Saturday, April 10, 2010

20 Years in the Terrordome

Public Enemy dropped Fear of a Black Planet 20 years ago today. I still believe it's the most exciting album ever recorded.

Fear of a Black Planet surfed in on a wave of hype from SPIN and the few other outlets interested in hip hop at the time, and it's one of the few records--maybe the only record?--that I've ever been so caught up in the pre-release hype of that didn't turn out to be a complete disapointment. Their previous album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, had been a massive hit. Not among the record-buying public, but surely among critics, hipsters and hip hop heads. I was nuts over Nation of Millions, but it seemed far from a perfect album. Its flow keeps being interupted by filler instrumental tracks like "Security of the First World" and "Mind Terrorist," and by stage patter from a live show in London. Fear is solid and seamless, every moment of it contributing to an overall experience, and each individual song fully satisfying, but also part of a greater whole, a maelstrom of funky snap-beats, layered noise and Chuck's brutal rhymes punctuated by Flav's court jester routine.

There was a lot of other stuff happening in early 1990, so I'm not sure to what extent PE can take the credit, but it was around that time that I made a real shift in how I considered this music. I'd been listening to rap for, what, 4 years at by then? But up until that point, if someone had asked me if I listened to rap, I would have said "Well, I like Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, NWA and De La Soul." But by mid-1990, I would have just said "Hell yeah!" I can remember writing in my notebook about this album, something about how it was "as harsh and challenging as anything Sonic Youth have ever done," which seems like such a weird point to have to make. I can't imagine having to compare PE to a white rock band to make people understand that they should be taken seriously now, but back then it was a regular occurance to have to defend hip hop as a whole from the charge that it wasn't "real" music.

Public Enemy had managed to get some attention in the mainstream press over the summer of 1989. First of all, they had recorded "Fight the Power" for Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing, and released it as a single and video. I've always thought of Spike's movie and PE's disc as companion pieces. Can you imagine any other song in that movie? The film almost feels like it grew out of PE's music.

The other incident that got them some press coverage was an interview that Professor Griff, the group's Minister of Information (nobody seems to be able to properly explain what his job in PE was, but he did give interviews)gave with the Washington Times, wherein he went off about the International Jewish Conspiracy and shit. A media shit storm, an apology from Chuck D and the firing of Griff followed. "Why do you think they call it the Jew-elery business?" isn't a place anyone wants to find themselves, but I'm not sure how you avoid ending up there when your starting point is "Farakahn's a prophet." What happened to Public Enemy was a rare thing among political musicians: they got called on their bullshit.

I don't think pop music is really the best medium for getting across a substantive political message. (In terms of actually making a coherent political expression, I actually think Ice-T does a better job than Chuck, KRS-1 or Ice Cube, but that's a post for a different day.) But that's not really what political music is about. It's about expressing the urgent fury of a cause, and no one has ever expressed that fury more vividly than Chuck D. There's a reason they call themselves "Prophets of Rage," not "Prophets of political reform."

This situation must have seriously fucked with Chuck, clearly not prepared to be on the defensive, especially not at such an early point in their career. Chuck's whole thing was so tied up in being unapolagetic that it must have driven him nuts. And from this confused, tormented mind state was born "Welcome to the Terrordome."

"Welcome to the Terrordome" was dropped in advance of the album, and my expectations immediately went through the roof. This was by far the best thing they'd ever recorded. More or less in the same vein as "Bring the Noize" and "Night of the Living Bassheads," but on those songs you could see the seams where the whole thing was stitched together, you could sense the hand of the craftsman. "Terrordome" was seamless and organic. It was an unrelenting blast in the face for 5:40, from the opening fanfare to Flav's "Boiiiing" ending.

Chuck's inner turmoil, trapped between righteous fury and self-examination, is expressed from the two opening lines: "I got so much trouble on my mind/ReFUSE to LOSE!" Contradiction is one of the recurring themes of the album, and Chuck circles back on himself again and again, the most obvious example being "Polly Wanna Cracka," where he spends two verses attacking the mentality of black people who date outside their race, only to have his narrator flip the script in the last verse and basically tells himself to shut the fuck up.

As "Terrordome" continues, Chuck starts spitting out two-syllable jabs like a boxer working the speed bag: "The CREW to YOU to PUSH the BACK to BLACK/AtTACK so I SAT and JAPPED/Then SLAPPED the MAC." Tyson used to come out to this song. Think about that: this was the song Mike Tyson used to make himself seem SCARIER. Jesus, I could go through line by line, but just take this one: "Snakebitten." One word jutting out at the front of it's bar, delivered with a whiplash. Or this: "Check the record and reckon an intentional wreck/Played off as some intellect." Who can match that?

The second verse starts off with the reckoning over the Prof. Griff situation, with no apparant desire to let the flames die down, starting off with two troubling rhymes: "Crucifixion ain't no fiction/So-called Chosen frozen." I take the first line to be more "I got crucified by the press" than a Christian rebuke of Judaism, but I'd bet he made the calculation that it would get under people's skin. The second line, I have no defense.

Apology made to who ever pleases
Still they got me like Jesus
I'd rather sing, bring, think, reminisce
'Bout a brother while I'm in sync
Every brother ain't a brother cause a color
Just as well could be undercover
Backstabbed, grabbed a flag
From the back of the lab
Told a Rab get off the rag
Sad to say I got sold down the river
Still some quiver when I deliver

That last line really does make me quiver, the way it drops out of the narrative to just let out a well-earned brag about his rhyme skills.

When I finally got the CD, I was pissed off just reading the track sequence. How could you have a song like this, and not start the album off with it? It was track 5, as if it were just another track. For the first few days, it annoyed me to death, but in the end I realized that PE were smarter than me. The whole album is constructed as a series of peaks and valleys, and "Terrordome" is the first peak. From the opening sample montage "Contract on the World Love Jam," through the mid-tempo "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," Flav's upbeat hit "911 is a Joke," The taut beat of "Incident at 66.6 FM" (a recording of Chuck on a surreal radio call-in show), and THEN into "Terrordome," which itself builds up steam as Chuck's verses go by. By the last third of the song, my blood is racing through my veins.

Caught in the race against time
The pit and the pendulum
Check the rhythm and rhymes
While I'm bendin' 'em
Snakes blowin' up the lines of design
Tryin' to blind the science I'm sendin' 'em
How to fight the power
Cannot run and hide
But it shouldn't be suicide
In a game a fool without the rules
Got a hell of a nerve to just criticize
Every brother ain't a brother
Cause a Black hand
Squeezed on Malcom X the man
The shootin' of Huey Newton
From a hand of a Nigger who pulled the trigger
Come on DOWN!

By the time it gets to the final stretch, if I'm listening to the whole thing in sequence in my car, I am literally compelled to scream. There's just no other way to express the excitement it gives me. There is one other point on the album that I have the same response to, the segue from "B-Side Wins Again" into "War at 33 1/3."

It's weak to speak and blame somebody else
When you destroy yourself
First nothing's worse than a mother's pain
Of a son slain in Bensonhurst
Can't wait for the state to decide the fate
So this jam I dedicate
Places with racist faces
Just an example of one of many cases
The Greek weekend speech I speak
From a lesson learned in Virginia (Beach)
I don't smile in the line of fire
I go wildin'
But it's on bass and drums even violins
Watcha do gitcha head ready
Instead of gettin' physically sweaty
When I get mad
I put it down on a pad
Give ya somethin' that cha never had controllin'
Fear of high rollin'
God bless your soul and keep livin'
Never allowed, kickin' it loud
Droppin' a bomb
Brain game intellectual Vietnam
Move as a team
Never move alone
Welcome to the Terrordome

Two related notes: last summer, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Do the Right Thing, Matt Zoller Seitz created this video essay on the film. It's well worth watching.

I'm also reminded that this week marks the 20th anniversary of David Lynch's singular TV show, Twin Peaks. Which, I now remember, I first saw on the same day that I first heard Fear of a Black Planet.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 2 (45-41)

45. The Aristorcrats (Paul Provenza, 2005)

This guy walks into a talent agency and says "I got a great new act. It's gonna blow you away. Guaranteed to have 'em packing in to see it." The talent agent is skeptical, but he figures what the hell. Show me what you got, kid.

So the guy wheels in this big contraption covered by a black curtain. He grabs the curtain by the corner and pulls it off, revealing a large wooden rack with 12 naked boys hung upside down. Each boy has a length of piano wire tied to his big toe, pulled tautly, the other end tightly stretching the boy's penis. The 12 boys are of various sizes, arranged from the largest to the smallest. The talent agent frowns.

The guy walks around to one of the boys, third from the left I believe, and plucks the piano wire like the string of a standup bass. The boy lets out a horrible scream of agony. Then he plucks another one, one of the smaller boys further to the right, and that boy screams out, but in a higher pitch. The talent agent is trying to process this, and a feeling of horror is creeping through his system as he realizes where this is going. Before he can say anything, the guy is playing "Stairway to Heaven" in the screams of tortured children. He plays the entire thing, eight minutes of tormented screams. As he builds toward the climax, he begins plucking the strings harder, with reckless abandon, eliciting distorted shrieks that match the tones of Jimmy Page's electric guitar licks. Finally, as the song winds down, he gently coaxes the last few notes of pain from the boys. The talent agent is looking on, too stunned to speak.

"Well," the guy says. "What do you think?"

"Where'd you get the kids?" asks the agent.

"Somalia. I took my wife and daughters over there..." At this point he opens his wallet and begins showing the agent pictures of a beautiful blonde woman and two lovely young girls, about 14 and 16. "...and traded them as sex slaves to a bunch of pirates in exchange for the boys. Quite a bargain, huh? Twelve fit and healthy young boys for three women?"

The agent can't believe what he's hearing. "Are you nuts? You can't torture these kids like this! If I let you perform this act on stage, we're all going to jail, you, me, the club owner, and very possibly the audience."

But the guy is undeterred. "That's the brilliance of it," he charges ahead. "They're not U.S. citizens. They're not part of a foreign army. They're classified as enemy combatants. I can do whatever the fuck I want with them."

The agent chews on his cigar for a long moment, looking at the guy, then the boys, then the guy again. Finally, after a seemingly endless pause, he says "What do you call the act?"

The guys eyes twinkle, illuminated by an inner light. He knows he's hooked the agent. With a huge, shit eatin' grin and a theatrical flourish that conveys the image of the name splashed across a marquis, he says..."The Aristocrats!"

Suggested Double Feature: Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian (Christian Charles, 2002) The title of this is actually a little deceptive, because half the doc is about Jerry Seinfeld building up a new act after the end of his sitcom run, and the other half follows Orney Adams, a young hotshot on his way up. The contrast couldn't be greater: Seinfeld is calm, confident and likeable, with a respect for his own artform, and Adams is an obnoxious, insecure dimwit. By far, the stuff with Seinfeld is more interesting, watching the process of him developing material, alongside Collin Quinn and Chris Rock, and seeing the difficulty that even the most recognizable name in comedy can have getting an audience to pay attention. Bobbie reccomends this film to all her students. It's not the brilliant work of editing that The Aristocrats is, but it compliments that film as an exploration of the art of the joke. Let me also mention that both DVD's have really fantastic commentary tracks that are well worth your time.

44. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)

Some of these movies from the last two years I feel like I haven't really lived with long enough to know exactly where they're going to end up on my list. Thus you see several near the bottom of the list here. Maybe they'll move up as I realize they were better than I thought, maybe they'll be discarded as I realize I was caught up in the hype of the moment. I wrote about The Hurt Locker last year, and I think I got it pretty good, so I'm just going to repost what I said then:

I don't think anyone doubted Katherine Bigelow's action chops, established in the 80's on films like Near Dark and Point Break. Those roots can be seen throughout The Hurt Locker, a taut drama that follows a bomb squad in Iraq, which both employs and subverts many of the tropes of 80's action films. The two main characters, Sgt. Stanhope and Sgt. James, are straight out of a buddy cop flick: James, the swaggering adrenalin junkie who plays by his own rules is the classic action hero, with Stanhope as his straight-laced, by-the-book foil. (Look at the moment leading to the climactic street battle,where Stanhope reluctantly follows James--straight out of an 80's action flick!) In a typical action film, we'd immediately find ourselves cheering for Sgt. James, and it's a testimony to how well Bigelow has conveyed the seriousness of the situation that very early on, we find ourselves sympathizing with Sgt. Stanhope, the one who seems to take the situation seriously.

The Hurt Locker is a drama about people whose lives take place in a constant stream of action/suspense scenes. Every single day, these guys have to defuse a bomb, and once in a while, one of them gets blown up. That's just the world they live in. The third character, Specialist Owen Eldridge, is going mad with the stress, obsessing over his own mortality. So you have three characters: One who wants to live (Stanhope), one who (it seems) wants to die just to end the suspense (Eldridge), and one who doesn't give a shit (James). Or is that the right way to put it? Sgt. James seems to only feel alive when he's taking absurd risks with his life. In the brief view of his life on the homefront, we get a picture of how disorienting "normal" life can be for a soldier. At one point, an officer asks him what the best way to defuse a bomb is, and he answers "the way that doesn't get you killed." To Sgt. James, life in a warzone is clear and uncomplicated. Each choice you make comes with the question, "what will keep me alive?" Absent that mandate, it becomes unclear how to even make a choice. If there are no breakfast cereals that will blow you up, how do you know which one to choose?

43. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

The best vampire movie in years? Well, it's not like there was much competition. LTROI is actually a lot like Twilight, except, you know, not the most horrible thing ever created. This film, too, uses the vampire myth to tap into the potent cocktail of romantic, sexual and escapist fantasies that course through adolescent veins. But this is like the old faerie tales, before we started weeding out the joyous from the horrifying, and these two aspects are inseperable in the film's Ever After conclusion. Then again, to the right audience, maybe it's a simple, romantic tale with a happy ending. Filmed in the dark winter in Sweden, the mood is not exactly brooding, but you can feel the loneliness and alienation in every frame. Still, Alfredson is canny enough to throw a Hollywood "Fuck Yeah!" moment to the audience right when it's needed.

Suggested Double Feature: El Orphanato (The Orphanage) (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007) - I originally skipped this movie, produced by Guillermo Del Toro, because it just sounded like the same movie as Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (both are artsy ghost stories that take place in orphanages during the Spanish Civil War). When I finally got around to watching it, I found not many similarities beyond that. Like Let the Right One In, El Orphanato reinterprates the mythology of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys as the stuff of horror films.

42. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

Inglourious Basterds is a film about propaganda, war through means other than physical violence: words, ideas, images. The second half of the film centers around Goebbles' propaganda films, movies produced by the Nazi regime specifically to advance the Nazi cause and promote German nationalism. These films are weapons of war, as surely as any tank or bomber. It's a war fought through ideas, and on the flip side of it, we have Shoshanna Dreyfuss, a culture jammer who hacks into Goebbles' system with her own counter-propaganda film, warping the weapon back on its weilder like Bugs Bunny bending back the barrells of Elmer Fudd's shotgun. Aldo Rayne and his squadron of Basterds are propagandists too, of a different sort. Their goal is not to win the war by amassing massive casualties (to "make the other poor bastard die for his country"), but to weaken German morale by striking terror into the hearts of Nazi soldiers. They are, in other words, terrorists. Rayne explicitly states this in his speech to his troops. Hitler understands this as well, and the imperative he issues is not to kill the Basterds at all costs, but to issue a gag order on soldiers spreading the Bear Jew mythology. Hans Landa, too, uses communication as a weapon. He doesn't find Jews by waterboarding collaborators, just by manipulating them with words (and "uncomfortable silences"). Note that Landa's position on his unofficial title of "The Jew Hunter" is entirely dependent on his audience. He embraces the title to intimidate the French farmer, distances himself from it to appeal to Aldo Rayne.

Propaganda lurks everywhere in the margins of the film. When the Basterds break Hugo Stiglitz out of prison, his guard is reading a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (complete with a rat-like cartoon Jew on the cover--Landa didn't just come up with the Jew-rat metaphor off the top of his head), a piece of antisemitic propaganda that has been circulating around the world for a century. The big setpiece in the subteranean tavern reflects this: it's not a shoot-out, but a constantly shifting game, both sides trying to convince the other side that they are who they say they are, or to disprove the same. (Expanded from my original post on IB here.)

Suggested Double Feature: Facebook friend Molly Dierbeck suggested that IB "is the movie that starts where The Sound of Music leaves off." I'll take that as a good suggestion.

41. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)

28 Days Later marks a sea-change in the depiction of "zombies" on screen. I use the quotes because the menace in the film are not actual living dead, just people infected with an experimental virus that induces violent, uncontrollable rage. But the more signifigant changes are the speed with which they move (no longer shambling on rotten legs, but sprinting at their target) and the lack of tongue-in-cheek humor and, arguably, fetishized gore (there's plenty of blood, but I would argue that it's presented matter-of-factly compared to the gratuitous gore shots you see in most pre-2000 zombie films). All of this makes 28 Days Later a signifigant entry into the genre, but it doesn't exactly make it a great film (or even a good one). That is acheived entirely through Danny Boyle's skill as a filmmaker.

Leaving aside the darkly ironic prelude showing the origin of the virus and the quiet denoument, the narrative is bookended by two bravura scenes. The first introduces us to our protagonist Jim (Cillian Murphy), waking up confused and alone in an ICU ward and wandering further and further into the world without finding any signs of life. It's a scene straight out of a nightmare, deriving a dizzying intensity from its pop song score. Then there's the climax, with Jim performing a Rambo-esque rescue in a thunderstorm, a beautifully lit, staged, edited and scored stretch of action cinema. In fact, I find the whole portion of the movie that occurs in the mansion with the soldiers endlessly fascinating, as the Major (Christopher Eccleston) observes and participates in the new, savage world with a cold, analytical eye. The title of the film becomes more signifigant: it took only a month of this for this guy to abandon the traditional morality of civilization and decide the logical thing to do was to turn two young girls into sex slaves for his men.

Suggested Double Feature: The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005) - I had this scary-as-hell flick on an early version of this list, but I actually switched it out when I remembered 28 Days Later, so they might as well go together. The problem with so many horror movies is that the characters make idiotic decisions for no apparent reason other than to keep them in danger. The characters in The Descent make very bad decisions, but they all make sense for those characters, in those situations, with the incomplete information those characters have.

Addendum: Chris Stangl, at his blog The Exploding Kinetoscope, is doing a similar series (grouped by year rather than rank), but with much better writing. Not only has he written much more interesting stuff about Jandek on Corwood than I did, but he's fucked me up by pretty much saying everything I was going to say about Battle Royale.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Lady Gaga - "Telephone" Video (Jonas Akerlund, 2010)

My friend Kevin urged me to watch the new Lady Gaga video. It's actually just about the first time I've heard her music, other than a song they played during our recent night at the roller rink in Glendale. Anyway, I like the video a lot. I like the 70's exploitation flick references, and of course the appearance of the Pussy Wagon, but what it really made me think of is the musical numbers from those old Busby Berkely movies.

In films like 42nd Street, we watch musical numbers performed on stage in front of an audience, but as the routines go on, the camera pans deeper into the stage, showing views that could not possibly be seen by the audience or even fit on a theater stage. These scenes exist purely in the universe of movies. They remind you that you are watching a movie. They have nothing to do with reality. Similarly, the video for "Telephone" exists entirely in the world of music videos. Because no matter how big a diva you are, they don't allow you to wear your bizarro runway fashions in prison. When Lady Gaga is seen on the yard wearing sunglasses made of cigarettes (still smoking!), it's a clever little joke--cigarettes are the ultimate bling on the prison yard, right?--but what's really cool about it is that the glasses are so totally impractical in the real world. You can't see out of them! They have no purpose other than to look cool.

Alex Blaze wrote about the maybe-kinda-transgressive nature of the lesbianism in the video:

From a sexuality standpoint, I give it a "meh" as well, since the lesbianism is obviously just there to make straight boys drool and it's given a complete "Well they're in prison" (a straight male fantasy if ever there was one) excuse so that Beyonce can still be read as straight.

This is essentially correct, but misses the point. Lady Gaga is a straight woman who reads as a drag queen. In terms of gay identity, she's like a visitor from the future, so it hardly makes sense to hassle her for not trying to overturn sexual mores that are already long outdated.