Wednesday, April 8, 2009

New York's alright if you like Sophokles..

I'm sad that, right after writing that huge post on Lucio Fulci, I found out the Wooster Group is doing a mash-up of Dido & Aeneas AND Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires. I can't think of anything that symbolizes my interests any better in one thing. Classical myth? Cult horror films? Theatre? And all my previous rants aside, I don't mind going avant garde sometimes, especially if you've got the Wooster Group's bonafides.

But karma is kind, because the production I was afraid of missing, Classical Stage Company's An Oresteia sounds like a dud. Sadly, even this blessing is somewhat mixed, because the reviewer loves Euripides' Orestes (which is not continuous with either his Elektra or his Iphigenia plays) for ALL THE WRONG REASONS. I don't know how Ann Carson could have so awfully botched her translation of Orestes that it turned from a tragi-comedy (a la Shakespeare's Troilus & Cressida) into a plain old comedy. It's a play about high minded sentiments masking depraved cruelty and justice undone by political considerations, performed near the end of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens' folly was laid bare.

If there is any comedy in the play (and especially in William Arrowsmith's excellent translation), it's the darkest kind, laughing at how every character's words come to justify more and more grotesque ends.

It's easy to look back and laugh at people like Charles and Mary Lamb, Colley Cibber and Nahum Tate for having the gall to rewrite Shakespeare. But you have to wonder if, another couple generations down the line, if people will think the same thing about productions like these.

"I wish I was a little bit hyphy/I wish E40 liked me"

So, Sasha Frere Jones does a good job explaining the evolution/devolution of Eminem in his review of Encore (linked to on his New Yorker blog on the occasion of Em's new video).

The thing is, the crowd of white rappers is kind of dispiriting right now. Beasties aside, it seems like the main trend is nerdy white guys or hipster white guys rapping over cuts from Pro Tools. I enjoy MC Chris and MC Frontalot and MC Lars, but the long, monotonous trail from MC Paul Barman to Optimus Rhyme is kind of depressing.

MC Chris has a decent flow and has one great song, in "Fett's Vette". MC Frontalot is a clever guy, but he's not really that good a rapper. His pieces are carried more by the puns and the lyrical conceits. And then MC Lars... he's funny and acceptable, but he seems to have only two modes: making fun of cliques and 'hey, DIY is the best thing ever'.

I guess El-P breaks it up a little, between his love for John Carpenter-esque samples and horror/sci-fi melodrama. And then there's Goldie Lockin' Chain, who, are a comedy group, but since the joke is in transporting rap to the down-at-the-heels parts of Wales, it's something that feels lived in and fun, instead of posing and snarkiness. But with the exception of GLC, I don't ever feel a need to listen to an entire album by any of them. *sigh*

Weird, because I'm not really that big a hip-hop fan (at least compared to my love of indie and classic rock), but I'd like a little more variety. Music fan cannot live on D&D jokes alone, you know?

ETA 9:01 PM: If this post comes off as racist, it's me being a stupid white guy, but not intentionally. I do listen to black rappers (I just got the new DOOM album). As I remark to Leigh in the comments, there were just all these white rappers in the 90s (or wanna-bes, at least), some of whom were working class or lower middle class. Now it seems like they're all trust fund kids or tech geeks (who usually come from middle or upper class, it seems). Isn't that a weird class change worth talking about? And unfortunately, my knowledge mostly runs to relatively mainstream hip-hop and nerdcore/indie. So yeah.

ETA 9:14 PM: Also, hip-hop could probably use more representation of every other race, gender, nationality and class. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Can't rap or sing/but he wants to do both"

Okay, I know I promised some more Lucio Fulci goodness with the next entry, but the media cycle interfered.

I'm not a huge hip-hop fan. I mean, I like Doom (or MF Doom or whatever he calls himself today), Public Enemy, the Roots, the Wu-Tang Clan and a hodge-podge of the classics (if there is a classic canon that includes both Nate Dogg and KRS-One). But I used to like Eminem.

I remember that, when Eminem came out, there was something bracing about him. He was an unpleasant guy and a vitriolic artist.  His Marshall Mathers LP was one of the few CDs that my mother actually made me return! (The other that comes to mind is The Offspring's Ignition.  See even mall punk can be threatening.) But there was a sense that he was moving rap beyond random sex and drug-running. Here was a rapper who had a sense of satire! Heck, he even had an emotional range. Can you imagine DMX or Ja Rule or any number of popular rappers from the '90s who could have covered the ground between "The Real Slim Shady" and "Stan"?

To my younger mind, there was more of Juvenal than Juvenile to Eminem. His was an awful worldview, but he seemed to include himself in it, mocking himself as much as Morrissey did. And for all of his 8 Mile and Dr. Dre supplied street cred, he felt like someone who understood the boringness of suburban/exurban life, where the only fantasies came packaged by the entertainment industry. Wu Tang Clan re-contextualized all their comic book/high fantasy/blaxploitation worlds to fit into the outer borough world, but they had New York at their doorstep, where their legendary heroes did battle.

Eminem (and D12, to a lesser extent) just had Detroit, a fading metropolis that no one was interested in fighting over. And while my hometown was nowhere near as bad as Detroit, there was the same feeling that life had passed us by and all the cool stuff happened elsewhere, with TRL and the Real World and prime time TV giving us glimpses of this reality. Eminem rapped about people stuck in dead-end jobs with only pop fantasies to carry them through, fantasized about empowering his fans down at Burger King.

But like all underdogs who start out fighting the power and win (even if the power is just Carson Daly and Britney Spears), he got fat and old and rich. Now he's got a new album out and the pop culture parodies have overwhelmed any actual satire. He's got all the women and drugs and a position as court jester and the fire's disappeared. He's even got his own label, made up of neglected rappers whose albums he has yet to release. 

So compare "Crack A Bottle" and "We Made You" (NSFW) off Relapse (Amelie Gilette's right about the wider implications too of the new video) with "Lose Yourself" or the bootleg diss track (directed at Everlast, another also-ran in the Great 90s Rap Rock war) "Quitter" (very NSFW), where he sounds like he's got anger saved up for everyone he's encountered for more than five minutes over the last ten years. On the chronologically earlier tracks, he's hugging the beats. On the later ones, he's sounding winded over a mid-tempo beat and hiding behind a sing-songy intonation. In other words, he's started doing the same thing he accused Everlast of (because Everlast was too worn out to really rap, in his opinion).

It's weird that these days, when Fred Durst is trying out to be the new Hal Ashby and the guys from Korn are finding God, it's Eminem who sounds exhausted and out of ideas. Maybe one day, we'll have to explain to kids that, yes, at one time, Eminem seemed to matter.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Life is far from peaceful": Beatrice Cenci and Lucio Fulci

Lucio Fulci is sort of in a weird place, canonically. Despite his substantial contributions to both giallo and the zombie film, his filmography is marred by too many bad films, and even many of his good later films suffer from narrative problems. Mario Bava gets retrospectives reviewed in the NY Times and his work appropriated by the Beastie Boys. Dario Argento's newest films are still anxiously awaited by horror fans (no matter how poorly executed), and his daughter's acting and directing career has also kept him in the public eye. 

But Fulci? Other than a Blue Underground/Anchor Bay reissue of Zombie (a.k.a. Zombi 2), some of his most popular works (The Beyond and City of the Living Dead) are out of print on DVD.  Not to mention that his last films, co-written/co-directed by frequent Bruno Mattei collaborator Claudio Fragasso (also the director of the infamous Troll 2) returned to the zombie well one too many time to incredibly diminished results. No wonder the epitaph that seems to stick to him is Tarkovsky's dismissive comment about Zombi 2: "Ghastly; repulsive trash".

I'd almost say, right now, Ruggero Deodato's received more of a critical re-evaluation than Lucio Fulci.

On the other hand, the qualities that make Fulci amazing are the ones obscured by crappy prints and critical blindspots. He strikes me as a pop culture surrealist in the mode of David Lynch, with the same transgressiveness that launches from a deeply conservative worldview.

His films are filled with an obsession with the ways our bodies betray us (the maggots and rotting flesh which fill his zombie cycle, the torture, drunkenness and lust that fill Beatrice Cenci), the self-serving blindness of bureaucrats (Dr. Menard's single-minded obsession with a scientific explanation in Zombi 2, the incompetent police of City of the Living Dead, the manipulative Dr. Boyle and blasphemous Dr. Freudstein in House by the Cemetery) and, most importantly, lives upturned by irrational, inexplicable events, whether human (Francesco Cenci's violence against his daughter, the murders in his giallo), or supernatural (his zombie films).

Fulci's greatest strength lies in his eye for shot composition and his oft-misunderstood use of pacing (the eyeball scene in Zombi 2, for example). He's not a writer's director or an actor's director, and he's often let down by his screenwriters. But like his contemporary Argento and his successor Michele Soavi, he has an ability to direct films that seem like nightmares, which follow their own grotesque dream logic.

Unfortunately, writers prefer to honor writing or acting, because they are concrete elements you can point to assign credit to (I include myself in this assessment). So someone whose work is poorly translated and poorly acted twists in the wind, whatever their merits.

Next post: actually talking about Beatrice Cenci, religion, and body horror for costume drama.