Reloaded Questions

Two demographics enjoy pondering the philosophical intricacies of The Matrix: stoners, and everyone else, excepting a few killjoy anti-intellectuals. Someone around here is writing a whole book on the first film, and it won’t be the second or third such offering. So, at the risk of inviting letters from the dude-it’s-just-a-movie club, what makes The Matrix the picture worth a billion words?

Let’s start by reminding ourselves that it is just a movie. It’s not a textbook, and it’s not a Beckett play. The Matrix took what makes cinema cinematic—the array of image manipulation we mean when we say “movie magic”—and pushed it forward a generation. It’s a wire-fighting orgy riding a new wave of special effects. It’s that rare sci-fi film that actually looked like it was from the future. “It’s about,” in the deft analysis of one of the directors, “robots vs. kung fu.”

But it’s also about blue vs. red pills, reality vs. the hypervirtual, Big Ideas both pre- and postmodern. Gnosticism! Meanwhile, every grad student with a pause button has determined that Neo owns a copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation; those who’ve actually read it know said heretic of unreality is being quoted when Morpheus intones, “Welcome to the desert of the real.”

The finesse, the fuck-it-all, to fuse HK martial arts and French theory into a synthetic nightmare everyone wanted to have, secured the reputations of director-writers Larry and Andy Wachowski. Most everyone who’s passed through their sphere calls them “the Brothers” in reverential tones, inevitably garnished by the word “genius.” Only producer Joel Silver has the paternalistic balls to call the boys “the boys.” Perhaps he noticed that their only pre-Matrix outing was the lesbian noir Bound; is anything more boyish than a creative scope extending from trippy sci-fi to hot girl-on-girl action?

But that’s not to devalue the conceptual world of The Matrix, a net of allusions and structures defying any simple account. Consider the messianic thread of “The One.” As much as we all like a good Christian allegory, The Matrix doesn’t decode like The Old Man and the C Drive. When I asked Laurence Fishburne, who plays Morpheus, if he followed the first flick’s philosophy, he announced he’d mused plenty in his life about “all that, you know, spiritual fucking voodoo fucking mumbo jumbo kind of shit.” He said this in his Othello-goes-drinking voice, tinged with the gentle irony of someone who has actually gazed long and hard at his navel and come out the other side. For him, the religious reading wasn’t the film’s hard core. As he put it, “The idea that machines are using us for batteries is pretty fucking severe.”

Marx thought so, though in his matrix the master class of machines was just called the master class, the enslaved humans just the workers, and battery power was called labor. Same shit, different name (though not very different: Matrix is just Marxist avant la lettre s). That’s another story, but not an implausible allusion. When I asked Keanu Reeves what homework the Brothers assigned him for the new installment, he said, “They told me I could look at Schopenhauer and Hume and their old pal Nietzsche.” Reading Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, he felt compelled to return to Hegel, and then to Kant, until, he conceded “I’m, like, dunno, I have to do some stretching and some kicking.” Meanwhile Joel Silver blustered that if Keanu and Jet Li rumbled in the alley, “I just think Keanu could take him.”

Now most of your movies aren’t built on such a solid foundation of Continental philosophy and chop-socky. Coincidentally, most movies don’t promise to outboffo the box office of any R-rated release to date, while debuting at a French film festival. But it’s 2003, and Reloaded is here to open a Cannes of whup-ass.

There’s something desperate about Reloaded. If being ahead of the curve is your calling card, a sequel dares the curve to call back with a vengeance. Beneath the tingling anticipation of fans and financiers lies the fear that yesterday’s futurism is already an obsolete technology. After all, for all its visionary gloss, The Matrix was very much of its moment. Its future is so 1999.

It was the time of the boom, as everyone has bothered to point out—symbolized by the computer jockey with his sudden status, abashedly balancing Nintendo console and stock options. Sitting at his monitor like Keanu’s dayjobbing Thomas Anderson, of course he fantasized about being a hacker; on his behalf, The Matrix fantasized hackers were the kung-fu-fighting superheroes of the new world. So went the dreamlife of the boom. But straight wish fulfillment it wasn’t. The first movie wasn’t merely the symbol of an era (like flappers or asymmetrical coiffures) but its ultimate product: a massively capitalized, wickedly digitized convergence of industry and desire. When the go-go tech workers of 1999 drank up The Matrix (Life’s an ideology. Drink it up!) in their few Mountain Dewy moments of downtime, they were consuming their own ecstatic achievements.


It’s alluring to look back at the moment as a bright city. There was a darkness at the edge of town, even before the stains of recent history blotted out the landscape. Despite the promises of technology, we were laboring more than ever, and all over the place. The new economy had shrugged off the eight-hour day like an old husk. If the iconic image of the time was the programmer coding 26 hours and nodding under the workstation, its flip side was the itinerant data temp, hustling a week here and a project there, wherever some start-up needed an IPO crash crew. The shock troops worked at a dozen cubicles in a month, at home, at the café next to the microbrewery; they had cells and laptops but no medical or weekends. They were free to go anywhere, as long as the work could follow. These were halcyon days for the empire of work, in its colonization of everyday life.

This is the dystopia on offer in The Matrix. The war between intelligent machines and humans is a sci-fi cliché, no less than hey-this-could-all-be-a-simulation. What the Brothers got is that the masters of reality don’t want to destroy us. They want us jacked directly into the economy, stupid, and they want it 24-7. The concept of “the matrix” might stand for abstractions like “ideology” or “the spectacle,” but it resembles more concretely the endgame of millennial merger mania—what happens when all the corporations of the world become one seamless super-entity within which you labor, eat, make love, pay rent (The Truman Show offered a different version of the same surmise). The evolution from Warner Bros. to AOL Time Warner required only a few years of corporate copulation. From AOL Time Warner to the matrix—it’s just a kiss away.

Reloaded must measure up, not to its Hollywood past or imagined future, but to 2003’s metropolis of dreams and dissatisfactions. To borrow Dark Angel’s drollest understatement, “Different city, different set of problems.” Goodbye to the caffeinated coder’s iconic halo. Now Red Bull gives you wings to fly dejectedly through the blogosphere, flinching at the world news while awaiting a love letter from Keeping up with the Dow Joneses, the sets of Reloaded, especially those in the rebel stronghold of Zion and the tenement yard where the coolest battle is staged, are ripe with the grime and dilapidation of the new depression.

This is not to suggest the movie is tempered for temperate times. The Palace of Sequel is reached by the Path of Excess: You figure out what the original was good at, and do that more. And the Brothers haven’t misrecognized themselves. “They know,” Jada Pinkett Smith offered brass-tactfully, “how to balance eye candy with the deep thoughts.”

The strategic balance, this time, involves offering too much of each and hoping it holds—something akin to the proposition that all infinities are equal in the dark.

No single technique blows minds like Matrix‘s “bullet time,” but the rude audacity and raw processing power of the so-called Burly Brawl, not to mention the speed-on-acid car chase, beggar resistance. Been there, one thinks initially, done that. A minute later you wonder that it’s still going on. Sometime after that, in an ecstasy of impossible camera moves and data overload, the visual stim passes through saturation, until quantity becomes a kind of quality: bedazzled once more. At one juncture of the freeway scene, there are so many collisions launching vehicles airborne in the chaotic wake of the main action, it resembles a school of late-industrial dolphins hurling themselves out of the foam. As they splash down explosively, the sequence is still revving up.

Deep thoughts avail themselves less of overkill. The net of mythopoetic reference and whoa-dude epistemology is cast even wider: Messianism and Buddhism keep their supporting roles, while gnosticism returns with a smaller part; Greek myth, Gödel’s theorem, and obscure Grail legends make cameos; and the new lead is free will vs. determinism. Sometimes these leak into scenes seductively, like the chalices surrounding “the Merovingian”; sometimes they require fuller set pieces. And sometimes Morpheus must declaim, “It is our fate to be here. It is our destiny,” in that voice—requiring the action to halt and take notice, before it decides it has better things to do and moves along. When I asked Monica Bellucci, entering the story as Persephone, for a theory-take, she laid all her pomegranate seeds on the table. “The Wachowski Brothers are so mysterious to me, so European,” said the ex-model and art-film star, just off a Paris jet. “I would like to know what kind of books they read, what kind of herbs they drink.” This is perhaps how one says “genius” in France.


The Matrix suffered from the angst of being a grand critique of synthetic spectacles that obscure our daily lives, while being that very thing. Reloaded offers a similar conundrum: Even the plot’s stories of freedom are revealed as their inverse. “The One was never meant to end anything,” we learn late in the game. “It was all another system of control.” This is the movie’s miserablism, familiar to any student of 19th-century Continental thought. What makes it contemporary is not that we live in miserable times—who doesn’t?—but that the pathos is not reserved for poor humans. Half the characters debating whether or not we’re autonomous agents are, like Agent Smith, just so much executable code. The greatest melancholy is reserved for Persephone. “She’s just an old program from an old Matrix,” muses Bellucci. “She’s not human, but she wants to feel human emotions. There’s something desperate about her.” Pity the glamorous piece of obsolete tech trying to survive in the latest, shiniest simulation—but not too much. It does OK for itself. It’s working.


Free Associations

Basic banalities of meta-art notwithstanding (and why exactly wouldn’t I want to dance about architecture? Why is that more absurd than, say, voting about politics, when it would surely be more fun and involve fewer dead civilians?), it’s puzzling why one would make a film about poetry. Or at least why one would make a documentary about the New York School of Poetry, and then show it in New York, where dazzling readings from multitudinous traditions, New York School included, happen every night.

The answer, one supposes, is that film can reframe, montage, and maneuver in revealing ways, or access daily intimacies we might not otherwise glimpse. Hollywood trickeration, or French(-sounding) vérité—them’s the tickets. But Lars Movin, Niels Plenge, and Thomas Thurah’s Something Wonderful May Happen: The New York School of Poets and Beyond takes two passes, offering instead some Scandinavian design: a spare hour of history, angular and fractional, with a couple contemporary flourishes. This New York School is minimized down to current John Ashbery, very recent Kenneth Koch (shortly before his 2002 death), and vintage Frank O’Hara (but alas! only a puff of his pleasureboat paean “To the Film Industry in Crisis”). Mysteriously, key original Jim Schuyler is barely named, and appears neither in word nor image; the film’s loss, whoever’s decision. The remaining redoubtable whizzes are regularly annotated by talking heads, mostly those of tradition inheritors David Lehman and Charles Bernstein. School sometimer Barbara Guest, per usual, goes unmentioned. But of course, beyond a charming reminiscence by Jane Freilicher, the doc is wall-to-wall guys—and still entirely suppresses the profligate, playful band’s queenly tradition (unless “curator” is some kind of slang I don’t know about). Perhaps it wouldn’t match the somber tone invoked: Shot before 9-11 but presumably edited after, the flick opens with shots of the WTC and features the Lehman poem “Twin Towers,” as well as an abjectly arbitrary image of a low-flying passenger plane interrupting the Manhattan air.

So what’s luring you to the Pioneer Theater for this mini-festival of po-vids? Maybe the sharp shock short visualizing a single poem by dadavian Ernst Jandl with 25 mouths and a defunct computer (Eku Wand’s Poem by Ernst Jandl), or Tim Webb’s 15th of February, a methedrinated U.K.-style take on a Peter Reading poem. But most likely, it’ll be because nothing’s shaking at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and the Bowery Poetry Club is dark, and the great certainty of a film about the New York School is that you’ll like the actors.


Pitches Ain’t Shit

Seven Proposals for a Film in Which Steve Martin Will Appear in Full Hip-Hop Drag With Appropriate Slang for Not Less Than Six Minutes With the Catch That It Must Feature Queen Latifah as the Romantic Lead and Diligently Raise the Specter of Interracial Congress Which Must Nevertheless Not Be Consummated No Matter What Please:

1. Shy inventor’s heiress wife (Lisa Kudrow) is kidnapped by evil record producers (Delroy Lindo, Noah Wyle). To get her back, he must win entrance to their superstudio by seducing the secretary into setting up an audition—rescues wife after dazzling producers with cover of “Bitch Betta Have My Money.”

2. Remake of The Pelican Brief, but this time the law student’s African American, and the journalist works for Vibe!

3. In pursuit of a job at a more prestigious university, a professor of Whiteness Studies discovers the hiring committee has been directed to “go Affirmative Action on this one” by evil administrators (Delroy Lindo, Noah Wyle); enlists janitor at his humble but decent college to “teach him some moves.” In the end, loses job to Method Man, but janitor, ironically enough, teaches him a lesson: There’s no place like home, boy. Reconnects with wife (Jennifer Beals).

4. Remake of Bulworth, but this time he’s gay!

5. When a lonely lawyer meets a woman on the Internet who happens to be in prison, she breaks out to be with him and proceeds to wreak havoc on his middle-class life; he saves her from evil evildoer (Steve Harris) before reconnecting with wife (Jean Smart).

6. Remake of Chicago, but this time in the Boogie Down Bronx c. 1979!

7. Haunted by memories of an adulterous affair (Whitney Houston) that ended his marriage and career, an embittered, silver-haired Rabbit Smith, former rap star, waits for his mortgage to be foreclosed by evil bankers (Delroy Lindo, Noah Wyle). A mysterious, robust black woman appears with plans to “put on a show” and save the farm. Just in time, she’s revealed to be his illegitimate daughter. Hilarity ensues. Reconnects with wife (Kim Basinger).



In the world of country and western, fresh new dudes are allowed to become good ol’ boys, George Strait turning out the same record every couple years, Garth keeping pace, and Alan Jackson maintaining a freakin’ concept career about the ethical virtues of going nowhere. But for women, the typical trajectory is quite the opposite. It’s a working strategy to show up all showy: “young slatterns . . . tricked out that night with gauds from imaginations which have no peasant tradition to give them character but flutter and flaunt sheer rags,” as the good doctor Bill C. Williams put it. But darlin’, you’d better get off that dime if you want to stick around; the pressure on women to convert from good-time girl to the good wife is immense. Excepting endlessly self-ironizing Dolly Parton, nobody likes an old slattern—at least not the faux-upright middle-aged guys with their trigger fingers on the playlists.

The forces in play push women either toward the peasant tradition or away from it. They can retreat to a revanchist classicism, à la Patty Loveless or the Dixie Chicks. Or they can ambitiously sidle away from Nashville in quest of the MOR audience, like most of the popular country chanteuses of the last two decades: K.T. Oslin, Roseanne Cash, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Trisha Yearwood, Wynonna, Lee Ann Womack, and Faith Hill. The goes-both-ways exception to this rule is Dolly Parton, who is the exception to every rule and that’s why she has her own theme park. For everyone else, well, it’s a conundrum that’s been fucking with women since long before c&w became one of the great indigenous musics of these United States.

By “these United States” I mean Canada too, which if you throw out Quebec is as American as Avril Lavigne. Now, the best Quebecois band ever was Banlieue Rouge, which means “Red Suburb” in American, and they will rock you like a Communist hurricane. But the rest of Canada, apologies to Joni Mitchell and Avril Wine, is country country—as in Calgary has the world’s biggest rodeo, as in the survival of handlebar mustaches north of the border, and especially as in the nation’s easy way with the Nashville sound: Terri Clark, Michelle Wright, and k.d. lang, to name just a few. You might even argue that such immigrants are, far more than you or I, profoundly American—not the birth certificate, but the dream. They buy into what we’re born into; they’re true believers. No one is more American than a Canadian country singer. And that goes double for Shania Twain.

Shania Twain (by which I really mean Shania Twain and Mutt Lange) has already had an astonishing career, born of one necessity and one insight. The former lies in the choice largely to forego ballads, better left to technically accomplished singers with jeu d’esprit deficiencies; the latter lies in the recognition that “New Country” could easily encompass robo-nerf metal—hell, the hairdos are the same, and doesn’t “pour some sugar on me” sound like the idiom of a Nashville waitress anyways? Quicker than you could say Tanya Tucker, Shania’s the queen of the good-time girls, with a def leopard-print catsuit and enough aerobics-core smashes on the two Twain/Lange records that when she tosses off an album cut in concert it seems like noblesse oblige. And these haven’t just been hits, they’ve mostly been terrific songs—in the way of much great immigrant art, she saw clearly what historical baggage and which baroque regulations had become irrelevant and slashed them away to intensify the form, bugging a few traditionalists and selling billions. Over the course of The Woman in Me and Come On Over, Shania Twain was it: the pure product.

“The pure products of America go crazy,” as the aforementioned Doctor Williams announced. It would be easy to say that her new record Up! is simply lousy, but that wouldn’t get to the heart of the matter. It’s loco, in an uncomfortable and depressing way—a zenith of freak-out over what to do next.

Critic Jon Dolan, speculating on what the new record would look like, given the last one’s imperious and bountiful 16 tracks and seemingly endless hits, proposed “a 14-CD box set co-produced by Irv Gotti, Mutt Lange, and George Soros, with remixes by Squarepusher and a disc called Shania’s Moods on which each track emits a different scent.” Close. If only the crazy excess of Up! was about something as interesting as self-indulgence; instead, it’s conditioned by the Nashville narratives, none of which suit her talents or tastes.

Up! sports 38 tunes—sort of. A stealth twofer, the same 19 songs appear on both the red and green discs, but . . . well . . . supposedly, red is for pop and green for country. It would be quippy to say that one can scarcely tell the difference, but the coding is fairly straightforward: Pop has shinier guitars and more multitracking, while country means, as ever, banjos. One could even distinguish, if one were getting paid to pay overclose attention, how some songs seem to benefit more from one treatment than the other: The title track (one of nine that take an exclamation point!) breathes better in the open spaces of “green,” while lead single “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” and “Ka-Ching!” depend on pushing you along with the “red” wave of sound. And so on. And yet . . . everything sounds pretty much the same.

The problem isn’t so much telling disc from disc as song from song. Up! Is a kind of hysterical paralysis brought on by an untenable choice. The two discs, pretty straightforwardly, represent the two moves Nashville offers the good-time girl: red the MOR embrace, green the traditionalist retreat. Shania Twain saw her choices—she made a critical reading of her field, like every intelligent artist—and froze. Or maybe she thought that choosing both was a way out. But accepting all the terms is no more nervy than failing to select among them; it is, finally, dutiful in the way always asked of country women. And that inescapable call to duty is what makes you crazy, makes you unable to exercise your own gifts. Not a single song has the wildly dense hooks; no hearts kick-started here. The issue isn’t whether MOR and NashTrad are bright or dull poles—but that, magnetized between the two, the songs are one after the next lacking the nerve and verve that made Shania great. And no amount of exclamation points will bring them back. Score another one for the dull ol’ boys, and wave goodbye to another pure product of America.

Related Article:
Shania Twain’s Up: The Blue Version Caters to Electro-Rockin’ Bollywood Enthusiasts” by Kembrew McLeod


Guess What, America, We Love You

Having already chart-ruled 21 countries and gone pan-European No. 1, “Aserejé” will be compared relentlessly to the macarena as it’s angled for the Anglo market. But the real musical forebears of Las Ketchup, three daughters of Spanish flamenco star El Tomate, are the Spice Girls, who first brought ecstatic girl-group amateurishness to the category of Condiment Pop. And lyrically, the so-called “Ketchup Song” draws most heavily on the style of Objectivist poet Louis Zukovsky and wife Celia, who translated classical poet Catullus using whatever English words most resembled the Latin, while maintaining rhythm and syllables. “Aserejé” does the same with classical poets the Sugarhill Gang’s epochal “Rapper’s Delight.” Hijinx ensue.

Pleasure One: It’s funny and adorable to hear lovin’-every-minute Spanish women try to deal with Sugarhill’s chorus. They think they don’t get it because it’s a foreign language; how could they know it’s nonsense already? Garbage in, garbage out: Don’t waste your high school Spanish translating “Aserejé” back into English. It’s still nonsense: The meaningless title wants to be “I said a hip,” and it just gets cuter from there.

Pleasure Two: The chorus-length hook is grippy enough to climb a Billboard, but what the song shares with plenty internationalismo and old-skool hip-hop (and almost no other anglophone music) is how the vocals lead out the rhythm—cascading joyously over a neutral Spanglobeat you’ll never even notice, racing away from technique toward a good time like the crypto-dance-craze Las Ketchup demo in the video.

Pleasure Bonus: A whole cultural theory! The verse tells the story of some guy named Diego I don’t quite follow, but along the way it mentions rumba, ragatanga, rastafari afrogitano, mambo, and salsa. We got the beat, the song says. We got our own phonemes. You might have the language of Empire; we’re not gonna take it.


Siren Wailing

You’d think there’d be some mathematical formula that could take into account the manner tossed, and how far, and what exactly “it” was, and tell you the all-time champion of Throwing It All Away. Until this analytic tool is devised, I can only say with certainty that Christina Aguilera has a seat at the table; in the sub-category Failure to Capitalize on a Debut, she may take the cake. The basic criteria are (a) how massive that first record was, and then (b) how long before the follow-up, which is (c) how lame? Ms. Aguilera is approaching four years since she made a better and far more beloved debut than, say, the Stone Roses. In teenpop years, this is a dog’s life.

It makes Trent Reznor, the former big kahuna of lacuna, look like he’s been huffing workohol. So there’s Christina’s career going into a coma, with nothing but Latin and Christmas and extreme-youth stopgaps to keep it breathing, and finally here comes the follow-up, siren wailing. Long story short, Stripped is an ambulance arriving too late to save its driver; when, oh when, will people understand that endeavoring to not mature is at the core of pop music? It’s nü-Mariah on mood stabilizers, extended with pseudo-pastiches of semi-popular songs. Carey on, my wayward daughter. But let’s not talk about it. Let’s talk about the Greatest Comeback of All Time.

You must fall from a great height. And you must descend into extreme obscurity, in ways Elvis and Dylan couldn’t even comprehend, such that a comeback isn’t even an issue because no one’s even wondering where you went anymore. But it’s not as easy as just disappearing like Shuggie Otis; more abject is actively losing your talent and appeal, forgotten but not gone. And then, out of nowhere and against all odds, you must be great again—greater, in fact, than you ever were before.

OK, I’ve convinced myself: It’s Marianne Faithfull. I suppose you could argue that she was never musically brilliant back when she was getting a little above-the-waist chart action in the Swinging ’60s. But she was famous and successful and desired, all the things that make a young woman a star, and then she pissed it away, and there was exactly no chance the world could have been ready for Broken English, which if you haven’t listened to it recently could use maybe a dash less Wicca and synthesizers, but will still rivet you to your chaise longue like the hand of god. So I suppose it’s a race for second place, which brings us to this particular moment and another rasp-throated burnout burning, against all likelihood, back in.

Linda Perry had one huge hit with 4 Non Blondes, and it was huger than you can imagine, unless you’ve traveled a little and understand that “What’s Up” remains the favorite song of every seventh passing car on at least three continents. A few years later she was self-releasing a solo album of crypto-blues-metal inspirational songs heard by perhaps 30 humans, and only because her sister mailed it to them. We knew absolutely that she would be remembered only for that one annoying tune, and a band name that provided endless non-amusing witticisms for music reviewers (“Three non-non-blondes from Oklahoma, the kids in Hanson”—see Failure to Capitalize on a Debut rankings, #6 ). Linda Perry’s doomsday clock had already thrown up its hands. Then came the Pink album Missundazstood (see Greatest Sophomore Breakthroughs, behind Hole and ahead of the Rolling Stones).

As you may have heard, that album’s title track, lead single, and a handful of ballads were all written by Linda Perry. They weren’t uniformly great: There’s something weird about “My Vietnam,” and something Led-Zep-should-sue about “Gone to California.” But pop was never about uniformly great. “Get the Party Started” is brilliant, and “Missundazstood” isn’t much less. Implausibly, Linda Perry was a genius. Suddenly she was the hottest pop auteur around. And her specialty was taking schoolgirls from crayons to perfume.

For 10 songs, Christina Aguilera’s record is aggressively boring, unless you’re fascinated by her half-repressed yen to remake “I Put a Spell on You” as it might be done by the Velveteen Rabbit. And then comes “Beautiful,” the kind of ballad Mariah made back when she was a natural. The following “Make Over” is deeply in debt to British garage-poppers Sugababes, not a bad source in the scheme of things. It’s the only song on the record that paints newfound maturity and freedom as more than a pickup line. All anxious rhythms and distorted vocals, it’s independence as a panic attack, which can only be soothed by a power ballad: “Cruz,” even more Bic-flicking than “Beautiful,” if not quite as beautiful. These three songs are Linda Perry’s contribution to Stripped, and they make almost everything else on the record sound as tawdry as it is. In fact, the next song, “Soar,” might be the strongest argument for Perry’s new-generation power: Written and produced by Aguilera and two strangers named Rob Hoffman and Heather Holley, it’s the first significant knockoff of what will be remembered as Linda Perry Pop, or We Were Only Sophomores Pop, or Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon If You Can Afford My Services Pop. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of becoming a brand name. I can hear Charlotte Church fumbling for her cell phone even now . . .


Right to Work

When they spin the Beatles during my occasional confinement in Classic Rockville (actual songs during drivetime, dude), I think two things at the exact same time: “Jesus, I never need to hear this song again,” and “Holy fuck, this is so much better than everything else on this station” (except “Gimme Shelter” and “Every Picture”). That’s how I feel about the “new” Nirvana single, “You Know You’re Right” (DGC), finally freed from penitentiary steel after protracted legal hustling. It’s filled with ugly, compelling echoes: Kurt appears as fear itself, and when he promises “I will move away from here,” you know he’s headed somewhere south of life. From Mr. Death’s neighborhood, he screams in key just like always—spooky-catchy, unwilling to mean any one thing, certain he must mean everything. It’s a great song, and when the Last Modrock Station lets it bleed, everything on the current playlist—Strokes, Foos, Good Fucking Charlotte—sounds like cereal-box toys (PS: Wasn’t Modrock gonna have women up in there?). This was the sound that attached me to the world in 1991 (if you’re using the new calendar, that’s five bombings of Iraq ago), but now it’s a memory even on first hearing. Committing to it is like committing to the Eagles’ Greatest Hits; it requires letting music escape from the everyday into mnemonic arcades, abandoning the idea that pop is inextricably alloyed with your moment, not its.

The song of the moment is Missy Elliott’s “Work It” (The Gold Mind/Elektra). “Oh my God, I wanna have sex with that song!” says my friend Judith. Who doesn’t? It won’t be the philosopher’s stone of “Get Ur Freak On”: It lacks the formal purity, the exotic minimalism, and its catchphrase is unintelligible like Benicio del Toro. So you keep coming back to figure if Missy said something, or nothing, or something you’ll never know. Meanwhile, the rest of the song hooks you like 23 positions in a one-night stand, omnivorously fun and implausibly inventive like my old boyfriend Paul’s Boutique, which it quotes except that cowbell is originally Run-D.M.C. just like the nonsense-rhyme strategy is rilly Juvenile’s; the cartoon voices are all Missy and who else would onomatopoeticize her jiggling ass, all over the Jigga Blondie “Can I Get a Heart of Glass?” beat? It makes the current playlist—Ludacris, Eve, Eminem—sound like two-dimensional churls. Not because it has “flow” (still pointlessly vague after all these years) but because Missy talks about bodies and fucking, boys and girls, music and race not just as if you could say anything you wanted, but as if they’re what daily life is made of. But no as if; the song offers these items as the is. Missy’s carnality, the song’s main vein, is a fact, and messy like facts be. But she’ll advise you on cosmetics, too. It’s hip-hop coffee talk, not a “constructed subject position” or any of that other shit people talk to explain why cardboard sounds stiff and tastes nasty. I don’t want to accuse the song of, like, ethnographic realism or something: None of my neighbors talk backwards (my tech guy Arturo says she’s saying “My sweet Satan”) or refer to “Request Line” and Kunta Kinte regularly. But still, it makes the posed excess of gangsta bling and the posed rectitude of the underground fold up before the sudden genius of everyday life, where the song found us. We were driving to the beach. We were about to bomb Iraq again. We were wondering if pop could be populism for once. We were talking about folks-rock, it was the last warm weekend . . .


Keeping Up With the Jones

Remember the early verdict on scratching’n’rapping—not real musicians, can’t play instruments, blah blah blah? Amazingly, this actually shamed some folks, and hip-hop got a series of abominations like Cool J Unplugged, session bassists, and acid jazz. It also got its only stumble en route to cultural dominion, and was temporarily displaced at that exact moment by the last flower of white noise, grunge (remember Cobain’s axiom: “Learn how not to play your instrument”? That’ll matter in a second). This wasn’t a complex episode, but part of a Thirty Years’ War, the same one featuring battles like (A) here are three chords now go start a band vs. (B) prog-rock; and (A) disco vs. (B) public burning of disco records, which are programmed and soulless and yadda yadda.

Look, you can learn from history: Every single time someone plays the “real musician” card, they’re wrong. They’re ideologically hobbled and behind the times. They’re attacking remarkable music, and defending shit because it replicates the rockist aesthetics that trace back to Clapton Is God etc. Indeed, I think analysis reveals that Boomers are the nightmare from which we cannot awaken, but that’s another column.

What bears stress today is that, though it may be hard to conceive of Britney in the same aesthetic bin as the Clash and Flash, the same damn dialectic is happening again: (A) teenpop; (B) Alicia Keys plays her own piano, Norah Jones is on Blue Note. Jeez, I’m really shocked she covers Dylan and Willie Nelson live; they’re old enough to be her demographic! You think you’re a noncombatant, but in the aesthetic marketplace there’s no such thing; if you’re buying Alicia and Norah, you’re buying into the avatars of an utterly perjured and reactionary position. You’re holding back the years, and it won’t work. History will judge you harshly.


Kiss of the Vampire Slayer

My So-Called Life, the greatest show ever, knew three indivisible things about adolescence. One, the wonder years are a checklist of inevitable “significant” events so distressingly predictable as to be, from the outside, banal. Two, these moments feel, from the inside, so extreme the world really seems to be ending every couple weeks. Three, living in the gap between One and Two makes you feel freakish. Exterior flatness, interior intensity, everyone always weirded out—that was the show. An exchange early in the second season walks us through it. “This isn’t some fairy tale,” says Jordan Catalano. “When I kiss you, you don’t wake up from a deep sleep and live happily ever after.” I thought I would weep from his awkwardly soulful anti-romanticity. And Angela Chase, practically catatonic with passion, confusion, and terror, hesitates barely a moment: “When you kiss me, I wanna die.”

Except there was no second season; it was slain by the network after just one. That exchange is from the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just released on DVD. Now entering its seventh season, the series remakes MSCL with the interior intensity projected outward to the characters’ daily lives. At Sunnydale High, sleeping with a guy doesn’t just leave him acting like a soulless creep; a soulless creep he becomes. And the world really does threaten to end every couple of weeks. Aside from that, it’s about the same. The gay best friend turns out to be a girl, not a boy.

So why does the allegory survive where the brilliant literal never saw summer? I have read many very difficult books by French persons, and I believe the answer is that television viewers dig vampires, and ass-kicking, and chicks who deliver one to the other. It’s all there in the title. Not only are these things decisively cool, they also divert attention from marketing buzzkills. MSCL deceded because it was emotionally difficult and, moreover, it didn’t think very highly of boys and couldn’t have cared less about grown-ups. These do not boffo advertising bait make. Buffy actually amplifies these qualities, but somehow, with the demons and Hellmouth and paff! that vamp just got staked! no one seems to worry.

After a shaky first year, the 22-part sophomore storyline is the real foundation of the show’s interpersonal relations. Oz, the senior werewolf played by adorably perplexed Seth Green, is introduced with implausible, witty patience. Also entering is Spike, vamp-stone fox who will turn out to be the show’s perverse heart. But the new boys scarcely ripple the rising teen gynocracy: In season two, Willow finds both her shy charisma and substantial witchiness; Cordelia becomes far more than a bitchy foil. Buffy comes out as a Slayer to mom (who promptly asks if she’s going on a killing spree. “I’m a Slayer,” retorts impatient Buffy, “not a postal worker”). And it’s season two in which Buffy actually does Angel, starting the long trail of tragedies (including the unfortunate spin-off). Even before then, she hints at her particular kink, four years pre-fruition: “Come on,” she suggests to Angel while they’re still in the snarling phase. “Kick my ass.” Yeah right.

“I believe the subtext here is rapidly becoming the text,” frets the lone sympathetic adult at one point. But that’s the charm—the collapse of normalcy and extremity makes everyone feel less weird. In spooky Sunnydale, adolescence’s intensity briefly makes sense, the way it never did on MSCL; that’s why they, and the show, endure. If this leaves a bloody trail across the gang’s hometown, well, that’s a small price to pay.


Fever Pitch

There are several Asia Argentos to choose from: international starlet del giorno, showbiz kid, polymath auteur, big talker. The 26-year-old’s directorial feature debut is just hitting these shores: Scarlet Diva, a sort of autobiographical cautionary dream. However, she’s about to be known in America as the romantic lead and stylish asskicker of likely Hollywood franchise XXX (like Scarlet Diva, it opens Friday), a movie structured rigorously like a video game in which she and co-star Vin Diesel are dragged back and forth across the sets by some really fantastic outfits. At least she reportedly had a starletastic on-set affair with the director, Rob Cohen, who’s old enough to be her father.

Then there’s her father, a renowned Italian pulp director. Dario Argento is the man behind a wealth of trash classics, the uncredited writer of Dawn of the Dead, and enough of a cult figure to be the subject of Argento Series, an entire volume of poems based on his work by California writer Kevin Killian. Dario started casting Asia, his child with actress Daria Nicolodi, when she was a kid, though not before she’d appeared in films including Nanni Moretti’s Palombella Rossa. Working with her dad, she made flicks from The Stendhal Syndrome to Dario Argento’s Trauma. Eventually wandering from the family but not the family business, Asia took a series of roles playing femmes fatales with suspicious pasts—”dark lady” roles, she calls them—in indies like B. Monkey and Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel. All this by the time she was 22.

Soon after, she realized she just wanted to direct. At 23, she started shooting Scarlet Diva, about a sexy, successful Italian actress from a showbiz family who . . . just wants to direct. “I took a vow,” she said while driving to San Diego to attend Comicon (the comic book convention where XXX, appropriately, will be screened). “If I wasn’t able to do Scarlet, I would never act again.” But what would she do then?

“Oh, I do many things. Photography, music; I write. When I was five I published this poetry book; I published a novel when I was eight. Scarlet Diva comes from my book called I Love You Kirk. I work with different bands as a singer, mainly electronic bands. I did a cover of [Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s] “Je T’aime Moi Non Plus” with Brian Molko from Placebo. He’s playing Jane and I’m playing Serge.”

That kind of kink runs its veins through the stained romance and sexuality in the kinetic, discomfiting Scarlet Diva. A literal summary might describe the film as a digital-video travelogue, where the hero wanders the capitals of Western Europe and has something really fucked up happen in each city. “I felt like a killer. You know how a murderer always goes back to the crime scene? I was shooting in places that were really meaningful. In London, when you see me going into the little street, it was a street where I lived for two years. In Amsterdam, the coffeeshop was the coffeeshop where I go when there. The apartment is my real apartment in Rome.”

So why no Berlin? “I didn’t have much experience with Berlin except hanging out with Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten. And I ran away from home when I was 14 to go to Berlin and see The Wall concert by Roger Waters.” Here she blanches with what seems to be aesthetic mortification, and concludes, “I’m not such a big Berlin fan.”

Bargeld, the theorypunk who launched a million tattoos, turns out to be near the heart of the Scarlet Diva story, wherein free bird Anna Battista, played by Argento, falls for rocker Kirk Vaines. “Blixa was supposed to play that role, but he was too chubby. I would have had to rewrite the role. The guy who inspired the movie was handsome, skinny, tall, and beautiful. He loved Blixa, but Blixa was too German and it would have meant work. Then I saw a photo of this guy, Jean Shepherd. We started talking, he tells me he’s a musician, he plays in a band called Campesinos del Sol. I flew him over, he was just perfect. I put him in the studio with a couple of friends, they wrote the songs for the movie in two weeks. I was so in awe that I had found my lead actor, so [I said,] ‘Whatever you want, we’ll make it easy for you.’ In two seconds he was acting like the worst fucking Hollywood spoiled brat. It takes so little to go from being a humble striving musician to an asshole on the set. No wonder J.Lo acts the way she does. I’m lucky I grew up in a family of filmmakers, because I really appreciate how hard it is for people working in films. And these people are fake and spoiled in two seconds.”

In the midst of her XXX junket, she concedes the pleasures of LaLa startripping sometimes trump humility. “I’m enjoying the perks that actors get. We’re so spoiled. People just bring them coffee, ‘Please sit, are you tired, can I give you a foot massage?’ When you’re directing, nobody takes care of you. You’re tired, you get a broken back, you’re sick. You go to work for one year, nobody cares about your movie. It’s like being pregnant.”

Reversing herself again: “But I wanna do something, I don’t wanna be done. Acting is like being an instrument. It could be the violin, it could be the oboe. You need a guy to play you. You can’t play your own self by yourself, unless you’re a mechanical piano.”

Back to extolling the director’s art, she reels off her favorites. “I love the dreamlike world in Fellini and the true horror in Polanski, and the solitude. I love silent movies, Dziga Vertov and Pabst. Abel Ferrara taught me a great lesson—the way he pushes actors to their limit. I did that too. I had these two people having sex [for a scene]; they didn’t know each other, they’re not porn actors; one is a DJ, Vera is a friend. It was lunch break, I convinced them to have sex. I know how to get what I want. If I have to be scary, I’ll be scary. That time I needed to be nice. Just . . . nice, like a snake.”

Argento carries Scarlet Diva both as actor and director. In XXX, she has precious few lines, but she’s considering taking another such role to finance her next directorial effort. “I always loved this Brando line: ‘Acting, not prostitution, is the oldest profession.’ Baudelaire said art is prostitution. When you’re giving something so intimate to the world and being paid for it, that’s no different. But artists also get pleasure. We do it for ourselves. It’s a really funky kind of prostitution.” And filled with surprises and inversions, it turns out: “With Scarlet Diva I wanted to make a silent movie. That’s why the big faces, big expressions, everything is so exaggerated. Instead I did the silent movie with XXX.”

Also in this issue:

Michael Atkinson’s review of XXX and Scarlet Diva