Please, no more "instant classics".By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/26 10:00
In the context of a discussion of the Sight & Sound poll:
As for the appeal of the "new," I think that's the worst thing about contemporary pop culture. What's "new" this week, or this month, or this year, isn't likely to be truly fresh or innovative or even novel (in the short-term sense); it's just whatever is being released, promoted, advertised, and/or "viral."
Someone else goes on to mention in the comments that the canonization process for culture is slow for a good reason. Most of the Sight & Sound votes aren't from the last 20-30 years because it takes at least that long to determine if a movie (or anything else, really) has a long-standing contribution to make to our culture. It has to outlast its own novelty, and that's not something that can be predicted.
This is why I squirm at labels like "instant classic" (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Not just because they imply a rush to judgment, but because they imply a lack of understanding of why a canon of classics in any category is assembled in the first place, or what it takes.
A "lost" Sun Ra session from the early '80s may be one of the best places to start with him and the Arkestra.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/25 10:55
It’s a toss-up as to who has the more intimidating discography, Sun Ra or Merzbow. I suspect Merzbow has our Saturnian friend beat in terms of sheer size, though: according to Discogs, the Merz has 227 full albums and is still cranking, whilst the Ra’s Arkestra has 140 … although Sunny himself appears on some 250+ discs, and the Ark continues to sail on Sunlessly. But it isn’t the size of the back catalog that’s by itself scary, it’s the magnitude of a question that people also ask when confronted with something like the Gundam anime franchise, which sports something like 24 separate shows and movies: Where the heck do you start?
Short answer: somewhere simple. Meaning with Merzbow, you start with one of his shorter albums that bears at least some resemblance to music as we know it (I’d recommend Merzbuddha). With Sun Ra, the same rule applies—pick a record that won’t scare off most of the audience with twenty-minute freeform jams, and you should be fine. I don’t want to imply that Nuclear War would be the first such choice, but it would fit nicely into a list of ten such starter-kit records from the Ra catalog.
All things Spielberg, but not enough things J.J. Abrams.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/23 11:00
A good movie, but not the instant classic it's been touted as. A gang of kids in a pre-Internet, post-Star Wars Middle America have their plans for a home-made horror movie (and the hapless protagonist's crush on their female lead) literally derailed when a train carrying something cracks open in front of them with the camera rolling. Where it goes from that sprightly opening is straight into Spielberg Love Letter territory — a little Close Encounters, a little Poltergeist, a little E.T., a little — make that a whole lot of — Jurassic Park, etc.
Even without Spielberg's shadow over the film, the emotional side of the movie is quite likable — the banter between the kids could have supported a story all by itself. And maybe it should have, since it makes the effects-driven side look all the less necessary, especially given how many pieces of other films it's been cobbled together from. J.J. Abrams is as technically adept as any director around, but he needs to make his next big personal project personal and not just nostalgic. I want to see a film from him that comes from someplace inside him, not from other movies.
Afrobeat made accessible without becoming anodyne.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/21 10:00
The best description of jazz I can think of is that it’s not a genre of music, but a process, a way of making music where the end result is never quite the same but always somehow jazz. That description remained at the front of my mind all throughout listening to Inspiration Information 3, a collaboration between Ethiopian jazzman Mulatu Astatke and the U.K. musicians’ collective The Heliocentrics. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve heard since the last Fela Kuti record left my stereo—metaphorically speaking, anyway, since I sold off my last slabs of vinyl years ago, but an album like this is excuse enough to buy a turntable all over again.
The name Mulatu Astatke rang too few bells with me when this disc first came my way, and my penance was to go and learn more. Astatke’s career as an Ethiopian jazz maestro kicked off in the ’60s, and stints overseas in both the U.K. and U.S. allowed him to infuse that many more jazz and funk elements into a sound derived from “traditional Ethiopian folk melodies, five tone scale arrangements and elements from music of the ancient Coptic church” (as the press release on Strut Records’ website puts it). He’d perked up more than a few Western ears when his music turned up on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, and via the Ethiopiques album series, so II3 didn’t come out a complete vacuum. Influences from both sides of the aisle are clear—especially in the ten-minute closer, “Anglo Ethio Suit”, the title of which is a hint at the kind of interchange going on, up there with Ginger Baker sitting in with the Africa ‘70.
Aside from being a perfectly listenable record the way Kind of Blue was, IIS3 (I hate typing that; it makes me think I’m writing about a Microsoft server product) is listenable in a wholly different way: as a specimen of the writhing, sinuous Afrobeat sound which the above-mention Kuti is usually cited as being the main example of. But it’s a deal or two more accessible than Fela—as in, no 15-minute-plus jams; all the songs are actual song-length. This makes it an easier point of entry for those new to Afrobeat or jazz, both of which can be forbidding territory for the uninitiated. It’s a party record where the partying can either be out on the dancefloor or between your ears.
On dialogue in fiction, which is less about forensics than selectivity.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/20 10:00
People are often told in entry-level creative writing classes to 'listen to how real people talk, and write like that', which is terrible advice. A transcript of spoken conversation is often so full of repetition, half-thoughts, and non-specific words ('stuff', 'thing') as to be incomprehensible—especially without all of the spoken cues of pattern and tone. Written communication works very differently, and making dialogue feel like speech is an artificial process.
Keely is right, but at the same time I see why the advice is given. I suspect the problem is that it's only half the advice. You should indeed listen to how people talk, but only as a base to build on — not as a source for transcription.
On long-form work in a short-form culture.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/19 10:00
Decades ago the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran wrote that he found novels from Latin countries less deep and moving because, or so he suspected, the writers in those more sociable climes talked their thoughts to death before putting pen to paper. In that sense, ours may now be the most Latin culture of all. In an effort to offer something, anything, that is not already on Facebook, our writers seem less likely to go big than to go small, writing in great polished detail of the most trivial thoughts and deeds.
I'm not sure if "Latin countries" includes Brazil, because that would disqualify folks like Machado de Assis, who I most definitely count as being both deep and moving. Bloody shame, that. Cioran is also one of those authors whom I give points for being original, but take them away again for being interminable and tedious — you dip into him for aphorisms, but reading him as any kind of systematic thinker seems unwise.
But let's drop back a bit and look at the main contention of the above 'graf — that the chattier the culture, the less likely it'll produce untrivial literature. (I didn't like using the word "untrivial", gross as it is, but it seemed closer to what I meant than just saying "profound".)
The problem isn't that we post every stupid little thing on Facebook or what have you — it's that we are letting that way of talking and thinking about things push everything else out of the picture. The mode itself isn't new; Dwight Macdonald was complaining about similar things in newspapers back in the Thirties, where a sentence or two separated by asterisks in a columnist's daily tattle was what passed for insight.
The conventional wisdom about "short, controlled bursts" is that people have less time to read and so much information to contend with, that it's better to adapt to their attention spans than to fight a losing (information) war. It's people's attention, not even their money, that has become the real commodity —and their time is a form of money, to them, since they only have a finite amount of it to spend.
I agree with this, up to a point. The trick is to find ways of using those shorter bursts to hook an audience's attention for longer and longer stints — so that by the time they sit down for those 500 or 800 pages you've been saving them up for, a) you'll have something to say to make it worth the time and b) they'll be all the more grateful for the experience. That all requires some thought about what those 500 or 800 pages do actually contain, instead of what can be pumped full of air to fill that space.
You paid $200 million for WHAT kind of movie?By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/18 10:00
Abrams’ philosophy is, oddly, a rarity in Hollywood as you rarely see mid-range studio tentpoles anymore. Studios seem more open to losing money on overpriced spectacle like John Carter and Battleship rather than concentrating of less expensive, more practical movies which would more easily turn a profit.
Most interesting of all is a note in the comments about an interview with Robert Rodriguez, who noted that the reason many Hollywood movies have such absurd budgets is because producers are too used to the culture of throwing money at a problem, even a trivial one, to make it go away. A lot of it goes into buying pricey actors as "audience insurance", or front-loading a film with disposable spectacle set-pieces to ensure that butts get into seats.
Writers should do more for each other than just supply cover blurbs; they should be honest critics, too.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/17 09:00
The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.
Most of the blogging I've seen about books reminds me all too much of the shallow "Sixty Second Preview" blurb-shilling that's been happening in the movie-criticism industry for a long time now, except that a depressing number of the bloggers in question seem to honestly think they're contributing something of value to a conversation about a given work. "I liked it" is not a form of criticism. "I liked it and here's why" is a little closer to the truth, but few people seem honest enough about their tastes (or perceptive) to speak with authority or insight about why something worked for them or didn't.
On the idea that a canon is a spectrum of interpretation and interactivity rather than a fixed artifact.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/16 09:00
Harry Potter is not a person who lives in JK Rowling's head, he's an idea which is shared in various forms by millions of people all over the world.
This, I think, is what people can't get their heads around. It's the idea that there does not have to be a single, correct answer to any question about a fictional character. The idea that something could be deliberately ambiguous, or intentionally left open to multiple interpretations seems to blow people's tiny minds. The idea that an interpretation that was not intended by the author could still be valid seems to make Fandom physically ill.
[And later, in the comments:]
... [this happened because] adults took something intended for "the kids" and got into it themselves. Adults are the biggest kill joys ever who need to know they're right and that the world makes sense etc, and who will annoyingly argue themselves to the ends of the earth in pursuit of acknowledgement.
There's a lot to mine out of an observation like this, so much so that at first I have trouble figuring out how to attack it systematically, like a sandwich that's too thick to bite into properly.
I suspect most of the author's comments about fandom come from being exposed to its noisiest, most reactionary and most hidebound elements — although, sadly, those tend to be the parts of fandom that make the biggest impression, because they're noisy, reactionary, hidebound, etc. It's easy to assume such people speak for the whole of the way fandom works.
Harry Harrison, 87.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/15 08:41
Harry Harrison died today. I think I wanted to be him when I grew up. Him, or Daniel M. Pinkwater.
You might remember Harrison as the creator of The Stainless Steel Rat, Make Room! Make Room! (source for Soylent Green), and Bill, The Galactic Hero. I remember him for all those things and many others — not least of which was Deathworld, a trilogy of novels I got turned onto by my friend James Carstensen (where are you now, man?), which summed up Harrison's anti-war stance via a clever extended metaphor. He wrote prolifically, right up until the end, a habit and a trait I valued tremendously, and did his best not to repeat himself.
Among my unsung favorites of his was One Step From Earth, a collection of stories that used the gadget concept of matter transmission to explore a future history of humanity — everything from the first man transmitted to Mars in 1993 to mankind's disappearance from the universe. Another one of his many to fall sadly out of print, and like Deathworld before it, one which would have made a great and unconventional SF movie.
I never did meet the man, and I regret that. He was one of the few SF authors I not only read but admired as a person, someone whose stances on life and man's place in the universe were intelligent and humane. He disliked the military, having served in it himself, and his distaste stood apart from the pack of Baen/Tor spear-rattlers — where they were writing The Red Badge of Courage, so to speak, he was writing The Good Soldier Švejk. "My generation of writers were all fans," he said in a Locus interview, a situation that seems to have only deepened with the growth of fandom into an industry unto itself.
He will be missed, but I'm sure he'll be remembered. I also hope he will be emulated.
Nothing new? Depends on how you see "new".By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/08 10:00
We all know, much to our dismay, the deal about there being nothing truly new. It received its first and most timeless expression in Ecclesiastes, which you ought to be able to quote with your eyes shut: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."
The problem is, what classifies as being "new" or "original"? Why do we attach those labels to something in the first place? Especially creative work, which despite the label is more often than not made up of other things?
A complex surface doesn't always mean complex depths. Sometimes it just means ostentation.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/08/02 10:00
I just returned from a vacation during which I came back several pounds heavier than when I left — most of it books and not body fat, thank goodness. Among them were new entries in the Vampire Hunter D series, which I've written about in these very pages, Miyuki Miyabe's ICO: Castle in the Mist novel, miscellaneous manga, and (c-c-c-combo breaker!) Ödön von Horváth's The Eternal Philistine. One of these things is most definitely not like the other.
It's been said that the main difference between "popular" and "literary" work is the amount of effort required to read the product in question and get the most out of it. A short book that is very densely written can be far more effort to plumb than one four times its length but pumped full of air via descriptions and digressions and all the other kind of writing-by-the-yard that can be read by simply moving one's gaze down the middle of the page. The fact that a book is like this has little or nothing to do with what it's really about (e.g., SF vs. "kitchen sink" fiction), but how it is about it, and it's the how that I think creates the most difficulties of approach for both writers and readers. We all want to write to be read, but some of us know that what we have to say cannot be said any other way.
Science fiction, rebooted.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind