February 27, 2013
Hold Your Applause: How the Academy Rewards Cheap Tricks and Dodges the Issues

Congratulations, everyone: we now live in a world where North Korea detonates atom bombs underground for the fun of it — if that isn’t apocalyptic as all hell, I don’t know what is. It’s not like we haven’t seen this coming. If you’ve sat down with a bag of Cheetos and a video game controller anytime in these past few years, you were probably fighting ugly Ruskies or angry flavor-of-the-month Asian men off our God-given land, these United States of America. I was trying to get cozy with my girlfriend in a dark theatre when I saw the trailer for Red Dawn, in which some tried-and-true, scalp-shaved and muscled American is the only man who can stop a North Korean invasion. Major vibe kill.

Like you all have probably been doing, we were working our way through the soon-to-be Best Picture nominees and weren’t interested in seeing drivel like Red Dawn. Oscar nominees are on another level — they’re true art that dissects society like no sociologist could. If Battlefield 3 and A Good Day to Die Hard reflect our paranoia that the world at large has a — to put it lightly — uneasy relationship with the States, this year’s Best Pictures ought to tastefully address it. And boy do they: we’ve got Bin Laden, slavery, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, slavery again — no easy load.

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Films have done this, consciously or otherwise, basically since their inception. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is notorious for its cold war mentality. The bombardment of this modern paranoia feels much the same as Body Snatcher’s ending, with Kevin McCarthy looking directly into the camera to cry out, “They’re already here! You’re next!” Of course, they weren’t here and we weren’t next, but that didn’t stop us from fearing our neighbors for the next 35 years. It’s much the same these days. We still don’t know what to do with those different from ourselves. We’re overreacting to a complex world, and the repercussions are increasingly scary.

Even if the Civil War and Iranian Hostage Crisis aren’t recent events, they’re obvious jumping off points for the discussion at hand (and more tasteful than CG shots of Korean bombers over your suburb). It isn’t Ben Affleck’s rugged chin cleft that the Oscars are celebrating — it’s how daring films like Argo and Lincoln are. These are difficult subjects to tackle, and maybe a good lesson can move us past paranoia and into action.

This year’s best example should be Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty for the way that she takes on torture. You’re no doubt aware of the controversy. Liberals are up in arms over the film’s pro-torture stance — and other liberals are praising the film’s anti-torture stance. What? When it comes to torture, calling Bigelow’s camera objective is an understatement — it’s downright insentient. The film is a rorschach on torture, and you’ll only see in it what you want to.

Argo and Lincoln don’t fair any better. Affleck’s film begins with the CIA overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government and then asks us to sympathize with the CIA. He seems to miss why that’s a problem. In Lincoln, Spielberg jukes the slavery issue with the promise of a story about the titular president, but it’s only an excuse not to delve into the dirty reality of the film’s true subject, the 13th Amendment. In both cases, the films ignore the oppressed other in favor of a focus on the Best Americans, powerful and proud white dudes brimming with patriotic duty.

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It all speaks to more of the same. We’ve got a problem with those different from ourselves, and the repercussions are spooking us out. Modern Warfare 2 — a game in which Russia invades your local strip mall — may be more blind to it than the ‘higher art’ of Best Picture nominees, but it addressees it no less, which is to say, not at all in any cognizance.

It’s hard to put a finger on what we’re actually honoring when the foremost nominees are scared to make a statement. But maybe we shouldn’t blame them. I watch @dronestream sound off every few hours but never look up what any of it really means, and on Tuesdays, when the Children International canvassers show up at Union Square, I go a block out of my way to a different subway entrance so that I can avoid Rupert, the canvaser who’s taken up no less than an hour of my time to persuade me to donate a nominal sum to kids in need. He even followed me to SoHo once.

Maybe there’s no inherent responsibility for these directors to speak simply because they have a stage to speak from, but that makes for one heck of a lost opportunity. If, like Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” our most praised films often fall short of art. 

In some small way the Academy acknowledges this. In 2009, the Best Picture category was expanded from five nominees to a possible ten with the explicit purpose of recognizing films that would otherwise slip by. It’s easy enough to guess which films wouldn’t have made this year’s cut: the comedy, the foreign one, and the two films that do provide critique, Django Unchained and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Quentin Tarantino’s film focuses on empathetic brotherhood and human worth, remarking on the horror of slavery along the way, while Beasts comments like buckshot on a variety of topics surrounding America’s handling of post-Katrina Louisiana, all in the background of a father-daughter relationship.

What may be most interesting is our facade of improvement. Complex pieces like Django and Beasts don’t paint easy pictures for the way forward, but by falling in love with Zero Dark Thirty, we can act as if we’ve received confession when we’re really walking right back out the same man. But there’s no absolution in pat simplicity. The biggest and boldest films address massive issues, but they’re only actually acknowledging them. They gather acclaim because it’s much easier to recognize something than it is to actually act on it.

Maybe we can’t change the love of flash and glamour at the Oscars, but there’s no reason that we should be patting ourselves on the back for phoning in a nationwide emotional catharsis. One day, we’ll look back on Red Dawn as we do Body Snatchers, free from our overwrought paranoias and hopefully beyond the problem at hand. For now, there’s a distinction that needs to be made between knowing about a problem and saying something about it, which is something that we’re scared to do. Fair enough. It’s difficult, and maybe dabblings like these are the tangential roads that we need to take to finally get there. But let’s not love cheap tension for the philanthropic thrill it gives us — there are great films in the mix, you just won’t leave them with a saccharine smile.

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February 27, 2013
"It’s starting to seem that in GoDaddy’s world, men are smart, have ideas, and do work, while women are either beautiful objects to be ogled or difficult companions to be dealt with. Heck, even the name GoDaddy has some sort of fetishistic attachments — aren’t we meant to imagine Refaeli in that cute pink dress begging us to be *her* GoDaddy?"

GoDaddy: Smart and Sexist
A Verge forum piece that I wrote earlier this month. Do these ads really sell domains?

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Filed under: godaddy tech sexism ads 
February 27, 2013
"Without realizing it, we’ve allowed ourselves to exist in an Impressionistic world of filmmaking. It’s inaccurate, but the emotional quality of the visual makes us believe that it’s real. Accepting what we see as an attempt at truth is the first and absolutely more basic step of watching a film (or for that matter, watching a play, reading a novel, or viewing a painting). We don’t need it to perfectly immerse us, we only need to believe that it accurately represents what we know."

48 FPS: how we accidentally invented Impressionist filmmaking | The Verge Forums

A fascinating read from The Verge’s Jacob Kastrenakes.

(via thisistheverge)

A Verge forum post that I wrote back in December. The proposed change in medium that Peter Jackson asserts in The Hobbit is far more interesting than the film itself, and it could completely change the film’s look and feel from what we’ve known these past 100 years.

(via thisistheverge)

November 9, 2012
Album: About to Die EP - Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors released the follow up to their (debatably) breakout LP, Bitte Orca, in July.  Bitte Orca was their seventh album, and naturally, it’s more than meaningful for a band to turn around a name the way that Dirty Projectors did when it hadn’t faired well for years.  In spite of their success, Dirty Projectors have always been changing, and July’s release, Swing Lo Magellan was no different.  It took a concentration of the tricks they picked up on Bitte Orca and applied them to similarly syncopated but much simpler, sometimes Simon and Garfunkel-esque tracks.  About to Die, the band’s new EP, breaks out one of Swing Lo’s bounciest, catchiest tracks and makes it the kicking off point for a few previously unheard and related tracks.

Like the epigraph of a novel, About to Die’s title track, which also comes from the previously released album, doesn’t so much serve as a great track here - we’ve already heard it after all - but rather serves as a lens for us to view the following tracks through.  About to Die is as strong as ever, stuttering over itself while Amber and Haley’s voices flow in the background.  The following tracks then don’t stray far from Swing Lo’s incarnation of Dirty Projector’s sound.  About to Die puts us in a warm place, albeit one tinted by the track’s broader message, spoken to in part by the track’s name itself.  While You’re Here is the first track that we’re hearing that’s new here, and this, following About to Die begins to have a much stronger movement in context.

The new pieces on About to Die are strong. While You’re Here is a warm and simple piece that finds Dirty Projector’s women ooo-ing in the back and band leader Dave Longstreth contemplating over a plucky guitar.  It’s a description that could fit many a track on Swing Lo, but that’s hardly an issue.  We’d have loved to have Swing Lo be an extension of Bitte, but the band gave us something else.  Now, to get an extension of Swing Lo is equally pleasing.  While You’re Here is about a friend who passed away, and as usual, Longstreth deals with this in a way that both gives access to Longstreth’s emotions while providing meaning to the event itself.

Another trick we found on Swing Lo was Dirty Projector’s newfound ability to switch in and out of fully fleshed but altogether different styles at a moment’s notice.  It’s not so extreme here, but on mid-EP track Here Til It Says I’m Not we get a similar style of mimicry of big folk singer tracks as, part way through the song, Longstreth bursts into something large and booming that could stretch across a landscape.  The description may sound tacky, and though the sentiment may be, Longstreth’s application is exciting and powerful.  Closing track Simple Request doesn’t particularly serve as a means of taking us out but, like the rest of the EP, is yet another small variation on the sounds of Swing Lo.  This one works on those same beats and can easily fit on the same playlist as your Mamas and Papas’ songs. Like Swing Lo, this all emphasizes Longstreth as an emotional core of the band, rather than simply a band leader.

What then is the purpose of About to Die as an EP?  These are all great tracks - as good as any one on the LP proper.  It seems that these are songs that simply didn’t make their way onto the album for a lack of space or a poor flow, not a lacking quality or coherency.  Find a track to swap out, and one would hardly notice the difference.  About to Die doesn’t stand on its own, however.  It’s a brief series of tracks, and while they’re all great, Dirty Projectors don’t exactly make in-your-face hits.  The EP is great, and any Dirty Projectors fan - of which there are more than a few - will love it every bit as much as Swing Lo.  However, it’s no more than that - a simple of extension of Swing Lo.  Tracks like While You’re Here, which originated prior to Swing Lo’s inception, shed an interesting light on the change of sound that occurred in making the LP, and that’s something that fans will love to listen for.  For anyone else though: why start here?  The album is just as engaging, and it’s four times as long.

November 7, 2012
Album: 2 - Mac DeMarco

The album art of Mac DeMarco’s 2 reeks of something a little bit Nascar, maybe a little high and dirty.  It’s grungy and unappealing, but of course, the type of music that would normally be aimed at such a demographic would look nothing of the sort.  Rather, DeMarco seems to exist among these things, and through 2, effortlessly details them to us.  We get the impression that the DeMarco on the cover may well just sit down and sing a song right there while smoking a cigarette, and the sound of this album isn’t far from that.

These are simple, charmed songs often circling around specific people.  We hear DeMarco sing about his family time and again.  The opening track, Cooking Up Something Good, begins with, “Mom’s in the kitchen… Daddy’s on the sofa… my brother’s in the ballet.”  The album even ends with the final track trailing off into a seemingly impromptu moment between DeMarco and his young daughter.  Family and friends are all around him.  His world is small but no less important for it, and DeMarco makes us feel that.

In many ways these songs speak to the type of updated folk and soul classics that She & Him produce, but where we chide the pairing for simply producing the type of music that they would want to listen to, DeMarco would seem to land beyond it.  It’s hard to say what fairness there is in that, but DeMarco’s presentation is distinctly more personal than Deschanel and Ward’s, which, though charming, doesn’t seem to present the real characters and southern spirit like DeMarco manages.  This is also helped by variations in the sound.  DeMarco’s casual, plucky guitars stretch toward the warm, rolling guitars of Wavves, albeit with significantly less acid in the mix.

DeMarco’s unassuming vocals carry us easily into his world.  He pleads and dreams, “Someday I’ll find it,” but acknowledge’s it’s only a fantasy, “Maybe she’s the best in dreams, she’s still the best I’ve seen.”  He works these simple notions well.  They’re relatable and honest, and he’s singing through acceptance and good nature rather than a pining loss.  Even when DeMarco turns to singing, “Sorry Mama.  There are times I get carried away,” or about his father making drugs in the basement, they’re all to build these little worlds around himself, largely free from judgement and more a portrait of the scene.

There’s little to excite on 2, but DeMarco’s simple and would-be unremarkable presentation of a small and real world is something to remark on.  2 contains a wholly consistent narrative of DeMarco and his world, and because of this, we can really take to these tracks.  It’s a calm, sometimes dirty, but broadly charmed visit to a place we don’t often hear from in a genuine form like this.  

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Filed under: mac demarco 2 music