Monday, May 25, 2015

Call Me Unhip, But I Why I (Generally) Don't Like the Flaming Lips

I'd like to say some positive and negative things about the Flaming Lips, who I've been listening to off and on (more off than on) since 1989, a mere six years after they formed, and an amount of time longer than many of their fans have probably been alive. During a recent bout of stomach flu or food poisoning, I had lotsa downtime, so I delved into the Lips and realized why they rub me the wrong way.

I first heard them in '89 on a Neil Young tribute cassette, and I remember when they gained attention with "...Jelly." I'm actually listening to their "7 Skies H3" as I type this; I think a 24-hour song is a cool idea (the Lips' boundary-pushing is one of the things I do like about them). So, while I haven't been there "from the beginning," I do feel like, merely due to age, I've watched them become the beloved band they are today with their proverbial cultlike following. And what I see (though I wasn't there for the first round) is pretty much just a regurgitation and re-frying of some vague, artistic, shallow, empty, and ultimately failing late 60s/early 70s psychedelic-spiritual movement (y'know, those hippy folks). In other words, I think the Lips have built their career on something that's already been done, and was, generally speaking, a failure at that.

"But the Lips are just a band," you may retort, "not a 'psychedelic-spiritual movement.'" Well, if you look at frontman Wayne Coyne's messianic persona, the Lips' collaborations with Yoko Ono, and Lips lyrics and album titles that could just as easily have come from the Summer of Love, I'm not so sure they're just a band. Sure, the Lips are an updated hippy band, reflecting the times they live in, but when you factor in their elaborate live party-shows, remakes of entire seminal 60s/70s albums (Dark Side of the Moon; Sgt. Pepper's), and the naked hippy vibe of the video for "Watching the Planets," an old person -- like an aging Boomer -- could almost feel like it was 1967 all over again. The Lips and their fans think that's a good thing, but I'm not so sure. As Hunter S. Thompson famously described in a passage from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there was a great wavelike crest of optimism and idealism in the late 60s that (had to inevitably) crash into the colossal hangover of the 1970s. It feels like the Lips want to live in that crest forever, which just isn't possible. Smart folks like Thompson and Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa were able to see this while it was happening, and tell people the great hippy revolution would come crashing down. There were, of course, some landmark things that did occur: gains in the civil rights movement, a potent antiwar movement, and a cultural contribution (music, art, movies, etc) that lingers (sometimes lingers a bit too much for my taste) to this day. It wasn't a complete failure.

So to me, the Lips are a contradiction: they're quite original -- aesthetically, musically, lyrically, etc -- but at the same time are just serving up a re-interpreted feel-good hippyism, even using tired words like "peace" and "love" in their output. And where they really rubbed me wrong was Wayne's loudmouthed (remember when the Lips were Beck's backing band at Austin City Limits? -- even ol' Beck got tired of Wayne) liner notes for the otherwise remarkable Zaireeka album. Using the Wayback Machine, I found his thoughts on anarchism, which to me were a smoking gun that the Lips are dyed-in-the-wool hippies, even though they came to be in a time when they were able to see the failure of the movement they were continuing/remixing. Wayne writes:

One day while on tour in Europe somewhere we were driving and listening to the news of the day on the radio. I remember a newscaster with a British accent saying these ominous words: "Civilization as we know it is breaking down at a phenomenal rate." He was talking about Zaire, you know, in Africa. And I thought to myself, what if we were actually driving around and playing shows in Zaire instead of Europe... What would you play to an audience whose civilization was "breaking down??"..
Since then, to me the word "Zaire" has always been synonymous with "trouble." And it made me think that people who have touted the idea of "anarchy" as the ultimate solution obviously have never really experienced it. If they had I'm not sure they would like the idea of sleeping in the woods, being bit by insects, nothing to eat, nothing to drink, sick and scared to death, with a past that is irretrievable and a future that is unseeable, perhaps your family is dead or maybe you yourself are waiting to die. That's the kind of paralyzing chaos I think of when I hear you long for the days that seem ordinary and boring... So that would be the "Zaire" part, and then there's the eureka part...

Ok, lotsa things questionable about this argument. First of all, the Lips' audience is, I would generally say, quite white and privileged. I appreciate Wayne's sensitivity to other parts of the world, and I know he once worked at Long John Silver's as the only White guy with a bunch of Black female coworkers. And I do appreciate that he reminds us that us anarchists do have this habit of idealizing and romanticizing anarchy, and we do so from the comfort of our couches. But his portrayal of anarchy is a fallacious appeal to fear, and it's a half-characterization. I won't go on a tangent about what anarchism really is (it gets demonized and misunderstood constantly), but when you study the Lips you begin to piece things together: Wayne puts down anarchy, and the Lips feel relief that the punks are finally taking acid (like, is this condescendingly saying that the punks are somehow evolving by taking acid, like the...(what a coincidence!) hippies?). Punk and anarchism go together, like peace and love and hippies go together. 

So I guess it boils down to mixed feelings, as most things do. I do like how the Lips have pushed artistic boundaries (the gummy fetus and skulls music; 6- and 24-hour long songs; Zaireeka), collaborated with unlikely people (Erykah Badu, Kesha, Lightning Bolt), and have a sense of humor about the whole thing (Wayne can be quite the funny guy). This "7 Skies 3H" song I'm still listening to has some pretty beautiful parts. But, let's face it: the face of the Lips, Wayne, is a hippy. The Lips have some not so optimistic moments, some downright disturbing moments, but the original wave of hippyism had this too ("In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida"; Black Sab). Being all about the psychedelia, the Lips know that there are good trips, bad trips, and mixed trips. So I guess I'll take my Lips in small doses, and for amusement purposes only. When Wayne starts to act messianic and the messages of peace and love flow and I feel like we're forever trying to reheat the cold dead idea of late 60s optimism, I know it's time to change the channel, because that approach's already been tried once. And to quote another band, I won't get fooled again. 

Wayne throwin' the telltale sign of the hippy, the peace sign. I get embarrassed when my Baby Boomer mom does it. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

On 'Buzzard'

There's a little Marty Jackitansky in all of us, which is why Buzzard is such an important film to have emerged from the indie movie world. Here there be spoilers.

Buzzard follows some days in the life of Martin Jackitansky, a slacker antihero and temp worker who seems to have an uncontrollable desire to (and knack for) subvert The System. This system is everywhere and everything: it's the makers of Totino's Party Pizza, whom he scams for coupons even though nothing is wrong with his pizza (and at the same time, everything's wrong with it); it's the bank he is a temp at; it's his taking advantage of a "work friend" when his (Marty's) scams catch up with him. He wants the benefits of society without paying into them; in one interesting scene, someone scams him, and he reacts violently. He's a complex character: as one film critic noted, you half want him to beat the system, and half want to punch him in the face. He's smart enough to know something's fucked up with society, but his way of dealing with it is questionable.

This backdrop of scamming and desperation -- or going with the flow and buying into The System (a repulsive notion to Marty) -- has a lot to do with the film's location: Michigan, home to cities and towns that have experienced marked crises of capitalism. A kind of warm-up feature film preceding Buzzard, Ape, features the same actor (Joshua Burge) as a pretty-bad standup comic and pyromaniac trying to be successful with the American Dream, and failing pretty violently, miserably, and comically.

Buzzard explores this landscape of either rebellion against, or sad compliance with, The System by focusing on bureaucracy: bank bureaucracy, hotel bureaucracy, corporate bureaucracy, check-cashing business bureaucracy, police bureaucracy -- and how all these systems collude together forming the one System. Marty is both innocent and guilty: guilty in that he, like a criminal, instinctively tries to cheat the system, but innocent in that he genuinely doesn't know how certain systems work -- mainly around banking systems, displaying a kind of financial illiteracy that realistically represents young people today, who don't learn this stuff in school or from others (family, friends). He's antisocial, and proud and honest about it. His hero? Fellow outcast Freddy Krueger.

Buzzard's apparent hero, the outcast badass F.K. Buzzard makes a hybrid glove combining a Nintendo Power Glove and Freddy's trademark talons, the former symbolizing that postmodern life is like a computer game: avoid or defeat your enemies, grab coins, figure puzzles out, earn a princess. I once lived in Laguna Beach, Ca, and often ran into actor Robert Englund (Fred Krueger) walking his dog or getting sushi. This seems like it'd be Buzzard's dream (to run into Englund, not live in Laguna Beach). 

In one beautiful scene (due to a silent storm in the background of the scene), Marty makes a breath-drawing in his hotel room window of a pentagram, if you watch closely. He alludes to an earlier part of his life where he was unhappy and people disliked him; he is sincerely surprised to learn, from the makers of Hot Pockets, that he's "already in the system." He's not real good-looking, he has a Polish-sounding last name (even though it's not), and he's basically a nobody -- a substitute, a temp, someone who forgets his own birthday just like his own family does. He's Travis Bickle without the old-fashioned moral imperative. Marty is just trying to survive and figure things out in the hostile world of Michigan. Marty's a cog in a huge system, a temporary worker needed temporarily, and he pushes the boundaries of this, seeing just how far it'll go. He puts his relatively lowly status back in the face of those trying to achieve and maintain upward mobility, trying to scale the great capitalistic pyramid.

The person who scams him says that he (the scammer) doesn't make the rules. No one in the film has the power to make rules, except perhaps the police or small business-owner of the check-cashing place where Marty finally loses his shit. Everyone in the film, as mentioned, is faced with the choice of either being like Marty and paying a heavy price, or being obedient to The System -- and paying a heavy, albeit different, price. The former is more painful, if perhaps more noble. Either way, no one has very much power, and capitalism -- in crisis, wounded, all-powerful, and questionable -- serves as the framework for these people's lives. Director (and co-star) Joel Potrykus focuses on food to show what sad lives we live under Late Capitalism: Bugles, Doritos, Mountain Dew, Hot Pockets, and fast food are what nourishes us.

One interesting aspect of the film is its take on racial representation: most of the black folks in the film are upstanding, employed individuals. If there is a "bad guy," it's Marty, or capitalist culture itself. There's a black doctor, a black hotel worker, a black keymaker, a black maid. I appreciated this, as negative stereotypes (however statistically reinforced at times) of people of color still persist in films. The scammer who scams Marty is white, as is another ethically-questionable employee of an office supply store where Marty runs one of his scams.

I over-simplistically mentally categorized Buzzard at first as a "someone's life falling apart" film, but it's more than that. It pays heavy homage to other films: Taxi Driver, of course, but also bad horror films, Office Space, Mad Max (Max's name is Max Rockatansky), A Clockwork Orange. Of this last film, there's an uncomfortably-long (and nightmarish for a misophoniac) scene in which Marty eats a plate of spaghetti in a fancy hotel room he scammed his way into. This is no coincidence. Clockwork Orange's antihero Alex has an infamous spaghetti-eating scene, and Alex and Marty are really, ultimately, one in the same. Confused young men who act out violently and subvert society's tawdry and stifling rules and mores about law and order. Both are ultimately self-destructive, destructive toward others, and, somehow through it all, victims themselves. Because it's very true that, in general, hurt people hurt people.

Speaking of bad horror movies, there's a telling scene in which Marty dons a devil mask and plays heavy metal music while looking at a Totino's Party Pizza box. On the wall, quite noticeably, is a poster for the horrendously bad horror film Leviathan, which came out in the mid-1980s during a slew of underwater monster-themed films. Again, no coincidence: Leviathan is the name of the seminal work by philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who was scared of anarchy and the state of wild nature, and advocated for a strong government and social contract to keep people in line in order for them to pursue happiness.

Buzzard is all about the social contract (and Marty's ways around it to his benefit and downfall), the looming threat of police and government (shown as Marty's understandable paranoia), and the wild anarchy that lurks just below those things, especially in a bleak place like Michigan where late capitalism ain't workin' so well for folks, and it's rather dog-eat-dog or scammer-scam-scammer. Marty is not a simplistic hero-against-a-bad-system like Katniss Everdeen. He's a morally conflicted human like us all. The System is not good, which is why we root for him. And his utter alienation and clever system-busting and selfishness is why we are repulsed by him. What we find is that everyone in the movie is under the First Federal* system -- in Marty and his work friend Derek's case, literally. Figuratively, the society they and everyone in the film inhabit is a federal system, and it takes precedence over people's individual lives. I think that, as the film ages, like when I saw A Clockwork Orange and the audience enthusiastically cheered wildly for repulsive antihero Alex, Marty will become a similar (anti)hero.

Unlike Alex of Clockwork Orange who is violent from the get-go, Buzzard starts off as more of a Gen X slacker, but is driven/drives himself to violence as his alienation and bureaucratic crimes escalate. 

Marty's truly a buzzard -- a scavenger, a distant circler looking to feed off the rotten carcass of something someone else did the work of hunting, a loner, an undesirable outcast -- but he is a product of his environment. In one vulnerable scene, he asks his mom to tell his sisters he loves them. He's brutally honest and says the things others only think. He's like a hacker who shows companies just how weak their security systems are; Marty's hacking is into the petty and frustrating bureaucracies and protocols and hoops that have become our postmodern lives (David Graeber tackles this subject in his new book The Utopia of Rules, about bureaucracies). Marty is the 99%, the common person, the perennial, persistent, and undying example that our Leviathan does not work for everyone -- in fact, it hardly works for most people. So he starts the revolution himself in one-man fashion, and the film's conclusion is rather beautifully ambiguous: is he doomed? Inevitably bound for incarceration for his rebellion and selfishness? Or does he escape the system?

* the name of the fictional bank that Marty and Derek work at and which plays a central role in the film

Saturday, May 23, 2015

APE and Buzzard (and Coyote and Gordon)

Discovered Michigan filmmaker Joel Potrykus and his films Buzzard and Ape. Watched Ape last night: great stuff. Punky, low budget, depressing yet comical, original, and alive.

Friday, May 15, 2015

As Above, So Below

You know, Henry Chinaski in Barfly says that "nobody suffers like the poor." 
And I agree with this. But consider the recent case of Jeffrey's Toys in San Francisco: even though they were a pricier (and independent) toystore, they couldn't survive facing a possible rent hike upwards of $40,000 a month. (Insane.) They got squeezed out -- from above -- by the landlord, and the forces of greed and temptation going on in the city and its attendant socio-economic reshaping, largely due to tech companies relocating here and throwing the economic barometer all out of whack. Then, when they rented a Uhaul to move their merchandise to a storage facility, it was stolen. This could be said to come from below. (There are Wall Street/banking thieves in the higher realms of the social pyramid, of course, but stealing a Uhaul is a more street-level crime.) So sometimes being middle-class or a small business owner is tough, because the pressure comes from both above and below. In any case, it's a sad one-two punch for Jeffrey's. There is something magical about an independent toy store and seller of comic books and graphic novels. Hopefully Jeffrey's will rise again like a phoenix from the ashes of the economic devastation going on in the once-great Bay Area. 

An apropos place for this art exhibit

Following in the footsteps of the Ai Weiwei art exhibit on Alcatraz, check out this cool exhibit documenting the effects of incarceration on children, upcoming in late May. Community Works is a great organization who raise awareness about the societal impacts of incarceration through the arts. 

Octavia Project

The Octavia Project sounds really cool. We need more women, and women of color, in sci-fi, tech, gaming, envisioning society, etc!

Team Latchkey, Unite

Despite some serious criticisms I (and many others) have of Baby Boomers, I think their general laissez-faire parenting style, captured well in this Huff Post essay, is admirable. Sometimes a new way of parenting is not better. I hope there is a backlash against currently fashionable helicopter parenting and overscheduled, non-freerange children. Very glad I was born in the early 70s and got to be a kid in the old way, which is generally better than today.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


So interesting how words are used to deceive people. The USA Freedom Act is anything but. In Critical Thinking we call these weasel words.

Monday, May 11, 2015


I saw this sticker combo (below) on a white truck at the San Francisco jail I used to teach Creative Writing at. It was no doubt doing business. Sierra Detention Systems is just sliiiiiiiimy -- check out some these Prison Industrial Complex projects they're involved in.
A "data center" in an undisclosed location? So, NSA, huh? Spying on people is big business.
A tribal detention center? As if Indians haven't gone through enough -- let's lock 'em up, too!
Having a Metal Mulisha and Sierra Detention Systems sticker on yr vehicle is just so insensitive, and offensive. "Detention Systems" and a Nazi war helmet: not a good combo, bro. Think about the historical significance of that. Sigh. I wish people could remember that it's possible to survive, and even thrive, without screwing other people over.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Still haunted by the Simulation Argument; MMFR; and globby chip oil

Still thinking about Nick Bostrom's Simulation Argument. Above, a screenshot of the game ICO

Above, a picture of a church I recently took in San Francisco. The Simulation Argument wonders if our "real" world is a simulation with a high degree of granularity (detail). It's a spooky argument, but I'm still not sold. But it makes me think, which is good. 

I am really excited for Mad Max Fury Road! Get this: I grew up with Mad Max. Almost literally. I was six when Mad Max came out in 1979 -- I didn't see it then, of course -- it was a pre-Ozploitation film that only really came to prominence after the more widely-distributed Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior -- and I was twelve when the last MM film -- Beyond Thunderdome -- came out in 1985. So Fury Road is 30 years in the making. Exciting. And I do like the feminist turn of the latest film, because, let's face it: as good as the first three films are (Road Warrior is the best, por supuesto), they're bro-ey, bro. And consider this: Thunderdome (1985) was pre-CGI! It was, like, a different world back then! And as my roommate Virginia sez, "[MMFR's] Tom Hardy is hot." 

And this is just for fun. Some Clockwork Orange .gif action: 

Coming soon (?): I'm thinking about opening a big ol' can of worms -- what good am I as a philosopher if I don't? -- by exploring the "Slayer murder" of Elyse Pahler, and its implications of how responsible a band is for its music, lyrics, and images, Satanic panic, the First Amendment, the "Happiest City in America" (San Luis Obispo, where the murder happened), and just the horrific tragedy of the whole thing. Stay tuned. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Voice of Witness, Punk Jews, and Simulated Life

Had a nice time volunteering at Voice of Witness' 10 year anniversary fundraiser and party. Hung out with Dave Eggers and met Adam Savage from MythBusters, both nice guys. The above book is a reader, so if you're not sure where to jump in with the Voice of Witness series, it's a smorgasboard of VOW stuff culled from different books. 

Was flipping through some old Paste magazines (when they were in print) and found an interesting article on Jews in punk. Couldn't find it online, but came across this. Will have to check out this subculture of the subculture. 

I hadn't read a philosophical argument in some time, something from western philosophy that tackled a big issue/question, but I dove into the simulation argument, in which Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom wonders if we are all living in a computer simulation, and what the chances are of that, and the implications. 

Found the argument kind of a big mess (and densely, richly written in not the easiest to grok language), but it was fun to consider, and it makes some good points. I'm not really persuaded to accept the argument's conclusions (which are rather open-ended and inductive anyway), but who knows. I've wondered sometimes about the reality of reality and the possibility of being in some kind of computer game or simulation, but instinct can play a good role in feeling out arguments, and I'm just not convinced by Bostrom's reasoning. But, interestingly, one of the implications of accepting one is in some kind of simulation is... not much. It doesn't really change things that significantly. Whether I'm Mario trying to get coins and stay alive, or a human being chasing money (coins) and staying alive, it's kinda the same, eh? 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Voice of Witness fundraiser 5/6

There are still tickets available for the Voice of Witness 10 year anniversary fundraiser. VOW is a great organization that amplifies unheard and lesser-heard voices through oral history and books published by McSweeney's. All or most of VOW's books are composed of transcribed oral histories from a variety of people who have lived at the margins of society and/or have gone through human rights crises. VOW books illuminate important national and global social issues that are sometimes overlooked, showing ultimately the resiliency of the human spirit under intense pressure. Please join us at the party/fundraiser! Lots to celebrate and lots of work to do ahead....

Diesel Dudes interview

Cool interview and article about some of my favorite musical miscreants (and, coincidentally, neighbors) the Diesel Dudes. (Behind the scenes disclaimer: I was gonna write about the DDs for this same publication, but editors have an obligation to use their in-house talent, and have limited amount of funds for freelancers like me. One of their staff writers is a Diesel Dudes fan, so she got the gig. She did a good job introducing people to the world of Diesel Dudes. I've always thought actors have it easy, but I realized this must be what it feels like when you get passed over for a role/gig you really wanted. Oh well.) It's a funny, surreal, short read. Long live the Diesel Dudes. MUSCLES.

My first Diesel Dudes show, back in 2014. They're a great live band anywhere, but house shows are especially punk rawk.