Irreal Life Top Ten, September 2017.

by waxbanks

Note: These posts have nothing to do with the Greil Marcus columns to which the title refers; nor is there anything particularly ‘irreal’ about all this, not by design anyway. This go-round, at least, it’s just a collection of short things glued together into a longer thing. I gave no thought to what I was going to write until I’d begun typing, and none after I’d finished the first draft of each paragraph. This post is a mess. But so’s everybody else and so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. On we go. –wa.

  1. The Genius in the Writers’ Room: Every great TV show needs one, where by ‘genius’ I mean the caretaker of a coherent (read: generative) vision which backstops creative arguments and serves as a conceptual/thematic/imagistic home to return to. Buffy had one and arguably several; for a while Lost had a couple (but crucially not the showrunners); Game of Thrones started out with a whopper, GRRM and his vision for ASOIAF, but now obviously has none; The Sopranos had at least two after Matt Weiner joined up; The Gilmore Girls, which I can’t stand, obviously had one; Seinfeld had two, Arrested Development maybe more; peak Simpsons is said to’ve had a handful. Fawlty Towers and The Office obviously had theirs (the UK system has long been built around individual/paired writers, which isn’t always a strength), and even the American Office glowed for a moment. Mad Men and Deadwood are clear examples of one visionary master guiding an expertly assembled workshop, as is The Wire. The GITWR keeps the story from taking obvious or easy turns; she intuitively connects storyworld elements because her innerworld is so connected. This isn’t just a matter of craft — Chris Carter’s a miserable scriptwriter but was unquestionably The X-Files‘s GITWR, like the equally hamfisted George Lucas — rather a reflection of a holistic conception, an ability to serve the whole story at once. In music, think David Byrne, Trey Anastasio, Peter Gabriel: the one to whom the low-energy method never even occurs as a possibility, who holds the door open for everyone else in the Room to work at a level above themselves.

  2. Guardians of the Galaxy 2: The trouble with Marvel’s ‘cosmic’ movies is that they seem to think ‘cosmic’ means ‘great big,’ which is incorrect. ‘Cosmic’ is (should be) the opposite not of ‘microscopic’ but of ‘myopic,’ and that’s why GotG2‘s lack of daring was such a bummer. Not to link numbered items like some kind of hippie, but commercial formula and creative vision tend to end up in tension, and with Marvel, the formula has so far tended to win decisively.

  3. Peak Phish: I know I know, you just don’t care about Phish and you wish tasteless myopic Phish fans would stop going on about them. OK then lemme put it this way. Phish formed in 1983 and hit their creative peak in 1993-99, and if they were a normal band the story would end there. But since 2013, defying nearly every rock/pop precedent, they’ve been doing work that in some ways equals — and in some ways surpasses — their glory years. Consider their 2013 experimental album premiere; the Halloween 2014 theatrical production; Trey’s 2015 woodshedding, Dead guest gig, and triumphant return to a band inspired to mid-90s-level improvisation; and of course the 2017 ‘Baker’s Dozen,’ thirteen shows without a single repeated song featuring their most consistently successful experimental improvisation in nearly two decades. They can’t do what they used to, which is OK — no one ever has. (I mean that literally.) But as they enter their mid-50s in a bad that formed nearly 35 years ago, no other band in America can do what they’re doing right now. For weeks I’ve been trying to think of other popular musicians their age taking such risks, and am growing a little worried, because names like ‘Miles Davis’ keep coming to mind. And that’s just ridiculous. Right?

  4. John Wick 2: I know I know, you’ve heard the first film is a ‘cult classic’ and an ‘expressionist noir-action masterpiece’ and blah blah blah, but John Wick 2 is 70% unbearably dumb unfunny bullshit, and 30% witty balletic film art. Wait no, make that 85/15 with error bars pointing the wrong way. The risk the Wick flicks take is in depicting unrealistic (indeed superhuman) mastery in realistic-ish detail — John/Achilles is always reloading his guns (because ‘realism’) but he never ever misses (because ‘hero’)…which is an iiiinteresting, thoroughly modern approach. And the photography’s nice. But the vaunted ‘mythology’ is the wrong kind of stupid, the dialogue is always tedious (I did laugh twice, but at gunfire), and Keanu Reeves’s weary beauty is poorly served by his dirgelike line readings. I liked looking at the film, sometimes, but so what? I like looking at Chungking Express too, and it made me want to say things other than ‘Cool!’ How old-fashioned of me.

  5. Art as self-advertisement: It should be its own best reason for being, right? Beauty is enough, wisdom and wit are enough. But last year’s film Kong: Skull Island is all witless exposition and witless ‘character work’ until the first ape attack; then more witlessness, more ‘character-building,’ until the next big animal thing, and so on. John C. Reilly, some ‘jokes,’ then some computer graphics. Samuel L. Jackson giving a speech; computer graphics. The film has no personality whatsoever. Why not? Did no one with even a trace of wit or creativity touch the script? Did the director not realize how many strong comic actors he’d been given to work with? Even the usually effervescent Tom Hiddleston shows not a spark of life here, and I wonder: did someone, at some point, watch the dailies or just read the script and point out that this was a waste of time? The scenes not shown in the trailer may as well not be in the film, and hundreds of people worked extremely hard to make this movie. Not ‘but’ or ‘yet,’ just…’and.’ Aaah, Hollywood.

  6. Clarity and correctness: I used to tell students — excuse me, to pronounce self-importantly at students — that all edits are for clarity, the point being that you need first/most of all to know what the hell you’re trying to do, which will generate corrective impulses as you edit; ‘prettier’ and ‘more intense’ and ‘more exciting’ are side effects of ‘clearer.’ If the music is clear in your head then you’ll know right away which notes on the page don’t work, and part of the craft is learning to hear those infelicities as directional, i.e. indicating at least onedimensionally how a wrong note’s wrong. It seems to me most bad writing’s bad because of a mismatch between intention and attention, e.g. you (white Pundit) don’t want to share cultural privilege w/economically ascendant blacks/Latinos but also don’t want to be called racist so you instead write garbled nonsense about e.g. something called ‘black-on-black crime’ or go on about the e.g. nobility of racist historical figures, netting a plum job at the NYT opinion page. If you’d done your reading and had principles and written what you actually thought, you’d have produced a coherent and testable argument. Instead you produced an anxious one. The reason mainstream cultural/political pundits are bad is that they don’t (generally can’t) say what they think and mean. This is part of what Angela Nagle’s talking about in Kill All Normies: saying what you feel liberates certain energies which are, for a variety of reasons, unavailable to ‘respectable’ figures, which is why it’s taken so long for MSM pundits to know what the hell’s going on with Trump’s supporters.

  7. The First World War: George RR Martin says you should read about WWI rather than WWII; the latter has clear heroes and villains and a strong narrative arc, meaning it’s a freak occurrence in military history, while the former is a more conventional ‘bastards with armies force boys to murder each other in the mud’-style conflict, with an appropriately disastrous end that made a sequel inevitable. I’ve just read Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History, 200 pages of witty insight from a British historian angrily dismissive of the rampant stupidity which it was his job to describe, and now I’m desperate to dig deeper into the subject — starting with Ludendorff himself, who presided over the collapse of the German military in 1918 and first spread the ‘stabbed in the back’ calumny which Hitler (whom Ludendorff legitimized!) and his angry mongrels turned into a cultural/political organizing principle. The Great War really was in a sense the death-spasm of an entire civilizational project, the beginning of a long-delayed reckoning with Europe’s changing role in the changing world, which (reckoning) wouldn’t end until August 1945’s two ultimate expressions of mechanistic modernity in the sky over Japan. As is usually the case, getting a strong dose of historical detail has reminded me that today is not 1914, nor 1933 — and reminded me, too, as Angela Merkel likely coasts to another term as leader of Europe’s dominant economic power, how much our historical moment owes to the decisions made during that decades-long crisis of modernity.

  8. An analogy: politics : identity politics :: political party : personality cult

  9. …by which I mean: David Runciman’s superb Talking Politics podcast recently did a ‘the year ahead’ episode, in which Runciman and his boon companion Helen Thompson expressed frustration with Emmanuel Macron’s almost fraudulent use of the electoral process to advance a kind of glorified personality cult (this is my gloss; as good Englishmen they were appropriately measured in their assessment). It occurred to me that Trump had, of course, run the same kind of campaign, with similarly disappointing results for his supporters, who’ve gotten nothing of substance from his administration. And I immediately thought of Mark Zuckerberg, the vicious resentful little dilettante who’s done more than any living person to convince otherwise sane humans that ‘social networks’ have something to do with actual healthy social relations. I can’t imagine Zuckerberg wanting anything to do with an established political party — they’re too messy, too compromised and compromising, too grounded in actual human-speed social processes to appeal to the millennial par excellence. Like Trump, Zuckerberg has given no indication whatsoever that he sees his cultural/economic position as entailing any responsibility; what I take to be his self-conception, his appraisal of his own ‘visionary’ talent (what rubbish), leaves no room for the political collective. Which is why Facebook has accelerated the gutting of coalition politics in the name of identity politics, at terrifying cost to representative democracy (a system whose innate conservatism mitigates its innate potential for radical individualism). Runciman suspects that Macron’s failure, when it comes, will come because he has no party, only a ‘movement’; notes that social movements are very easy to get going; and imagines Macron and Co. will be overcome in time by other, better organized, more sustainable social movements, Left or (let’s hope not) Right.

  10. …by which I MAYBE (but on the other probably don’t) (but) (but) really mean: Sarah Palin, the grifter whose sole political platform was ‘I feel aggrieved,’ was the real winner of the 2008 election.

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