When Nature Fails Us

August 7, 2009

So there’s a new Spanish doll called Bebé Glotón – or Baby Glutton in English – that is designed to simulate breastfeeding for young girls with blossoming maternal instincts.  Here’s how it works: the child puts on a vest with two quaint little flowers where the nipples should be, holds the doll’s mouth to their chest and, in an expression of approval, the hunk of plastic produces “nursing sounds.”

Here’s a demo:

Now, I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with this, but a writer from the San Francisco Chronicle, my information source for this thing, made a curious and thought-provoking claim:  that the doll is “meant to impress upon kids that nursing is natural.”

There may be truth to this statement, but I find it problematic that an artificial object exist as an example of the inherent nature behind a thing or act.  Breast-feeding should feel natural, but alternative methods are slowly becoming “the normal way” to do it.

My last post briefly mentioned the documentary film The Business of Being Born, which centered around the distance between the modern woman and natural birth.  In both the cases of breastfeeding and childbirth, artificial methods have all but eliminated natural means, at least in this part of the world.  That our solution for the former seems to be recreating the act with a toy to socialize our kids into acceptance is telling of how dependent we are on witnessing a simulation to make sense  our own lives.

If our perceptions of the world depend on vicarious observation, consider what the youth is being exposed to today.  TV and the internet are quite literally raising children at this point – they offer moral codes, dating advice, and family outlines, in addition to maternal nursing.

Then of course there are popular role models.  With the sensationalism of celebrity vices, it is virtually unheard of to follow behind a hyped actor or musician without a trail of scandal at their heals.  Of course, no one is perfect, but some of our biggest stars that get the most media attention are the most fucked up (not coincidentally of course).  Young girls have especially unstable pop stars to look up to.

Three come to mind immediately:

1. Amy Winehouse, who, at 25, has overdosed at least twice since becoming an overnight sensation,

2. Rihanna, whose dangerously abusive relationship with celebrity boyfriend Chris Brown has manifested itself publicly in bruises and the desperate attempts from family and fans to elicit a break up, and

3.  Britney Spears, whose public meltdown is monumental in its media coverage.

All of these girls are young enough (25, 21, and 27) to not recall a life outside of television, and more specifically, MTV, which is largely responsible for their respective levels of fame.  Madonna, with music videos, created the blueprint for what a young starlet should be and these girls have all followed that outline with little deviation.  Before Madonna, there was Marilyn Monroe.  The cycle continues, only now the lives of young pop stars are so publicized its difficult to distinguish the personal from the professional anymore.  They don’t play characters, they are the characters, and viewing them as such, in some way, alleviates the guilt while at once continuing to inspire our sympathy.

But what does this all mean?  Why is it worth talking about?  When we rely too much on artificiality, such as dolls and television, we move further away from ourselves.  I think Joanna Newsom summed it up nicely when she said “never get so attached to a poem/ you’ll forget truth that lacks lyricism” (10 points to whomever can spot the irony there).

In the same way that Faye Dunaway’s character in the almost prophetic mid 70’s film Network was the first studio exec to have grown up with TV, so have young’ns today (including myself).  And the effects, perhaps, are a removal from the things that make us human (things like intuition, passion, fear, and sadness).

These observations are not designed as anti-technological, but as simple reminders that we should be more in command of who we are, and that begins with a little less focus on assimilating ourselves to pop culture and a little more focus on creating our own.

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Semi-Recent Docs That’ll Rock your Socks

July 13, 2009

So the top search engine term people use to find my blog?  You guessed it: “Tracy Chapman.”  Far and away.  You’d think tagging “Fergie” in every single post would account for at least 1/10 of my hits but that poor excuse for a feminine role model is out, Tracy’s apparently in, and I couldn’t be more confused.

In the past month or so I’ve been watching some great documentaries, many of which have been released in the past 5-10 years and are therefore still pretty relevant.  I’ve decided to share a handful of my more impressionable discoveries:

Lake of Fire (2006)

Director: Tony Kaye

An evenly weighed black and white documentary on the highly provocative topic of abortion in the US.  Director Tony Kaye (American History X) is phenomenal at complicating the issue rather than simplifying it – a skill the masters of pathos Michael Moore and Bill Maher would benefit in imitating.  The film also provides some disturbing imagery and uncomfortably personal accounts of patients undergoing the procedure.  It is refreshingly informative and rivetting without ever really feeling manipulative.

The Business of Being Born (2007)

Director: Abby Epstein

Here in America, anything outside of a hospital birth is not only rare, it is often unthinkable.  This film explores the alternative most women don’t seem to consider – childbirth through a midwife.  It delves into the often questionable historical practices of hospital births, including the use of untested drugs resulting in infant deformities and the favoring of doctor over the maternal patient.

C-sections, for example, are often unnecessary, but quick and convenient, and the standard position in which a mother lays in front of the doctor delivering the baby actually inhibits her ability to birth comfortably.  At home births tend to mean more bodily control on the mother’s part.  Contrast the documentary’s footage of a series of home births with the terrifying Hollywood standard of screaming women in labor experiencing the worst pain of their lives and you’ve got two completely different worlds.  I can’t recommend this one enough.

Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Director: Ari Folman

Waltz with Bashir?  But that’s just a cartoon!  Cartoons aren’t real!

First off – shut up.  This from what I can tell, is a first of its kind.  It takes real interviews with former soldiers of the Lebanese war in the 1980’s and re-enacts their stories with animation.  The style?  Something vaguely reminiscent of rotoscoping that is actually a mix of Adobe Flash and classic (hand drawn) animation.  The visuals are lovely, but above all, the stories are confounding.  Great commentary here about the nature of memory and the bizarre concept of young, unprepared human beings trying aimlessly to engage in war.  There are many reasons I can justifiably call this one of the best movies of the past decade.

So throw away your scratched and unloved Cars DVD and see something that will stimulate rather than numb your brain.

Tracy Chapman Tracy Chapman Tracy Chapman


Ranked: Top 10 Pixar Shorts

June 26, 2009

The most celebrated animated film studio in the world doesn’t really need any more recognition, but I’m gonna do it anyway.

10. Luxo Jr. (1986)

Director: John Lasseter

It is in the tradition of the medium to revel in the ability to make ordinary household objects do things people do.  Luxo Jr. is what it looks like – an early experiment in computer generated animation, one that hints at big things to come.  In case you were wondering, its also the source of Pixar’s over-zealous little lamp in their logo.

09. Red’s Dream (1989)

Director: John Lasseter

Red’s Dream is billed by Pixar as their first film to feature an “organic” character (the crudely rendered Lumpy the Clown).  But for me, what really stands out about this one is the idea of toys not simply being alive but also having consciousness, and that consciousness leading to a fear of obsolescence – an idea that would later come to inspire Tin Toy, and, of course, the Toy Story series.  Unlike those films, though, Red’s Dream leaves us with an uncharacteristically somber, even hopeless feeling.  This was a short that quietly made big leaps in terms of thematic exploration.

08. Lifted (2006)

Director: Gary Rydstrom

When we consider alien visitors, it is not uncommon to illustrate them as highly intelligent beings that seem to exclusively abduct incompetent Americans.  Lifted kind of turns the tables on that whole idea.  Interesting note:  Director and famed sound designer Gary Rydstrom apparently created the hapless alien’s control console with purposeful resemblance to a sound mixing board.  I suspect the likeness brought the idea of confused and aimless tinkering under the terrifying watchful eye of a supervisor closer to home.

07. Partly Cloudy (2009)

Director: Peter Sohn

Here we have a sweet tale about sticking with your friends, even if that betrays your better judgment.   The task of animating this was allegedly a difficult one – how does one bring life to big ball of moisture floating in the sky?  The final effect is, of course, stunning.  We’ve come to expect no less.

06. One Man Band (2005)

Director: Andrew Jimenez, Mark Andrews

I could give the standard Marxist reading for One Man Band (its a comment on the destructive nature of capitalism, whereby man is pitted against man simply for temporal monetary gain).  Yes, I could get into that, but I’ll spare you.  The movie is perhaps more notable for its painstaking detail in uniting sight and sound.  The music, in fact, is so integral to the narrative the two aspects were simultaneously developed.  The final product: a joy to the senses.

05. Tin Toy (1989)

Director: John Lasseter

Released a year after Red’s Dream, Tin Toy continued to build upon the idea of life as a toy.  This time around, its partnered with the indavertently cruel fickleness of a child owner.  As far as technical progress, Pixar continued to explore lifelike motion and expression in the short’s infant lead.  It is also said that Tinny the marching toy was originally intended to be a central character in Toy Story.  With a few alterations, that character became the forgettable Buzz Lightyear.

04. For the Birds (2000)

Director: Ralph Eggleston

One of the simplest of Pixar’s shorts, but beneficial from being so.  For the Birds is a satisfying and comical story about the odd-man-out getting his well deserved last laugh.

03. Presto (2008)

Director: Doug Sweetland

Presto, with its high energy and fluid execution, is a great example of the monumental leaps Pixar has made in the past 20+ years.  Here we have a return to a much more classic cartoon slapstick logic, where the gags are so amusing and fast paced we hardly get a moment to breath in its 5 minute duration.  Easily Pixar’s funniest.

02. Knick Knack (1989)

Director: John Lasseter

Pixar has a wonderful way of heightening our expectations just to throw us curve-balls.  They do it in terms of basic concepts and themes, but more importantly, they do it within the narrative.  Knick Knack is a good example of this in a short film.  After going through all the trouble of making his escape the Snowman finds he is once again trapped, albeit in a slightly different setting.  In under five minutes, we sympathize for the little guy, because his plight only occurs following the grandest attempts to better his situation.  Animation providing a metaphor for the everyday?  Pish posh!

01. Geri’s Game (1997)

Director: Jan Pinkava

Could it have been any other film, really?  Its groundbreaking in terms of realism and the perfect kind of simple concept for the medium of short film.  Pixar is exceptional in its refusal of the wide misconception that animation is only for the young.  In Geri we find an energetic old man who finds the world is at its richest when he retreats into his own imagination and battles the most worthy opponent of all.


Life and Death of Michael Jackson – A Personal Reflection

June 26, 2009

michael_jackson1

June 25, 2009 – The day Michael Jackson died.  Reflecting on this is an odd experience for me.  This man is a huge personal hero, one whose passion and innate ability to entertain is accentuated by his irrepressible eccentricities.  Most of the world loved him for his magnificent voice and groundbreaking body-talk – the “weird stuff” was something they had to look past to appreciate the pop royalty.  But myself, and many others I’m sure, reveled in how strange he was -we loved him largely BECAUSE he was  totally isolated and misunderstood by the rest of humankind.

This misfit mystique permeated in the countless montages reflecting on his career, often alongside similar dedications to former Angel Farrah Fawcett, 62, who also succumbed to death today following a long and very public battle with cancer.  Her life in 5 minute video eulogies was characterized by a loving and committed romantic relationship with partner Ryan O’Neal, her persevering spirit, and a likable public persona.  She seemed like a genuinely sweet human being.

This was quite a contrast to Jackson, whose personal life was often harshly indicted by a probing public (including the crippling allegations of child molestation, speculation of his cosmetic surgeries, and a questionable parenting style).  He became known also for his lavish spending, which had resulted in incredible debts  – a perplexing feat considering he is responsible for the highest selling musical album worldwide.  On top of all this, the poor guy’s privacy was a thing of the past at age 5.  He knew nothing of a life outside of international fame.

His life was most unfortunate – He had the innate talents and workmanship that meant he was destined for fame, but he showed signs of this so early on it tended to undermine basic childhood development.  Even at 50, he retained a widely misunderstood man-child persona.  For a culture so obsessed with youth, it was puzzlingly unkind to a full-grown man whose life was characterized by his desire to retreat to something simpler, who had romanticized the notion of childhood more than anyone else.

I will always hesitate in making the bold claim that a person is in a better place once they’ve died, even if, as I believe, that place is no where.  But in Jackson’s case, I’m not sure where I stand.  His debts were growing.  His health was, apparently, and according to his own family, not very good.  It seems the world was too much for him.  I want to believe that, for someone who had such a hard time fitting into this life, there is an eventual promise of peace.  He spent a good portion of his adult life building and hiding away in Neverland Ranch.  His desire to escape, to uncover this idealized eternity of youth to him must have sounded like something close to heaven.  The glorified “childhood experience” must have eluded Jackson.  Indeed, being the King of Pop inevitably complicates things.  But I’ll be damned if anyother pop star had so thoroughly earned such a title.

Here’s to hoping he’s found his Neverland.


5-10-15-20

June 13, 2009

Pitchfork’s semi-recent 5-10-15-20 feature is proving to strike a chord in the blogosphere.  The idea is simple:  recount the music you loved in five-year intervals of your life.  Its an excellent way to reflect, and get a better idea of the evolution of our personal tastes.  I think this is a great exercise for any music lover, and for this reason, I’ve decided to take a stab.

Age 5…

Land Before Time OST, James Horner

I just remember watching this movie, and being totally devastated by the sounds I was hearing.  When Littlefoot’s mother succumbs to death, and the Tree Star becomes his only artifact of her life, the strings and choir swell up and that’s the cue to let the tears start flowing.  I see the movie now and it still brings me back to that place.  Since then I’ve developed an intense love for Don Bluth’s films and James Horner remains one of my favorite film composers.

Age 10…

Tracy Chapman “Fast Car”

I had heard this song for the first time on the radio from the back seat of my mum’s car, and even then, I wondered what it was doing there.  It seemed so out of place alongside everything else.  So much more honest and sad.  I went years without knowing who it was, and when I finally find out, it was one of those rare exciting moments when you’re able to return to a very open and basic state.  I had uncovered a lost treasure.

Age 15…

Daniel Johnston’s Hi How Are You

Sample: “I Am A Baby (In My Universe)” mp3

When I was about 14 or 15 years old, I began my search for music that explored unfamiliar places, and I found a lot of stuff that would prove hugely influential later in my life.  Chief among the golden records I discovered were Nirvana’s Bleach and Incesticide, Pixies’ Doolittle, and Meat Puppets’ II.  But the one I remember most vividly, that had literally opened up an entirely new world for me is Danny J’s Hi How Are You.  Nothing, even still, has sounded so isolated, so lonely and delicate and absolutely true.  It wasn’t until then that I realized how deep into the soul a simple recording could plunge.

Age 20…

Beach Boy’s  Smile Sessions

Sample: “Heroes and Villains Suite” mp3

The Smile sessions are the holy grail of bootlegs.  In Wilson, we get a uniquely “American” story of a man who worked his way to the top, and inevitably endured a crushing defeat when his masterpiece was challenged by a world unkind to brilliance.  Pet Sounds had affected me in profound ways, but when I heard the rough sketches of Wilson’s rightful magnum opus, Smile,  it completely altered the way I viewed pop music.  Here was a man that, according to pop legend, undertook the greatest challenge of all – to top the Beatles.  Had Smile been finished in ’67, I have no doubt it would have changed the course of music history.  As it stands, it is, and will forever be, the great unfinished album of all time.

Here are a few other musical reflections I found.  Great stuff.

mog (really dig this one)

Premium Proletariat Expression

life is a playlist.


The New Golden Age of Animation

June 10, 2009

Up

The lovely big wigs at Disney, who’ve almost entirely homogenized animated film for the past 50 years, can once again reap the benefits of what is undoubtedly the industry’s smartest partnership of the past few decades.  Pixar’s Up, Disney’s saving grace in terms of commercial success and artistic innovation, proved to be a huge financial success, earning $68.1 million in the box office its opening weekend.  As of June 9, its domestic gross is a commendable $141.9 million.

The film continues Pixar’s tradition of exploring new narrative and thematic territory.  Between its devastating opening scenes and its jarring action sequences, it is undoubtedly the most poignant and emotionally exhaustive in the studio’s repertoire.

Since Toy Story, the first feature length composed using entirely Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) was released theatrically in 1995, Pixar have dominated in what some are professing is the new golden age of animation.

Wall-E

Wall-E

Last year, Wall-E set the standard with its daring script and painstaking attention to detail.  The remains of an unsustainable Earth are portrayed with arresting realism.  Everything, down to the dirt and rust on our wide-eyed artificial hero, appears tangible.

With Up, the rendering of the real-life has improved.  We see the intricate stitches and wrinkles of fabrics, the unkempt stubble on an old man’s face, and the incredible subtlety of shadows and lighting.  Never before has a computer animated film felt so full of life.

In terms of integrity, few commercially successful filmmakers present themselves as worthy contemporaries to Pixar’s animation team.

The most talked about is probably Hayao Miyazaki and his film company, Studio Ghibli (whose American distribution rights are controlled by none other than Disney).  Miyazaki’s introduction to the American mainstream, the wonderfully imaginative Spirited Away, was met with awe and enthusiasm in 2001.  In many ways he improved with 2004’s film adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel Howl’s Moving Castle.  Miyazaki’s latest, and purportedly his last, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, is scheduled for American theatrical release this August.

While Miyazaki is undoubtedly the most celebrated of Japan’s animated filmmakers, U.S. audiences have been notably entranced by the genre as a whole.  Mad House studios is another buzzworthy contributor, specificially the work of Satoshi Kon.  In 2001, he unleashed an animated drama of epic proportions, the brilliantly concieved Millennium Actress.  As good as anything Miyazaki has ever made, it tells the story of a woman whose life in the “golden era” film industry is characterized by an unclear distinction between reality and fiction.  While arguably Kon’s masterwork, it was his follow-up, the offbeat Tokyo Godfathers, that really got American audiences talking.

The Illusionist

The Illusionist

Other parts of the world are contributing their unique visions.  In 2003, French traditional animator Sylvain Chomet achieved minor international success with The Triplets of Belleville.  He also has an anticipated new feature length in the works, The Illusionist, which features an unfinished script from legendary french mime and filmmaker Jacques Tati.  The realized feature is scheduled for release this year.

Fellow French animator/director Marjane Satrapi offered another unique, and markedly more adult perspective in the medium with the autobiographical and critically lauded Persepolis in 2007.

There’s also been a market for animation of the stop motion variety, largely driven by the work of UK-based Aardman Studios (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run), and reaching a whole new level with Henry Selick’s magical Coraline, released in 3D this past February.

Despite high acclaim in film and animation circles, Pixar dwarfs these filmmakers in terms of monetary draw.  Dreamworks is the studio’s top commercial competitor.  Their Shrek series dominates the top 5 of the highest domestic grossing animated features of the past 30 years.  But when it comes to critical reception, the studio has mixed success.

That said, the influence of Pixar can not be understated.  And if their last 3 films are any indication, the mainstream moviegoer appears to be accepting a more grown up approach in animation – where things like death and personal loss are just as palpable as life and self actualization.  The possibilities in the field have not seemed so limitless since 1937.  Dare I say, things are looking up.


Out of the Loop 02: Esther Lee

March 11, 2009
Esther Lee

Esther Lee

The cover of this album warrants explaining. Let me begin…*ahem*:

As the story goes (allegedly, the details are unknown publicly), Esther Lee recorded Where Glory Began from her hospital bed while suffering from an undisclosed terminal illness. In her time of grieving, she recorded a collection of songs – a sort of final lament for a life lived and a therapeutic acceptance of the unknowable passage into death (When this happened we do not know – the closest I can find to an “official” release date is 1974.)

The subject matter, and mystery surrounding this record, means that we can fall into the back story regardless of its validity. All we know of Ms. Lee is this half hour of music, featuring, exclusively, her wonderfully delicate voice. It feels like finding the private recordings of a family member you were, by sheer will of time, unable to meet – a small artifact that contains the most intimate account of a life passed.

The first 10 minutes are intensely immersive. I am especially taken, even still, by “Dust on My Picture Frame” – her delivery sounds painfully restrained.  The lyrics, tethered with regret and loss, convincingly sound like the meditations of a woman staring her own mortality in the face. You believe Esther, and if you listen closely between the gaps in her singing, you may even hear your heart breaking (if hearts actually broke, that is).

As the album progresses, though, things start turning kind of funny. It begins with the first name drop of the big man in the sky (you know the one), which seems to trigger what was apparently a suppressed urge Ms. Lee had for singing unrelenting, dehumanizing, and tone-shatteringly upbeat worship music. From track 5 onward, our initial impressions are betrayed in favor of elbow pushing suggestions that, especially in times of mortal certainty, we owe our lives to said big man. In the process, the hurt, torment, regret, and fear that we so irrevocably associate with dying are undermined completely.

This shift is not to say that the songs are illegitimate, or that Esther had not handpicked the tunes herself, but it does not settle well with me on many levels. The sequencing of tracks, firstly, is incredibly jarring. That it started sounding very remorseful and then shifted dramatically into more “optimistic” worship songs suggests that there may have been an agenda here, if not from Esther, than the people producing the material. There also appears to be moments in which the production value shifts (ie, the recording sounds less scratchy or there seems to be a pronounced echo effect on Esther’s voice.) This could possibly be post-recording techniques later added, but the discrepancy is undeniably suspicious.

It is possible the story is sound (I write about this record in hopes that it is), but with some of my past experiences with “underground” religious music (see Forrest McCullough ‘s Flight F-I-N-A-L and the New Creation’s Troubled), I would not put it past a select group of religious fanatics to pull a stunt like this, or worse, to exploit a woman who is in fact dying. Regardless, Where Glory Began is a mysterious little oddity that is worth the initial discovery, if only to carry on the mystery.

More information about this record – perhaps the most you can find on the net – is available on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog website, as well as the entire album in mp3 format.  Its guaranteed to kill the mood of any party (I know this from experience) so be sure to show your friends!