Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gloury Rules, Revisited: The Basterdization of a History already Basterdized

What Inglourious Basterds is definitely not: Shoah. This is something not to either film's detriment.

In my previous post on Basterds I stated that the film draws power both from how the audience's knowledge of Nazi occupational hazard (ahem) informs the dire gravity of the deceptively trivial meandering between characters, as well as the way the film's direct correlation to the history it inverts is less a denial than a comment on its unattainabilty.

Yet defending the film by suggesting it defines itself in what it is not can only go so far. The absences that inform the film are narrow in scope, and the wider, unacknowledged gap is generally taken for granted in the film's discussion. Some critics, like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Daniel Mendelsohn, accuse the film of holocaust denial. Yet the scope of their accusations is entirely confined to that of the film's, thus cementing the parameters to which the sanctimony can pertain. And what they pertain to is a narrow definition of the Holocaust, mainly that it concerns 6 million jews instead of 12 million humans.

Mendehlson is the author of Lost: The Search for Six in Six Million, where he documents members of his family who died at the hands Nazis (note: Godard had plans to adapt this, which works as a further example of his disregard for the subjects he deconstructs). In his article "When Jews Attack", he posits a few things: the best revenge/prevention of future reiteration is by serving the truth as the Jews have apparently been primarily occupied with doing since (no mention of Israel), and adorning Jewish heroes with Nazi traits stokes vicarious celebration of SS cruelty, not only denying history but setting the foundation for the repitition of its errors.

On the one hand, this is fairly incongruous, as the particularization of said cruelty as Nazi in character suggests it can't be repeated while the omen for the ignorant is its reawakening elsewhere. Yet the particularization is not necessarily an authoritative defining of said cruelty, but ascribing it a specific historical place and washing hands of its time-locked stain. This unfortunately relates to two subsets of holocaust analysis, the assumption of singularity in cruelty, defined as German, and that in which said cruelty can and never should be understood. The latter is the M.O. of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, a film who's scope offers a historical precedent in the discussion.

The following I think is fairly revealing not about what Shoah did accomplish but what Lanzmann thought he was accomplishing. On the question of why the Jews were killed he coins the "obscenity of understanding," saying that "not understanding was my iron law" while filming and that "blindness...was the vital condition for creation. Blindness has to be understood here as the purest mode of looking, of the gaze, the only to way to not turn away from a reality that is literally blinding." Further, "the project of is not only obscenity, it is real cowardice, because this idea of our being able to engender harmoniously, if I may say so again, this kind of violence, is just an absurd dream of nonviolence. It is a way of escaping, it is a way of not facing the horror." Which explains why he said trying to understand Hitler is immoral.

For me, this illustrates less a reverently post-modern capitulation than an attempt to authoritatively engender confusion as a self-perpetuating discourse, Lanzmann being the fountain from which it pours forth. Perhaps his method is a maintenance of objectivity by lack of generalities, but his immersion in facts as phenomena cannot be called comprehensive in that his facts were narrowed to one strata of his film's titular atrocity.

Shoah's method is another peculiarity in that there is no actual imagery from the holocaust. Why? Because "image kills the imagination." Considering the imagination of Robert Faurisson this is not a bad proposition. That's not to deny the method its brilliance, as it has its power.

The film works as a series of interviews with subjects who fall into three assigned categories of survivors, bystanders and perpetrators, conducted for the most part on and around the camps and ghettos as they are today. It's understated but vicious. Conversational teeth pulling is done via translator to evoke the atmosphere and behavior of the neighborhoods surrounding the death camps, as well as to catch a predator cam engagement with nazis themselves, all bearing direct reflection on the remarkably vivid recollection of a dying collective memory.

What nags, though, is that the power of these non-illustrated anecdotes is drawn from the footage not on display. Lanzmann's method would be severely undermined had it not been preceded by night and fog, or really any documentary evidence of the horrors of the holocaust. Therefore, Shoah, even on the grounds of its praise, cannot be the definitive document of holocaust analyses, only, even still, a great contribution to the discourse. On the grounds never broached in discussion of it, it can't be definitive based on its exclusion of the other six million: homosexuals, communists, gypsies, the disabled, the list goes on.

The film's definition of Shoah rests on a narrowly defined, restrictive interpretation that only concerns the plight of the Jews, arguably the cornerstone of Nazi wrath, but not the entire wall. Considering the film's intentionally ponderous length of 9 1/2 hours, the exclusion is an insult to the rest of the victims' legacy. No time is spared to discuss how the wanton destructive anti-semitism might have slipped over into political, sexual and pan-ethnic repression.

One interview subject, Raul Hilberg, was a pioneer of sorts in Holocaust research at a time when it was unpopular. His book, "The Destruction of European Jews" explores as its title dictates. That's excusable, as the goal has strictly defined parameters which he has broken elsewhere. Shoah names itself after the whole thing and then stops short and then even where it stops short it stands back. Considerably different is HIlberg's thesis on Jewish extermination:

As a result of an organized undertaking, five million people were killed in the short space of a few years. The operation was over before anyone could grasp its enormity, let alone its implications for the future. Yet, if we analyze this singularly massive upheaval, we discover that most of what happened in those twelve years had already happened before. The Nazi destruction process did not come out of a void; it was the culmination of a cyclical trend. We have observed the trend in three successive goals of anti-Jewish administrators. The missionaries of Christianity had said in effect: You have no right to live among us as Jews. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us. The Nazis at last decreed: You have no right to live.

Hilberg's work came into disagreement with the other subset, of wholesale German character assassination, more recently when Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's WIlling Executioners denied decades of tempered, comprehensive and in-depth holocaust analyis to pin the impetus for the Holocaust on deep-seated German desires. Taking off from the fact that many of the gunmen in shooting operations weren't trained specialists but ordinary cops turned firing squads, the holocaust was really a manifestation of the German will to kill.

In Hilberg's article, The Goldhagen Phenomenon, the notion is dispelled in a few ways. For starters, not all of the shooters were German but also "Romanians, Croats, Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians in significant numbers" which then partly harkens back to the extra-German character of anti-semitism, with the atrocities committed elsewhere including Romanian Odessa Massacre of 70,000 Jews and the far earlier Russian Pogroms. Further, not all the victims were Jews, including the fourth of Germany's mental patients practiced on to get ready for the main event. Also, Hitler's father, not a Jew-hater!

Another important knock not deployed is the way the film doesn't extend its villainization over to the Allies. The one scene Churchill appears is merely part of a running gag mocking historical figure cameos in period pieces, which entirely ignores how Churchill's dogma overlapped with Hitler's regarding anti-semitism. One can be found in this Independent UK article about his 1937 blaming of the "hebrew bloodsuckers" for their misery. Another example is from Nicholas Baker's Human Smoke, collecting vignettes reflecting on WWII's origins:

That doesn't even begin to touch on Churchill's proclamations on what means justify colonialism's ends, yet another historical precedent for genocide in Germany (replete with numbered concentration camp status) as their 1904 extermination of the Herero and Namaqua tribes in Southwest Africa is both a reflection not just on their tendencies for extermination but on how Aryan notions of superiority overlapped with general European disregard for the considered-inferior subjects peopling the lands it played cartography with.

Rosenbaum, to his defense, has an interesting bit about colleagues who got worked up over William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice (presumably for the way Styron inserts himself into a collective history via a semi-autobiographical but almost wholly fictional coming of age tale, he doesn't say) but got behind Inglourious Basteds. The choice of the novel is interesting in that its examination of the holocaust extends the scope from Jewish victimhood to Polish suffering/complicity in the legacy of what the holocaust put Sophie, a gentile Polish citizen, through, to the legacy of slavery on Styron's avatar, who inherits a fortune that dates back to the benefits reaped from a slave auction. As a centuries spanning example of the human capabilities for cruelty, surely the copious amounts of deviant/inventive torture from that institution debunks German singularity.

The question should be, "wouldn't it have been more effective if they had a homosexual, a gypsy and a communist in league with the basterds?" Certainly. But considering what we've got, would it not have been immensely satisfying to know that Werner Von Braun had needed to worry about make-up assistance when making those "science is fun!" Disney reels?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Can't Be Sure Anymore: Assholes and Elbows and Mixtapes

In the extra-functional hours of pre-dawn, modes of discourse tend to take on displaced routes of expression. Thus, this mix.
Blinds drawn with a parking lot on the other side a particular disconnect is wont to overflow in 7911B, but not without inverting the link-up to the abstract. You write papers/memos/articles/reports, get called on to speak or called in to explain yourself, indirectly facebook invited to a cause whose utmost importance is deflated by the medium of the dispatch, and moral gets subverted by temporal.


(and so, an attempt to connect the various thematic and aesthetic threads that seemed to make sense yesterday at 3 in the morning)

Arthur Russell - What it's like
Post-scientific backlash against atheism by the agnostic pluralists, a perpetually shifting discussion that both in youthful extravagance and generational alienation devolves into pleading with tonality, of condescension, naivete, so on. But fuck if asking ain't still the most frustrating experience of diminished returns.

T. Rex - Monolith
One of the original crossovers between role playing nerd and fashion queen, Bolan here does myth takes in girl talk, touching on the underside of that pioneering credulity. "Fogged was their vision, since the ages began" Oh, the CHILDREN OF MEN.

Hood Headlinaz - Soul Glo
Flipping that waxed mop of de-blackification (as per Coming to America's satirical aside), the soul and the spirit are in the words. They're finally here, but, y'know, longevity. Of course, f that, glory here reigns even if momentarily.

Kanye West - I wonder
So, comes an unscripted moment in a glutton of pre-programming and the self-appointed gods throw up their arms on an entire career. Armchair psychology thrown back at the VMA incident completely misses the point that Kanye is a perpetually self-diagnosed persona, whose inner turmoil and self-regard are honestly displayed for public discourse, which, really, is kind of what rap is, warts and all with the blemish cream in tow. Now, consider the line where he turns over to once-free spirited, now domestically dispirited women. Besides the come-on, it isn't a put down, it's not a gotcha call out of hypocritical tendency, but serious empathy to moments where free will and the expected trajectory overlap. You read some passages once, you shot down your parents, when did all that rage become white noise?

Paavoharju - kuisuuden Maailma
Finnish Lutherans and tape hiss. You put down the spirits, we'll conjure them. Don't believe, we'll still create the illusion. Invariably, you'll still get lost.

Triple Six Mafia - Niggaz Ain't Barin' Dat
6 minutes, the golden mean between the time spent fuming over a potential punching bag and the conversely impulsive act of violence. Looped here is the masculinity-testing incentive "slap a punk bitch" but the jarring element is the ethereal, contemplative piano loop that underlines it. It's beyond mantra, it's the inherent self-doubt in the "am I really going to do this" conundrum.

Roxy Music - Ladytron
The flailing vibratto taking on the generally unquestioned obsession with the archetypal object of love/lust. The male singers rarely make this a two-way street, they can't unless they want their shtick demystified by shared limelight, thus the underlying tinge of psychoses. Basically,

Scott Walker - The Old Man's Back Again (dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist regime)
Okay so, Democracy:


Jay-Z: DOA (Death of Autotune)
From camp song taunt to jovial, monarchial skewer. The western horns that lead Jay in like the tumbleweed that announces it's serious. Is he the sheriff in High Noon or the cattle baron lackey Liberty Valance? Whatever he is, he's fucking wicked.

Jacqueline Taieb - Ce Soir Je M'en Vais
"Goodbye my love" that never gets lost in translation, you only think it does because you're sure its obvious simplicity is a cryptic beckoning for the moment to be seized. Result: seizures.

Girls - Hellhole Ratrace
Self-help is always scoffable because it comes in paperback, thus the self-determination of the book-binding factory workers is skipped over in favor of the consumer's self-regard. It's only self-help if it's innocuous and doesn't really affect anything but your mood. Your equilibrium and the status quo. But shit, come on, if you're scraping the barrell a fucking good look in the mirror is nothing scoffable. The mirror merely being a projection of yourself it's all atmospheric application between the lines, but the yearning, the yearning is real and totally deservable. This song, recorded at 30 and speaking volumes at that young 20 that still feels over the hill regardless of the inherent illogic, is all the anxiety wrapped in one real hazy chin up. Thanks, Ketamine!

The Rolling Stones - Wild Horses
They can't drag you away but they could definitely help you skip town. Why you don't is the crux.

Figurines - Race You
There's that aspect in interacting where it's less a fluid exchange than a game of subtly sculpting the other's reply. That last word is the queue, that pause and that um is the missed opportunity, within the reaction is a possible approximation previous speaker's intent. It shouldn't be thought of that way, but sometimes that's how it plays. Selfless is the goal but then accolades come, then castigation comes, then pleas for some reflection. The logic: one can't be selfless AND clueless, but self-realization comes at the cost of impulsive goodness, thus how selfless is it if one pauses to ponder the act? Gahh! The impact is upset by the imp! Mainly, when the authoritative is drawn from the abstract ideal, it gets lost on its way to the bottom. Thus, populist revision! This song, not so much. That game of reflection winds up a sore when the other person's incongruities line up with his puppetry. "Don't call if you need a friend." Deserved response: "What kind of friend were you?" But i'll end on a postively wistful note, recontextualized and disheveled differently instead. "Somehow you never knew, things change and so do you...some dreams still hunt you down"


Friday, September 4, 2009

Blueprint 3: 21 Jumpstreet

To re-up the deflated mythology surrounding The Blueprint 3 consider the pulpy trope of the professional con in secluded retirement being lured back into the game by some dangerously vested interest, spurred by an old foe, a trifling youngin' or barely abated habit. Obviously this would have been more fitting for Kingdom Come but as far as anyone's concerned anything put out after the Black Album is a favor. Jay hasn't exactly been secluded but he does need this in a way, for personal reasons.

"Put your name in the pot already, then you can compare me to biggie and PAC already. Like im gone already and i am nigga i'm already home already"

He made it out of the 90's rap beefs and his throne status on best of charts isn't posthumous. He's curating 3D portfolios on tv commercials, being out-yachted by Grizzly Bear's voices, and failing at realty development. His mouth was his main money maker, famously unscripted feats of memory and improv in the studio, now it's just spilt ink in supermarket rags, prenups and contracts. If not for us, the consumer, he's just going to be grandpa yelling at furniture after making toasts to dinner guests.

"We talking bout real shit or we talkin bout rhymes?"

When an author's done spinning yarns, they take respite in just telling you about themselves, thus the memoir. For Jay Z, that was the Black Album. Unable to recapitulate that he pulled a Styron a la Sophie's Choice and etched his bio into someone else's story on American Gangster, a narrative trick whose conceit alone seemed to spur superlatives (I bought it). It was a weird place, having moved from street hustler to corporate hustler, young punk to big wig, it's not hot to rap about white collar crime and celebrity status would put a seriously reasonable doubt on any gangster shtick so dress up that's self-aware becomes more palatable than unabashed fiction.

The Blueprint 3 drops that. The old foes, the trifling youngins, and the barely abated habit are maybe half-real, but they're also paranoid manifestations of reflective insecurity. None of the new rap is a direct threat on the Jay legacy, but he's not exactly dead or old he's just weirdly hanging around like 80's vert-ramp skaters trying street punk tricks in the 90's. Thing is, he's got it, but he wants to pay new dues just to let you know he didn't need to. And that's where the album gets its emotional thrust, the (to be pretentious for a moment) raging against the dying of the light (for lack of a better high school poetry reference).

"And as for the critics, tell me i don’t get it. Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it."

Jay is a celebrity, he can tell you about his life, but it's only important because he's now cultural capital, he has to commodify it for our benefit and since he's cultural capital he gets measured against what's selling whether he likes it or not. Thus the album is packaged with a foot in two worlds, the old man gaze and young gun's ten yard stare. Old blue eyes references with horns and live drums and actual autotune with synth sheen and bubblegum.

"Holdup, this shit need a verse from Jeezy… ay! I might send this to the mixtape Weezy"

Which is what makes DOA or Death of Autotune so funny. He's being a dick AND a goof. The same way Wayne boasted about being the best rapper alive before getting an autotune chip implanted in his throat and picking up a guitar, or, similar to old lit snarks shitting on contemporary fiction, Jay's ruffling feathers and having a good time with it too especially when the second half of the album synths up a walkway right to a historical precedent, a timeless 80's pop gem.

The album starts off hard, with an almost projected, self-purgating excoriation of high-grounded but low-minded critics who can't make the connection between "fake" worded slings and "real" textbook things, but then comes back around like a cosby actually in touch with his subject and takes to task the young kids doing what he made his career on:

"ain’t nothing cool about carrying a strap, about worrying ya moms, and burying ya best cat, talking about revenge while you carrying his casket, all teary eyed bout to take it to a mattress."

The social realism defense always only goes so far and this song has it both ways, melding outside and inside conversations, taking dirty laundry to task while dishing it too. Reasonable Doubt sounded like a cocky young corner kid playing OG, and Jay's street cred was eventually called into question but by the Black Album dude finally sounded like he'd been round the block, with his voice filled in. Maybe now he's comfortable, and he's not connecting his past to someone else's present, but he is connecting someone else's present to his past, thus this is appropriately off with the kid gloves.

"Hail Mary to the city your a Virgin, and Jesus can’t save you life starts when the church ends"

There's this thing rappers do, where hyperaware of their gruff demeanor and its inability to convey other emotions they bring in r & b singers to do the hook, thus vicariously letting out what they can't. It has less to do with socially defined gender roles (or ringtones) than a patchwork melding of respective abilities. The most heartrending version of this comes on Empire State of Mind with Alicia Keys, a totally uncynical and somewhat humbly proud glad to still be here recounting of day to day stuff taken for granted, the added significance a particularly trivial inanity like a streetcorner takes on when compounded by time and personal relation. A musing on De Niro in Tribeca turns into being hood forever, that one McDonald's was only a short stop on another booming industry, the chorus goes inspirational platitude but becomes about a perceptive feeling instead of a reality when Jay takes time from musing on his success to measure its extendability, which doesn't go as far as his sympathy does.

"I felt so inspired by what the teacher said, Said id either be dead or be a reefer head
Not sure if that’s how adults should speak to kids, Especially when the only thing I did was speak in class...Ill teach his ass"

So yeah, fuck an adult when you're a kid. You hear Jay on Charlie Rose he does the intellectual talk show thing, he adopts the formality he laughed at in 99 problems to both mental AND visceral effect, something acting like an "adult" disposes when the purpose is being civil (unless you're Hans Landa). This is where Jay's cockiness makes him great, which we take for granted because we want humility but what if he took it like another kid and ended up a statistic for a Kozol book. It's a thing where what it is highlights what it's not without overshadowing it, as opposed to self-help books that offer you a secret that hits epic FAIL when applied to reality, Jay's talking his response and the what (adults in a position of comfort merely because they made it to 40 and hate on the reminders of what they were) remains the glaring problem, the way him hitting the top in Empire State of Mind doesn't neglect those who don't.

You can take this and apply it to the album where Jay Z's the adult, and you can call him hypocritical, but again he's playing a kid while remembering he's been through the high school cafeteria before. This is more like 21 jump street. If you say you don't hear these things on the album because it's a mess, it's better said that it's messy. And everything personal is messy. And for Jay, these days, this is way more personal than that gangster shtick.

Forever Young