Selected Media Criticism: January 2009


During the course of my media consumption, I often jot down quick notes about the things I read, see, or hear. These capture my immediate reactions and are by no means well-considered critical opinion. As an experiment, I thought I’d try posting collections of some of the interesting ones periodically for whatever critical or acquisitive stimulation value they might have. Enjoy.

The Spike by George Orwell (Essay)

Young Orwell slumming in a late-Victorian homeless shelter. Successfully conveys the material misery and the duty-bound conviviality of the “tramps’ life” without falling too much into sentimentality (must have seemed quite the cold-water-shocking opposite at the time). Poignant details feel more self-selected than in the later work.

05 January 2008

Synechdoche, NY (Movie)

Samuel Beckett without the intensity. Who could pine for sour sour Katherine Keener. Old, bald, wrinkled, Hoffman’s resemblance to former Senator Fred Thompson is shocking. Liked the sci-fi world crumbling police van gas mask element. House on fire and a few other touches were pure high school one act. 15% overlong.

05 January 2008

Helvetica (Movie)

Documentary that charts the creation, rise, fall, and re-adoption of the most popular type face of the 20th century. Uses the story of Helvetica to chart the role of modernism in design over the last 50 years as it swept away the past, covered the world, was rejected as oppressive, and is now sentamentalized as homey and familiar. Lots of great streetscape sequences that gently reveal the omnipresence of Helvetica in all forms of signage, from the bureaucratic to the accidental, building a kind of humor out of rhythmically revealing new suprising places to find it. The restrained visual style and the Chicago School down-tempo post-rock soundtrack place the movie’s bias solidly on the side of Helvetica’s ambitions towards aesthetic universality and perfection, though the stories of its discontents are told with compassion and character.

12 January 2009

Encounters at the End of the World (Movie)

Werner Herzog takes a film crew to Antarctica inspired by some footage of divers under ice that closely resembles the preview of his sci-fi film Wild Blue Yonder. Herzog imposes his voiceover on everything, even interrupting his interviewees to summarize and dismiss their stories. As with everything he does, it’s all about him. His mix of romanticism at the ‘unspoilt nature’ and projection of his own preoccupations onto the actions of everyone he encounters is a little repellant, but Antarctica’s comes through as fascinating regardless. The most amazing moment is the shockingly synthetic sounds seals make beneath the ice—a synthesized symphony.

26 January 2009

Man on Wire (Movie)

Documentary about Phillipe Petit, a tightrope walker who walked on a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center immediately after its completion. It’s an exciting and staggeringly senseless act that Petit and his crew pull off in the style of a bank robbery. Man on Wire communicates that spirit by becoming a kind of existential caper movie. The crew’s personal style is self-consciously French New Wave down to filming themselves planning and practicing; the film is filled with (shockingly well-shot and well-preserved) period footage capturing them in youthful vitality, running and tackling each other in fields. Scenes from their early adventures (including running a wire between the spires of Notre Dame and on a bridge head adjacent to the Sydney Opera House) are intercut with the construction of the Towers. No building’s innards are more famous—the diamond-patterned girder grid, like the supports of a stained glass window, the bathtub of the foundation, which remained for years after 2001 as a de facto memorial—and it’s shocking to see them going in given the context of their coming out. Then there’s the image of Petit on the wire. With the right camera angles, and especially when he lies down on it, the wire disappears completely from view and it’s as if the air under him solidifies, holds him up. It’s a beautiful, vertiginous image that is so self-explanatory that it gives a wild humor to the main public question posed on his capture: why?

27 January 2009

Alien (Movie)

Hard to watch objectively at this late date since nearly ever element of this classic has become iconic, which is only the thinnest satire’s distance from cliched. Thankfully, however well-trodden of its themes, Alien still shocks in its attention to tactile detail: the sliminess of the alien egg, the goo it oozes, all of the infinite set dressing details on the ship, etc. Coming so close on the heels of Star Wars, it definitely participates in The New Heap aesthetic, but it’s effect is much more visceral. It also helps that it’s the intimate story of, basically, a bunch of truck drivers rather than being an epic about the chosen and the well-born. The grittiness has more teeth here because of the class element. Plus, not enough can be said about Geiger’s designs. His style is so unmistakable that it’s easy to under-appreciate what he accomplishes here. The world on which they find the alien is vividly drawn using only a few images: the earlier host creature at the beginning with the exploded chest that has merged with its giant gun or telescope device, the face sucker’s knuckles and incredibly detailed inner parts, the adult alien’s extended head, nested mouths, and signature head tilt (amazing that the creature is so well-drawn given that they’re basically hiding an inadequate costume effect for most of its appearance by only showing it in shadowed glimpses). It’s also refreshing in a time when sci-fi movies tend to be bombastic and full of portentous hogwash how straightforward Alien’s plot turns out to be. Besides the tiny bit of intrigue that gets hinted at with The Corporation (which was blown into such paranoid proportions in the sequels), there’s almost no information in the movie that’s not about where the alien is, who it’s killing, its lifecycle, how the crew is trying to kill it. The whole depth of the world comes in through the sets, the matte paintings, the practical effects, and the character designs.

29 January 2009

True Blood (TV Show)

The biggest surprise of the first few episodes of True Blood is how sensual the show manages to make Anna Paquin’s slim boyish little body. She’s always in incredibly short open-fronted summery dresses and shockingly tight and thin shirts that make her breasts into a perfectly formed geometric shelf high up on her chest. This waifish, nearly pre-pubescent, thing isn’t normally my type, but for the show to work her body needs to be palpably desirable—not merely visually admirable—and they make it so, in all its sweaty southern properliness. The cliche about vampire stories is that they’re about the battle between the senses and sense: these monsters overwhelm our natural caution by involving us in a blinding carnality. At its worst, this can mean raver vampires in shiny patent leather listening to techno music—The Matrix with fangs. And True Blood has an element of that in a gaggle of side characters who seem to be shaping up to be the villains. I’m hoping we don’t spend too much time with them. Another vampire cliche is their courtliness. They are old, you see, and so have Old World Manners: they may be brutal murderers, but they know what to do with that tiny fork that gets set at the top of your plate. Like Ann Rice’s Lestat books, True Blood goes with the American spin on this idea: old southern charm is our version of lordly European manners. The show’s twist, though, where it draws its difference from the Rice books and what’s most interesting about it, is that it is not set in a world of “wealth and taste”, but rather in the rundown southern workaday, where the bones of the stately ways may still be around, but the rest of the body is a squirming wriggling corpse full of hicks, racists, and colorful working class types. I don’t know what the show will make of it, but the concept holds out the promise that this could be the most American, and hence the most political and the most empathetic of vampire stories.

31 January 2009

Animal Collective – Merriwether Post Pavilion (Music)

It seem always to be a great band’s first mediocre record that takes off. These are typically the records where the sound is really mature and the edge is off the song writing enough to make things comfortable. These are the records that critics love to talk about and people love to love and love to hate. It’s no fun talking about or loving great songwriting; that would be like proclaiming the beauty of the Grand Canyon or the Pyramids: so obviously true that it goes without saying, leaves no space for personal taste and personal distinction. By the standard of average bands, this record has three songs with superior songwriting: My Girls, Summertime Clothes, and Brother Sport. But, not being an average band, only My Girls can stand with the best songs from Animal Collective’s other records: Reverend Green, Fireworks, Peacebone, Grass, Leaf House, Who Could Win a Rabbit, etc. It’s funny feeling this way in the middle of a discourse about whether or not Animal Collective are “the great band of our time” which is for many predicated on this album having dislodged some standing prejudice that would have prevented them considering the proposition. I think it’s true—they are the great band of our time—and this record proves it despite the fact that it’s a comedown from their previous heights. Even at less than their best they still do more with the ideas that make up the current communal musical brain, than anybody else going.

31 January 2009

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0 Responses to Selected Media Criticism: January 2009

  1. Mort says:

    Bravo the broad range of your interests and insights.

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