Film

Why Do So Many Aliens Look Like Tony Blair?

The unfamiliar will only find acceptance if it is expressed in familiar terms; thus, aliens "...may have bulbous heads and triangular eyes, speak in a chillingly robotic monotone or emit a strong stench of sulphur, but otherwise they look much like Tony Blair."

What is alien about films featuring aliens? Or about HBO’s variety of ‘monsters’ in shows such as True Blood? The unfortunate answer is, nothing. At least not anymore. Whether it’s science fiction films such as Star Trek and Battle Los Angeles or films featuring other types of ‘monsters,’ the featured creatures always conform to human aesthetic values.

Aliens may have more than two eyes -- occasionally -- but for the rest of their facial shapes resemble those of humans closely. Even between films, there is little variation of the depiction of the alien. Aliens or autobots look awfully from film-to-film, and even the passive spectators among us are starting to notice the unimaginative and standardized visual appearances of what are supposed to be our worst nightmares. As cultural theorist Terry Eagleton remarked in The Idea of Culture (Eagleton, Blackwell Publishers, 2000), “they may have bulbous heads and triangular eyes, speak in a chillingly robotic monotone or emit a strong stench of sulphur, but otherwise they look much like Tony Blair” (59).

Vampires and werewolves, both in film and on television, are another group of characters that is constructed as an alien race. True Blood is the series that most clearly engages models of racial interaction, and its small town inhabitants treat vampires like an alien race, yet at the same time the vampires and other supernatural creatures are aesthetically identical to humans.

Not that the human shapes of aliens are that surprising. In fact, nothing much has changed since John Smith wrote his The Generall Historie of Virginia (London, 1624), the unfamiliar will only find acceptance if it is expressed in familiar terms. We are unable to imagine anything outside our own frame of reference. The American film industry particularly has taken a liking to this John Smith-way of storytelling, which entails the colonization of alien bodies both physically and imaginatively. They look like humans, and are forced to behave like them.

As Eagleton observed, this reveals important tendencies in Western culture. Watching a film featuring aliens is like holding up a mirror, but the irony is that a lot of viewers take the adventure stories at face value. They fail to see the social implication of the lack in imagination. As Eagleton says, “Western culture shows a lamentable failure to imagine other cultures” (49). Film only reflects tensions between cultures in other areas, such as politics.

James Cameron’s Avatar is the most direct spawn of this tradition. The story is a retelling of the classic Pocahontas story, not coincidentally a tale first related by John Smith. Humans colonize a native tribe to profit from the natural resources, but eventually love conquers. The depiction of the Na’vi is more interesting than the Not, but only the title characters are exact replicas of an alien race, this alien race is an exact replica of humans. The addition of a tail and a few extra inches in height doesn’t deter from the fact that even aliens are confined within well-established limits of humanity in their outer appearance. The interracial relationship of Jake Sully with Neytiri can only succeed once he decides to become part of the Na’vi. However, Eagleton would not accept that the Na’vi are in fact aliens; “As immigration officers might do well to note, creatures with whom we can communicate are by definition not alien” (50).

The sacredness of the human shape is once more confirmed by the negative connotations that autobots or robots invoke in all films. In Skyline and Battle Los Angeles, to some extent in the Transformers-series, and in countless other films, the real threat to humanity is its takeover by technology. We are unmade by our very own creations. Because humans have the capacity to extend beyond their specific geographical locations through language and other networks of communication and signifying systems, we have been able to create things that can ultimately destroy our own environment, or can even do so immediately, i.e., nuclear bombs.

Television has seen similar initiatives, as all ‘alien’ races must conform to human standards, and again love between the human race and other race is concern for much policing. While Alan Ball’s hit series True Blood -- returning to TV for a fourth season this year and HBO’s most successful program since The Sopranos -- runs risk of being marginalized as just another show capitalizing on the vampire-hype sweeping through teenage America, its construction of humans as equally monstrous as the bloodthirsty vampires rescues it from this fate. Set in rural Louisiana, the series repeatedly employs vampires -- alternately referred to as fangers, monsters, and rapists -- to expose the human race as the real monster in its exclusion along gender, race, class and even sectional lines, and in its abuse of the natural environment. Still, the vampires are physically identical to humans, as are the werewolves, shapeshifters, faires, and a whole host of other supernatural creatures.

Vampires, of course, are not regarded as equal to humans, as is quickly revealed by the institutionalized discrimination perpetuated by state apparatuses such as law enforcement, religion, the educational system, family and social control, and the media (even though AVL, the American Vampire League, tries to correct stereotypical portrayals by engaging in a media offensive of its own). The police are biased against vampires; Bon Temps’ Sheriff Dearborne refuses to file a missing person’s report when Bill is abducted, as “the missing person isn’t even a real person” (s3e1:28), and in measures echoing the one-drop rule in racial discrimination, the reluctance to offer legal assistance extends to “women who have tainted themselves and their race” i.e., women who have sexually engaged with vampires (s1e12:10).

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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