The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: July, 2013

Can: Tago Mago

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Written By Mr. Harold Zo

Dear Fans,

Our thirty-five city tour of India has been a blast. That may have been an unfortunate choice of words to use about our performance in the Jaipur fireworks warehouse, but the less told of that night the better. Other than that incident and some minor larceny from our touring van while we were snarled in traffic in New Delhi (one of our roadies was hogtied and stuffed into a suitcase but later called and said he was fine so we saved some money on bribes), it has gone swimmingly. The unfortunate thing about touring as a mid-profile music act is that your priorities are publicity and profit. Lingering becomes a crime against your career, because even though you have to consider your context and know something about the crowd you’ll be playing to, that’s the extent of your interaction with a place before you have to pack up and move on. It’s all a mite too utilitarian for the band and me, which is why we need frequent balms for the pressures of the road. One of my favourite healing agents is the fortieth anniversary reissue of German band Can’s 1971 double-album Tago Mago. 

As one of the leading members of a genre called “Krautrock,” Can holds a peculiar place in popular music history. While they called themselves progressive and are counted by most as being a progressive rock band, their relationship to rock music is far more tangential than British bands like Yes or even King Crimson. Though they certainly share the latter’s cold-blooded discipline and commitment to crafting jewel-precise musical statements over showmanship or theatricality, their priorities were, if anything, even more radical. While British prog bands were obsessed with claiming cultural acceptability for rock music by trying to inscribe its youthful spirit into sophisticated Romantic structures, Can, along with many others in the Krautrock genre, embraced the electronic innovations and more inhuman structural experimentation of modern composers. Can’s group members were all affiliated with non-rock traditions and all had a total ignorance of rock music, so their music’s connection to the form is even more tenuous than most British prog. This means that German bands, including Can, escaped most of the popular notice and, later, critical disdain that came to crust around progressive rock after the mass market for experimental music collapsed in the mid to late 70s.

On Tago Mago Can featured Damo Suzuki on vocals, Michael Karoli on guitar, Holger Czukay on bass (and more), Jaki Liebezeit on drums, and Irmin Schmidt on vocals. Look at them a certain way, and they might have looked, complete with their long hair and outré fashions, like rock musicians. While they were close enough to that archetype to eventually have a profound impact on popular music, those men did not at any point compose anything that could be labeled a rock group. Czukay, who also basically invented sampling and served as the band’s engineer, and Schmidt had studied under progressive composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, an example of whose work can be heard below. Czukay was also a professional music teacher, and Karoli one of his pupils who had also been involved in gypsy music. Drummer Jaki Liebezeit had a background playing rhythm for various jazz groups. This eclectic gathering, synthesis, and sharpening of sharply different musical sensibilities helped lend an avant-garde edge to the group’s compositions.

Each of Tago Mago’s seven pieces is constructed around a mechanistic groove laid down by the rhythm section and often accentuated with piercing guitar work. Damo Suzuki, who has been called a “stone age” vocalist, sings disconsolate lyrics while the sonic landscapes rise and fracture around him, often pushing his voice into a shout. Mostly singing in English, he also sings a verse in Japanese on “Oh Yeah.” That title indicates the usual level of lyrical intrigue on the album. Vocals are always either chants, as in the anxiety-ridden ode to nuclear devastation entitled “Mushroom,” where Suzuki ends the song by simply shouting that he is “dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.” Other times the words invoke surreal imagery, as on “Halleluwah,” but their value mainly derives from their sound, the way they nestle into the prickly mass of sound around them. Still, while poring over lyrics sheets like a Kabbalist mystic might earn you some pleasures with other groups, it would be like sticking your face so close to a Hieronymous Bosch painting that you think it’s just a portrait of some birds. Nice, and all, but not what you were all hyped up for.

Can’s lyrics are largely expendable, or at least the content of the words is. Confronted with the wordless, frenzied sonic collage that is “Aumgn,” I marvel at the inadequacy of written language to describe it. Constructed through sampling and splicing, this nearly 18-minute long track is Can colouring entirely outside the lines. While other tracks, like opener “Paperhouse,” have a semblance of structure, “Aumgn” breaks open musical structure so that all we have left is an intriguing, vital mass of sound. It’s still an enthralling experience, and a liberating one for this rock guitarist. You can’t pin down blocked-out movements, but the song still manages to generate energy and evoke a powerful response through its myriads angular twists. Its climax is an almost volcanic percussive pulse, sounding like a descending scream, worthy of awed terror as much as admiration for the technique and discipline of the group that produced it. Tago Mago always prefers to batter the listener rather than coddle, bring down the thunder and wrath instead of communicating through elegant or mannered gestures. Its mechanical rhythms never sound boring because despite their regularity they never lack a spontaneous energy. Can’s members are masters of blowing your mind without ruining the aftermath by trying to continually top themselves. They just make another hard left turn and expect your full cooperation.

Editor’s Note: A Night at the Metro

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Something astonishing happened last night, though I doubt anyone noticed. Severe pain, mainly in the lower abdomen but occasionally stabbing through my lower back, left me writhing on the floor. Nothing amazing about this, since millions of people suffer far greater suffering for extensive periods of time. Nor was my body’s immediate response anything special. Physical damage left me in a state of mild delirium. That’s insignificant in the face of the scale of the horrors I read about every day, whether they be past, ongoing, or still to come.

What was astonishing and historically remarkable was what happened next. I called up a relative of mine on a cellular phone, who proceeded to pick me up in an air conditioned car and drive me to Metro Health, a hospital in Wyoming, Michigan.  There, I was admitted, triaged, and whisked to a treatment room within an hour. Every room was outfitted with precise electronic instruments, the hospital had a readily-available supply of IV-administered painkillers and nausea suppressants, and I was laid down in a comfortable bed. I was even given a blanket that had been pre-warmed in an oven. The doctor administered a strong dose of antibiotics once the results of a CT scan confirmed that the source of my pain was a urinary tract infection. I chatted amiably through the whole experience, feeling not fear but a sense of relief and levity. A urinary tract infection was nothing. Why, I wouldn’t even have to be cut open! A daily regimen of narcotic pain medication and antibiotics–scrupulously consumed until I had nothing but an empty bottle–would put me back in good health within a mere ten days. At this moment, I am feeling only a small twinge of abdominal pressure and feel quite content basking in the cloud-filtered sunlight of my grandparents’ sun/puzzle room.

That is the story so far.  I have, however, excluded one small detail that has captured my attention and forced me to reflect. When I called my uncle at his house a mere ~ten minutes distant, he had only just arrived at his house, having been recreating in a church-operated campground for the past few days. During and after my stint in the hospital, he referred to this as “God’s timing.” Perhaps this is so. I have no real stake in whether it is or not, though I have my doubts. If it truly is “God’s timing” that spared me a longer wait to get to the hospital, however, my specific position in history is every bit as much a product of divine intervention. I can scarcely imagine the cosmic chain of historical happenings that had to work in such a way so that I have made it to twenty years old, much less survived what we now think of as a “minor” infection. Two hundred years ago, I might be dead or debilitated. If I weren’t in a middle class white family, living so near a hospital, I have no idea what might have happened. Every contingent aspect of my life, including the fact of my life’s existence, rests on an unstable, even chaotic string of events. I don’t feel guilty for living, even though many others around the world and in history have certainly died from my same condition. Instead, I am grateful and humbled. All the resource exploitation, systematic organization, and scientific research that went into the single act of providing my health care–I didn’t even stay overnight or need surgery!–stuns me into silence.

This brings me to, of all things, a thought on capitalism. Capitalism, being predicated on a fantasy of infinite growth on a materially limited planet, will either be put to death or bring the human race to extinction. Our constant pursuit of a “better” future can only lead, in a great ironic U-turn, to an eventual oblivion. And yet I owe my life to that same misguided, unrestrained, and callous exploitation of a planet and other human beings we assumed could be abused and absorbed forever. Soon, the entire human race, with me included, will need to fundamentally realign our relationship to the planet, including all of its life. For now, I struggle in the tension of realizing that my benefits almost certainly derive from some horrific injustice or another. Perhaps the true cost of my survival here, and my thriving, is this continual spur to challenge, correct, and rethink the world around me, especially those parts I take most for granted.

Critical Surgery: PopMatters, Prog, and Genesis – A Music Review Dissection

I’ve fallen ill this weekend, so I would like to direct my readers to this excellent smack down.

Critical Hit!!

In my old blog, I wrote about my qualms with PopMatters as a criticism site, and while going through my old writing, I feel I must revisit this issue with a sharper critical edge than what I previously had before. Last time I remained positive and recommended changes towards a more holistic method of music criticism. This time, I bring out the claws. I want to rectify this poor piece or criticism and analyze its rhetoric.

What follows is a microscopic dissection of an older review of a Genesis: 1976-1982 box set by a music reviewer of the site. What I find primarily deeply problematic is the author’s approach to prog rock, which is entirely uncharitable, among other comments that will arise as I go through the review. Not everything in this review is bad or inaccurate, and I won’t cover *everything* the author, Tim O’Neil, writes, but I will…

View original post 5,041 more words

輪るピングドラム (Mawaru Penguindrum)

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What’s odd is that I have traveled to India in an effort to reconnect to some memory that I left long ago. When this tiger gained human intelligence, he made a decisive break with the world of nature. It is not a total or uncomplicated break, as I am, from the tinge of my fur to the centre of my marrow, still a feline. More to the point, I still inspire a primal fear in all the people I meet. Airport security is unforgiving at best, and food vendors and train conductors tend to tense up and lose their charity when a six-foot-long striped cat is trying to get some service. All this trouble I have endured is all for the sake of my own selfish reasons. The people here are a blur. To be honest, most people travel to see rocks and water, artfully arranged steel towers, oil paintings and abstract sculpture, historical sites. Dead things. Nonliving things. Tourists put their hosts in the awkward position of being parasites, obstacles and poorly-paid gatekeepers designed to drain as much money out of visitors as they walk from one dead thing to the next. They may as well be automated toll booths. The whole of France would be nothing but a precisely automated moving walkway with automatic toll gates and a tendency to burst into violent riots.

Mawaru Penguindrum, referred to hereafter as Penguindrum, is a show about fate, sharing, and the [dis]connections people share. Our main characters move about Tokyo’s many wards in a sanitized elevated train system, navigating a maze of abstract inhabitants. All of them look alike. None were chosen by the show’s creators to be intriguing to us. We know nothing of them and they, protected by the diegetic umbrella, are blissfully ignorant of us. They, like the teeming masses of India through which I push and barge, trying to reach the open jungles, are the inhuman ones. Of course, the Indian people I have met all have their own stories, personalities, families, networks of relations personal and economic and political. But to be honest neither you nor I care about any of them. Penguindrum makes the stylistic choice to forgo background characters, to render the vast majority of the humans who ever appear onscreen as nothing more than bathroom-sign figures. Stand-ins for real human beings. Before going any further, I should give a paragraph about how special this show is in the world of animation, and why people who are interested in television and especially in animated television as a medium should seek out anime whether it’s your cup of tea or not.

Animation is far from an artistically impoverished medium in the West. This is especially true in the world of television and shorts, where great talents seem to pop up in big lumps or clusters and produce a hot streak of great work before either diminishing into creators of loopy mediocrity (see Don Bluth and to a lesser extent Ralph Bakshi) or moving onto the hopefully greater prestige and financial reward of live-action work (see Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton). Today, American children’s television can claim a handful of artistic triumphs including Regular Show, Adventure Time, and Gravity Falls, all of which make the most of their medium while telling intelligent, visually engaging stories. I regret that the animated feature film landscape in the West is so starved of variety at the moment, but it’s a relatively healthy medium. With that written, there is a way in which the ghettoization of animation into either pure children’s fare or adult comedy deprives the West of a more nuanced and varied output from its animation industry.

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All of that to-do was for the purpose of setting up just how singular Penguindrum is, and how it would be impossible to imagine it being produced anywhere other than Japan. Truth be told, this is a weird show, and I try to keep the w-word out of my normal lexicon because weirdness has a more specific meaning for me than I suspect it does for most people. Weirdness is often bandied about as a synonym for artistic ambition, stylization, “personal” projects, and surrealism. There is no doubt that all of those attributes could also be constituent parts of a weird film or television show. They are not, however, the same as weirdness. Weirdness is a quality of work that is going its own way, that is relatively uninterested in the audience, that operates on a logic one could not find in the real world. Weirdness connotes a certain amount of mystery and the allure of the different. But weirdness is not comforting. It tends to be more alienating in a way that will make it either laughable, disquieting, or both.

To get at the distinction, let’s have an example. Adventure Time is frequently surreal, but rarely does it find itself in the realm of weirdness as I define it. The Graybles episodes certainly do, along with “Finn the Human,” but these are exceptions to the rule. This is mainly because most of its episodes have fairly standard plot structures and have a relatively kid-friendly edge. Similarly, the film Yellow Submarine is free-form in terms of plot, psychedelic, and surreal. But I wouldn’t call it weird in this more specific sense, because it’s ultimately comforting and leaves my view of the world mostly undisturbed, thank you very much.  Penguindrum is weird because it’s a serialized show that is continually upending itself, distancing itself from formula, reveling in plot complications, visual flourishes, and characters with everything to hide. It’s weird in a fully fleshed-out and subversive way, a show that deals in symbolism, dream logic, and magic with a subtle but mounting density that threatens to overwhelm but mostly enhances what is a truly unique twenty-four episodes of animation.

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The premise of the show revolves around a small family of young people, 16-year-olds Kanba (red hair) and Shouma (blue) as well as their younger sister Himari. Their apparently mostly happy situation is disturbed when Himari falls ill and dies. This is far from the end, however, as she is revived by the penguin-shaped headdress you see in the picture above. Through it, Himari channels the spirit of the Princess of the Crystal, a brash and demanding figure who promises to keep Himari alive if her two brothers can retrieve the Penguin Drum, an enigmatic object of unknown significance. Other characters become entangled in their mission, including fellow high school student Ringo, who is initially obsessed with her teacher/stalking victim Tabuki, and Masako, an incredibly wealthy CEO of the Natsume Corporation with some kind of connection to Kanba.

The show, from the first episode, is constantly ruminating on the interaction of fate and free will, as well as how the destinies of various characters intertwine. At around the midpoint of the show, the tone shifts, and what was previously a mostly lighthearted affair with some heavier undertones flips the script and becomes bleaker. This turn is handled well, as are most of the ever-accelerating twists that pile on toward the final episodes. Characterization is strong, and despite the narrative gymnastics the viewer is never wholly mired or driven to cry “what the hell?” Careful attention, as always, is beneficial to fully appreciating the show, but the relationships between the characters evolve and are depicted in believable ways, which means that you can ignore some of the denser mythological or thematic aspects of the story and still have a solid core. That said, you would be missing out on what makes the narrative of Penguindrum so fascinating. The show continually ramps up the stakes and complicates our understanding of the characters, and in the end neither exonerates its characters for their past misdeeds nor frees them from fate, but finds a way to affirm their humanity nonetheless. Might be worth another post or two later on.

I’ve already mentioned the visual abstraction of the show. I should mention that, despite the relative sterility of the environments here, there is also a good deal of fireworks in the vein of the dazzling Cybody sequences from Star Driver. When the show delves into thematic abstractions, it is visually fearless. Its narrative is pinned irrevocably to its often astonishing visuals, which lean heavily on pure whites and primary colours. It also perfectly manifests the alienation its characters experience in the world. I’ve found that the stories that work best for me in animation are either low-key and naturalistic (think Grave of the Fireflies or Watership Down) or visually expressionistic and daring. This is one of the latter, though the story’s setting in contemporary Tokyo means that it’s not always being visually strange or surreal. Rather, it has an unsettling and uncertain relationship to magic and fantasy, which is part of its appeal both visually and at a more contemplative level.

Penguindrum is emotionally affecting, intelligent, and weird, truly and gloriously weird. What makes it all work is that it is not at all clunky or alienating, at least a good majority of the time. Knit together by the strength of its characters, its narrative is able to endure all kinds of tweaks and outright revolutions without losing its spirit. Few shows evolve so much over their run as Penguindrum, and it represents a masterful addition to creator Kunihiko Ikuhara’s body of work.

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Oh, yes. There are three or four adorable penguins who get into all kinds of hijinks and personify the word “adorable.” Just in case you were wondering. One even reads dirty magazines all the time. ❤

Editor’s Note: Reflection on First (Park) Congregational UCC

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It has been four long months since my first and latest post on my and my fiancée’s ongoing hunt for a home church in Grand Rapids. The onslaught of academic papers and exams, a long interval being in Canada, and a period of transitioning back into Grand Rapids life have all conspired to keep me from church (s)hopping in the area. Now, I have finally gotten around to attending First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, the second congregation that caught my attention while doing research this past spring.

Before getting in too deep on my experience at what, for simplicity’s sake, I will be referring to as Park Church, I would like to give a brief update on my impressions of Fountain Street Church. After attending three additional times, I have not changed my overall positive appraisal of the church, especially the quality of its teaching and the conduct of its services. Its size has remained a barrier to deeper involvement, but that is an entirely surmountable problem. I also remain enchanted by its worship space, and its triumphalist grandeur creates a productive tension with the nondenominational sermons.

What distinguishes Park Church from FSC is its stronger attachments. First, it is by far the more conventionally Christian congregation, employing traditional liturgies, prayers, doxology, and hymnody. While FSC draws from a larger pool of religious and secular literature for its instruction and worship, this congregation sits more comfortably within a specifically Christian space. The building, which was constructed in 1869 and fitted with gorgeous Tiffany windows in the 1920s, is aesthetically consistent and beautiful. Those who commissioned its construction did not have Puritan iconoclasm as a core principle, despite the Congregationalist heritage of the church. I appreciate their commitment to beautifying the space without making anything gauche or grandiose. Luckily the church’s congregation, though apparently few in number, is blessed with musically gifted parishioners. Its organ remains in skilled hands–few circumstances are more depressing than a well-tended instrument suffering from disuse–and there were special interludes from two male vocal soloists with accompaniment. Park Church’s space is suited for worship and well-outfitted.

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The largest of the Tiffany stained-glass windows in Park Church.

At the inception of the service, the serving minister, associate pastor Rev. Kyle Carnes, gave a summation of the church’s identity, establishing it as an “open and affirming” congregational church within the United Church of Christ. “Open and affirming” refers to a designation within the UCC for congregations which, according to the denominational description, “make public covenant of welcome into their full life and ministry to persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.” I agree with the intent of this covenant, which is part of the reason Park Church attracted my fiancée and me in the first place. Ways in which the church seemed to comply with this requirement included gender-inclusive/gender neutral language for God in the doxology and gloria patri. I was heartened that traditional words were also included, though I opted for the gender neutral terms as I strive to do in ordinary speech.

While the traditional masculine Trinitarian formula for God lists “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the gender neutral description is “Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit,” whic is no less Scriptural or resonant with orthodox conceptions of God’s nature. I am a Unitarian myself, believing in a relational and social, but uni-personal, God, but it would do no good to be offended, and there is latitude within the formulation for more personal interpretation despite the communal nature of its pronouncement. After the gloria patri, we were treated to young Rev. Carnes’ sermon, a straightforward and effective teaching from the book of Luke. Specifically, he commented on a story in Luke 10 about Jesus visiting the house of Mary and Martha, two sisters with whom he apparently shared a close friendship. The story goes that Martha spent the time when he was visiting busily preparing food and fretting about her many tasks. Mary, meanwhile, conversed with and listened to their guest. Jesus chastises Martha for her anxieties, commending Mary for…well, the text is none too specific. The pastor took the passage and used it to comment on the distressing relationship many (North) Americans have with their work. Rev. Carnes was concise, comprehensible, and spirited, if perhaps overly inoffensive.

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The United Church of Christ’s logo. The UCC is an ecumenical and congregational Protestant denomination with a liberal orientation.

If there is anything disconcerting about Park Church it is the level of comfort I felt there. I cannot make premature judgments, but I would prefer to be challenged and confronted in a more critical way during a sermon. There is a driving need in me to be edified and reshaped, perhaps an unreasonable yearning for constant transformation. I try too hard most of the time. Tempering my expectations might have served me better in this instance. That said, all credit to the associate minister for his hard work. He will be away to rest for a few week starting next Sunday, and no doubt he has earned such a respite.

While there are still one or two churches in the area I would like to attend once before making a final decision, I believe this is a wonderful prospect. After the service, my fiancée and I were graciously welcomed by the parishioners, most of whom were elderly. There were two or three young families and some younger single people, which is also encouraging. Truth be told, I am not perturbed by the prospect of worshipping with congregants who are double or triple or quadruple my age. It would be renewing to have some more cross-generational relationships, though I also had quite a few of those in the Quaker meeting. In sum, this visit was productive and instilled me with a new hope and energy for my faith.

I would like to close this post with a poetic postlude. Alexius will appreciate this when he returns from India.

“The wisdom of their wise shall perish,

    and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.”¹

We step, cracks open underfoot

Trembling in shadow on the Way of Storms

We see, collective eye bent skyward,

The depth of space

And the strangeness of noontime walks

The entropy of knowledge

Notes:

1. Isaiah 29:14

A Serious Tiger

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After landing in Mumbai, we said our goodbyes. Zo Quivver and Quake embarked on one train, an express they hoped would carry them to fame, freedom, and riches. After their twenty-city tour of India, they hoped, they would have not only a band but a name. It was always about the name for them. Being known trumped being great. Who knows? Maybe they would settle for being known over being alive. But while the band attmepted to spread their fame as wide as possible, to leave footprints that no one in India could miss, I slinked onto a train headed for a nature preserve in the Western Ghats. People regarded me fearfully, and I had trouble getting through security checkpoints. The man who took my tickets nearly fainted with terror. People here haven’t heard of me, which is good, but the problem is that they seem to have a greater instinctual fear of me. Once I reach the rainforest–well, I have no idea what I’m going to do. Try to live in the wild for awhile, I suppose. But I cannot imagine where this idea found the strength to possess me so. From what obscure recess of my imagination did this passion for the rainforest spring? I am a white Bengal tiger, a curiosity even among my rare kind.

On the train ride, my mind wandered back to the Coen brothers’ 2009 film A Serious Man. This playfully nihilistic parable, a loose retelling of the Book of Job set in the Jewish suburbs of Minneapolis in the 1960s. Its characters wrestle with God’s intentions for their lives, and for the seemingly endless suffering they endure with no real promise of reward. This faithful endurance, an essential part of their ancient traditions, runs head on into the bounteous rewards offered by the consumeristic milieu of the United States at the time. Protagonist Arthur Gopnik, a nervous and overwhelmed but competent physics professor who is up for tenure, loses his wife, his health, his money, and the respect of his family, and desperately searches for the meaning of his deprivations. He consults all kinds of authorities, including supposedly wise rabbis, who offer him nothing but meaningless stories and trite metaphors. When the film ends with several ominous signs, including an oncoming tornado, one cannot help but think that the prophecies of the Old Testament have broken free of their written bonds and are wreaking havoc on this quiet suburb.

While the film offers no comforts, no promise of rewards and only a note that “helping others couldn’t hurt,” we are left on thin ice. Death is assured, life afterward is not. Suffering is assured, reward is not. The film’s universal tone is one of bleakness, and no matter how serious or full of gravitas and dignity you are, you are one car crash away from an unknown oblivion. Yet the film’s characters can attain a quiet dignity in their engagement with community and, yes, by helping others. Opposing the self-centred and desire-driven ethic of American consumerism this film offers something no less ultimately meaningless but at least momentarily meaningful. It is something more than the sum of our petty comforts and pleasures.

I am not religious. I am a tiger. At the same time, I am a tiger who has lived through heaven and hell and come out on the other side. Who knows, after such experiences, what I am anymore? And perhaps this quest is nothing more than me returning to India like a thief, a ghost, pillaging old memories searching for a shred of meaning, a slender thread I can hold onto in this life. I am a Serious Tiger, and maybe I’m hoping this journey will make me a trifle less serious.

Short Post: Krazy Kat

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Krazy Kat created by George Herriman

In the hierarchy of artistic media, newspaper comic strips typically come in near the bottom, sandwiched between fanfiction and van art. Comic strips drag on their sorry lives for decades, entertaining aging readers with repackaged nostalgia and gags that have long been stripped free of their reason to exist. Yet Krazy Kat, the favoured comic strip of such illustrious creators as e.e. cummings and Calvin and Hobbes author Bill Watterson, shines as an enduring testament to the power of newspaper comics to inspire. Poetic and freeform, it worked around a rigid central template–cat loves mouse, mouse hates cat, dog loves cat and hates mouse–that helped germinate a million brilliantly weird ideas. I want to keep my commentary short. Seek out collections and as many strips as you can. Krazy Kat is a unique series, affecting and strange for felines and humans alike.

Footprints in India

Harold Zo, Quivver, Quake, and I took a night flight out of Chicago. O’Hare connecting through London to Istanbul and finally on to Mumbai. Not many rock bands play Indian tours and I admire Zo Quivver & Quaker for testing their mettle in a rapidly developing new market for music. them for this. Their success in the land of Hungry Ghosts proved their tenacity, and their charisma meets every reasonable live show standard. I also realize not many tigers live long enough to feel nostalgic for their old territories.

I marvel at myself; how can a tiger who has gone through both heaven and hell still live in such a cold and disenchanted world? One might assume my dramatic rebirth into the world would have inaugurated a second naïveté. No doubt heaven has marked me, and hell bent me in its own image, yet not enough for others to notice. When I met my editor again for the first time after reappearing on the mortal plane, I expected his look to be different somehow. Since I had changed, I wanted his gaze to account for the difference, to let me know–like a mirror–that I was altered. But people always see you in the past. It takes a while for the body to register cuts and scars in a way others might comprehend.

(Over the PA: confused speech between the pilot and the controllers in languages I don’t understand. We’ve been waiting to leave the plane for an hour)

I have a feeling that I will look India in the face and find it equally disappointed. After all, has it not been more than ten years since we have met? I will be seeing India for what it once was, inspecting a ghost or save state it has long since forgotten. My coming will remind India–if it even feels the prick of my claws on its huge mass–of an awkward past, and no doubt it will try to sweep me aside. I don’t fear its rejection–I already feel it here on the plane, before we have even disembarked. India left its trace in my cells, because “India” to me is not merely a place or collection of places, scrawled words on a map, but over ten years ago. India and I are bound together in my very bones and in its Earth. We left our footprints on each other, and they have warped and shifted with time, rendering us barely recognizable to each other. I doubt that this is as romantic as it sounds. We are being squeezed in time, forever captive to busy hands of the clock. I fully expect to be depressed by this return.

(Looking out the window, it’s all bright airport lights and a hint of the unending city around us. Mr. Harold Zo is attempting to wrestle his guitar out from the overhead compartments, causing several minor head injuries around him.)

I return nonetheless, and I have difficulty explaining why. To learn something, I suppose, though there is nothing I will absorb from this trip I have not already realized somewhere in the attic space in this big lunking head of mine. Still, even though you might know what the dusty artifacts are in your crawl space, you still want to go and see them, to brush the cobwebs off and see what time has made of your old photographs, bicycle, chew toys, collars, plastic hammers, fake cars, what have you. It’s curiosity, then. Still, I have a feeling that this sojourn in India will not resolve nearly as neatly as I fear. After all, Mr. Harold Zo is on the trip, and even the most obsessive prognosticators abandon their crystal balls when he is around.

(Close.)

Cosmopolis: He’s Made of Money

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Cosmopolis is a film about rapid, difficult conversations mostly taking place in a car. Its narrative stakes are obscure, it lacks anything like a climax, and it features some of the most soulless and alienated characters I have seen. Yet compelling direction from Canadian vet David Cronenberg and its timely indictment of our finance-driven way of life make it a bleak, deconstructive comedy worth watching.

For this post, I would like to narrow my focus to what I think is the master theme of the film: the human body. Cronenberg, who has directed such fleshly pictures as The Fly, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and Crash (no, not that one), is obviously preoccupied with embodiment as a subject. For him, the body is a site of transformation, suffering, pleasure, and horror. But humans are not merely flesh but also psychology, and therefore a place where we can see “normative” boundaries between mind and body, inside and outside, and all sorts of others break down and blur. In Cosmopolis, Cronenberg investigates what I would call financial bodies, bodies that are abstracted, rationalized, and monetized into nonexistence or irrelevance.

We’ll be looking first at the body of our protagonist,  Eric Packer (perfectly embodied by Robert Pattinson). A financial wunderkind worth tens of billions of dollars, he initiates the plot of the film by setting out across New York City in search of a haircut. This day, however, the American President is also in town, as well as a mob of anarchist protesters and a so-called “credible threat” to Packer’s life. While this is going on, he is intentionally destroying his company and personal fortune through bad currency speculation. Much of the reasoning for this remains mysterious, though hints surface here and there. The film makes much of the tedium and arduousness of his slow advance through the city in a technically advanced and closely guarded stretch limousine, outwardly identical to all the others. While Packer is able to manage all aspects of his business using his networked car and its various computer interfaces, he must bodily move from one side of the city to another to get his haircut.

At the beginning of the film, Packer is also obsessed with network security, which is in contrast to his blithe disregard for his bodily safety. To him, it is the world of numbers, harmonious patterns, and financial transactions that is real. Money, which is merely an abstract metaphor for our desires, has displaced the real. As his so-called Chief of Theory explicates to him in one of the more baffling scenes, wealth in this world of finance exists only to replicate and grow itself, mirroring the cancers Packer is keen to avoid with his daily medical checkups. We see one of these checkups–a prostate exam–take place during a conversation between Packer and another of his advisers. Even during sex, he can think of nothing other than wealth or the minutia of securing it. This is why I argue that his “body,” the location of his desires, pleasures (if they even exist), and pain, resides not in his physical self but in the ethereal, almost Gnostic realm of investment. He and his company are one. At the beginning of the film, he is barely a person other than how a corporation is a “person.” He is a legal entity able to possess and transfer sums.

Over the course of the film, Packer undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts, breaking out of his chrysalis of currency and emerging as a Real person again. This is visually and thematically indicated in a number of ways. His concerns about his asymmetrical prostate reintroduce concerns for his shell of a body, since it presents an insecurity that cannot be accounted for in his clean and perfect calculus. The threat of aging hangs over his head, and he muses that he used to be “younger than everyone else” but is now confronting, in a small way, the spectre of death. His fall from wealth on a wild bet echoes the story of Icarus, and is reified in the graffiti stains that accumulate on his limousine, the journey from glistening skyscrapers to run-down working class neighbourhoods, and a surprise pie in the face from a would-be assassin. Currency is also identified with rats in an amusing early conversation, and it is both a symbol for the corruption of wealth and the rallying symbol for anarchists who try to reject the system but end up being a part of it.

At the end, faced with his own murder at the hands of a disgruntled former employee played by Paul Giamatti, he shoots himself in the hand. We see the blood run down, and he starts to cry and heave in real pain. Having forcibly stripped himself of the imaginary cushion of wealth, he now confronts the real world in all of its ugliness. He is revealed, at last, as a real human being. Though still intelligent and perceptive, he has also gained a measure of awareness. He sees through the false, self-important “righteousness” of Giamatti’s character, and confronts death. While he is never admirable or sympathetic, exactly, he has emerged as a human, and at the last shot in the film, where we do not know whether he is shot or not, that is the important part.

Pattinson’s performance and Cronenberg’s camera are able to tell us that, whatever despicable things Packer has done, he is no less human than those protesters. Something admirable about Cosmopolis is that, while it is clearly a film critiquing the suffocating excess of wealth and its displacement and marginalization of the poor, it  does not let the audience off with an easy moral or a tidy political solution. This is why, even though the dialogue in the film is abstract and didactic, the film still feels unresolved and tense throughout. It might be obvious about what it’s about, but it’s far more obtuse about what it thinks we should do about it. It’s a film that points to the smouldering wreckage of global consumer capitalism while admitting that we in the first world have our entire identity invested in it.

Editor’s Note: Yeezus Conversation

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Note: the following post has been adapted from a conversation between Jacqueline Ristola of criticalhit009. Most of the language has been left untouched, though it has been edited for clarity and grammar.

Jonathan Hielkema: I’m writing a very agitated blog post right now. Well, working on research for one.

Jacqueline Ristola: Oh?

JH: Yep. It’s about the terrible critical conversation around Kanye West in Christian media circles.

JR: Niiiiiice.

JH: Seriously. Think Christian (if you don’t remember, that’s the website run by the current Filmspotting co-host Josh Larsen) just posted probably the worst article I’ve read about it so far. Even worse than the Relevant review. Which is unusual, because Think Christian tends to be more professional than Relevant.

JR: Yeah, so I’ve gathered.

JH: I did some due diligence, some basic research into the author’s background. And he’s never prone to use language quite like this review. Even in reviews of non-Christian music, it’s usually pretty basic review language. I don’t know where he gets off using words like “demonic.” At least, using them the way he does.

JR: All of the criticism I’ve read so far has always made a distinction between the music and the lyrics.

JH: Exactly. There is never any consideration for how the lyrics are delivered or in what context. It’s all reduced to what the words are. They don’t even consider how the vocals might be distorted.

JR: All the music is dark and monstrous: how does that add commentary to the lyrics? That sort of thing.

JH: I hated this paragraph:

“Ironically [Kanye’s supposed belief that he can do anything because he’s rich] is the same hubristic lie that has emboldened twisted (and tragically successful) people to victimize others and aggrandize themselves since the dawn of time. The level of spiritual blindness, willful rebellion and arrogance West peddles is unique, though. Not just anyone can spew this level of pseudo-spiritual trash and convince millions that it’s caviar.”

JR: That last line…I haaaaated that line.

JH: If there’s one thing I remembered from my historical research and writing course, it was never to use phrases like “dawn of time.” Ever.

JR: Heheheh.

JH: While the Christ and Pop Culture and Relevant reviews were somewhat legit in terms of looking at cultural context and considering the work in some depth, this is almost entirely moral grandstanding. He’s putting himself in a superior position to the work. OK, so Kanye claims that he is a God, but what is he actually saying? And does it sound at all pleasant to be a god in his song?

JR: I agree. Part of this album’s release highlights the difficulty between art and artist. You are reviewing the art, not the artist. But the art wouldn’t exist without the artist, so where is the line drawn in terms of criticism?

JH: There isn’t a line, since life and art filter back and forth into each other. What you have is a zone.

JR: A gap, if you will?

JH: Yeah. That works. What happens is that you review an album in its cultural context. That includes the person who created it and their position in the culture. But it’s not that simple.

JR: And because of the history and nature of rap, people tend to focus solely on the rapper. In this case, so much of the contextual criticism is focused just on Kanye.

JH: Mm.

JR: If this were a band, [the reviews and treatment of the work] would be totally different.There likely wouldn’t be such a focus on separating music and lyrics. Because it’s already accepted the those are cohesive. But rap is still being treated differently in this regard.

JH: Exactly. And there’s little to no mention in any of these articles of Justin Vernon and the other collaborators. They have a significant impact on how we perceive the songs. You can’t just assume that all the songs are straightforwardly autobiographical. One real problem with the Think Christian article is that it says, “Oh, yes, once you listen to this you obviously get what Kanye’s world view is.”

JR: I was about to say, the Pitchfork article [where Kayne’s collaborators share their experiences working on the album,] is fascinating because it focuses on their voices and contributions, [which are substantial.]

JH: Exactly.

JR: [The Think Christian article] assumes Kayne’s voice [and worldview, if we can fully discover it] is static. It doesn’t seem to recognize that perspectives of an artist have the ability to evolve or change.

JH: Yeah. I think that you have to address context and personality. So, I think one effective way to address those questions is to think: “why is this person making music like this at this time?” Is he appealing to preexisting tastes? Challenging them? Reacting to personal problems? Addressing broader social questions?

JR: Exploring something new?

JH: Yeah. Another thing to remember is that music is always painstakingly created. It’s a selection and careful presentation that an artist wants. Especially in this case. Therefore it behooves a reviewer to consider that what we’re seeing in a work of art is an obstructed view. It’s a persona. I mean, in the Pitchfork article, the collaborators talk about how much was left on the cutting floor.

JR:Yeah

JH: Also, in the reviews, there’s never a recognition that the sickly or unsettled feelings they might have are intentional provocations. And then they never ask, “Oh, I feel awful. Why is that? Why would this guy want me to feel that way?” Or, if we don’t want to address intent as much. Or presume to know so much, ask “What is it that I find offensive, and what does that say about my experience?”

JR: I suspect the divide between music and lyrics is something deeply entrenched in the Christian world. Part of that comes from the awful mass that is CCM, which just appropriates music of the time, but [slaps] Christian lyrics on to make the music ok. In CCM [and Christian response to music in general,] there is a clear divide between music and lyrics

JH: Oooh. You’re right.

JR: “Form and content” I suspect many CCM artists believe [to separate it], but such a clear divide DOES NOT EXIST. The kind of lyrics and the way you sing/speak them is also a means of form. Music is also content.

ccm

Yes, this exists.

JH: Mmhmm.

Jr: So, I think that permeates Christian criticism as well. Part of it is also it’s harder to object to music itself.

JH: Mmm.

JR: At least, there used to be outright denial of rock and roll.  Lest we forget that name is short for “rockin’ and rollin’ “, a euphemism for sex.

JH: Yup.

JR: And as Todd in the Shadows points out, rock is the go to form to talk about sex, whereas country music is all about marriage. [Ed. We could not recall which video he talked about this in, unfortunately.]

JH: When we talked with Stephen Deussner at FFM, [sexuality] came up in relation to Americana and CCM.

JR: Oooo. Care to expound upon that?

JH: Yes. So Deussner made the same point you just did–that rock music rhythms are sexual in nature–and said that that partially explains the reason why so many Christians are flocking to groups like Mumford. Because their music is essentially asexual as well as nostalgic for “the good ole days.” And full of uplift. It’s the same attraction Christians have to Coldplay, which is even less sexual than U2. Mumford, he said, was Coldplay without [much] electric instrumentation.

JR: Oooh man. Yeah, U2 ranks pretty low in terms of expressing sexuality.

JH:Passion, they get. Sex, not so much.

JR: More focus on layers of guitar than heavy beats, I would add as well.

JH: Cough Sigur Ros Cough

JR: Indeed.

JH: It makes so much sense now. Even if some Christians embrace secular music, the aversion to sexuality remains.

JR: I understand that when reviewing, that’s an easy way to get some headway into a work. Taking a smaller piece of a song, just the lyrics, let’s say, and analyzing them.

JH: Mmhmm.

JR: But the problem is that you can’t then present a review like that. You need to illustrate the cohesion (or lack thereof.) How it works as a whole.

JH: Precisely. I relished finding that one line from the Babel review by Thompson. “The songs explore the effects of sin on the individual and on relationships with language and an intensity that is consistent with the brokenness they uncover.” I mean, come on!

JR: Indeed.

JH: The comments section on that guy’s Yeezus review is…oooh. It makes me so mad. Because it illustrates how a poorly-thought-out review can hurt.

JR: People agreeing?

JH: Well, it’s obvious that some people, who might have given the record half a chance if the reviewer had been less of a jerk, used the review as an excuse to totally ignore the album.

JR: Mmmm

JH: Also, I was surprised by this, but it’s the first hip hop review ever posted on that site.

JR: Yeah. The album is certainly getting more attention because of the hyped release and the album title itself. If this did not do anything in regards to spirituality, it would not have been reviewed, I suspect. Also, I just had a revelation. This kind of lyrics/music divide is inherent in Cultural Discerner listening sessions. The only material you get is a lyrics sheet. You never get anything on what instruments are being used, you don’t see a music score, there is often really poor or no contextualization of the artist at all. So it makes sense why, in my year as a CD, there was a struggle to not focus so much on the lyrics, because that is what is implicitly preferred.

JH: Yeah, if your whole critical lens is organized around finding out what the artist’s “worldview” is, then you’re going to be focusing on words.

JR: I understand that finding a score would be impossible, and unhelpful anyway, because the majority of CDs have little or no musical training. Now, there are some things to counteract that, if the SAO would so wish to.

1. Really focus on contextualizing and explaining more about the artist. All of the CD listening sessions are close readings, which are valuable, but significantly limit one’s ability to understand an artist and their breadth of work. This means CDs have a responsibility to teach others about the artist. Which, if they are bringing in this artist’s work to talk about, they should be able to do that already.

JH: Correct. I always tried to provide as much context as possible in my sessions. Often just studying a whole genre and showing some examples.

JR: 2. Work to have more of a focus on what’s occurring in the music. Have the CDs write down their reactions to the music as it goes along, perhaps list the instruments being used and in what way. This goes back to my first point. For instance you could ask: Is the artist in an electronic phase? How is it significant that, for example, Sufjan Stevens used mostly electronic instruments on Age of Adz where his best-known work was mostly folk? So, if one did not know this, the intentions of using electronics wouldn’t be as clear (intentions of being what we can suspect the artist is trying to do at least, not know for sure.) I can feel, on much of the album, that the music is fragmented, and this helps reinforce the elements of broken relationships on the album. But one would not know of that change from just a close reading of the work.

My suggestions for improving a listening session would be to find ways to better follow and understand what is happening in the music. One particular change I would recommend would be to list all the instruments being used. Track the changes of what’s happening in the song as it progresses. Actively encourage CDs and other listening to do so. That’s about it for that critique of the music listening sessions. It’s really important that the music is emphasized as well, otherwise the CD work falls into the same trend of privileging lyrics, which leads to bad criticism and appreciation.

If Calvin is truly an institution that is “Always Reforming”, perhaps they might take my suggestions to heart. This makes me appreciate more and more the Spin female critic roundtable on the album. They don’t say anything revolutionary, but illustrate some appropriate, thoughtful responses. From the impression I got, they recognize the artistry involved, the complicated relationships with women, but overall appear to love the album. They have a better way of appreciating a work as a whole.

JH: I agree. This has gone well.

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