Monthly Archives: December 2012

I found a cure for this

mgid uma video mtv.com 663523Jordan questions the dearth of accessible criticism on Maxwell, a problem he lays on the artist’s fallow recording cycle and the fact that Maxwell released three of his four albums before 2001. More significantly, Jordan observes that Maxwell “leans adult contemporary at times and I assume he never really crossed over to rock critics in the first place.” We can’t underestimate the degree to which Maxwell’s pedigree may have created the context in which he was received. 1996’s Urban Hang Suite and to a lesser extent its two successors depended on members of Sade, Stuart Matthewman most prominently. His biggest pop hit to date remains the R. Kelly-penned “Fortunate.”

While the R&B community and aging yuppies never lost their devotion to Sade, I can remember few twentysomethings reclaiming Love Deluxe or Stronger Than Pride, as estimable as they were and are (the beatbox and washes of saxophone and piano on Urban Hang Suite‘s “The Suite Theme” would have Sade calling their lawyers if they weren’t involved in its creation); and, a paywalled Rob Sheffield notice for Embrya aside, if you were part of Rolling Stone in the nineties you didn’t ruminate much on albums appreciated by the R&B community and aging yuppies. R. Kelly is a special case: a star whose resumé includes production and songwriting credits for Michael Jackson and Aaliyah; a recognized, grudgingly accepted auteur. Plus, there’s D’Angelo. “The main problem with Maxwell,” Dream Hampton writes in a review of 1998’s Embrya, “is he’s not D’Angelo.” Accusing Maxwell of being a bore and a boor, Hampton pines for the album released in early 2000 to critical hosannas and popular success called Voodoo. A different ethos, Voodoo: the gunky mix foregrounds groove and falsetto like a Stax recording. Although I like Voodoo less than Now or Urban Hang Suite, I don’t find D’Angelo any less boorish or self-involved. Forget the words; what he’s saying is a bass line. The voodoo is the content.

So I’m not surprised there’s little exegesis of Maxwell before 2001. As the success of Miguel and Frank Ocean, and on a smaller scale Diddy Dirty Money’s Last Train to Paris, suggest, a generation of writers has grown up regarding neo-soul as pop music. If you’re in the mid to late twenties range, you grew up accepting what the Grammys and Billboard acknowledge as fact: Babyface, Dallas Austin, et al shaped the nineties. You heard Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu in your parents’ cars, Usher in your friend’s Jeep. R. Kelly wasn’t a freak filming and recording a multi-part celebration of his luridness — he was Marvin Gaye. And Sade is Sade, whose “Soldier of Love” we find startling because we’ve convinced ourselves she’s never been startling until this moment — that “Never As Good as the First Time” and “No Ordinary Love” and “Love is Stronger Than Pride” weren’t startling. When Maxwell released BLACKsummers’night in 2009 — to my ears his best album — this newly empowered subset ensured that little commercial traction was lost in the intervening eight years.

Gods and monsters: Django Unchained

leonardo-dicaprio-django-unchained-jamie-foxx

Fitfully entertaining for most of its length, dawdling only when Quentino Tarantino insists on a lame joke about nascent Ku Kluxers and their masks so that Jonah Hill can get a line; and when Christoph Waltz overacts through an explanation. He’s really not a very good actor, and he’ll start giving overscaled performances in small movies like Oliver Reed if he’s not careful (he’s better just chatting with Jamie Foxx). But Django Unchained doesn’t need the “cathartic” ending, especially when we know Django and Hilde aren’t getting out of Ole Miss alive, with or without her slave papers. It would’ve been a chilling coda if Tarantino dropped the games and let Candie’s men execute Django. Having manipulated audience sympathies and its blood lust, Tarantino must turn Django into the Terminator, but it’s facile, and neither the scene with the mine transporters nor the final shootout were particularly inventive in staging to deserve their inclusion.

Where it works is implicating the audience in the sadism of slavery while getting off on the pleasure of a stern, handsome former slave Django riding erect and tall on a horse. Watching this movie six weeks after Lincoln, what felt like an abstraction in the Spielberg film (it wasn’t the movie Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner set out to make anyway) is nightmarish in Django Unchained. For every vestigial cutaway like one to Waltz shaving the foam off some pints of beer, there’s one of blood splattering on cotton that register subliminally but firmly: the South’s cash crop was raised on the blood and sweat of forced human labor. In the conception of Stephen (Fetchit?) and as embodied in Samuel L. Jackson’s rattlesnake of a performance, we see how the system warped conformity into a pathology; Stephen the butler not only has Massah’s confidence but the confianza, as we say in Spanish, to enjoy Massah’s Grand Marnier and chair by the fire. He will sell out his race for the pleasure of Massah’s ear.

Massah, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is Calvin Candie, owner of the fourth largest plantation in Mississippi and of Broomhilda (Kerry Washignton), Django’s wife. Fluent in German, she’s the ideal house slave. Waltz and Foxx’s scheme is to masquerade as slavers interested in one of Candie’s mandingos and attempt to purchase her for a ridiculously high bid. Swollen, rolling his vowels, it takes a while to get accustomed to DiCaprio playing a satrap whose silken menace undergirds every sentence, but Scrunchy Face eventually gives his most entertaining performance since Catch Me If You Can; I didn’t expect his florid gestures to come off better than Waltz’s. But it’s soon after the discovery of the Waltz-Foxx sceme that Django becomes unchained. The most truthful script development — the execution of Django at the hands of rabid Southerners — would have most alienated the audience. But it would have at least mitigated a conclusion of puzzling unambivalence by reminding us that Django didn’t blink as these same men let dogs tear a slave — a man — to pieces an hour ago. Saving him would have cost Django his beautiful, blank, boring Broomhilda. In literature heroes who seek revenge usually die. It’s one thing for Tarantino to address the evils of slavery in a genre picture; it’s another for him to give “heft” to a putative genre picture by encouraging correspondences between it and a German myth.

Of cliffs and slopes

Naturally no paper will carry this story:

On Jan. 1, 2000, the world awoke to find that little had changed since the night before. After years of hype around what was then called Y2K — the fear that computer systems across the globe would collapse, unable to handle the year shifting from ’99 to ’00 — the date change turned out to be a momentous non-event.

Next week, the United States is in for much the same, after months of frantic hype about the economic disruption that awaits if Congress and the president fail to reach a deal and the federal government goes “over the fiscal cliff.” (The difference between Y2K and the fiscal cliff being that computer programmers worked around the clock to ensure the former was a non-event.)

The so-called fiscal cliff is a combination of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1. But the agencies responsible for implementing those changes, including the IRS and the Pentagon, are well aware that congressional and White House negotiators will most likely come to some sort of deal within weeks or months — and so they are planning to carry on as usual, according to a broad review of private and public government plans.

In other words, there will be no cliff. There won’t even be a slope. Congress and the president can have their public and private dramas, but the government officials responsible for carrying out their eventual orders have seen this movie before, and they know how it ends.

Cliff, baby, cliff!

“You ever heard of guns?”

As we prepare to endure the bleatings of conservative relatives, let us rejoice in Joe Hagan’s reporting from this November’s National Review cruise. Among the edifying moments: Cal Thomas and Rich LOLwry looked restrained and practical next to their fellow cruisers.

This was a phenomenon that was common on the cruise—the conservative pundits and columnists from the National Review attempting to gently disinter their followers from unhelpful conservative propaganda. For people who believe in the truth of works like Dreams From My Real Father, a conspiracy-­theory documentary that argues that Obama’s real father was a communist propagandist who turned Obama into a socialist Manchurian Candidate, this could be difficult work.

As Thomas downed the rest of his drink, Duane said the only way out of the current quagmire is a “revolution,” citing the famous Thomas Jefferson line about watering the tree of liberty with blood from “time to time.”

What kind of revolution did he have in mind?

Duane’s eyes crinkled into a big smile. “You ever heard of guns?”

His wife sat up: “How do you like the veal?”

“It’s awful,” Duane growled, poking at it. “I can’t hardly chew it.”

It looks like these post-Reagan revelers are taking seriously their leaders’ calls to figure out what went wrong in November:

Melissa O’Sullivan, the Alabaman wife of John, wasn’t buying the idea that Republicans had alienated minorities. “We’ve invited them to join us!” she insisted.

Susan from Princeton granted that the Republican Party is “lily white and it’s a problem and it is messaging and Mitt Romney screwed up royally.”

But Ms. O’Sullivan again took umbrage. As everyone went silent, she recalled a conference she attended in Australia in which a liberal nun (who “didn’t even have the decency to wear a habit”) criticized America for its “inner-city racism.” Offended, Ms. O’Sullivan recounted what she wished she’d said to this nun:

“Pardon me, madam, but I have been in your country of Australia for ten days and the only Aborigines I’ve seen have been drunk on the street, and at least if we were in my country they would be serving the drinks at this conference!”

Ms. O’Sullivan then warned against watering down the purity of the conservative agenda to placate minorities or, as she put it, rather succinctly, “the bastardization of the product.”

But leave it to Jonah Goldberg, son of Lucianne, whose intellect illumines the coming nights of liberal darkness, ask the right question.

“So therefore we should give up and burn our passports and stay on this boat forever?” said [Jonah] Goldberg with real exasperation.

The crowd erupted in cheers.

Yes yes burn your passports and stay on the boat forever.

Happy holidays.

In Another Country

iac_sm A master at playing characters whose self-control hangs on a thread, Isabelle Huppert is well cast in writer-director Hong Sang-Soo’s In Another Country playing three of those characters. The film’s premise: a young screenwriter puzzles through these variations, all of which involve Huppert, a solicitous neighbor (Jung Yumi), a filmmaker (Moon Sungkeun), a horny neighbor (Kwon Hyehyo) and his shrewish pregnant wife (Moon Sori). Her puzzle is Hong’s pleasure — and ours. Just as we’re growing accustomed to Huppert as a director scouting locations in an eerily uninhabited Korean beach town, Hong transforms her into the filmmaker’s lover; then, in the most improbable and hence most delightful twist, she becomes a new divorcee seeking spiritual emoluments from monks and carnal delight from a gregarious lifeguard (Yu Junsang).

Using Junsang’s performance as the enthusiastic, rather dim young man as counterpoint to the loutishness exhibited by the other men in Huppert’s circle, Hong suggests the masculine patterns of behavior to which Korean women remain exposed. A banal question in halting English about where to find a lighthouse is interpreted as a come-on. Huppert’s anomic trampling through the customs of a foreign country is its own venal sin. In this triptych Hoo’s style is to restage locations — a beach, in front of the apartment, the lifeguard’s tent, a picnic table and barbeque — with subtle and often non-existent camera changes, although his characteristic long shots root the production in the mildest of irony (the bluehaired septuagenarians in the audience however were not amused). Formalist rigor mitigates the didacticism, and In Another Country eases into its conclusion in eighty-nine minutes.