Reviews

Smallville

Todd R. Ramlow

Lex's desire for all things Clark turned increasingly fraught and increasingly intimate this season, often bordering on the homoerotic.


Smallville

Airtime: Wednesdays, 8pm ET
Cast: Tom Welling, Kristin Kreuk, Michael Rosenbaum, Allison Mack, John Glover, John Schneider, Annette O'Toole
Network: WB
Amazon

Before the first commercial break in the Season Four finale of Smallville, Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) becomes a killer. (During a tussle, she accidentally stabs bad girl Genevieve [Jane Seymour] through the heart with an ancient Kryptonian stone.) It's a typical go-go opening for Smallville, but this time the pace is maintained throughout the episode. By the end, Smallville is pelted by a meteor shower much like the one that first brought Clark (Tom Welling) to earth, Lana discovers an alien vessel, and Clark is mysteriously transported to a frozen wasteland that looks suspiciously like the DC Comics location for Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

The series of events leading up to Lana's crime is quite complicated: Lana learns she is the descendant of Isabel (uncredited in her only solo flashback, otherwise played by Kreuk), a Middle Ages witch burned at the stake by Genevieve's ancestors. Isabel has marked Lana as the vessel through which she will get her payback. And Genevieve, Isabel, and the Luthors -- Lex (Michael Rosenbaum)and his father Lionel (John Glover) -- are all caught up in a search for three stones that impart great power, and are somehow connected to Clark and Krypton.

This detailed and complex plot unfolds slowly, presuming an intelligent audience and saving the show when individual episodes fall short. It also helps to complicate the Superman mythology, and finally gives Lana something to do other than weep and be beaten up by her association with Clark Kent (which she was frequently in previous seasons): she kicked ass often this season, whether possessed by the spirit of Isabel or not.

Other complications of Superman lore on Smallville revitalize the superhero and add much needed ethical depth to his Boy Scout image. In particular is the re-imagined relationship between Clark and Lex. Rather than immediately and always his arch-nemesis, on Smallville, Lex is one of Clark's best friends, even if Lex does obsess over Clark's secret. He also envies Clark's "normal" family, high school popularity, and ongoing (if vexed) romance with Lana.

This desire for all things Clark turned increasingly fraught and increasingly intimate this season, often bordering on the homoerotic. This comes to a head in "Commencement," with Lex's vow to Lana that she means more to him than she "could ever know." As Eve Sedgwick has shown (in Between Men), the triangulation of male-male desire is never free of eroticism, and it's a small step from Lex's wanting to be Clark to wanting to have him. The many secrets surrounding the boys' differing desires and understanding of their relationship makes the whole thing seem awfully closety.

Lies are all part of the game, for the Kents as much as the Luthors. This is Smallville's other major complication of Superman mythology. Clark can just as often act out of his own selfishness as Lex can act out of compassion. Neither is simply good or evil (though Season Four moved to solidify these positions, unfortunately), and everyone makes mistakes that can have disastrous consequences. These struggles with selfishness, responsibility, and action are played out generationally as well, in the multiple father-son conflicts foregrounded throughout the show, especially this year.

Here Jonathan Kent (John Schneider) is no simpleton farmer, and Jor-El (voiced by Terence Stamp) is hardly all-knowing and beneficent. In fact, Jonathan can be as manipulative as Lex or Lionel, and Jor-El comes off as some sort of totalitarian monster. From the messages Clark receives, it appears Jor-El intended Clark/Kal-El to come to rule over earth, not be its protector. This complex of intention, destiny, and power causes Clark all kinds of consternation.

The show's re-imagining, however, is probably remarkable only to those with a pretty deep knowledge of the DC franchise. The likely draw for most of Smallville's audience is its depiction of teen-life, more "realistic" than non-sci-fi shows like One Tree Hill or The O.C.. Like Buffy before it, Smallville sets real-life youth concerns against a supernatural backdrop and avoids being preachy or sentimental.

This season, the episodes "Unsafe" and "Pariah" feature the return of Alicia (Sarah Carter), a troubled girl with powers as estimable as Clark's. Hospitalized in Season Three, she comes back "cured" and trying to woo Clark. In "Unsafe," she tricks him into putting on a red-kryptonite ring, which has a narcotic effect. They shag all over the place, run off to Vegas, and get hitched. The anti-drug message should be obvious, but when Clark returns to himself, he isn't all self-flagellating and remorseful. He regrets his hasty actions, but feels he has actually found someone in Alicia with whom he can be open. Their connection is addressed more directly in "Pariah," as Clark and Alicia agonize over the cost of being "different." It's the quintessential teen anxiety, nuanced here without being patronizing.

By far the most poignant teen-issue episode this season was "Forever," in which mostly average student Brendan (Steven Grayhm) -- except for his meteor-rock superpowers -- is fearful of the impending end of high school. He recreates Smallville High in an abandoned factory, and kidnaps the more popular kids, hoping to put off what comes next. Not quite adults, definitely not children, and expected to make major decisions on their own, teens certainly experience similar anxieties and wish, however briefly, that things could remain the same forever. Though Clark, Lois Lane (Erica Durance), and Chloe Sullivan (Allison Mack) save the other kidnapped students, Chloe (the overachieving editor of the school newspaper eager to go off to Metropolis University and start her adult life) admits to the appeal of Brendan's desire for sameness.

It's appropriate that "Forever" came just before the season finale, "Commencement." Like its central characters, Smallville finds itself in a transition that has been the death of many a teen-oriented television show (90210, Saved By the Bell). But Smallville's dedication to depicting a personally and ethically complicated world for Clark, Lois, Lana, and Chloe is good insurance that it will continue to challenge presumptions about young people's lives and decisions, as they move into the even more confusing world outside of Smallville High.

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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