Special Summer Issue: Books, Music, Films
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(Swans - July 30, 2012)
Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980), by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari
People tend to think of Deleuze and Guattari's dual opuses as primarily political texts, but they are far beyond on it. They are poetry and film, music and movement. Emotion. Light and sound. Thought and perception. Even if they fall short of these, they strive to comprehend each subject and view them as a continual system, offering both a vision of liberation and a roadmap to our digitized, postmodern, post-Fordist, post-industrial, post-everything epoch. Because of their concept of multiplicities and interconnection, I've decided to include them here as a single work with different, yet related, parts.
The Fall (1956), by Albert Camus
Even if you disagree with the philosophical soundness of existentialism, the literary values of The Fall cannot be argued with. Camus has constructed here a monolithic bloc of writing, using his pen and paper to give shape to a voice that shoots arrows into the dark hearts of society, the individual and all-encompassing human nature (or whatever we use as a stand-in for the notion). Whoever doesn't see at least a portion of themselves in the character of the narrator, with his unavoidable hypocrisy and guilt, is practicing a regrettably natural form of self-deception.
Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), by Jean Genet
Our Lady of the Flowers is one of those novels that critics applaud with universal acclaim, yet one word perpetually arises in their reviews and analyses: "evil." Despite the lucid poetic language in the prose, hallucinatory ebbs and flows of the story, and radical subject matter (homosexuality), commentators continually transcribe some transgressive philosophy in the work, at the cost of what lies at the heart of the heart of the novel: humanizing people in a place that is designed to dehumanize -- prison.
The Sun Also Rises (1926), by Ernest Hemingway
Much can be said about Hemingway's ultra-masculine persona, yet one flip through the pages of The Sun Also Rises to the empathic, even fractured soul lurking beneath. Hemingway captures the spirit and sound of the Lost Generation (or perhaps he lends them the spirit and sound that we identify them with) in this book, but the story of love, affair, and heartbreak could happen anywhere, at any time.
Slaughterhouse Five (1969), by Kurt Vonnegut
What the hell is it about war that compels people to it?, Vonnegut asks, without coming to any real answer. And what is peace, humanity, existence, time, nature, childhood, adulthood, innocence, awareness, "high" literature and "low" literature? Vonnegut, employing brilliantly minimalistic colloquialisms, probes these immortal questions with a science-fiction format that challenges reader's understandings of the validity of the literary establishment's hierarchy of "acceptable" mediums. The frame-story utilized revolves around the bombing of Dresden in World War II, propelling these excursions into the ultimate "good versus evil" battle of the modern world.
Tago Mago (1971), by Can, lyrics and vocals by Damo Suzuki, bass and tape manipulation by Holger Czukay, guitar and violin by Michael Karoli, drums and piano by Jaki Liebezeit, keyboards by Irmin Schmidt
What happens when a group of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage-minded avant-gardists feel the urge to graft these radical composition styles into a potpourri of the Beatles, ethnic folk, jazz, and James Brown? That's the basis for Can, and especially for their 1971 swan song "Tago Mago." Swirling-psychedelia but not the put-a-flower-in-your-hair variety, the album debuted against the backdrop of Germany's political unrest and captures the revolutionary zeitgeist of the era perfectly. "Tago Mago" anticipates the chemical enhancements of electronica, the youthful revolt of punk, the post-industrial nihilism of post-punk, and the cultural deconstruction of remixing. Essential!
The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), by The Velvet Underground, vocals by Lou Reed and Nico, guitar by Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, viola by John Cale
Another group that sought to bridge the gap between modernist classical and rock music. The VU's first album, produced by Andy Warhol, stood in stark contrast the Summer of Love by singing songs about drug abuse, sadomasochism, and the other underbellies of bourgeois society. I remember being a freshman in high school and happening across their songs "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs," and recoiling at the piercing howls of the viola, primitive drumming, and molten feedback. What was this noise? I felt both disgust and intrigue, and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that nothing was the same since.
Music for 18 Musicians (1976), composed by Steve Reich
The religion of the 21st Century is Progress, and the structural logic of Progress is Movement. Beating hearts, clicking keyboards. Running. Pistons pumping. Machines of every kind, mechanic or human. Movement is defined by sustained interconnections, linking together through circular revolutions and propelling their subjects headlong into what is coming. Steve Reich, innovatively composing minimalist yet rhythmic sound forms, captures that spirit with this piece -- but he doesn't resort to cold and sterile ambience to achieve this. His work buzzes with the warmth of the human community, like waiting in a crowd for the next subway train to reach your station.
Eternal Rhythm (1968), composed by Don Cherry
If Reich traveled into the heart of urban pulse as a template for his art, free-jazz cornetist Don Cherry joined with musicians like Sonny Sharrock (guitar), Karl Berger (vibraphone and piano), and Albert Mangelsdorff (trombone) to reach into the past and across the world to create this endless canvas of sound where all borders, boundaries, and forms dissolve and replicate themselves. "Eternal Rhythm" is world music in the truest sense of the word, transcending its cultural progenitors into a new, seamless noise. It's sometimes spooky, sometimes discordant, and always beautiful.
The Sounds of Channel One: King Tubby Connection (1999), various artists, with production and dub mixes by King Tubby
Spanning the years from 1973 to 1981, this compilation includes some of the fieriest cuts from Channel One, a Kingston-based studio that was influential in the development of reggae music. Channel One started off with a small four-track recorder, but with the advent of the sixteen-track in the mid '70s, producer/mad scientist King Tubby cultivated a dark, spacey variation of the form: dub. Drums and bass were brought into the foreground, echoes added with abandon, and noises drop in and out of the mix with no discernible pattern. This record is great because it juxtaposes the original pieces with their dub remixes.
Apocalypse Now (1979), by Francis Ford Coppola with: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Coppola's cinematic insertion of Conrad's classic tale into America's characteristic run-away militarization quite literally sent the director in his own heart of darkness. That aside, this flawed masterpiece captures perfectly the Vietnam era, its schizophrenic nature, its ugly hallucinations, its amorality, and its mythic nature. The age-old archetype here is the death of the sacred king by ritual murder (as discussed by Frazer and Freud), but Vietnam was an entirely modern tragedy. Apocalypse Now intertwines the two in a film that, like America itself, teeters on the verge of collapsing under its own weight.
Pierrot Le Fou (1965), by Jean-Luc Godard with: Anna Karina, Jean-Paul Belmondo
Sometimes Godard can be accused of excess and pretentiousness, and sometimes (or more frequently than just "sometimes") that is true, but that doesn't diminish in the slightest his capabilities as first a filmmaker and an artist second. Pierrot comes at the end of his "classical" period, before his left turn to Maoism and revolution, but the specter of insurrection haunts this tale of lovers on the run from bourgeois society and capitalist alienation. Plus, it's gorgeous to look at, with its pop art schema set against a color pallet derived from Mondrian.
Taxi Driver (1976), by Martin Scorsese with: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel
Like Pierrot Le Fou, Scorsese's 1976 work deals with modern society's inherently alienating character. But even as its main character, lonely and disturbed veteran-turned-cab driver Travis Bickle, descends further into a world of his own making, the film never takes off into flights of fancy. Instead, it keeps Travis in a dirty and violent New York City, surrounded by crime, drugs, and porno theaters. The character's path to redemption -- the saving of a child prostitute -- plays second tier throughout the film as he plans what promises to be the crime of the century.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), by Serge Leone with: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
The spaghetti western turned into pure mythology, an Italian representation of the post-Civil War American west as it never really existed. The film's cinematography, conducted by Tonino Delli Colli, is as wide-open and beautiful as the sparse and arid landscape that it is set in. Ennio Morricone's soundtrack is a masterpiece in its own right and its influence still echoes today, while the story, written by Leone and several well-known Italian "script doctors," is surprisingly majestic. This is one of the first movies I ever saw as a child, and it's one that I'll probably never forget.
Paths of Glory (1957), by Stanley Kubrick with: Kirk Douglas
Kubrick is no stranger to making anti-war films, the better known ones being Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket, but early in his career he shied away from the dark humor he would later employ. This film, set in the illogical nightmare of World War I, focuses on soldiers who refuse to partake in a doomed attack and subsequently face court martial -- and execution -- on the charges of cowardice. Kubrick's film is a succession of images: the endless labyrinth of trenches, the kangaroo court, the march to the firing squad, and the soldiers weeping to German folk songs.
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About the Author
Edmund Berger is an independent writer and researcher living in Louisville, Kentucky. He is currently at work on a book detailing the history of American democracy promotion. He can be reached at Edmund.B.Berger [at] gmail.com. (back)