Tuesday, January 27, 2009
“The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me.”
--from The New York Times
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Friday, January 23, 2009
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Two experiments with drinks that I'm working on:
1) The Motorcycle--a take off from the Sidecar which will probably be made with scotch, lemon juice and bitters and served over ice.
2) The Railroad--will probably include bourbon and apple brandy. Named after an inspirational dream I had where Barack Obama travels through time with my friends and gives me hope.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
And today is the first day of Barack H. Obama's. And that means a lot to me. This whole journey, culminating in today, has been liberating, fascinating, and at times beautiful.
And in the spirit of this blog, and my endeavors, here is it said by another--much better--writer about the (part-time) writer that now holds office:
Christopher Buckley, before and after the speech.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Sunday, January 18, 2009
The use of pop music in Moulin Rouge
In the book Blue Skies and Silver Linings, Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans state that the musical seems to “revel most exuberantly in the exposition of its own artificiality” (5). A lavish visual and aural spectacle, Moulin Rouge differs from most traditional musicals by containing very few original songs, instead opting to use well-known pop songs. The musical genre has a long tradition in film history, and in The American Film Musical Rick Altman intricately traces the genre chronologically as well as establishing subgenres—the fairytale, show, and folk musicals. Altman states, “All genres eventually become reflexive, self-critical, and often even self-destructive” (117), and that in the post-studio era the musical has become mainly the territory of children’s films (e.g., Disney cartoons), or is considered an auteur genre (Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York) (121). Altman claims that over-produced popular music is one factor leading to the decline of the musical because it robs people of a participatory experience of music. Presumably, Moulin Rouge, an extravagant, postmodern musical, would support Altman’s claim that self-reflexivity and self-consciousness eventually terminate a genre. However, Moulin Rouge does the opposite: it recovers pop songs for the audience, keeping them accessible for identification and expression, allowing the audience to participate in the film because they know its language beforehand. Moulin Rouge flaunts its indulgent use of popular music and encourages the viewer to join in the celebration.
Moulin Rouge is what Altman would define as a show musical—one that features the production of a show. Success on the stage depends on the success of the couple: the work of art is a product of love. Altman declares, “In the musical, the couple is the plot” (35, emphasis in original). The film also fits Altman’s structure by having the tension between man and woman be stereotypically about wealth and exchange: men want women; women want money (25). Satine is a courtesan who initially deflects Christian’s advances because he is a poor writer. However, Moulin Rouge also works as a postmodern text, and is not afraid to let “satire and homage exist in sustained tension” (Kehler par. 22). The narrative is a medley of plots—a mixture of the Orpheus myth, a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold story, and a star-crossed lovers tragedy, and also mixes fact and fiction about the turn-of-the-century nightclub in Paris. Julia Klein states that the film’s “theatricality is signaled by its setting in a deliberately fraudulent representation of the Moulin Rouge” (par. 2). Eventually, Christian’s poetry wins Satine’s love, and they create a show together, Spectacular, Spectacular, writing their own story in the process. Grace Kehler describes the show-within-a-show element of Moulin Rouge as “meta-performance” (par. 20), and Klein calls it “self-consciously, audaciously cinematic” (par. 13). This self-reflexivity is evident in the Spectacular, Spectacular pitch scene where the characters outline the plot of the movie, in song no less, and then the Duke asks, “And in the end should someone die?”, hinting at the tragedy that follows the ultimate performance. By the end, “real life” and the play have merged, both resolved at once with love and triumph, relational and theatrical success. The happy-ending is then shattered by the tragedy of Satine’s death, and off-stage a devastated Christian must learn to tell his story, rewriting the story yet again in text form which reveals itself to be Christian's voiceover narration of the film present from the beginning, adding another meta act of art and expression. Besides these multiple layers of storytelling, Moulin Rouge is partially self-destructive not because it breaks its genre as a musical, but because it breaks the union of love.
Commenting on the decline of the traditional musical, Steve Neale states, “The numerically dominant form over the last 30 years has been the rock musical” (110). In The Hollywood Musical, Jane Feuer, developing Altman’s theories further, allows for teen genres, including recent films of the 1980s, and discusses popular music’s role in contemporary film. She claims that films like Dirty Dancing are musicals because of their use of song to drive the plot and character development, saying, “The main reason teen musicals have not been considered musicals is the absence of diegetic singing in them,” but that in these films the story is told thematically through music, particularly rock and pop music, which appeals to a contemporary audience (131). Moulin Rouge marries Altman’s traditional definition of a musical with Feuer’s updated one: it is generically a musical in plot and form, using diegetic singing, but with anachronistic rock and pop songs. Moulin Rouge is a film that Neale would describe as “generically marked,” that is, it encourages the audience identification with the film as a specific genre, and many times this marking is self-conscious (28). These markers, as part of genre theory, create anticipation in the audience, and “systems of expectation and hypothesis” (Neale 32). Using the same methods as traditional musicals, the songs in the film are tropes, framing the plot and expressing emotional and thematic content. However, Moulin Rouge also subverts these expectations by recycling plots and pop songs and self-conscious storytelling.
However, Altman derides contemporary, pre-recorded popular music because it widens the gap between amateur and professional—it becomes impossible for the average listener to participate in the making of music (355-56). Altman claims the musical is a “participatory affair” (347): “The simplicity of the musical’s music is produced by design and at great pains in order to serve a specific purpose,” and that it is “engineered not to be passive,” but to get stuck in your head, to take it with you, to participate—listening is a beginning, not an ending (349, emphasis in original). Even though it uses contemporary music, Moulin Rouge provides the recovery that Altman describes. The musical takes advantage of the ubiquity of pop music to give its audience familiarity with the score, encouraging identification and participation. Far from detracting or lessening the power of the film, the pop songs are its strongest assets. In an article on postmodern aesthetics, Umberto Eco, commenting on television series, makes remarks that could also be applied to Moulin Rouge: “These familiar features allow us to ‘enter into’ the event” (par. 8). The audience identification that comes from using well-known songs helps to mask what Feuer calls the artificiality of musicals, stating, “We didn’t create those moments, and in a sense we aren’t participating in them either,” but we feel like we are (15). Jonathan Dawson derogatorily states, “In Moulin Rouge, the song lyrics, (‘Silly Love Songs,’ for example) are treated too literally for their weight. In the end the soundtrack medleys all too concretely recall those old ‘bouncing-ball’ sing-along movies” (par. 21). However, Feuer claims that sing-alongs and nostalgia enhance a sense of community (16). The strength of Moulin Rouge lies in these sing-along and nostalgic aspects; participation invests the audience in the film, allowing them to realize that the songs are not merely tunes repeatedly heard on the radio, but can be used as tools in new modes of expression, creating new stories from the old ones, composing a soundtrack to their lives.
According to Altman, one option for a self-reflexive film is to admit its flaws as a genre, and then throughout the film build itself back up: conventions are “ridiculed, then recuperated” (251). Moulin Rouge admits its folly with the self-conscious blurting of “The Sound of Music” and an outrageous can-can, but by the time the love duet arrives, the audience has adjusted and is prepared to accept the premise. The first duet occurs when Christian spontaneously “composes” the Elton John classic “Your Song” for Satine. Kehler states, “In his first meeting with Satine, Christian links song with gift through his touching performance of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s ‘Your Song’” (par. 19). The song is unrecognizable at first, since it starts not as a song, but as spoken word, as a flustered Christian struggles for poetic words to impress and calm the wild Satine, who is aiming to please a customer. This comical, but eventually romantic scene affirms Altman’s claim that the tension of courtly love and unrequited passion is the inspiration for poetry (212-213). As the scene progresses, Christian is unsure, as is the audience, and Satine ignores his words. But when he finally bursts forth and sings, “…my gift is my song, and this one’s for you…”, the stars light up, the camera pans to the view from the window, and Satine and the audience are captivated by Christian’s words and music. The mise-en-scene is romantic and idealistic—a moonlight night, a rooftop, a miniature Eifel Tower—and with this song, Christian establishes a theme of the film—the gift of love and music. Underscoring the song’s significance to the story, “Your Song” lyrics are repeated throughout the film in key scenes, such as when Toulouse fantasizes about love, or in the finale of Spectacular, Spectacular. Kehler notices in particular the lines “My gift is my song and this one’s for you” and “How wonderful life is now you’re in the world” appearing again (par. 19).
Kehler claims that the film “does sustain a critical stance in its juxtaposition of the commercial and the emotional in ways that reaffirm their interconnectedness while refiguring the meaning of their relationship” (par. 22). As a courtesan, Satine desires and receives tangible, valuable gifts; her relationship with Christian is different because his gifts are intangible, yet still valuable. Although his music does have commercial value—they are producing a show—it also expresses genuine emotion between them. Additionally, his composition of “Come What May” provides a code for him and Satine to secretly express their forbidden love, and the song serves the same function for the lovers in Spectacular, Spectacular, so it has commercial and emotional value. Kehler affirms that Christian’s composition of “Come What May” is a gift, replacing the usual money and jewels as an expression of love, and when Satine ultimately refuses Christian’s jealousy-induced attempts to pay her, she is reiterating that the act of giving is central to love (par. 20). The gift of “Your Song” earns Satine’s love in return, and it is the power of song that emphasizes love as a transformative experience. In addition, Christian cannot win over Satine until he sings; they fall in love in the duet, when they sing in harmony, which affirms Altman’s progression of love in a musical (Kehler par. 18; Altman 82). Starting in this scene, and throughout the film with “Come What May,” Kehler states, “The duet remains the movie’s most significant symbol of intimacy…for it is through song that the lovers carry on a relationship that functions as the movie’s most challenging reconfiguration of the commercial” (par. 19).
However, the film uses song not only as affirmation of love and selflessness. In the film, Christian repeats a mantra, pieced together from several songs: “Love is like oxygen…Love is a many-splendored thing…Love lifts us up where we belong…All you need is love.” This compilation is his philosophy, but the film demonstrates that love is not flawless or painless. Christian and Satine’s love encounters its most difficult obstacle when the Duke demands that Satine save the show by proving her love to him by consummating their relationship, and Christian is left filled with doubt. As he broods, the Argentinean tells him “Never fall in love with a woman who sells herself; it always ends bad!”, and follows this declaration with a performance of The Police’s “Roxanne” that Kehler describes as “savage” (par. 15). The Argentinean sings as he and others dance dramatically and seductively. While Christian listens and watches, heartbroken and terrified, the dance is juxtaposed with scenes of Satine with the Duke. Originally, the pop song was about dark subject matter that fits the scene—a man who wants his prostitute lover to stop working—but had The Police’s signature upbeat, reggae-influence melody. In this retelling, the viewer is confronted with the emotional and physical threats of jealousy, not only through song, but also visually as the dancers grab and molest each other. Even Dawson, who is disparaging of the film, acknowledges, “By far the most powerful musical number, acting as a metaphor for impending tragedy is the chilling tango ‘Roxanne’….For this sequence at least we are gripped by a powerful fusion of music and narrative with a genuinely mythic resonance” (par. 22). By the end of the scene, Satine rejects the Duke in favor of Christian, and the Duke becomes so angry that he beats her, intimating rape moments before she is rescued by a stagehand. The song ends with the female dancer lying on the floor, seemingly dead, in the center of a circle of men. With effective irony, the scene transforms a catchy pop song about love saving a woman from prostitution to the Argentinean’s cautionary tale, reminding the audience of the complexities and tragedies inevitable when jealousy creeps into a relationship.
Moulin Rouge received a great deal of criticism for the use of popular and anachronistic songs, such as accusations of unoriginality or fragmentation, but Kehler states, “Alert to the problems of cliché’s of love and its representation in popular lyrics, the movie also positions the familiar and overused as central to contemporary experiences of affection and sexual desire” (par. 9). As with music, and other art forms, the film allows the viewer the excess of emotion that we are normally too reserved to embrace in everyday life. Despite its flaws, the film recreates the feeling of being in love—indulgent, but also enjoyable. Kehler claims, “The artificial and recycled simultaneously express the passions we believe to be neither empty nor exclusively physical” (par. 22). The film genuinely attempts to express the cliché “I love you,” which is nearly impossible to say originally, but through the “magic” of music and dance, “time stands still, causality holds no sway, and true emotions can be freely expressed” (Altman 77). Altman states, “The American film musical constitutes an apology for its own existence” (51). By advocating music, song, dance, and love as the keys to a fulfilling life, the musical provides what it prescribes. Moulin Rouge might be extravagant and sentimental, but it also asserts that to be invested in life these extreme emotions are occasionally necessary. A heartbroken Christian tells Satine, “Thank you for curing me of my ridiculous obsession with love.” However, his obsession proves not to be so ridiculous, or rather, we are encouraged to embrace it, just as when in love, to surrender our common sense and reason to a cathartic emotional experience, and if only for a moment, to indulge ourselves, sing at the top of our lungs, and accept the gift.
Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. London: BFI Publishing, 1989.
Babington, Bruce and Peter William Evans. Blue Skies and Silver Linings: Aspects of the Hollywood Musical. Manchester: Manchester University Press: 1985.
Dawson, Jonathan. “The Fourth Wall Returns: Moulin Rouge and the Imminent Death of Cinema.” Senses of Cinema. May, 2001. n. pag. 01 Dec. 2006 http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/04/14/moulin_rouge.html.
Eco, Umberto. “Innovation & repetition: between modern & postmodern aesthetics.” Daedalus. 134.4 (2005): 191-207. LION. 27 Nov. 2006.
Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. 2nd ed. London: MacMillan Press, Ltd., 1993.
Kehler, Grace. “Still for Sale: Love Songs and Prostitutes from La Traviata to Moulin Rouge.” Mosaic: a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. 38.2 (2005): 145-162. LION. 01 Dec. 2006.
Klein, Julia M. “Live, Laugh, Love.” The American Prospect. 12.13 (2001). n. pag. 01 Dec. 2006 http://www.prospect.org/print/V12/13/klein-j.html.
Moulin Rouge. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. 20th Century Fox, 2001.
Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London and New York: Routledge-Taylor & Francis Group, 2000.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
From Kara Brown and Erin Brown
[first published in The Contrarian, 2006)
Fuck this day then, if it's going to be like that.
Unfortunately, and despite my many attempts to think myself out of existence, I remain here and alive. It's getting to the point that I listen to my conversations with people like I'm not even participating. Halfway through a sentence I realize I'm the one that's saying it. I can't figure out how my brain is able to form cohesive thoughts and sentences.
It sucks to think about the future. I think the most important thing is freedom. Now, normally that can be equated with money, but I'm finding that's not necessarily true. I still believe that money would give me the freedom that I desire, but the problem is that I don't have it right this second, and I don't much care for the pursuit of it. I think I would be the happiest if I had no obligations. At least to other people besides those I really cared about. I want to be The Dude, but not in L.A. and not a bowler. And a little more opinionated. You know what? Fuck it. I don't know. I would like to do something meaningful, I'm just not sure what actually is meaningful. The point I was trying to make is, I go back and forth on the issue of life, contributions, happiness and purpose on a 10 minute to 24 hour cycle. Ask me later, and I'll tell you ice cream is the key to success.
One thing I've discovered for myself is that it is ok to define happiness by other things and people. Of course, you need to like yourself and love yourself, blah blah, but if a bowl of ice cream makes me goddamn happy, then that's ok. Denis Leary said it well: "Happiness is the cookie, is the cigarette, is the orgasm," everything else is all the bullshit in between. I'm trying to enjoy the things that make me happy while they last, and not worry about the things that don't while they last.
I've grown to despise money, it having let me down and not representing the value I once gave it, and it being the main thing that limits me in life. And if that's why I'd do something...it's almost disgusting. I think I'd rather suffer in some other way than be comfortable and in intellectual anguish. But once you really think about it, money makes things really easy (although, admittedly, complicating things at the same time, but it makes life a little more comfortable and gives you ways to temporarily and shallowly ease your pain). What I'm saying is, I can survive on my principles, however bare-boned they may be, but eventually being stifled and strangled by bullshit would kill me.
Tonight Green Day was on TV, and Billie Joe looked straight at the audience and pointed his finger and said sternly, "Remember, do what you fucking believe in." Simple yes, but no truer or better advice ever spoken
This other stupid band who won an award said, "If we can do this, that means any one can." That is dumb. No, anyone can't do it. (And I question a whole system that lets you do it...beside the point.) If you can't recognize your own talent as unique, then you are living a bullshit lie. This also perpetuates the myth that you can do anything if you try hard enough. Another bullshit lie. Especially with "mainstream" "success," which depends mostly on luck and manipulation.
If you don't think you're fucking special, then you're probably not. And perhaps, anyone could do what they did, that is, sell out to corporate record companies, make shit music that gets in the top 40, and get an MTV award, which has been imbued with all the evil that man is capable of. So yes, anyone who isn't talented and doesn't have a passion could do that.
I hate rich people. I hate people with money who go buy these pre-fab suburban cookie-cutter houses that come already furnished and you walk in and have no sense of anybody actually living there, let alone who they might actually be, because the whole place looks like it was designed by robots.
No, you see, the problem is that is doesn't look like it was designed by robots, because robots would design something ultra-functional, which would be beautiful in itself. But these places were designed not to appeal to anyone, and worse, to not offend anyone. It is the absence of desire, function and innovation. That is what is so disgusting. And what's more disgusting is that people would choose to live surrounded by intellectual and visual mush rather than try to understand their own tastes.
I saw a commercial for Country Crock mashed potatoes that come already prepared in a plastic tub and you just heat them up in the microwave. What is the world coming to? It really shocks me how much processed, packaged food it out there, and it makes me sad. How can people eat that shit? I mean I have my little junk food obsessions, but seriously, eat some real food, people.
I heard a disturbing advertisement for Budweiser. It was some guy talking to the Vice President of the company he works for, saying that he'll be down in the bar after work with friends making fun of "everything corporate." Then this obviously proprietary song masked as some kind of alterna-pop comes on with words like "Now that I've gotten all the crap out of the way, this looks like it might turn out to be a great day" or something. So, essentially what is being portrayed is that every workday of people's lives is so silly and tortuous that they are blatantly promoting self-medication via alcohol. Is this fucked up to anyone else but me? If all the enjoyment you have in a day is the couple of hours after work when you get trashed, which means you're not accomplishing anything significant and not bringing yourself any fulfillment at all, then just FUCKING KILL YOURSELF.
And the really sad part is that people really don't even have those couple of hours to spend. People have to use those hours to do housework, yard work, eat dinner with their family, and whatever else of the innumerable, unpredictable obligations/tasks that come along, not to mention doing anything meaningful. I mean, let's not even take that into account! Buddy Dumbfuck needs to make sure he can lease his new BMW. Instead of sincerely trying to pursue happiness, people choose to live miserably and appease themselves with extraneous possessions. I don't think I can survive in a world with values like this.
You know what's even worse about the Budweiser commercial? It's a fucking corporation trying to sell you freedom from "everything corporate.” So not only are you a slave to your boss, you are a slave to the fat cats at Budweiser. Bud is not your friend, your buddy, your bartender, or your beer. He is a huge, international, multi-million dollar corporation that is trying to sell you a sense of “identity;” you are just another commodity to Budweiser.
I was thinking earlier about how so much is bad and unjust and simply doesn't make any sense. And the world isn't like a fairy tale or movie with well-defined good guys and bad guys, and there's no evil leader out there making all these decisions, it's every day people doing it every day, and that makes it all the more frightening and discouraging because it's a lot harder to stop a bunch of brainwashed, disoriented, misinformed people than it is one single person, however intensely evil they may be.
The world is mentally retarded I have those days where I just want to go apeshit or bitchcakes and just let loose. And oh my god, I wish I had a talent. If I had something I could do, I wouldn't care if I was poor; I would have a purpose. But here I am sitting on my ass with nothing to do or give or take or make or create and explicate or anything. I think I'm fucking insane, actually. All day I've been thinking about what I would do if I didn't have to work, and you know what the nice thing is? I could do anything I wanted.
I just wish the world knew how far it was pushing us.
Some times it really does worry me that I might just be crazy. But I do know that everyone else isn't sane. They may be in some kind false equilibrium, suspended by the mush of mediocrity and security. But they're fucking delusional. At least I'm trying.
I read a question in a magazine saying, "Do you feel you've been manipulated and permanently distorted?" And that really hit me hard, because I do. Not in a sense that I am a victim, because I think my past is something that can be learned from and it's made me who I am, but in a really angry way. These religious people who take children and manipulate their brains when they're the most delicate, impressionable and flourishing, then squelch any creativity or insights they might have, or try to anyway, sadden me.
I understand. Even though I know compared to many we had an amazingly fortunate childhood, we were manipulated and distorted. We were brainwashed. And I think that's why we hate authority so much--because we were, in effect, betrayed by the people we were supposed to be able to trust most.
I keep shifting, very rapidly, between states of crippling despair and ethereal happiness. Neither is fully formed, but I can’t get rid of or disprove either.
I really think that I think and feel too much for my own good, except I don't want to be turned-off and not experience or analyze or be aware of anything. I want my life to be rich and layered, but it is also so much harder that way.
Learning is all I want to do. That is what I would spend my time doing if I had any. Bettering myself, improving myself, and potentially our society, culture, planet, and quite possibly, the universe. Why would the world rather me work 50 hours a week in a mind-numbing, ultimately pointless job and spend my hard-earned money on things that cause other people to have mind-numbing jobs? We are trapped in a cage that we can’t see, but has very defined boundaries, and we’re constantly told we can be anything and do whatever we want, but that’s just brainwashing, too, because they still only give you choices in their little board game of human existence. But their weakness lies in the fact that they use their own empty creations to entangle and entrap us. Realize that they aren’t real, and you’re free…or crazy, I’m not sure…
Our conveniences aren't conveniences, they're fucking burdens and constraints. When did man sacrifice depth of consciousness for processed, pre-sliced cheese?
Hope for some off-the-wall, inexplicable reason you have a good day today. Fuck, I mean, you never know.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
A Study of a Postmodern Musical
Since the 1960s, production of musicals in Hollywood has declined steadily, and the musicals that are produced are usually geared toward children or adolescents, or considered an auteur project (Altman 121). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Oscar-nominated films Moulin Rouge and Chicago drew attention to a possible revival of the musical as a viable genre in America. While Chicago was a adaptation of the hit Broadway musical of the same name, other original films that choose the musical format tend to use the conventions of the musical to make a point, to facilitate the message, such as Moulin Rouge, whose spectacle, heightened emotion, and use of popular love songs served to produce a film that recreated the feeling of being in love. A few years earlier in 1999, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators, writers, directors, and voices of the popular animated television series South Park broadcast on the American cable channel Comedy Central, used the opportunity for the first full-length feature incarnation of their small-town world about crude young boys to continue the biting social commentary and shocking humor that is typical of the show, but also to create a sophisticated postmodern musical of pastiche, satire, and show tunes.
For people unfamiliar with Parker and Stone’s work, the choice of a musical format might seem surprising, but the musical is a format that recurs throughout their careers. Trey Parker was a music major in college, and he and Stone’s first live-action, low-budget features Cannibal: The Musical and Orgazmo were both musicals. South Park the television series sometimes did include music as well, though usually in Christmas specials. With the movie version of the television series, Parker and Stone take two well-known genres—the musical and the animated film—combine them (an act very common, for example, in Disney films), and create a film that mirrors the conventions of the genres while also overturning the traditional ideologies of each, producing hilarity as well as scathing social satire. In an article on the gender politics of the film, Judith Kegan Gardiner points to “its sophisticated intertextuality vying with its traditional musical score and simplified cartoon visuals,” which all works to place the film well within the boundaries set by Rick Altman in his book on the genre The American Film Musical (Gardiner 51).
The choice of animation for South Park, first for the show, and then the movie, serves many purposes. Firstly, the animation removes many limitations of filming and makes possible elaborate spectacle on a lower budget. Secondly, the animation has a dual function of putting the viewer off-guard—making the crude humor edgier and more shocking, since animation is typically the medium for children’s fare, something South Park is definitely not—and alternately, making the shocking words and actions of the boys easier to swallow since the colorful and (deceivingly) crude animation seemingly softens the content. Combined with numbers that a viewer easily recognizes as typical moments in a musical, Parker and Stone have set up a platform well supported by genre on which to tell their story. To ensure that their film has genuine musical credentials, Marc Shaiman, an award-winning composer, is brought in to help Parker compose the score. The back cover of the DVD for the film promises, “If you’re male or female or of any particular ethnic, sexual, religious or national persuasion, you may be offended by this movie. Or perhaps this movie may make you laugh more than any other recent comedy”; like the slogans of early musicals that promised all-singing all-dancing spectacle, Parker and Stone promise to break taboos and deliver comedy.
If utilizing the three subgenres of the American musical as established by Rick Altman (fairy tale, show, folk), South Park could easily be identified as a folk musical, though it has elements of a show musical in it as well. Gardiner even makes the case for South Park combining all three:
South Park’s pleasures derive from its evocation and alteration of familiar genres. South Park utilizes the musical’s conventions for character, plot, setting, and musical numbers, yet is fresh approach transforms pastiche to enliven the animated adult film musical….Altman’s taxonomies of the musical fit South Park at every turn—and, indeed, turned they are. The movie shares some elements with all three subgenres that Altman describes, the ‘show,’ ‘folk,’ and ‘fairy tale’ musical forms (52).
She points out that the film has Disney and fairy tale qualities, such as “young people going on magic quests,” a boy trying to win the love of a girl, good and evil characters, and parents blocking children’s desires (52). The film’s culmination at a USO show and its film-within-a-film subplot also employ elements of the show musical. However, South Park is above all a folk musical, one that reinforces community, though that community may not be traditional. According to Gardiner, South Park has folk elements “with its frequently collective protagonists, nostalgic settings, intergenerational themes, and the ensemble of everyday characters who may all burst into song for any occasion….Of course, these populist themes are evoked only to be mocked in South Park” (53).
The film opens with music swelling over the visuals of a snow-capped mountain, birds chirping (and even holding the title card), and the boy Stan singing the praises of his quiet “Mountain Town.” The opening number takes the viewer through a typical Sunday morning in town of South Park, with families waking up, people shopping, and others going to church. The song seems happy and refreshing, but Parker and Stone undercut the snappy music with lyrics that immediately set up the dichotomies that will be exploited throughout the film. The idyllic (snow-covered mountains) is contrasted with the mundane (Cartman sitting on a sofa stuffing his face with junk food). Stan sees a homeless person lying in the street, but sings that “you just don’t care,” and then comments on the politeness of people, just as a man snaps at him, “Get out of my way.” Stan’s mother compares him to Jesus, “tender and mild,” just as Stan sneaks off to see an R-rated film. And throughout the song, even as Stan is praising his town, he also points out its flaws—redneck, white bread, podunk. Parker and Stone show the audience a different small town than the one usually praised in folk musicals; it is not “dark,” but simply has problems like every other locale. In their book on the musical, Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans point out “the pastoral [folk] musical can be significantly illuminated by seeing it as a specific lyrical embodiment of the anti-urban tendency” (142). South Park from the beginning condemns this simplified view of the small town usually portrayed in folk musicals.
Babington and Evans claim, “The pastoral musical is also family-centred” (144); South Park does concentrate on the family, and the extended family of community, but shows their flaws as well as joys. After Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman sneak off to enjoy the crude film Terrance and Phillip: Asses of Fire (a clever film-within-a-film parody of themselves and their own movie that Parker and Stone use as a plot point in the film), their mothers are appalled by their use of foul language they learned from Terrance and Phillip. The boys are quite creative and vulgar with their swearing (“donkey-raping shit-eater”), but Cartman also succinctly points out that the dreaded f-word does not hurt any one (which he demonstrates by repeating it, “fuckity fuck fuck,” and no, the world does not end). However, a few days later, Kenny, copying a prank from the movie (setting a fart on fire), severely injures himself, and then dies on the operating table. Now the livid parents, led by Kyle’s mom Shelia Broflovski, become adamant in stopping the children’s crude language; they form a coalition entitled Blame Canada (Terrance and Phillip are from Canada), and set out to rid America of the filthy Canadians’ influence. The Oscar-nominated song of the same name that overlays a montage of the coalition forming is a brilliant commentary on the tendency of parents to points fingers at the myriad of sources for their children’s problems, but never themselves. When asking who to blame for Kenny’s death, they sing,
Should we blame the government,
Or should we blame the fire,
Or the doctors who allowed him to expire?
Heck no! Blame Canada!
At the end of the song, they claim,
We must blame them and make a fuss
Before someone thinks of blaming us!
Meanwhile, as the parents are forming the group, protesting Canadian exports, marching on Washington, and ultimately leading the U.S. into war with Canada, their children sit at home alone.
As Parker and Stone point out the defects in the conventional American family and the overreactions of community, they also show an alternative—the small group of friends. Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny (before his death) are constantly together—playing, talking, planning; even when they argue, they stick together. As their parents abandon them to protest Terrance and Phillip, they are left to look out for each other, and in the end, save the world from their parents’ careless actions and reestablish the idyllic community. Ironically, the children are the ones with the most sense, the ones who care about the big and small issues. For example, Kyle’s younger brother Ike is adopted and a Canadian, a fact his mother Sheila seems to forget; while she is in Washington organizing the internment of Canadians in America, Kyle hides Ike in their attic so he will not be taken away. In South Park, the traditional family is not perfect, and sometimes even fails to hold the family together.
Besides family and community, Altman claims that the couple is the center of every musical, and that two sides of love, embodied in man and woman, coming together is the culmination of the plot (24). However, the restoration of the community in South Park is not contingent on the union of a heterosexual couple. A small subplot of young love between Stan and Wendy hardly qualifies as the hinge on which the fate of the community rests. In a brilliant inversion, South Park shows its satirical acumen—the continuation of the community relies not on the union of a couple, but the disintegration of one, and not a heterosexual couple, but a homosexual one. Satan, a recurring character in the South Park series, is planning to return to the surface of earth to rule, and by his side is a recently killed Saddam Hussein, with whom Satan is also in a relationship. Through Kenny, who is sent to hell after his death, the audience observes the abusive homosexual relationship between Satan and Saddam, and is actually made to feel sympathy for Satan who suffers degradation from Saddam. Gardiner views the joke being that “the huge scarlet Satan is the vulnerable feminine figure in relation to the hypermasculine Saddam. This feminine position makes him more sympathetic but also dooms him to emotional solitude” (53-4). They plan as a couple to rule over earth, but Saddam wants the power all to himself and constantly brushes Satan aside. The relationship still displays signs of musical conventions, as when Gardiner deftly points out Altman’s adage about dancing being an indicator of love (136)—“it is notable that Saddam dances solo to entice Satan, who ends up alone” (54). Altman claims that the extremes of a couple come together and balance themselves out, creating stability (307). Satan is the more stable side of the couple, who lives underground, and expresses in the solo number “Up There” his desire to join the joys and rituals on the surface of the earth; Saddam, however, wants to rule over the earth, and is hyper and sex-crazed. The extremes in this relationship only clash and lead to war and apocalypse; the dissolution of their relationship ensures the perseverance of live on earth, those things which Satan loves and Saddam hates. In this film, coupling is not always the best solution for the community.
Even though the journey is unconventional, at the end of the musical, all is restored. Gardiner notes, “The ending is a happy one. The children give speeches on the importance of free speech. Their parents realize that war is worse than swearing. Kenny earns his wings and flies to heaven…and Satan regains his manhood, all to a bouncy musical score” (52). As the community comes together to sing the reprise of “Mountain Town,” bringing the film full circle back to its beginning, the earth blooms with flowers and a rainbow forms overhead. The film began in winter, and ends in spring, reflecting the rebirth of the community, and tying the plot to rituals and cycles, another indicator of a folk musical (Altman 287). The song still acknowledges the idyllic and the mundane in their “quiet mountain town,” but the whole community is united in celebration and sings in harmony, a change from the beginning.
Altman claims, “All genres eventually become reflexive, self-critical, and often even self-destructive” (117). Though a late musical, and obviously satirical and deconstructive, South Park is not a self-destructive musical. For all its jabs at society, and its unending allusions to many other films (e.g., Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange), it still upholds musical conventions. Gardiner affirms: “Although South Park is indeed reflexive, self-critical, and parodic, it is not self-destructive but marvelously inventive” (54). The eighty-minute film is packed with eleven musical numbers; this is a film that is committed to its genre. Even if the songs’ subject matter is joking, their use is not, genuinely moving the plot forward and expressing characters’ emotions. “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”, though ridiculous in premise, is the enthusiastic song that convinces the boys to do the right thing; “La Resistance” is a medley (and a brilliant homage to the stage musical Les Miserables) that draws the action of the film to its climax. South Park qualifies as a postmodern musical, given its satire, pastiche and recycled clichés, but does not confront the shortcomings of the musical (Altman 121). Fully embracing its identity as a musical, South Park’s satire is about the state of American society, not the musical itself. Parker and Stone have created a film, which like musicals of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, is embraced by its generation, who can sing along with the now-familiar songs every time they watch the film. And if the musical as a genre continues to decline, we can always blame Canada.
Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. London: BFI Publishing, 1989.
Babington, Bruce and Peter William Evans. “Summer Holiday (1948) and the pastoral musical.” Blue Skies and Silver Linings: Aspects of the Hollywood Musical. Manchester: Manchester University Press: 1985. 141-163.
Gardiner, Judith Kegan. “Why Saddam Is Gay: Masculinity Politics in South Park—Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 22.1 (2005): 51-62. MetaPress. 7 Nov 2006 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10509200590449958
South Park. Dir. Trey Parker. Warner Bros. and Paramount, 1999
Thanks to Newcastle University PhD student Katherine Farrimond for encouraging my pursuit of this topic, and for suggesting that I should somehow use the phrase “blame Canada” in the conclusion.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Fuck on, Fuck on, Falwell, Robertson:
Fuck on, Fuck on, ‘tis all a joke!
If you beat your dicks as much as
Bibles, you wouldn’t make me choke.
And every verse quoted becomes
Reflected in dreams demonic;
Spitting in the face of reason
You speak in sermons of vomit.
And the Moral Majority
Marches stodgy stiff suits off to
the Church of piggish oppression
Where hypocrites’ souls die and screw.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
He pretends not to notice me
wiping my ass every day,
like we both ignored the wild dancer’s breasts.
Blue/red/green lighted globes consuming sight,
my body hyper-aware, yet entirely unfeminine.
I wanted to be an object—
desired and desiring, lost and dirty,
like the sticky club floor,
and the man beside me,
his faded shirt hiding a small gut,
awakening a hate of his familiar face.
We met in a cleaner club,
the perfect pop song sang,
the choreographed good life,
a shining mold of draining day to night
as our eyes stay glued to the raw sex
lost on intimate bodies
that share a bathroom and a mind,
that walking home half-heartedly argues
about the Existence of god,
the evening a parade of adult life,
intellectual space between animals only.
breakfast of bagels with butter
and please melty swiss cheese;
coffee rings on the fat paper’s front page
that will never be read
with edges burnt by cigarette ash
as the tabby purrs at the famous spring morning
that only smiles in the eyes of twentysomethings
facing the week in robe-ready style.
aroma fighting snores, and biting steam
permeating pores. Fingers un-matt eyes,
as on murky magma drowsy lips cling.
The drug of choice enters veins, inspiring
neglected bodies dulled by mundane day;
jittery fingers the handle gripping
smooth porcelain-bound faith that never frays.
Emerging from the last black sap, the froth
and sediment crawl down, glazing the throat,
and bloated tongue swipes the yellow tooth:
the mouth and soul embrace their antidote.
My bitterly sweet friend, can I ignore
a hard-heart and stomach-cut nerves? For more.
morning has broken, like
every morning; another night
lost. The day is born
in a glass. Bottles
dispense disparate liquids
married by the bells
of clinking ice; liquor and juice
swirl through crags--mixing, melting.
nutritious intoxicants are inhaled
and abandoned, freshening the
mouth, burning the stomach.
the deed is done. the drink
is gone. the glass is thrown.
the concoction carries the body;
the house left empty, again.
I walk up to god,
my feet sweaty and sore,
lungs gasping the earthy air,
the windless sky a lying
pines crowd, so green
I walk down to the past,
wet sand molding to every
bare foot step;
slamming crushing foaming
until I can no longer see,
anything but grey-sky clouded-fog
rhythmic blue-riding soul.
reach up and drag
finally breathing in life
as I drown.
a dorm room full of broken rules
and haze from an overflowing
ashtray that the ceiling fan cannot
chills the mouth and warms the chest;
barefoot toes tap on bed frames and
Dylan lends wisdom as voices
oscillate between singing
laughter and serious tones,
while the polyester plaid coaxes
confessions that best friends
have never heard.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
“Truth only complicates matters.” – Baudrillard
but red wine brings it up
again, tired mouths leaking the ache
of the screaming silence, scared
of the staring walls, time only
measured by the breadth of breath.
“who needs truth?” he asked her.
it only makes you an accessory
to hate and on the losing side
she told him
she always fell in love in
the fall, but ignorant ears
only heard confession,
luminous leftover light bulbs burn low, hiding
the turned-over laundry basket littering clothes
on the bedroom floor. haphazardly stacked
books and untouched family photos weigh
down the thriftstore bookshelf. the window frames
trees bending like asparagus in a cussing wind,
and an ivory-billed woodpecker, a name-brand pun,
his snapping neck playing a percussion piece,
his feathers flaunting fashion, and his beak passionate
for food, shows a motivation lacking in the human occupant.
rain-soaked garden gloves sit below,
forgotten in the grass, as their absent hands
sleep indoors, desperately in need
of a visit from the good friend ginkgo.
No, I don’t like the bp; we
should get gas at the Quiktrip. No, we’re
not eating at O’Charley’s. Why—
because it’s overpriced fast food. Change
the CD already; we’ve listened to
this one three times over. I see
the merge sign; I’m trying, dammit.
Well, this fucker keeps speeding up
then slowing down. What? I see
the HOV lane open—ok—GODDAMN IT!
-what? Yeah, we’re doing
ok on time. Check my bag, would ya?
Do I have toothpaste—toothbrush—
sandals—sneakers—how many pairs
lotion—no lotion. crap. Maybe the
hotel will have some. Will you stop
reading the signs—I can see. Oh—
the sign for Cumming. I know,
I don’t want to go to this meeting
either. But at least the Holiday
Inn is nice, and free.
to return a pale blue plastic tray,
the square compartments
emptied of cafeteria food,
(according to a game,
she only steps on the green tiles
spread among the gray ones, spaced two apart,
long strides for her short legs)
her brown hair falls down
her back, framing a plain face
and big eyes that can’t decide
what color to be.
she is flanked by
her two best friends, girls;
one blonde, the other has
curly brown hair,
(the hair every girl dreams of having,
while watching Disney movies,
knowing that one day
she will be beautiful
just like a princess,
just like the somehow-true
with the talking birds that
land on your finger
and a bland but handsome man
who never fails to rescue you).
a once-friendly voice says,
I don’t want to be friends with
you any more, because
she’s prettier than you.
her feet pause for a moment
as she turns the tray in,
her small hands not wanting
to let go of the solid blueness,
her eyes not wanting to lose focus,
as her only two friends in the world
link arms and walk in the other direction,
Sunday, January 4, 2009
Seth: You could substitute meth for blow.
K: Yeah, that would work.
Random guy in bar: Never substitute meth for blow.
K: Sage advice.
Random girl in bar: Who was the female lead in Spiderman?
K: Kirsten Dunst.
Seth: And that's why you got a master's in film.
K: You know what I hate? When people play "Piano Man" on the guitar.
S: Someday I'm going to record a cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man" using only a tambourine. There isn't a tambourine in that whole damn song.