Reviews

Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City. by Joe Austin

Davin Heckman

Austin points out the two chief discourses through which residents and visitors find meaning in the city: The Naked City or the New Rome. The New Rome is the pinnacle of civilization, the city where dreams are fulfilled, fame is won, and riches earned. The Naked City, on the other hand, is the seedy metropolis of noir films, where life is cheap and virtue meaningless.


Taking the Train

Publisher: Columbia University Press
Subtitle: How Graffiti Art Became An Urban Crisis in New York City
Author: Joe Austin
Price: Cloth $49.50
Length: 400
Formats: Cloth $49.50
US publication date: 2002-02
Amazon
"A vandal is somebody who throws a brick through a window. An artist is somebody who paints a picture on that window. A great artist is somebody who paints a picture on the window and then throws a brick through it."
--A-One (a graffiti artist), quoted in New Yorker

Sometimes I sit by the tracks waiting for the trains to blow through this small town in Northwest Ohio, hoping to catch a glimpse of a city I left behind splashed in vibrant colors across the sides of a freight car. Feeling nostalgic for what was, in my childhood, the cryptic signs of a secret city -- "TVR," "the Aves," "Thumper," "El Sereno" -- letters which signified another world hidden beneath the sunshine and smiles of my happy childhood. Inside an alcove, outside of the bar where my father worked, I stood mystified by the words "Spider Temple," imagining chained bodies being devoured by tarantulas while men in black robes chanted by torchlight committing dark deeds in the temple of their overlord. I once pointed at a painting in the L.A. River, asking, "Mom, what does TVR mean?"

"That means Toonerville -- it's a gang. There used to be a show called Toonerville Trolley, and the people in the gang live near the train tracks, so they took the name Toonerville. The Aves, is short for the Avenues, which is another gang. When I was a little kid, I knew some of them. They were nice back then, it's not like that today." An impressive amount of information . . . more than I expected (I was only six or seven at the time) and it was the early 1980s, when the concern over youth gangs in Los Angeles was quickly becoming a full-blown moral panic. Drugs, shootings, and street gangs had the public looking for answers not unlike those described in Joe Austin's outstanding book Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City.

There is a world of difference between what was going on in Los Angeles and what went on in New York from the 1970s through the 1990s, but the discourse was framed in much the same way: A great city on the verge of collapse versus a savage group of youthful predators. And although I sit waiting for the signs of this "decay" to whirl by on the train tracks, the signs are sanitized by distance and speed, obscuring their meaning and hiding the all too human stories behind them. Taking the Train aims to tell such a story.

Beginning with an interesting history of the Big Apple, Austin points out the two chief discourses through which residents and visitors find meaning in the city: The Naked City or the New Rome. The New Rome is the pinnacle of civilization, the city where dreams are fulfilled, fame is won, and riches earned. The Naked City, on the other hand, is the seedy metropolis of noir films, where life is cheap and virtue meaningless. It is these two themes which mobilize the battle for New York, with the powers that be pushing back the Naked City in order to save the New Rome. It is in this context that a New York teetering between two worlds gave birth to contemporary graffiti writing and its institutional response. Austin tracks a loose history of writing pieced from available sources and interviews, but without the certainty that is available to art forms that are sanctioned and legitimated by the institutions of mainstream society. As an underground movement, the origins may be hard to track, but as an official "menace" the response by authorities and media make writing's status as an urban crisis impossible to miss. Legislators looking for sensational solutions to the city's (and the subway system's) problems, turned to graffiti as its nemesis, claiming that graffiti (rather than the escalating violence or increasing number of train derailments) was the source of the citizen's unease in the ailing public transportation system. Using numerous interviews with the writers themselves, Austin traces the development of an art form against the backdrop of several "wars" being fought against it. The end result being an art culture that evolved as both a form of creative expression and as a strategy of resistance by which writers sought to consistently outwit efforts of the authorities to diffuse the crisis.

Similarly, Austin tracks the development of writing in the face of its provisional "acceptance" by the fine arts community during the 1980s, as well as the development of the "hip-hop" movement which seeks to unify writing with hip-hop music and dance as a unique and positive urban cultural milieu. But Austin avoids putting writing into the ready-made places for it to occupy in both the fine arts tradition and in the hip-hop community (although he does acknowledge many of the beneficial relationships to be had within these two worlds). Instead, he opts to stick to writing itself as culture, tracking the development of styles, techniques, and innovations within the community. Austin tracks the divergent trends in writing, one being to produce elaborately planned and detailed "masterpieces" and the other being to produce numerous "throw-ups" or hastily produced markers of identity. Similarly, he tracks the movement of writing from the outsides of subway trains to their insides; to the city walls, freight trains, and off the walls into the pages of numerous zines and media circulated around the world. Using brilliant bits of information offered by the writers he interviewed, Austin is able to paint a picture of the entire "prestige economy" which has developed around writing, creating reputations through one-man (or woman) guerilla public relations campaigns through which the writers gain recognition through volume, skill, audacity, or a combination of the three.

Beautifully written and a pleasure to read, Taking the Train is an amazing study of an underground youth culture and its evolution and growth in the face of numerous moral panics and urban crises. With the help of inspiring ethnographic work and a thorough sampling of the mass media, Austin is able to produce a sincere, thoughtful, and thought-provoking study of an unprecedented art phenomenon that has grown to establish its own rules and methods of prestige and circulation. By charting the writers' development of tactics in the face of an increasingly hostile media, public policy, and system of surveillance, Austin's work is an exemplary contribution to the study of popular culture and everyday life.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Much like the Duracell bunny, Life of Crime has no brain; it has no anima.


Life of Crime

Director: Daniel Schechter
Cast: Jennifer Anniston, John Hawkes, Tim Robbins, Isla Fisher
Distributor: Curzon World
Rated: 15
UK DVD release date: 2015-01-05

“Only a mediocre person is always at his best”, said English playwright W. Somerset Maugham. A quotation on the theme of mediocrity represents an ominous opening for any review, but as the credits roll to signal the conclusion of Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime, the phrase "mediocrity void of ambition" comes to mind.

With respects to Maugham’s words, perhaps it is not only a mediocre person who is always at his best, but also a mediocre film as well -- say, Life of Crime. One could waste her time on a kooky but dull tale of kidnapping and blackmail, or one could experience any number of films that aspire to a serve cinema by striving for excellence rather than simply playing it safe. To enjoy Life of Crime is to submit to ignorant bliss, and to the most adolescent desire of cinema: to entertain and expend time from one's life.

Surely, we should ask more of cinema as an active audience? Film can be simple entertainment whilst striving to escape mediocrity; by contrast, the objective of Life of Crime relies on its source material and cast to offer the allure of a palatable filmic encounter. in the end, this caper is best described as a lethargic piece of filmmaking.

If judged within context of films of a similar nature, Life of Crime is a competent piece of filmmaking. Here one must revise Maugham’s thoughts on mediocrity: just as a mediocre person is always at his best, so too is the cinema of mediocrity.

A consideration that has often occupied my thoughts is whether or not there is a need for filmmakers to set out to create a game changer. Is there anything wrong with telling a familiar story well? Of course, the answer all depends on one's point of view, but in an age where film history is, like Jennifer Aniston in Life of Crime, the wronged wife cheated on by her husband with his younger secretary, perhaps there is issue to be taken. Film is an interactive medium, whereby the spectator collaborates with the filmmaker. But the cinema we are being more readily exposed to in the present day are films which treat the audience as a latent object. These films, under whose description Life of Crime falls, attempt to offer nothing new other than to produce a new and worn flick full of stereotypical characters and actions so routine that one could be forgiven for thinking they can see into the future.

At least Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino infused their Elmore Leonard adaptations (Out of Sight and Jackie Brown, respectively) with a sense of enthusiasm; a visual energy that was apparent on the screen in those cases. Life of Crime makes an effort to entertain, although perhaps the exclusive emotion is to make us laugh, and perhaps sympathize with Jennifer Aniston’s ill-treated wife. The silliness is mostly centered on the ineptitude of the duo that blackmails Aniston's character: her husband's (Tim Robbins) ditzy mistress (Isla Fisher) and a white supremacist (Mark Boone Junior). At its heart, this is an indulgent plot that looks to absurdity to inject it with life. But when actors such as Tim Robbins and John Hawkes choose to go with the flow of their careers rather than seek out the kinds of characters who have afforded them the stature they have come to acquire, the mediocrity is difficult or impossible to escape for all involved.

Whilst one wastes their time on this plodding tale of kidnapping and blackmail, time could be more wisely spent experiencing the great cinematic works of filmmakers who were or are still servants to cinema. These films and the filmmakers define film as an art form of significant merit, which is capable of entertaining, but also touching our sensibilities and offering a way to engage with storytelling, ourselves and our world.

Here one can look to Andris Nelsons, the future music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who said, “Music is food for our souls. We need to feed our soul and through music, through art, you can do this.” When I describe Life of Crime as fast food, it is not intended as a criticism in a totalizing sense. It is simply to say that, on one level, film and art are things we consume; however, they can also feed our souls, nourish us and impact our understanding of ourselves and our world.

Life of Crime opens up the discourse of film versus entertainment; or, to borrow the more popular distinction, “film versus cinema.” As a consumer product designed to deliver satisfaction, Life of Crime is a well-made and well performed film. The cast all offer adequate performances within a construct that is technically adequate. But as Doctor Oatman tells Martin Blank a.k.a the hit man who killed the president of Paraguay with a fork, the Duracell bunny has "no brain, it's got no blood, it's got no anima!” Much like the Duracell bunny, Life of Crime has no brain; it has no anima. It is a momentary encounter to neither be re-watched nor remembered. It is stagnant filmmaking in which the art form dies a small death for the business and the spectator’s one simple desire: hollow entertainment.

No extras were included on the review disc.

4

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta


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It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

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Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

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