Friday, February 25, 2011

The Ugliest Man Alive (and ephemera...)

As the historic, though troublesome table-turning of the Arab world continues, there is one thing we must be very, very thankful for - the potential of never having to gaze upon this brutal, craggy Grecian mask of a mug ever again:

 I say "troublesome" - because what has Iraq taught us?  The U.S. is invested in the economic incentives of the "two-face."  We're gonna fuck over poor Kadafi and his dripping features - stealing his oil, as we feed the past through a paper shredder.  Will that landscape burn black or is there the potential of Obama's long-forgotten "hope"????

 And on a similar note - Fox News' doomsday stoking schoolteacher, Glenn Beck, was given a dramatic boost thanks to Godspeed You! Black Emperor (whose sell-out reunion tour passed through L.A. this past week) in this serendiptiously eerie YouTube mash-up:

 Even without Godspeed, it is obvious that the right (from conservative to crazy), and their media cohorts, have created the greatest political theater of the past decade.  Using paranoid drama, Kabuki performance, image re-making, hyper graphics, and an elaborate toolbox of theatrical tricks, they've seduce the greatest chunk of the American populace into a kind shock and awe stupor.  
I used to let the flashing red, white, and blue televisual noise of Fox News take me off into the night.  It induced a maniacal dreamscape that could soon - very soon - become a reality.  Shakespeare would be proud.

photo by P. Kennelly

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

BREAKOUT Music of 2010

As the recent Grammys attested, the Arcade Fire's Best Album win aside, the recording industry is still hopelessly out of touch with the current status of the music industry - oblivious to the radical shifts in the creation, production, distribution, consumption, and scene-making of a landscape that continues to sprawl. No matter how hard all these blogs and critics try to map it, navigation is futile. New genres and their own sub-genres are created weekly. Cross-cultural & genre collaboration becomes more widespread and eccentric. The music comes at us in ways post-future and post-retro. It is always impossible to find, hear, and understand everything out there that is breaking ground, but the list below documents a few of the artists & their respective albums that made big noise in 2010 (at least to these ears).

There was good to great music from established acts Kanye West, LCD Soundsytem, Cee-Lo Green, Neil Young, Sade, The Roots, Danger Mouse, Bryan Ferry, M.I.A., Massive Attack, Mark Ronson, No Age, Hot Chip, Brian Eno, Gorillaz, The Dead Weather, Daniel Lanois, MGMT, Scissor Sisters, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Gil Scott-Heron, and, of course, Arcade Fire, but all have greater work in their past. I liked aspects of b.o.b, Warpaint, Best Coast, Drake, Nicki Minaj, and a number of other acts that hit the mainstream, but I've heard all that before. Haven't caught up yet with the latest Grinderman, Erykah Badu, The-Dream, Joanna Newsom, Mavis Staples, or Big Boi records, amongst many others. Eminem hasn't done solid work in almost a decade, ditto Jay-Z. Forgot Lil Wayne & T.I. - that was 3 years ago. Rihanna is a "guilty pleasure," but she (or rather, her producers) can't hold it up over the long run.

So, I've focused on 25 acts (26 albums/eps, well 28, technically) that either emerged, fully formed, in the past year, made their name known, or saw their ambitions reach new heights. Here they are, in no particular order:

BEN FROST / By the Throat

The multi-hyphenated Icelandic artist's sublime, Area-51 excavation actually occured in '09, though it took me over a year to catch up. A sludgy mix of rock melody, doom drone, horror movie soundtracks, National Geographic source recordings, and Ligeti-esque alien choirs, Frost has discovered a whole new sonic realm - the hidden language of ancient lava bubbling up from the earth's core.

ZOLA JESUS / Stridulum EP

Are there such things as new sounds, new sonic structures?  Based on much of the evidence of Ben Frost and other artists cited on this list, I'd say...perhaps...... but not Zola Jesus.  She's a throwback to the goth-tinged vocal ambience of Siouxsie, Kate Bush, Cocteau Twins, and many other late-night chanteuses of the 1980s.  Jesus was recently lumped with Sun Araw and Infinite Body as new representatives of the punk noise renaissance resounding in LA's underground club/gallery scene, but that's not really what's happening here.  These are inevitably classic, romantic ballads ("in the end of the night, I'll hold your hand" "in the end of the night, when I can be with you") given an anachronistic spin by the witchy surround and the unsettling, near operatic range of Jesus' voice.  Pop as pop is dead, but sinister vibes counterpointed by a lush sense of life, and, on the flip side, uptempo hooks obscuring violence and depravity, are displaying the endless possibles inherent in the form.

ceo / white magic

Erik Berglund, one half of Swedish synth pop duo The Tough Alliance, uses some of the following words & references to describe his solo project - "before time was, ceo is" "ceo is the photosynthesis and an aria, it is silence and virginity lost in a gang bang" "ceo is saliva, patron, november rain and panic. it is a relief, a citrine and it is broken dreams" - none of which does FULL justice to the hypnotic jungle pop that flows through white magic - shamanistic, cool breeze dance that is the lost soundtrack to an 80s future fantasy set on a distant, pagan planet. Or rather, a psychotic acid-fueled wet dream.

MARNIE STERN / Marnie Stern

"Alternative" never really existed, but if it did (and does), Marnie Stern's breed of whatever you want to call it, could be said to be representative.  Not "indie rock," "punk," "freak folk," "post punk," "no- wave," or "power pop" - but something raw which  in its high-pitched riot-grrl fierceness (echoed to oblivion) seems to encompass elements of each and every one of those reductive catchphrases.  The bedroom landscape on the album cover is a flat plane which leads into an epic free-form world that bites off way more than Karen O can chew and spits a super-charged wad back out.  Fast, hard - it pulses with a masochistic anxiety - "I've got something in my soul - growing into something you can't change" - "I've got something in my soul - pushing me to hold onto the pain."  Stern has the same ecstatic range as Zola Jesus, but it's much lighter-footed, bouncing like a pinball off the hyperactive guitar and drums.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The G-D Problem

Ricky Gervais glib, cheap-shot, roast-fueled Golden Globes emceeing was one of the most refreshing deflations of pomp and circumstance ego-tripping "fakeness" in recent memory.  What was surprising is that his offhanded parting shot (barely heard over the quickly unspooling credit roll) that took aim at religion (in general terms) caused the greatest consternation across the board.  It's easy to take potshots at a religion like Scientology, but once you start condemning the established, "proven" order, than all hell breaks loose (as we have seen in Iraq and are beginning to see throughout the rest of Northern Africa/the Middle East).  I've long been fascinated by Scientology, mostly because its fantastical ideas about the nature of creation and being are kind of a Pop version of the firmly held "beliefs" that make up the foundation of most other religions.  It is easy to dismiss it as something pagan, or "cult" as it's called today, but this is not far removed from the anti-idol worship beliefs that built up most of the other sustainable religious movements.

The press loves taking potshots at the "corporate" culture of Scientology - it's corruption related more to dollars and cents than anything moral.  But a similar structure has fueled (and continues to fuel) most other religious movements, all of which can be linked to certain "interests" that were not exactly of a spiritual nature. 

I think much of this is self-explanatory, but the exposure Scientology has received of late, including an excoriating tell-all in the New Yorker with writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash),  raises questions about the different ways we view leading figures in our country.  It is easy for us to not take seriously and mock artists and entertainers, but when it comes to the beliefs and statements of politicians, religious leaders, etc., there is much greater trepidation, as if pulling back the curtain, the ideas that give our country bearing, will be revealed as the shams they are. 

L. Ron Hubbard penned some wonderfully over-blown sci-fi epics, much of which inspired and/or bolstered the tenets of Scientology (see Battlefield Earth, pictured above), but doesn't the Bible and Koran feature similar bodice-ripping, sword-plunging operatics as well?  When all of this is read as great storytelling that can reveal and inform from whence we came and who we now are, there is a kind of revelation that gives us true purpose for our everyday existence.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"State of Incarceration"

Here's a short video I edited out of three nights worth of JD Matta's filming the Los Angeles Poverty Department's State of Incarceration (an examination of the personal and social costs of incarceration) @ Highways Performance Space.

Each performance of State of Incarceration is an experiment in which the performers, the audience, and the performance material are inserted into a restrictive prison architecture that replicates the over-crowded California State Prisons, where gymnasiums and cafeterias have been turned into dormitories housing 3 and 4 hundred prisoners. The performance space is filled wall-to-wall with 60 bunk-beds, the same model used in the prison system. The US Supreme Court is at present deliberating whether these conditions prevalent in the California State Prisons constitute cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Constitution.

In State of Incarceration, Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) artists articulate the mental and physical challenges of incarceration and the resources needed to endure and recover from it. When released from state penitentiaries with $200 gate money, parolees are directed to Skid Row with the largest concentration of low cost housing in LA County. 33% of parolees released to the Los Angeles area settle in the 52 square block neighborhood of Skid Row.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Great Unappreciated Filmmakers (3)


It's likely that just about everyone (in Hollywood and otherwise) has forgotten the name Tony Kaye, but over a decade ago now, his shaved, dangerous looking mug was unavoidable in the industry press.  With breathless gossip mongering, they would document (as well as act as conduits of) the epic, surrealist saga of a filmmaker gone mad.  Depending on how you looked at it, Kaye's battles with New Line Cinema over the final cut, credit, and release of his feature debut, American History X, was either an embittered, brazenly narcissistic public meltdown or a selfishly bold + brilliant conceptual art piece. The director had been a notorious pariah in the ad world for nearly a decade before American History X, but was tolerated for his visually groundbreaking, conceptually demanding (and often graphically punishing) style. Besides, this was how "genius" was supposed to act, right?

Despite burning each and every long and wide Hollywood bridge he crossed, Kaye never really perished in the blaze. His name kept popping up. A few years after the American debacle, a weird Vanity Fair article furthered the myth by detailing his subsequent flame-out with another artist many believed was the "craziest" of them all, Marlon Brando. The notorious film icon had reached out to Kaye during his sacrificial rite of passage, and comforted him with seemingly rational advice about the cyclical burning at the stake Hollywood totes out every year. Their aborted collaboration coincided with the height of Kaye's seeming dementia, and like everyone else, friend or foe, he lashed out with childish furor. But, considering Kaye's art-school background, maybe it was all part of some labyrinthine artistic scam.  Was Kaye a gonzo trickster, who could even drive MARLON BRANDO crazy???

 I was inspired to start this "Unappreciated" Filmmakers project a few years back around the time of the release of Kaye's documentary Lake of Fire, and a rumored release of a Director's Cut of American History X (which still, five years later, has yet to materialize).  Kaye compulsively shot Lake of Fire while he was enacting his cinematic jihad (which he has since amended for, though in a twisted sort of way); and the release of this 17 years in the making epic of that big dividing line in American politics and culture, Abortion, was an exhaustive + exhausting document that,  in its wide-eyed de-filtration of POV, completely unsettled the typical expectations of the contemporary pop-documentary format.  Each and every angle of the debate is given voice, building into a shark-infested inferno where our perceived values and ideas of right and wrong, victim + victimizer, lose logic or context. All we have is FEELING --- and the spiraling vocal torrent numbs that as well.

Lake of Fire is not an easy or even recommendable piece of cinema, but it is a necessary one nonetheless. Kaye toys with viewers, as he did in American History X and much of his ad work, by ebbing swells of distanced melodrama with penetrating, pungently visceral witness. And this is not easy to take, as it lets loose a myriad of unintended associations (and disassociations) that demand a new context. And this Kaye will not be able to provide. We are angered, confused, and emotionally depleted. But, like all lasting art, this co-habitation of the complicated tangle of response + individual thought with the object of our gaze, obliterates the talismans we tend to make of work….and its maker.

In the years since he finished Lake of Fire, Kaye has dabbled in a number of different, often odd, many times stunning, projects - ads, public service announcements,  music videos, art pieces, film promos, and a feature film that has become entangled in another protracted struggle.  Its minor-key cult status and Norton's resoundingly acclaimed performance aside, American History X never really attained the kind of cinematic recognition it (still) deserves, oft dismissed as hackneyed, simplistic melodrama - with hyper-style obscuring meaningful purpose.  While it may have tinges of the angry sense of liberal guilt that has tainted many like minded movies, its moral tragedy, derived from a fascinating mess of a screenplay by a former bartender, has a momentum that is undeniable in its confluence of emotion, performance, and image-making.  Unlike most directors from either the commercial or art world, Kaye has a gaze that is tangible - ferocious, disturbing, guttural, over-aestheticized, hackneyed, and honest all in one.

Previous entries in this series:

Sunday, February 13, 2011


In anticipation of Dr. Dre's highly anticipated performance @ tonight's Grammy's & the supposedly forthcoming Detox, a 12-yr. in the making follow-up to his 2 highly influential gangsta-rap solos of the 1990s (1992's The Chronic & 1999's 2001), here's a bit of forgotten history.  Leading up to and briefly overlapping with the birth of N.W.A. Dre was the resident DJ for the World Class Wreckin' Cru.  Today we equate rap & particularly Dre with the violently sexist, homophobic thug mentality, but the true roots of the genre were in the disco//house club scene, an ecstatic queer explosion of fashion, music, and dance.


UPDATE (3/19/2011) :
While the performance itself left much to be desired, this video for the lead single from the new album is self-mythology done right.  Eschewing the distracting sci-fi window dressing & the fact that, actually, the doctor has far from disappeared for the last ten years, it makes clear how deep and complex the idea of "brotherhood" runs in the hip-hop community.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Free! Theater

I have great doubts about the essential effectiveness of political theater meant to to be staged for a static audience - even more so when the lines between purpose and aesthetic are explicitly marked.  But the case of the Belarus Free Theater, who have been getting a lot of publicity & support for their current U.S. tour, exhibits the possibilities in the greater power of artistic expression as a cause towards social justice.  When they came to Los Angeles in 2009, the work's purpose DID trump its aesthetics, but both felt like they were (nobly) striving to inform the other.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Great Underappreciated Filmmakers (2)


On the page, the basic outline of Mary, like all Ferrara films, is simple: Ted Younger (Forest Whitaker), an American TV-talk show host, a la Charlie Rose is hosting a week dedicated to examining the 'historical Jesus' to coincide with the premiere of a new film, This is My Blood , a revisionist look at the life of Christ. This film within the film is directed and stars (as Jesus) the ruthlessly opportunistic and self-mythologizing director Tony Childress (Matthew Modine), and stars Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche), who after having a spiritual meltdown when the filming wrapped, has quit acting and disappeared on a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

 At a screening of  the film at Santa Monica's Aero Theater a few years ago, Modine said, "Abel is the guiltiest Catholic I've ever met. Mel Gibson has nothing on him." Childress is an odd conflagration of Gibson and Ferrara himself, and Ferrara again probes and prods his own process as a filmmaker within the film's text. Mary becomes a film seeking a WHOLE, an enlightenment that transcends the material image of Christ, and seeks the spirit of his redemptive voice.
Thus, like all of Ferrara's recent work, it disassembles as it assembles, and everyone - the filmmakers, the actors, and the audience, is worked into a frenzied lather of obsession and possession, vainly flailing for a meaning that is elusive, all-consuming, suicidal.  The journey is not too dissimilar from that of other Ferrara-surrogates (almost always pseudo or literal artistic bloodsuckers), in particular Harvey Keitel in Dangerous Game, Christopher Walken in New Rose Hotel, and Modine in The Blackout. Except this time, the plummeting quest is dispersed over three souls in emotional and/or intellectual conflict with both each other and the cultural void they find themselves slipping down. In this regard, it's the anti-Passion of the Christ, a ballsy destruction of the narrative of unpredictable transcendence. Mary bluntly slices and dices the image of Christ in contemporary visual culture: facing off faith with consumption --- and the inevitable dispersal and corruption of a value system.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


A nasty little piece I wrote in summer 2007 - obviously not a very happy time...:

    FUCKABLE.  This is a concept, yes, but an elusive one.  Pernicious.  A thought fanning out along another long-winded Hollywood day and its 'reality' zooming down from the northern shores to hold up the shit-stained smog of 'The Hills.'  A maybe disposable, presumptuous concept that is, nevertheless, an innately nagging part of the weather.  We, as Los Angelinos, find ourselves blindsided by the time (of the year) when the always rising tabloid steam chokes in the last gasping breath of a typically West Coast cerebral cortex meltdown. 
    The subterfuge - hell, superstitition, self-doubt - rise to the surface --- grasping the feelings of all (conscious or not, great or small) – frozen - in the long days' bright toxic lights.  Things begin to reveal themselves, uncomfortable things --- whether spying in the supermarket line, cruising the Sunset Strip, trolling the wasted downtown streets, or cozying up in fab Hillside mansions.  It's the time of year when the patented gated/extroverted lives of SoCal's denizens - man, women, child, gay, straight, bi --- LA Times, Variety, TMZ, CNN and on - morbidly dwell on the missed opportunities of their lives, and seek quick release through the comfort of a movie theater - and the play fantasy of those more wholly fucked than themselves.  Here, viscera sprays across the flickering silver nitrate --- lives of runaway luxury cars, coke fevers, and the blood drip of freshly slit wrists packaged up in alienating 100+ minute packages.  No greeting, no return address --- just the feeling of longing, crying, raging, and fucking --- the rhetorical questions not so much desiring a personal response so long as they keep stirring the bulging heart + loins.  Big explosions to micro-sized wet dreams.  It's peddled via drooling catchphrases ("Hot!") and the supposedly sugar-plum visions of fantasy make-out sessions framed in the fuzzy contours of a virally dangerous, coldly awkward little cell phone snapshot.  

    'Fuckable' means many things, but far from shame or honesty, it hits its bull's-eye – the heart of market value '07, a long build-up of 50 years, from that first moment when Marcello Mastroianni lived La Dolce Vita.  Fellini's film simultaneously critiqued and reveled in the fervent religious ecstasy of celebrity and its hangers on.  This was the inevitably sleazy turning point in the cult of fame (which reaches its long, omnipotent arm all the way back to the martyrdom of  Jesus and Joan of Arc), when sex and desire (forever co-modifiable passions) - commenced that pod invasion - first into the ideals of the popular zeitgeist, via HOLYwood - and then a straight shot to the simple heart of the "American dream."  Once the anguished prelude to transfiguration, i.e. death, a greater glory of being – God, a higher calling, FAME became reduced to the fight solely for the ugly vestige of labelization, derived of meaning and trumpeted as a solipsistic, self-destructive joy-ride unto itself.

Tammy Faye

drawing by P. Kennelly
 Mascara stroked tears roil
Alabaster Madonna statues
In miniature

Her head bowed
Clasped hands

Choir boy eyes reflected
In the light
Of the stacked candles
The flickering televised halo

And the millions
Waiting with faith
For a sign of God

Eyelids dropping into the fog below
Going back to a time
Of electronic hope
Unscorched by radiation

The Hills