Thursday, 4 July 2019

Is This Really the End of Mad Magazine?

Only in a "Clown World" Political Climate of Leftist Insanity does an Irreverently Liberal Publication like Mad Magazine Ironically meet its Fate!

by J. Albert Barr 

Holy shit! Coincidentally, being that I included with a cheeky little post on Facebook, recently, a classic pic of Mad Magazine's iconic mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, I literally JUST heard that Mad Magazine, itself, will cease publication and disappear from newsstands by the end of this year, thus ending their 67 year long run!

I first discovered Mad Magazine way back in grade 5 at my elementary school. I read several issues that were consistently available among the variety of magazines in my home-room class, and read it, off and on, throughout my adolescence. The importance of Mad Magazine in the development of my sense of humor and my sense of. and appreciation for, satire, irony, wit, sarcasm and cultural lampooning in general, was IMMENSE to say the least! What a colossal drag to hear that this iconic publication is coming to an end.

... And I gotta be honest when I say that it seems rather suspicious - or at least awfully coincidental - that Mad Magazine should be cancelled in an era, and "hyper-sensitive" cultural atmosphere, where such irreverent content, and attitude, is not only frowned upon now, but outright "de-platformed" because it hurts the precious feelings of SO many of whom have nary a sense of, and appreciation for, said satire, irony, wit and sarcasm, because they collectively perceive a "one-dimensional world" that MUST cater to one's fragile emotional and mental state (which I firmly believe has been systematically and deliberately socially-engineered) to the detriment of a logically-determined, maturely-apprehended (without having to vapidly say, "I'm adulting") understanding, or at least acknowledgement, of the real world, society, culture, human behavior (and its time-honored foibles and volatility) with - to quote Marx - "sober senses, [the] REAL conditions of life".

It's seems so ironic that the once celebrated Mad Magazine launched its cheeky and irreverent first issue way back in 1952, during a decade in American culture where there was rampant conservatism and prudish, even neo-Victorian, attitudes and sensibilities being bandied about while the Republicans had the White House, and American minds, for the most part. The UFO craze was in full-swing; the Feds were busy with "the Red Menace"; German (rocket) scientists were "recruited" by Operation Paperclip to help America get into space before the Russkies did (it backfired, interestingly enough, though the Americans did get to the Moon first, ultimately); and Philip K. Dick began writing his mind-bending sci-fi novels such as 1959's Time Out of Joint , a novel whose concept of temporal disturbance, and altered reality, packs quite an ironic and contemporaneously relevant wallop now.

Moreover, it's doubly ironic, and spectacularly tragic, in my opinion, that Mad Magazine should cease further publication beyond this decade-ending, "foul year of our Lord" (to evoke the memory of Hunter S. Thompson, aptly enough) that is 2019, when the current political and cultural climate are so irrationally and egregiously being held hostage - in a fashion - by a bat-shit crazy Left (despite a Republican, yes, buffoon, President currently in the White House) intent on utterly destroying everything in its mentally and emotionally-deluded wake, for the entire sake of never being offended nor having their collective "feelings" hurt ever again, to the extreme detriment of any discernible logic, reason, maturity, tenable polemics, and reality in general. 

Meanwhile, the real culprit behind the utter madness of our present world and society, and its accompanying semiotic chaos, in terms of what has happened to language, identity and the "symbolic economy" that linchpins the superstructure of everything we've built over the respected epochs and ages, has been conveniently ignored (via cultural propaganda and social-engineering, which ultimately "created" the SJW and unbridled political correctness) while it suffuses the very ether and atmosphere we all breath: late capitalism, or what the late Mark Fisher called, Capitalist Realism. Also, the suspiciously impending Singularity and the ushering in of the alleged "post-human age".

Stay tuned, fellow zombies, and members of both the "bewildered herd" and "phantom public" (to cite one Walter Lippman, appropriately enough) because, as Cypher said in The Matrix, which I'll paraphrase here: "Kansas, and the rest of the world you-once-thought-you-knew, are going bye-bye!"  

Sunday, 19 May 2019

21st Century Poetry: Yet Another Selection of Poems (New and Old) by J. Albert Barr

This is my third selection of poems written by me over the course of twenty-plus years that I've posted here on my blog. Be sure to check out the other two selections found in my "older posts", the first from 2013 and the second from 2015, if you haven't already. And I want to thank you for taking the time to read them, and perhaps even thinking about them afterwards.

I'll begin with a brand-new poem composed earlier this year:


Maybe I need quiet.
Maybe a blunt silence.
Perhaps especially from within
as opposed to the usual without.
Fortuity would then perhaps invite
a reticent ether hiding behind air;
an aura filled with secrets,
latched inside a broken liaison,
culled from a foreign source,
distilled in a familiar fragrance.
Maybe and then maybe again.
Perhaps a knowing sigh that echoes from an old wind.

The quiet has my ear.
The ear sustains this silence.
Perhaps according to a sound
so imposed by a strange decimal.
It's the sort that alerts the owl
in a night's raw stillness
that freezes the hapless mouse,
save its wide, throbbing eyes.
A thought may then take flight,
expanding its plume-filled ideas over unexpected chance.
Maybe and then never again.
Perhaps a song that quavers aloud, atop a mountain deep.


Darkness peers behind a jaded tear,
unabashed at its willingness to evoke despair:
A meek and meagre hovel for a heart indeed,
to only beat in silence, aloof from optimism's flame.
The daily mirror reflects a venom of contempt,
where a new gash degenerates into an indefinite scar.
The transitory days rupture the soul - fade out.

           ...fade in...

This elevation has a butterfly wingspread,
beautiful and meticulous,
like a lover in a still-frame, locked and eternal.
There's a fond repulsion from storybook complacency.
Hug a horror from the past, letting it go at last,
biding its time in oblivion,
as far away from me as existentially possible.

A wayward child applies an ointment of innocence,
     and vision is now widescreen,
        and the senses bite, they gnaw
           and tear:....Awakening!


Aluminium heart speckled with rust;
unheralded sorrow,
radiating from the central stem,
with an arrow-shaped reply
into the albino seas,
attaining stately proportions of time;
dark-green markings on a silver-grey
Spined margins and undersides;
midribs of creeping senses:
my eucalyptus serenade;
a further attraction of your rough
Like a praying-mantis cloaked
in the exotic maranta.
I'm caught in your elegant glue,
the never found reasons behind.


for Ashli Taylor

The trees drink my eyes.
On bended knees, searing songs
from a local robin bleed
in my drums,
pounding out mystified sighs
that echo deep inside the
hemispheres of my bedraggled brain.
Westward winds streamline my geometry,
probing the contours and cooling
the flesh standing upright
for the descending sun, cooing the
clouds to sleep; stars break
for the centre of the sky,
bursting with fervour, enveloping the
unfettered visions beheld by souls
thirsting for sensations as a
cosmos lays its universal kiss.
I give, and it gives, and we become
one majestic symbiosis:
An infinite expansion of energy, matter, spirit:
A melancholic joy eclipsing
any destructive inkling beside the fire.


I knew thee truly when
Winter stumbled backwards into the arms of the sun.
I knew thee truly when
Spring dug itself a burrow to shy away from rain.
I knew thee truly when
Summer hiked on the shoulders of a cloud to provoke winter.
I knew thee truly when
Fall administered an all-green proviso to the leaves.

And you jousted with kangaroos and foxes,
And traded secrets with pandas by proxy.

Yes! I knew thee truly when
Day held a masquerade for unwanted hours.
I knew thee truly when
Night spread-eagle for sunlit bolts of dawn.
I knew thee truly when
Yesterday lamented like a child for its past days.
I knew the truly when
Tomorrow disguised itself as present, fooling all.

And you shed your feathers upon a divested rose,
And dangled love where heart and mind are in repose.


In the mirror, I face a foreign smile
And wait for my eyes to open the day.
This day is wan and grey.
I gather the sense to probe through
A minute beneath the moist soil,
Under my worn soles, catching
The tattered laces (second pair).
My fingers enjoy the absorption of
Tactile bliss. They haven't anything
Better to do, anything constructive, practical;
Only to feel is good enough for them, for me.
Time is neglected, pushed to the margins,
Or the peripherals of consciousness, but
Time remains refractory and vigilant.
The bugle charge of the autumn wind
Blows an army of red leaves away,
Across my path and onto, and over
A wide, carless road; no other witnesses-
Just me, in the early hours, under darkness,
Under streetlights, under duress to remain
Breathing, and to remain here...


Besides the societal conditioning of averting one's eyes
When passing a so-called stranger on the street,
I have increasingly sensed nowadays a more intense
Glare, however brief and subtle, deflected back from an
Innocent look that has apparently been perceived as:
          An unwarranted invasion
          When the eyes meet
          Like two particles colliding.

Will there come a time when fields-of-vision are policed?

A voyeuristic culture obsessed with other lives
Are conversely rendered paranoid in their own,
Playing the dual role with inevitable conflict,
Evoking the Uroboros of the mind with unwitting
Precision to swallow the self whole from within:
          An inhuman shell
          Will be all to leave
          These streets barren.

Has there come a time for souls to bury themselves?


In appealing to the white wall before me,
I could only ask "why"?
Though knowing full-well, trusting the reliability
of my inference, the man-made source of its origin.
My query had no issue with its colour - I, acknowledging
white as such, in comparison to official hues and shades,
wished not to debate legitimacy on these visual grounds.
Contingent black - its binary opposite - brown, green,
orange, red, yellow or blue made no difference; well
I would surmise blue composed by the moody sort, if
my wry reference to popular psychological investigations
were valid and sound - sound, that is, to those who favour
uniformity in professional opinion.
Little difference, I suppose, prevailed, reluctantly.

No, I simply wanted to know why the wall existed at all;
expecting no answer, of course, directed to me from it!
And a jolting confirmation of madness was not my goal!

Religion sat me on its knee as a boy; I, naive and incognizant, was
told it was God's work, even the walls of the non-Christian.
Science held my shoulders as a youth; I, eager to learn and know, was
told it was atoms and molecules, excluding the walls of the mind.

Finding these answers, ultimately, inadequate, despite their
equally self-assuring hubris, I have come to realise now
that my grappling with this inexplicable question is firmly
rooted in the ontological: so I have my particular being, and
the wall has its: mine, animate; its, inanimate, but still being!
Until we both come, inevitably, to non-being. What then?

The wall said nothing.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

The Murder of Elliot Crow: Chronicles from Those with Responsibilities by A.R. Shanks: a review

by J. Albert Barr

The Murder of Elliot Crow is the debut novel from Edmonton, Alberta-based writer, A.R. Shanks. The hard-copy book was independently published in April 2018. Ms. Shanks' novel can be described as one from the fantasy/adventure genre, and may be filed under YA fiction, though it does feature some straight-up adult situations, dark themes bordering on the existential, moments of moderately bracing violence, and evinces "adult-oriented language flourishes" from one specific character, which is merely suggested by the author using asterisks as a suitable substitute, keeping in mind her predominately-targeted readership, and perhaps contemporary notions of those easily offended or "triggered".

As is clearly indicated in the novel's title, our titular protagonist, Elliot Crow, is a very intelligent and sensitive, but self-conscious, socially-detached and inhibited teenager of about 14 years of age who appears to have been "murdered" in the first chapter by a complete stranger who mistook him for the intended target of his knife - Elliot's older brother Caspar:

"The sadist twisted the blade into his gut and his whole body exploded with pain until that was his entire world. For one strange moment, all the colors of all the surrounding world appeared far more vivid than he could ever remember them being. As though his life until that point had been ventured through while he was half-asleep."

Prior to this disturbing episode we see that Elliot is living a rather dull and mundane, contemporary existence, not really committed to family participation, now that he has entered adolescence and seemingly developed a generally typical teen-angst phase. His mother, interestingly enough, is a goth (much to Elliot's embarrassment) who runs a book-store that specialises in magic and occult books. Elliot's father, on the other hand, is more straight-laced and relatively conservative by comparison to his wife, proving, in this instance, that "opposites do attract". He is a reasonably successful writer who had instilled in his son a literary sensibility, while Elliot's mother provided him with much of his imagination and creativity; all of which are lost on Elliot because he sees them as abnormal, and he just wants to be "normal". Elliot's relationship with his brother Caspar is muted and distant, and he has only one apparent friend named Sam, who is far more socially-engaged and adventurous, though not very bright.

As Elliot passes out from the stabbing, he suddenly finds himself in an exceedingly strange place or world or realm. Did he indeed die and then passed into an afterlife, albeit one that resembles little of the one more generally imagined? He's not at all sure of what has and is happening to him, but he seems driven by the great desire to somehow communicate with, or send a warning to, his brother Caspar, who will most likely eventually meet a similar fate to Elliot's.

Elliot begins his other-worldly adventure in this seemingly magical realm, where physics is only allowed a partial admittance, by first encountering the "domain of Time" itself, a formidable presence before young Elliot, who assumes, initially, that he/it must be Death incarnate. Time, having asked Elliot if he had "anything unresolved in [his] life. Anything left undone", then charges him to seek out an acquaintance of Time's, whom he cannot go to himself, because "Those with responsibilities cannot leave their domain". Time wants Elliot to deliver a package to one Trinket Deadlock, and it is he who will guide Elliot through his tasks in exchange for a chance to warn his brother of his impending doom.

Trinket Deadlock is a wholly jovial and unrelentingly positive "father figure" who's constant companion, the foul-mouthed, bellicose but reliable, Gear, help Elliot to achieve his goals, but at a necessary distance, for it is Elliot himself who must enact the challenges ahead of him in order to make it back to his own realm by proving his ultimate allegiance to his family, and to also find within himself courage and heart and purpose and a new appreciation for life in general, both his and others.

Extracting much inspiration and influence from Alice in Wonderland and the Harry Potter series, Ms. Shanks' wonderfully entertaining and genuinely insightful and empathic novel is chock full of great action sequences, vividly detailed and executed with exciting, fast-paced prose. Her characters are well-drawn and dimension-filled, running the gamut of human emotion, strength and frailty. The novel is replete with whimsical wit and delightful humour, and its themes of family bonds, teamwork, self-discovery, consequences of reality through a fantastical purview, psychological and emotional buoyancy, made for one terrifically fun and intelligent read! I highly recommend this most excellent novel!

* You can find copies of A.R. Shanks' novel at And her second novel, A Child Named Loveless, is now available as well at!


Sunday, 14 April 2019

An Update From the Cultural Abyss (i.e. the view from outside your window/inside your view-screen)...

...The present state of culture isn't not a Clown World, right, left?

If the abyss echoes back your "honk", does that not indicate there is a bottom? Reassurance to the rescue!/?...stay tuned and be good, or be good at,...preferably preserving your, no doubt beleaguered, sense of humour and embattled sanity. HONK! HONK!

"We shall never know how many acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of appearing not sufficiently progressive." - Charles Peguy 

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.