[Five Deadly Everythings]

Kanye West’s "Flashing Lights" video

Posted in hip-hop, music, music videos by Jef on February 16, 2008

Kayne West wants so badly to go down in the MTV halls of fame with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and even Britney, but no matter how much he protests not being able to perform on the main stage at the VMA awards, he needs to realize he isn’t quite there yet. (In fact, he needs to stop thinking about it at all; his lack of Zen towards his own status is one of the things preventing him from becoming the icon he wants to be.)

That said, I really love this song so I was waiting patiently for this. It’s nowhere near what I expected, but I can’t say I’m disappointed — there is some really cool shit going on in this clip. The “Flashing Lights” video is pretty much his “Thriller,” or at least the closest thing he’s had to it so far.

What I think makes “Flashing Lights” his closest attempt at iconic music video is that fact that it’s so far left of what “Thriller” came to be emblematic of: namely, long-ass videos with cinematic flourishes and dialogue interspersed with the music. Trying to be like “Thriller” is what made a lot of hip-hop videos in the 90s (when rap was making huge movements and beginning to dominate MTV) really really bad, typical, and forgetable.

Here, Kanye goes the opposite direction and makes a video that, while spectacularly memorable, is shorter than the actual song. Instead of adding dialogue (or worse, attempting to act), the video’s imagery creates a massively creepy extrapolation of the song’s lyrics. “I never thought/ that you would take it this far/ what do I know?” sings Dwele. Yeah, no shit on the taking it this far part.

What “Thriller” is to widescreen, high-concept 80s cinema, “Flashing Lights” is to digital age hand-held, pocket-narrative short films made for cellphones and iPods. Movies made for cellphones and the like are typically filled with static or slow moving shots, with bare-bones narratives that operate much like jokes rather than 3-act narratives: there’s the setup, and then there’s the punchline, rather than a fullblown denoument and conclusion. In this, “Flashing Lights” is incredibly forward thinking, almost too much. And as far as cellphone cinema goes, still in its fledgling stages, “Flashing Lights” is one of the better ones I’ve seen so far.

The only thing that stops it short of being a landmark MTV video is that it hardly operates as a music video. There’s abolutely no performative aspect, instead banking on the story and, moreso, the ending. But the shocking conclusion really only works once and isn’t visually interesting enough to warrant repeat viewing. As well, because the video is shorter than the song, it can’t be watched as a substitute for playing the track. You’re only going to watch the video specifically for the video, and it doesn’t have the legs for constant rotation.

There are some visual idiosyncrasies that make the video more interesting, such as the pixellated lighter fluid, the slow motion stripping that is more ominous than sexy, a gagged Kanye in an impeccable suit, and the odd closing title card. But, despite the fact that I loved it, it’s not enough to make me watch over and over again like my favourite videos. Kanye nailed this one, but I hope he’s emotionally prepared to not win Video of the Year for it.

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”
CRS’s “Us Placers”


Ellen Page and the great hipster reveal

Posted in actors, movies by Jef on February 13, 2008

I’ve already written about Juno and its/her transition from hipster posturing to simple sincerity. But I just watched Ellen Paige’s other starring vehicle, Hard Candy, and wanted to note some similarities.

In Hard Candy, Page plays a young girl named Haley who meets an uncomfortably (for the audience) flirtatious thirty-something photographer on the internet. She naively agrees to meet him for coffee where they talk and connect. They both read Zadie Smith and love the band Goldfrap. One thing leads to another and Haley ends up in his apartment, drinking screwdrivers and asking him to take pictures of her.

Later, we learn that Haley is not such an unwitting victim — she’s a teenage vigilante seeking vengeance on child predators. It’s a clever flip on pulp movies where victims of rape turn into mankillers — I can’t say it made for a good film or that it was socially satisfying in any way, but it was a twist that I didn’t really see coming.

Anyways, at one point, in order to drive home that Haley isn’t the little innocent girl he thought she was, Haley screams at the photographer that, contrary to their coffeeshop discussion, she “fucking hates Goldfrap.” This recalls the scene in Juno where she tells Jason Bateman’s character, “Oh yeah, I listened to Sonic Youth. It’s nothing but noise.”

In both films, Page’s character poses (yes, I chose that word purposefully), to some degree, to be a precocious, hipster, cultural know-it-all. A really young hipster-snob that older hipsters find cute. But both films also have her cast off that identity halfway through and prove to be something more by reducing a band to something less.

I’m not really going anywhere with this, just noting a pattern. Something about all this strikes a chord with how I see Page in real life interviews. There’s definitely a level of hipster-meta-awareness (what thee fuck did I just say?) in her real persona — I just can’t decide if she’s somewhere before the great reveal, or after.

Hard Candy’s Trailer
Ellen Page on Letterman

Eminem’s "The Way I Am"

Posted in break it down, hip-hop, music, rap by Jef on February 8, 2008

Track 7 of Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP” (2000) marked a turning point for the artist. Up until here (both on his previous album and on the six tracks preceeding on this album), Em used a motormouth flow, cramped and always playing catch-up with the beat. His lines often ended with a punchline and a pause. He was the addled baby of Masta Ace and Pharoahe Monch.

With “The Way I Am,” Em does a test-run on the flow he will use for much of his next album. It’s slower, it marches over the track in a way fascists would be proud of, and it’s constant. This is the beginning of Em’s obsession with beat-riding. It’s almost scary, and the end results — “Renegades” off of Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” and “Lose Yourself” off of the 8 Mile soundtrack — are disgustingly perfect.

What I remember most about first hearing this song was how different it was. Up until “The Way I Am,” Em was certainly darkly humorous and almost horror-core, but here he actually became slightly disturbing. I remember my first vocal response to the friend who played this track for me was, “Damn. He’s angry.”

There are ominous chimes in the background and for the first time Em projects his voice powerfully and convincingly without traces of helium. But more than that is the absence of the stutter-stop. His multi-syllable rhymes are stretched out over the beat like a gag over a mouth. The interneal rhyme schemes keep ticking as if they’re keeping time. On “The Way I Am”, Eminem’s verbal assault just keeps coming and never fucking lets up.

And it’s not just the new powerhouse delivery, it’s also how the song is mapped out. When it comes time for him to take a breath his voice smartly echoes in the background. As a result, from when we first hear his voice to the last, there is not a bar on this track (save the chorus) where we are allowed any break from the onslaught of Eminem. Even when he needs to pause, his voice comes back in to sucker punch us.

It’s subtle but it works, and it’s Em’s most successfully angry track. Unlike his scathing Benzino diss tracks or even on the devastating “Kim”, on “The Way I Am,” Em’s anger isn’t conveyed just by the disgusting stuff he’s saying or how loudly — it’s how he’s saying them and how he constructs something bigger out of it.

Read the lyrics
Watch and listen

RIP Tony Silver

Posted in hip-hop, movies, obits by Jef on February 4, 2008

Filmmaker Tony Silver passed away over the weekend. He had long been suffering from a brain condition.

Silver was the co-director (with Henry Chalfant) of Style Wars (1983), one of my personal all-time favourite films.

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of working as a programming director on a hip-hop film festival. Style Wars was our closing night gala and seeing the crowd turnout for that film was one of my proudest moments.

I won’t go so far as to say I knew or even met the man, but in our few email correspondances I geeked out knowing I was communicating with one of the legends of the culture. With Style Wars, Silver forever etched his name on the walls of hip-hop, and he did it with flourish. It was an honour to see his name pop up in my inbox.

I don’t know enough about his personal life to write a proper obit, but like the subjects he trained his lens on, Silver’s work does the talking for him. Here’s what I wrote in our festival program introduction:

…the hip-hop film scene is all encompassing, vibrant and vital. More than merely recounting the story of hip-hop, these films, through narrative and cinematic style, embody the verve of the hip-hop aesthetic: confrontational, reflective, visceral, and full of vision and imagination…

I wrote that about hip-hop films in general but it’s a good indication of how much I love Style Wars, which was, and is, my favourite of them all. I urge everyone to check it out, either again or for the first time. You won’t be disappointed.

Watch Style Wars
Buy your own copy of Style Wars

Criticizing Cloverfield criticisms

Posted in break it down, movies by Jef on February 1, 2008
(Spoiler Alert)

Cloverfield does not fuck around. It’s a beautiful movie in several ways and I’m surprised by some of the backlash it has received for its first-person civilian camera gimmick, for the supposed unlikeability of its main characters, and for the supposed unbelievable motivations for these characters to head towards the monster instead of away to safety. For me, it’s the way the movie navigates those concerns that makes it so amazing in the first place.

The film begins with a going-away party for Rob. He’s moving to Japan to pursue a new job prospect but more than that — as we learn soon enough — he’s moving away to get a girl off his mind. That girl is Beth, a close friend whom Rob has loved for a long time and shared a night with. We are also introduced to Rob’s brother Jason and his girlfriend Lily. Our camerman is Hud (the film’s conceit it that Hud is filming goodbye messages from Rob’s friends) and Hud has a crush on Marlena. These relationships are established tastefully in about 15 minutes.

The monster hits just as the tensions between Rob and Beth have reached their boiling point. They don’t reach any resolution and neither do we — it’s monster time, and it’s both a beast crashing into the city and another genre of film crashing violently into the one we’ve been watching so far.

Hud continues to film and says “people are gonna wanna see how it all went down.” This is what many viewers have taken issue with but I agree wholeheartedly with Hud and the film’s belief that people such as Hud exist. The amazing amount of citizen footage and photographs from cellphones and point-and-shoot-cameras that make up our evening news is testament to how un-farfetched the film’s conceit is. It’s not just believeable; it’s prescient.

Those who bemoan Hud carrying the camera everywhere fail to note that Cloverfield the film is the entirety of Hud’s footage. The film runs about 80 mins., 20 mins of which is party footage. If the Cloverfield monster attack lasted seven hours (as Rob says) until the camera was destroyed, Hud really didn’t film that much at all.

After Rob’s brother dies in a bridge collapse he receives a phone message from Beth. She’s injured and trapped somewhere in the heart of the city. After some deliberation time that showcases great, nearly silent, acting from all (except maybe Marlena — who looks more drunk than shocked), Rob decides that he’s going back to save Beth. Lily decides she will accompany him and Hud and Marlena reluctantly follow suit.

This is Rob’s turning point. He is no longer running away from his problems (to Japan). Now, he’s running literally towards them. It makes perfect sense for Lily to be the first to step-up and join him. She’s just lost a boyfriend who also happens to be Rob’s brother. If anyone understands the motivations behind Rob’s seemingly crazy mission, it’s her.

Hud follows because he’s a follower not a leader (he’s the perfect choice for our camerman — he’s inactive and passive and two steps behind, exactly the type of person who prefers to film rather than participate), and Marlena follows because she’s now all alone, separated from her friends and scared. Cloverfield, while very much about throwing a monster into the mix and watching “real” people scramble around, is also very much a traditional film with traditional, believable character arcs and motivations. I mention this because it’s what many other monster films fail at, and what the similarly camcorded Blair Witch Project ignored totally.

Cloverfield‘s connection to past monster movies, Godzilla specifically, is of course intended, but its resonance might be a matter of coincidence. The post-9/11 anxieties (mirroring the atomic-age anxieties that make Godzilla so important) that some critics have mentioned are indeed there, but at no point do they become explicit. The only concrete way that Cloverfield is about 9/11 is simply for the fact that it is post 9/11. Reducing cities and American landmarks to rubble will do that nowadays. Why Cloverfield feels to be so much a reflection of that fateful day is mostly due to the fact that it’s so well constructed. It’s a better movie about New York destruction than World Trade Center. Period.

Compare it to the other recent monster-attack movie The Mist. The Mist has a similar premise of a barely seen gigantic monster ravaging “normal” people, but where The Mist fails is in it’s self-awareness as a post-9/11 text. Present is a crazy religious fundamentalist and authority figures who turn out to be liars not acting in our best interest. There are also very obvious racial tensions that develop (and regretfully nonetheless end with the black people dying. Really early. All at the same time.)

But it’s not only that. The Mist, like other movies of the genre, failed because it felt the need to explain. The alarming monster from nowhere loses all power as a symbol once we learn it is from another dimension that the army has opened a portal to. Boring, hokey, stupid and pointless. Cloverfield resists that temptation, which gives the monster and the ensuing carnage a blank page for us to project our anxieties onto, as well as allows the option to just watch a fun fucking monster movie without having it feel like a geeky genre sci-fi flick.

Unlike The Mist, Cloverfield also resists the temptation to indict. The soldiers in Cloverfield are neither evil nor particularly helpful. Their instruments are frightening, the stealth bombers and the guns and tanks are all as huge and ominous as the monster, but never is the army the bad guy as in The Mist.

Likewise, Cloverfield does not in any single frame ever indict its main characters. It is not a movie about watching dumb yuppies running scared, as the Village Voice suggested. Similarly, a lot of Interneters have been saying they enjoyed the film because it depicted stupid, self-centered people receiving their comeuppance (I cleaned that up a bit). I don’t quite get what makes these characters appear so vapid to some viewers — is it because they wore nice clothes? Because they went to a party? Because they went to a party wearing nice clothes? Because they were mostly white and said things like “Bro”? If so, our self-righteous scale for placing judgement on people has significantly lowered.

The film is very much on the side of its characters, and the film itself (by that I mean Hud’s videotape) runs over sympathetic, sincere footage of Rob and Beth the day before the night they spent together. Hud is taping over this bit of nostalgia, but we catch glimpses twice when he rewinds the tape, and again at the end of the film(s).

The two rewinds occur strategically at key points: the first during the party, thrusting us into the backstory of Rob and Beth with efficiency, also allowing Rob to reply that he doesn’t care it’s being filmed over; and the second directly after the monster attacks the city — right when the monster genre crashes into our character play, the film itself (again, literally) reminds us of our characters and their arcs. No, says the film, this isn’t just a monster movie.

Cloverfield ends with the destruction of the camera. No longer able to film, our playing of the tape reveals more footage of Rob and Beth while they were still alive. This is a wonderful play on timelines where the past and the future crash and our characters are finally, fully concerned about only the present (or at least, documenting this new present for a future they won’t see).

I can see how people thought Rob’s end confessional message was hokey, but for me, it’s so important to see Rob willfully taping over that footage of him and Beth, with Beth. The dude who at the beginning of the film was so visibly distressed by the tape being made, is now filming himself, filming over his nostalgic past, moving not just on, but forward.

After they die, the footage switches and we see them at their most alive. This sweet ending will lead to a sexual encounter that later sets our story in motion. Also, in the background as our couple gets cute with each other, an object falls out of the sky and into the water, suppoesedly being the monster, or the object that awakes the monster. Either way, the movie ends as it is beginning, and there’s no way out.

But damn if it doesn’t end with “I Love You,” making it typical of Hollywood formula and yet still entirely original. Cloverfield is blockbuster done absolutely right.

Cloverfield Can-Con
Clip from Cloverfield