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by Rob Horning

25 Nov 2008

I’ve been reading Papa John, the autobiography of Mamas and the Papas founder John Phillips. I never thought much of him growing up, and would have thought reading his memoir would be tantamount to reading one by a guy from Three Dog Night or something. Now, with the benefit of having his solo albums readily available, I realize how grossly misinformed I was. For one thing, I stopped taking well-arranged harmonies for granted and came to see what a rare thing the Mamas and Papas were. And not only are their records unexpectedly deep, but even the hits have a surprising emotional ambivalence (not to mention a Sticky Fingers-like level of drug references). And Phillips’s first solo record, John, Wolf King of L.A., has become one of my favorite rock albums; on the surface it’s saturated in narcissism with lyrics confronting unnecessary failure in the midst of decadent excess, but beyond that it’s about a very recognizable kind of depression, of being able to recognize high expectations and even the means with oneself to meet them but balking at the effort and instead withdrawing into various fantasies and feints. I think I identify with that to an altogether unwholesome degree.

Anyway, I expected his autobiography would shed more light on that aspect of Phillips’ complex character, but instead it mostly reads like just another symptom of his peculiar malady, an at times appallingly unreflective memory dump that seems a dodge, a cop out. His music clearly reflects how acutely he is aware of the limitations of hedonism, but in recounting his decisions to indulge in it with no regard for his companions or his own health, he is generally powerless to do anything but register his own selfishness as if it were an inevitable fact. He habitually flees responsibility and rather than figure out what makes causes his flight, he instead evinces a pathological expectation of total forgiveness for all his transgressions. The only excuse he can muster is a kind of cretinous hippie hedonism, typified by such passages as this: “The France was as elegant as you could get. We had our own wine stewards and did our best to consume as much of the dope as possible. We Swam, read, sunbathed, drank, and I stayed high the whole time.” Sometimes there’s a dash of philosophy: “The dope was out on the tables, in vases and bowls, and money never seemed to change hands. That’s how I wanted it in my house. We were there to share and party. And the partying never let up.” Probably an interest in making the book commercial led to to an emphasis on such scenes, and Phillips offers all sorts of sensationalistic details—he claims to have had a threesome of some sort with Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda, and he says he turned down an invitation to go party at 10050 Cielo Drive the night the Manson family showed up and murdered everyone on the premises.

In running through the inventory of outrageous parties and famous fucked-up friends and sexual partners, it’s weird how Phillips seems like a spectator to his own memories; he sounds like he’s trying to convince himself of what a great righteous time it was even though he seems to have been somewhat passive in the face of everything that overwhelmed him. Unexpected success on an unfathomable scale seems to have permanently disoriented him, made all his choices seem arbitrary or choreographed by some mysterious outside force. Throughout the book, it’s clear that he had no special aspiration to express the ideals of the 1960s, yet he ends up claiming them even as the zeitgeist co-opted his songwriting skills. After all, one of his signal achievements was to turn the youth movement into a jingle by writing “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”. And lost in the hype he generates for his past, Phillips seems to forget that the money had to come from somewhere. The square record-buying public’s funds were ultimately fueling this drug-consumption spree, and they didn’t really get to share in the piles of pills at the Bel Air party. The best we get is the vicarious appreciation of his lifestyle as it filters out in gossip magazines, self-referential songs and biographies like the one I’m reading. 

This brings me to something I often wonder about, which is the degree to which people like Phillips are aware of the vicarious potential of their own decadence—if they feel driven to it as a kind of marketing program, particularly since selling pop music is as much about lifestyles as it is hooks and choruses. His memoir offers few clues. That’s probably inevitable since any sign of self-consciousness on this front would render the whole edifice inauthentic. But I suspect that the fantasy demands of a mass audience impose themselves on celebrities without their knowing quite what they are facing. They end up violating all these bourgeois norms (fidelity, prudence, thriftiness, hard work, punctuality, etc.) out of compulsion more than pleasure. (A lyric from Phillips’s “Someone’s Sleeping” captures this: “From a second-story window I caught a glimpse of someone’s life and it was mine, and my face was dark and dirty and I cried.”)

Stars’ boundless notoriety makes the illusion of their absolute autonomy all the more intoxicating, while in truth they have no more control than the rest of us. They merely confront a different set of limits. They seem forced to adopt decadence or peculiarity as a kind of defense, an escape from the mania that inadvertently fuels it further. The more remote they become from ordinary life, the more intriguing they become and the force that pushes them further out into inexplicableness becomes more and more powerful. If they give in to it, they achieve a kind of pure celebrity that has no pretense of a connection to any sort of achievement. Just look at what happened to Michael Jackson and Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, et. al. This happened to John Phillips as well, though as he faded to obscurity, he was left with the far more conventional fate of being a straight-up dope fiend.

by Sean Murphy

24 Nov 2008


Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 - The Whiteness of the Whale)

Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate—figuratively speaking—because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans like so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.

It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of The Beatles—every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many folks would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper’s (let me stand up and be counted here).

In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis (something PopMatters writers did quite brilliantly all last week). What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (”Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”). Which ones have never ceased to astonish, even after a thousand listens? (”Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The tunes themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obsessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.

That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased—and listened to—actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped.

All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”—or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?

Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1″ opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?

I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9″ was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as suitably. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.

Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ‘68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9″ (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ‘67 and ‘69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.

by Farisa Khalid

24 Nov 2008

Every era of affluence has an account of what has gone wrong amid the wealth and decadence: Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories, Evelyn Waugh scathing portrayal of the aristocrats of 1930s London in Vile Bodies (see Stephen Fry’s sly 2006 film version, Bright Young Things), Jacqueline Susann’s lurid 1960s potboiler of celebrity, pills, and fornication - The Valley of the Dolls, and Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman novels, brutally exposing the nastiness underneath the glitter of 1980s Manhattan. Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion, is a look into India’s emerging, formidable fashion industry, which like the world of designers and models anywhere in the world, is as exploitative and mercenary as it is seductive.

The film centers on Meghna Mathur (Priyanka Chopra), a determined, ambitious girl from Punjab, who defies her parents and scrapes and saves to get to Mumbai to become a model. Aided by her spirited, scream-queen friend, Rohit (a memorable camp performance from Ashwin Mushran) she spends hours in line at agencies, touts her glamour shots to scouts, and hustles to network among the designers, show coordinators, and sleazy businessmen of industry. As Meghna climbs the greasy pole, she watches the successful supermodels from backstage, the leading diva among them Sonali (Kangana Raut), a porcelain skinned Dresden doll with a cold haughtiness behind the eyes.

Meghna learns from seasoned, cynical agents and C-list models, that the only way to get her foot in the door is a wealthy patron. Meghna takes up with the CEO of a major modeling agency, Mr. Sarin, and becomes his mistress.  A luxury high-rise apartment in Mumbai’s exclusive Bandra soon follows as does a succession of shows and advertising contracts. Predictably, the ascent to success alienates her from her friends and family (there’s a relevant scene, where Meghna’s provincial, religious aunt throws her out of the house for modeling lingerie in a magazine).

Echoes of Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter and Susann’s Valley of the Dolls are redolent in this Horatio Alger story of a young woman from the provinces and her relentless mission to succeed, only to fall into addiction and self-doubt. Meghna’s moral compromise serves as a way to explore the way vulnerable young women, desperate for fame, expensive clothes, and independence (a luxury for many women in India), stumble into all sorts of abusive relationships for advancement, only to be shafted when they pass their 20s.  The emptiness of celebrity, the meaningless behind the flash and the glamour is what Bhandarkar is aiming at here: fashion as a sleek disposable commodity, easily digested then easily forgotten.

Some strong actors shine: Priyanka Chopra proves she has a talent of tapping into a character, where she evolves from a callow small-town girl who winces when she drinks wine to the world-weary bitch the public envisions supermodels to be.  Samir Soni as a closeted gay designer drifting into compromise gives a sensitive, adept performance, the tragically underused actress, Kitu Gidwani (who shined in Earth 1947) dazzles the screen whenever she briefly appears as an arch, sophisticated agent, Mugdha Godse as a gravely-voiced veteran model, and Kangana Raut as the damaged beauty, brings depth to the clichéd role of a self-destructive model.

Seeing Fashion, it’s sometimes easy to forget that India as a developing country, with nearly a half of the population living below the poverty level of less than a dollar a day, and nearly 150,000 people illiterate.  Many women have no access to birth control or income-earning potential, and subject to arcane customs of arranged marriages and dowries.  So, to see the women in this movie, independent, financially and sexually, is an image of a different India. India’s middle and upper classes are consuming goods at an unprecedented rate.  The film’s sponsors include Sunsilk shampoo and Jimmy Choo, a reminder that even a film about exploitation and abuse in the fashion industry can be used as a two-hour ad for high-end products. Fashion is an entertaining look at one of the paradoxes of India - an inability to reconcile wealth with poverty, like the lithe, designer-clad socialites who shop at the Dolce and Gabbana boutique, whose oversized sunglasses block out the crippled beggar and ragged child huddling outside the store.

by L.B. Jeffries

24 Nov 2008

During a blog debate between Michael Abbott and Iroquois Pliskin on the indie game Braid, Abbott made the observation that the game was extremely hard to follow if you weren’t a gamer. The game relies on numerous inherent assumptions that come from playing Super Mario Brothers, solving game puzzles, and knowing how to learn how to play a game. Jonathon Blow, the game’s creator, pointed out in the comments that we expect someone to know how to read if they want to understand a book. Mitch Krpata added in the comments that Braid is inherently founded on this aspect of gaming to the point that it’s off-beat to even criticize it…but it does raise the issue. How tricky should learning how to play video games actually be? Setting a barrier for experiencing a game also limits the number of people who will play it. If the best way to get at the heart of a game is a pre-existing skill at games, just as being able to read lets you understand a book, how do we make that process easier for people? How do we make it so every time you play a game, any game, you’ll be able to pick it up and start playing? Why not have a standardized method of control?


Think for a minute about what happens when you play a game for a few hours, do something else for a week, maybe play another game, and then go back to it. You have to re-learn the controls. Which button is crouch, which one is jump, how do I talk to people, how do I run? Contrast that to the idea of having to relearn how to watch a film or what to do when you pick up a book. It seems ludicrous that the fundamental mechanics of either media would have to be re-taught every time. It’s true that both film and books require several years of engaging with them before one becomes used to them. It’s easy for people to forget this stage of our development, but watching a six year old ask what’s going on during a movie over and over reveals this process. You have to learn how to watch or read, but you also only have to learn it once because those mediums use those skills over and over. There will always be the necessary changes from game genre to genre, an RTS obviously can’t work the same way as an FPS. Other mediums also have shifts that require some personal tweaking: stream of consciousness literature takes a while to master and numerous post-modern films require a different mental approach. But that’s still incredibly minor compared to engaging with an entirely new control scheme for a game that’s in the same genre as another. Why does Halo 3 need a different control scheme from Call of Duty 4?


Then again, there are lots of reasons these games have different controls. One game has vehicles in it, the other lets you call airstrikes. But these are game design issues, rules for the player to learn, not controls they need to master. Why would an artistic medium whose foundation is player input insist on screwing around with that aspect so much? It’s not as if games don’t already mimic one another’s interfaces or consoles by featuring similar control schemes anyways. They even made a universal controller during the last generation of consoles, to give you an idea of how similar they all are. Nor are the needs of various video games all that different. A brief review of the development of game controllers reveals one fundamental driving force: what is the best way to control an avatar moving in a virtual space? The Atari joystick led to the D-pad to maximize 2-D control. 3-D meant adding the analog-stick and then another one to control the camera. Balancing these issues is where to place the buttons in relation to this scheme. Not to harp on the Wii-mote, but it’s essentially another step in more precise avatar interactions in a 3-D environment. I want my avatar to do what I just did with my hand. Surely we’ll finally hit one method, one player input, that’s the most efficient of the bunch for a decent period of time?


There have been examples of standardized input systems before, chiefly in the adventure games of the late eighties and nineties. Numerous games were built using the text parser system under Sierra-On-Line and their variation in subject matter is indicative of how empowering a standardized input can be. From King’s Quest to Leisure Suit Larry, you could have a huge variety of games and activities using one single method. The icon system is just an extension of that. Refined and simplified, countless other games were created with the icon interface. Westwood Studios and their Lands of Lore and the Kyrandia series were all one click systems. Lucasarts was always screwing with their interface for some reason, but their best games all used the verb system to great effect. You had games about huge fantasy worlds, parodies of fairy tales, or gory voodoo mysteries. The exact same interface for blowing up a space ship was used for a game about saving the princess. And best of all, you could pick up any of those games after playing one and immediately know what you were doing. You knew to look around, hunt for items, and the other basic skills they all relied on. With the exception of the extensive sequels that have been coming out lately, what games coming out do you not have to sit down learn how to play every time? All of those companies making adventure games picked a way you interacted with their games and just stuck with it. As a result, huge variety in content and game design sprung forth because they were working within the confines of a set system of expression.


So basically, all I’m saying is that all games should have all their buttons be one particular set of buttons. This will shift from genre to genre, but even within that context each genre should have a standardized control scheme. It makes it so I can pick up any action game and start playing immediately. You wouldn’t need a tutorial because game design elements like what a gun does or how to use your special powers would be a self-explanatory menu system. Enforcing this would be a rather unpleasant affair (as is the reaction people would have), publishers would have to bluntly force any developer using their console to adhere to such a system. But the potential for games to start focusing on content and creating interesting experiences makes this a reasonable price to pay. Mitch Krpata once made an observation while trying to review a game whose genre he wasn’t use to: “When I play an action-adventure game, I’m drawing on decades of experience with that style of play. I can zoom right up the learning curve, without getting hung up on the basics.” Think of the enhanced artistic potential of games if players could do that with a game from ten years ago just as easily as a game today. In order for the medium to advance in complexity, it has to start with a simple foundation that is used repeatedly.

by Jesse Hassenger

24 Nov 2008

The irritable comedy nerd in your life may well already own every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a DVD staple for years now, and may in fact be quaking with rage that they just re-released the series with a ton of extras. So why not alleviate double-dipping guilt and loathing by treating them to this new, bloody ridiculous box o’ Python: every episode of the series, yes, but also several live appearances, two documentaries, and a variety of sketch compilations to expedite and spice up the inevitable repeat viewing, spread across 21 discs.  If that doesn’t cheer them up, the “twit of the year” sketch surely will. [$159.95]


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