Friday, August 11, 2006

Weekend Update

Gregg Araki

There's a Gregg Araki blogathon going on over at Being Boring. A lot of interesting stuff covering someone who I'd consider one of the most underrated filmmakers working today. Very few people have the uniqueness of vision that Araki does. This is a guy who rarely makes a film that can make it to an R rating, let alone PG-13. So, clearly he's not concerned with commercial success, it's more about his vision. Inspired, I ordered Nowhere from Amazon UK. Once I watch it,, I'll put up a review.

Music Video Shoot

Earlier this week, I shot a video for the song "Yer Warpin' Me" by Nepo. It's a bit weirder than the last video I did, and a bit happier than most of my stuff. That one should be finished by the end of August. The film workshop I'm running also ended. The film we shot there has some potential, but I'm not sure if it'll top the insanity of last year's film, Extracurricular Activities.

Producer Autuers

Though I liked it on the first listen, Justin Timberlake's Sexy Back has been really growing on me. Lately, I've been liking more and more current pop songs, both this and Promiscuous are masterful singles. It's interesting to see the growth of the producer as auteur, Timbaland did both those tracks and the media genuinely gives him as much credit for their quality as they give the artists. It's becoming more a film situation, where the producer is like the writer/director and the artist is like the actor. Most people still go to see the actor's performance, but increasingly people are aware of who's behind the scenes. I know I'm always on the lookout for a new Neptunes track and especially anything from Dan the Automator, who's a clear example of a producer auteur.


Along the same lines, I'm really excited by the crystalization of a new music genre for the 00s, eletropop. It's always existed but the success of a song like SexyBack, along with bands like CSS and and Ladytron are evolving this form of really poppy electro songs. Nine Inch Nails fused industrial with pop song structures, but what these songs are doing is making really pop stuff that is based around intense electro beats. Daft Punk are pioneers in this, with their constant use of vocoder. Their last album is full of tracks that foreshadow the hard driving electropop that's cropped up since. If you're looking for more, check out Does it Offend You, Yeah, an unsigned British band that makes tracks that sound like Daft Punk on a bender. I think the reason I like this stuff so much is that it feels new. Most of the rock bands I like today are in some way throwing back to something before, it's like rock as a genre has exhausted itself and can only look to the past for inspiration. But, this electro stuff feels fresher, uncovering new territory.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

JLA: Return of the Conqueror (#22-23)

First up, a few words on the Mark Waid fill in issues that preceeded this storyline. I'm not sure why Waid did four issues, I do know that Morrison was way behind with his Invisibles scripts at this time, so he might have taken some time off from JLA to get ahead, but I'm not really sure what the reason for these fill ins was.

Reading the Morrison JLA, I sometimes wonder if I just say it's good because Morrison wrote it. Some of his stories are special, others aren't quite generic, but certainly aren't as unique as his other work. I was think that perhaps anyone could write the craziness that Morrison brings to JLA. Reading the Mark Waid issues makes it quite clear that this isn't true. Waid's first arc is alright, particularly the second issue. However, he's too reliant on rather artificial cliffhangers, having the JLA disappear isn't particularly exciting or threatening at this point.

However, that arc is a sterling example of comics writing next to the awfulness that is "Mystery in Space," an arc that has some really awful writing. The idea was clearly Adam Strange imprisons the JLA, so we do that for an issue, then spend half an issue on backstory of Strange, flagrantly violating show, don't tell. There's no emotional stake in the story and the reveal that Strage isn't actually evil is so unshocking it makes the whole story essentially pointless. Waid's major problem is that he writes the JLA in a traditional narrative way, putting the characters in danger or having them turn evil doesn't work because they're all essentially static. You can't write the JLA like you would normal people.

So, it was refreshing to return to Morrison and one of his stronger stories so far. The opening of this issue, with Michael Haney drawing Superman is a classic Morrison moment. I was actually thinking that this story was Morrison going back to that thematic well one too many times, but he mixes it up from Flex Mentallo and takes a similar setup in a slightly different direction. Morrison views superheroes as an aspirational model for normal humans, in someone like Superman, people can see their potential. In Flex Mentallo we see how an adult can become cynical and lose touch with the magic that these characters once held. Michael, a child, is the one person who can imagine wonder in a world filled with zombies, for Morrison, it's superhero comics that took him out of a boring world and opened his mind up.

When Alan Moore wrote Watchmen he thought it would be the final superhero story, because there was nowhere left to go from there, he had utterly broke down all the concepts traditionally associated with those characters. Morrison's work digs just as deep as Moore, but with the goal of reaffirming the traditional wonder present in the characters, enhancing the concepts rather than destroying them. Flex Mentallo is the best example of that, we go through the grim and gritty real world but by the end emerge in a shiny new world of heroes and wonder. Morrison sees the rejection of wonder as something utterly adolescent, best summed up by the villain in Flex, he sees nothing wrong with maintaining a childlike sense of wonder into adulthood.

This arc had my attention right from the start because of the appearance of Daniel, the new Sandman from Neil Gaiman's series. I'm a huge Sandman fan and it's very cool to see Morrison writing one of Neil's characters and drawing on his concepts. Neil's Sandman run is the second best longform comics work, behind only Morrison's Invisibles, and like Morrison, he's a stunning font of stories and ideas. The appearance of Daniel here is another really cool cameo moment, normally you read something, it ends and that's it, but in the DCU, characters from previous stories can pop up again. It reinforces the idea of the DCU as a sentient entity, people put their ideas in and then those ideas mutate and are carried by others. Along with Daniel come a bunch of tie in references to Sandman, and some really cool visuals. I love the way Porter draws Daniel, and the stuff in The Dreaming is gorgeous.

This story is all about the conflict between childlike wonder and the conformity of boring adulthood. Michael is trying to hold on to his belief, but It is out to crush him and turn him into something like everyone else. It is attacking the world of dreams, the place where stories and imagination come from, if that's destroyed then humanity is lost. What Superman has to do is prove his existence to the boy and as a result validate his beliefs and prevent him from succumbing to It. This conflict between childhood wonder and adult conformity crops up quite a bit in Seven Soldiers, which features numerous children being corrupted by an encroaching adult world. Without the JLA, those children are not saved and wind up messed up by their encounters with adulthood.

Seven Soldiers is largely about the struggles that lesser people have living up to the example set by the Justice League. Read alone, this story has an upbeat ending, however in light of Seven Soldiers, the boy's need for superheroes only makes apparent how lacking others are in comparison.

It's not only Michael who needs Superman, Superman also needs Michael to validate him. On a meta level, this could be read as superheroes only existing because the readers choose to believe them. It's us who give them the powers, changing an image on a piece of paper into a fully formed character in the world of the imagination. The idea that Michael can draw an image on a piece of paper then make it real is what making comics is all about. It's what all of art is about, taking thoughts and making them real, it's all about hypersigils, craftiing the reality that you want by just believing hard enough.

The end of the story reveals that Michael Haney, the boy from the dream, is an adult in real life, which ties in perfectly with the theme of the story. The adult world tried to take his wonder, but deep down he still has the same beliefs he did as a child. The captions say that he has "too vivid an imagination," but he's happy to believe in something and not be like them. This is Morrison justifying the fact that he still writes these stories and rejecting the boring world that looks down on them.

The final page shows Daniel tucking the previously massive It into a small fishbowl. If we read the It as conforming adult force, which quite literally puts people to sleep and destorys their minds, the ending would imply that there will always imaginative storytellers who will make our everyday reality look insignificant by comparison. The whole arc is a tribute to the power of stories, hence the guest appearance by the king of stories, Daniel.

These are classic Morrison themes, but it's always fun to watch them play out. I loved getting to see Daniel again and I think the arc on the whole finds the perfect balance between exploring Morrison's personal favorite themes and doing really cool action stuff. It's my second favorite of his JLA arcs so far, behind only Rock of Ages.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Phoenix @ Bowery Ballroom

Napoleon Says//Long Distance Call//Consolation Prizes//Run Run Run//Rally//Courtesy Laughs//Lost and Found//Everything Is Everything//I'm An Actor//If I Ever Feel Better//Funky Squaredance//Sometimes in the Fall

Encore: Too Young//Second to None

First thing that needs to be said about this show is the ridiculousness of the whole Camel tour ticket system. I had an "Invite" ticket, but when I got there, they claimed that they were full and weren't taking any more invite tickets. If the point of giving out the free invite tickets is to build a good image for Camel, that clearly backfired when a bunch of people were locked out of the show. I ended up buying a scalped ticket off someone because I had gone all the way down there and wanted to see Phoenix. But, it's still ridiculous that they gave out so many more tickets than they could let people in for. Why couldn't they just do regular ticketing, that would make so much more sense.

That said, once you're inside, other than a couple of Camel ads, this show was basically the same as the show I saw in May. Before I get into Phoenix, I'll just mention that The French Kicks were pretty good, but not good enough to make me not want their set to end so we could get to Phoenix. I was right up in the front and it was interesting that right after their set ended, the lead singer came out to yell at two people who were twirling around and shouting after him during the set. That's got to be tough. But, it was good because they left and I was able to move right up to front and center, about a person back from Thomas Mars. I don't think there was a better spot in the whole place.

Since seeing them back in May, the new album has grown on me since then, but with a few exceptions, the old material still outshines the new stuff, especially live. Of the new songs, the highlights were "Long Distance Call," which features some of the classic Phoneix synth sounds and "Lost and Found," which is really smooth and emotional. The opening set closer, "Sometimes in the Fall" was another really well done song, with some nice expansion on the recorded version.

However, for me at least, the joy of a Phoenix live show is seeing the epic versions of their best songs. Basically every song they play off the first two albums is amazing. "Everything is Everything" was a highlight, Thomas Mars hopped into the crowd at one point and they also did a section where the lights were off which was very cool. "I'm an Actor" is fantastic live, it's their heaviest song, becoming almost Zeppelin like with the punishing of that riff. "If You Ever Feel Better" was the other major highlight, probably a seven minute version of the song which flowed seamlessly into "Funky Squaredance." The way they play these songs, stretching them out and transforming them into lengthy jams is phenomenal. I think some of the new album songs would benefit from being altered in this way, I'm hoping when they tour for their next album, they push the third album songs the way they do the older material now.

Because I was right by the stage, I saw the whole setlist before they went on, and I did get a bit impatient waiting for the newer stuff. I hate to be that guy who wants them to play the old songs, but in this case, the old material is just stronger, especially live. Moving forward, if they keep "Long Distance Call" and "Lost and Found," the It's Never Been Like That material will stand with the rest, it's only when they have to go deeper into the weaker tracks that it suffers. But, it's mainly a suffering by comparison, the older songs are just so good that nearly anything would pale in comparison.

The other cool thing about yesterday's show was seeing Sofia Coppola in the audience. The Coppola/Mars child has such a genetic advantage over the rest of the populace, to have two ridiculously talented and good looking parents, plus all those Coppola family connections, it's kind of unfair. But, it was cool to see Sofia there, supporting the band.

I think Phoenix is one of the best live bands in the world. I wish they'd mix up the setlist a bit, but if I was still around, I'd definitely be at the September show, they're just that good. Hearing their live rendition of "Everything is Everything" or "If I Ever Feel Better" is one of the best concert experiences you'll ever have.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

JLA: Prometheus Unbound (#16-17)

The crazy, cosmic journey of Rock of Ages ended with the breakup of the JLA. However, that was apparently a short lived thing, since a fill in short story by Christopher Priest features the reformation of the JLA. The story's pretty good, particularly the Batman part, but it's not remarkable. Most people write the JLA as just a bunch of superheroes, it's only Morrison who's able to push them to the level of gods. It doesn't work if you write the JLA like the X-Men, because, unlike the X-Men, they're not particularly interesting as people.

This short also features the art of Yanick Paquette, who would later go on to draw Bulleteer. Partially because of the quality of the pages, his art lacks the slickness of his work on Bulleteer. One of the issues with this story is that it sets up a new status quo where the JLA has twelve members. At this point in the series, the amount of people in the book starts to border on unmanagable. With twelve main people, there's very little room for character development, and the fact that the new members are all lower tier heroes means that the pantheon feeling of the early arcs is diminished. There's potential in having the higher level heroes helping out less powerful people, but there's just too many here.

'Prometheus Unbound' begins with an interesting standalone recounting the origin of lead villain Prometheus. This is actually the strongest issue of the arc, because it makes you understand the villain without actually liking him. The confrontation between Prometheus and Retro allows Morrison to do yet another allegorical examination of the comics marketplace. This could be read as the rise of Image style heroes over classic heroes, but it also shows how classic heroes are creatively bankrupt. Retro could be a dig at Alan Moore's work on Supreme, I'm not sure what the time table on those two series is.

The actual stuff with the JLA is some of Grant's weaker material. It's fun to see Superman's pride while giving the press a tour around the satellite, but soon after the press becomes little more than a tension building device. They have very little role in the end of the story.

It is fun to see some of the lower tier heroes stepping up and defeating Prometheus, but this arc has basically the same structure as the Key storyline, a villain comes out of nowhere with the perfect plan to defeat the Justice League, is about to do so, but is soon defeated. Beyond that, there's very little philosophical or thematic significance to what happens. It's just a straight ahead JLA story.

One of the reasons I don't like Morrison's JLA as much as his other material is that I'm more interested in the soapy character based storytelling of X-Men than the action stylings of the JLA. When Morrison wrote a straight ahead X-Men arc, like Imperial, I really enjoyed it, but I probably wouldn't have particularly liked the JLA equivalent. The JLA storylines that work are the ones where Morrison puts more of his personal interests into the book.

Next up is a guest arc from Mark Waid that will apparently feature more stuff with the New Gods. Then a couple more Morrison issues leading into the One Million crossover.