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Make Me Wanna Die: Revisiting "Death Sentence", Nearer the End

We said some very polite and clever things about the opening chapter of Death Sentence, identifying Monty's facility at producing a Dostoevskian or Dickensian narrative that confronted existential angst at a societal level. The truth is far more tantalizing.

Was that Taylor Momsen walking naked into hell? Catching up on Death Sentence, catching up on the brio and the gusto and the Sexual Akira that is issue #4, rattles loose and old memory. A memory of the first time of my having seen the official music for "Make me Wanna Die," by the Pretty Reckless, the back-in-2010 new band Taylor had fallen in with. Months before I like you had seen the viral video which cast Taylor as a kind of nouveau-riche Debbie Harry, drifting lazily along through what purported to be the reignited punk scene in NYC. Taylor's transformation from good girl in the scenes of Gossip Girl (well, as good a girl as can be expected on Gossip Girl) seemed to be consolidated in just that one video. Consolidated and vindicated. The raw power of not a makeover but a reboot was in the air. This was the new Taylor, a far cry from the chubby little girl in that Grinch movie, and something that hinted at a kind of punk rage that festered beneath what must clearly have been a veneer for Taylor on GG.

But it turns out that the transformation wasn't the arresting thing. Not really. And especially not after our last year with Miley Cyrus, a year of extreme transformation that Miley shared in the most public of venues. The really interesting thing about the Pretty Reckless music video, the official video, and the especially interesting thing after Miley, was why the raw, cheap, manufactured energy that that viral video did so well, needed to be funneled into something as safe and predictable and relatable as an over the top 30 Seconds to Mars video that has plot and protagonist and all the usual codes of commodification. (Maybe I'm being a little unfair to 30 Seconds, it's not as if One Republic or Katy Perry or even, y'know, Miley Herself doesn't dip into that commercialist pantomime.)

But the memory of that distinction between "Make Me Wanna Die's" viral video and its official video is shaken loose by Death Sentence not so much out of a sense of "Well, Monty ain't selling out," as it is by "Well Monty's tackling that problem directly." Monty being Monty Nero, writer of Death Sentence who along with artist Mike Dowling produced a masterwork, we felt last year.

We said some very polite and clever things about the opening chapter of Death Sentence, identifying Monty's facility at producing a Dostoevskian or Dickensian narrative that confronted existential angst at a societal level. But the truth is, I only said those things because I was being polite, because I was staggered by the sheer scale of genius and audacity of what Monty hath wrought. The truth is, I didn't yet understand the full scale of what Monty set out to do and was now quietly achieving. He hadn't equalled Dickens, he perfected Dickens.

Just to catch you up.

Long before anything even happens, as far as story goes, Death Sentence inducts us into a world riddled with the strangest STD ever. The G+ strain will end you life, should you contract it, and end it within six months. But the disease will also give you superpowers. Honest-to-goodness superpowers.

What proved so tantalizing about Death Sentence at first was the idea of Death Sentence itself. Think of it this way. It's AIDS with a giant payday. Which meant that Monty and Mike could (and in fact did) tackle the larger issue of a Doomed Generation.

The Doomed Generation was that generation (Gen Y?) that was born at just the right time to see the living memories of the sexual and hedonistic excesses of the late 60s and right through the 70s (think of the original punk scene) play out in their childhoods. Naturally the expectation of this Doomed Generation would be that a similarly ramped-up hedonism would hold sway when they themselves came into childhood's end. (Even if such hedonism would look more like Metallica and Guns 'N Roses than Led Zeppelin.) But of course, this was not to be. HIV pretty much saw to that, particularly to curtailing the sexual excesses.

By the mid- to late-'90s, when a Doomed Generation that witnessed first hand the death of Disco without being able to understand its implications came into majority, things were far more sedate. Self-restraint seemed to be the watchword of the day. Kurt Cobain seemed to direct us all to a deeper more spiritual kind of plenty.

On its surface, Death Sentence dealt with exactly that existential angst. How can we be formidable again? Be hedonistic vikings thrilling in the exuberance of lives lived to the fullest? But that Dickensian surface was exactly that, just the surface of it. In truth. What Death Sentence was more complex in a literary sense. Monty Nero was attempting to reconcile the politics of writing.

There are at least two grand political traditions that literature offers, Dear Reader. For the first, think of every writer you love and admire. Everyone from William Shakespeare to Victor Hugo to Yukio Mishima to Dickens himself. The lesson for the first political grand narrative is that history is the history of greatness as evidenced by great people. And all that's changed over the course of time has been that the greatness has gotten smaller (from a King invaded France to an orphan on the streets of London), and that the stage that is the world has gotten larger. But think of every other writer you adore and fear. Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Chandler, Mailer, Thompson (both Thompsons, in fact), Poe. The lesson from these writers is that everything always tends to psychological interiority. Towards the inner, the smaller, the self.

Dostoevsky's great insight was to bridge to the former by leveraging the latter. Nero's great insight was to reverse that process. To show how the personal only makes sense in light of the grander social and psychosocial landscape.

It's no surprise then, that what we see playing out in the pages of issue #4 is a kind of Sexual Akira. Otomo's Nobel-worthy 2,400-plus page saga about unbuilding a society that was founded on a lie, becomes the only meaningful way of describing exactly that hedonistic excess seen on the page. But beyond that. We get the meaningful story of Verity's quixotic Quest (capital cue) to resist the ravages of a flagging biology (we're all going to die, Verity realizes, but just, y'know, Verity's going to die first) by producing art that will last. And the most tantalizing twist yet? Right at the end of chapter four, that artwork takes the form of biology.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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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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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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