Friday, February 11, 2005

Daft Punk

Yesterday, I listened to Daft Punk's album Discovery in a way that I had never really listened to it before. Normally when I play an album, I'm listening to it in the background as I do something else, the better the album, the less complex the activity I'm doing, and I was planning on doing a little drawing when I played Discovery, but 'One More Time' started playing and I just sat on my bed and really heard it, in a way that I had never before. I listened to 'One More Time,' and it just flowed into 'Aerodynamic,' then 'Digital Love,' and for the rest of the album, I just sat there in the dark really hearing the music. It's an absolutely phenomenal album, that I feel like I only got for the first time yesterday.

The brilliance of Daft Punk is in the way they play with the elements of each song. Most music is based around a vocal, and the music exists to support that vocal. This has produced a lot of great music, but that doesn't mean that variety isn't good. What Daft Punk does is construct songs where each element is of equal value.

The most notable thing about this in listening to them is the way they use vocals. Rather than doing extended lyrics, with verses and stuff, they have only a couple of lines in each song. Think of 'One More Time,' there's about four lines in a five minute song. There's some slight variation towards the end, but there's no verse/chorus structure. What 'One More Time' does is blend together a few elements, the staticy guitar part, the bass, the vocals, and use them in different combinations throughout the song. Rather than doing chorus/verse, what Daft do is gradually build up the song, adding elements as time passes, then in the middle remove all the elements except the vocal, and gradually bring everything back. It may seem like it's just some guy saying the same thing over and over again, but that's only if you look at the song from a vocal-centered perspective. There's a ton of variation.

'Digital Love,' my favorite Daft Punk song, and one of my favorite songs period, uses a vocoder to make the voice blend in with the music, and become almost abstracted. There's more lyrics in this song, but it's not really about the lyrics, it's about the way the vocal is blended with the 80s style guitar. At the end of the song, the "Why don't you play the game" part, the vocal and guitar do a call and response, and the guitar has as much melodic weight as the vocal, it's not an echo, it's more like a duet.

Perhaps the best song at abstracting the vocal is 'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,' which repeats the title refrain in different contexts to make an incredible song. The vocal becomes basically pure beat, and the variations throughout the song are incredible. On the last song of the album, 'Too Long,' the vocal is reduced to one repeated line, and mixed in with a bunch of other elements, which gradually phase in and out of the song, slowing things down and bringing them back again.

Daft Punk are masters are manipulating the listener, they know just how long to sustain a loop, and exactly when to bring it up again. This is especially apparent on the non-lyric tracks, like 'Verdis Quo,' and 'Superheroes,'which use repeated vocal loops over the course of the entire song.

That's one of the reasons I love Michel Gondry's video for 'Around the World.' It represents each element of the song with a type of creature (robot, skeleton, mummy, etc.) which really allows you to see how they manipulate all the elements of the music. The Spike Jonze Big City Nights video is great, but Gondry's is perhaps the best music video of all time in the sense that it so perfectly visually represents the song.

While they are masters at song construction, ultimately a lot of the greatness comes down to the instrumentation. Discovery uses really distorted 80s style guitars, and it gives it this wonderful disco type atmosphere, that is at once very retro, and almost futuristic. The bubble pop type noises on 'Something About You' are a highlight, as is the entire 'Digitial Love' song, which is impossibly cheesy, yet completley pulls it off. I don't like that song in an ironic way, it's an out and out great song.

Then, today I played Daft Punk's new album Human After All. On the first listen, the title track and 'Robot Rock' were standouts. Human After All is definitely a move back to the more subdued, instrumental work of their first album, Homework. There's no songs with any real lyrics, like 'Digital Love.' There's also less of the 80s style stuff, it's a harder album. I don't think I'll ever like it as much as Discovery, but it's a nice addition to their canon.

Related Posts
More Pop! (2/8/2005)

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Irma Vep and Watchmen: The Movie

A couple of days ago, I watched the movie, Irma Vep. It's a French movie, with Maggie Cheung, who speaks in English, directed by Oliver Assayas, who also did the movie Demonlover. Demonlover was a really good movie, but one that never quite fulfilled all of its potential. Irma Vep is an even better film. It's about Maggie Cheung, who plays herself. She goes to France to work on a remake of Les Vampires, a 1915 serial, with an eccentric director.

One of the things that made me want to see the movie was the fact that I saw the original Les Vampires last year in my intro film course. I can't say it was riveting, but for the time, it was pretty good, and this film does an interesting job of capturing a lot of what that film was about.

I'm also a big fan of Maggie Cheung and this was one of her best performances. For the first time, I got to see her in an English speaking role, and she was great. If I was a big director, I would definitely use her in a movie over here, there's absolutely no reason not to. The scene where she puts on the catsuit and sneaks around the hotel was great.

The movie is almost stereotypically French in its rather verite style, bizarre messing with film at the ending, and constant self reflexivity. Having Jean Leaud play the director clearly positions this film as a throwback to the French New Wave. Leaud played the lead in one of the first prominent New Wave films, Truffaut's The 400 Blows. I love this art film style, especially because this film doesn't take realism as a cue to create ugly visuals. The whole burglary sequence is great visually, particularly when she winds up on the roof at the end.

The dialogue felt very real, like a lot of it was improvised. Maggie Cheung's performance reminded me a lot of Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise/Sunset, and you got the feeling that this charater was really who she was. Her relationship with Zoe had a lot of great moments, and was the anchor of the film. Even though the film has sort of an open ending, the rave scene does a really subtle job of wrapping up the relationship beween Zoe and Maggie in a way that feels final.

What else is up? I've got six hours of work in the lab today, which means some good money, but also a lot of time here on the computer.

One piece of news I've come across is this. It's the site for the Watchmen movie. Now, Watchmen is one of the my two favorite comics, and is one of my favorite stories in general. This was the book that got me into comics.

Back in the year 2000, I saw the X-Men movie, and I loved it, loved it enough to want to check out some comics. So, I bought this book called Essential X-Men, which had the first 25 or so issues of Chris Claremont's run. Chris basically created the X-Men as we know them, and his stories hold up to this day. There's some goofy captions, but the basic plots still work. So, I realy liked those, and in my travels online, I heard of this book called Watchmen, which was supposedly the best comic ever made.

So, I got it out of the library and read it, and it just blew my mind. I had never imagined a work could be so complex and perfectly constructed. I remember reading issue 12 and being completely overwhelmed by what had happened. It's very rare that a story hits you like that, the last issue of The Invisibles and the last episode of Twin Peaks are the only other things I can think of as comprable. I just sat there in awe of what had happened, and I went back and began to piece together the connections. The second read was possibly even more rewarding than the first, as all the pirate story and all the backups began to come together in my mind, and I understood exactly what Moore was doing with the book, he had created a multi-layered, endlessly variable perfect diamond of a narrative.

From there, I went on to read many more comics, in search of another Watchmen, and I eventually found a book that even eclipsed it, The Invisibles, but Watchmen is the book that got me into comics, and completely redefined for me the storytelling potential of the medium.

So, now a movie of it is coming out. While I myself would love to try and make one, I feel like creating a Watchmen movie is almost a futile act, because so much of the work's power is in the fact that it uses the medium of comics better than any other work in the medium. While the big trend now is towards making what are basically paper films, which just ape cinematic conventions, Watchmen uses storytelling devices that couldn't work in any other medium. The pirate comic substory. the Rorshach diary entries, even the meta-critical view of superhero costumes, none of this could be done in any other medium. Frequently the best works are the ones that take advantage of the unique properties of the medium. One of the reasons I love Magnolia so much is because it uses all the storytelling tools of cinema. If you tried to do it as a book, it just wouldn't be the same, the basic story would still be strong, but so much of the power of the work is exclusively rooted in the way it uses cinematic conventions.

So, in attempting to translate Watchmen to the screen, I feel like you're inevitably going to lose something. It's such a huge work, and if you start cutting out pieces of it, you lose what makes it so great. Let's say you lose the Bernards street life chunk of the book, then the ending loses almost all its power. While the images of masses dead in issue 12 are harrowing, the most emotionally affecting moment of the book for me is the last few panels of issue 11, when we see the older Bernard trying to shelter the younger Bernard from the blast. These are people we know and have hung out with for a while, and seeing Bernard die, as opposed to a more abstract crowd of extras, makes the moral question at the end of the book a lot tougher to answer. Even if it may have prevented a nuclear war, was it worth it to lose Bernard, Dr. Malcolm and Joey? I feel like the movie is inevitably going to lose that streeet level part of the story, and that's really unfortunate.

Also, Watchmen, while a brilliant work on the whole, is also a work made of a lot of smaller stories. It's structured to take advantage of issue/chapter format, and that doesn't always translate well to film. I don't know if the filmmakers will be able to spend the time necessary to do the Dr. Manhattan on Mars issue, where he reflects on what it means to be outside time. That's crucial to the character, and the similar issues for Rorshach and Laurie are equally important. If you lose these issues, and the street people, the book begins to look a lot more like a conventional superhero whodunit, one that will still work, but it won't capture the full greatness of the comic. You can't fit Watchmen in two hours, even three is stretching it.

Also, the issue of costumes is so huge in the book, but I'm not sure if it can translate in the film. Particularly with Dan, his costume is pretty ridiculous, but the ridiculousness is a huge element of the character, and I don't know if you can show it on film without the absurdity of the costume overwhelming the point they're trying to make. Similarly, it's probably not a good idea to have a protagonist of your film be a giant naked blue man, and presenting Dr. Manhattan is clearly going to be a challenge to the filmmakers.

But, I am happy the movie is getting made. It's such a great story, and there's potential to make an equally great film. However, I just hope they don't approach it as an action movie, it should be more of a character piece, that incidentally has action. Either way, I'll be there in 2006 when the film opens, I don't think it could be any worse than LXG.

Related Posts
My Favorite Actresses (1/17/2005)
Clean (6/28/2005)
Watchmen: The Perfect Diamond of Comics (12/8/2005)

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

More Pop

I noticed in that last post that almost all my images of pop involved people with guns. What's so cool about guns? I don't know, I don't like them in real life, but in movies, they're awesome. Perhaps it's because it's such a great prop, it gives you power and gravity. I'm all for gun control in real life, but in the movies, sometimes a firearm is needed.

Anyway, movies and comics, we know what's pop there now. But what about music, and my other favorite medium, TV? TV's probably a bit easier, since it's basically the same as movies. The most pop show on TV now is Alias. It's all about dressing up cool and being a spy, few things are more pop than that. The show is at its best when it busts out really cool, innovative costumes, in interesting settings. Sometimes the plot gets lost, but at least they always look cool, no matter what they're doing.

The other pop TV show, one that has both substance and surface is Cowboy Bebop. This series is beautiful to look at, and for a good chunk of its run is a salute to being cool. Spike is the ultimate pop character, and the music of the series creates some amazing purely aesthetic/music moments. Like The Invisibles, this show is at once beautiful, but also has a lot of depth. You can appreciate it on many levels.

Music is a tougher realm. Despite having an actual genre called pop, I don't think that catergory includes all of what is actually pop in music. It's tough to actually describe what makes a song pop, it's more one of those things where you hear it and you know it. The best pop album of all time is Daft Punk's Discovery. The songs are really hooky, with really infectious beats that just make you smile. 'Digital Love' is perhaps the most pop song of all time, with vocoder vocals, great quasi-cheesy guitar, and just phenomenal music. What are the lyrics? Not great, but they work in the context of an undeniably pop song. On this album, you've also got 'One More Time,' 'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger' and 'Something' forming an army of brilliant pop songs. They dress like robots, this must be pop.

A recent album I listened to that was incredibly pop was Gwen Stefani's Love Angel Music Baby. 'What You're Waiting For' is genius. Other than this sort of fluffy club type music, we've got another favorite genre of mine, Britpop, from people like Oasis and Travis. These are songs that aren't trying to reinvent the wheel, but they work as really entertaining pop songs.

The undisputed masters of pop, the Morrison of music, are The Beatles. What they did was create songs that are at once incredibly complex, and imminently pop as well. 'Magical Mystery Tour,' 'Strawberry Field,' 'Penny Lane,' these are all great songs that really pop, but are also really deep, with a ton of instruments that work together to form an interesting whole. Too many bands today that make really 'important' albums like The Beatles did get bogged down in really ugly music. Pop music is always beautiful, and that's what The Beatles' stuff was.

I think that's one of the main problems with much of today's music that's actually popular, stuff like Linkin Park, Korn, etc. It's just so ugly, there's no sense of joy in the making of the music. That's part of the pop aesthetic, in The Invisibles, you can practically see Morrison loving any minute of his writing, I can't see Linkin Park doing the same.

So, why is pop a dirty word in music? Why is it synonymous with selling out, and why is being beautiful and melodic somehow not a goal? I feel like a prime case to explore is that of Radiohead. They made one of the best pop albums of all time, The Bends, which, like The Beatles' stuff, is complex and groundbreaking without sacrificing great song writing and beautiful musical moments. Then they drop an even better followup, OK Computer. From there, there probably was a need to reinvent, but they go so far in a glitchy electronic direction that they lose a lot of the pop train, making music that's so self consciously distant from their past stuff, it becomes much less entertaining. I enjoy Kid A, but the fact that it's less melodic doesn't make it better than OK Computer. I love electronic stuff, and if Radiohead had dropped something like DJ Shadow or Massive Attack on us, I would have loved it. However, they straddle an odd line between electric and rock, not really committing to either, and therein lies the problem.

This isn't to say that all music need to pop, pop is more instantly listenable, but there's merit in music that's more mood than melody. As much as I do love Sub Sub's really poppy single, 'Ain't No Love (Ain't No Use),' I like the stuff they make as Doves much more, even though it is definitely less pop.

Some of the bands I like correspond to Wong Kar-Wai's less narrative (melody), more mood. Air feels sort of like a Wong Kar-Wai movie, where you're not letting a vocal guide you, you're more just enjoying every moment of the music.

So, pop in music, it's indefinable, but a lot of really good club stuff has it, and when it works, it's horribly undervalued. I'm unashamed to say that 'Like I Love You' and 'Rock Your Body' by Justin Timberlake are two of the best songs of recent years. These are infectious songs that just pop.

Pop, when you hear it, see it, or read it, you just know it somehow.

Related Posts
Pop! (2/7/2005)
Cowboy Bebop: The Show Which Has Become a Genre Unto Itself (1/23/2005)
Daft Punk (2/11/2005)

Monday, February 07, 2005


As much as I love Grant Morrison's comics for his huge ideas, and cosmology, the thing that makes him unique from a textbook is his sense of pop. What is pop? It's basically something really cool, effortlessly so, King Mob in Volume II of The Invisibles is pop, all of Marvel Boy is pop, Kill Bill Volume 1 is pop. It's stuff that's not neccessarily that deep, but is so cool it doesn't matter.

In movies, it's about cool clothes, great music and interesting camera techniques. Of current filmmakers, I'd say the most pop is Wong Kar-Wai. His films are really beautiful, he's got great sets, and he always makes his actors look really cool. It's like, these people may be depressed, but they're not going to look bad because of it. Fallen Angels is his most pop movie, a distillation of images, music and emotion, with more attention paid to being cool than to having a really coherent narrative. The theme song of the movie is "Because I'm cool," that basically sums it up.

That's pretty damn cool, the lighting, the actors posed to look good, rather than in a natural conversational stance. It's all about playing up to the audience, the moment of cool.

Other filmmakers who have made incredibly pop movies include Fernando Meireles who dropped City of God on an unsuspecting populace. This movie is full of great stylistic stuff, including the use of 'Kung Fu Fighting' in a dramatic scene, any filmmaker who can pull that off you have to respect. Despite heavy subject matter, Michael Mann makes The Insider a really pop movie, by editing it with such energy and drive, and a great soundtrack. Oldboy is another great pop movie.

But, for me the undisputed master of pop is Grant Morrison. His comics are always full of crazy cool images, that makes his stuff feel so alive and now. Particularly when paired with phil Jiminez or Frank Quitely, he makes the coolest characters ever seen. His masterpiece is The Invisibles, which has a really shiny pop aesthetic, but a lot of depth below. It's the combination of a really cool surface, with a ton of depth that makes The Invisibles such an interesting work. Kill Your Boyfriend, Flex Mentallo and Marvel Boy are more pop masterworks. Some of his other works, like Animal Man, are still great, but lack the pop sheen of his newer stuff.

I guess the major thing that makes a work pop is a focus on the image itself, rather than just using the image as a vehicle in the narrative. This makes every single moment entertaining, rather than just the big action scene, or ending an entertaining moment. The Matrix: Reloaded is a film that's really jumbled, but it's great because of the focus on image. When they're in the real world, the movie sucks, but once they go into The Matrix, all the characters look cool enough that it doesn't really matter what they're doing. Similarly, in Wong Kar-Wai's work, each image is so beautifully composed, that you can literally just watch the movie and be awed, without even engaging in the story. WKW does have great stories and character arcs, but it's not all that the movie is about. It's the distinction between the movie being geared towards an end, and every image just being an end in itself.

That's why I like movies that really allow the director to express himself (or herself, Sofia Coppola has made some incredibly pop movies). Don't always be subject to the narrative. Music is a huge part of this. Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides has a soundtrack by Air, a soundtrack that is so good, listening to it is an end in itself. The music is so pop that you can enjoy the movie just as an accompaniment to the music, as well as on a narrative level.

The moment that created this idea of pop for me was the 60s flashback at the beginning of the 'Entropy in the UK' storyline in The Invisibles. In it, we see Gideon Stargrave, the 60s analogue of King Mob, battling enemies while dressed in mod clothes, blowing stuff up and such. It's ridiculously cool, you can enjoy each panel as just a great piece of Jiminez art, enjoy it as a short story in its own right, or analyze it for clues about King Mob's psyche. Pop implies a lack of depth, but I feel like it's more a gateway to multiple levels of enjoyment, with both the surface and substance.

Perhaps the most pop moment in film is the end of Fallen Angels, which features three strains of action. There's the incredible visual, a beautiful shot, with a tight camera effect. There's Yazoo's Only You playing, a great song. And, there's a voiceover that sums up the theme of the movie. Watching it, your eyes don't know where to go, there's so much great stuff on the screen, and that's part of what being pop is about.

So, what is pop in music, which is an art completely divorced from narrative film? We'll find out tomorrow, but here's some pop images.

King Mob in The Invisibles, as drawn by Phil Jiminez

This is from Fallen Angels

The cover of Morrison's Marvel Boy

City of God

Related Posts
The Invisibles: Vintage Reactions (3/1/2004)
Fallen Angels (12/10/2004)
More Pop! (2/8/2005)

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Astonishing X-Men

Last week I read the first trade paperback of Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men series. Joss is the guy who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a brilliant series, and one that took a good chunk of inspiration from Chris Claremont's X-Men comics of the 1970s. Claremont basically created the X-Men we know today, creating the characters of Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Psylocke and Emma Frost, among countless others. He wrote the classic Dark Phoenix saga storyline, as well as many other riveting tales, which were pioneering in their blending of superhero and soap opera characteristics. Without Claremont, we would have no Buffy.

On Buffy, Joss took the basic principles of classic Claremont, and ended up doing them much better than Chris ever did. The Dark Willow storyline of season six was clearly a reference to the Dark Phoenix saga storyline that Claremont did. But, Joss is a much better writer than Claremont ever was, and Buffy is a stronger, more cohesive work.

Anyway, a few years back, Grant Morrison, one of about three people who I admire more than Joss Whedon, took over writing chores on X-Men, and in the 'Morrison Manifesto' which outlined the goals of his run, he cited a desire to bring the successful storytelling practices of Buffy to the X-Men. His run was brilliant, the greatest X-Men run ever, and one of Morrison's best comics. It combined the huge ideas that Morrison usually brings to his work, with a level of emotional involvement and character intrigue that you don't usually see. The triangle with Scott/Emma/Jean was masterfully worked out over the course of the run, and there were a lot of other great twists, most notably one involving Xorn. It had huge themes, huge events and some really great art.

So, the circle of inspiration continues as Joss picks up where Morrison left off. I really like what he did with the characters post Morrison, there's no attempt to reboot or ignore, it feels lik the same people that Morrison wrote about. However, he approaches things from a different direction. The basic mcguffin of Joss' story is that there is a cure for mutants available, and the X-Men have to investigate it.

I really like the first couple issues of his run, particularly what he does with Emma. She was my favorite character in Morrison and her bristly relationship with Kitty makes for some great moments. Similarly, the dynamic with her and Cyclops is really interesting. I feel like Grant was a huge Emma fan, and saw her as the hero of his piece, whereas Joss is putting her in more of a rogue role, and we're not sure where she stands. The work with Beast was great as well.

The last couple of issues get a bit bogged down in plot and action. It's a testament to Joss' writing that an action scene seems like a waste of time, I'd rather have him playing the characters off each other, but the action does forward the plot, and set up some intriuging stuff to come.

One of the best features of the book was John Cassaday's art. If possible, it's even better than his work on Planetary, almost photorealistic, and beautifully colored. This art is perfect for Joss' story, in the same way that Frank Quitely was perfect for Grant's.

I'm kind of annoyed that the book spent so much time bringing back Colossus. I guess we only see the beginning of that story here, but I don't feel that much of a connection to the character, as opposed to the characters who have had great arcs set up by Morrison. There's definitely potential, and I can see why he did it, but reading just this book, that seems to take time away from other more interesting stuff that's going on.

When I saw Joss in person, I asked him why he was bringing back the X-Men costumes, rather than going with the Frank Quite suits from Grant's run, which I think were great, really practical and very cool looking, much better than both the traditional spandex, and the movie's dour black leather. He told me that Marvel had instructed him to bring back the costumes, and he does it in a way that feels true to the characters. It's not just something that happens, an issue is made of it, and it's clearly an example of Cyclops trying to reach back to a more stable time in his past.

Frank Quitely vs. John Cassaday

In a lot of ways that sums up the difference between the two runs. Morrison was clearly interested in creating 'New' X-Men, it wasn't just the title of his book, his goal was to completely revolutionize a storytelling meme that had dominated since the 1970s. He shook things up by making the school actually a school, rather than just a base for superheroes, and by developing stories with the students. Perhaps more than anyone, I really miss Beak and the special class, I'd have loved to see what happened to them after the Magneto business. We get to see some students, and even a return of the Cuckoos, but that was a really interesting avenue to explore.

As Cyclops says, Joss does not want to make 'rescue ops' the goal, he wants the X-Men to be superheroes, and the suits reflect that. Joss is basically doing Claremont, just much better than Claremont even did, whereas Grant had Claremont going, but was also bringing in new ideas. I feel like the more limited nature of Joss' run means he needs to focus a bit more than Grant did. Grant was at times all over the place with his plotting, and there were some loose ends that weren't really needed (like the Imperial storyline). Joss writes a much more efficient story, but that means losing some of the extraneous points that were really intersting in Grant's run.

So, I'm looking forward to the next trade. I'm really glad Joss chose to pick up the characters and arcs of Morrison's run, this is like the sequel to that, it's directed by someone else, but it's still got the same characters you're really interested in.

Related Posts
X-Men 94-138 (9/17/2005)
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