Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Host d. Bong Joon-ho, 2006

The Host is a primer in what's wrong with the post-Spielberg, American horror film: what, e.g., House of Wax attempted to effect with jarring cuts, distended reveals, and claustrophobic framing, The Host achieves via a sophisticated use of tone and mood. The titular Host of the title - a telling American title (you'll see in a sec); the original could be literally translated as "Creature" - is shown in full detail during the film's first ten minutes. What Spielberg and coterie might reserve for the climax is here revealed during the intro. It's a brilliant move: whereas many horror films are based on an object - a face, a monster, a knife, &c. - The Host is free to anchor itself in plot structure and theme; rather than a teleological sprint from start from finish, the film is allowed to actually do something interesting.

However, that "something interesting" is political allegory. I was prepared to write this film off as a whole, but I simply could not - the suspense, the tangible horror is far too affecting to be subsumed by a limp indictment of political systems. To justify this, I've come to the conclusion that allegory - political and otherwise - simply is not interesting. To read a film - or book, or whatever - allegorically is to limit its scope. If The Host corresponds in a 1:1 ratio to an idictment of the weak political structure of its home country and the bullying intrusions of America, then it's hardly a film at all. Instead, it becomes either a piece of a propoganda or a mere signpost, pointing at an object with a near-dumb babble: "Look." (To be fair, The Host's political implications are far more subtle and complex than, for example, Land of the Dead's.)

Luckily, The Host is a much better film than the cadre of "Amerika Sux" critics would lead the astute reader to believe. The aforementioned suspense and horror already accounted for, The Host excels in its portrait of a family ripped apart on account of two monsters: one, the amphibious creature that still haunts my dreams, and the other the system that prevents the family from restoring itself. (Of course, this is a political system, and if you think I'm turncoating then you've misread me: I have no problem with a reading that deals with systems, etc.; problems arise when the reading becomes allegorical, assuming a 1:1 adherence - or even an overdetermined adherence - of the an object or idea in the film to a specific object or idea outside of the film.) The high octane thrills come from the Creature, and a perfectly fine film could have been made out of the horrors and problems of the creature alone, but the truly horrifying elements occur when the System attempts to deal with the problem of the Creature. Of course, dealing with the Creature means not dealing with the Creature and rather creating a new problem - here a fictitious virus - in order to separate the people from the creature. Mike D'Angelo points out that the canister of Agent Yellow (the virus-eradicator employed by the invading System that also eradicates all living things - not just the monster or virus - within a 10 km radius; read: Agent Orange, Hiroshima, and a terrible, heavy-handed attempt at allegory) is shaped similarly to the Creature when we first encountered it. The monster - the initial problem - and the attempt to eradicate the monster - the new problem - afflict the general populace equally and further trap the populace between themselves. The individuals that compose a system are dehumanized by the utter lack of selectivity on both ends: both the Creature and the System attack without any sort of individuating prejudice.

The positive note that the film ends on is a ruse: our protagonist is not safely united with a son, far away from harm, but alone (note his solitary shack) and paranoid (the gun, obviously.) The system corrupts and insures that the individual is assimilated.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What's Wrong with Sufjan Stevens, or: Why Sufjan Stevens Used to Be So Good, or: Why Absurdly Long Titles and Epic Songs Become Boring

Illinois (or, Sufjan Stevens Invites You to: Come On! and Feel the Illinoise; I'll stick with the latter) perfected the hyper-specificity quotidian epic that Sufjan Stevens introduced on Greetings from Michigan; The Avalanche - quite naturally, being that it was an almost track-for-track b-side to Illinois - sounded a good deal like Illinois. Admittedly, it was inferior; the songs simply were not as good. But that wasn't the only, or primary, problem.

A sense of dynamics is obvious when reduced to the level of song: a banging chorus complements a pensive verse or tension-filled bridge. Ditto the in- and converse. (Although punk rock tried real hard to debase this idea; then again, punk rock did many things that, although based on a sound ideology, didn't work very well when applied to music practice.) Less obvious (as witnessed by the often ridiculous awful tracklisting on many of today's albums) is the necessity for dynamics on an album. Simply put, not every song can be an epic, album-closing banger. Nor can (although this is much less of a real problem) every song be a soft strummer. (Actually, I take this back: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy pulled it off real nice with I See a Darkness.)

The problem at hand, and even less obvious: dynamics are just as necessary in concert as they are in an album or song. Stevens would have done well to know this before performing Oct. 10 at the Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. Every song - maybe 3 excepted -, and even songs that worked perfectly well in their original form, was made "epic." That is, a song-ending crescendo, a two minute blast of feedback, a bombastic vocal interlude, whatever Stevens could do to make his humble songs more grandiose was done.

Ok, not a real problem in itself. The concert was good, really, I had a great time. But the nagging question is why? Why add this grandiosity to perfectly good songs, a grandiosity that quickly waxes monotonous. Well, obviously, it's because Stevens - consciously or not - is attempting to mask one (less detectable) monotony with another. The new "Majesty Snowbird" sounds a good deal like "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades"; "All Good Naysayers" is a ringer for "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders"; the intro to "Casimir Pulaski" is almost note-for-note a major-keyed, bpm-quickened version of "Holland." That is, Stevens is in a serious songwriting rut: he has a stock bag of (admittedly gorgeous) melodies and rhythms. These ventures toward grandiosity are a ruse - be they 24 piece choirs, extended outros, or ridiculously verbose titles - that attempt to cover up the fact that Sufjan, in the vein he's mining, has peaked.

Illinois is hands down one of the best albums of 00's, and one of 2005's top three albums, but another Illinois, like The Avalanche, will only serve to stain the image of an otherwise remarkable songwriter. So, basically, what's up next SS?