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 →

WAR ON WORDS: Why Race Is NOT A Social Construct

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Over the last few decades, a strange idea has taken root that I am in fact quite sympathetic to, at least in spirit. Now, the view of race as a social construct is not necessarily wrong, depending on what one means by ‘race’, and especially by ‘social construct’. Yet as I’ve proposed elsewhere, scientists are often poor communicators, and the reality of what they’re arguing can be muddied by everything from word choice to an inability to meaningfully parse definitions. Usually, the science, itself, is not at fault. It is really the packaging of science to an even less sophisticated audience that’s at issue, particularly when it deals with a highly politicized topic whose buzzwords are valued over nuance and hard data. No, race is not a social construct, but what does this mean, exactly? Moreover, what does it mean politically? Finally, what should it mean for liberals who are uncomfortable with what is, at bottom, a simple misunderstanding of their own principles?

Prior to deconstructing all this, let us look at the key claims, and – perhaps even more importantly – how these claims get articulated. The position of the American Anthropological Association is clear- race’s primary importance is social rather than biological. The issue, however, is that one can construe any number of sentences, within, as either attesting to or rejecting the existence of race as a taxonomic category. This is unfortunate, and many political activists have latched on to the statement as ‘proof’ that race is biologically meaningless. Others, like this study from 2012, note that the sentence “No races exist now or ever did” found only 17% agreement among scientists 40 years ago, with 53% agreeing today. Yet even 53% is still a far cry from ideological certainty on the Left about what is, in essence, a semantic question whose answer might very well change based on the conceptual categories the word calls to mind.

In ‘pop’ science, writers often lay out some of the most common objections to race, which, while on one level quite valid, are also quite incomplete. There is much to comb through (most of it not worth the time), but I’ve distilled them into six basic arguments laid out in ascending order of correctness. If anyone gets tripped up by my handling of earlier points, read all of my responses to them, first, to get a better sense of the science:

1. There is no race gene, which means the genetic underpinnings of race are quite tenuous

The first part of this statement is obvious, and undeniable. There is no ‘race’ gene because race is not any one thing. Rather, it is a genetic complex which encompasses everything from skin color, to disease propensity/resistance, to facial proportions, to the distribution of sweat glands, hair color, and more. No, you cannot simply use one marker for determining race and ancestry, but the more genetic markers are used, the greater the likelihood (in fact, it is a near-certainty) of … Continue reading →

Analysis Of Hart Crane’s BLACK TAMBOURINE

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An overlooked perk to taking one’s education into one’s own hands is that you are less prone to being swallowed up by others’ bullshit. You read selectively, at first, and merely accumulate text: poems, stories, whatever, with no real access to others’ thoughts, since you don’t have a university library, JSTOR, or professors giving you the ‘official’ line on whatever it is you are learning. And, of course, there is always an official line – don’t let anyone convince you otherwise – because for all of the supposed diversity of thought in academia, once a perspective takes root, it becomes a bias, the bias a means of re-organization, and the re-organization fads and whims and money. This is, indeed, the typical trajectory of any idea, yet one that is better observed with an example.

Say your item of study is Hart Crane. Say that you’ve gone through his poetry, and would like now to see the hear the consensus. Suddenly, however, you don’t quite know where to begin, because they are all saying things that don’t really cohere with what you have yourself read. Did the misinterpretations start with the bad – and perhaps envious – critic and novelist Waldo Frank, whose 1932 introduction to Crane’s Collected Poems spoke of the poet’s “failure”? I mean, that’s certainly one way to bias an audience: to tell them they’re about to read total shit, then slap them with some of the best poems ever written. Did it trickle out with revelations from some of the biggest names of the 20th century – Eugene O’Neill among them – that they did not even understand Hart Crane’s work? Could it be the difficulty of the poems themselves? Yet Wallace Stevens is just as difficult, if not more so. The difference, of course, is that Stevens enjoyed a historical accident in that he was championed from the very start, thus making him impossible to ignore. Crane, however, was dismissed and even derided, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy – as per fads and whims and money – where ignoring him was the safe thing to do. It didn’t matter whether you were lazy in your appraisals, because everyone else was, too, and if you were ever called out for ignoring a great poet, you could ignorantly declaim that you were in the mainstream, as if this were a proper defense of a terrible idea.

There are, therefore, virtually no close examinations of Hart Crane’s poems online, but too much repetition of the same judgments others have long come to. Yet let us do away with them for a moment and examine Hart Crane’s BLACK TAMBOURINE anew: a short poem that hints at some of the difficulties of his longer, more complex works, but is nonetheless ‘easy’ enough where I do not have to convince a good reader of its general strengths.

Black Tambourine

The interests of a black man in a cellar
Mark tardy judgment on the world’s closed door.
Gnats toss in the shadow … Continue reading →