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Jun. 14 2010 — 12:50 am | 148 views | 0 recommendations | 217 comments

The new Harmony Korine movie is called ‘Trash Humpers’

Harmony Korine’s nose for cultural currency has often been right on the mark. It’s hard not to be when you’re at the helm of the zeitgeist. But this hasn’t exactly been the case for some time, since Korine has grown up and we’ve all become more jaded. What we might have found new and shocking in the 90s is old hat at this point. The primary appeal of his films at the time of their release was precisely that they were new and fresh, from the perspective of an artistic young mind wise beyond his years––or at least a weisenheimer beyond his years. The screenplay he wrote for Larry Clark’s Kids in 1995 laid the groundwork for what was to come; simultaneously hyperreal and unbelievable, it shed light on the truth about teenagers and their bad habits, but it wasn’t necessarily a warning against such behavior. When I saw it at the age of seventeen, watching people my age run rampant through New York City doing drugs, having sex and flirting with death seemed somehow glamorous. Korine has always ridden the line between good and bad taste, and never more so than when he began making his own movies. He has managed to enjoy ‘outsider artist’ status while in reality being the opposite. Which is a major target of vitriol for his detractors. ‘Fraud’ is a word often directed at Mr. Korine. But this time around, with the provocatively titled Trash Humpers, it seems the notion that he is a charlatan has to some extent been dispelled. This critic asserts that “for the brave souls who make it to the end, there should at least be no question of the movie’s sincerity. Whatever Korine means, he really means it.”

Korine’s penchant for the mischievous and bizarre has infuriated many who have been all too happy to dismiss his indulgent cinematic gestures, which flirt with inanity but in my opinion pursue, and at times achieve, transcendence. This Times review of Trash Humpers, touches on both ends of that spectrum:

Much of this is just so much juvenile posturing, but every so often the screen freezes into something approximating beauty: a blurry, spaced-out, yellow-green landscape, as alien as an ancient photograph.

But his work is about more than just good shots. Memorable characters are just as important, and range from an impoverished, undereducated boy perpetually wearing bunny ears in Gummo, to a Michael Jackson impersonator in Mr. Lonely, to, in the case of Trash Humpers, elderly, homicidal, peeping tom vandals (played by Korine, his wife and one other person in ‘old people’ masks), who literally hump trash. The phrase ’sweet trash pussy’ is unmistakably uttered.

His sense of humor is always on full display, which somehow manages to be overlooked despite absurdity running rampant throughout his oeuvre, but profundity bubbles under the surface. His aesthetic, as one reviewer put it, “mimics that of a scratchy old VHS tape. There’s a name for the genre he’s now working in — it’s called glorified public-access TV”. Indeed, Korine filmed it on VHS to get that low-budget, lo-fi quality. The choice to use this format is especially apropos for this film, which is set against the depressed landscape of semi-urban Tennessee, but it also feels like a natural progression for him. His fixation on forgotten, back-woods America almost demands that the format used to capture it be as much a product of the wasteland as his characters. In this, Trash Humpers succeeds brilliantly. We often feel as though we’ve discovered the film at the bottom of a dumpster and shouldn’t be watching it. Which is part of the irony. It suggests that we are as degenerate and voyeuristic as the grotesque characters before us.

To hear Korine speak about his inspiration for the film (video interview here) isn’t all that revealing, as it quickly becomes clear that the particulars are secondary to the broader mess. A curious thing about his strongest critics is that they seem to want to compare his output against traditional standards of filmmaking, when in fact his movies are closer to abstract artworks than ‘films’ as most of us know them. Now, whether we want to sift through the spilled-out contents of his perverse mind in hopes of finding something enlightening is another matter. My stance is that it is worth the effort, if for no other reason than because it is completely unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Jun. 2 2010 — 6:30 pm | 251 views | 0 recommendations | 108 comments

Sexy in Saudi Arabia: 1,000 Lashes Over Reality TV Appearance

Mazen Abdul Jawad

Image via Wikipedia

Sex is not openly discussed in Saudi Arabia, but this is much more than mere cultural code. It is written into law, and transgressions usually lead to harsh punishments.

Such was the fate of one young man who appeared on the MTV program ‘True Life – Resist the Power, Saudi Arabia’:

Mazen Abdul-Jawad was sentenced last year to five years in jail, 1,000 lashes and a five-year travel ban after he bragged about his sexual exploits on a TV show aired by Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC).

To the Western world, these measures appear brutal and incommensurate with the crime. Which I and any other proponent of human rights would agree with. But our vast cultural differences must be taken into account for a proper assessment.  The West’s view of the Middle East is a colonial holdover, a continued attempt to define the region by  Western ethical and cultural standards. This phenomenon, dubbed ‘Orientalism’, is firmly rooted in imperialist doctrine and has only widened the divide. Palestinian theorist Edward Said’s aptly-named book Orientalism is a landmark critique of these misguided conceptions and should be required reading for everyone. Said summarizes:

…because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action…. European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.

Indeed, if our only references to understand the Middle East come from our own politicians and news agencies, then our impression is inherently biased and incomplete.

The case of  Mazen Abdul-Jawad is considered beyond barbaric when we compare it to our own legal system, which purports to treat people fairly and humanely. Even though this has been disproved countless times. The West fancies itself the global arbiter, the good guys whose intolerance of cultural differences is justified by the belief that it knows best. Islamic law is often extreme, but despite popular perceptions it is not always fanatical and structureless. Corporal punishment is exacted methodically and with regard to the person’s ultimate safety. 1,000 lashes will not be given out all at once, rather they will be spread out over a period of time to minimize injury and scarification. This methodical approach is both relieving and scary. Imagining lawmakers using logic to implement such torture, when the entire concept defies logic (at least secularly), sends a chill up the spine, and for me recalls the cruel efficiency of Nazi Germany. So I am in no way trying to diminish the severity of these punishments, but it must be noted that just as the West has ‘Orientalism’, the Middle East has its ‘Occidentalism‘. Our actions must appear equally as immoral and inhumane as theirs do to us, and it is impossible to say who is more right or virtuous than the other. I make no justification for either one, but it does seem important to add as many pieces of the puzzle as possible.

May. 26 2010 — 11:55 pm | 160 views | 1 recommendations | 292 comments

Ryan Trecartin’s Playhouse

If Dash Snow was the art world’s enfant terrible five years ago, then 29 year-old film maker Ryan Trecartin is the current holder of the title. But for different reasons. While Snow reveled in hedonism and excess by becoming an active participant in his own critique, blurring the line between his life and his art, Trecartin maintains more of a personal distance from his subject matter by sharpening that line with unmistakably satirical films that give new meaning to the term ‘over-the-top’. This summer Trecartin will bring his twisted sensibility to the Pacific Design Center of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, under the auspices of new director Jeffrey Deitch (formerly of New York’s Deitch Projects), in which he is being given free reign to do as he pleases. His fans and critics alike (both camps boast many members) will have a field day.

Trecartin’s work is unlike anything else you’ve seen, and at once unsettlingly familiar. The trappings and personages of daily life are strewn throughout, yet so many things are off. Darkness lurks behind the bright colors. Trecartin is often the gender-bent protagonist, made unrecognizable by wigs, costumes and face paint, and he enlists a cast of friends to play the other parts. The characters are abstracted contemporary archetypes, reduced to frantic, nerve-shattered, self-involved beings who shout and babble over each other, smear paint on themselves, dance to electronic music, expose themselves and laugh insanely.

Much of it reads as an indictment of contemporary ‘girl’ culture perpetuated by the media––the notion that to be sassy, bitchy, and assertive should be every woman’s disposition. This is accentuated by the overblown valley girl accent adopted by the characters in his films, making even the most straightforward statements seem inherently vapid and punctuated with question marks. Most pronounced are Trecartin’s own incarnations of what I can only presume are his many ids: a dejected teenager/clown with blacked out teeth who locks himself into a closet and cuts himself, a beyond-ditzy, maniacal party girl who talks incessantly on her cellphone. The verbal delivery is intentionally stilted and abstract, with bizarrely intoned, unnatural word choices. While the characters are interacting and speaking to each other, their milieu evokes the biblical passage of the Tower of Babel when God punished the people by making them speak different languages, hindering their ability to communicate with each other. The world Trecartin creates is so manic and engrossing––the way a car wreck captivates, that it’s easy to forget the sharp social commentary. His craft as a filmmaker is also fully on display, as he deftly employs the use of amateur digital tricks and animation to professional artistic effect. It all adds up to something brilliant and wholly original that must, ultimately, be experienced firsthand. I urge/dare you to watch.

May. 23 2010 — 4:37 pm | 709 views | 1 recommendations | 5 comments

Rolling Stones In ‘Exile’

With the deluxe reissue of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 recording Exile on Main Street, much praise is being lavished upon an album which has heretofore been primarily the province of heads alone. Despite the presence of ‘Tumbling Dice’ (a classic rock radio staple to this day), and the Keith Richards’-helmed ‘Happy’, Exile is four sides of obscure tracks that I always felt were undiscovered gems, known only to me and my fellow rock nerds. Dark, drug-addled blues rock this pure, devoid of the undeniable commercial appeal of the Stones’ earlier work, surely couldn’t be appreciated by that many people. The ownership I and so many others have felt for this band and this record attests to the Stone’s ability to speak to people through their music, to make them experience such a close kinship with the fables they give us that the very notion that anyone else might relate to the songs like we can seems preposterous. Much like the Beatles, the Stones wrote music from an elite perch that nonetheless spoke to the populace.

Of course I have come to realize that with as much attention as the Rolling Stones albums have continued to receive, there are rarely undiscovered gems. And it turns out that Exile On Main Street is considered one of their best–-some say their very best. But it rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers, which harbor several signature tracks each. So why all the renewed interest? As Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly says,

Over the years, so much has been written and jabbered about Exile…that it’s been turned into almost too much of a monument.

I couldn’t agree more. Of course this ‘jabber’ has mostly been endemic to the pages of magazines catering to niche audiences. Ask a casual Stones fan about Exile and you might get a blank stare. Despite its place in the pantheon of ‘best records of the 70s’, it’s such a shambolic affair that it always seemed too inaccessible for the masses. Upon its release, the critics disagreed on its merits. Robert Christgau exclaimed:

Incontrovertibly the year’s best, this fagged-out masterpiece is the summum of Rock ’72. Even now, I can always get pleasure out of any of its four sides, but it took me perhaps twenty-five listenings before I began to understand what the Stones were up to, and I still haven’t finished the job. Just say they’re Advancing Artistically, in the manner of self-conscious public creators careering down the corridors of destiny. Exile explores new depths of record-studio murk, burying Mick’s voice under layers of cynicism, angst, and ennui: You’ve got a curtthroat crew / I’m gonna sink under you / I got the bell bottom blues / It’s gonna be the death of me.” A +.

Lenny Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith Group and rock critic writing for Rolling Stone magazine felt differently: “[t]here are songs that are better, there are songs that are worse,…and others you’ll probably lift the needle for when the time is due.” But history has been kind to this album, and despite any suspicions that this deluxe reissue by Virgin records is more an attempt to make money than actually reappraise and re-introduce, the new attention is something to rejoice. Never mind that there are gratuitous, newly-recorded tracks we needn’t bother with.

As Michael Klausman, a buyer for Other Music in New York uttered in a 2006 Times article, ”we’re living in the age of the reissue”. Indeed, many albums that hardly saw the light of day when they were first released have been given new life through reissue labels like Light in the Attic, 4 Men With Beards, and Sundazed. Of course the major labels have been reissuing for a long time. When new releases aren’t bringing in the sales like they used to, the back catalog must be plumbed.

While there is some consternation about this reissue, there is a significant undiscovered gem  in the form of video footage (included on the accompanying DVD) from the recording sessions that took place in the dank basement of Keith Richards’ chateau in the French countryside. This was a common locale for British rock stars to escape their country’s exorbitant taxes. Hence the Stones’ feeling that they were living in exile. Of course all they suffered through were endless parties. Nevertheless, they were away from their homes, and this displacement led to an incredible, landmark recording. I write this having seen only portions of this unearthed footage of the Stones at their youthful peak, so I cannot speak to its overall quality, but by most accounts it is a revelation. The nerds have waited a long time for this.

May. 17 2010 — 9:48 pm | 185 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Basement Films #1: Paper Rad

This is the first installment of Basement Films, a series of posts that I will dedicate to profiling art films, videos and organizations which I suspect may be unknown by those outside of certain circles.

I’ll begin with Pittsburgh/Northampton-based art collective Paper Rad. Formed in 2001, they are one of the underground’s more visible purveyors of cultural currency. The collective’s catalogue is comprised of several art forms including film, animation and music, but their hallmark is their aesthetic: garish colors, tacky children’s toys, bad commercials,  bad computer graphics, and anything that might fall under the rubric of disposable pop culture. This post-postmodern obsession with kitsch has translated into shows at major art galleries, videos for famous musicians (under the moniker Wyld File), and a claim to having begun a very specific stylistic phenomenon. Of course they are not the first to appropriate pop iconography and elevate it to art status. We all know who did that. But Paper Rad are more than just torchbearers––they have developed something new and singular that is as analogous to our place in history as Warhol’s assembly-line art was to his.

The use of rudimentary computer animation, video collage, vintage video games, found home movies and many other forms of cultural detritus (with an emphasis on the 60s, 70s and 80s), is central to their ersatz ethos. Paper Rad are conceptually free of the constraints that having anything so mundane as an actual ethos might place on the creative process, but they do hold to a loosely based value system they dub “Dogman 99″, which commands “no Wacom tablet, no scanning, pure RGB colors only, only fake tweening, as many alpha tricks as possible”. They are DIY and punk in spirit, but their broader vision is farther-reaching than either would suggest. And unlike punk, where the message is of utmost importance, Paper Rad’s content, though humorous and at times even poignant, usually takes a backseat to how things look. Their videos are lysergic excursions, at times abstract, at other times with more traditional narrative structures, which flash and throb in a vivid palette of the kind found in Atari 2600 video games and TV color bars. These primary colors are then contrasted against fluorescent ones to jarring, seizure-inducing effect.

This quote from UbuWeb’s entry on Paper Rad sums things up quite nicely

Think of this group showing up to the 80’s dance party with tazers and ketamine, and you waking up at the bottom of the ball tank at CHUCK E. CHEESE.

Animated characters’ speech and movements are stilted as a result of self-imposed technological barriers––the purposefully lo-fi techniques are the perfect foil for the surreality of the content. One of Paper Rad’s series, The Problem Solvers, centers around a motley group of pals including a talking dog, a witch, a giant duck, a futuristic valley girl and a bearded guy in aerobics gear. Making sense of any of this is entirely beside the point.

But as I mentioned above, there are moments of poignancy. Take The Mario Movie, a hack of the Super Mario Bros. Nintendo game that places Mario at the center of a narrative in which he undergoes an existential crisis.

Paper Rad’s nose for cultural currency could almost be said to have sniffed out an entire quotidian phenomenon––a niche subculture that favors fluorescent garb, electronic dance music, and irony.  Shades of this can be seen in any number of music videos that Wyld File has made for noise bands like Lightning Bolt and rock stars like Beck.

Trying to find specific meaning in Paper Rad’s hallucinogenic realm would be difficult. It’s not the particulars that matter as much as the general tone, which accentuates the inanity of consumerism while bathing in it. This love/hate relationship with pop culture is something many of us can relate to, which is one reason why Paper Rad is such a true marker of our times.

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    My bread and butter comes from booking and managing indie rock bands. Being a consummate music nerd, I enjoy this job more than any other I've had. The rest of my time I devote to the art gallery I operate out of my apartment in San Francisco. Check me out: partisangallery.com

    Alternative exhibition spaces like mine have popped up everywhere in this depressed economy. Go support your local art galleries or start your own! Also support your local record stores. Depressingly, they are a dying breed.

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