2006: Not Believing The Hype

We at the Kugelmass Episodes are proud to present our first-ever edition of Don’t Believe The Hype, an annual list of the top five deep disappointments. We estimate your savings at, bare minimum, nearly 8 unretrievable hours, which you can use for writing poems on the sidewalk or learning to scuba dive, around $68, plus uncountable benefits to your mental and emotional health.

Note that we are not going to mention Snakes on a Plane in the top five, because I figure if you went to that movie, good for you. You knew what you were paying for and probably got it. It wasn’t a disappointment; hell, it was maybe the second-best movie trailer of the year after Spider-Man 3.

This may be a prelude to a post called “Fighting Dirty.” You just can’t tell about such things.

1. Cat Power, The Greatest

I admit that slowcore has been an uphill battle for me. Artists like Low and Cat Power were not an easy transition from the pop harmonies and sparkling guitars of the Beatles, who have always been my blueprint for pop. There was something about the intense Beatles fetish that Elliott Smith had that kept his music from spelunking the deep and dreary darks that gave birth to What Would The Community Think?

Still, I came around. Eventually I realized how piercing Chan Marshall’s covers of other songs were, and it was only a matter of time until I worked my way around to a love of her own songs. Meanwhile, she was going through (and then cleaning up) a messy problem with alcohol, as well as trying to outgrow her reputation for fucking up her live shows.

The results are obvious: Cat Power suddenly became twenty times more photogenic, plus she had a great story of personal change to tell. Her new album was the clincher. She’d abandoned the dark, almost swallowed sound of the other albums for Memphis soul. The album was about wanting to be the best, and being the best, and it had a helpful title that you could use in your record reviews (“This is her Greatest achievement ever”).

The problem, as a sad poet with a droopy beard confided to me this year, while we stood next to the mailboxes, is that her voice doesn’t mean the same thing if the backing is fuller and richer. I can tell you what Memphis soul sounds like: it sounds like Aretha, or perhaps Dusty Springfield. It has a little fire in its belly. Cat Power’s inability to catch that fire is a huge problem. She has no emotion in her voice, and frankly, “Lived In Bars” is leaning a little too hard on the impossible conjunction of alcoholic stories and a sober lead actress.

2. Pan’s Labyrinth

This is the part of the post that’s likely to recur if I write a post on fighting dirty for the sake of art, because the phenomenon of Pan’s Labyrinth is closely tied to the phenomenon of Harry Potter. I think Jane Awake put it well in a recent comment over at Truly Outrageous about Harry: “I think you specifically would enjoy the books if you did deign to read them, because of (if nothing else) the lost heir plot that we talented, misunderstood people love so well. The idea that: This can’t possibly be my real family.”

The problem is that we already know this plot (see my LRB personal ad, also at Truly Outrageous). In fact, Pan’s Labyrinth is full to bursting with things we already know: that fascism is based on unquestioning obedience, that books are good for you, that ancient mysteries are worth exploring despite the danger, and so on. It’s just a series of nicely illustrated clichés combined with a resistance-to-Fascism plot that is so horrific that you would never take a young child to see it. That said, it’s not even a very warm movie for an adult to see. The visuals are consistently dark and menacing, and the already-ambiguous “happy ending” is made worse by the fact that a) the “princess” returns to the kingdom she tried to escape in a past life, to linger there forever, and b) Nobody seems to live there except her “real” parents and a pretty creepy satyr who is not fun and would never shoot pool with you.

So what you have is a movie designed for adults who want to hear one more time how precious they are, and want that wrapped up with some homilies about the perils of the Franco period. We’re way beyond familiar delights here; this is the “lost heir” plot taken to the point of the morning’s affirmation, with lots of horror thrown in to create the impression of depth. Let me hear all my people say “In death, there can’t be life!”

3. The Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not

Well, I can’t say they didn’t warn me, because people said they were great. Here’s the thing about the Arctic Monkeys: they are just blokes. They really dug those two Franz Ferdinand records (so did I, by the way), and they thought, hey, what about us? We have some melodic ideas! So they recorded this album that sounds reasonably fantastic but, over time, reveals itself as exactly the kind of shallow woolgathering that gives male human beings a bad name.

After all, this was the year when I promised to hurl my computer across the room if I saw the word “dude” used perjoratively one more time. But then these lads come along and prove that some term has to exist for guys who both hate and lust after girls on the dancefloor, who think their girlfriend is really boring when she’s in a bad mood, and who have vague fantasies of running away from the police, or maybe stealing a traffic sign, or maybe hiring a prostitute. It’s as if the existence of Lily Allen created some cosmic imbalance in the British Isles that had to be rectified by these polar mammals.

I like the Lili Taylor quote from Say Anything: “No. The world is full of guys. Be a man. Don’t be a guy.”

4. The Departed

I have a personal grudge against this film because I saw it right when this blog was getting going, and people asked me to write something about it, and I just couldn’t. It was weird that I couldn’t, because I’d loved Gangs of New York with a passion, and I was perfectly comfortable with amoral masterpieces like Casino. But watching this was like watching a version of Taxi Driver written by a hundred monkeys with typewriters and bad hangovers.

Who is at the center of this film? Is it Matt Damon’s evil cop, looking out for his own advantage? Is it Jack Nicholson, thinking he’s invincible because he has a basically teenage mentality? These people had a great many personal and psychological problems, but hey, c’est la vie, and the fact that they all get brutally killed by the time the film is over didn’t teach me anything.

There is only one way to truly understand The Departed. It is a satire of how annoying it is to be reachable at any time, anywhere, via cellphone, and also a satire of how annoying it is to hear somebody else’s cell phone ring. That’s always happening in this movie, and it’s always immediately followed by a death or at least some yelling.

5. A lecture delivered by Harry Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit, at the University of Pennsylvania

Now, in a sense this is cheating, because Frankfurt’s ridiculous little volume was actually published in January of 2005. (Although to the best of my knowledge it’s still in hardcover, because a paperback edition wouldn’t even stand up next to 365 Zen Sayings For Tranquil Mornings.) But things reach me slowly, ever since I started listening to early Cat Power, and when I saw Frankfurt speak, in the spring of this year, I was genuinely excited to hear his ideas.

I’ve got my doubts about the linguistic theories of Jacques Derrida et al., and I had to consider the possibility that Frankfurt was actually the guy capable of saving us from all this postmodernity, with his fierce stare and rumbling voice and integral commitment to the Truth. I was ready to watch him prove that the failure of language rests not so much in the nature of language itself, as in the failure to use language in an ethical fashion.

Instead, what I got was a man who had attained the nirvana of a perpetual lather over the fact that some people had got it into their heads to use language for something other than truth. Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit is that it is the utterance of someone who doesn’t care whether what they are saying is true, or not. Unfortunately, just as I was walking up to one of the audience microphones, Frankfurt was called away to save Beauty in Milan, and I couldn’t question him directly. But here are the two problems with his theory:

a) The nature of “truth” is extremely changeable, and in most cases involves a large element of untruth which is necessary for comprehensibility but which is also an excess. Thus, I can read a novel like Pride and Prejudice, in which I learn about how Elizabeth Bennet overcomes her prejudices, but in which I also learn about her sisters, and her home, and about Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. Or, I can have Harry Frankfurt look at me seriously and tell me to always be unprejudiced.

The issue here isn’t merely one of mixing instruction with pleasure. The issue is that “truth” comes into being through context (as in a novel where the author creates a setting, a plot, and characters, and employs a style), and that that context is not (except in the worst art) created as a mere vehicle for truth. In some sense, it remains permanently beyond any particular statement to be gleaned in a moment of reading, which is to say that is remains beyond the exigencies of truth.

b) I appreciate that Harry Frankfurt thinks “sales” are the ultimate inspiration for bullshit, but the moralistic fantasies with which he undoubtedly inspires himself (the used car salesman who misrepresents the odometer) are besides the point. Language can be mimetic of desire. Although sales are a technology of manipulated desire, there are also vocabularies of love and beauty that don’t reduce to any particular universal or to the profit motive. They are particular to the last. They are declarations of private worth undertaken in freedom. And they will continue to spring from the caprice of desire long after used cars are distributed free by the government.