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Monday, 22 December 2014

Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks.

You may not have realized it yet, but you're living in a bad neighbourhood.  We've turned a corner with the attack on Sony Pictures. Hacking is hitting us where we live, and that new real estate happens to be in the virtual realm.

It’s not the distopia that many a sci fi writer would have you expect. Diminishing social skills, increased anxiety and twitter may suck, but Snow Crash this ain’t. When you consider the North Korean hacking an act of terrorism – that is, an action that leverages fear to advance a political agenda, which it most definitely is – this almost seems like a step in the right direction.

There are no burning buildings, no shrapnel in the spectators. Hack attacks are real, but this is an epoch where reality can simply be turned off.

Consider, for example, the mass celebrity hacking last summer, when stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton had nude photos from their phones hacked out of the cloud and displayed on the internet for all to see.

From different corners, the scandal simultaneously inspired mass outrage and apathy (after the sound of fapping had died down). Victims called it a “sex crime” (which it undoubtedly is), while the less sympathetic noted that if the best way to prevent having nude photos stolen from your phone is to simply not take nude photos with your phone. That logic is infallible, but when Ricky Gervaismade the argument he was met with cries of victim blaming. A few people on twitter went as far saying, “That’s like saying if you got raped it’s your fault for wearing a short dress.”

No. It’s more like undressing in front of an open window. There shouldn’t be anyone with their eyes pressed up to the glass, but of course there is. Now, peeping is a sex crime. It’s shameful and cruel, but it can’t give you a venereal disease, can’t get you pregnant, and most likely won’t cause P.T.S.D. Welcome to the internet. It’s a rough neighborhood, but not that rough.

By participating in online life, you are buying some shady real estate.  Think downtown Manhattan in the eighties – what you gain in convenience you sacrifice in security. Even respectable sites like facebook and ebay fall prey to hackers – the celebrity photos allegedly came from Apple’s cloud. It’s something the users of the internet have not quite been able to grasp, and it’s also an oddly unifying concept: no matter how well off we are in physical reality, we’re all more or less equally vulnerable to cyber attacks (the wealthy might actually be more at risk). This is something people are only beginning to grasp, and though I agree we should treat each other with love and respect, I can also mediate my expectations a little bit.

21st century connectivity has thrown the best and worst kind of people into a slop and asks us to fend for ourselves. The hackers I have spoken of do not pose a credible physical threat – not even North Korea, but these days they don’t have to. It turns out smearing someone’s reputation with a cluster of embarrassing emails or a nude photo is enough to scare them off course these days. Destroying someone online is like the equivalent of destroying them in real life.

When I learned about the Amanda Todd tragedy, the uncharitable thought came to mind that she should have just deleted her facebook account. The bullying she endured was mostly online, so you’d think she could have just turned it off, tuned out and carried on. It would have been lonely being the only young person not plugged into social media, but it would still have been a life.
Yet if there's anything these hacks and the reactions to them have shown us, its that people seem oddly unable to keep perspective on their virtual world.  For now, being destroyed online is the same as being destroyed in life.
Snow Crash, indeed.

*Just in time for this post to go to print, Madonna blessed us all with 6 new completed songs of her new album, following another hack wherein 13 unfinished demos were leaked onto the internet. Commenting on the leak, Madonna says,W don't put things up on servers anymore. Everything we work on, if we work on computers, we're not on WiFi, we're not on the Internet, we don't work in a way where anybody can access the information. Hard drives of music are hand-carried to people.”

There you have it. I sense the golden age of the internet is over, and the smart money is on scaling back our dependence on it. We’ll see where that takes us.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Music / Industry

Taylor Swift makes it in under the wire with 1989, and 2014 finally has one (1) album go platinum. The music industry isn't dead yet, but spectator's say it's breathing is pretty haggard. I disagree. The music industry is fine. It's the music that died. The internet may have ended the golden age of record buying, but the funny thing about money is that it throws its weight around the most when there is less of it to be had.
Now, every era has its talent and its hacks. Nostalgia has a way of buffing out the shitty stuff and convincing our parents that they really were the hippest generation, when in fact the number one song of 1967 was "Sugar, Honey Honey" by the Archies.
Still, you'd have to be a fool to pretend 1989 is in even the same ballpark as Sergeant Pepper, or The Wall, or even Rumours. There is no version of 2014 where a song like Neil Young's "Ohio" becomes a top forty hit (as it did in 1970), let alone captures the zeitgeist enough to change popular opinion about a major historical event. No matter the quality of popular music today, it is no longer important.
Money, on the other hand is always important. It has a way of exacting its influence no matter what. So when sales dry up, that's when the Industry roars to life and makes its interests clear. People aren't buying music anymore, so the Industry stopped selling it.
They're selling artists - no, not artists, personalities- to plug into the more lucrative game of product placement. The most obvious example is Beats, which has sponsored almost every major music video in recent years - at least every one with any kind of budget. You're supposed to look at Nicki Minaj and think: "If I own these speakers, I'm almost like a famous person." For the record, listening to mp3s with expensive headphones, is like buying an HD 70" flat screen so you can watch the Blair Witch Project in all its grainy glory.
Once again, commerce beat common sense. Dr. Dre is now a bazillionaire and Rock and Roll is dead.
I'm not here to rant about artists cashing a cheque. I'm sure Katy Perry works harder than anyone I know personally. I'm here to remind you that the Industry is a force of nature that even when incomes shrink - especially  when incomes shrink - cuts the fat and protects itself.
Beyonce got paid a reported $50,000,000 for her Pepsi ad (which, while I'm on it, "Embrace the past but live for now"- really? All that money and they couldn't come up with a better line?) So someone's making money.
And people are still making real music, but its not getting promoted, because the Industry knows no one will buy it. So they attach music to things that people do buy, and take a percentage.  Art and commerce are not making the sweet sweet love they used to, and we the public are getting the shaft.
There is great music out there: Phosphorescent's "Song For Zula" is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. Do yourself a favour and click "Play" so you can listen as you read:
But no matter how great a song is, it's never going to hit the mainstream unless it can be used as an advertising jingle. How else can it recoup the cost of promotion?
Listening to Janelle Monae's Metropolis Suites is like meeting the lovechild of Peter Gabriel and Star Wars - after that lovechild was abandoned by the side of the road then nursed back to health by Andre 3000.* It's amazing. But its no coincidence that the closest that album got to a hit single was the song used in a Chevy ad.
So what happens when artists, who might be legitimately great, have to cow toe to their sponsors? What happens to society when our culture is dominated by advertising, an art form explicitly dedicated to promoting mindless consumption over independent thought? The revolutionary spirit of Rock and Roll has been squished under the rock of commerce, and if that doesn't scare you, let me answer the above question for you:
Twenty five years ago, Madonna - peace and blessings be upon her - released the video for Like a Prayer:
 The video involved burning crosses, controversy, and the end of her endorsement deal with Pepsi. It is also one of the great artistic coups in the history of pop music. Corporate sponsors would be weary of her edginess from then on out, but losing endorsement deals didn't matter, because she was selling millions of records. Back then it paid to shake up the system.
Would Madonna make the same decision in a world where she couldn't count on music sales to pad her fortune? We don't need a parallel universe to answer that question. All we need to do is look at Beyonce. Pepsi's latest fly-girl is always polite, always perfect looking, and never controversial. It no longer pays to be a revolutionary, but that doesn't mean that we as a culture don't still need them.
My parents had Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and, yes, Madonna. Are millennials capable of staring down a social problem and turning it into a hit song like their parents were? The Industry's not going to take a chance on finding out. Where's the top forty hit about Trayvon Martin?
I don't want to live in a world where the Like a Prayer video gets pulled in favour of this inane Pepsi ad, but that seems to be the direction we're heading in.

Alas, you get what you pay for.

*And seriously guys, get hip to the Archandroid already!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Ali for Hitcheddesigns: Booking the Band of Your Dreams

My personal favourite of all the articles I've written (for money):

For most, the question of music at a wedding boils down to a simple either/or: Hire a local band or find a DJ to play your favourite hits.

For people with an unlimited budget, though, getting the real thing is actually in the cards.
Sadly, I do not know any of these people, nor have I been invited to their weddings, but it’s fun to dream, and thanks to some wily, well-connected folks at priceonomics.com, we’ve got an actual price tag to attach to those dreams. If these superstars are in your price range, visit The Degy Booking Agency for more information.

If not, with tongue firmly in cheek, I invite you to consider the pros and cons of some very well paid wedding singers (all estimated prices exclude expenses and are subject to negotiation with the talent’s management):

The Diamond Circle:

Madonna: $1,000,000

Pros: Imagine, the Queen herself singing Like a Virgin as the garter is tossed! She’s got a huge catalogue with dance hits and ballads. Plus, True Blue and Cherish are two of the happiest love songs that ever existed.
Cons: She hasn’t performed True Blue or Cherish in more than twenty years, and there’s a good chance she’ll do something inappropriate/outrageous that will simultaneously overshadow the bride and infuriate her parents.

Bruce Springsteen: $1,000,000

Pros: Springsteen is the definition of cool. He gives 110% as a showman and his concerts are always great parties.
Cons: Faced with the sheer animal magnetism of The Boss, the bride may have second thoughts about marrying anyone else. In fact, most of his marriage songs are more “soul-crushing-life-of-regret” than “happily-ever-after”. Save this one for the tenth anniversary.

For more, read the whole article at http://hitcheddesigns.com/booking-the-band-of-your-dreams/ and http://hitcheddesigns.com/booking-the-band-of-your-dreams-part-ii/

Ali for Hitchedesigns: In Defesne of Small Weddings

Weddings these days feel bigger than ever before. Not that there are more guests than there used to be (with the rise in popularity of destination weddings the opposite is likely the case), or that they are more expensive (even though on average they are). A lot of weddings just seem to be about more in every way.

Last year I attended a wedding with a photo-booth, an all night candy bar, midnight fish buffet, and a custom pizza bar. All this in addition to a five course dinner in a hall with two giant screens behind the head table so that guests in the cheap seats could watch the (pre-recorded) speeches in all their high tech glory. The wedding invitations and seat assignments had a “tabloid news” theme that screamed your table number out at you like big block-letter headlines. The ceremony itself had a Broadway-style program (also newspaper themed) to introduce the couple and the wedding party, presumably for any strangers that wandered into the church by accident...

For the full rant, visit http://hitcheddesigns.com/in-defense-of-small-weddings/

Ali for Funautomotive:The Self Driving Car

The company behind the world’s favourite search engine has something up its sleeve that’s gonna change the world as we know it, starting with the automotive industry.

For more than a decade, Google has been the leader in its field, sitting on an estimated thirty billion dollars in cash (all in offshore accounts, of course). But ad revenue isn’t growing, so Google’s top minds are trying to develop an actual product that will keep them ahead of the curve once their current (fabulously profitable) business model becomes obsolete.

We’ve all heard of Google glass, a product that seems to have come and gone without making much of an impact beyond tech blogs (most people don’t appreciate technological breakthroughs that have to be worn on their faces). Google’s experiments with hot air balloons bringing internet access to remote areas seems to have merit, while I have yet to hear an explanation for this floating behemoth in San Francisco Bay that doesn’t terrify me.

It seems that Eureka has come at last with the advent of a self-driving-car. You heard that right. The Google car has gone 300,000 miles without any crashes, and now they’ve got one with no steering wheel at all. When it finally comes to market, it will radically change, not just the automotive industry, but also life and the economy as we know it.

To find out how, read the whole article at http://funautomotive.com/introducing-the-age-of-the-self-driving-car/

Ali for Funautomotive: Tesla's Big Shakeup

Last week, Tesla CEO and generally impressive person Elon Musk announced that the Tesla motor company would be releasing the patents on their electric cars and Supercharger stations to promote the electric car industry. On the Tesla Motors blog, Musk claimed that patents “stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors,” and announced their patents would be open to any person or company willing to use them to further technology’s march toward sustainability.

To find out how this will actually change your life (hint: it involves a battery factory), read the full article at http://funautomotive.com/teslas-big-shakeup/

Ali for Funautomotive: For Those Who Think Big

What is it about an unsafe, aesthetically unappealing, gas-guzzling hog barrelling down a city street that we all find so appealing? By “we” I mean, “you”, and if not you, then the millions of Americans driving Sport Utility Vehicles today, fully in the knowledge that they are environmentally unsound, structurally unsafe, and effectively little more than a pickup truck with a row of seats where the bed used to be....

Read the full bitch-fest at http://funautomotive.com/for-those-who-think-big/

Ali for Funautomotive: Dead Mau5's Pun Mobile

I am typically unenthralled by celebrity cars. I mean, what could Miley Cyrus’s car have that any other second hand auto couldn’t offer (a dusting of cocaine in the back seat, perhaps? Not very appealing). But the Ferrari 458 F1 Spider that DJ DeadMau5 (pronounced “Dead mouse,” because who the fuck cares anymore?) is now selling on Auto Trader from my home town of Etobicoke certainly has some character...

Read the full article at http://funautomotive.com/looking-for-a-pun-machine/

Ali for Funautomotive: The Big Wheel Strikes Back

Are you one of the millions of people who owned a big-wheel in the 1970s or 80s? Has your adult life been marred by the tragic lack of a low-riding tricycle that drifts like a dream, and is vehicle of choice for touring a haunted hotel? (Full disclosure: Yes that is a link to The Shining, and no, don’t click it unless you want to have nightmares).

Well, weep no more, persons who never grew up. SFP Industries , a company with the proud slogan, “Never Grow Up,” has developed a motorized Big Wheel. And it can be yours for a mere $2,000.00 American.....

Read the full article at: http://funautomotive.com/the-big-wheel-strikes-back/

Writing Gigs

Hey Guy(s?), a few months ago I got a steady job writing for a network of websites, and I'm going to start posting the links to my other work, just in case you thought I was slacking off and writing not at all.

Of course, working for pay means I haven't had time to deliver as many stunning, insightful essays as I did earlier in the year, and I haven't been able to maintain that grueling once-a-month schedule.

But if you want my thoughts on how to buy a car, plan a wedding, or buy a house in a boom town, I'm posting the links to the best of my work for the other websites.

Take care, and thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Reading Rosemary

It's been said, probably by someone facing a major PR disaster: "Judge the art, not the artist". I would like to amend that statement: "Judge the art before you judge the artist"

Consider one of the great horror films, by one of the great directors and not-so-great human beings, Roman Polanski. Personal disgust aside, I can attest that his 1968 film, Rosemary's Baby, based on the novel by Ira Levin, is one of the all time movies. So great, that after I saw it for the second time, I figured I ought to read the book.
Some context before I go further: Ira Levin is a renowned author whose most famous novel was The Stepford Wives--a feminist cautionary tale about women who are made into something unhuman so that they can be controlled by their husbands (sound familiar?). Roman Polanski is a director known to have (in the polite words of my favourite film blogger) a "complicated" relationship to women. Most notably, he fled the United States in the 1970s after he was charged with drugging and sodomizing a thirteen year old girl.

Even before that, his first English language film, "Repulsion," had the slightly uncomfortable subtext that women who don't desire men are murderous psychopaths.

Like I said, "complicated".

It seems altogether strange that this man would be drawn to a novel from the author of the Stepford Wives. But drawn he was. In the introduction to the paperback version, Otto Penzler writes " [Polanzki] met regularly with Levin, pages marked in the book, asking questions such as, What do you think is the colour of Rosemary's dress in this scene? and What is the date of the issue of the New Yorker in which Guy Woodhouse sees a shirt he wants?" (Introduction, VII, Otto Penzler, First Pegasus Books Edition, 2010)
 Reading the book  knowing the bleak ending of the film made the novel that much more terrifying from the first page, because when you know what's going to happen to Rosemary Woodhouse, in all its Technicolor glory it seems impossible to read on once she gushes to her husband, "You see how you can think of things?...You're a marvelous liar." (4)

Book Rosemary is a much more sympathetic character than she is in the film.My one criticism of Polanski's vision was that Rosemary was much too passive, too quick to forgive her husband for date-raping her, and throwing out the book about witchcraft because it was "upsetting" her. To me, a fully radicalized 21st century anti-patriarchist (because "feminism" isn't a strong enough word anymore) those were the most egregious faux-pas a husband could commit, and Rosemary seemed to shrug them off so quickly that she never seemed quite real to me. I chalked it up to the film being forty odd years old, and marvelled at how darn submissive sixties housewives were expected to be.

This is where the book and movie part ways in particularly jarring fashion, espcecially given Polanski's supposedly slavish dedication to the source material. In the book, Rosemary is proper pissed about the way her husband treats her. Unlike doe-eyed-and-deeply-disappointed Mia Farrow Rosemary, Book Rosemary "was unhappy--whether or not it was silly to be so. Guy had taken her without her knowledge, had made love to her as a mindless body ('kind of fun in a necrophile sort of way') rather than as the complete mind and body person she was...True, he had done it for the best motive in the world, to make a baby, and true too he had drunk as much as she had; but she wished that no motive and no number of drinks could have enabled him to take her that way, taking only her body without her soul or self or she-ness--whatever it was he presumably loved." (94)

Levin's novel is deeply sympathetic to Rosemary as a rape victim. Now of course, inner monologue like that can't be placed elegantly into a film, so I can understand it being taken out. The same can almost be said for the chapter where Rosemary leaves Guy (after the rape, before she knows she is pregnant) for a week:

"On the third day she thought of him. He was vain, self-centred, shallow and deceitful. He had married her just to have an audience, not a mate...She would give him a year to shape up and become a good husband; if he didn't make it she would pull out, and with no religious qualms whatever. And meanwhile she would go back to work and get again that sense of independence and self sufficiency she had been so eager to get rid of. She would be strong and proud and ready to go if he failed to meet her standards.

"On the fourth day she awoke missing him and cried...What had he done that was so terrible? He had gotten drunk and grabbed her without saying may I. Well, that was really an earth-shattering offense, now wasn't it? There he was, facing the biggest challenge of his career and she--instead of being there to help him, to cue and encourage him--was off in the middle of nowhere, eating herself sick" (99)

When we're in Rosemary's head, it becomes clear that this isn't just a book about Satan-qua-Satan. It's about a woman who become complicit in her own victimization by allowing her husband to rule her life. In the course of two paragraphs Rosemary goes from clear-headed independent woman to simpering housewife, making excuses for her man. And in the process she become a host for evil.

Also, major props to Levin for the allusion to God's creation of the world in Genesis ("On the ___ day") as Rosemary's realizes she's pregnant. He was a great fucking writer. 

The novel is a feminist cautionary tale as much as the Stepford Wives was, and it is fascinating to note that with all the little ways Polanski stayed faithful to the source material, he completely neglected the big theme, which happens to be female empowerment.

Now I hear you, imaginary reader, exclaim: "Hold on! The film is a masterpiece!" I don't dispute that. But it is a masterpiece made by a man who is not known to be overly sympathetic to the female sex, and that shows. "This doesn't prove anything!" You may exclaim, "Why should he ruin the greatest horror film of all time with pointless exposition and a scene where a woman sits alone in a cabin for a week?"

That, I have no answer for, except to say that someone as talented as Polanski could make anything work if he wanted to. Rosemary's inner monologue might not make for great cinema like it made for great literature. But  Polanski also changed the ending.

That's right. For anyone who hasn't read the book, but feels their interest piqued by now, I suggest you go out and read it before the next paragraph, because it is a kicker.

All the while I was reading Rosemary's Baby I had my stomach tied in knots, knowing as I did where Levin planned to leave her: Mother to Satan and completely powerless to change anything, passive in the face of the people who've corrupted her and the evil she has created.

Anticipating that ending to a book where Rosemary is actually a sympathetic character was a giant pain in the gut. It actually gave me a nightmare.

But then it didn't come. In the film, Rosemary discovers her baby, freaks out a little when she sees its only part human, then decides "what the fuck I'm its mother" and rocks it to sleep in a horrid black bassinet while the cultists chant "Hail Rosemary! Hail Satan!" around her.

The book lets us know what she's thinking:

"He couldn't be all bad, he just  couldn't. Even if she was half Satan, wasn't he half her as well, half decent, ordinary, sensible, human being? If she worked against them, exerted a good influence to counteract their bad one..." (242-243)

The book ends on a much more positive note, where she insists on naming her own son and bringing him back to her apartment and its yellow and white nursery:

"I understand why you'd like to call him that, but I'm sorry; you can't. His name is Andrew John. He's my child, not yours, and this is one point that I'm not even going to argue about. This and the clothes. He can't wear black all the time." (245)

Am I alone in thinking is a radical change? To put things in perspective, only about two scenes from the whole book were removed for the screenplay (one of which is Rosemary's soul searching trip to the cabin). This is the only scene from the book that was dramatically altered, and it is arguably the most important one. It's the ending that give the book its thematic punch--it strongly punctuates the theme that a woman who allows herself to be controlled by her husband and her elders is setting herself up for tragedy. Women are doomed if they remain in their passive guilt ridden roles. Only when they take charge is there a glimmer of hope for the uncertain future. Levin's book ends on a note of uncertainty, but at least his Rosemary doesn't lose her soul.

Polanski, the noted rapist, missed that point (or chose to remove it) completely. But he made sure the dates on the newspaper were right.

In this case the source material is almost a Rorschach test, where what the director's vision hints at a lot of his "complicated" mindset. Judge the art before the artist, sure, I'll be damned if they don't sometimes get their wires crossed.



Thursday, 22 May 2014

Let's Play a Game

Billboard just posted this 50 second snippet of a "secret" track, by a mystery artist--specifically a "shape-shifting dance legend". Immediately, that calls to mind the Queen of Pop--they even use the word "vogue" to describe disco's daft-punk inspired resurgance. So what do we all think? I'm firmly in the Madonna camp myself, though I have to say I don't love the beat, except for the fabulous breakdown at the end. It will be only as good as the lyrics sung on top of it, and Madge's voice isn't quite what it used to be. 

But then again it could be Rihanna...no it couldn't. There's no doubt in my mind this is Madge, and I'm, as always, hoping for a return to form, and album that's more "Lovespent" than "Girl Gone Wild," if you catch my drift. Madonna's best songs may be dance-happy club stompers, but in the last decade she seems to have lost touch with hedonism and joie de vivre, such that now she only really excels at weepy, disturbed ballads. I exempt from this the lamentable Gang Bang, which was much, much better in its original demo format, though I suppose its commendable that Madonna actually drastically altered the song to get her writing credit, which we know is not always the case. 

And there's of course Animal, a dance track that could have been a no. 1 for Rihanna, but got left off the Hard Candy album because it just didn't fit the tone. It would have fit just fine on MDNA but I guess that's beside the point.

This is my very longwided way of saying that I'm quite excited, but also vaguely dreading the new Madonna album, as anything with the power to chip away at the adoration I feel for the Queen of Pop.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Cinematic Alchemy: It's as If it had all been imagined for you.

Can a film made by racists, for racists still be a great work of cinema? Gone With the Wind isn't just a classic film. It's the classic. But that label comes with a powerful caveat. It is a film made in the 1930s about the American Civil War, written by an author from the South who, in her younger years, refused to attend a school that would admit black students, and considered D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation an inspiration.

It seems, in our more enlightened times, that Gone With the Wind is a time capsule more than a genuinely involving work of cinema. Most of the reviews of the Oscar-winning 12 years a Slave, note that it’s graphic, realistic depiction of the horrors of slavery renders Gone With the Wind all but obsolete as a film going experience, and certainly as a work of history. 12 Years a Slave is undoubtedly the superior work of history, based on a true story of slavery, told by a person who survived it. Apart from its obvious craft and artistry, Slaves’ credentials are unimpeachable. In the face of this big truth, then, can an ugly, antiquated old beast like Gone With the Wind  survive in the popular imagination?

Maybe not. The popular imagination is known to be quite stunted. For myself, though, I will make what I’m sure would be a controversial statement if this blog had more than a few readers: Gone With the Wind is a timeless work of art. I will go further to say that, in the world of cinema, there may not be another film that equals it.  

Allow me to explain. Gone With the Wind was released in 1939, on the heels of a wildly popular best seller and an (at that time) unprecedented amount of anticipation. It went on to sweep the Academy Awards and to this day holds the record for most seen film in history (based on adjusting its gross for inflation). Back then, the world was a different place. There were Civil War veterans still living, the Holocaust was unknown, interracial marriage was illegal, and the Walt Disney Company was close to bankruptcy. A radically different time.

This is the argument that’s made to defend every racist Grandma at Thanksgiving, and it is the argument that Gone With the Wind apologists use to silence its detractors. There’s no denying that this is a film made by racists, for racists, about racists. But, while 12 Years a Slave is explicitly about slavery, the "meaning" of Gone With the Wind has always been a little more fluid.
 Ultimately it's a movie about people who can’t let go, who ruin their lives by clinging to a past that does not want them anymore. This is true, whether we view that past as a hateful hell or rosy paradise.

In 2014, few people mourn the loss of the Old South, but we’re just as receptive to the idea that dwelling on the past can kill you. And that’s the theme of Gone With the Wind, when you cut right down to its heart: The people who thrive are the ones who can let go of the past and take charge of their future, who can change.
For anyone who has remained somehow oblivious to this tale, Gone With the Wind is the story of spoiled Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara, through the civil war and reconstruction. Scarlett is beautiful, selfish and charismatic, so we don’t mind watching her gossip, pull her sister’s hair and throw herself at a man who doesn’t love her--as long as she gets her comeuppance in the end. To put it kindly, as Melanie Hamilton does, “Sclarlett’s just high spirited and vivacious.”

Sweet Melanie is Scarlett's polar opposite—unfailingly genteel and kind, the film begins with Melanie getting engaged to Ashley Wilkes, an aristocratic gentleman who Scarlett had decided is the only man worthy of her love. To anyone with a brain, it’s clear that Scarlett and Ashley would be a terrible match, but Scarlett clings to him, first, because he symbolizes wealth and class, later because he is a tie to the carefree existence she lost when the war started. 

Melanie characterizes the Old South as “A whole world that wants only to be graceful and beautiful”. Ashley remarks that it seems as it were made for her. If these were our heroes, the movie would be in big trouble. But  Scarlett is the lead, and it is to the films immense benefit that we were never meant to like her. In 2014, our reason for disliking the protagonists may be radically different than it was in 1939, but the film functions brilliantly either way. 
It’s helpful to evaluate this film with its radically different audiences in mind:
A person living in Atlanta in 1939, might believe in Melanie’s lie about the old south as “a world that wants only to be graceful and beautiful.” They may see the tragedy in her death, the nobility in Ashley’s involvement with the KKK (The group is never specifically named in the movie, but students of history should know what they mean when they "clear out those woods".)  And finally, though they enjoyed Scarlett’s exploits, it seems only right that this high spirited and vivacious woman should end up alone. As legendary film critic Roger Ebert put it:

"Of course, she could not quite be allowed to get away with marrying three times, coveting sweet Melanie's husband Ashley, shooting a plundering Yankee, and banning her third husband from the marital bed in order to protect her petite waistline from the toll of childbearing. It fascinated audiences (it fascinates us still) to see her high-wire defiance in a male chauvinist world, but eventually such behavior had to be punished, and that is what “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn” is all about. If “GWTW” had ended with Scarlett's unquestioned triumph, it might not have been nearly as successful. Its original audiences (women, I suspect, even more than men) wanted to see her swatted down--even though, of course, tomorrow would be another day."

But to an American in 2014, Melanie is not so very sweet, while Scarlett gets more and more likeable. She is, after all, an equal opportunity slapper. For eight decades, Scarlett has been getting her comeuppance on screen. Its the sins that we need to reevaluate.

A funny thing happens to Gone With the Wind when you look at it with a keen eye for history. The characters became more complex, less stereotypical—even Mammy and Prissy get a new kind of humanity.
When Scarlett O’Hara hires convicts as cheap labour, honourable Ashley proclaims, “I will not profit from the forced labour and misery of others!”
Scarlett's response: “You weren’t so particular about owning slaves.”
Ashley defends himself: “That was different. We didn’t treat them that way. I would have set them all free when father died.”

12 Years A Slave effectively killed the notion of a kind slave owner—when it came down to the line, they were all profiting off human misery. Yet the lie which Ashley told himself is the same lie than many Americans in the 20th century chose to believe. Thus, to our modern eyes, Ashley symbolizes not a gallant knight who’s lost his castle, but a pathetic, broken man who must lie to himself to hold his head up.

And what of Melanie? To the 1940s viewer she is the pinnacle of femininity destroyed, first by the war, then by those suffragettes and mangy flappers. As the line goes, she’s too honourable a person to ever conceive of dishonour in anyone she loves. And she just happens to love Scarlett.

Parond my French, but this makes No Fucking Sense. For all her talk about how Scarlett is “just high spirited and vivacious,” Melanie would have to be brain damaged to believe half the things she says about her best friend. She certainly knows about the convicts, and about Scarlett’s stealing her own sister’s fiancĂ©e. She’s had a front seat to Scarlett’s scheming in a way that virtually no other character has. But she stands by her, I suspect, for two possible reasons:
1)  Melanie is a closeted Lesbian in love with Scarlett.
2) Melanie is smarter than she looks, resigned to make the most of the role society has cast her in.

Lesbianism is the easiest way to explain Melanie’s doe-eyed forgiveness, and the way she seems to not care overmuch about Scarlett’s pursuit of Ashley. The only time in the whole film where Melanie seems like she might lose her cool is when Scareltt arrives at Ashley’s birthday party, on the heels of town gossip, after she's been caught embracing Ashley in a way that could be considered highly inappropriate. Observe Melanie's face when Scarlett walks in:

She's the one in focus. Sorry about that.

That is not the face of a woman who’s forgiven. It’s not the face of a woman who’s too sweet to see wickedness in others. But its not the face of a woman who feels betrayed, either. Her expression is less "I can't believe you betrayed me" and more "I can't believe you put me in this position, socially"

 Would it surprise you, hypothetical reader, to know that Melanie does not throw Scarlett out of her house? That she welcomes her into her home with a kiss on the cheek, and a request that she help her see to her guests? By the way, this is what Scarlett is wearing:
Even in the 1930s that was some sexy shit.

Melanie Wilkes, strikes me at all times, as a woman who knows a great deal more than she lets on, born into a world that rewards the type of meek behaviour that is her trademark. When that world passes away, her strength goes with it, and she must depend her contemptible, modern counterpart to survive.

There are two ways to view Melanie Wilkes, across two centuries, and the modern one makes her and her husband far more interesting characters—people who lie to themselves to maintain their way of life and have nothing left when those lies go out of fashion. 

But what of the slaves? There’s no sugar-coating it. The slaves are depicted on a continuum from stupid and lucky (Prissy) to contented and lucky (Mammy). Yet the only slave scenes that truly detract from the movie are those where black characters are seen on their own (“Quittin’ tiiiiiiime!” is, and will always be, cringeworthy).

Mammy would fulfill the “Magic Negro” stereotype if the other characters ever listened to what she said. Instead she is left to be the voice of reason (and the audience) that Scarlett ignores. She seems all too fond of the South’s social mores, but then again, look who she’s playing to. The performance by Hattie McDaniel is so good, one gets the sense that she spends any and all personal time talking shit about the O'Hara's to the other slaves, who are certainly smarter than they let on. 

Prissy's annoying voice is the stuff of hell and Rhett’s assessment of her as a “simple minded darky” doesn’t seem totally underserved. And yet, I invite the modern viewer to revisit the infamous "birthin babies" sequence. Prissy dawdles on her way to the doctor and doesn’t seem to care all that much whether Melanie’s baby lives or dies.
But why would she? Once again, the time divides our audience. In 1940, Prissy is an obnoxious idiot who deserves that smack across the face. In 2014, she’s a woman who play’s dumb and sabotages the system in whatever little way she can. If at all possible, rewatch the scene where Scarlett sets out to find doctor Meade and warns Prissy that she'll "whip the hide off you" if she annoys Melanie. It's hard to capture it in stills, but here's the best I can do:

It's hard to tell from stills but she seems to be mouthing the 19th century equivalent of "Fuck You" to her slap-happy overlord. Oh yeah, she knows she’s gonna get a smack later, but its gonna be worth it. 

From this side of the millennium we can’t really blame her. For every character that seems to reinforce the toxic stereotype of the Old South, there’s a moment when we the viewer are made to believe that they are not all that they seem. I chalk this up to great performances. 

I haven't talked much about Rhett Butler, because his behavior seems mostly unimpeachable. He, to our knowledge has never owned a slave, and from the first scene calls the Southerner out on their bullshit. He may abandon Scarlett to fight with the Confederate army, because he’s "always had a weakness for lost causes, once they’re really lost", but that’s a load of horseshit. He went back to so he could steal the confederate treasury and more power to him, I suppose.

Of course, this argument loses a lot of air when we consider scenes of reconstruction, where “black people having fun” is meant to be code for “the decline of civilization.” And even thought they have the decency to have Scarlett O’Hara attacked by a white man during her trip to Shantytown, there’s no disguising Ashley and co.’s act of retribution as a Klan Raid. But at least Rhett wasn’t a member. He would rather cavort with hookers, and if he saves this violent Southern Gentlemen from the oppressive law, it’s understood that he did so for Melanie’s sake, not out of any sympathy for the cause.

Seventy five years ago, maybe I could watch Gone with the Wind and see it as a movie about courage, and survival. To modern eyes, it’s a movie about self-delusion and the ability to change, the way the old South was propped up by lies. The film was always at least a little bit about that, hence Scarlett’s epiphany: “I have loved something that doesn’t exist”. To me, its not Scarlett's single-mindedness that earn her her comeuppance, its her refusal to see the Old South for what it was--a myth, or, in her own words, "something that doesn't exist."

Melanie, Ashley, Scarlett, and even the slaves, I'd wager, put on a false front so they can fit themselves into the phony image of the Old South. Scarlett's aha moment is when she can admit to herself that that world is gone, and she never fully belonged there anyway. It’s her inability to let go to her old life that leaves her alone, but endlessly resilient.

Where an audience in 1940 would see a boisterous woman who finally got what she deserved, we see a character coming to grips with the lie of the past, while those who can’t have melted away.

And that, is timeless cinema. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

When the Best has Come and Gone

What you're looking at is the inside of the Pantheon in Rome, constructed around AD 126 as a temple to all the Gods of Ancient Rome, but what's important is the dome of concrete--poured concrete, a technology that would be lost with the fall of the Roman Empire, leaving generations afterward scratching their heads in wonder at what their long-dead ancestors had accomplished.

I learned about the Middle Ages' serious inferiority complex in history class. For centuries it was widely held by Europeans, that the Greeks and Romans --Godless, sinful heretics that they were-- were the pinnacle of human ingenuity, whose achievements could never hope to be equaled by the modern world. 

This was the general train of thought until the enlightenment--that is, for well over a thousand years Europe was the equivalent of a depressed thirty-something hopelessly yearning for their youth. Most Medieval Europeans were too busy fending of plagues and hunger to really care about art history, and maybe that was why it was so easy to romanticize a bygone era, in the same way a jobless twenty-something looks fondly back at the carefree teenage years, which in reality were a nightmare. 

But in this case, not only had the best has come and gone, it was over before you were even born. I, at least, remember being a child at Disneyworld. Those poor bastards had to look at the Pantheon and accept that they would never know how it came to be there. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself, in the grand tradition of first-world over-thinking. The fact is, I am farsighted--literally- and I have astigmatism. It is a leap that only a privileged occupant of the first world would make, but there we have it. Five years ago I had 20/20 vision, and a lazy eye that was improving. No longer. It seems I have regressed.

And now I know what it means to be "old". I don't mean physically old, but intellectually so. That, is, this is the first time I've been faced with a disability that's not going to get better. Yes, I know blurry vision is not a particularly debilitating disability, but anyway, its something that's only going to get worse over time.

Which is to say, I've crossed a threshold. From the first twenty five years, when thing must only improve, and grow to their full potential, to the next sixty. It's all downhill from here, physically at least.

What does that do to one's state of mind? Unfortunately, we'll only find that out after the fact. In the same way that I now realize how body issues and low self-esteem held me back in high school, I sense that twenty years from now I'll examine how my fatalism has held me back. In the mean time, forgive me if I want to sort this out now before it becomes a crippling psychological condition.

But back to history. The Pantheon did not remain the largest dome in the world. In 1436 the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower took that title, but not with poured concrete. That technology was still lost more than a thousand years after it was used to construct the Pantheon, when the Cathedral was designed with a dome in mind. It took nearly 200 years to build. The designers belived that in the next century technology would advance to where it was a thousand years before (if not, they wouldn't be alive to answer for the disaster).   

Their faith was rewarded. Just in time to build the largest dome in the world at the time (still the largest made of brick) Filippo Brunelleschi invented "herringbone" and finished the Duomo. It wasn't poured concrete, but it worked. Eventually Europeans grew out of thier inferiority complex when the Enlightenment came along: It seems the most enlightening thing about that movement was that it forced people to recognize that what they thought they knew (women are just men who lack the "heat" to push their genitals out) was wrong. Thought that was certainly upsetting for some (married women whose husbands no longer believed they had to orgasm to produce children), I like to think it was liberating for everyone else, who now had the option of recreating their reality.

None of that applies to my health. So what does it mean, in my reality, to stare down the fact that you have peaked, physically? Put a lot of faith in your brain, I guess. Work harder and squeeze in as much productivity as you can before that too turns to mush. 

All things must pass. Consider now what will come to replace them.