Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Reading & "Reading"

by Kevin Wolf

My history as a reader used to be pretty simple: I loved to read as a kid (probably the only thing that got me through school) and went on to read pretty voraciously for another two decades.

Somewhere in there was a switch from reading only fiction (except as required by college) to reading only non-fiction.

Then, long about five years ago, I pretty much stopped reading books all together. In addition to my inability to see very clearly why this happened, my few vague ideas about the wherefores of this development would make a boring post. Suffice to say that books were somewhat suddenly out, left unfinished after 200 or 100 or 10 pages, and often unread altogether.

Soon, even my magazine subscriptions went by the wayside, victims of circumstance including cashflow and a move.

Well, this fall I've made it my goal to get back on track and, dammit, read. A number of factors play into this: All the terrific titles that keep popping up over at Lance Mannion's place; the books my pal Brad keeps recommending; the things I already know I want to read (all those Russians!) and, hey -- let's face it -- time 's a-wastin.' All those books aren't going to read themselves.

I'm sincerely hoping a sea change is in the works: a rising tide of books finally turning to shore from a long, low ebb. I remember how much fun it was to read so much. I wonder what in the hell I've been doing with the time I've not spent reading. I'm realizing that the weight, if you will, of all the books unread is paradoxically lightened by the satifactory distraction of reading a book.

In recent weeks, as this reclamation project was taking shape, I managed to resubscribe to a few magazines (none of which I've received yet); read about half (so far) of George Saunders' latest story collection, In Persausion Nation; and finish my first-ever audio book, The Detection of Sherlock Holmes as read by the author, actor and voice artist Patrick Horgan.

Horgan's book deserves its own post, ideally written by someone other than me, but it merits mention for introducing me to the audio book. My buddy Brad recently "read" Zadie Smith's On Beauty in audio and our IM conversation about this included a lot of the same scare quotes. Was he reading the book or "reading" the book? Did it matter?

I enjoyed the experience well enough and I'm curious enough to try another audio book, soon. Anybody have anything to say that would dissuade me?

Meantime, I'll finish the Saunders and line up some more titles, on paper. The weather is cooling off fast and a long, winter's book might be just the thing. I've still got that acclaimed recent translation of Don Quixote on the shelf. Unread.

DJ Culture (Part 3)

By Homefront Radio



It was 1989, and my friend Keaton had bought the Number One record in the country, a waste of vinyl called ‘Swing The Mood’ by a fictitious group named ‘Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers’. If you haven’t heard it, be very glad. It’s basically a bunch of sampled sections of early rock and roll songs and Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” played over a cheap drum machine rhythm.

“This is the coolest record ever,” he said, somewhat hyperbolically, as he put it on.

After hearing it for about 40 seconds, I couldn’t help myself. “Why?”

“It’s *sampled*,” he said, as if that would explain all.

“It just a medley.” I couldn’t see the difference between it and the Weird Al Yankovic Polka Medleys that our mutual friend Morrissey seemed to find unexplainably hilarious.

“Yeah, but this is *Sampling*,” he said again. “It’s the future”.

I snorted. “No it’s not! It’s ‘Stars On 45’”. These were a series of records that were hugely popular when I was small, that were sound-a-like medleys of famous artists singing their most popular songs, over a disco-and-handclaps drumbeat that was relentlessly unchanging. (My sister was fond of the Beatles Medley one, that inexplicably lead off with ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by the Archies).

“It’s Number One, so it must be good,” Keaton said. This was always his argument for buying awful records, like Rick Astley and the Cockroaches, (who were so rubbish, they changed their name to 'The Wiggles' and targeted the undemanding children's market). He saw it as a ticket to being popular, when logic dictated that buying a record everyone was likely to have already wouldn’t win you as many friends as buying one they wanted to borrow because they didn’t have it.

I remained unconvinced. “It’s just like those stupid ‘Hooked On Classics’ records Dad would play”. (Which it was).

"You don't know anything".

"Swing The Mood" ended, (or more accurately dragged itself into its deep dark cave to lick its wounds and whimper), and I remember thinking if I never heard that piece of crap again, it would be too soon.

Of course, Keaton put it on again.

-----

Some of you might be aware of the Beatles / Beach Boys Mashup Album, “Sgt Petsound’s” by DJ Clayton Counts, which has been somewhat generously described as a ‘Noise Rock Experiment’. EMI is suing him for breach of copyright, (which I find hypocritical, considering the content of the Beatles’ own recordings), and which is odd timing, since what’s left of the Beatles and their Estates are currently suing EMI / Capitol for fraud, with an aim of reclaiming the ownership of the recordings, thereby meaning EMI might be suing over something it may soon no longer have any claim to.



Looking at the Beatles' work, there’s obvious examples of Proto-Sampling at play: the loops in ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’; the calliope cut-up in ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite’; the radio play of King Lear in ‘I Am The Walrus’; the snippets of classical recordings, (such as Sibelius and Beethoven), found in ‘Revolution 9’. Were any of these sources financially reimbursed for use?

There’s also a process I’d label as ‘Mental Sampling’. McCartney mentally samples both Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys in ‘Back In The U.S.S.R’ without using physical samples. Isn’t George Martin’s string score for ‘Eleanor Rigby’ just a mental sampling of Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Fahrenheit 451’, which he watched during the period and pointed to as an influence? Is the general sound of ‘Penny Lane’ just mental sampling of the Beach Boys ‘God Only Knows’? (Listen to the piano and bass). Didn’t McCartney choose the piccolo trumpet solo for the same song by mentally sampling David Mason’s performance in the second Brandenburg Concerto, which he heard on the BBC?

Where's the line between imitation and theft? Is there one?

-----


In 1991, English Synth-Pop Band the Pet Shop Boys released a single called ‘DJ Culture’, that was remarkably prophetic. Faced with the onslaught of pro-war rhetoric surrounding first Gulf War, singer Neil Tennant explained the song in this manner:

"The essence of the song is in the first place insincerity—about George Bush who acted like he was Winston Churchill. He referred to World War II and, as a matter of fact, he sampled things Churchill said, just like artists do with records from the past. That is why it is called 'DJ Culture'."

In all honesty, the song is very vague. I only know the intention behind the song because I’ve heard them speak of it. However, some valid points stand out:

The song speaks of people ‘pretending to believe’ and ‘living in a satellite fantasy’. It’s the culture of the modern media, where a speech is stripped back to the simplest sound bite, then repeated ad nauseum, like the, (somewhat aptly), stuttering ‘Sex Crime’ phrase in the Eurythmics song of the same name. Constant repetition leads to belief of statement as somehow Inherently True.

'DJ Culture' is mostly a spoken-word piece, but the highlight is a lovely, wandering middle-eight:

Now as a matter of pride
Indulge yourself, your every mood
No feast-days, or fast-days, or days of abstinence intrude

Shut yourself off, believe the lie, and create your own reality. As Mr. Tennant politely asks “…Let’s Pretend…”

Imagine a war which everyone won
A permanent holiday in endless sun
Peace without wisdom
One steals to achieve
Relentlessly pretending to believe

I’m sure you can see the irony here. We’re still ‘fighting the war’ we supposedly won back when this song was released. Statements made in the media at the time have been ‘Sampled’ and reused for our new war.

Like any Sample, this practice seems to have three side effects:

a) the sample is taken out of the context of the original song, and recontextualised in a different environment, which suggests the nuances of the rest of the song have been ignored in the sampling process, since everything but the sample is therefore discarded, therefore the song is broken down to its basest, simplest level, effectively dumbing a complicated message down and turning a four minute song into a ‘sound bite’;

b) with continued reuse and overuse of a particular hook, the sample is itself sampled, leading to distortion of the original signal, and the memory of the original intention of the song becomes less clear;

c) sampling is most commonly used to provide a rhythm for a song that lacks one, or a hook to make the people pay attention when the song lacks a clear hook of its own.

The case of The War In Iraq is a perfect example: a badly-written, lethargically played song that no-one wants to dance to. It lacks a clear hook, so we sample from the past such sound bites as ‘freedom’, ‘liberation’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘liberty’ that are easy for a mass public to grasp onto. It needs a driving rhythm, so the soundbites are looped over the recurrent beat of post 9/11 thought: Your way of life is under threat. The beat is timestretched, and slightly distorted. Menacing. And like any popular beat, it is prone to overuse.

But, like ghastly English 80’s Hitmakers ‘Stock, Aitken and Waterman’, (who specialized in faceless Hi-NRG pop music with a revolving stable of interchangeable, faceless singers), the songwriters of the War will see no reason to change their formula. As Pete Waterman once stated, (and excuse the paraphrasing here), “Why would you change a sound you know is successful? The public likes it. You change the sound when it stops being an effective sales tool”.

‘9/11’ is the James Brown ‘Funky Drummer’ sample of modern culture. Some of us will love it and dance to the song, whilst others of us will just hear an annoying, overused gimmick that has been clumsily slotted into place. It is The Excuse, The Justification. Get used to hearing it, because even after 5 years, the hook is still effective.

So if the Iraq war just a resampling of the Gulf War, then this begs the obvious question: Isn’t Bush just a resampling of his father? (Personally, I prefer to think of him as a bad cover version). Lacking a real villain to justify a war in Iraq, we simply sample Saddam Hussein again.
Why not? As Pete Waterman would suggest, he worked the first time around.

-----

This problem is inflicting culture on a wider scale, and seems to be where we’re heading as a culture, to the extent I feel like I’m gradually slipping back in time to my childhood in the 1970’s.

The songs I hear on the radio seem to be the same, although I’ll admit I’m far out of the popular music loop lately. True, they’re frequently not literal cover versions, but Kelly Osborne calling her song “One Word” doesn’t change the fact that it’s just “Fade To Gray” by Visage, without being honest enough to acknowledge the source. There was another one I didn’t catch the name of where a girl sang about going ‘Downtown’, which sounded suspiciously like The Knack’s “My Sharona”.

The movies are being repeated, to the extent I have little urge to go to the cinema or video store anymore, because I’ve seen all these movies before, and they weren’t good the first time around. Movies I particularly loathed as a child, and spent many tedious hours sitting through, (usually when well-meaning friend’s parents would pack us off to the movies), are now considered worth my time as an adult: Superman. The Bad News Bears. The Omen. The Fog. Dawn Of The Dead. King Kong, (sampling both the 70’s and 30’s versions). We’re being sold back stories we long discarded, and in a lot of cases I’m sure is the key reason for the lack of success of a lot of these films.

The process is speeding up. Our celebrities, lacking any real depth of their own, simply sample the icons of the past. Jessica Simpson wants to appear sexy and feisty, so tries to mentally sample Nancy Sinatra. Robbie Williams and Michael Buble both sample Frank Sinatra. Madonna sampled, amongst others, Deitrich, Monroe & Eva Peron, (and she may call her new single ‘Sorry’ but I hear ‘Can You Feel It?’ by the Jackson 5). Paris Hilton tries to convince us she’s both a sex symbol and a singer, despite having the awkward body of a pubescent boy in a growth spurt and no obvious vocal talent, by sampling Rod Stewart, with unintentionally hilarious results.



Christina Aguilera is desperate to be taken seriously after the perceived failure of her sexed-up second album, so she now tries to imply 'Quality' to her product by sampling the look and style of an earlier age. Is she sampling the past due to being faced with the truth that, artistically she might have no ‘hooks’ of her own? Or is she just sampling the career of Madonna, whose taught a generation of female singers they have to constantly 'Reinvent' themselves, (if a change of hairstyle and frock can truly be classed as a 'Reinvention'), to hold the public's interest.



Are we seeing a deliberate sampling of a sample?



I’m sure I wasn’t the only Beatles fan who looked at the recent, (and supposedly of ‘huge cultural import’ for Some Vague Reason), photos of Suri Cruise, and thought “I’ve seen this before”. I obviously wasn’t the only one:



What’s going on here? Are we perhaps just sampling the past because there’s comfort and safety in the familiar and where we're been, and we’re all damn scared of the unknown and where we might be? Shouldn't the point of learning from the past to be *not* condemned to repeat it? Shouldn't we pride ourselves on continually moving onwards?

Please. Take my hand. Step forward into the future with me. I’m sure it’ll be a place full of wonders, or otherwise we as a society will be continually resampled and dumbed down to the basest archetype, where our lives are just a bad cover version of the sum of our mutual experience.

Let's create our own hooks.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Deadwood and the libel of George Hearst

by Lance Mannion

Last night on Deadwood, Ellsworth proposed to Alma Garrett, Tom Nuttall rode his bone-shaker the whole way down the sidewalk, Al Swearengen spent too much time talking to a dead Indian in a box, and Seth Bullock, as he does in too many episodes, spent most of his time glowering, grinding his teeth, looking as though he would like nothing more than to find someone to beat bloody, and generally not getting anything accomplished.

That tendency of Bullock's to not get anything accomplished is one of the reasons my enjoyment of Deadwood isn't as unreserved as some people's.

Fans of the show recognized immediately that the episode I described up top, Childish Things, is from the middle of the second season. The third and final season has just ended on HBO, but the blonde and I don't subscribe so we've been watching on DVD.

That doesn't mean that I'm a season and a half behind in knowing what's going on. I've been keeping up through the website and Matt Zoller Seitz's reviews. (Look out: Plenty of plot spoilers at both places.) So I know what's in store for the main characters and apparently what's in store for Bullock is more glowering, teeth-gnashing, and lack of accomplishment.

I find this dramatically uninteresting and uninspired. I understand why the writers can't let Bullock get to work cleaning up Deadwood quite yet. But couldn't they have taken a page out of the King Arthur stories and let him leave town now and then on an adventure in which he gets to be the movie western hero we know he is and is going to be? Launcelot spent as much time as he could away from Camelot so that he wouldn't have to see Guenevere every day. Bullock should follow his example so that he doesn't have to keep exchanging longing glances with Alma Garrett.

But what is also bothering me about Bullock's inertia is that it is historically inaccurate.

There was a real Seth Bullock, just as there was a real Al Swearengen and a real Tom Nuttall and a real E.B. Farnum. In fact, at least half the main characters had historical counterparts whose careers pretty closely paralleled the characters'.

Series creator David Milch and his writers have taken more than a few liberties with their personalities. The real E.B. Farnum appears to have been a more respectable, intelligent, and self-reliant type than the unctuous, fawning, greedy, foolishly scheming coward and "born follower" portrayed so brilliantly by William Sanderson.

And the real Seth Bullock appears to have been too busy and too accomplished to have wasted a single moment grinding a single tooth.

Bullock, the real Bullock, was one of those fortunate people who are born older, possessed of a maturity and sagacity beyond their years, more than his their share of energy and talent, and a genius for being in the right place at the right time and knowing just what needs to be done when and how to do it.

There were good reasons he was made sheriff, Teddy Roosevelt became his lifelong friend, his business thrived, and he became over time one of the leading citizens of Deadwood. He was smart, hardworking, brave, honest, and, above all, preternaturally sensible.

And I understand why David Milch wouldn't have wanted him for his hero.

The real Seth Bullock wouldn't have wasted any time with the fictional Al Swearengen---the real Al Swearengen doesn't appear to have left any mark on history and was probably just what you'd expect the owner of a whorehouse to be, a petty thug---and the central dramatic tension of the series, which is based on how the thoroughly corrupt Al Swearengen longs for a world in which he is not only not necessary but an evil to be stamped out, so that his mission in life is to bring about his own self-destruction, requires a tortured, indecisive, and not at all level-headed Seth Bullock.

It's necessary to the plot that the "good" people Swearengen needs to make his dream of a civilized Deadwood come true be weaker and not as sharp as he is so that he can give them the benefit of his cynical wisdom and back them up when they prove incapable of committing the violence or dishonesty that a scheme requires to succeed.

And it's necessary because Milch's conception of the Wild West is essentially ahistorical.

In Milch's Deadwood, the West is a thoroughly lawless and savage place that has to be tamed through the most brutal means. Civilization has to be built from the ground up, one small step at a time, and against great odds. The West---the World---wants to be a hellhole. People are for the most part stupid and vicious and driven to self-destruction by their lusts and greed and appetites and no matter how often you demonstrate to them that it's better to walk down a wooden sidewalk than wade ankle-deep through mud and shit, they will not just keep stepping off the sidewalk, they will not just regularly trip and fall off it, they will jump off it, happily, after taking a running start, and break their necks landing head first in the mire, if they see a penny shining up at them from a puddle.

Heck, they don't even need to see the penny. They will drown themselves in the shit just because it's too hard to walk straight on the sidewalk or because the echoing clomp of their own boots on the boards drives them crazy.

Pretty much, then, they have to be forced at gunpoint or bribed or tricked into acting human and decent.

Honesty, compassion, mercy and other more refined virtues are often problematic in such a world.

In reality, civilization was imported all at once to the various Deadwoods that sprouted up all across the continent from Plymouth on out to San Francisco.

Civilization arrived as soon as the Seth Bullocks and Sol Stars opened up their hardware stores.

It arrived in the form of hardware stores.

And schools, and libraries, and lecture halls.

It arrived in the persons of people like George Hearst.

In the series, George Hearst is a rapacious monster, a dragon who comes along and despoils the village, and carries off all the gold the hardworking and honest citizens have earned through their sweat, blood, and courage.

He's an invincible dragon too.

Not only do bulletts fired at point blank range into his face magically swerve off course to merely nick his shoulder, but there is no political or economic power on earth that can resist him. He corrupts with a touch all that he can't destroy.

Even Al Swearengen is no match for the dragon. Al survives, and saves Deadwood, by strategically retreating at every step the dragon takes and letting him gobble up pretty much all he wants to gobble up. In the end, they win out simply by outlasting the dragon's appetites. His lust and greed and gluttony slaked, the dragon leaves on his own, although not before demanding and getting the villagers to sacrifice a virgin...

Well, she's hardly a virgin, but she's a young woman so completely innocent of any offense to any one, let alone the dragon, that her moral purity is practically that of a virgin's.

Very dramatic. But also a pure fairy tale.

The real George Hearst was not a dragon. He was someone dragons---little, mean-spirited, much less talented dragons---followed around in hopes of making a killing off his hardwork.

Like Seth Bullock, Hearst was born older. He matured young and he was a success in life almost from his first step out the door into the great wide world, and he succeeded by being harder working, smarter, more talented, more sensible, and less greedy than most young businessmen of his day.

I'm not saying that he was some kind of saint. I'm saying that he did not make his way in life as a parasite. He was a true entrepreneur. He started businesses, made them prosper, and then sold them off, probably sometimes to parasites of the type the fictional Hearst is a grotesque caricature of in Deadwood.

The real Hearst's supposed Indian name "Boy the Earth Talks To" appears to have as been as well-earned and deserved as Natty Bumpo's Indian names, Deerslayer and Hawkeye.

He was a true prospector and an accomplished mining engineer as well as a savvy businessman and investor.

As a person, he appears to have had far more in common with Deadwood's most decent and noble, and humble, character, Ellsworth than he'd have had with his fictional counterpart.

It's very possible that the real Seth Bullock was a far more tortured and tempted young man than he appears to be in the historical record. He might have succeeded in life because he was able to repress and tame his demons and resist the dark angels of his nature. That side of him might very well have not made it into the history books. So if Milch needs the character to be more flawed and conflicted than was apparently the case, he can do it without really doing a disservice to the real Seth Bullock's reputation.

If in the two movies that will finish off the series next year Milch makes Bullock a corrupt hypocrite undeserving of the respect and positon his historical counterpart earned in real life, I will be extremely disappointed, both as a student of history and as fan of the show, since it will mean that Bullock wasn't worth investing all the time and trouble it's taken to watch Timothy Olyphant glower and grind his teeth and stand around looking frustrated and impotent and incompetent.

I will also be disappointed in Milch for letting his ideas trump his art. He will have used Bullock to illustrate a non-dramatic point at the expense, not just of history, but of good storytelling.

I don't really expect that will happen. I think that in the end Bullock will step up and become the hero Milch has set him on the path to become.

Note, I didn't say that he will become the hero the real Seth Bullock was. The real Seth Bullock arrived in town as a hero. There would have been no drama in that. Not enough to sustain a TV series planned to last even longer than the three years Deadwood has unfortunately been limited to.

It is enough to sustain a pretty good movie western and is in fact pretty much the plot of Dodge City and Destry Rides Again, movies, by the way, I think David Milch must have had in the back of his mind as models, despite his cynical view of the West compared to those westerns' romanticism.

But I am already disappointed in that with George Hearst Milch has allowed a non-dramatic idea to give him permission to alter history to a far greater degree than he had in the first season and in effect libel the real George Hearst.

Yes, I know, you can't libel the dead. And Hearst was a public figure anyway, so I can only use libel figuratively here. But I mean it, doggone it. The Hearst in the series an insult to the real man.

And don't try to tell me about what Shakespeare did to Richard III. There's some disagreement about just how much of a tyrant the real Richard was and how much blood was on his hands, but besides that there's reason to think Shakespeare believed he was being true to the historical record. He was working from what passed for it.

Milch knows he's making it all up. And I can't help being disappointed that while he was making up his character George Hearst he didn't take the extra step of making up a name for him too.

The show is more of an allegory than it is a historical drama, which is, of course, one of the justifications for all the ahistorical profanity, which is itself a disguise for the far more ahistorical habits of the characters to speak in blank verse.

The blank verse, the very Shakespearean scene structures, plus the outrageously exaggerated violence, are signals of the show's artificiality. Depsite its realistic looking surface, Deadwood is theater. It isn't meant to be taken as a documdrama. It's meant to be taken as pure Drama.

Which is why I think calling the George Hearst character George Hearst was an artistic mistake, on top of everything else.

The character is an allegorical monster of corporate capitalism. It is neither true to history, true to life, nor true to the art of the show---to keep Hearst alive and thriving the other characters have had to act in ways artistically inconsistent with their behavior. Swearengen has cut the throat of a goverment agent. Would he really have hesitated to have had Hearst killed? Faced with the choice of having to kill Trixie or killing Hearst himself, would he have hesitated?

Giving the dragon the name of a real human being, I think, highlights the character's artistic implausibility by calling attention to the fact that no real human being could have acted like this and gotten away with it.

But it's a failure too in that by not caring if the fake George Hearst gets mistaken for the real one, Milch allowed his politics to get the better of his art.

Those capitalists, they're all the same, aren't they?

At which question, the allegory shrinks into a tract.

Originally posted at my place.