Crimes of the Clock: The Crooked Corridor of Timecrimes

The time-travel trope, if employed well, never seems to wear thin. Several of my favorite narratives — Donnie Darko (2001), Primer (2004), Source Code (2011), and The Shining Girls (2013), to name a few — all involve time travel to some extent. “Part of the fascination of time travel concerns the stark paradoxes that threaten as soon as travel into the past is considered,” writes theoretical physicist Paul Davies (2001). “Perhaps causal loops can be made self-consistent. Perhaps reality consists of multiple universes” (pp. 123-124). These thought experiments are rife with unanswered and unanswerable questions, which are the very stuff of great stories.

Time is a game
played beautifully
by children.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 79

Most recently, Project Almanac (2015) illustrates those paradoxes and their intrigue while still being a fairly mediocre movie, but it fails in spite of the time travel rather than because of it. 2009’s Triangle also loops time in a muddy and often confusing story. Time travel is such a huge cognitive load that it’s difficult to get right in a movie with much else going on and even harder to make feel real.

In contrast, Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes; 2007) capitalizes on its causal loops and suspenseful twists rather than wasting them. The film contains exactly four actors, and its action takes place over the course of about an hour and a half. In its handling of causality, Timecrimes is somewhere between Shane Carruth‘s Primer (2004) and the popular Back to the Future franchise of the 1980s, both of which feature extensive backwards time travel. Like Primer, which uses time travel as the pretext for the study of larger issues (Taubin, 2008), Timecrimes evokes themes of voyeurism and ethics in addition to its time-looping structure and the subsequent questions of causality. This is Spanish director/actor Nacho Vigalondo’s first non-comedic film and his sure-handed direction makes this condensed, pressure-cooker of a temporal thriller an imminently watchable and intriguing film.

One’s bearing
shapes one’s fate.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 121

Timecrimes tells the story of Héctor (played by Karra Elejalde), a lazy middle-aged man who has, with his beloved wife Clara, moved into a freshly built house in the rolling hills. After attempting to nap and receiving a strange phone call (he calls the number back, getting a machine with an outgoing message that says, “This is a restricted terminal. Leave your message or enter your access code”), Héctor is left lounging in his backyard, peeking in on the neighboring countryside with his binoculars. As Clara heads into town to buy groceries for the evening meal, Héctor catches a glimpse of a sultry scene-in-progress. Through his binoculars, he sees a half-naked young woman posed, poised, and undressing in a clearing in the woods. Upon closer inspection, fumbling through the woods as he goes, Héctor finds her naked and asleep. He attempts to awaken the helpless young woman, but is stabbed in the arm with scissors by a man in a ratty trench coat with pink bandages covering his head and face.

The event that sets the action in motion in this film is Héctor’s spotting the young woman in the woods. There’s no reason evident for his initial scoping of the landscape through his binoculars. We can only assume that he’s driven by the desire to see what surrounds his new environs. Once the young woman comes into view, his purpose changes. Héctor’s motivation shifts from the desire to see to the desire to see more. His intentions may have been pure at the onset, but upon seeing glimpses of the young woman’s naked body, Héctor becomes a voyeur. Voyeurism is the act of watching the activities of others without their knowledge (Hayward, 1996), and while cinema is inherently sexual via voyeurism (Metz, 1994), Timecrimes adds actual sexual voyeurism to its plot.

Mulvey (1986) sees the cinema system and its products as inherently patriarchal. Film teaches us to see as men see, to see women as men see women. Timecrimes fits Mulvey’s patriarchal schema not only by making us see literally as Héctor does, but also by making the naked female body the object of Héctor’s viewing. The young woman in the film, as in most films according to Mulvey (1986),

stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning (p. 199).

Indeed, the naked young woman in the woods in Timecrimes is the pivotal signifier, sending Héctor into the maelstrom of events that make up the rest of the film.

Sound thinking
is to listen well and choose
one course of action.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 110

“By virtue of its handling of space and time,” Bordwell (1986) writes, “classical narration makes the fabula (story) world an internally consistent construct into which narration seems to step from the outside” (p. 24). In its handling of space and time, Timecrimes violates and simultaneously maintains Bordwell’s idea of the straight corridor. It violates it by looping in upon itself through the plot device of backwards time-travel. Throughout the film, there are three versions of Héctor traversing the same block of time in proximal space.

The film maintains the straight corridor by consistently showing the narrative from Héctor’s point of view as he travels back in time twice. The viewer follows Héctor through the time-traveling and the loops and thereby maintains his singular, linear path. If viewed from the scientist’s point of view, the film would appear chunked backwards, in a Memento-style “crooked corridor,” with the viewer seeing the third Héctor first, the second second, and the first last. By the end of the film, Héctor has passed through the same block of time three times and managed to emerge the singular Héctor.

“Manipulation of the mise-en-scéne,” Bordwell (1986) continues, “creates an apparently independent profilmic event, which can in turn be more or less overt, more or less ‘intrusive’ on the posited homogeneity of the story world” (p. 24). Upon first viewing, Timecrimes appears to be presenting its story in a nonlinear fashion, but this notion is a product of its time-traveling subject matter, not its narrative structure. Like Run, Lola, Run (1998), Timecrimes shows us three versions of the same block of time. It differs in that it’s showing the same block of time from Héctor’s point of view during his three trips through that block of time. In actuality, the film depicts a strictly linear path, albeit with two trips backwards through time (See Fig. 1.).

Because Héctor’s narrative path overlaps itself in time, Timecrimes violates Bordwell’s straight corridor in attempting to maintain its linearity by following Héctor’s point of view. Bordwell (1986) states, “Causality also motivates temporal principles of organization: the syuzhet [plot] represents the order, frequency, and duration of fabula [story] events in ways which bring out the salient causal relations” (p. 19). Timecrimes twists up Bordwell’s (1986) straight corridor by attempting to show its multiple backwards time-traveling plot as a linear narrative.

Tainted souls who try
to purify themselves with blood
are like the man
who steps in filth and thinks
to bathe in sewage.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 129

In one shot we’re watching Héctor watch through the binoculars. In the next we’re seeing what he’s watching through them. His gaze becomes our gaze. In this way, the apparatus of Timecrimes is made apparent by transposing the camera through the binoculars. In several key scenes, we see what the binoculars see. Since these scenes are pivotal for the film’s plot, they bring the apparatus to the fore and make the act of viewing (or looking or watching) integral to the narrative.

Héctor 1’s seeing the young woman in the woods sets the first part of the narrative in motion. As soon as his wife Clara is gone, he immediately sets off to investigate. His use of the binoculars is the impetus for the action of the film. The lens is the apparatus by which the plot is spurred into motion.

Héctor 2 sees himself (the scientist goes so far as to call Héctor 1 his “mirror image”), setting off the second part of the plot. As Héctor 2 watches Héctor 1 interacting with his wife Clara through the binoculars, he feels that he has been replaced and thereby castrated (Mulvey, 1986). The rest of his actions in the movie are toward one goal: getting rid of Héctor 1 by making sure he gets into the time-machine. Héctor keeps a close watch on himself – both ways – through his ever-present binoculars.

When Héctor 2 accidentally kills Clara (or so he thinks), he realizes he has to travel back again (as Héctor 3) and keep himself (Héctor 2) from killing her. All of these events stem from Héctor’s (and thereby our) voyeurism through the binocular lenses, lenses that show the world as more real than what our naked eyes see.

Just as the river where I step
is not the same, and is,
so am I as I am not.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 81

Timecrimes upholds Mulvey’s (1986) contention that film is inherently voyeuristic, and that it utilizes the male gaze to subjugate the woman’s body for the male’s fantasies. If Héctor hadn’t been combing the countryside with his binoculars, he wouldn’t have seen the naked woman in the woods (ironically being held captive by another version of himself), he wouldn’t have investigated further, and the events of the film wouldn’t have unfolded as they did. The plot preys on Héctor’s voyeurism to propel itself forward.

The film also contains Bordwell’s (1986) notion of double causal structure, with one plot line involving heterosexual romance between Héctor and Clara, and another involving Héctor’s voyeurism and subsequent time-traveling adventure. The double loop of backwards time travel twists up Bordwell’s (1986) straight corridor, that is one of a linear causal plot. Though Timecrimes is shown as linearly as possible (i.e., from the point of view of one character), its causal chaos (i.e., the fact that Héctor 1 is spying on himself, and Héctor 2 is spying on himself, etc.) makes it seem nonlinear.

The apparatus of the lens (both movie camera lens and binocular lens), which is usually assumed to be transparent, is brought to our attention throughout the film by transposing one for the other: The binocular lens shows Héctor – and thereby us – what is real.

References:

Bordwell, D. (1986). Classical Hollywood cinema: Narrational principles and procedures. In P. Rosen (Ed.), Narrative, apparatus, ideology: A film theory reader. pp. 17-34. New York: Columbia       University Press.

Davies, P. (2001). How to Build a Time Machine. New York: Penguin.

Hayward, S. (1996). Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge.

Heraclitus. (2001). Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus (B. Haxton, Trans.). New York: Penguin.

Ibarretxe, J., Carneros, E., & Ibarretxe, E. (Producers), & Vigalondo, N. (Writer/Director). (2007). Los Cronocrimenes (Timecrimes) [Motion picture]. Spain: Karbo Vantes Entertainment.

Metz, C. (1994). Story/Discourse: Notes on Two Kinds of Voyeurism. In B. Nichols (Ed.), Movies and Methods, Vol II: An Anthology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Mulvey, L. (1986). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In P. Rosen (Ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. pp. 198-209. New York: Columbia University Press.

Taubin, A. (2008). Primer. In D. Sterrit & J. Anderson (Eds.), The B-list: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love, pp. 79-82. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Blank Solitude: The Alien Gaze of Under the Skin

Somehow over the past decade or so, Scarlett Johansson has emerged in film as the ultimate human. She shook Bob Harris (Bill Murray) out of a late-life lull in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). She repeated Logan’s Run in The Island (2005). She’s the voice of the artificially intelligent operating system in Spike Jonze’s her (2013). She transcends her own brain and body in the woefully disappointing Lucy (2014). And she is rumored to be starring in the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell, which is currently in production. In short, when we think of machine-aided human perfection, Johansson is what we picture.

Scarlett Johansson: Under the Skin

The photographic lens makes you immediately indifferent to yourself — you inwardly play dead. In the same way, the presence of television cameras makes what you are saying seem alien or a matter of indifference  — Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories IV

Johansson begins an interview with Tim Noakes at Dazed & Confused magazine reading from Jean Baudrillard‘s America, his collection about feeling an alien in a foreign land. It’s a famous quotation about smiling from page 34. Further down that same page, Baudrillard (1988) writes,

The skateboarder with his walkman, the intellectual working on his wordprocessor, the Bronx breakdancer whirling frantically in the Roxy, the jogger and the body-builder: everywhere, whether in regard to the body or the mental faculties, you find the same blank solitude, the same narcissistic refraction (p. 34).

Under the SkinJohansson plays a man-eating alien visitor in Jonathan Glazer’s stunning 2014 film, Under the Skin (A24), what Lucy Bolton describes as “a viewing experience that is mediated by the emotional, moral and corporeal alien eye” (p. 1). While Glazer’s adaptation is an intriguing interpretation, Faber’s original novel (Harcourt, 2000) is versatile, lending itself to many others. Taken in tandem though, they inform each other. “[The Book] was a jumping-off point,” Glazer tells Chris Alexander at Fangoria. (p. 43). “Under the Skin is trying to represent something kind of unimaginable—this infinite and alien entity,” he says. “It’s not something for words, really. It shouldn’t be explained away. Our intention was to protect its alienness” (p. 45).

Johansson often feels an alienness herself. “When I finish work,” she tells Dazed, “I just want to get as far away from it as possible. It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re done, let me try to regain my sense of self!’… I’ve certainly had roles which have become all-encompassing, when I’ve been like, ‘Whoa, where’s my life?’, and felt like the floor had been swept from underneath me. But the more experience you have, the less carried away you get.” (p. 128X). As one review parenthetically notes, “The film is nothing if not a knowing, subversive use of Johansson’s celebrity and screen persona.”

Glazer says of her performance, “When she saw the film she said to me that she didn’t recognise what she was doing in it… she said she had no idea what was going on in her mind at any point” (p. 130). In a film so focused on alienation, it’s interesting that Johansson felt it as the actor, as the alien, and as the viewer of this film. Through the lens, the narcissistic refraction: The alien gaze turned in upon itself.

Baudrillard (2003) continues, “When some future scientist expresses the idea that the generations of clones and artificial beings that succeed us are descended from man [sic], it will be as terrible a shock as when Darwin announced that man was descended from the apes” (p. 107).

References:

Alexander, Chris. (2014, May). The Skin He’s In. Fangoria Magazine, #322, pp. 42-46.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1988). America. New York: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean. (2003). Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000. New York: Verso.

Bolton, Lucy. (2014, January). Under the Skin and the Affective Alien Body. In Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas.

Noakes, Tim. (2014, Spring). Under the Skin of Scarlett Johansson. Dazed & Confused, p. pp. 118-131.

Is Anyone There? On her and Transcendence

Cinema is our most viable and enduring form of design fiction. More than any other medium, it lets us peer into possible futures projected from the raw materials of the recent past, simulate scenes based on new visions via science and technology, gauge our reactions, and adjust our plans accordingly. These visions are equipment for living in a future heretofore unseen. As video artist Bill Viola (1995) puts it,

The implied goal of many of our efforts, including technological development, is the eradication of signal-to-noise ratio, which in the end is the ultimate transparent state where there is no perceived difference between the simulation and the reality, between ourselves and the other. We think of two lovers locked in a single ecstatic embrace. We think of futuristic descriptions of direct stimulation to the brain to evoke experiences and memories (p. 224).

Miles explains love to Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams (1984)
— Miles explains love to Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams (1984)

Welcome to the world of Pinecone Computers. This model will learn with you, so type your name and press Enter key to begin.
— Miles Harding reading from a computer manual in Electric Dreams (1984)

Since the big-screen tales of the 1980s’ PC-era, the idea of machines merging with humans has been a tenacious trope in popular culture. In Tron (1982) Kevin Flynn was sucked through a laser into the digital realm. Wired to the testosterone, the hormone-driven juvenile geniuses of Weird Science (1985) set to work making the woman of their dreams. WarGames (1983) famously pit suburban whiz-kids against a machine hell bent on launching global thermonuclear war. In Electric Dreams (1984), which is admittedly as much montage as it is movie, Miles Harding (played by Lenny von Dohlen, who would go on to play the agoraphobic recluse Harold Smith in Twin Peaks) attempts to navigate a bizarre love triangle between him, his comely neighbor, and his new computer.

From the jealous machine to falling in love with the machine, the theme remains pervasive 30 years on. As Ray Kurzweil writes of Spike Jonze’s her,

Jonze introduces another idea that I have written about (and that is the central theme of Barry Ptolemy’s movie about my ideas, Transcendent Man), namely, AIs creating an avatar of a deceased person based on their writings, other artifacts and people’s memories of that person. In her, the AIs get together and recreate 1960s philosopher Alan Watts (whom I remember from my teenage years).

Theodore Twombly at work in her (2013).
— Theodore Twombly at work in her (2013).

I’d say “her” is a movie about (the education of) an interesting woman who falls in love with a man who, though sweet, is mired in biology. — , Tweeted on February 16, 2014

in her, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters for a living. Letters between fathers and daughters, long-distance lovers, husbands, wives. He condenses stories from the vapor of their nuances. In doing so, he is especially susceptible to the power of narrative himself since his job involves the constant creation of believable, vicarious stories. His ability to immerse himself in the stories of others makes it that much easier for him to get lost in his operating system (“Samantha,” voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as she constructs narratives to create her personality, and thereby, their relationship.

In many ways, her can be read as a response to Lost in Translation (2003), directed by Jonze’s wife at the time, Sophia Coppola, who, like Jonze did for her, won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. That movie is in part about the dissolution of Jonze and Coppola’s relationship. Where Giovanni Ribisi plays a goofy, self-involved Jonze (“John”) in Lost in Translation, Rooney Mara plays an ununderstanding, judgemental Coppola (“Catherine”) in her: mere caricatures of themselves played out in bit parts. Where others have no problem with it, ex-wife Catherine has no truck with Theodore’s new OS love. He nonetheless remains incredulously committed.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter calls our imbuing machines with more intelligence than they have—even when we know better—“The ELIZA Effect,” after Joseph Weizenbaum’s text-based psychoanalytic computer program, ELIZA. Hofstadter writes, “The most superficial of syntactic tricks convinced some people who interacted with ELIZA that the program actually understood everything that they were saying, sympathized with them, even empathized with them” (p. 158). ELIZA was written at MIT by Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s, but its effects linger on. “Like a tenacious virus that constantly mutates,” Hofstadter continues, “the Eliza effect seems to crop up over and over again in AI in ever-fresh disguises, and in subtler and subtler forms” (p. 158). To wit, in Chapter One of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011; specifically pp. 24-25), she extends the idea to our amenability to new technologies, including artificial intelligence, embodied or otherwise: “And true to the ELIZA effect, this is not so much because the robots are ready but because we are” (p. 25).

More germane to her is a program called KARI, which stands for “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence.” According to Dominic Pettman‘s first and only conversation with Kari (see Pettman’s Look at the Bunny, 2013), there’s a long way to go before any of us are falling in love with our computers.

Kevin Flynn getting zapped into the computer in Tron (1982).
— Kevin Flynn getting zapped into the computer in Tron (1982).

Others imagine a much more deliberate merging, postulating an uploading of human consciousness into the machines themselves, known in robotic and artificial intelligence circles as “The Moravec Transfer.” Its namesake, roboticist Hans Moravec, describes a human brain being uploaded, neuron by neuron, until it exists unperturbed inside a machine. But Moravec wasn’t the first to imagine such a transition (for another early example, see Stine, 1979). NASA’s own Robert Jastrow wrote in 1984 that uploading our minds into machines is the be-all of evolution and would make us immortal. He wrote,

At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh… The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind… It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of a biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever (p. 166-167).

Dr. Will Caster merges with the machine in Trancendence (2014).
— Dr. Will Caster merges with the machine in Transcendence (2014).

In Transcendence (2014) Dr. Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) and his wife (“Evelyn,” played by Rebecca Hall, who almost seems to be filling in for an unavailable Johansson) do just that. Caster is terminally ill and on the verge of offloading his mortal shell. Once uploaded into a quantum computer connected to the internet, Caster becomes something less than himself and something more simultaneously. It’s the chronic consciousness question: What is it about you that makes you you? Is it still there once all of your bits are transferred into a new vessel? The Casters’ love was strong enough for them to try and find out.

If Kubrick and Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) can be read as an allegory for gays being accepted by their parents (see Kraus, 2004, p. 182), what sociological anxieties can we superimpose over her and Transcendence? I am admittedly a lapsed student of AI, having dropped out of the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence master’s program several years ago. My interest in AI lies in the weird ways that consciousness and creation butt heads in the midst of such advanced technologies. Mix a love story in there and you’ve got questions and quests for a lifetime. As Jonze himself puts it, “… a lot of the feelings you have about relationships or about technology are often contradictory” (quoted in Michael, 2013). Love and technology willing, when one of us has to be leaving, we won’t let that come between us, okay?

References:

Hofstadter, Douglas. (1995). Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Jastrow, Robert. (1984). The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kraus, Chris. (2004). Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness. New York: Semiotext(e).

Michael, Chris. (2013, September 9). Spike Jonze on Letting Her Rip and Being John Malkovich. The Guardian.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.

Stine, G. Harry. (1979, July). The Bionic Brain. Omni Magazine, vol. 1, #10, pp. 84-86, 121-122.

Turkle, Sherry. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books

Viola, Bill. (1995). Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Weizenbaum, Joseph. (1976). Computer Power and Human Reason. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Veronica Mars: Take the Long Way Home

No surprise: Veronica Mars: The Movie plays to the strengths of the franchise: Veronica’s chronically conflicted convictions, Keith’s ever-watchful eye, Logan’s inability to avoid controversy, the stability of Wallace, Mac, and Piz, and the loyal support of its fans. Full disclosure: I am one of the 91,585 Kickstarter backers of this movie, I watched it three times in as many days, I am a card-carrying Marshmallow, so spoilers and gushing abound below.

Veronica and Logan take the long way home.
Veronica and Logan take the long way home.

So, when the day comes to settle down,
Who’s to blame if you’re not around?
— Supertramp, “Take the Long Way Home”

Though the movie is fully enjoyable to the non-fan, there are plenty of nods to the nerds: the ever-charming Leo’s mention of Veronica’s supposed stint in the FBI, a reference to the trailer for the un-filmed fourth season of the show in which Veronica joins the FBI after college; the New York street musician playing The Dandy Warhols’ “We Used to Be Friends” as Veronica and Piz leave the NPR studio; a squeaky clean Weevil getting caught up in a seedy subplot; Piz getting in another dig at Matchbox 20’s “solo” Rob Thomas; sleepy-dog Clemmons claims that Neptune High has been boring since Veronica graduated; Corny pitches Veronica his homemade wallets, which of course he’s making a killing from on Etsy; when Veronica takes too long to return with drinks, the insinuation that she may have joined a cult arises; Piz and Veronica’s sextape resurfaces at the reunion, revamping both the salaciousness scandals of her Hearst College days and the relentless backstabbing of her high-school years. Not a single on-screen mention of Lilly Kane. Though she is mentioned in the script, the scene is shortened in the movie. Her absolute absence feels stronger than a brief cameo would have.

Veronica Mars

“I find it almost impossible to imagine Veronica Mars played by anyone other than Kristen Bell,” writes Rob Thomas (2006, p. 6), and he’d be hard-pressed to find someone who disagrees. The studio didn’t want Bell, but Thomas fought to keep her. “Had we lost that argument, there would be no show…” (p. 6). Her craftiness carries the movie as it did three seasons of the show. Movie critic Peter Travers (2014) writes, “Plot has never been the attraction in Veronica Mars… [I]t’s how she thinks that draws us in…” (p. 73).

The mystery in the movie is familiar ground for Veronica Mars: a single night of bad decisions buried by a long, elaborate cover-up that includes obsession, blackmail, and murder. As the golden-voiced Cliff would say, “I like this case, it’s tawdry.” Veronica’s unearthing the truth requires the usual hi-tech tools and toys, ill-gotten gadgets and police files, and the help of both friends and enemies. The prescient premise of Neptune, California, “a town without a middle class,” provides just enough social structure and economic disparity to guarantee what criminologists call an anomic ethics: The have-nots will do whatever is necessary to get theirs with no evident moral dilemma (Rosenfeld & Messner, 1997). This conflict view includes the local sheriff’s department, which having never been the beacon of legality has now found a way to leverage its place in the gaping space between the socioeconomic classes.

With such a gulf between the two classes and constant reminders of that gulf, crime is a political concept in Neptune, by definition in place to keep the privileged protected from the poor (see Bonger, 1969 and Vold, 1958). The sheriff’s department, now run by Don Lamb’s more inept younger brother Dan, mediates the disparity by offering protection and service, “to the highest bidder,” as Keith Mars puts it.

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Speaking of, one of the main aspects of the movie that I appreciate as a fan of the show is the consistency with which the characters are handled. Keith is still Keith, the protective father and righteous citizen we all know and love. Gia was present on the plot’s night in question, but she maintains her presence as mildly annoying but harmless. Though he was there as well, Dick is still Dick: aloof but innocent. Vinnie Van Lowe is mixed-up in the mayhem—of course—but not in a way that implicates him as anything other than sleazy as ever. Lamb is just like his brother—only worse. The bad guy is not a character from the show (expertly played by Martin Starr, who played Roman in Rob Thomas’s short-lived but well-worthy Party Down), so we don’t have to hate anyone we already adore from the original series.

Does it feel that your life’s become a catastrophe?
Oh, it has to be for you to grow, boy.
When you look through the years and see what you could
Have been oh, what might have been,
If you’d had more time.
— Supertramp, “Take the Long Way Home”

Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan LineUpon first viewing, I didn’t understand why Rob Thomas insisted that the characters all end up about where they started ten years ago as opposed to having things go in an entirely new direction. As it turns out, a sequel had already been penned, but its story-line requires everything in Neptune be back to “normal.” The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Vintage, 2014), which was released today, picks up where the movie leaves off. Veronica is back in Neptune, plans for a big-shot New York lawyer gig scrapped for a return to the sun and sin of Southern California:

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappears from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is no simple missing person’s case; the house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

“In writing an ongoing fictional creature I’m tugged in a couple different directions,” writes Rob Thomas (2006). “There’s the part of me that thinks Veronica should… get past her pettiness. She should learn how to forgive. The other part of me wants to keep her complicated. Difficult. Testy” (p. 148). Some writers and directors have a theme they tend to stick with throughout their work. Darren Aronofsky tells stories of obsession David Cronenberg’s films revolve around the body or the grotesque. Aaron Sorkin writes shows about the inner-workings behind the scenes. If I had to pick a theme for Rob Thomas, it would be getting pulled back in. His characters—Logan, Weevil, and especially Veronica—are always trying to escape their nature or their social milieus. Fortunately for us, they just can’t seem to stay away from trouble.

References:

Bonger, William. (1969). Criminality and Economic Conditions. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Davies, Rich & Hodgson, Roger. (1979). Take the Long Way Home [Recorded by Supertramp]. Breakfast in America [LP]. Santa Monica, CA: A&M Records.

Rosenfeld R. & Messner, S. F. (1997). Markets, Morality, and an Institutional-Anomie Theory of Crime. In N. Passas & R. Agnew (Eds.), The Future of Anomie Theory (pp. 207-224). Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Thomas, Rob (Ed.). (2006). Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars. Benbella Books.

Thomas, Rob & Graham, Jennifer. (2014). Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line. New York: Vintage.

Travers, Peter. (2014, March 27). Kick-Start or Die! Rolling Stone, 1205, 73-74.

Vold, George B. (1958). Theoretical Criminology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nagging Narratives: Stories of the Year

Some stories are like other worlds we visit for a little while. Some climb in our minds and manipulate our thoughts. “[O]ur brains are built to try to process everything we see as a story,” writes David Wong of Cracked.com, so it’s no wonder that some stories are so powerful. These are the ones that haunted my head this year.

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is easily the best movie of the year. As I wrote elsewhere, the hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of his previous movie, Primer, was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voice-over, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music.

Spring Breakers

Another collage-like experience, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is as beautiful as it is bewildering. Its heist scene might be the best few minutes of cinema I’ve seen in years. Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob the Chicken Shack restaurant with a hammer and a squirt gun while Cotty (Rachel Korine) circles the building in the getaway car with the camera (and us) riding shotgun. Our limited vantage point gives the scene an added tension because though we are at a distance, it feels far from safe. Much like the security camera footage of Columbine and Chronicle, and the camera-as-character of Chronicle and Cloverfield, we receive a crippled information flow while experiencing total exposure. Their mantra: “Just pretend it’s a fucking video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.”

Lauren Beukes' Shining Girls timeline. (photo by Morne Van Zyl, Wired UK)

The book of the year is The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books). Beukes’ easily digestible prose and gleefully nagging narrative betray a convoluted timeline and staggering depth of research. Drifter Harper Curtis quantum leaps from time to time gutting the girls as he goes. The House he squats in his helper, enabling the temporal jaunts. He’s like an inverted Patrick Bateman: no money, all motive. Where Bateman’s stories are told from his point of view in the tones of torture-porn, Harper’s kills are described from the abject horror of the victims. And the victims, who are all strong-willed women with drive and purpose, are only victims at his hand. Otherwise they shine with potential and promise.

Also worthy of mention are Year Zero by Rob Reid (Del Rey/Ballantine), Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin), The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner), the nonfiction The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking) and Present Shock by Doug Rushkoff (Current), and the reissued, 20th anniversary edition of Vurt by Jeff Noon (Pan Macmillan).

Shooting Starlets: Girls Gone Wildin’

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is rarely an easy one. As we watch Miley Cyrus shed her youth in real-time, I am reminded of a young Drew Barrymore, coming out of rehab for the first time at age 13. The movies Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring represent the grown-up debuts of beloved childhood Hollywood princesses, Selena Gomez and Emma Watson respectively. The two films are also similar for their adult themes and media commentary. No one would say that a refusal to grow up is endearing, but resistance is fertile. There’s nothing quite as cool as youthful nihilism — especially when wielded by young women. Live fast, die young: Bad girls do it well.

Spring Breakers

The similarities here remind me of when in 2007 the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson both did adaptations—both camps tend to write their own scripts—of stories set in West Texas. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are companion pieces in the same way that Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring are, but here the ladies are the ones with the guns.

Spring Breakers‘ heist scene might be the best few minutes of cinema I’ve seen in years. Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob the Chicken Shack restaurant with a hammer and a squirt gun while Cotty (Rachel Korine) circles the building in the getaway car with the camera (and us) riding shotgun. Our limited vantage point gives the scene an added tension because though we are at a distance, it feels far from safe. Much like the security camera footage of Columbine and Chronicle, and the camera-as-character of Chronicle and Cloverfield, we receive a crippled information flow while experiencing total exposure. Their mantra: “Just pretend it’s a fucking video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.”

Alien (James Franco) arrives as the girls’ douche ex machina, an entity somewhere between True Romance‘s Drexl Spivey (1993), Kevin Federline, and Riff Raff, the latter of whom is supposedly suing over the similarities. He bails them out of jail after a party gone astray and takes them home to his arsenal. What could possibly go wrong?

Spring Breakers' Alien

Selena Gomez does the least behaving badly, but her role as Faith is still a long way from Alex Russo or Beezus. As she tells her grandmother over the phone,

I think we found ourselves here. We finally got to see some other parts of the world. We saw some beautiful things here. Things we’ll never forget. We got to let loose. God, I can’t believe how many new friends we made. Friends from all over the place. I mean everyone was so sweet here. So warm and friendly. I know we made friends that will last us a lifetime. We met people who are just like us. People the same as us. Everyone was just trying to find themselves. It was way more than just having a good time. We see things different now. More colors, more love, more understanding… I know we have to go back to school, but we’ll always remember this trip. Something so amazing, magical. Something so beautiful. Feels as if the world is perfect. Like it’s never gonna end.

Spring break is heavy, y’all. “I grew up in Nashville, but I was a skater, so I was skateboarding during spring break,” writer/director Harmony Korine told Interview. “Everyone I knew would go to Daytona Beach and the Redneck Riviera and just fuck and get drunk — you know, as a rite of passage. I never went. I guess this is my way of going.” Ultimately the movie illustrates Douglas Adams’ dictum that the problem with a party that never ends is that ideas that only seem good at parties continue to seem like good ideas.

Speaking of bad ideas, Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, which is based on a real group of fame-obsessed teenagers, is full of them. Not since Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003; which features Spring Breakers‘ Hudgens) has a group of teens been so overtaken by expensive clothes, handbags, and bad behavior. This crew of underage criminals uses internet maps and celebrity news to find out where their targets (e.g., Paris Hilton, Audrina Partridge, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom, et al.) live and when they will be out of town. Once caught, they seem more concerned with what their famous victims think than with the charges brought against them [trailer runtime: 1:46]:

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It would be remiss of me not to note that two of my favorite composers, Cliff Martinez and Brian Reitzell respectively, put the music together for these movies. The mood of Spring Breakers is mostly set by Martinez in collaboration with Skrillex, Gucci Mane (who’s also in the movie), and Waka Focka Flame, among others. The Bling Ring features a mix of Hip-hop, Krautrock, and electronic pop that reads more eclectic than it actually sounds: Sleigh Bells, Kanye West, CAN, M.I.A., Azeailia Banks, Klaus Schultze, Frank Ocean, and so on. Discounting the importance of music in creating the pressure that permeates these films would be an oversight.

Though these films are both cautionary tails of an extreme nature, they prove that caution isn’t cool. Youth might be wasted on the young, but our heroes don’t concern themselves with consequences.

Paradigms Crossed: Building and Burning Bridges in Skateboarding’s Disposable History

Ever since I first saw Wes Humpston’s Dogtown cross on the bottom of a friend’s skateboard in 6th grade, I knew the wood, the wheels, and the art were going to be a part of my world. Like Alex Steinweiss and the album cover, skateboard graphics created the look of skateboarding. There were years where the only thing one knew about a particular skateboarder was the image on the bottom of his (rarely her) board. In the pre-internet world of skateboards, there were only a few companies, fewer videos, and only a few people who controlled almost everything. If you know anything from this era, it’s probably tied in some way to Powell and Peralta’s Bones Brigade.

The Bones Brigade

Only a few professional skateboarders outside of those pictured above mattered on as large a scale during the 1980s. Arguments could easily be made for Christian Hosoi, Gator Rogowski, Mark Gonzalez, and Natas Kaupas among others (my favorites from the era are Neil Blender and Jason Jessee), but The Bones Brigade defined the times. Stacy Peralta, already a skateboarding veteran from the Zephyr Team and the Dogtown of the 1970s, handpicked an iconic group of guys. From the household name of Tony Hawk to the kooky innovations of Rodney Mullen, from the longevity of Steve Caballero to the fierce fun of Lance Mountain, The Bones Brigade is the most legendary team in skateboard history. The empire they built only crumbled when it grew too big to feel or follow the zeitgeist.

Sean Cliver's Disposable

“While other companies scrambled to reinvent themselves with fresh, young teams and a more street-oriented direction,” Sean Cliver (2004) writes, “Powell Peralta remained steadfast in sticking to its guns but floundered in exactly how to go about bridging the old and new generations–especially when it came to graphics” (p. 50). Two main people bridge the genetic fallacy of the Big Five of the 1980s to the populist era of the early 1990s: Rodney Mullen and Sean Cliver. The former invented many of the maneuvers that make up modern street skating, and the latter designed the graphics and artwork. All credit due to Steve Rocco, Craig Stecyk, Mark Gonzalez, and Marc McKee, but those guys all remained in separate and largely opposing camps. Mullen and Cliver are the only ones who worked under the Bones Brigade banner at Powell Peralta as well as the Jolly Roger at Rocco’s Word Industries (Mike Vallely notwithstanding, who was more of a pawn than a player and who didn’t seem to want any part of it).

Skateboarding pro-cum-team manager Steve Rocco was once told by a company owner that skateboarders couldn’t run companies. After getting fired as a team manager, Rocco decided to do just that. He sniped team riders, pirated images for graphics, and concentrated on a street-smart street style that immediately connected with the kids of the time. The intense intricacies of freestyle were dead and the barriers to entry for riding monolithic vert ramps were prohibitive to most. Street skating was anyone’s game. Walk out the door, jump on your board, grind a curb: you’re street skating. Focusing on that and the irreverence of youth garnered Rocco unmitigated hate from the established skateboard companies, cease-and-desist orders from copyright holders he violated, and millions of faithful followers.

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A lot of what Rocco did for skateboarding was no different from what Marcel DuChamp and, later, Andy Warhol, did for art. It’s also no different from what sampling and Napster did for music. In his book Disrupt (FT Press, 2010), Luke Williams writes, “Differentiate all you want, but figure out a way to be the only one who does what you do, or die” (p. 2). The irony in skateboarding is that the products don’t differ very much from brand to brand. The subtleties of one board, wheel, or truck are infinitesimal. A world like that needs a Kuhnian shaking-up once in a while, and a lot of the shaking Rocco did back then is still reverberating today: Most skateboard companies are run by current and ex-skateboarders, most BMX companies are run by BMXers, street is the largest genre of either sport, and, thanks in large part to Rocco’s Big Brother Magazine, Jackass is still a thing. As the founder of Foundation and Tum Yeto, Tod Swank, put it to me (2007),

…when Rocco started World Industries, what he really did was liberate skateboarding so that it could move forward. He helped a lot of people start companies, not just me. He lent money and gave advice to a lot of other skateboarders who wanted to start companies. He wanted to see the industry run by skateboarders (p. 274).

“The life of an oppositionist is supposed to be difficult,” wrote Christopher Hitchens (2001, p. 3). Conformity is its own reward, dissent is not (Sunstein, 2003), so by upending the established order, Rocco brought a lot of grief upon himself. There’s the world the way you want it to be, and there’s the way that it is. George Powell and Stacy Peralta depicted skateboarding as they wanted it to be. Steve Rocco was more of a mirror of what it was becoming. For better or worse, it’s still going and growing in that direction.

References:

Christopher, Roy (2007). Tod Swank: Foundation’s Edge. In R. Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes (pp. 269-276). Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Cliver, Sean. (2004). Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art. Ontario, Canada: Concrete Wave.

Cliver, Sean. (2009). The Disposable Skateboard Bible. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press.

Hill, Mike (Director). (2007). The Man Who Souled the World [Motion picture]. Los Angeles: Whyte House Entertainment.

Hitchens, Christopher. (2001). Letters to a Young Contrarian. New York: Basic Books.

Peralta, Stacy (Director). (2012). Bones Brigade: An Autobiography [Motion picture]. Santa Monica, CA: Nonfiction Unlimited.

Sunstein, Cass R. (2003). Why Societies Need Dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, Luke. (2010). Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.

Tales Rabbits Tell: Dominic Pettman’s New Book

Welsh naturalist Ronald M. Lockley spent a large chunk of his life on the rabbit-riddled island of Skokholm just southwest of Wales. When he found he could do better writing about rabbits than catching and breeding them, he wrote The Private Life of the Rabbit (Macmillan, 1964). The book, which is a detailed account of all rabbit activities and proclivities, has become the manual on rabbit life. It informed Richard Adams’ novel, Watership Down (Rex Collings, 1972), which is the rabbit adventure tale, about the ways and mores of leporid life. Fiver, the runt-rabbit guide embodies the spirit animal that bunnies have become in many mythologies, pop cultural contexts, and other great stories.
Rabbit
Rabbits extend far outside of the hillsides, downs, and Easter baskets in which we we typically envision them. Examples I can think of without too much effort include Bugs BunnyGreg the Bunny, the Playboy Bunny, the Ray Johnson documentary How to Draw a Bunny (2002), Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, 8 Mile‘s B. Rabbit (played by Eminem), the rabbit hole of Lewis Carroll, Bambi’s pal Thumper, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Watership-Down mythology of Fall of Efrafa’s Warren of Snares, and the out-moded rabbit ears of broadcast television. As Susan E. Davis and Margo Demello (2003) write in their definitive Stories Rabbits Tell (Lantern, 2003),

…besides inhabiting forests, fields, backyards, and homes, they inhabit the realm of representation–in folklore and photos, on television and film, in gift stores and in literature. These fabricated rabbits may not tell us much about the lives of real rabbits, but they do tell us a great deal about how we think about rabbits and their place in society (p. 129).

Look at the BunnyLook at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology by Dominic Pettman (Zer0 Books, 2013) uses the rabbit as totem as a trope through which to interrogate our relationship with technology. Pettman explores the Heideggerian being-toward-death of the pooka in Harvey (1950) and Donnie Darko (2001), the overwrought sexuality of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and the spectral haunting of the rabbits in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). Like Frank the bunny in Donnie Darko, Pettman reads the rabbits both Of Mice and Men and Watership Down as guides: Looking at the bunny is looking into the future.

Skipping ahead, however, is not always a promising prospect. The Cassandra conundrum of seeing imminent catastrophe and having no one in the present believe you follows the prophet–rabbit or otherwise. The vagabond rabbits of Watership Down led by the frequently hysterical Fiver, Lennie, George, and Candy in Of Mice and Men led by a rabbit-ridden future vision, Donnie Darko led by his daylight hallucinations of Frank, and Elwood led by his imaginary Harvey are all held suspect by their peers. “The list of lapine totems, no doubt, could go on and on–which is partly my point,” Pettman writes (p. 63). Moreover, two more rabbit holes he mentions early in the book include “the bunny plot” and “the Easter egg.” The former is a nagging idea that won’t leave you alone until you write it out of there, and the latter, of course, refers to the hidden treats of media: DVD menus, websites, etc. Pettman writes,

Indeed, the notion of the Easter egg can be employed to reflect on the nature or possibility of significant surprises in a claustrophically overcoded – thus predictable – world. A world seemingly bereft of alternatives. Perhaps we need to enact rituals designed to encourage the magic bunny to break the tedious cultural algorithms that restrict every day – in the West at least – to a smooth series of anticipated rhythms. (After all, a predictable consumer is a docile and productive citizen.) Perhaps we should be finding inspiration from the temporal tricks of this particular totem to get access not to the material Easter eggs of fetishized commodities, but the hidden, virtual gift of the “something else”: an unprecedented experience, a unimagined possibility, an unanticipated alliance, and so on (p. 63).

A future seen eliminates the element of surprise. For the living being, it’s an ontological issue, one that Pettman explores from virtual rabbits to software, citing everyone from Eugene Thacker, McKenzie WarkWilliam Gibson, Marshall McLuhan, and N. Katherine Hayles, to Slavoj Žižek, Deleuze and Guattari, Vilém Flusser, and Giorgio Agamben. Make no mistake, this rabbit hole is deep.

Concluding, Pettman sums it up, writing,

The rabbit, Orc, penguin, avatar, angel, pixelated lover – even Paradise itself – all make appearances in the idiosyncratic virtual montage fashioned by this book. They are neototems for an era in which the monolithic notion of Nature is finally giving way to an understanding of ecology that includes computers as much as whales, and in which humans are just as likely to be sheep as shepherds (p. 164).

Far from the private life of the rabbit, its many public representations can show you the way. Totems can help us see the world with fresh eyes. So, next time you’re lost in the media matrix, wake up and follow the rabbit.

References:

Adams, Richard. (1972). Watership Down. London: Rex Collings.

Davis, Susan E., & Demello, Margo. (2003). Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature. New York: Lantern Books.

Lockley, R. M. (1964). The Private Life of the Rabbit. New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.

—————–

Rabbit drawings by Roy Christopher.

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color

After years of trying to play the Hollywood game, Shane Carruth is finally back with a new film. That news on its own is enough to send cinema nerds scrambling for seats. Upstream Color, which Brian Rafferty at WIRED aptly calls, “beautifully baffling,” and about which Steven Shaviro tweeted, “wrenching, nearly impalpable. Left me dazzled, tongue-tied. Sort of the Martian riposte to Terence Malick? I don’t even..,” is definitely worth the wait. Carruth, who previously dazzled us with the self-produced, garage sci-fi thriller, Primer (2004), spent the years since trying to get a script called A Topiary made, which, even with the support of no less than Steven Soderbergh, never received the funding it needed. He was on hand at the Music Box Theater in Chicago last night and answered questions between screenings of his two films. Reluctant to offer up spoilers and background on the underlying elements of the story, he was additionally thwarted by the audience from doing so. Carruth did say that after all the time he wasted on A Topiary, he’s sold on the independent route he’s been following.

Upstream Color

Where Blade Runner (1982) uses memory as the basis for identity, gifting its android Replicants with an implanted past thereby giving them a sense of self, Upstream Color manipulates its characters’ lack thereof. Not knowing exactly what happened to you means not knowing exactly who you are. Both Kris (Amy Seimetz, who, among other things, was previously in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture; 2010) and Jeff (Shane Carruth, who also co-starred in Primer) have experienced a trauma they don’t recall, and their spotless minds do not yield eternal sunshine. Their missing memory strips them of their subjectivity, which is then built back up again in incomplete layers, juxtaposed with suspicion, worry, and paranoia. It’s an allegory and a love story, but don’t go in trying to figure it out.

The hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of Primer was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voiceover, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music. As a composer, Carruth gave props to my favorite score of all time, Cliff Martinez’s Solaris (2002). Though both are beautifully sparse yet eerily unnerving, his own soundtrack for Upstream Color owes little to Martinez (Clint Mansell’s 2009 Moon score has cornered that debt).

Carruth promised not to keep us waiting another nine years for his next film, saying he’s hoping to start production on his next project, called The Modern Ocean, this summer.

———-

Here’s the official trailer for Upstream Color [runtime: 2:10]:

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Until the End of the World, 2012

The last few years have been hectic, and 2012 kept it moving in a big way. I’ll get to my personal stuff in a bit, but first, here are the people, events, music, and media that shaped my year.

Encounters of the Year: I had the honor of breakfast with longtime mentor and friend Howard Rheingold at SXSW this year. Howard has offered me endless advice and encouragement over the years online, and it was a true treat to chat with him face-to-face over a meal.

Also at SXSW, I was invited by my good friend Dave Allen to sit on a panel about music technology with Rick Moody, Jesse von Doom, David Ewald, and Anthony Batt, all of whom I am proud to now call friends. I’ll never forget the look on Rick’s face when I asked him to say grace at lunch that day.

We also ran into Hank Shocklee who was doing a panel discussion adjacent to ours. As the architect of the Bomb Squad, who produced such frenetic noisefests as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, as well as Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Hank has been a hero of mine since high school. He hung out and conferred with us like we were all old friends.

Dave Allen, Hank Shocklee, and me at SXSW, 2012.

Comebacks have really made a comeback this year.
Seth Cockfield via Twitter, December 3rd, 2012.

Speaking of Public Enemy, I caught “The Hip-hop Gods Classic Tourfest Revue” at The House of Blues in Chicago on December 5th. I hadn’t seen P.E. since 1991, and I’ve only seen them on package tours like this (once in 1990 with Digital Underground, Kid N’ Play, Queen Latifah, and The Afros, and twice in 1991, once with Sisters of Mercy, Gang of Four, Warrior Soul, and Young Black Teenagers, and again with Anthrax, Primus, and Young Black Teenagers). This time around it was them, X-Clan, Monie Love, Leaders of the New School, Wise Intelligent, Schoolly D, Son of Berzerk, and Awesome Dre. Chuck did a lot of talking and Flav did a lot of goofing, but the few songs that they did–both old and new–were absolutely on point.

Earlier in the year, I barged into Helmet’s dressing room at The House of Blues in Chicago to meet Page Hamilton. In my defense, I was looking for Ume‘s room, and once inside, I asked Page where it was. Before I left, I got Lily to take a picture of us together because people always say we look alike, to which Page quipped, “Yeah, but I’m 105 and you’re, like, 29.”

Page Hamilton and me backstage at The House of Blues.

Coup of the Year: Death Grips: As Christopher R. Weingarten explores in his “Artist of the Year” story on Spin.com, Death Grips showed how to use technology to get what you want, and then disappear before anyone knows what happened. They duped the internet, a major label, and their fans and became one of the most talked-about artists of the year. It goes, it goes, it goes…

The Return of Aggro Rag Freestyle Mag: While Mike Daily has been perpetually busy over the twenty-two years since he ruled the BMX zines, he brought Aggro Rag back out for one last issue before the zine gets anthologized in book form on new year’s day, 2013. The come-back issue boasts interviews with fifteen flatland undergrounders like Mark McKee, Aaron Dull, Gary Pollak, Chris Day, Jim Johnson, Derek Schott, Gerry Smith, and Dave Nourie. Being “The Hip-hop Issue,” the zine also features interviews with Dark Time Sunshine, Sole, and a review of Death Grips’ Money Store.

Mike Daily and Aesop Rock at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon.

Daily even asked me to contribute an interview with my friend Aesop Rock, which you can read right here. Big props to Aes for bringing sketchy back this year with Skelethon, giving wack(y) haircuts on tour, sporting the hobo beard™. The steez is on lock.

Music of the Year:

I’ve clearly had a Gunplay problem this year:

Other than Gunplay mixtapes and my usual prog/post-rock fare (e.g., Radiohead, Mogwai, The Mars Volta, Eno, Baroness, Followed by Ghosts, God is an Astronaut, etc.), these are some releases I relished:

Erik Blood Touch Screens (Erik Blood): How much reference to previous work is the right amount? Thomas Kuhn called the dialectic between tradition and innovation the “essential tension,” and Erik Blood has found the perfect middle. To call Touch Screens unoriginal would be to admit you didn’t listen to it. Yes, this is stuttery, gooey, taffy-like pop in the vein of Brad Laner and Kevin Shields, but Blood puts these things together with that third thing, the thing that comes from more than just nailing the essential tension.

“Most of [the shoegazers] couldn’t rock their way out of a paper bag,” once quoth Simon Reynolds. Not so with Erik Blood. There’s as much Loop here as there is Main, as much Anton Newcombe as there is Courtney Taylor-Taylor. I also hear some Can and Neu!, which Blood claims he likes but doesn’t consider an influence. “Though I guess everything one hears is an influence,” he concedes. I could listen to the last half of “Amputee” all damn day. “That’s the idea,” he told me. Blood broadcasts these soundtracks from some unplaceable future, some unknown space out of time.

With a pornography-related concept and a cover reminiscent of H. R. Giger’s painting for Dead Kennedys’Frankenchrist poster, Touch Screens is guaranteed to offend some. Don’t be scared, especially if you like your valentines bloody and your Warhols dandy.

 JK Flesh Posthuman (3by3): To explicate the pedigree of Justin K. Broadrick would require a book-length exploration, but let’s try to nick the surface. He was a founding member of Napalm Death, invented and inverted genres in Godflesh, and happily drones in headphones in Jesu—not to mention stints in final, Head of David, Fall of Because, Ice, God, Techno Animal, Greymachine, and Pale Sketcher, among others. Now Broadrick revives his JK Flesh moniker to make some noise that doesn’t fit under any of his other active names. The sounds on Posthuman land between the lines and demonstrate that the disc deserves its own designation. Sure, there are echoes of past projects, especially Greymachine and Pale Sketcher, but this record has a soul of its own. A soul that deserves to be played very loud. These songs need to stretch out, to reach out, and to touch someone. “Idle Hands” sounds like some bastardized, end-of-the-world Hip-hop (apocalypse-hop?), the title track is the theme song to a spy movie with an all-android cast, and the other ones will satisfy your need for a soundtrack to entropy and the heat-death of the universe. No one knows what that would sound like better than Justin Broadrick.

Neurosis Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings): Among the many burgeoning subgenres of post-metal, there is one band that is consistently named as a starting point: Neurosis has been bending and rending metal, punk, crust, sludge, drone, doom, ambient, folk, and other odd musical categories since 1985. Their latest, Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings, 2012) more than illustrates both why they’re the godfathers of this sound and what exactly it is that all of their progeny are still trying to achieve.

On their tenth studio outing, the Oakland sextet gathers together pieces from their storied past to pull off a defining document of their sound. Honor Found in Decay is that rare record that serves the seasoned fan as well as the newbie. It continues their long and fruitful recording relationship with Steve Albini. The ten-plus-minute dirges are here (e.g., “At the Well,” “My Heart for Deliverance,” “Casting of the Ages”). The growling and wailing are in tact (e.g, “Bleeding the Pigs,” “Raise the Dawn”). The bulldozer grooves are as deep and wide as ever (e.g., “We All Rage in Gold,” “All is Found… In Time”). Like all of their releases since 1992’s Souls at Zero, this is nothing less than a monolithic affair.

Not that it doesn’t move them forward, but Honor Found in Decay feels like a summary of sorts—much like The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief were. And like those two bands, Neurosis has plenty to summarize: They’ve always pushed themselves in new directions and they’ve kept fans and critics guessing at every turn. Honor Found in Decay is just as complex and dynamic as the collective history that created it. It’s as lush as it is loud, as heavy as it is heady, and as mysterious as it is majestic. Your expectations will be immediately reached and quickly wrecked.

Other releases that stayed in the speakers and headphones include Deftones Koi No Yokan (Reprise), Baroness Yellow & Green (Relapse), The Mars Volta Noctourniquet (Warner Bros.), Sean Price Mic Tyson (Duck Down), and mixtapes by Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, Chief Keef, Alleyboy, and A$AP Rocky. Along with Gunplay (see above), Skweeky Watahfawls, Johnny Ciggs, Fan Ran and the whole Gritty City Fam are the finds of the year. Here they are with The Jam of the Year, “Hunnid Dolla Bills” [runtime: 5:23]:

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Video of the Year: Killer Mike “Big Beast” featuring Bun B, T.I., Trouble, & El-P: If this video doesn’t move you in some way, you’re probably dead. First of all, the pairing of Killer Mike on the mic and El-Producto on production is a match made somewhere south of Heaven: It’s dark, it’s evil, it’s raw, and it’s hard as fuck and the record they just did, R.A.P. Music, proves it many times over. Next, we have this straight bananas lead track “Big Beast,” including sick verses by Bun B. and T. I. that will remind you why they’re both Hip-hop legends, and a catchy chorus by Trouble. Then, we have this face-eating, car-chasing, enthusiastically violent video that has them all doing some ill shit (that’s El-P in the mask) directed by Thomas C. Bingham and produced by CFILM1 in partnership with Adult Swim. Like I said, check your pulse [runtime: 9:23].

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Movie of the Year: Looper. Rian Johnson is one of my favorite people on Twitter (his day-long stories about his beef with Jason Reitman are hysterical), and he’s finally made his Philip K. Dick movie. Time-travel is a trope I never tire of, and it’s used masterfully here, as in it stays out of the way of the story. Looper features stellar performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels, but the real surprise was the young-but-amazing Pierce Gagnon. Watch out for that one.

Book of the Year: Nick Harkaway Angelmaker: A Novel (Knopf): Nick Harkaway’s second novel is a surrealist noir novel like no other. Angelmaker is heady and heavy, but Harkaway’s prose is giddy in its grasp. It’s a little bit steampunk, a little bit spy novel, a little bit mystery, and a whole lot of fun. As an added treat, I also got to interview him earlier this year, during which he told me of his writing, “…I suppose I have a tendency to use movie shapes — like the Classic Myth Structure George Lucas used for Star Wars — because they’re dramatic and recognisable and they keep you on track. Writing the kind of books I write, with lots going on, you need not to get lost. Structure helps. A story spine is vital. And so is knowing what the voice is, the tone. With those, you can go all over the map and come home safe, and you know it, and your reader gets that confidence in you and settles, so you can take liberties and amaze them. The less secure they are, the less likely they are to go with you when you do something unusual — and that unusual thing is often why you’re there, so that’s bad. They close the book. And once they do that, you have a hell of a time getting them to open it again.” Unlike several other books I read this year, that’s not a problem I had with Angelmaker.

Skateboard Video of the Year: Girl and Chocolate’s Pretty Sweet: You know nothing else came close.

Documentary of the Year: The Unbookables (Fascinator Films): The Unbookables are a loose band of comedians (emphasis on “loose”) handpicked by Doug Stanhope.This movie documents their 2008 tour of the middle of the country, from my own Austin, Texas through Kansas City, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. The cast of characters (emphasis on “characters”) includes Brendon Walsh, Sean Rouse, Andy Andrist, Norman Wilkerson, Brett Erickson, Travis Lipski, James Inman, and Kristine Levine. The unfortunate star of the show is James Inman. If nothing else, this film documents how reckless behavior can bring people together as well as single one of them out.

The first gig is at Nasty’s in Austin, and one of my own University of Texas colleagues gets the narrative rolling by leaving drugs around for Inman to find, like an Easter Egg hunt with negative repercussions. I was at Nasty’s that night, and everyone killed. It was proof of both why these guys are The Unbookables and why they’re such revered comedians. Night two was a “chicken wire” show at Beerland during which chicken wire is draped in front of the stage and the crowd throws fruit at the comics while they attempt to tell jokes. True to its heritage, the show was a complete trainwreck with mostly just the comedians pelting each other with fruit. Few jokes were told as everyone just made fun of Inman.

Inman’s shady behavior continued through the gigs in his then-home Kansas City. He almost ditches the others as they get fired from the first show of the weekend there thanks to one of Travis Lipski’s tamest jokes. Tensions mount, Kristine Levine joins the crew, and the plot spirals out of control as our heroes reach Peoria. Luckily Brett Erickson is there to save the day.

There’s obviously a lot more to it than I’ve detailed above, but it’s not all worth mentioning. With that said, The Unbookables is a gruesome glimpse into the world of touring stand-up comedy, and it’s damn worth checking out. Props due to all involved — except Inman, of course.

Move of the Year: Austin to Chicago: Continuing the family trade, my girl Lily got into grad school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so we packed up and moved from the Tattooine of Austin to the Hoth of Chicago. Thanks to Zizi Papacharissi, I joined the adjunct faculty at The University of Illinois at Chicago. This will be the biggest, coldest city I’ve ever lived in, but we’re certainly enjoying it so far.

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Many thanks to Chris Noble at Level Magazine, for which many of the reviews above were originally written throughout the year. Thanks to Tim Baker over at SYFFAL for turning me on to Gunplay and the Gritty City Fam. Mad thanks to Michael Schandorf, Adriane Stoner, and Zizi Papacharissi for making the transition to Chicago a smooth one. Onward.