CAN – Flowmotion

Flowmotion

CANFlowmotion Harvest 1C 062-31 837 (1976)


Flowmotion is very nearly a great album.  Bassist Holger Czukay described it as “innovative and eclectic” and “one of Can’s underrated albums.”  He is right on both counts.  Fans have been sleeping on this one.

The album has a strange reputation.  The opening “I Want More” was a hit single in the UK, and one of the band’s biggest commercial successes of their entire career.  Yet, at the same time, fans and critics have often expressed skepticism at that song and the album as a whole.

Undoubtedly, this album sounds markedly different from what the band had previously released.  There were influences of reggae and disco.  As one reviewer noted, the album has a “casual, Caribbean feel”, characterizing it as “a worthy and sincere engagement with then-current trends (which, come to think of it, is exactly what Can was doing in ’68.  It’s just that ’76 was no ’68.  Should Can be blamed for changing with the times, or is Western society itself the culprit?)”.  The back of the album jacket featured two hexagrams from the I Ching: Hexagram 29, 坎 (kǎn), “gorge” or “the abyss” (in the oceanographic sense), which has inner and outer trigrams that both represent water; and Hexagram 59, 渙 (huàn), “dispersing” or “dissolution”, which has an inner trigram for water and an outer trigram for wind.

The ambivalence to this album — if not outright dislike of it — might be best understood in the context of general trends and the generalized backlash at disco at the time.  As has been well-documented, the “disco sucks” movement was largely driven by homophobic and racist sentiments (even if the individualism it represented could be critiqued on rational grounds).  Disco-bashing has also become a somewhat of a quasi-elitist stance — disco becoming associated with the working class and the less educated.  For that matter, there were many albums going for a “tropical”/”Caribbean” feel around this time, and most were pretty bad.  Flowmotion was probably just lumped in with other music that was chasing fads.  That was probably the kiss of death for its critical reception, especially for a band characterized (sometimes unfairly) as being sui generis and as making music without precedent.

“I Want More” is a light funk-disco dance number, bizarre in having no lead vocalist, only background vocals.  Mostly the singing is a kind of group chant, indistinct and diffuse.  Against an infectious and repetitive guitar riff, there are single note keyboard interjections from Irmin Schmidt while drummer Jaki Liebezeit seems to (subtly) play two layers of rhythm at once, one slow and the other in double time.

“Cascade Waltz” is a whimsical number that crosses a reggae beat and slurred, tropical guitar lines with a formal European waltz (and foreshadows the band’s 1978 single “Can-Can”).  Michael Karoli‘s deadpan vocals add yet another dimension to the song, one seemingly at odds with both the prim formalism and sunny playfulness floating around.

“Laugh Till You Cry, Live Till You Die (O.R.N.)” is kind of the heart of the album.  Karoli is overdubbed on electric violin, guitar and bağlama (a kind of Turkish lute).  This song comes the closest to straight-up reggae.  The balance between genuine experimentation and accessible pop catchiness is spot on.  Jazz records that do this are often described as being “inside” and “outside” at the same time.  If Karoli is the star of that song, he powers the closing title as well — a more than ten-minute purely instrumental excursion with ambient washes of keyboard, menacing swells of bass, and swirling psychedelic guitar solos.  “Flowmotion” is sort of the late-1970s counterpart to the band’s epic “Mother Sky” (from Soundtracks).

“Bablyonian Pearl” is kind of a goofy novelty song.  It seems like a meeting of “Full Moon on the Highway” (from Landed) and “Come Sta, La Luna” (from Soon Over Balauma) over a loopy, slightly reggae-tinged beat.  “…And More” was the hit single’s B-side.  It is kind of a throwaway here, and is also the shortest song.  It isn’t bad, though, and might work as incidental film music.

“Smoke (E.F.S. No. 59)” may have been the band “getting back into the sixties again“. But that sinister, gloomy track is totally at odds with the rest of the album.  It represents a sequencing problem — kind of like the “We Will Fall” problem (in reference to the song from The Stoogesdebut album).  The song itself is perfectly fine, except that it totally disrupts the album and doesn’t belong alongside tunes that are within reach of Jimmy Buffett.

What does all this add up to?  That is sort of the main question this album presents.  There are great songs here.  Yet the album as a whole struggles in places, due to sequencing more than anything else.  Replacing “Smoke” with something more in line with the rest of the songs would have been an improvement — perhaps like “Sunshine Day and Night” from the generally tepid follow-up Saw Delight.  There is also no denying that CAN was still genuinely experimenting, and those experiments pretty much all succeed.  That they could experiment while also making overtures to accessible pop music is a real achievement.  Usually such efforts have a high “degree of difficulty”.  In hindsight, listeners who can get past biases against either pop music or experimental music (as the case may be) might find much to like here.

Legion

Legion

Legion (2017- )

Fx

Director: various

Main Cast: Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Bill Irwin, Jeremie Harris, Amber Midthunder


Here is an example of television living up to some of its potential.  Legion, a flagship “prestige” show made by some of the largest media companies in history, mostly succeeds.

The show has the production values of cinema rather than of most things on television.  The basic sitcom-style show is presented as filmed theater.  Think of the “filmed before a live studio audience” approach.  There are edits and one or more cameras, but the camera is like a “neutral” observer of a space in which actors work through a script.  In contrast, nearly every (season one) episode of Legion has a long slow-motion sequence, a montage of close-ups of inanimate objects, etc. There are many elaborate sets and costumes, and numerous episodes have scenes filmed on location outdoors.  There is also extensive integration of music to help convey meaning/perspective rather than just set a mood — the soundtrack is most impressive.  These are common devices, but they are common to cinema rather than TV.  In fact, most of the series can fairly be called pastiche.  Everything is old, sometimes knowingly old.  But this is not a drawback (copping from They Live is a great idea, for instance).

The cast is excellent.  The characters are good too.  Jemaine Clement as the pretentious wanna-be beatnik is delicious.  Bill Stevens is excellent as the lead, though Aubrey Plaza kind of steals the show in the last half of the first season.  While some of the casting could be called multicultural pandering, it resists such labels — rather than the dubious Commander Chakotay character on Star Trek: Voyager, we have the ass-kicking mutant Kerry Loudermilk (Midthunder).

As to the story, well, it poses some fascinating questions, even if the quasi-resolution of the first season falls back on boring convention.  Much of the show is set in mental hospitals, and relies extensively on scenes involving psychological therapy sessions.  (Fredric Jameson posited such things as being a key part of an American Utopia).  A central question is whether the main character is insane/schizophrenic or a powerful mutant with magical powers.  The way this is presented across the first five episodes is to suggest that the main character’s entire personality is constructed to create a certain appearance to the outside world.  Actually, this parallels a crucial insight of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan!  Personality is an attempt to cover the void of being.  The last few episodes draw away from this, turning instead toward a pagan “endless battle between good and evil” motif.  But even in the last episodes, the show openly acknowledges that the main character being encouraged to reconsider his entire life of memories from the standpoint of being a misunderstood demi-god rather than as a mentally defective wreck might well be manipulative pandering or self-serving empowerment fantasy (or both).

The first season does grind to a halt somewhat in episode six, but picks up again in the last few episodes, only to falter as the series bends over backwards to leave the main plot unresolved to allow for later seasons (though it does this less obnoxiously than The Strain, for instance).  This would have been better conceived as a mini-series than a multi-season series, probably.  But it does deserve credit for being among the more complexly “adult” level comic/superhero/sci-fi productions of its day, even more so than franchise-related films.

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

20th Century Fox

Director: Bryan Singer

Main Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac


Although perhaps not as clear-cut as the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises in terms of making the “superhero” the bad guy (a right-wing capitalist vigilante) and the “supervillian” the good guy (an enlightenment-era agent of revolution-from-below), X-Men: Apocalypse follows a similar trajectory.  Apocalypse AKA En Sabah Nur (Isaac) is a powerful ancient mutant who is unearthed in the 1980s and seeks to destroy (mostly capitalist) human civilization.  He starts by safely destroying all of the world’s nuclear weapons (just like star child).  The X-Men gather to defeat him.  The thing is, it is mostly just assumed that the audience should oppose Apocalypse.  This film does not explain why he is bad.  He claims to bring the world peace.  He takes steps in that direction, by getting rid of the nuclear weapons, promoting two women in his “administration,” etc.  Yes, he does destroy a lot of things and kill some people — some of them monstrous.  But should he just be seen as a metaphor for the ancient tradition of Jubilee, the “year of the lord,” in which a (usually new) ruler would annul all personal debts and declare a clean slate?  In that sense, can the X-Men be considered like Obama/Clintonite neoliberals, defending the financial sector from the villagers and their “pitchforks” and the possibility of “old testament justice” (as the disgraced Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner snidely opposed after the 2007 financial crash)?  True, in the film Professor X (McAvoy) pleads for the strong to protect the weak, rather than for the strong to join Apocalypse.  But, it is fair to ask whether the X-Men are really defending the weak, or merely pretending to do so while supporting present-day institutions by which the strong systematically oppress the weak (what is sometimes called “structural violence”).  On top of that, the overall story is a little disjointed in trying to introduce too many characters.  But on the plus side, this film has better dramatic acting than most superhero films, and it does convey emotion in an effective way at times.

French Elections

Link to an article by Diana Johnstone summarizing the French presidential election environment:

“The Main Issue in the French Presidential Election: National Sovereignty”

(see also: “Slavoj Žižek: Dear Britain”)

Plus, here is a link to an interview of Raquel Garrido conducted by Cole Stangler about the most promising candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon:

“France Rebels”

Another contextual link:

“The Meaning of France Insoumise”

The Pursuit of Happyness

Thr Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Columbia Pictures

Director: Gabriele Muccino

Main Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith


The Pursuit of Crappyness?

The Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, based on a memoir by Chris Gardner, is meant to be a heartwarming tale of overcoming adversity, and all that.  Of course, another way to view it is as a polemic of dubious realism and accuracy extolling the worldview of the wealthy (the book on which the film was based was written by someone who was a multimillionaire).  This is one long conservative trope, on film.

Will Smith plays a Navy veteran living with his wife (Thandie Newton) and son in San Francisco, trying to sell off an inventory of bone density scanners they purchased with their life savings while he pursues an unpaid internship at a securities and investment brokerage firm.  He struggles to sell his wares and to get a job interview.  His wife leaves (she is portrayed unsympathetically).  He demands that their son stay with him.  He does get the internship, after showing up to the interview in tattered closes covered in paint after being held in jail for an unpaid parking ticket.  But, as he undertakes the internship, he has little or no money.  He ends up homeless after the IRS attaches his bank account for failure to pay taxes.  He and his son live in a church-run homeless shelter.

The storyline is highly selective, implausible in places, and is mostly invested in isolated scenes of intensely emotional acting.  In other words, it is emotionally manipulative and counterfactual.  Numerous key scenes are deus ex machina — information available online suggests that the film modifies/distorts key real-life events.  Certainly, some scenes are simply implausible wholly apart from any origins in a memoir.  There is never any explanation given as to why the protagonist does not seek welfare or other public social services, or why he persists in pursuing an unpaid internship rather than another line of remunerative work (and, at least by today’s standards, the unpaid internship is illegal — the employer derives benefit form the interns cold-calling prospective clients, and the interns are judged by how many new clients they bring in).  Even the insistence that his son remain with him is not explained — could the mother provide for the son better?  But to the extent that some of this comes from a real memoir, it is worth bearing in mind here F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum from The Beautiful and Damned about how “the type of man who attains commercial success seldom knows how or why, and,…when he ascribes reasons, the reasons are generally inaccurate and absurd.”  In fact, Fitzgerald is a pretty good touchstone here, as few writers capture the banal depravity and moral shallowness of the strivers for material wealth so well.  The Beautiful and Damned, in particular, has only a slightly different story arc than The Pursuit of Happyness.  Yet they draw opposite conclusions.  In Fitzgerald’s tale the protagonists emerge scarred and damaged (“damned”).  In this film, the protagonist emerges triumphant.

Mostly, the film’s story is meant to emphasize the so-called “culture of poverty” theory/myth — that success or failure is determined primarily or exclusively by the degree an individual is committed to hard work and perseverance.  The film does not address racism in any way (despite how much that would affect the protagonist in real life).  It scrupulously avoids addressing any structural or institutional causes for the protagonist’s situation.  There is a single-minded focus on the success of the protagonist, with no concern whatsoever for the other homeless people shown in the film.  Audiences are expected to root for the protagonist to succeed, and are not supposed to analyze or question the other poverty around him, or why he is so devoted to a “winner take all” system.  When the IRS seizes the main character’s last bit of money in his bank account for failure to pay taxes (the film portrays it as a surprise to Smith’s character, which is utterly preposterous and misleading), there is a steadfast assumption that the government is unfairly taking his money — even as most of the film suggests his poverty would probably exempt him from income taxes (or is he really not as poor as the film lets on?).  Practically the entire discipline of sociology probably cringes at this film and the discredited ideology it flacks — Loïc Wacquant called this sort of thing “an old theoretical carcass periodically exhumed from the graveyard of stillborn concepts[.]”

One of the most groan-inducing moments is from the epilogue titles, in which it is conveyed that the real-life person on which the film is based later became rich.  This reveals the true heart of the film.  Everything before that was supposedly about the main character’s relationship with his son and being happy, but the ending titles suggest that it was really just about money all along.  After all, Thomas Jefferson adapted John Locke‘s crude protection of “life, liberty and estate” (Two Treatises of Government, Book II) into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for the Declaration of Independence, a slogan the main character mentions thinking about a lot.  Jefferson supposedly changed the wording to make it seem less crass, without intending to really change the meaning.  So this film actually gets that part right, in a strange way, by repeating the deception.

A film like I, Daniel Blake from a decade later is kind of the polar opposite of The Pursuit of Happyness.  The Blake film is a critique of the system, which is to say social and government institutions, whereas Happyness is sub-Horatio Alger rags-to-riches claptrap pushing a “social darwinist” myth of meritocracy.

Will Smith’s performance is actually quite good, as is that of his real-life son Jaden.  But it is ridiculous to focus on such performances when the film is as contrived as it is so as to provide disjointed individual scenes solely as vehicles for emoting by the lead actors.