NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC (2014) Is Bad For Hip-Hop

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Nas and others in photo from Time Is Illmatic.Nas? Twenty years later? It is, perhaps, an odd way for me to begin an essay these days. Later than what, you might ask? Yet there isn’t much- alack!- one could really add here, although I can certainly try. To be sure: those that know, know, and those that don’t will have a hard time understanding any of this. Does this conveniently seal my argument from critique? Maybe, but with the added stipulation that this argument is NOT what you think it is, and less (or more, depending on your perspective) than what so many in the rap world wish it might be. It is strange, then, to watch a film that deals with the artifacts of my childhood, in part because it reminds me that while I have grown, and thus re-created myself, the culture to which they still belong has not. If anything, hip-hop has become, if not more self-obsessed, then at least more arrogant and complacent about its place the musical hierarchy. There are many reasons for this, but suffice to say that it is the culture’s deep-seated territoriality which has made it so unwilling to address its own structural failures. This is a shame, really, since rap has always emphasized the need to push boundaries, even though it has also shut its most cherished precepts into a kind of echo chamber where so much that ought to be debated and up for grabs is treated as a foregone conclusion. One can find evidence of this pretty much anywhere, from lectures, to online message boards, to failed rappers opining on one another, but perhaps the most symbolic instance of this stagnation is One9’s documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic, which tackles hip-hop’s most revered album in a way that neither explains the music it ostensibly admires, nor presents any thoughts on moving forward, save for the same platitudes fans have been swallowing for over two decades, now.

Before I can properly analyze the film, however, I need to do something that- ironically- is almost heretical in the rap world, and pick apart the album, itself. And before I can do that, I must explain my premises in depth, lest I am accused of bad faith and questionable motives. But while I understand hip-hop’s resistance to perceived ‘outsiders’, it is also true that listening to Nas’s Illmatic, as a child, was one of the four or five most important turning points in my life, ranking among Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage”, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions, and, later, the discovery of Dan Schneider’s essays on Cosmoetica, as these pivots laid the intellectual groundwork for so much of what I do today. Yet even as I have rejected some of my earlier influences, I can’t deny that their core fundamentals have stuck, and that rap music especially, and Illmatic, specifically, … Continue reading →

“What The Health” (2017) Is Dangerous Propaganda

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Kip Andersen ("What The Health") looking over San Francisco.

A few months ago, I put on Kip Andersen’s pro-vegan agitprop, What The Health, and although it was supposed to be mere muzak- I was making dinner at the time- I had to turn it off after the first twenty minutes. I forget my breaking point, but perhaps it was Kip’s implication that deli meats are as carcinogenic as plutonium, with the WHO- rather ballsily, I may add!- cited for this ‘fact’. Perhaps it was the director’s badgering of security guards and receptionists with inane medical questions, then feigning disbelief when they could not easily answer. Or maybe it was the eerie (and duly transparent) cinematography meant to instill a sense of dread every time I’d glance over at the screen for confirmation that, Yes, I had indeed heard yet another bit of piffle which most viewers would inevitably swallow out of fear. The reality is, one can stop the film pretty much anywhere and find something to cringe over or debate- but only if one is already knowledgeable on the topic. The result? It may be short on data, but What The Health is still a fine piece of propaganda, and a testament to not only the ease with which one can rile up the masses by alleging that they are under attack, but also the fickle nature of trust and distrust, as viewers run from one authority figure to the next in the hope for answers that are probably not there.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the film employs no novel techniques, no interesting framing, no great dialogue, and no real information, but so what? It is really how it all unfolds that plays on human weakness, and makes it both poor art and an effective bludgeoning device. It begins, for example, on a rather sinister note with Dr. Robert Ratner of the American Diabetes Association going on about America’s diabetes problem, then suddenly refusing to discuss diet- a nice edit, on Kip’s part, since What The Health can now set its misleading agenda from the very beginning. After some brief biographical sketches meant to ingratiate Kip with viewers, he tries to wriggle into their good graces by pretending to be like them – such as in his suggestion that he only recently found out about the dangers of processed foods, and is now on the hunt for ‘the truth’, in real-time, as the documentary unfolds. In this way, the viewer is made to feel as if he is starting at the same point as the film’s underdog, and that its many experts – all of whom start to pile up rather quickly – are really the ones taking him through the process, impartially and systematically, against the backdrop of a corporate greed and hapless government bureaucrats too ignorant and lazy to do a thing about it.

To Kip’s credit, the film’s talking-heads are not mere quacks (at least not in the conventional sense) but actual doctors and doctorate-level researchers who further put the … Continue reading →

Review Of Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES (1980)

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Woody Allen in STARDUST MEMORIES standing with glasses

[The following critique of Stardust Memories is an excerpt from a much longer chapter in my book, Woody Allen: Reel to Real.]

Yet if Manhattan is often misunderstood, Stardust Memories feels as if it’s never even been watched, at least not without the blinders that so many critics have willingly put on. It’s been called everything from disjointed to mean-spirited, autobiographical, a “homage”, tribute, rip-off, or blunder that was a big step back, stylistically and qualitatively, from earlier works. But, I’d first watched the film years ago, without any knowledge of its supposed lacks, nor critical context, and so could judge nothing but what was simply on the screen. I’d not, incidentally, even watched Fellini’s , nor Bergman, and so could not be discolored by some irrelevant perception of theft — irrelevant because of how differently Allen treats some similar material, and how better executed it really is when compared to the source material. In fact,  I found the film, even then, rich and multi-layered, with sharp dialogue, wonderful experimentation, intellectual depth, and the kind of poetry and intuitive leaps that few works of art ever achieve. It is not only my personal favorite Woody film, but also probably his best (an important distinction to make), for reasons that become more and more obvious with every re-watch.

Unlike most Woody Allen films, Stardust Memories utterly defies capsule, much less a temporal breakdown, due to its use of flashback, dream, fiction, metafiction, and many other techniques. No, the film doesn’t really have a plot in terms of temporal sequence marked by ‘big events’, but it has something far more important: narrative, which is how all the important features of an art-work — emotion, ideas, music, scripting, visuals, characterization, and so on — fuse into a coherent whole, while both tuning in, as well as seemingly turning away from it, too. In Manhattan, for instance, the soap operatics are given heft by the strength of characterizations (tuning in — in fact, a laser-like focus, as on Isaac), while being undermined by the visuals (turning away). Yet, a statement emerges, nonetheless, as it does in Stardust. But while the earlier film did a great job of excoriating relationships and the personages that seemingly destroy them, Stardust Memories is focused on even higher things: art, the artist, dream, identity, and the ‘big’ questions of meaning and existence, as well as those questions’ utter pointlessness and futility. Too many have decried the film as “bleak”, in this regard — even Roger Ebert, who often gets it right with Woody — without taking the time to even examine the answers the film actually provides. They are not, at any rate, found in some serialization. If the film is too difficult to break down scene-by-scene, it is better, then, to highlight some important scenes, and what they say of such questions, of critics, as well as of the film and its characters, which respects narrative without dumbing it … Continue reading →

Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet” (2017) Is NOT Exploitation

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Hannah tries out for Casting JonBenetWatching Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet is a frustrating experience, but not for the reasons a film might typically elicit such a response. Yes, it has its merits and demerits, but so do many other works of art. No, one doesn’t glean many new facts about an already supersaturated bit of Americana, but that is a poor standard by which to judge a film, particularly an idea-driven documentary such as this. Rather, it is that Green’s strategy is so often brilliant that any future creative work on the JonBenet murder will in some way need to reference and transcend her own. Unfortunately, this also means that the film’s primary conceit can never be used again, even though it might be the most logical approach to what has now become a collective superstition: that there is an answer for everything, and that every question is valid, every concern justifiable. If anything, Casting JonBenet suggests that this is not so, even as it fails to obey its own rules and follow its best avenues to something greater.

Prior to analyzing the film, however, let us briefly discuss the event on which it’s based. On December 26th, 1996, child beauty pageant star JonBenet Ramsey was found strangled and sexually abused in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home. A few hours earlier, a mysterious ransom note alerted the Ramseys to JonBenet’s disappearance, as they contacted friends, relatives, and the police despite the alleged kidnappers’ warnings. Although parents John and Patsy Ramsey were first suspected in the murder, a rather sloppy investigation turned up no evidence of their involvement, with DNA testing ultimately exonerating both. This didn’t stop speculation, however, fueled not only by their supposedly ‘odd’ behavior, but confounding variables like the false confession of John Mark Karr in 2006, as well as revelations of a troubled home life and Burke’s – JonBenet’s brother – ‘smiling’ interview late last year. Today, theories range from the police’s intruder explanation, to Patsy’s alleged envy and murder of her daughter, and even suggestions that Burke struck and killed his sister with the ransom note forged by the parents as a cover.

A shot of chairs in Casting JonBenet.

The true story, of course, is irrelevant to the myth: the very thing Casting JonBenet tackles by way of its conceits. Thus, I will not give my own views on the case, but simply allow the work speak for itself, and let others’ biases reveal themselves. The film opens with a wonderful shot of some empty chairs soon filled by dolled-up girls. All are auditioning for the role of the murdered girl, as one of them (in a rather nice touch) awkwardly asks whether the viewer knows who killed JonBenet. In fact, the very lack of gravitas helps zero-in on something that’s already been long pontificated over, with a half-dozen or so kids implying they could have been victims, too, without Green quite fleshing out the ‘what’ nor exploiting the viewer’s empathy. It is all a touch too abaxial for such … Continue reading →

Critique Of Katsuhiro Otomo’s MEMORIES (1995)

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Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories kicks off with Eva in Magnetic Rose.

In reading the reviews of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories (1995), one might be particularly struck by what is not said: that, for all the ways that titles might recapitulate, refract, or even turn away from a film’s content, there is almost no discussion of what the title means to the work at hand. Yes, the word is uttered early on, and has an obvious, ham-fisted, 1:1 relationship to the first of the collection’s three anime shorts, but what about the rest? There is very little to say, really, since the others tackle different tropes, and have only a slipshod connection to one another in the fact that they’re the film versions of three of Otomo’s previously written stories. In brief, whereas the title could be said to cohere too neatly with the work’s first forty minutes, the last eighty, well, cohere not at all, despite containing some of its best material. Is this an issue? Perhaps, but since it’s the least of the film’s faults, I do have an idea of what it all means, and why Otomo made these artistic decisions. Yet instead of positing an unpopular claim, first, and bracing for the fallout, I will present the evidence, bit by bit, precisely as the film presents it, so that the sum is unassailable, and that the work’s poetic status might get the treatment of a more mechanical eye.

Memories begins with Koji Morimoto’s Magnetic Rose, a highly stylized tale of an opera singer, Eva, and her chief fixation: her prior life with Carlo, a famous tenor with whom she went on to win world acclaim. They are happy, briefly, until Eva loses her voice, then Carlo, and ultimately murders her former love in order to trap him in a cycle of unchanging memories. The details are slowly discovered by a crew of scrap collectors, of whom Heintz, a father seemingly on leave from family life, is the mysterious protagonist. They witness an SOS signal in deep space as Heintz and another crew member, Miguel, go on to investigate. Once landed, the two enter a Victorian-style mansion propped up by holograms and ‘genuine fakes’ that, once discerned, crumble and disappear. At first, they do not realize who the owner of this place is, as Eva zips in and out of the landscape, inducing hallucinations that tangle up her own life with theirs. In time, however, another crew member radios from their spaceship, and informs them of what he’s found. The hallucinations grow violent, culminating in the ‘death’ of Heintz as if he were Carlo, Miguel’s imagined fling with Eva, and Heintz’s own probe into his family, leaving the viewer unsure on the question of his daughter’s death. Magnetic Rose ends with Heintz floating in space amidst rose-petals, possibly dying, and possibly even accumulating, in Eva’s manner, his own memories, and waiting for the cycle to be broken by future explorers.

It is, to be sure, an anachronistic … Continue reading →