Thursday, September 17, 2009

Come Get Bonked!

(Note: The following three entries were composed for the Subterranean Books blog while I was still on their payroll.)

I’ve been a big fan of Mary Roach ever since having read Stiff, her brilliant and hilarious study of the business of human preservation. Roach is that rare talent whose impeccable journalistic techniques are bolstered by a conversational style and an unparalleled sense of humor, making each revolting factoid that much easier to swallow. After breaking big with her debut, Roach tackled the afterlife with Spook, which put ghost hunters and professional psychics under the microscope. Now, having wrestled with the dead, Mary Roach is ready to go to work on the living.

Bonk (Norton, $24.95) delves into the long and sordid history of sexual physiology, covering ground cleared by everyone from Leonardo da Vinci (an alleged cold fish who regarded human coitus as “awkward and disgusting”) to Alfred Kinsey (whose illuminating experiments were often carried out in the attic of his home). The phrase “too much information” has no bearing on these exposés of everything from animal insemination to penile implantation: Does clitoral placement dictate the propensity for female orgasm? Will paralysis spell the end for one’s sex life? Could masturbation serve as a cure for the hiccups? Roach delves into each avenue with characteristic fervor, occasionally transforming herself and her long-suffering husband into guinea pigs for the researchers she investigates. (Her tale of kinky sex inside an MRI machine is likely to resonate the next time you go in for a CAT scan.)

This book is sure to appeal to anyone with a healthy curiosity about sex, and serve as a guilty diversion for everyone else. Equally awe-inspiring and side-splitting, it marks another high point in Ms. Roach’s already stellar career. Best of all, you won’t look creepy reading it on the bus.

Let's Talk About Criticism (The Good Kind)

As stated previously, we recently received an enormous shipment of 33 1/3, the Continuum imprint that caters to the cut of listener who yearns to dig beyond the liner notes. Now, I have always been of the mind that music critics, like their filmic counterparts, occupy a completely superfluous role in society; nonetheless, I have been addicted to these books since their inception, thanks both to their almost invariably insightful commentary and to their brilliant design scheme, and I’m not ashamed to say that I felt downright giddy poring through the myriad titles that now grace our shelves. In the hopes of transmitting that excitement to others, I’ve made a list of some of my favorite entries in the series thus far. Hopefully they’ll still be here when you come around.


# 52 Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson

Without a doubt, this is the best entry I’ve read, and one which I imagine will be hard to top. The beauty of it lies in its seeming absurdity: Who would write a serious critical analysis of Céline Dion, the chest-pounding scourge of the hipster elite? It is under this guise that Carl Wilson delivers a devastating dissertation about the hollow and arbitrary nature of taste, and its function as a propagator of the stereotypes proliferated by the upper echelon of society. He reaches the ultimate conclusion that taste is wholly subjective and completely ungoverned by objective standards, which—whaddaya know!—has long been my opinion, too. I only hope that he follows this masterpiece with a rundown of Now That’s What I Call Music!


# 17 zeprunes2.jpg by Erik Davis

Serving as the crystallization of Jimmy Page’s obsession with the occult, Led Zeppelin’s unpronounceable fourth album has attained a well-deserved status as the most mysterious platter in the entire rock canon. Erik Davis, clearly up to the challenge, attacks said behemoth with a vigor worthy of its crushing heft and epic scope: The genesis of each legendary track is dissected in full detail, from the fireside epiphany of “Stairway To Heaven” to the actual stairway that gave birth to “When The Levee Breaks”, and the mystical runes and rampant symbolism which run through the album’s lyrics and artwork are scrutinized with a passion that borders on obsession. Davis does an excellent job in unraveling the secrets of one of the most popular albums ever made, a tract which—despite the disadvantages of time and ever-growing familiarity—continues to deny a full disclosure of its mystical nature.


#30 Paul’s Boutique by Dan Le Roy

This, this monumental smorgasbord of funk, soul, psychedelia, bluegrass, and classic rock, was the album that changed my direction, that made me a hopeless lifelong devotee of hip-hop, that transformed me from an art-rock-lovin’ antisocialite into what the editors of The Source refer to as a “head”. My mind was completely and irrevocably blown upon my first listen, Mike D and Adams Yauch and Horovitz dropping science from the beloved old boombox in the kitchen of our house, the windows open and a summer breeze painting the air around me, poetry in motion around my head, cultural touchstones whizzing by in a parade of flawless diction, the perfect timing making up for the imperfect grammar. Hearing familiar sound bites ripped free of their mooring and thrown into alien surroundings, my brain scrambled to keep up, and the result was a giddy euphoria unlike anything I’d experienced outside of local anaethesia.

Dan Le Roy apparently had much the same reaction, and this loving tribute to what remains one of my favorite hip-hop albums ever covers all the bases an adoring fan could desire: illuminating commentary by the practitioners involved, salacious recountals of artistic risks and career near-disasters, and a track-by-track breakdown that accomplishes the rare feat of initiating the newly converted and offering genuine food for thought to the long-faithful. A fresh perspective is guaranteed to even the most obsessive B-Boy fan, including the one writing this review.


#11 The Velvet Underground and Nico by Joe Harvard

The Velvet Underground is so thoroughly steeped in the lore of alternative culture that it’s hard to imagine the music world bereft of their towering influence. Their debut album remains, four decades after its release, the touchstone by which all other alt rock releases must pass mettle; alas, their achievement was so resoundingly original and the circumstances of the album’s creation so unique that most attempts at emulating their formula prove futile. One of the few people to have pulled it off successfully is Jonathan Richman, the ex-Modern Lover whose coming of age on the Lower East Side coincided with the VU’s rise to infamy. His anecdotal remembrances of Lou Reed and company make up the bulk of this text, accentuated by technical details laid out by co-producer Norman Dolph. The result is a humanizing snapshot of a time and place which have been romanticized to epic proportions.


#44 Trout Mask Replica by Kevin Courrier

Beefheart’s magnum opus deserves its status as the watershed album of antimusic; as a primer for the endurance required of voyagers into the realm of ugly sounds, it remains unparalleled. Composed under truly psychotic conditions by a hair-trigger Svengali and his band of merry pranksters, Trout Mask dispensed completely with the rigmarole of pop music, ignoring the zeitgeist of late ’60s psychedelia in favor of scorched-earth Delta blues and extraterrestrial skronk. The result was an artifact from another reality, a reality which Kevin Courrier goes to great lengths to bring into clarity. Interviews with Magic Band members who jumped ship to avoid being ground under the wheels of the uncompromising Don Van Vliet help to shed light on the genetics of this mutant creation, and a detailed postscript examines the way that Beefheart’s baby has sunk its phalanges into the underbelly of pop culture in the decades since it escaped from its cage. One hopes that the Good Captain is aware of the reverence that his legacy elicits today, in spite of a mainstream culture which glorifies conformity just as unabashedly as it did in 1969.


#24 Endtroducing… by Eliot Wilder

1996 was a transitional year for hip-hop, wavering between the high of the Fugees’ The Score and Outkast’s ATLiens and the low of Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core. In Josh Davis’s eyes, though, hip-hop had been perverted by an all-consuming quest to get paid and a deification of the MC to the detriment of the DJ. In short, ‘96 just plain sucked. Thus he took it upon himself to reeducate the masses, to summon the spirits of Bambaataa and Steinski and continue the lessons they had begun over a decade before. From his perch above Dan the Automator’s bedroom, he cobbled together the God moments he’d found hidden in the labyrinthine stacks beneath Records in his hometown of Davis, CA, and gave birth to a doctrine of vinyl so transcendent in its goal to unite all factions of the listening public that genre classifications were not only redundant but inapplicable.

Eliot Wilder’s evaluation of Shadow’s career is based on several lengthy interviews he conducted by phone with the DJ savior himself. Covering everything from his middle class upbringing in Davis to his first encounter with Mo’ Wax’s James Lavelle to the critical adoration that greeted Endtroducing… practically from the moment of its release, this comprehensive recollection does a good job of filling in the blanks posed by that most mysterious of trip-hop virtuosos (Geoff Barrow notwithstanding).


#29 In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Kim Cooper

Where would collegiate music aficionados be without Jeff Mangum? Would the smothering aesthetic of irony that infiltrated every aspect of pop culture in the late ’90s still be in full effect had it not been for the reprieve of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? Best not to ponder such things. Better simply to thank one’s higher power of choice for delivering such a colossally life-affirming forty minutes of grace upon our pointed little heads, for having shown us that world was in fact a beautiful place, no matter what evidence may exist to the contrary. The very definition of a word-of-mouth record, Aeroplane remains commercially insignificant, but its influence is immeasurable: practically every musician these days who eschews pretense in favor of naked emotion owes a debt to Mangum and his crew. Going straight to the source, Kim Cooper delves into the sleepy southern gothic roots of the Elephant 6 collective which birthed Neutral Milk Hotel and learns that the myth of Mangum isn’t too far removed from the truth. Yes, he really did compose his songs without a written record; yes, he really did drop out of the spotlight due to disinterest in being a rock star. But when faced with the fates of Messrs. Cobain and Smith, perhaps the latter wasn’t such a bad idea. Having been denied the resolution of a followup record, Aeroplane stands as the definitive testament of Mangum’s singular vision and voice, the heart-adorned sleeve of a dusty vintage jacket worn by a troubadour who felt everything so strongly that he had no choice but to lay himself bare in the hopes that he could redeem us all.


#34 In Utero by Gillian G. Gaar

Nirvana took a major gamble with their final album, on which Kurt Cobain decided that the audience he’d acquired by writing flawless, scabrous pop songs was ready for the true measure of abrasion which festered inside his head. He solicited the production acumen of Big Black alum Steve Albini, the absolute last choice of the suits at DGC, and proceeded to churn out the rawest music of his career, the sound he’d been searching for from the moment he first picked up a guitar. When it was decided that the resulting tapes were too forbidding for mass consumption, R.E.M. stalwart Scott Litt was brought in to salvage what little radio-friendliness could be had, and the final product was a compromise for everyone involved. Here, Gillian Gaar exposes the intralabel strife that almost aborted In Utero before it could hit the market, from the fights over artistic control and songwriting credit to the compromising position in which Cobain found himself after siring one of the most lucrative rock releases of the early ’90s. In spite of (or because of) the antagonism of which it was borne, In Utero may well be Nirvana’s greatest legacy, a punishing treatise on the true cost of success.


#31 Doolittle by Ben Sisario

Somewhere in the West Hills surrounding Portland, OR lives a balding, cherub-faced imp with the unassuming moniker of Charles Thompson. The utter innocuity of his homestead belies his former identity as a screaming firebrand named Black Francis, the main creative force of the Pixies, arguably the most celebrated indie band of the late ’80s. Ben Sisario pays a friendly visit to Mr. Thompson’s neighborhood, and the two men reminisce upon past glories while tootling around the surrounding burgs. When they go to a local music retailer to purchase a copy of Doolittle, the Pixies’ magnum opus, Thompson seems unsurprised when the clerk doesn’t recognize him as one of the authors of the very CD she’s holding; despite a successful solo career as the rechristened Frank Black, he has maintained a fairly low profile, both in the local community and in the pop world at large. Thompson’s candor regarding his turbulent relationship with Pixies bassist Kim Deal and the circumstances surrounding the band’s dissolution and eventual rebirth does well to sweep up the debris that his massive persona has left in its wake. Without him, there’s no telling whether the alternative movement of the ’90s would have gone underway, but Thompson is past letting it go to his head. For now, he seems content to just relax in the woods.

Prices range from $9.95 to $10.95.

Stuff White People Like: Criticism

In the early summer of 2008, Stuff White People Like hosted a contest to see who knew the most about white people, and who, by extension, was most deserving of a signed copy of their new book, released July 1st. The contest closed on June 20th, with winners being announced on June 23rd. (I didn't place.) Entries had to be fewer than 350 words. I submitted the following.


As a way to preserve their status among the cultural elite, white people are fiercely defensive of their tastes in music, film, and literature. As such, they love to read and debate criticism of said media in order to validate their own opinions. However, it is considered gauche to simply parrot the opinions of others, so white people are forced to pick and choose which critics with whom to align themselves so as to appear neither pretentious nor uninformed. Chuck Klosterman is a popular choice among the demographic of hip, collegiate whites aged 16 to 35, as his everyman persona, conversational style, and ironically journalistic devotion to pop culture ephemera have made him a hero to the generation weaned on Saved by the Bell. Movie buffs of a populist bent favor the musings of Peter Travers, chief film critic for Rolling Stone, while whites (generally male) who would consider professional criticism as a career idolize Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael, the leading propagators of a style which posits subjective estimation as objective fact. It is important to white people that their opinions are both seen as unique and appreciated for their insight, and they take great pride in the time and effort required to formulate their individual points of view. As a result, they often take personal offense at viewpoints which conflict with their own, and will go to great lengths to ensure that their opinions are seen as correct.

When white people come together to discuss the relative merits of a piece of pop art, the conversation can get heated in a hurry. Many white people harbor a secret desire to be paid for their opinions - the ultimate validation of their taste - and they will take any opportunity to enact that fantasy. The Internet provides the perfect platform for this endeavor, and message boards and chat rooms devoted to pop culture discussions abound. However, the fundamental truth that taste is wholly subjective and ungoverned by objective standards often goes ignored by those who engage in debate.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

Having betrayed the reliable commercial viability of their conventional animated features with such runaway hits as The Emperor's New Groove and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it seemed in 2002 that Walt Disney Pictures was poised to cede their financial future to Pixar, whose staggering success with Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. had revealed the vast box office potential of computer-generated animation. In a last-ditch effort to reverse the trend, Disney decided to completely discard their previously winning formula and concoct an entirely different sort of animated feature. The result was Lilo & Stitch, a totally unique entry in the Disney canon and a film which seems just as bizarre and original today as it did in the summer of '02.

The story concerns an orphaned Hawaiian girl named Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase, previously seen in Donnie Darko), whose behavioral problems at school and at home provide a constant headache for her older sister, Nani (Tia Carrere). Their difficult circumstances are compounded by a social worker named Cobra Bubbles (played to the hilt by Ving Rhames), whose suspicions of neglect are increased by Lilo's penchant for sabotaging Nani's attempts at discipline. Enter into this happy picture an extraterrestrial biological experiment (number 626, to be exact), who escapes captivity aboard a spaceship several solar systems away and crash-lands in Hawaii. Though featuring classically cute cartoon features, 626 is nothing less than a perfect killing machine, a genetically designed genius whose sole function is to wreak havoc and not be destroyed. Run over (but hardly injured) by a truck on the highway, he is mistaken for a dog and taken to the pound, where he falls into the loving arms of Lilo the very next day.

On the trail of 626 (coincidentally renamed Stitch by Lilo) are Jumba (David Ogden Stiers), his creator, and Pleakley (Kevin McDonald), the galactic agent assigned to make sure his recovery goes smoothly. The odd-couple dynamic of the pair, along with their complete ineptitude at fitting in on Earth, provides the film with much of its humor. Despite their repeated attempts to capture Stitch and return him to the Galactic Council, Jumba and Pleakley prove to be no match for his tactical cunning. Thus, Lilo is free to train her new companion to speak, play guitar, and appreciate Elvis Presley, blissfully unaware of his true nature. Only after Jumba and Pleakley are fired for their incompetence do they drop any pretense of wanting to keep Stitch alive, propelling the film toward its clever and action-packed conclusion.

In spite of what could be construed as a calculated attempt to make the strangest kids' movie possible, Lilo & Stitch succeeds not only as a lustrous popcorn flick, but also as a genuinely touching fable about the importance of individuality and the fluid nature of family. Just as Lilo and Nani struggle to overcome the loss of their parents, Stitch struggles both to define himself and also to acclimate to his alien environment. As he becomes more self-aware, he realizes that he is a total outsider in his adopted home, an epiphany that leaves him all but despondent. His only solace is found in the unwavering love of Lilo, Nani, and their friend David (Jason Scott Lee). Together, these four face off the invasive presence of the Galactic Council and Social Services and assert their right to define themselves as a family unit. When Stitch rejects his title of "Experiment 626" at the end of the film and embraces the name he was given by Lilo, he validates his own right to belong. It is an important lesson for both the children and the adults in the audience who struggle to find their place in the world.

The fact that a children's movie about space aliens, surfing, and Elvis was not only greenlit but also budgeted at $80 million makes its ultimate success all the more satisfying. Disney obviously knew that they had an oddball on their hands: the teaser trailers for the film featured characters from such past hits as Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast being interrupted by Stitch's rambunctious behavior, and the posters showed Stitch surrounded by a cadre of glowering Disney characters, as if to suggest that he was an unwelcome addition. The tagline: "There's one in every family." But the gamble paid off: in the best underdog tradition, Lilo & Stitch defied expectation and became a hit, grossing over $145 million domestically during its June-to-November run. The good showing may have been aided by the fact that the film's Elvis fixation was perfectly timed, the summer of 2002 having been saturated with Presleymania in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of the King.

Perhaps in an effort to play up its unorthodox nature, Lilo & Stitch was also augmented with several innovative animation techniques. It was the first animated Disney feature since Dumbo to have utilized watercolor backgrounds, and one of the few to have integrated live-action footage. By nature of its galactic and Hawaiian locales, it also marked one of the only times since 1942 that Disney had produced a feature-length animated film without having recycled footage from Bambi. Four years after Lilo's release, Disney closed their last remaining hand-drawn animation studio to focus solely on computer-aided animation. Stitch's adventures on Earth heralded the beginning of the end of an era.