Peripatetic Postcards

Catch-22, Blog Style

I had an interesting exchange the other day, the fallout from publication of the most recent installment of ReDotPop. The substance of the dispute is less important than the fact that there was a dispute at all. And why? Because at root was a basic assumption by a couple of readers who responded in the vein that I was a particular (kind of) person: one they thought I must be based on the words that they read on the screen. The only thing is that I really wasn't that person they were making me out to be (even though I had truly employed those words that led them to that viewpoint). They read the column, took my words at face value, ran with it, got (justifiably exercised) -- and there we had it: the makings of a first class verbal joust, an ideational brouhaha, a comedy of erroneous supposition.

It led to a Catch-22, of sorts, which I will explain below. Nothing real profound, as Catch-22s go; rather, a sort of low-grade writer's dilemma. But, at a more important level of concern: a puzzle in (constructing and defending) identity.

But for now -- here's the thing: for these readers, how would they ever know that I wasn't the person that the words suggested? How could they? After all, I had invoked those words from which the inferences derived. Constructed and published those sentences my own self, under my own banner. Shouldn't I be accountable for what appeared after I pressed the "Submit" button?

Didn't my words seem to suggest a certain flippancy regarding weighty matters, a certain willingness on my part to excuse past villainous behavior perpetrated by heinous others?

So, unless these readers had followed my ouevre all these years -- on this blog, in my columns, on my web page -- which told a very different story about my values and standards -- unless they had really tracked my identity, could one really blame them for assuming the words they read to be a full summary of the inner me?

And would we expect anyone to "track another's identity"? In this 24-7 world? Who has time to stop and engage in careful cogitation? Who has the luxury to engage in such careful analysis? All that precise reading, the comparison of columns, the assessment of blog posts and web pages. That would all be rather tedious (and a little bit scary were someone to actually follow through) . . . now wouldn't it?

But, the thing is -- and the reason that I am penning this brief note -- unless they did really get into my oeuvre, unless they really took note of my position on (in the debate that eventuated, political morality such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the Nazi exterminations at Auschwitz, and the firebombing at Dresden, and the Japanese treatment of Chinese in Manchuria and Nanjing), then how could they ever know? Because I actually have taken very strong positions on these events before and my accusers apparently had no clue.

And, so here we were delivered: me wondering: "if they didn't know, then how could they really, fairly, ever comment on my alleged flaws?" Who the hell are they to inveigh against my (alleged) blithe flippancy about former antagonistic nations who refused to "get over it" and reconcile?

Well, the answer is: they actually could have, but didn't . . . and so they shouldn't have tried.

So, here's the next thing: is that truly their fault? Are they to be held accountable for not knowing when there is a public record -- even if that public record is extensive and clear and rather profound -- and relatively easily accessible in a variety of media produced over the course of many years? Who is responsible for making sure that readers and writers are on the same wave-length; that readers don't misapprehend what writers intend in our new age of constant ideational production, and that writers are unfairly castigated for errors in reception and interpretation? Well . . . the writers, one would guess.

These are our productions, after all.

But this leads in two different directions at once.

First of all, in this age where blogs and on-line columns have spaces for comment, we are all writers. Those who read, also write, and, hence, they are also responsible for knowing prior to speaking, of reading after reading, of researching before commenting.

Secondly, as for primary (rather than the derivative) writers, does this mean that they are responsible for continually massaging and maintaining and crafting and nurturing their identities in public (so that the derivative writers keep that at the fore prior to their acts of commentary)? Is it really incumbent on us to enumerate . . . every . . . little . . . thing? Every . . . singular . . . point . . . Every time? Do we have to hyperlink to every possible reference, every subterranean pillar in the edifice of self that might possibly bear on today's thought? Without clarifying where we stand each time we pen a comment or a column or a blurb, we leave ourselves open to attack (fair or otherwise, justified or not). But to be tied to constantly reaffirming identity, to clarifying deep-self each outing, is to mire oneself in chains of text that no one has the time or patience to read -- particularly if they are return customers.

"I know that already," they impatiently burn. "My God, this dude just loooooooooooooovveeeessss himself, repeating this shit over and over."

"Yeah, reading the same stuff over and over gets pretty stale."

"You know, I've given him enough of a chance. He is simply not a very adroit communicator."

Which leaves primary writers in a sort of Catch-22. If we fail to do the prior referencing, the laying in of the precursive groundwork, then we risk getting assailed by the one person who hasn't read those prefacing remarks, the foundational principles, the establishing terms, at any time prior. And, following the assault, the inevitable loss of audience. But, by contrast, in trying to retain that audience by offering up all the necessary background, that leaves us open to assault as repetitious (and worse: heavy-handed, obvious, facile) -- hence risking the loss of audience.

Such a rhetorical Mobius strip is probably irreparable. But, for blog-writers, faced down by writer-critics who assert: "You Are Who I Think Your Words Say You Are," we find ourselves in a position of circling the wagons against the idea of circling the wagons. Rather than cover up in the face of (unfair) critical assault, the writer simply has to rejoin: "I am not going to spend every second defining myself -- telling you who you ought to think I am just so that you can perfectly decode every word." That is the reader's job. To get it right. To read well, to think deeply, to research thoroughly.

From that stance it is reasonable to offer the salvo: "I know who I am and if you aren't completely sure, read a little while longer, before weighing in."

But, in a 24-7 world, with derivative writers nipping at our heels, and a Catch-22 waiting to tie us in knots no matter which way we choose to go, it might be simplest just to conclude: "as for any misunderstanding that might happen to result after you've finished this piece, well . . . life moves on. Maybe we'll get it right next time."


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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