Friday, 30 June 2017

The Big Lebowski, Stoner Noir and the Ironic Rise of Dudeism

From an "Eastern Thing" to Western Ghosts of Lost Manhood via Post-Vietnam Castration

by J. Albert Barr

Without question, the biggest cult film of the last twenty years is The Big Lebowski. It has become so popular and beloved that it has even spawned a religion: Dudeism! There have been an increasing array of festivals across the U.S. in celebration of the film since at least the mid-2000s, and many of the cast members have made appearances at them as well. The film plays regularly at second-run and art house theaters all over North America. Many books have been written about The Big Lebowski. Some of them simply laud the film, featuring still-photos of scenes, synopsis, favourite quotes, character files and biographical sketches of its cast members and crew; while other books are more analytical and philosophical sussing out the film's many themes, symbols, theoretical meanings, and cultural significance in general. Many fans have claimed to have seen the film 20-30 times, if not more. A definite percentage of those fans simply enjoy the film and its silly, expletive-filled, apparent absurdity at face value, and generally don't engage it on any other level than sheer, unadulterated entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with that, of course. While others within its considerable fanbase (writers, for instance) engage and celebrate it for its seemingly endless layers and rich, even profound, content.

Upon its initial release in March of 1998, however, The Big Lebowski was met with a lukewarm reception, receiving mixed reviews, with some even claiming outright bafflement, considering the highly acclaimed and more mature (despite its humorous undercurrents), structurally coherent, Oscar-winning Fargo, which had preceded it by just two years. The Big Lebowski was, at first, seen, "in the parlance of Maude Lebowski", as a rather fatuous effort by the Coen Brothers; a film not to be taken at all seriously, and merely a silly, albeit vulgar, indulgence to fill time and space before the Coens unveiled their next, "more serious", masterwork. The film didn't attract many movie-goers either during its first run, only grossing $17 million in the U.S. and Canada. But then it got released on video, and eventually DVD, and slowly but surely it gained an increasingly devoted cult following that would watch it over and over again.

Around four years after The Big Lebowski quietly came and went in theaters, and social media websites began popping up everywhere on-line, the film's popularity, in turn, seemed to have exploded out of nowhere. Websites dedicated to celebrating the film were being launched, and the very first "Lebowski Fest" took place on October 12, 2002. Three years and many festivals later Dudeism was officially established as an actual religion, philosophy and lifestyle; clearly a gradual product of the "Western Buddhism" that had disseminated throughout North America since the 60s, thanks in great part to the many books and lectures of Alan Watts, and the Beat Generation poets and writers, like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. There have been over 200,000 "Dudeist priests" ordained. What was it about this outrageous film, aside from its fantastic entertainment value and irreverent character, that so suddenly caught so many people's attention and imagination several years after its abject failure, commercially and critically?

With the plethora of books and essays written about The Big Lebowski, there have also been a slew of You Tube videos made about it too, and all of them offered their own take and theories regarding this multi-faceted and endlessly fascinating, off-the-wall comedy. One such intriguing theory was a paper co-written by William and Barbara Ashton in 2008 titled: "Deception and Detection: The Trickster Archetype in the Film, The Big Lebowski, and its Cult Following". In it, the writers surmised that the film was about the Iraq War, and that the idea of the "trickster", or "deceiver", was a major element within the film's narrative that struck a collective chord with its newfound audience on videotape and/or DVD. Now, hold on a second, the Iraq War happened about five years after the film was released, and it was the Gulf War of 1991 that was a constant reference point and backdrop for the setting of The Big Lebowski, so what were the Ashtons getting at with their claims revolving around the "Gulf War 2"?

Well, apparently, it was that the political climate circa 2002-2003, so closely following the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001, thus setting the stage, imminently, for another war in the Middle East, despite the marked lack of evidence contradicting the American government's pro-war claims, that so fuelled the suspicion, or outright protestations, of a considerable cross-section of the American populace that seemed to connect profoundly with the scenario depicted in The Big Lebowski, regardless of how ridiculous the film's convoluted plot played out. In the film, it seemed all the characters were tricking and deceiving one another: enemies, friends and even lovers, it didn't matter who, so long as their respective wants and desires were being satisfied. This structural trope, of course, abides by the noir film formula, which is one of the reasons The Big Lebowski is indeed a neo-noir film, or more specifically and contextually, a "stoner noir", given its contemporary, postmodern setting and drugs, particularly marijuana, playing such a big part in its milieu. Many of the film's new fans, either consciously or not, saw a connection with their unwanted Iraq War and The Big Lebowski's diegetic Gulf War, in terms of the respective "tricksters and deceivers" involved: the characters deceiving each other in the film, and the government deceiving the American people by justifying going back to war against Saddam Hussein under the pretext of responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center that were perpetrated 18 months prior. With the Ashton's theory in mind, it is perhaps a stunning coincidence that, in the opening scene of the film, The Dude signs a check, for a carton of milk, that is dated September 11, 1991, exactly ten years to the day before 9/11 happened in 2001.

There are plenty of other theories and claims that have been made by interested parties concerning The Big Lebowski and its many facets, including ones that fall under feminism, consumerism and commodity fetishism, societal critique, existential absurdity, nostalgia, sexuality, male identity, narcissism, postmodernism, etc. My approach here might seem a little more radical, and maybe controversial, but I'll likely be touching on some of the aforementioned theoretical points, particularly postmodernism, male identity, existential absurdity, and the new sub-genre of the "stoner noir". For this essay/article I'd like to zoom in on some of the distinct details found in a number of specific scenes and their respective surroundings, their individual set-pieces, mood and what they represent and implicate before I conclude with the main crux of this article.

To begin with, the Coens chose to place their film in a modern noir setting, that is, a "neo-noir setting"; though unbeknownst to the Coens at the time, they were actually making one of the first "stoner noir" films. The first belatedly known stoner noir was Robert Altman's 1973 classic, updated adaptation of Raymond Chandler's, The Long Goodbye. Altman's film is set during the early 70s, instead of Chandler's original 1949-50 setting in his 1953 novel. Indeed, the film's star, Elliott Gould, who plays private investigator Philip Marlowe, is seen, at the start of the film, waking up in the middle of the night, slightly disoriented, as if he's been asleep for 20 years, just like Rip Van Winkle, only to find himself suddenly in a different world than the one he occupied in the 40s and 50s. The film's DVD making-of featurette is actually entitled "Rip Van Marlowe". Marlowe now is, anachronistically, immersed in the post-60s drug haze of a counter-culture hang-over where everyone - certainly in Southern California - appears to be grooving on new ageism, the sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, organic lifestyles and simply "taking it easy", particularly at Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, where Marlowe is actually located.

The most recent stoner noir, and the film that officially established this new sub-genre of noir, is Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent film, Inherent Vice, based on Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel. The novel, and film, are aptly set, just like Altman's The Long Goodbye, in the early 70s following the cultural, and political, crash of the attempted revolutionary 60s. Like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, and Marlowe in Altman's adaptation, "Doc" Sportello is a somewhat hapless, and socially dubious, protagonist, in Inherent Vice, investigating a situation that takes him into unforeseen circumstances - running into a colourful cavalcade of unseemly characters - that he has very little influence and power over, only to finally arrive at a bittersweet, ambiguous and elliptical resolution to the case he'd been working on.

Though The Big Lebowski is also set in Los Angeles, like The Long Goodbye and Inherent Vice, it takes place during the early 90s, instead of the early 70s. But despite this, it still evinces a pronounced throwback quality while it remains very much in its respective time and cultural climate. ultimately giving it a liminal essence, or an in-betweenness. This quality isn't anything necessarily new in cinema (you certainly get it as well in Pulp Fiction, for instance), but it's very much a postmodern trope that has appeared more and more since the 90s. One could argue that it began with Blade Runner in 1982, where you don't just see retro-fitted architecture, but "retro-fitted characters" and their stylistic details in perpetual oscillation with the past age they reflect and the contemporary age (or in the specific case of Rick Deckard, the futuristic age) they occupy.

One such instance in The Big Lebowski is the scene where The Dude is forced to confront porn mogul/hedonist Jackie Treehorn at his luxurious, postmodern home in the Hollywood Hills. The house is a fairly famous one known as the Sheats-Goldstein Residence. It was designed and built, as an example of Organic Architecture (i.e., to intermingle the artificial structure with its natural surroundings), by influential architect, John Lautner in 1963, and was eventually purchased by eccentric real estate billionaire, and "NBA Superfan", James Goldstein. He's known to lend his property to film-makers to use in their films, like The Big Lebowski of course, and musicians to use as a location for music videos, such as Snoop Dogg's video for "Let's Get Blown". It was even the location for Rihanna's 27th birthday party in 2015.  

So, in that Jackie Treehorn scene we can clearly see that the affluent bachelor pad retains its late 50s/ early 60s decor and atmospheric essence. Even the music chosen to play during this scene (Henry Mancini's smooth, romantic, modernist 1961 instrumental, "Lujon") fits perfectly with the postmodern irony of the setting and bawdy content of the discussion therein; all the while, however, retaining the trope of the hardboiled detective "on the case", although The Dude is more "softboiled", and an inadvertent "detective". At one point Jackie tells The Dude about "Teledildonics", which corresponded with the early stages of virtual reality technology under development and referenced in Howard Rheingold's 1991 book, Virtual Reality: The Revolutionary Technology of Computer-Generated Artificial Worlds - and How It Promises to Transform Society: "New technology permits us to do very exciting things in interactive, erotic software - wave of the future, Dude, one-hundred percent electronic!" To which The Dude glibly responds, "Well, I still jerk-off manually." Despite its lewd humour and wit (which we, as the audience rooting for The Dude, enjoy immensely), it's a rather telling statement coming from The Dude, given his current life circumstances as an unemployed, single man in his forties - a fore-runner of the recently established "MGTOW movement" perhaps?

In another scene, we see The Dude, Walter and Donny attending The Dude's landlord, Marty's, strange dance-cycle performance in a local theatre not exactly filled to capacity. The performance is a highly symbolic, interpretive dance, and one that recalls a Wagner opera (like I initially mistook it for), even funnily evoking the classic Looney Tune cartoon, "What's Opera, Doc?" But, in fact, the music Marty uses (and therefore the Coens) is from the 19th Century Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky, and is entitled "The Gnome", which is the first movement in his 1874 ten-piece suite, Pictures at an Exhibition. The piece's narrative is supposed to depict a "little gnome, clumsily running with crooked legs". And, in a sense, we see that in Marty's performance, but he choreographs a very Wagnerian episode of Man struggling against the elements, the forces of nature, including his own self-sabotaging nature, while attempting to overcome these outward and inward forces. Completely unbeknownst to our intrepid, um, "I won't say heroes, 'cause what's a hero?", protagonists, they don't realise that what Marty's symbolically performing could, and I feel is, a reflection of their own current lives, respectively, and even the present situation they unwittingly have found themselves involved in, with the exception of Donny, who is merely a marginalised member observing from the sidelines, and haplessly asking questions while hopelessly "out of his element".

The ironic thing about Mussorgsky being referenced here is that, while he was a gifted composer, he was also a reputed buffoon and societal contrarian of sorts in his day, who failed to finish several of his compositions, due to his alcoholism, laziness, hedonism and ribald behaviour, and died fairly young at just 42 years of age. Even though Mussorgsky's famous contemporary, Tchaikovsky, admired his undeniable talent, he described his personality thusly: "...he has a certain baseness to his nature which likes coarseness, uncouthness, roughness. He flaunts his illiteracy, takes pride in his ignorance, mucks along anyhow, blindly believing in the infallibility of his genius". Mussorgsky died a broken and ineffectual man, and Marty is also a broken, timid, figurative-eunuch of a man expressing, in his dance cycle, the loss of his manhood. This public gesture, barely attended by anyone, but importantly attended by The Dude and Co., also reflects the all-but-literally-castrated state of not only The Dude and friends, but virtually every other male in the movie. The lead female character, Maude, is the most assertive, self-assured, take-charge, get-things-done, "balls out" presence in the entire film! From getting her rug back, to seducing, as the "femme fatale", The Dude into impregnating her so she can become a single, self-sustaining mother.

Indeed, most of the men in the film (with the sole exception of The Stranger, who not only narrates, but acts as a kind of "ghost of the old west" and of manliness), however endearing some of them appear to be, are bumbling, ineffectual losers and/or posers, wholly, and ironically, contradicting the traditional trope of the "man's man" that populate classic noir stories and films. They're soft instead of "hardboiled", who, in the case of Walter, for instance, over-compensate for their softness (catering to his ex-wife, posturing for political correctness - "Chinaman is not the accepted nomenclature, please, Asian-American.") by assuming the Alpha-male role in his social circle (emasculating Donny - an easy target - constantly), owning a security supplies store, pulling a gun out in the bowling lane because someone may or may not have "crossed the line", and, in knee-jerk fashion, losing his temper the second someone disagrees with him. The great irony here is that Walter almost always loses the seeming conviction of his outbursts, which get suddenly truncated (or castrated?), due to him being consistently distracted by something else going on before him. We call this kind of behaviour "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder". The Dude just calls him "an asshole".

What is perhaps the most surprising and revelatory take away from The Big Lebowski, and one it took years and many viewings for me to finally realise, is that all of Walter's incessant references to the Vietnam War, as having a "connection" with the goings-on in the film's story, to which The Dude in turn always dismissed out of hand, actually have everything to do with what is happening in The Big Lebowski! The humiliating defeat ("defeat" in that the war was not won) in Vietnam apparently emasculated, and in many cases psychologically castrated, the American male psyche, among the Baby Boomers, through the ensuing years since the war ended. The modern man of 1991 (right up to our present time, sadly) has become impotent, symbolically castrated by Vietnam's failure, by feminism, by consumerism, by political correctness, by idle testosterone, by misguided, so-called progressive ideologies, by unbridled capitalism. It's no mistake that the film is absolutely rife with references to penises and castration and "fucking someone up the ass". In fact, the very act of bowling is symbolic of this evident, cultural castration of America's men, which they've unwittingly passed down to their "little Lebowskis" as well, as Generation X came face-to-face with, psychically speaking of course, through the 90s. The bowlers are quite simply rolling their "balls" down the lane to knock over the "phallic-shaped pins", to ritualistically render impotent, their own "dicks". Men are no longer "the phallus" in society, and they've been rendered as "cucks"(in the parlance of our times) as a result.

The Dude's "rug" is, of course, following the detective noir trope, a "MacGuffin", in that the convoluted plot is beside the point. But in the context of the symbolism of American men being collectively castrated, the rug is the key. The rug acts as a surrogate woman, a place-holder, and the essence of The Dude's manhood being perpetually in a state of liminality. Taking a cue from Arnold van Gennep's initial meaning for liminality (i.e., "the rite of passage", usually for an adolescent male or female before they are officially incorporated into society), Victor Turner expanded on the concept by applying it to not only tribal societies but non-tribal societies, certain sections and specific societal communities and personages. Turner became aware that liminality "...served  not only to identify the importance of in-between periods, but also to understand the human reactions to liminal experiences: the way liminality shaped personality, the sudden foregrounding of agency, and the sometimes dramatic tying together of thought and experience...The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae ("threshold people") are necessarily ambiguous". "One's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation, but also the possibility of new perspectives. Turner posits that, if liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it potentially can be seen as a period of scrutiny for central values and axioms of the culture where it occurs - one where normal limits of thought, self-understanding and behaviour are undone."

In these kinds of situations, "the very structure of society [is] temporarily suspended". This accurately describes the structure, and societal crisis,  you usually find in hardboiled detective stories and noir films. The stoner noir that is The Big Lebowski, and its internal societal crisis, aside from all the hysterical laughs it provides, ironically of course, is a definite "case" in point here.




Friday, 17 June 2016

The Monkees, their 50th Anniversary and Why They Deserve to be in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame

by J. Albert Barr

"They've got their own scene, and I won't send them down for it. You try a weekly television show and see if you can manage one half as good!" - John Lennon (who called them the modern Marx Brothers for their ground-breaking antics on their Emmy-award winning T.V. show)

This September will officially mark the 50th anniversary of NBC's launching of The Monkees television show in 1966. To celebrate the occasion, the remaining Monkees reunited, again, and recorded their twelfth album, titled Good Times! Despite the unfortunate loss of the band's resident "heart-throb", Davy Jones, who suddenly passed away in early 2012 from a heart-attack, the new album still features all four original members singing lead-vocals on, at least, one track. The lone track featuring Davy Jones singing, "Love to Love", is a hold-out from a number of sessions dating back to 1967-68. The Neil Diamond-penned tune includes newly recorded backing vocals by both Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, thus allowing Davy Jones to make a posthumous appearance on Good Times! 

The new Monkees album was released in late-May of this year, just a couple of weeks ago, in fact. The reviews for Good Times! have been surprisingly positive to downright overwhelming in praise. It's "surprising" because the last several Monkees albums, dating from, at least, 1970's Changes to 1996's Justus, had been judged less than favourably, especially 1987's dismal, Pool It!, the first of their, now three, reunion albums. One notable solid review, for the new album, was actually issued by Rolling Stone, a rock magazine known for their viciously criticising, and basically writing-off, the entire Monkees catalogue, aside from their best-of compilations. Rolling Stone gave Good Times! a three-and-a-half star rating, concluding in their glowing review that "Monkee freaks have waited far too long for this album. But it was worth it." If you go by Rolling Stone's most recent edition of their review guide, Good Times! is easily the highest rated Monkees album ever by this "institute of rock journalism". The album is currently sitting at 80% among critics at Metacritic, indicating an average of 4 stars given to it. The U.K.'s Independant even called the album, "probably The Monkees' best album, after their hits compilation". I personally don't agree with that assessment, but I'll come back to that counter opinion a little later. It might, however, be their "second best album".

Unlike '96's Justus, where the band wrote, and played on, every track of that album, Good Times! features song contributions from a very impressive collection of well-known songwriters (and fans of The Monkees), such as Weezer's Rivers Cuomo (who wrote the album's first single, the 60s-evoking and infectious, "She Makes Me Laugh"), XTC's Andy Partridge (contributing the second single, the appropriately sunny and catchy, "You Bring the Summer"), a fantastic collaborative effort from Oasis' Noel Gallagher and The Jam's legendary Paul Weller with the contemporaneously titular and ironically topical, "Birth of an Accidental Hipster"; a progressive sounding song seemingly with both feet straddling the late-60s a la S.F. Sorrow-era Pretty Things and post-millennial Beck a la Sea Change/Morning Phase. There's also a magnificent tune from Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, "Me & Magdalena", which appears to be a personal favourite among the fans, including myself. These two latter songs feature impressively affecting lead-vocals from Michael Nesmith, who also sings lead on his own original composition, the simple, yet beautiful and heart-baring, piano-led ballad, "I Know What I Know".

In fact, all three surviving Monkees contributed an original song each on the new album. Besides Nesmith's aforementioned gem, Peter Tork's folky, "Little Girl", may just be the best Monkees song to bear his credit (and his vocals on Goffin & King's, "Wasn't Born to Follow", could be his best vocal performance ever). Okay, Tork's "For Pete's Sake", from Headquarters, and his two numbers featured on Head, are also quite good as well, but I really do love "Little Girl".  And, lastly, there's Micky Dolenz's characteristically upbeat and droll, "I Was There (And I'm Told I Had a Good Time)" to aptly close out the album, which he actually co-wrote with the album's producer, Adam Schlesinger, who also appears on several tracks playing an array of instruments. It should be mentioned, too, that The Monkees, themselves, particularly Nesmith and Tork, brought a fair bit of the album's instrumentation to the proverbial table, i.e., studio sessions. That being said, they were indeed supported by a terrific group of musicians that bolstered a very tight and well-produced Monkees album that should date quite well in the future, I feel, unlike, say, the aforementioned, Pool It!, for instance. And, to top it all off, Good Times! has debuted all the way up to #14 on Billboard's Top 200 Album Chart! This signifies the highest a Monkees album has charted since The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees peaked at #3 in 1968. So, all indications say that the new album is both a commercial and critical success. which appears to be a first for this historically, much critically-maligned, bubblegum pop-labelled, "pre-fab four".

And it's unfortunate that The Monkees have had to continually apologize for their "prefabricated and manufactured" origins, when they, actually, became fairly significant musical artists in their own right pretty early in their existence. Yes, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Davy Jones and Peter Tork did indeed audition, in 1965, for a new television show that would premiere in September 1966, and become an immediate sensation. The show was created by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider after they were inspired by The Beatles' first, iconic film, 1964's A Hard Day's Night. They wanted to re-create the fresh, youthful and crazy spirit of that zeitgeist-establishing film, that came out of England, for American kids, and with a particularly American sensibility.

Chock full of frenetic energy; wacky, zany and downright surreal situations; witty, hilarious banter among the four leads; colourful and imaginative sets, and art direction that screamed of the changing cultural tide, visually and aurally, The Monkees became an instant smash hit on television in the fall of 1966. But even before the show debuted, the band (at least "in name", for now, at the time) already scored a #1 smash hit with "Last Train to Clarksville", having been released a month before the show's first episode aired. The Monkees' self-titled debut album got its official release a few weeks after the show's premiere, hitting #1 a month later and stayed on top of the Billboard charts for thirteen consecutive weeks, right into the second month of 1967, where it was finally displaced by their quick follow-up second album, More of the Monkees. During the 1967 Emmy Awards, The Monkees won Best Comedy Series, as well as Outstanding Directorial Achievement for the show's principal director, James Frawley.

1967 would prove to be one of the most spectacular years any musical outfit would ever have! They started the year off as the biggest thing on television with a hugely popular and critically-acclaimed show, but The Monkees were literally ruling the airwaves and the pop charts as well. They had the #1 album in the U.S. for the first 23 weeks of that year. Their second album was finally dethroned by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, but then they returned to the nation's top-spot the following week with their third album, Headquarters, which was then replaced by none other than The Beatles' era-defining masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. As Sgt. Pepper retained the #1 spot week after week throughout the "Summer of Love", Headquarters held strong by staying at #2 for eleven consecutive weeks. The Monkees would then close out their unbelievable 1967 with yet another smash-hit album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd, hitting #1 for the last five weeks of that unforgettable year. All together, The Monkees scored four #1 albums in 1967! That is a record no one else has ever equalled. Also, their second album, More of the Monkees, was the best selling album of 1967, giving it the distinction of becoming the very first pop-rock album ever to be the year's best seller, out-selling every other genre of music. As for singles, The Monkees racked up seven Top 40 hits in 1967, including two #1's ("I'm a Believer" and "Daydream Believer"), and two other Top 10s ("A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday"), and two others that made the Top 20 ("I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" and "Words"), with "Words" narrowly missing the Top 10 by peaking at #11. The seventh Top 40 hit was Michael Nesmith's own "The Girl I Knew Somewhere", which was the B-side to "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You", but managed to chart at #39.

The show's premise was that of four struggling musicians trying to "make it" in the music business as a band, living in a two-story beach house in Malibu, California. On the first floor, in the back, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, was an alcove where "the band" kept their instruments and rehearsed. Their attempts to be successful, however, were thwarted week-in and week-out, by "older members" of the establishment. Pretty much immediately after being cast in the show, Peter Tork, and particularly Michael Nesmith, expressed surprise and dismay that their musical talents were not required for the recording of The Monkees' first album. To appease the severity of Nesmith's misgivings concerning his non-invite to the recording sessions, musical director, Don Kirshner, who was hired by the show's producers to lord over the choice of song material and session players, allowed Nesmith to actually contribute two original numbers on the debut album. The only Monkee, however, to appear on the album in the capacity of musicianship, was Peter Tork, who played guitar on two tracks.

Regardless of what Kirshner insisted upon, Michael, Peter, Micky and Davy practiced and rehearsed as a "real band". To everyone else, however, especially music business insiders, critics and actual musicians playing and recording albums, The Monkees were a "fictitious band". This festering frustration finally came to a head after The Monkees had performed several live gigs in front of thousands of their screaming, adoring fans. To their collective surprise and confusion, their second album, More of the Monkees, had already been released, with Kirshner deciding the song selections and sequencing, without their being informed of any of it upon arriving back from their maiden tour. Shortly thereafter, the disgruntled Monkees met with Kirshner and his lawyer, Herb Moelis, at the Beverly Hills Hotel. What, to Kirshner, seemed like a moment of celebration, by rewarding each Monkee with a handsome check for $250,000 for services rendered, in terms of the show's and music's success, quickly deteriorated into a hostile ultimatum led by, of course, Michael Nesmith, who, at this point, could no longer accept his role as a "phony musician" barely even credited on albums bearing his band's/show's namesake. He formally threatened to quit the show if he couldn't actually play on Monkees albums. He punctuated his point by literally punching a hole in the wall of the hotel suite and saying to Moelis, "That could have been your face!", before storming out. Though the two less musically-inclined members, Micky and Davy, were hesitant somewhat, they still sided with their band-mates, Peter and Nesmith, to be allowed to play their own music. The show's creators and producers, Bob and Bert, also sided with The Monkees. They officially dismissed Don Kirshner of his duties with The Monkees, and in February of 1967, they finally won their artistic autonomy to play and record, and even choose what songs they wanted on their albums, including writing songs themselves.

The resulting album, Headquarters, was released in May of '67, with half the album's fourteen tracks written by The Monkees themselves. Musically, the now real band, played on every track as well. Though it didn't spawn any big hits in the U.S., they did score a considerable hit in the U.K. with Micky Dolenz's first original song, "Randy Scouse Git" (under the deliberately cheeky alternate title, "Alternate Title", due to its racy connotations to English sensibilities), which just missed hitting the top by peaking at #2. The song's lyrics relayed a series of observations Micky made at a big party The Beatles threw for The Monkees in their honour in London. The album's other famous song is "Shades of Gray". Despite Headquarters lack of hit singles, at least in the States, it still proved to be an excellent collection of songs and yet another #1, which even ebbed the number of hostile reviews they typically received from music critics.

Later that year, The Monkees, despite their exhausting work schedule, regarding the show, which was still doing well, re-entered the studio again to record their third 1967 album. This one was titled Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd, and it would prove to be, in the opinion of many, including myself, their masterpiece. Earlier in the year, Micky Dolenz purchased a newly designed instrument called a Moog synthesizer, a very innovative keyboard, with accompanying transistor panel, that created a fantastic and sense-heightening array of electronic sounds that helped usher in the "psychedelic era" of rock and experimental/avant garde music. The Monkees were one of the first musical acts to employ this instrument's sound in their music, and particularly on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. It can be heard on side-two of the record on the album's marvelous closer, "Star Collector", and especially, and most memorably, on one of the album's best tracks, the Nesmith-penned "Daily Nightly". This incredible track, and truly one of the most under-rated classics of the psychedelic era, features Micky's outstanding vocals as well as his playing the Moog synthesizer, creating eerie and spacey sounds that instantly enhance his ghostly vocals and Michael's vivid and evocative lyrics, lyrics that recall French symbolist poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud. One great example comes in the second verse: "Startled eyes that sometimes see phastasmagoric splendour/ Pirouette down palsied paths/ With pennies for the vendor". Each verse ends with the refrain of "Finding questions, but no answers" - a sentiment very much in the ether during those culturally revolutionary, and acutely political, times in the 60s. "Daily Nightly" is The Monkees' "Tomorrow Never Knows", and it heralded the likes of great, yet undervalued psychedelic classics like The United States of America's "The American Metaphysical Circus" and Elephant's Memory's "Old Man Willow".

The Monkees' fourth album was replete with one great track after another. It has no filler at all, and puts on display some of the best stuff any individual Monkee had ever contributed. Davy Jones, whose vocals weren't exactly the strongest and most versatile, here gives his best vocal performances on any Monkees album, in my opinion, showing a range he hadn't accomplished before or after. And the best Monkee song with his name in the credits, the admittedly mellifluous, but undeniably pretty, "Hard to Believe" amply shows the atypical strength of his vocals on this magnificent album, as does the rollicking rocker, the aforementioned album closer, "Star Collector", which was written by the great song-writing team of Goffin and King. True, The Monkees did resort back some to outside writers for much of this album's material, but it was still chosen by themselves and played to a large extent by themselves, with assistance from session players. Pisces also features Michael Nesmith's vocals more prominently than any other Monkees album, with him singing lead on five tracks, including album highlight "Love is Only Sleeping", a spectacular rocker that also features his incredibly catchy, garage-rock guitar riff that runs through the entire song. It could have been a single, I feel. And perhaps more importantly, there is his performance on Murphey and Castleman's "What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round?", one of the first bona fide "country-rock" tunes to appear on record before The Byrds officially established the sub-genre the next year with their now classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Of course, the two most famous songs on Pisces, and its two biggest hits, are the cheerfully cynical, suburban apathy-exposing "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and the moody and sensual "Words", both highlighting the truly remarkable vocals of Micky Dolenz, who really was gifted with one of the best singing voices in all of rock and popdom. Other favourites are the insidiously catchy bubblegum pop of "She Hangs Out", with its subversive lyrics suggesting sexual promiscuity, the rock solid Nesmith-sung "The Door into Summer", and his other self-penned contribution, the classy and gorgeously loungey, "Don't Call on Me", and, finally, one of Harry Nilsson's first songs to be recorded, "Cuddly Bear", which Davy sings with understated gusto and irresistible charm. Even Peter's lone lead vocal on the half minute long "Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky" is an ear-arresting vignette straight out of a drug-induced daydream,...believe it! Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd is quite simply one of the finest albums of the 1960s, period.

In the spring of 1968 The Monkees television show was cancelled after two solid seasons. The band refused to continue with the same formula, and instead opted for a motion-picture to be made called Head. A project they had been discussing with relative unknown, at the time, Jack Nicholson, actually. The film's premise would be the antithesis of what their show presented, and truly test the patience of both the show's young demographic and critics alike. Before that, however, they released what would be their last "hit album", The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees. By this time the band had pretty much reverted back to using session musicians on most of the tracks, although they still wrote at least half of the album's songs themselves. However, much like The Beatles did on "The White Album", each Monkee focused exclusively on their own numbers, injecting their own musical style on their respective productions, eschewing with any real sense of a "united band dynamic", for better or worse. Still, the resulting product was a mostly good, if uneven, collection of songs which had among them the last two significant hits The Monkees would enjoy, the schmaltzy, but much beloved, "Daydream Believer", and the spirited rocker, "Valleri". Nesmith's tremendous "Tapioca Tundra" also appears on The Birds, and even charted at #34 to boot.

With the show now gone, and their popularity on a discernible downturn, The Monkees, with Jack Nicholson co-writing the script and co-producing the film, focused on Head's production. The dark and surreal tone of the film, which begins with a prototypical Lynchian scene of an awkward ceremonial opening of a bridge, where an exasperated city mayor is futilely fighting off feedback from his microphone, hindering him from declaring the bridge open and cutting the ceremonial ribbon. When he finally gets his speech out of the way and is about to cut said ribbon, The Monkees suddenly show up and run right past everyone attending the ceremony and running through the ribbon before the mayor has a chance to cut it. They are apparently being chased, and so they run right to the edge of the bridge when suddenly Micky jumps off it and into the water hundreds of feet below. Then the film's theme song, "Porpoise Song" begins as Micky struggles to swim within the water's depths. He's then suddenly saved by, yup, a couple of mermaids. From there, the film follows The Monkees through a series of bizarre scenes of disorientation and frustration with the situation they find themselves in, and the questionable state of their career, evidently; continually getting themselves trapped inside a large metal box, only to escape momentarily and then captured again, before ending, like a Moebius-strip, at the beginning, disrupting the bridge ceremony and jumping off it together. The affecting symbolism of their being mere, exploited puppets for the soulless and superficial entertainment industry, while the Vietnam war is happening and 60s culture appears to be reaching an apogee of sorts, is not impossible to extract from Head, despite the film's nonlinear, peculiar narrative. I think it's a film that can be better appreciated with its historical context more fully fleshed-out and realised with hindsight. The soundtrack is also one of the band's most adventurous and rewarding listens. Rolling Stone even placed it in their Top 25 soundtracks of all time, further suggesting that they seem to be finally coming around to acknowledging The Monkees' tenable quality and historical significance.

After Head bombed completely at the box-office, and the soundtrack only managed to crack the Top 50 on Billboard's album chart, Peter Tork left the band. The three remaining members recorded two 1969 albums of ever more diminishing returns: Instant Replay and The Monkees Present (which does feature Michael's classic, "Listen to the Band"). Michael Nesmith did not participate on the band's final album, Changes (a contractual obligation album for all intents and purposes), before Micky and Davy put The Monkees out of their misery, as they were quite irrelevant by that time, sadly. Sixteen years later, however, in 1986, and much to their collective surprise, Monkeemania returned when MTV aired all 58 episodes of their once celebrated show, prompting a new generation of fans clamouring for new Monkees activity. It, understandably, brought the band back together, minus Michael Nesmith (who was doing rather fine, financially, at that time, when he inherited his mother's fortune of some 50 million dollars, having invented "liquid paper"), and so they recorded three new songs which were included on a new Monkees best-of compilation, Then and Now...The Best of The Monkees. They even scored a Top 20 hit with "That Was Then, This Is Now". Unfortunately, they couldn't sustain the momentum when they released the godawful Pool It! album in 1987.

For their 30th Anniversary, the entire band reconvened in 1996 and recorded a brand new album of all original material written by them, and also featuring no other musicians but themselves on every track. The result was the much-improved Justus album. However, unlike a decade earlier, there wasn't the same kind of reception by the record buying public, and so Justus became the first and only Monkees album to fail to chart. But now with the band's 50th Anniversary arriving this year, and the release of the truly wonderful Good Times! album, and its accompanying commercial and critical success, The Monkees are being afforded an opportunity to go out in style. They were eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25 years ago, and I think, with this new record being one of the band's finest, and the undeniable legacy that refuses to fade away, and given all that they have accomplished in those 50 years, they should finally be inducted. They clearly have a rich cache of classic hits that, to this day, are played every day on the radio, and have at least four albums that merit serious critical and artistic accolades and continuous admiration: Headquarters; Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd; Head and Good Times! There have definitely been artists that have made the Hall of Fame (Kiss, anyone?) with less impressive accomplishments, at least in my opinion. At last, I say give The Monkees their most-deserved due.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Deadpool: a Philosophical Take

A Loose Analysis of the Anti-Hero, Merc with a Mouth. Regenerating Degenerate Phenom

by J. Albert Barr

"For I do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me. With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they live, somewhere they multiply. I alone do not exist." - Vladimir Nabokov: "The Eye"

The Deadpool movie opened to huge box-office numbers over its first weekend of release, taking in an estimated $135,000,000, domestically. I saw it twice, actually, and enjoyed it very much for the most part. It was great, irreverent, high-octane entertainment. And, to echo the seeming consensus I've been observing on-line, Ryan Reynolds was indeed born to play Deadpool! In fact, he apparently agrees with everyone else too, because he'd been trying to get this film made for nearly a dozen years!

As we all know, Reynolds already portrayed (many believe betrayed) the Deadpool character in 2009's best-forgotten, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Well, seven years later it emphatically appears that he has more than made amends with his latest portrayal of Deadpool, who is now featured in his very own movie, and has also been quickly green-lit for, at least, another one in a couple of years. Importantly, this rendition of Deadpool is infinitely more faithful to the original, Marvel-published source material, in look, tone and, well, loquaciousness. The "merc with a mouth" is on display in full-throttle, or should I say "full-throattle", here, I can assure you.

February is also a rather fitting month to release Deadpool in, because it marks the 25th anniversary of this very postmodern character's debut. He first appeared in the February issue of The New Mutants #98 in 1991. He was created by the polarizing and controversial artist, Rob Liefeld and Argentinian writer, Fabian Nicieza. Why is Rob Liefeld so "polarizing and controversial"? That would take a fair amount of unpacking to adequately enough explain, as I would have to cover a lot of bases regarding the major changes and innovations that happened to comic books and the industry, in general, following the monumental releases of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen in 1986-87, and that's not my focus here at present. Suffice it to say, Rob Liefeld basically took the visual "bad-assery" depicted in Miller's and Moore's game-changing works, and discarded with their respective, narrative substance and realism. And perhaps most obvious, Liefeld took extreme liberties with the notion of "anatomical realism" and panel structure shortly after establishing himself as a hot new artist at the beginning of the 90s. His character physiques are ridiculously exaggerated and all out of proportion, featuring massive torsos, arms and shoulders, with little feet and heads (perhaps none more notorious than his Captain America rendition). And his panel layouts are known for their excessive use of "splash pages" and "money shots" - subtlety was never Liefeld's "strong-suit", nor was it meant to be, I'm sure. After Miller and Moore (quickly followed by the exemplary likes of Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, etc) essentially forced comic books to "grow up", Liefeld (and his less awful, but still guilty, pack of hot new "all-stars": Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, etc) suddenly became all the rage with comic book readers, particularly the younger ones, and even casual readers/speculative bubble collectors when the comic book boom happened during the first half of the 90s. What was great about comic books in the 90s, particularly, was represented by the former group, and what was bad about them emanated from the latter group, in my opinion.

However, of all the comic books he worked on, and the characters and titles he created or co-created, I feel there's little doubt that Liefeld's single best contribution to comic books, and certainly "super-hero comics", was, and is, Deadpool; in collaboration with writer, Fabian Nicieza, of course, who gave the character his motor-mouthed, iconoclastic and saucy demeanor.

With more than a passing visual resemblance to Spider-man (who's also known for his patented wise-cracking), Deadpool was actually modelled after DC's resident, bad-ass and villainous mercenary, Deathstroke; created in 1980 and first appearing in New Teen Titans #2. The Marvel-echoing of Deathstroke was so obvious that Deadpool's creators decided to not be bashful about it by giving Deadpool's alter-ego a very similar name to that of Deathstroke's Slade Wilson. They called him Wade Wilson! - wink! wink! DC!

Coming along just in time for Generation X's full fruition into alternative rock's zeitgeist of the 1990s, Deadpool was the perfect badboy embodiment for irony-laden, alternative rock loving comic book readers. He was first introduced as a "villain" in the soon-to-be-cancelled pages of The New Mutants. But, as the thoroughly postmodern decade progressed, and alternative rock was wholly co-opted by the mainstream, Deadpool's popularity increased to the point where he was given several more appearances in other Marvel titles, and even a couple of limited-series of his own before, finally, in 1997, he was given his first on-going series.

It actually wasn't until 1999, in issue #28 of Deadpool's first on-going series, that he would "break the fourth wall". It happened during an encounter with Bullseye, who is best known for being one of the top villains in Daredevil's rogue's gallery. Here was the point when the Deadpool character went full-on meta with his self-referentiality and pop culture referencing. From this point, no other comic book character breaks the fourth wall more often than Deadpool, and with such pop cultural pastiche and panache. In one of the most outrageous and bizarre examples of just how meta-fictional Deadpool got, he once killed every Marvel character by way of attacking the Marvel writers themselves! Not only does Deadpool's regenerative healing factor make him virtually immortal, and ultimately immune to death, but his meta-fictional awareness that he is essentially a comic book character and conscious of all the dynamics of that medium, he can therefore manipulate and take full advantage of his straddling both universes! But, come on, that's cheating! Hey, that's Deadpool. And that's the kind of world we live in right now.

Deadpool is perhaps the most flexible, malleable and adaptable comic book character currently in circulation here in the early stages of the 21st century. He is also highly marketable; and he wouldn't want it any other way. He's been virtually everywhere since the millennium, and in more ways than one. Deadpool is a capitalist entrepreneur's wet-dream. As a glaring reflection of late capitalism gone off the rails, Deadpool is an insatiable opportunist who will and can and has exploited every angle he can muster to make a buck and create more exposure for himself. He is capitalism incarnate, ironically enough, given his ultimately fictional status. But then so is the very currency that allows capitalism to flourish, like Deadpool, with seeming impunity.

Like DC, Marvel comics has been messing around with "multiple universes", and alternate realities, over the course of the last couple of decades, for better or worse (worse, in the opinion of this writer). As a result, Deadpool has multiplied in a vast series of "Deadpool-like clones": Lady Deadpool, the Deadpool Kid, Major Deadpool, Deadstroke (yep), Dreadpool, Ultimate Deadpool, Panda Pool, Golden Age Deadpool, Deadpool Pulp, Dino-Pool, Gopher-Pool, Venom-Pool, Deadpool the Duck, Logan-Pool (the Wolverine version, of course), Kidpool, Galacti-Pool, Cess-Pool, Beard of Bees Pool, Zombie Deadpool (although many Marvel characters got the inevitable "zombie treatment" eventually), and, yes, even Deadpool Pony (after My Little Pony!).

What I find fascinating, and considerably disturbing, about Deadpool's evolution, and his overall presentation in today's parlance, is just how much he actually reflects much of contemporary society - our rampant narcissism, materialism, and obsession with self-promotion. He therefore represents a certain ideal image we harbor within ourselves, and project outwardly through pop cultural examples like Deadpool. He's everything we'd like to be, which is to say, a completely narcissistic capitalist who does pretty much what he wants, and says anything he wants at any time, regardless of tact, discretion, consequence or sense. And he appears to have a complete disregard for history, for the passing of time, because he has a tendency to incur a loss of memory, likely due to the many head wounds he's sustained over the course of his time as a Marvel character. In conjunction with his unbridled ego, he has the convenience of not remembering the results of his, usually ultra-violent, exploits, as well as his social encounters. This means he is not only immune to serious injury, if not death outright, but is also immune to any or all culpability regarding his social behaviour.

Granted, in the Deadpool film, he is given more of a sense of humanity and purpose, which ultimately shines a more positive light on the way he's perceived by the movie-going audience, who, generally speaking, like their hero's to evince, well, heroic and redeemable qualities. I really didn't see much, if any, of that in the Deadpool comics I read while preparing for this article. In the beginning of the character's existence in the Marvel universe back in the early 90s he was, again, cast as a villain, but his instant popularity was so unexpected, and the demand to see more and more of him so unrelenting, the editors at Marvel were compelled to rehabilitate the character by degrees to re-cast him as an "anti-hero" of sorts, that the readers could more easily pull for and cheer on. Deadpool perfectly reflected the sensibilities of Generation X: jaded, ironic, self-conscious, pop culturally savvy, and internally scarred. Now with the Millennial tendency towards social and emotional detachment, Deadpool, at least in the comics, is a full-blown sociopath, with psychopathic urges to boot, with nary a single, solitary fuck to give, in the end. It's ultimately ALL about him; just like it is for so many Millennials and irreparably wounded and bitter Gen Xers.

But it's not necessarily the fault of these specific generations that so much rampant narcissism and internal aggression abounds in contemporary society. We are all susceptible to what is marginally known as semiotic chaos. Essentially, what this is is a collective rupture in language and identity itself, which is now helplessly bleeding out unstable, disparate universes that have thrown everything we know, and thought to have understood about our world willy-nilly (this has actually been developing for some time now, and I hope to better explain it more thoroughly in a future article). The very fabric of what had, however seemingly precarious it seemed to those discerning and conscious few, held together the world's identity - at least here in the "first world" -  has utterly given way to the inhuman bottom-line of late capitalism, and its unconscionable manipulation and exploitation of our very language itself, simply to expand, endlessly, the GDP, and ever-perpetuating profits simply for its own sake. And, in order to maintain such a maddening process, consumerism, and consumers themselves, must remain in a collectively sick state, especially internally, where we must all always feel voids in our respective lives that can only be medicated with an utterly endless supply of shallow products to beef up our illusory and deluded sense of self, regardless of how mentally and emotionally starving we are, and how ugly we've allowed ourselves to become, just like Deadpool is under his mask and costume.

What can I say? Like a delicious, nutrient-free dessert, the Deadpool movie was a frivolously good time at the cineplex, no doubt. Ryan Reynolds, and his Deadpool character, were a real hoot, to be sure. I laughed pretty much all through the film, but it also left me with a relatively empty feeling, that what I watched retained little value, substance-wise (I know, I know, it's "just a comic book movie", to which I would respond with: "Uh, no, it isn't"). It tasted great, ironically enough, seeing as Deadpool apparently tastes awful, at least to zombies, as I understand from my researching the character. As I said earlier, the Deadpool film did kinda go out of its way to humanize its titular "anti-hero" (and didn't really succeed in being the "anarchist" product it seems to think it is), but the comic book rendition of Deadpool, despite popular opinion espousing his "cool factor", is a troubling addition to contemporary comic books (especially super-hero comics), and pop culture, in general, because of the societal mirror reflection he casts towards our equally troubling society and its increasing number of detached individuals so frighteningly obsessed with themselves to the seeming detriment of everyone else, close to them or not, truth be told.

I think I read somewhere in a Deadpool issue, likely meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek (or was it?), that "he is not the hero we want, but the hero we need" (a popular sentiment nowadays regarding morally ambiguous characters we admire). This is not the case at all, of course - Deadpool is exactly the "hero" we WANT.


Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Culture Fix's Top 10 Films of 2015!

My Picks for the Best (and the Worst!) of the Past Year in Cinema

by J. Albert Barr

Last year, I presented my year-end Top 10 Films for the first time here at The Culture Fix. I had asserted that 2014 was, in my opinion, the single greatest year in cinema since 1999. Well, I certainly didn't expect 2015 to be as good, but damned if it wasn't real close in terms of sheer quality and consistency! We got a slew of good-to-great blockbusters, like Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Inside Out, Spectre, and, of course, the Starkiller-sized juggarnaut known as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And there were several outstanding dramas, and smaller, indie films, that hit the proverbial cinematic sweet-spot for me; many of which wound up in my Top 10, no less. There was even a flick that was technically released in 2014 that made my master list, because it wasn't officially released in my city until the second half of last January, so pardon the "lateness" of such an entry here.

Unlike last year, I will be including my Top 10 Worst Films I saw in 2015 as well, just for shits 'n' giggles. As good as 2015 was, there were also some outright stinkers I, ahem, actually paid to see. Thankfully, I didn't see all the bad films released this past year, so there will likely be a few you would expect to see in my "list of shame", like, say, 50 Shades of Grey, but I avoided it like the plague (and. evidently, for good reason - lol), so it didn't make my list. However, like last year, I will most definitely be including ten honorable mentions of great films that vied valiantly for my Top 10.

So, let's get started first with those shamelessly bad films I, with hindsight being 20-20, equally shamelessly, paid hard-earned dollars to sit through of my own volition:

1. The Gunman
2. Terminator Genisys
3. Fantastic Four
4. Run All Night
5. Victor Frankenstein
6. San Andreas
7. Pixels
8. Jurassic World
9. Blackhat
10. Irrational Man (admittedly, a tough choice here, because I'm a huge Woody Allen fan, but this one was a BIG disappointment!)

And, now, my ten honorable mentions, in no particular order, but all were truly great films in of themselves, and were tough cuts while compiling my master-list with considerable difficulty:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Big Short
It Follows
Mr. Turner
Love and Mercy
Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation

Finally, we are here at my Top 10 Films of 2015!:

10. Spotlight

This superb drama, which dealt with one of our society's most controversial, and disturbing, issues (Catholic priests molesting children!) was anything but melodramatic and over-the-top. Director, Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the brilliant, Oscar nom-worthy, screenplay with Josh Singer, kept things under his complete control, giving the film a veritable poise of maturity and focus without pandering to the audience-pleasing, and typical, emotion-manipulating tropes, usually associated with these kinds of "hot topic films". The cast, which features Michael Keaton (who's really on a late-career role right now), Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and the always solid, Stanley Tucci, are absolutely first-rate here!

9. Inside Out

Not only was this thoroughly wonderful film one of the year's most entertaining and funny and genuinely heartfelt films, but it was truly a brilliant exercise in child psychology; how a pre-teen named Riley was dealing with her emotional transition from young, innocent child to adolescent, as she becomes more conscious of herself, and the world around her, and how overwhelming and awkward it got for her, especially in social situations, both at home and her new school, after a difficult move from her Minnesota hometown to big-city San Francisco. Her five basic emotions controlling her internal world (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger), are perfectly personified, and stupendously voiced by the likes of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling and Phyllis Smith (who's a particular standout here). One of Pixar's best films, hands down!

8. Carol  

With absolutely exquisite direction by Todd Haynes, featuring a visual texture reminiscent of 70s cinema, this simply beautiful, and delicate, film was so immersive, it felt as if I was literally time-warping back to the early 50s! It's theme of "forbidden love" in an ultra-conservative world seemed awfully apt considering our contemporary saturation of political correctness and knee-jerk, reactionary behaviour towards anything deemed socially unacceptable and offensive at the drop of a hat. The two lead performances, by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, were note-perfect in their near opposite dispositions as the older woman seducing the younger, inexperienced one (though hesitantly willing, for sure). And, again, Haynes wholly deserves any accolades coming his way, including a likely impending Oscar nod, for his magnificent work in the director's chair.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller came back to his most famous creation in 2015 after exactly thirty years since the last entry in 1985. And who could have predicted that a fourth entry, without its iconic lead, Mel Gibson, reprising the titular role no less, would not only succeed in being, at least, comparable to the original trilogy's quality, but, in many respects, actually surpass it? Well, Mad Max: Fury Road did exactly that! It was, in my opinion, the best, and most refreshing (being dominated by practical, non-CGI effects and stunts) action film of the year. Interesting though, Max (and Tom Hardy's performance) wasn't the most compelling character in the film; that distinction goes to Charlize Theron's fantastic Furiosa. Also, the film's subtle social commentary ("Who killed the world?" wall-scrawling, and desperately fleeing for the "Green Place", for instance) hit pretty close to home with me, what with my blog's raison d'etre and all.

6. Inherent Vice

This exceptional, if narratively impermeable (yeah, I know that's a stretch for any Paul Thomas Anderson work), detective film pretty much officially established a new sub-genre in cinema: the "Stoner Noir". The other exponents being Robert Altman's 1973 The Long Goodbye, and, of course, the Coen Brother's 1998 cult classic, The Big Lebowski. That's over forty years from inception to realization, genre-wise; and what a long, strange trip it's been for this upstart genre - lol. Joaquin Phoenix gives yet another stellar, and exhilaratingly different, performance as P.I.-for-hire, "Doc" Sportello, who's operating in Southern California during the immediate aftermath of the 60s, just as the disillusionment and cynicism of the 70s was burgeoning. The implications of said disillusionment are existentially circulating all through the many, Escheresque and sense-challenging, story-lines and motley characters here to unforgettable, and indelible, effect. And the soundtrack is great too!: "Hey you!...You're losing, you're losing, you're losing, you're losing your Vitamin C"!

5. The Hateful Eight 

Admittedly, my admiration for Quentin Tarantino's film work had been gradually diminishing since the release of Kill Bill Vol.2. I felt the second part of his "Beatrix's Revenge" flick was, while certainly decent enough, much less tight and not as consistently entertaining as the marvelous Vol, 1; it dragged in spots and seemed a tad ponderous, here and there. And then when Death Proof came out, which understandably flopped, I was wholly underwhelmed, and thought perhaps that was it for Mr. Tarantino. But then he came back with Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and it was a huge success. Now, while Christoph Waltz gave an electrifying performance, and the "bar scene", with the phenomenal Michael Fassbender, was fantastic, I wasn't all that impressed by the rest of this "Jews revenge fantasy" firecracker, to be honest, despite all the acclaim it received. His next film, Django Unchained, was better, I felt, but still retained familiar elements from its predecessor that denied me a sense of full satisfaction, which I got in spades from Tarantino's first four films. Now, finally, we got The Hateful Eight in 2015, and damned if it didn't rock my socks off! Part of the reason for this, I believe, is the film's self-containment within the stagecoach, in the beginning, and "Minnie's Haberdashery" the rest of the way. It gladly recalled the spatial limitations of Reservoir Dogs. And the screenplay was absolutely dynamite, as well as Morricone's outstanding music, and, of course, the terrific ensemble of performers, especially Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh. One thing, however, finally hit me shortly after I saw The Hateful Eight for the second time, and it's been something, I feel, that has been slowly bubbling to the surface since Inglourious Basterds: we know that Tarantino's been heavily influenced by 70s cinema, particularly the "grindhouse era", and that elements of said cinema can be easily detected in his films. But now that he's been setting his last few films in the relatively distant past, even in the 19th century with the last two (anachronisms be damned), why does it "feel" like it's always 1974 in his films, regardless of the setting? Still, The Hateful Eight is most definitely a great film. And one of Tarantino's best!

4. Ex Machina 

By now, most everyone, with a modicum of informativeness, knows about the Singularity; the idea of artificial intelligence equalling, and then surpassing, mental computational capabilities of human beings. In Alex Garland's superb, yet unsettling, Ex Machina, we got a taut and compellingly paced, part sci-fi cautionary tale, part futuristic suspense thriller that could be a neo-Luddite's worst nightmare. The sense of unrelenting dread, and social isolation, just below the surface of an apparent contest winner's dream assignment, is palpable and visceral, as we are totally fixated on poor, unsuspecting Caleb Smith (solidly played by Domhnall Gleeson), as he is increasingly put off by his eccentric-genius host's hot and cold behaviour, while asked to give a "femme-fatale" humanoid (with suspicious designs) the Turing test to prove whether or not she's (it's?) attained convincing enough human qualities (i.e. achieved Singularity levels). The small cast is excellent, particularly Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander as the humanoid. This is an important film, and one that will grow in stature over the coming years, no doubt.    

3. Steve Jobs 

At one point during the third act, or the launch of the iMac G3, Seth Rogen's character, an exasperated Steve Wozniak, confronts his former partner, and friend, Steve Jobs, with an ultimate question he asks several times: "What do you do?" I'll bet any and all Apple stock, I may or may not own, that the real Wozniak never actually asked Jobs that question; that moment in Danny Boyle's extraordinary film was meant for us, the audience, because that is a question many, many people have asked, and wondered about this computer products "genius". His answer, of course, was that "he conducts the orchestra". In the end, both in life and in this riveting film, Steve Jobs remained a mystery, but a thoroughly fascinating one. Michael Fassbender gives a knock-out performance, which will almost certainly garner him an Oscar nod, and Kate Winslet's equally fabulous work here should do the same for her. I'm utterly baffled as to why Jeff Daniels has been snubbed by the critics picks and award shows for his fantastic performance, because it's a definite career highlight for him. Will Oscar right this wrong perhaps? Danny Boyle's direction is one of the finest of his already stellar career, and Aaron Sorkin's outstanding screenplay is arguably the best of 2015.

2. Room

Without a doubt, Room hit me emotionally more than any other film in 2015. The seemingly simple plot takes away none of the film's heart-wrenchingly, yet beautiful, power, and it's emotional complexity, especially when Joy and her son are freed from their despicable captor after seven years (five for little Jack) of captivity in his soundproof backyard shed. Brie Larson, in my opinion, gives the single best performance by a lead actress in 2015, for her absolutely stunning display of outward strength and internal damage. Her scenes with eight year-old Jacob Tremblay (who played a five year-old here), and the effortless chemistry between them, were sheer magic to behold. Young Jacob's performance was a revelation to be sure, and deserves Oscar consideration. There's also great supporting work from the always wonderful Joan Allen and William H. Macy, as well as from veteran Canadian actor, Tom McCamus. This small indie film packed quite a huge emotional wallop, and is easily one of my favorite films of 2015, hence its high numerical placing here.

1. The Revenant

Alejandro G. Inarritu is on some kind of role to say the least! Not only is his The Revenant my choice for best film of 2015, he also had the coveted #1 spot on my Top 10 list from last year, with his magnificent Birdman. The Revenant is based on true events which took place in the snowy hills and mountains of Montana and South Dakota during 1823. Leonardo DiCaprio gives perhaps the performance of his career, up to this point, playing Hugh Glass, a frontiersman and fur trapper eking out a rather desolate existence with a band of fellow hired trappers, and his lone son, Hawk, who is half Pawnee from his now dead mother. When Glass is brutally mauled, and severely injured, by a grizzly bear, he becomes a burden for selfish and heartless Fitzgerald (solidly played by Tom Hardy), leading to the murder of Glass's son, by Fitzgerald's hand, and his premature burial. However, against all odds, Glass actually survives and begins a slow, physically-straining, impossible journey to find Fitzgerald and exact his revenge. The spiritual, existential and philosophical implications are suffusing all through this breath-taking film, this sheer work of art. Inarritu's direction is some of the finest ever committed to film, and is already collecting award after award, likely culminating in his second consecutive Oscar win.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Culture Fix's Top 100 Albums of the 2000s (Part 2)

by J. Albert Barr

And so we move on to the second half of my very own Top 100 Albums of the 2000s! This is the cream of the proverbial crop, in my humble opinion, folks, where not only the best albums are presented, but also what I feel to be culturally significant and important albums; not the least of which, the album I've placed at #1, which I genuinely feel is the single best musical expression of what many of us believe to be the progressive dehumanization and corporatization of society through an increasing immersion into a wholly digitized, virtual, and consumer-driven, world of almost total artificiality and antiseptic simulacra. Well, ominous, pessimistic projections aside, let's get on with the second half of the countdown, shall we?:

50. Nixon - Lambchop (2000)

Favorite tracks: "Up with People", "The Old Gold Shoe" and "The Books I Haven't Read".

49. Asleep in the Back - Elbow (2001)

Favorite tracks: "Powder Blue", "Any Day Now" and "Presuming Ed (Rest Easy)".

48. Kill the Moonlight - Spoon (2002)

Favorite tracks: "Small Stakes", "Jonathon Fisk" and "Stay Don't Go".

47. Rather Ripped - Sonic Youth (2006)

Favorite tracks: "Reena", "Incinerate" and "Rats".

46. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots - The Flaming Lips (2002)

Favorite tracks: "Do You Realize?", "Fight Test" and "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell".

45. Talkie Walkie - Air (2004)

Favorite tracks: "Run", "Surfing on a Rocket" and "Another Day".

44. The Moon & Antarctica - Modest Mouse (2000)

Favorite tracks: "Dark Center of the Universe", "Alone Down There" and "Paper Thin Walls".

43. Look Into the Eyeball - David Byrne (2001)

Favorite tracks: "Like Humans Do", "The Accident" and "The Moment of Conception".

42. Is This It - The Strokes (2001)

Favorite tracks: "Soma", "The Modern Age" and "Take It or Leave It".

41. Things We Lost in the Fire - Low (2001)

Favorite tracks: "Embrace", "July" and "Dinosaur Act".

40. Let's Get Out of This Country - Camera Obscura (2006)

Favorite tracks: "Lloyd, I'm Ready to be Heartbroken", "Come Back Margaret" and "If Looks Could Kill".

39. Geogaddi - Boards of Canada (2002)

Favorite tracks: The whole thing, really.

38. Dark Island - Pram (2003)

Favorite tracks: "Goodbye", "Paper Hats" and "Track of the Cat".

37. Person Pitch - Panda Bear (2007)

Favorite tracks: "Bros", "Take Pills" and "Good Girl/Carrots".

36. Stankonia - Outkast (2000)

Favorite tracks: "B.O.B.", "Xplosion" and "So Fresh, So Clean".

35. The Hour of Bewilderbeast - Badly Drawn Boy (2000)

Favorite tracks: "Camping Next to Water", "Magic in the Air" and "Epitaph".

34. Oh, Inverted World - The Shins (2001)

Favorite tracks: "New Slang", "Pressed in a Book" and "The Past and Pending".

33. xx - The xx (2009)

Favorite tracks: "Basic Space", "Crystalised" and "Fantasy".

32. Sound-Dust - Stereolab (2001)

Favorite tracks: "Baby Lulu", "Space Moth" and "Hallucinex".

31. Arular - M.I.A. (2005)

Favorite tracks: "Pull Up the People", "Bucky Done Gun" and "10 Dollar".

30. Actor - St. Vincent (2009)

Favorite tracks: "The Strangers", "Black Rainbow" and "Just the Same but Brand New".

29. White Blood Cells - The White Stripes (2001)

Favorite tracks: "Fell in Love with a Girl", "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" and "The Union Forever".

28. The Real New Fall LP - The Fall (2004)

Favorite tracks: "Sparta 2#", "Boxoctosis" and "Green Eyed".

27. The Woods - Sleater-Kinney (2005)

Favorite tracks: "The Fox", "What's Mine is Yours" and "Entertain".

26. Sound of Silver - LCD Soundsystem (2007)

Favorite tracks: "All My Friends", "North American Scum" and "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down".

25. Funeral - The Arcade Fire (2004)

Favorite tracks: "Wake Up", "Rebellion (Lies)" and "In the Backseat".

24. Blacklisted - Neko Case (2002)

Favorite tracks: "Blacklisted", "Deep Red Bells" and "I Wish I Was the Moon".

23. Out of Season - Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man (2002)

Favorite tracks: "Romance", "Sand River" and "Drake".

22. The Noise Made By People - Broadcast (2000)

Favorite tracks: "Come On Let's Go", "Papercuts" and "You Can Fall".

21. Sea Change - Beck (2002)

Favorite tracks: "Guess I'm Doing Fine", "The Golden Age" and "Round the Bend".

20. Love and Theft - Bob Dylan (2001)

Favorite tracks: "High Water", "Moonlight" and "Sugar Baby".

19. Veckatimest - Grizzly Bear (2009)

Favorite tracks: "Two Weeks", "Cheerleader" and "Ready, Able".

18. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea - PJ Harvey (2000)

Favorite tracks: "Big Exit", "Good Fortune" and "We Float".

17. Fever Ray - Fever Ray (2009)

Favorite tracks: "If I Had a Heart", "Seven" and "Keep the Streets Empty for Me".

16. Fan Dance - Sam Phillips (2001)

Favorite tracks: "Love is Everywhere I Go", "How to Dream" and "Say What You Mean".

15. Witching Hour - Ladytron (2005)

Favorite tracks: "Whitelightgenerator", "Destroy Everything You Touch" and "Sugar".

14. Merriweather Post Pavilion - Animal Collective (2009)

Favorite tracks: "My Girls", "Bluish" and "No More Runnin'".

13. Amnesiac - Radiohead (2001)

Favorite tracks: "Knives Out", "Pyramid Song" and "Spinning Plates".

12. Felt Mountain - Goldfrapp (2000)

Favorite tracks: "Pilots", "Lovely Head" and "Utopia".

11. Third - Portishead (2008)

Favorite tracks: "Hunter", "The Rip" and "Threads".

10. Blueberry Boat - The Fiery Furnaces (2004)

Favorite tracks: "Quay Cur", "My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found" and "Chief Inspector Blancheflower".

9. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco (2002)

Favorite tracks: "Jesus Etc.", "War on War" and "Poor Places".

8. Silent Shout - The Knife (2006)

Favorite tracks: "Like a Pen", "We Share Our Mother's Health" and "Still Light".

7. In Rainbows - Radiohead (2007)

Favorite tracks: "Nude", "House of Cards" and "All I Need".

6. Ha Ha Sound - Broadcast (2003)

Favorite tracks: "Before We Begin", "Pendulum" and "Winter Now".

5. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out - Yo La Tengo (2000)

Favorite tracks: "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House", "Tears Are in Your Eyes" and "Night Falls on Hoboken".

4. White Bread Black Beer - Scritti Politti (2006)

Favorite tracks: "Mrs. Hughes", "The Boom Boom Bap" and "Snow in Sun".

3. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (2008)

Favorite tracks: "He Doesn't Know Why", "Ragged Wood" and "Meadowlarks".

2. Smile - Brian Wilson (2004)

Favorite tracks: "Heroes and Villains", "Wonderful" and "Surf's Up".

1. Kid A - Radiohead (2000)

Favorite tracks: "Everything in it's Right Place", "How to Disappear Completely" and "Morning Bell".

There you have it, dear readers! My picks for the Top 100 Albums of the 21st century's first decade! I hope you enjoyed perusing the list! Take care.  :-)