Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski
I don't think I'd ever seen The Big Lebowski sober before.  Sadly it is not a movie that tends to be watched without the copious consumption of various substances.  Perhaps it was the lack of chemicals or just the fact that I've been reading and watching a lot of film history, and reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, but for the first time I feel like I really got the movie -- or at least drew something from it.  By referencing and parodying various styles of cinema it becomes a film about how difficult it is to tell a story now, how confusing and senseless everything is, and how that remains ok.

The Big Lebowski is immediately through the opening narration (and the closing as well) framed as a Western -- a story about a man who represents a moment in history in a formative moment.  As the movie progresses a second framing develops and it takes the form of a mystery, specifically in the tradition of Raymond Chandler -- what began as a story of a man and a time, becomes "a complicated case... ...You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, lotta strands..."  The encounter with the "other" private detective and the Malibu police call to mind Chandler's detective Phillip Marlowe's clashes with the cops and interactions with other PIs.  Lest we forget, The Big Lebowski is also a movie about bowling and as such to a lesser extent takes on the form of a sports film, complete with John Turturro's villainous Jesus as the antagonist. 
The movie sets up these predictable structures -- the kinds of movies we've seen for years, supplemented with hints of other more subtly present film structures:  the romance with Maude, the buddy film with Walter. It then proceeds to disappoint with each one:
  • There is no satisfying solution to the mystery.
  • There is no showdown with Jesus' bowling team.
  • Maude is not the Dude's lady friend, it is a romance subplot devoid of romance.
  • Walter as a sidekick/buddy is a constant frustration and disappointment.
In a sense the movie is as it claims to be a story of a particular time, the time is now, and the statement being made is that those traditional storytelling structures no longer suffice -- they are empty. Our mysteries don't have exciting solutions, our romances are devoid of love. 

The Big Lebowski doesn't reserve it's critique of art to film, a surprising range of art/artists are presented at their worst throughout the movie: 

Maude's intentionally shocking type of modern art (strongly vaginal) and her needlessly elaborate acrobatic painting methodology are exaggerations of common trends, and the important art related call that she and her ridiculous pencil mustached friend is an empty, endless chorus of hyena-esque laughter. 

Dance is fittingly represented by the Dude's landlord's piece for which he finally finds a venue. He stumbles incomprehensibly around the stage in outdated costume. 

In terms of musicians the film has Autobahn with their nihilist posing. What we hear of it consists of distortion with "We believe in nothing." repeated over it. 

The only writer in the movie is comatose, embedded in a ridiculous life support system, and his most notable claim to fame is having written some of the worst episodes of a terrible television show.

Even the pornography in The Big Lebowski fails to entertain, "He fixes her cable?"

I remember that when The Big Lebowski came out, for many critics, it was a disappointment after the success of Fargo. Reviews criticized it's lack of focus, and how the pieces didn't seem to hold together. Watching it again now though, that seems to be the point.  Our world, still at war in the Middle East, isn't a Western, a Mystery, a Romance, a Sports story. It meanders, art cannot save it or us, art flails the same way we do. The beauty though of The Big Lebowski is that even with a message this bleak, it arrives at the end with "Yeah man. Well you know the Dude abides." And Sam Elliot stumbling over how the story might make sense, concludes that things continue as they do and we all abide.  Which is indeed a good thing to know.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Specialization, the Internet, and being a Music Nerd

I've been thinking a lot about how the internet affects how people relate to things, particularly their interests and obsessions. The spark for this thinking was two-fold as I find inspiration usually is. Striking at the moment where two unrelated things make you say, "That's interesting."

Thing 1: I was listening the Guardian's music blog, and the guest was a man who has started a record label to indulge his musical interests -- specifically he was into Kurdish wedding shredding (it does sound strangely Metallica-esque) and Kenyan Country music.

Thing 2: I was talking about American Psycho with my friend Lisa when she brought up the chapter in which Bateman attends a U2 concert.  In her effort to track down the chapter online she came upon the U2 pop culture encyclopedia whose maintainer had apparently typed up the whole chapter as part of his ongoing attempt to capture every reference to U2 in popular culture. This is as odd as it sounds, my personal favorite entry is the Northern Exposure one. Yes, a character in a single episode wears a possibly unofficial U2 shirt.

Here are two people with notably different musical taste, but who have found something to specialize in.  They are experts in things that to other people might seem completely meaningless. Where does this drive come from? and why does it feel like this level of obsession and specialization has only become prevalent in the age of the internet?

Here's my best way of understanding it:
From an evolutionary perspective I would imagine that specialization within groups of social animals like humans. Someone is the best tracker, someone the best cook, the most alert watchman, etc. If there were not a drive to differentiate the self, to be the best at something, one might end up in a group in which everyone wants to take care of the children and no one wants to hunt. This works particularly well for small groups.

Over time obviously the social environments which people were a part of expanded and with them the possibilities for specialization. Farmer, smith, priest, artist, general, etc. The world gets larger and the possibilities grow, but at the same time so does the threat of not feeling special. Lurking under our larger and more connected world is that terrifying idea that we are not special, we are not the funniest, or the strongest, or the smartest.

With the rise of mass media, recordings and film a lot of people who within their social circle had been the specialist-- in singing, in sport, or anything else were suddenly out of specialty -- who can compete with the experts? This is probably when the idea of being a fan really took off. I am not the best singer or baseball player, but I am the biggest fan, I know every song, every player, every story.

That's where the story starts to hit home. I'm a terrible musician -- I can't sing or play anything, but I enjoy listening to music. I became a music nerd -- eager to share my latest discoveries and mixes. I dare say I was almost at the level of a record store employee ("I've never been wrong, I used to work at a record store"). Close enough for my circle of friends anyway.

I then ran into the internet, where as a music nerd the moment that you step a toe into particularly the social aspect of it you find your sense of specialness dissolving. Your taste, which your friends admire and seek out is pedestrian and uneducated.  "You mean you haven't heard _________? Everything you like would be even more worthless and boring if they hadn't done it better and earlier." You are drowning in a sea of people who specialize in exactly what you do. You arrive at a music festival wearing a shirt for the most obscure band you know and then see 5 other people wearing it.

You are left with two options in terms of feeling special: choosing one band or style of music to become the "biggest fan" of, or listening to increasingly obscure and diverse selections of music. Those roads lead to on the one hand to maintaining the U2 pop culture encyclopedia, and on the other to obsessing over Kurdish wedding music and Kenyan Country.

The funny thing is that your new specialization which allows you to feel special online. Which lets you at least pretend to be a unique expert on the internet will make the friends who used to look forward to your creative mixes, sigh as you hand them your latest collection of obscure Prince b-sides and remixes, or your brilliant collection of obscure music from every sub-sub-sub genre and era unified only by their amazing ability to be utterly unenjoyable to listen to. When they invite you to a show you will stand arms crossed judging the music: too mainstream, too emotional, too simple, too likable.

The internet is rife with people struggling to feel special. Finding obscure and unimportant things to imbue with incredible meaning and depth. It is the worst of academia writ large-- people carving smaller and more obscure fields out of everything and squabbling endlessly over who should moderate the worlds most extensive  encyclopedia of "The Jeffersons".

I can't imagine it being good for one's real social life.

On another note:
This is a quote from Proust in which I have replaced woman with band and society/salon/etc with appropriate music related terms:
The thirst for novelty that leads men of the musical world who are more or less sincere in their eagerness to keep abreast of musical developments to frequent the circles in which they can follow them makes them prefer as a rule some band as yet undiscovered, who represents still in their first freshness the hopes of a superior music so faded and tarnished in the bands who for long years have wielded the musical sceptre and who, having no secrets from these men, no longer appeal to their imagination. And every period finds itself personified thus by new bands, in a new group of bands, who, closely identified with whatever may be the latest genre, seem, in their new attire, to be at that moment making their first appearance, like an unknown special born of the last deluge, irresistible beauties of the new style, each new movement. But very often the new bands are simply, like certain statesmen who may be in office for the first time but have for the last forty years been knocking at every door without seeing any open, bands who were not known in the scene but who nevertheless had been entertaining for years past, for want of anyone better, a few "chosen friends."

Monday, March 28, 2011

Proust pledges Guermantes

In Search of Lost Time, Vol. III: The Guermantes Way (v. 3)I finished the 3rd volume of A Remembrance of Things Past after a week of being sick (complete with feverish dreams/hallucinations of polite French society), and was struck by a brilliant (or possibly idiotic) idea while riding the subway last night.  I was in the middle trying to explain to my wife how some bits of Proust are so fantastic and others have a tendency to drag a bit.  When he talks about love, loss, jealousy, art, infatuation you can relate and you constantly have moments of surprise at his brilliance, and that feeling of recognizing a thought or feeling that you experienced thousands of times but never articulated, condensed in the perfect language.  On the other hand most notably when he writes about the fashionable salons, politeness, society and nobility he sometimes manages to feel alien enough that it can end up droning on and on.

There is; however, always a kernel of truth in Proust, always something he gets at in a way you have never thought of, and in this case in the interminable pages about fashionable parties and invitations it struck me that there are some real truths about social environments, it's just that the social framework we exist in now is much more heterogeneous and complex, much less obviously stratified than that of upper class France circa 1900.  The notable exception of course is school.  Middle school, high school, college -- it doesn't matter.  Those small, rigid, and incredibly stratified social environments are the places where you can really mentally set the high society Proust spends so much time discussing.

So that's when I got another million dollar idea (I think this is number 5) -- someone needs to adapt A Remembrance of Things Past set in a school. The main character Marcel of course as the surprisingly cool and popular freshman, for some reason invited to all the right parties.  Mme de Guermantes as sorority queen -- her boyfriend, M de Guermantes, no doubt captain of the football team. Albertine as the still-in-highschool girlfriend in town for a sexy visit, M de Charlus as the lecherous and quick tempered advisor.  I'm thinking Baz Luhrmmann to direct -- no doubt with Michael Cera as the lead.

The more I think about it the more the details fall into place.  Saint-Loup as Marcel's host when he visited as a pre-frosh, now studying abroad (Morocco of course -- have to keep some details), Rachel, as Saint Loup's townie girlfriend.  M. de Guermantes' collection of paintings by Elstir re-imagined as a rare vinyl collection (albums far cooler than someone so fashionable should own).

The sticking point is that people graduate from school.  We leave that environment of exclusive parties and sought after invitations, of worrying about what people are saying behind our back, and shifting social alliances (well hopefully we do).  The thing about the Guermantes and the rest of the society Proust writes about is that they never leave that environment.  They are defined by their permanent obsession with the social and the fashionable -- even as they deny it.  They live solely to socialize, for fashion, somewhat akin to celebrities now, but they were born into it and will die in it, without ever having done anything useful.