar sequence, a newcomer argues with the fierce Fagan over his employment possibilities. The crass, capitalist way Peachum handles his business, and the ragtag group of street trash that wanders through his door (most merely playing at their pathetic state) gives 3 Penny a wonderful cynical edge.

It’s clear why Weill and Brecht were attracted to this 18th century ballad opera (which they then updated). In a country just caving into Nationalism and accompanying Nazi power, the concept of corruption within even the most morose of social situations (the homeless as organized con artists) meshed perfectly with their growing political concerns. When we later find out that police chief Tiger Brown is linked to both Messer and Peachum’s criminal organizations, it adds fuel to an already foul fire.

And then Act III arrives. Peachum, angry that his daughter has married Messer, wants the hoodlum hanged. He threatens Brown with a peasant riot during the Queen’s Coronation if the lawman doesn’t frame his unwanted son-in-law and place him before the gallows. While Messer is mired in the court system, he leaves his racket to his bride, and she turns the burglary and pickpocket ring into a legitimized version of the very same enterprise—otherwise known as a bank. Using their newfound status, and an excess of cash, they save Messer and call Peachum’s bluff. The result is a mass melee between the peasant class and the upper crust who constantly shun them.

As staged brilliantly by director Pabst, this last-act anarchy is unforgettable. A collection of faces both found and fashioned, it speaks volumes about the power in protest while suggesting the senselessness in fighting right with might. Epic in scale if not in visual scope (this was a studio production, limited by the logistics of creating all of London on a soundstage), the clash of classes is then overridden by a last-act truce that speaks more about modern society and who pulls the strings than any movie since, post-modern or otherwise.

When it’s all over, when The 3 Penny Opera wraps up its cutting condemnations and finishes with a flourish, we wonder why we ever doubted it. Even the unusual sonic cues and melodious complexity that keeps everything at arms length suddenly seems silly and easily embraceable. Because of the knotty narrative turns, the backdoor wheeling and dealing, and clearly defined criticism of Germany’s lax citizenry (it’s a similar statement made by Jean Renoir’s revelatory Rules of the Game), what started out stark and dated turns timeless and all too telling. Hats off to Austrian Pabst, who channeled fellow greats like Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau to create an amazing monochrome landscape of shadows and light for the intrigues to play within.

He also does a magnificent job of keeping his characters clear and beyond the obvious caricatures. This is especially true of Papa Peachum. One gets the clear impression that a slight amount of anti-Semitism could be present in Weill/Brecht’s interpretation of the original character. He sure looks and acts like Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. But thanks to Pabst’s careful control of the material, as well as Fritz Rasp’s multifaceted performance, all potential racism is avoided. In fact, even though the entire narrative deals with society’s most unsavory element, 3 Penny never resorts to such cinematic name calling.

It’s safe to say that this ancient allegory, first formulated back in 1728 when Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) suggested John Gray take up the cause of the downtrodden and disenfranchised, is more potent in 2007 than in pre-World War II Europe. Back then, criminals and lowlifes were a cause for scandal, an unacceptable breed given over to censure and individual exile. While Messer makes a compelling mobster, we are never allowed to forget that he once killed an entire family just for the fun of it. Today, thanks to tabloid television and the 24-hour-a-day news cycle, we semi-celebrate such antisocial heroes. They become the “there but for the grace” grooves that feed our need for holier-than-thou judgment.

3 Penny takes such a sentiment and turns it right back at our self-righteous, sanctimonious faces. It asks us to explain why these kinds of characters are so engaging, and makes us realize that they truly exist in all corridors of power—even in ourselves. Weill and Brecht may have been rebelling against a war-weary nation headed toward a complete totalitarian meltdown, but their musical makes us look at our own lack of action in light of such situations. It places us directly in the line of the poor-person maelstrom, and asks us to question why we still don’t care.

Even better, it belies our already staunch cynicism. Everyone thinks the police are corrupt, the wealthy are wicked, the government given over to special interests, and that corporate coffers are lined with white-collar criminality. 3 Penny pushes it all further into farce, suggesting that there’s unbridled badness even among the already unlawful. When Polly proudly celebrates the buying of a bank, we see the simple substituting of one racket for another. When Peachum and Messer talk truce, we witness every backroom deal that drives ethics even further from the standard business/legislative model. It’s all so very modern and yet locked deep within its Victorian England setting. That it suggests such static history makes for an even more disconcerting entertainment.

While you won’t be humming its tunes on the way out of the theater—or while removing the DVD from the player—the music is memorable, especially since it easily encapsulates everything we see onscreen. Indeed, The 3 Penny Opera probably plays better on film than in the theater. Live, the inherent ambiguity of the staging can ruin even the greatest writer’s intentions. But when pasted to celluloid, the tendencies become timeless, and their motives remain solid and concrete. Over the decades, revivals of the show have been less than successful. Movies remain the best way to experience this classic social commentary.

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Indie Horror Month 2015: 'Dark Echo'

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