Friday, December 2, 2011

800 Words: 35 Favorite 'Cultural Stuffs' in 2011. #'s 35 and 34

I am not a typical blogger. I do not falsely claim knowledge of every movie, book, or album to come out in the last year. I’m merely a smarty-pantz who has occasional delusions of grandeur that one day he could be that guy who can claim knowledge of every movie, book, or album ever made when we’re all too old to beat each other up for being nerds.

This list will be about new ‘Cultural Stuffs,’ meaning ‘cultural stuffs’ that is new for me, and no one else. I’ll be ranking it in terms of what blew my mind the most. So...let’s get to it.

35. Animal Collective Fans

(Soooooooo deeeeeeeep.)

I’m only three years younger than Animal Collective’s musicians, and I grew up not ten minutes away from all four of them. I have a cousin who was their high school classmate and friend. But I have to be honest - Animal Collective’s music is hilariously overrated. I once heard their music described as “two Beach Boys’ albums playing simultaneously,” but it’s too complementary by half to mention them and The Beach Boys in the same sentence. Some artists create a kind of self-consciously lofty kitsch which is at best entertaining and at worst a last word in boredom. But intellectually insecure people inevitably mistaken this kind of kitsch for profundity. I have a personal list of artists who play that trick on people that goes on for ages and would seem like intellectual namedropping even for this blog (because whatever my intellectual faults, insecurity is not one of them:).
As music, the Animal Collective Concert which I went to this summer was pretty dull. As an experience, it was one of the most amazing concerts to which I’ve ever been. I have never seen an audience so enraptured, so viscerally involved in a performance as Animal Collective’s fans were this July at Merriweather Post Pavilion. It seemed less like a concert than a religious rite. Not a dull Anglican church service, but a Revivalist Mega-Church where half the people convulse while speaking in tongues and the other half sit in reverential silence until the music ends, at which point both halves explode as a single body into a frenzied roar. And lest my prim and classical self get called out for being naive, let me assure you, I’ve been to more than my share of concerts where the druggie contingent was plentiful and quite visible. But the hard drugs contingent usually takes up their own corner of the concert and make at least a pretense to discretion. I suppose drugs could explain part of this euphoria, but nowhere near the whole. The ecstasy on display at this concert was far more primal than drugs. There is clearly something in this music which inspires a euphoric sort of experience in people (though not in me). Perhaps what I was seeing was just mood music, a soundtrack for a lifestyle. But I felt exactly like what Mark Twain described about visiting Bayreuth, sight of the still-extant (and how) festival of Wagner operas: “I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the sane person in the community of the mad.....But by no means do I ever overlook or minify the fact that this is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life....I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion.” What Twain saw was something far more spiritual than most organized religion. He saw people mesmerized, infatuated, spellbound, by the kind of music that gives a far more religious experience than religion. That is what I saw in Animal Collective: a band not good enough for The Beach Boys, but good enough for Wagner.

34. Game of Thrones - The TV Show

(Some critic I can’t remember called this “The Greatest Use of Nudity in TV History.” I can’t help agreeing. As trash goes, this is utterly fantastic and tells a primal myth with awesome urgency. In case you’re too dumb to get it from the first sentence, it’s NSFW.)

Fantasy Literature is not for me. It’s a shame to declare this, because the list of people whom Fantasy Literature is most definitely ‘for’ numbers half my friends and one of my brothers. But I just don’t see it. And I can’t help thinking something a little creepy about privileged American kids in the 21st century spending years of their lives learning about fantasy worlds - particularly Jewish kids. Ashkenazi Jews spent a millenium trying to escape the brutality of precisely the sort of medievalish Northern European realms which fantasy literature is inevitably meant to recall (come on people, ‘dwarf’ was a euphemism for ‘Jew’ long before the Brothers Grimm and Wagner), and only a century after they got out, their spoiled American great-grandchildren want to go back.
I certainly understand the appeal of the sorts of parallel worlds one finds in fantasy books, but I frankly have enough trouble understanding our own to start thinking about a different one. So if there isn’t some sort of vast network of ambiguous motivations in either the human or the idea realm, I generally read about all those swordfights, spells, mythical creatures, and medievalish battles with disinterest well past narcoleptic. For all those reasons, I can like the Harry Potter series very much at the same time that I think The Hobbit is the worst book I’ve ever read - a title which I’m sure would be supplanted by Lord of the Rings if I ever finished it. There are plenty more fantasy books that I’ve, and one day I’m sure I’ll make a concerted effort to finish them. Perhaps I’ll then discover that I adore everything about Fantasy Literature, but until that day, Fantasy Lit. is not for me.
When that day arrives, I will read more than a couple chapters from the Song of Fire and Ice which my brother Ethan, my resident fantasy lit scholar, swears is the best series he’s ever read. I certainly see the appeal - sex, murder, S&M, betrayal, fetishes, torture, who doesn’t like a story with all that? But let’s be honest here - everybody has their own outlet for those sorts of primal tales. And I never needed superhero comics or fairy tales, I had opera.
As a book, my problem with Game of Thrones was that the characters seemed uniformly wooden and boring. Yes, they die and dismember and fuck with impressive frequency, but not for a moment did I believe in them as anything more than plot points. It’s all too easy to read about the death of a character in which you have no investment. And the end result of Game of Thrones seemed to be a bunch of characters whose sole reason to exist is for us to watch them killed.
But the TV series is entirely different. On the page, Game of Thrones is dreary and heavy-handed. On the screen, Game of Thrones comes to wonderful, trashy life. Scenes that take an eon in the book to describe are dispensed of in two minutes. Scenes of unprecedented violence in the book whose descriptions feel creepily loving are played up with comic hamminess in the TV show. All that sex and violence which the books make lugubrious and funeral spring to an incredible comic vitality on the screen. The sex on the screen is very funny at worst, and at best it can be genuinely hot. Furthermore, violence takes far less time to describe with images than with words - so the audience is not left to wonder why the author cares more about violence than he does about character motivation. As a TV show, Game of Thrones is total and unapologetic trash. And for that quality, I think it will never be forgiven by many people who take the books seriously as high literature. But as far as trash goes, this is awesome.

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