Pulp Fiction Is The 1990s, Two Decades On

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Pulp Fiction Logo TarantinoLooking at some of the more popular books, films, and songs over the last few decades, it is obvious that there are works of art that come to define every half-generation as being ‘of’ the time: works that tally up the culture, and still leave room for that culture’s response. This is a cliche, I know, but what is less understood is how a work of art comes to play that role in the first place, and, even more importantly, WHY these roles are so often conflated with immanent worth. For the 90s, in cinema, I’d put
Fight Club, The Matrix, Clerks, American Beauty, and Office Space in that category, not necessarily for their execution — most of those films are atrocities — but in what they say about the viewers that have accepted them. Yes, American Beauty eventually came to derision, and Office Space was relegated to a cult classic, but, at some point, fans had responded to them and still wanted ‘more’. After all, the comic-book stuff in Matrix wasn’t serious enough; Fight Club lacked realism, even if it was catchy. So, fans — ‘serious’ fans, I mean — needed something else to rally behind, and prop up as a true artist’s masterpiece. Yet they also needed to be able to understand it, too, to have it refract their interests, their personal view of the world, a stipulation that eliminated a number of great films and narrowed things down to what was termed the ‘masterpiece’ of 1994.

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was that film, and makes up the sixth work I’d argue as representative — for better or worse! — of the 1990s. It is, to be fair, a solid film, with a number of good moments, but just as many flaws clinched by one overriding defect that keeps even the good in a kind of stasis. In short, Pulp Fiction has neither purpose nor depth, which is further marred by its indecisiveness over being a comedy, drama, or something in between. Yes, there have always been successful fusions, but they come not at the expense of a genre’s individual strengths, and work in synergy to enhance the innovations within. By contrast, Pulp Fiction attempts drama without well-defined characters, comedy without a ‘deeper’ sort of humor (a la Fellini’s Amarcord), and stylizations without a final, totalizing point. It is an almost wholly reflexive film, referring back only to itself, as if it were an island crumbed and set adrift from its archipelago. At best, it is a good snapshot of what passed for innovation in the 1990s, replete not only with that era’s fun and interminable flaws, but also a handful of ‘what-if?’ moments that point to something higher, had there only been an artist Artist enough to capitalize upon them.

The film starts at its chronological middle with two criminals, Ringo (Tim Roth), and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer), publicly discussing their next heist before settling on robbing the very diner that they’re Continue reading →

Race And The Oscars

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race and the oscars

Image via Wikipedia.

Over the last decade or so, the Academy Awards have received a long-deserved thrashing for their sameness. The people all look the same, the names all roll off the tongue with the same ol’ thump, and — at least for the more discriminating among us — the films, themselves, are pretty much identical, year after year. Nor does it help things that the winners are overwhelmingly white, and part of a medium that, more than books, television, or music, utterly forges people’s conceptions of art, relationships, and our day-to-day human drama. It is (rightfully) assumed, then, that the life depicted on screen is NOT the life ‘we’ lead: a trite point, really. More relevant, however, is the fact that those who end up constructing this screen-life, from the sound-people to the actors, the directors, technicians, and apparatchiks, aren’t drawn from reality either, but a tiny slice of it, and can, therefore, give very little back to us. Enter thus the ‘race’ that is race and the Oscars.

Now just ignore, for a second, that a cursory look through the Oscar wins from 1929 on will leave most filmgoers confused. Indeed, just as with the Nobel Prize for Literature — another trendsetter for ‘serious’ artistic work — most of these names are now unknowns, probably for good reason, in the same way that best-selling books from a century ago are but missing quanta today. This is because awards are, by their very nature, popularity contests, and whimsical ones at that. But while some things are better left to mass perception, art is, historically, best evaluated (and leveled!) by time. These days, I hear very little of Crash, Million Dollar Baby, or even Slumdog Millionaire, despite the fact that they’re fairly recent wins, and seemed to utterly control people’s conceptions of cinema only a decade back. You’d see articles, analyses, and academic discussions, even, of nothing in particular, yet still providing so much small-talk for the parties and the after-parties that those on the outside wished to be a part of, if only to joke with the stars, to hobnob with bad directors, to get the taste of, if not outright caviar, then downright shit: because when art is reduced to a mere vote of confidence, it all looks the same from such a vantage, anyway. For too long this cocktail party — of politics, wealth, and now, the human image — has tended to the same guests. It is predictable, then, that the rest of the world, the real world, perhaps, wants in, if only to do the same ol’ shit, to entertain with the same idiotic tricks, that everyone else has done, hoping for the same reaction.

And, ok: that’s fair enough, I guess. My issue, of course, is not with racial justice, but with a few, ah, human tendencies that have not been properly addressed, by ANY side. Blacks, recall, got tired of getting beaten up by cops, but when … Continue reading →

Review Of Alex Gibney’s “Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer”

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Client 9 Alex Gibney Eliot Spitzer

Alex Gibney’s Client 9. Image via Wikipedia.

Although the Eliot Spitzer scandal elicited 3 responses — support, hostility, and puritanism — Alex Gibney’s excellent 2010 documentary, Client 9, hammers home how idiotic all 3 really were, revealing, as it does, how such extremes arise in the first place, as well as the costs of norms that stray too far from the mean. Yes, Spitzer is in the middle of it all, but in a sense, the film’s periphery shows men and women exhibiting precisely the things hated in him and that Spitzer hated in turn: selfishness, hypocrisy, single-mindedness, and the way that culture, on all sides, tends to refract such. And while Spitzer is painted as an extremist, in ways necessary, in ways not, he is also revelatory of the things around him, something that the ‘middle’ — in its  dilution of itself — often cannot do.

Client 9 begins on such a note, with a Spitzer ad extolling ‘right’ bore alongside mock advertisements for the scandal, as if New York is celebrating both the man’s importance and his downfall. Spitzer is immediately apologetic, calling his story a “classic tale of hubris,” which is nicely paralleled with the paintings of New York artist and former pimp Hulbert Waldroup, who muses on human beings’ dual nature. None of this is particularly deep, but still sets up a controlling metaphor for the film’s remainder, ensuring that Gibney has much opportunity to play with images and ideas as the film goes on. Spitzer then gives a brief ‘in’ to his childhood, noting how his father “cruelly” beat him in Monopoly to teach his son a lesson. This leads to Spitzer’s distinction between violent and white collar crime: that while violent crime is glamorized, and visible, white collar crime is neglected but just as important (in fact, I’d argue it is worse overall, for feeds and enlivens the former). And, indeed, for the film’s many examples of white collar crime sum to trillions in damage, millions of cumulative years shaven off of workers’ lifespans due to the related stressors, and other abuses that — rarely punished — point to a discrepancy that favors one class of thug over another. This offers an informational edge for those that want illumination. More importantly for the film’s narrative, however, its focus on real, named criminals props up a number of characters, many of them interesting and mysterious in their own right, that will serve as antagonists to Spitzer and offer some hints to the ‘how’ of his eventual downfall.

As the film progresses, these names come fast, reminding one of the jigsaw-like quality of Gibney’s earlier Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room. There is Henry Blodget from Merrill Lynch, whose fraud — while merely a scapegoat for a much bigger problem — shows how ingrained the thug mentality really is, with Blodget privately poo-pooing the criminal investigation since fraud was so prevalent, and, therefore, a kind of entitlement. Then there’s Richard Continue reading →

Soylent Is A Dismal Art

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Soylent

Image via Meghan Telpner.

A few years ago, a new foodstuff called Soylent hit the market. It purports to be a meal replacer for people who, like me, hate the inconvenience of cooking (I do it every day anyway, the import of which will be apparent by essay’s end), or even eating, but wish to get what the human body needs without the typical sugar overload and poor, refined oils such things usually entail. To be sure, Rob Rhinehart, Soylent’s creator, is a tricky one. He initially tried to live on Soylent alone for a while, and survived the few months without issue, even submitting blood-work to show that was, indeed, possible. Predictably, Rhinehart eased off of Soylent, mixing regular food into his diet, as well, all the while insisting that others can remain on a Soylent-only diet. Yet the signals are quite mixed, from Rhinehart’s poorly-timed self-study that ensured no chronic issues could begin to surface, to encouraging others to blend Soylent with real food, thus turning the thing into a de facto supplement, to the fact that, for all of its supposed completeness, not even the creator, himself, is willing to live on it for the long term. And, in fact, I’d argue that no one should, since the relationship between food and disease is — save for some basics — a virtually unknown quanta, and even that little bit of knowledge is colored by ideology, falsehood, and outright manipulation.

Now, as a former fat guy, I’ve had to learn quite a bit about cooking and nutrition, but as an all-around curious type, with little inclination towards ideology, I’ve also learned how much bullshit — how much ignorance — goes into nutritional ‘science’. Indeed, it seems to me that the average nutritionist knows as much about food as the average literary critic knows about craft, thus confusing otherwise intelligent people, like Rob Rhinehart, into accepting things that can never be. And this is not simply because they have too many wrong answers. It is also that, for every question they purport to answer, there is a deeper, more important one that was NOT asked due to the original bias. Perhaps more importantly, it wasn’t even thought to be asked, and — worse! — cannot logically be asked under the conditions. Remember that, in art, the question is: how does it all cohere? And in science, the question is: how does it all cohere? You can read this statement left, right, up, or down, for the inflection will be the same; the meaning will not change; the spirit will not molt.

Art begins (or should begin) with a subtle understanding. If art’s a ‘thing,’ then it is, logically, a thing distinct from other things: from philosophy, say, or historiography, or politics. Perhaps it might have elements of each. And perhaps it might draw on multiple disciplines in order to sum up to its own thing. But if two things can be conflated with nothing lost whatsoever, then … Continue reading →

Review Of Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” (2015)

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Emma Stone Joaquin Phoenix Irrational Man Woody Allen

Image via FlickeringMyth.

Yes, the question of ‘why’ is often a satisfying one, but it is just as often immaterial. And while there are many reasons for this, just one should suffice: that people, being quite curious, will apply their curiosity towards questions that are insoluble, wrongly assuming that, since the cosmos offers up some answers, it can provide all of them. It simply won’t, however, since the questions we have learned to ask are not questions we have adapted to. In some cases, this is easily solved by letting go, by recognizing appropriate human limits. In others, however, it is more so that the relevant terms have never been defined, out of ignorance, out of inability, or both.

Art falls somewhere between these two realities, partly because it is more a question of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ to begin with. Take, for instance, the issue of artistic trajectory: the inevitable arcs that all artists seem to go through, and, despite thousands of years of examples, these same artists’ failure to recognize them, much less avoid them. In short, it is true that most great artists will eventually start to repeat themselves in rather pallid ways; most great artists will forget how their art came about in the first place, content, as they are, to merely re-capture the spirit of youth; most great artists will, for lack of a better term, dull, dull, dull, and many (if not most) will never notice this in others or in themselves. Indeed, it is as if their decline somehow forces the world — or at least their conception of it — to acclimate to such, wherein nothing seems to move, nothing seems ‘wrong’. Sure, it is easy for people to see a boxer as washed-up, or smile at a fat, aging baseball player with the knowledge of what they had once accomplished. But this doesn’t seem to apply to the arts, for while every animal has a functional body, the human mind is somehow thought to be unique. It does not age. It doesn’t go. And this conception does not die, or else it is assumed that there was not much there to begin with.

Yet as limiting as this view of art and the artist is, connoisseurs can be quite rabid, which is sometimes a good thing. Recently, this has been the case with Woody Allen’s Irrational Man (2015), a mediocre film that (as with other films he has done over the past decade) borrows heavily from earlier masterpieces. Yes, this is a common plaint, but the deeper point is that he’s borrowing things with little understanding of how those elements worked so well in the original films: the real sin, in fact, since a borrowing that leads to artistic greatness is no sin at all. Thus, I find myself in agreement with not only the consensus surrounding the film (42% on RottenTomatoes, which is about the same score that Woody’s 2007 classic, Cassandra’s Dream, Continue reading →