The first two Saturdays in April, CMU Critical Engagements is proud to present as part of their “Cities, Coasts, and Everywhere Else” theme for 2023, two of the greatest films noir made about Los Angeles: Ridley Scott’s 1982 neo-noir classic BLADE RUNNER (Saturday 4/1), and David Lynch’s 2001 surreal masterpiece MULHOLLAND DR. (Saturday 4/8). Both screenings are $8 in advance (on Friendsofthebroadway.org) and $10 at the door (Broadway Theatre, 216 E. Broadway St, downtown Mt. Pleasant).
Saturday April 1: Blade Runner
Dir: Ridley Scott Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer Rated R, 117 minutes, Watch Trailer Here
It’s 2019 in Los Angeles, and the Tyrell Corporation has taken everything over. Their line of replicants (“more human than human” cyborgs) have gone rogue, and bounty hunter Rick Deckard has been hired to reign them in. Widely regarded as one of the most striking visual films of the 1980’s, Blade Runner remains a cult classic well in line with Ford’s iconic films of the era, including Raiders of the Lost Ark and the original Star Wars trilogy. It presents a wholly unique dystopian view of the near-future Los Angeles, including a legendary scene that reinvents the Bradbury Building (one of LA’s greatest pre-War structures).
Saturday, April 8: Mulholland Dr.
Dir: David Lynch Starring: Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, Laura Elena Harring Rated R, 142 minutes, Watch Trailer Here
This is it: David Lynch’s masterpiece that garnered him an Oscar nomination for best director, made a star out of Naomi Watts, and topped the BBC’s poll of “Greatest films of the 21st century.” A subtle nod to classic Hollywood films noir like ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (down to the street-name title), this surrealist neo-noir depicts Los Angeles as a fever dream to two women – one with amnesia – trying to unravel a bizarre mystery. Meanwhile, a hotshot filmmaker (Theroux) loses control of his movie and his life. To go into more detail would be nearly impossible here; you just have to experience it on the big screen.
For today’s #NotbytheClash challenge (A Song About Disliking One’s Boring Job) I chose “1999,” a song that Arlen Gun Club composed for the incredibly fun indie film Turbo Cola. In the process, I discovered that the band filmed a ’90s-style promotional tie-in music video for the track, complete on set at the mini-mart from the movie and the film’s star Nick Stoesser.
From what producer/actor Brandon Keeton told the audience at Mt. Pleasant International Film Festival screening earlier this year, the Arlen Gun Club’s involvement wound up being one of the film’s happy accidents. He and the director were in a bind, unable to afford royalties for the likes of Blink-182 or other top pop-punk acts who sound-tracked the millennial era. Fortunately, his nephew’s band from Cincinnati released some new recordings right around then, and he immediately reached out. The result breathed so much life into the film, especially “1999,” which became the movie’s opening anthem.
Either way, Arlen Gun Club are fantastic (for reasons other than their name) and have been on the road throughout the Midwest to promote their debut full-length album. Give it a listen here.
If you enjoy reading about my favorite records and live in Central Michigan, then you can come hang out and hear me play my favorite records TONIGHT at the Larkin Beer Garden (next to the Dow Diamond in Midland). I’ll be spinning from 6 until 9 or so! [/PSA]
It would stand to reason that Milo Goes to College would be my top record of this year, considering what a watershed era it was for American punk music (and I have a Descendents tattoo), but instead, my favorite album released in 1982 was a largely maligned “comeback” record by an egomaniacal, dinner-jacket-wearing crooner. Granted, most of the maligning I’ve seen in online communities around Roxy Music’s masterpiece Avalon is done by what I can only assume are bitter Eno loyalists. I absolutely enjoy those early prog-fire albums the collective did in fancy space costumes – I’m technically in the middle of Michael Bracewell’s tome Remake/Remodel: Becoming Roxy Music as I write this. You just can’t heap praise on Avalon without dealing with the fact that “Virginia Plain” and “Editions of You” also exist in the same universe. In 1998, Rolling Stone saw fit to choose the Eno-free Siren (an entirely okay mid-70’s glam-pop album with maybe three or four great tracks) to stand above the rest of the band’s catalog on their “RS 200” list.
I should write, with utter transparency, that I haven’t reached Simon Morrison’s 33 1/3 book on Avalon yet in my reading queue (but I cannot wait to dive in). Because this is my website, I reserve the right to come back to this post and amend it accordingly if Morrison helps me discover that I’m completely full of it. But, there’s something refreshing about sitting down without the discursive baggage equivalent to at least three or four episodes of ‘Behind the Music’ on a record you love. Considering how much time I spend thinking and writing about music, it’s somewhat refreshing to just colo(u)r a record in verbal kindness because it’s wonderful and you love it.
That’s the hill I’m going to die on regarding Roxy Music’s 1982 album Avalon. It’s ten tracks, (partially instrumental) of thoughtful, temple-massaging, everything’s-gonna-be-alright slow jams which permanently established the 80’s iteration of Sophisiti-pop (later re-branded as the invented joke-genre Yacht-Rock) and retroactively established Bryan Ferry as the Godfather of New Wave. Perish the thought that a college radio colleague was about to apply that label to Morrissey ahead of Moz’ inevitably-cancelled Syracuse show back in 2004. I stopped him and said that Ferry deserves that title, if we insist on slapping it on somebody. So many of the “New Wave” tropes we took for granted pre-dated Duran Duran and MTV. Most of them even pre-dated Bryan Ferry, but I can’t think of one British musician of the post-Rock n’ Roll era who more encompassed so many of the New Romantic aesthetics.
It will undoubtedly strip me of cred to admit this, but the first time I remember hearing “More Than This,” Bill Murray was singing it in Lost in Translation. For those of you who haven’t seen Sofia Coppola’s elegant, insufferable romp through Tokyo, I would advise against it unless you enjoy watching privileged people being sad (Lost in Translation walked so Eat Pray Love could run). But, like a lot of mid-2000’s cinematic pablum whose apparent directive was to make young gen-xers (later renamed “millennials”) feel deep, it featured some quality tunes. From what I remember, the film brought Kevin Shields back from the dead, too, fourteen years after he dropped his own masterpiece Loveless (my 8th-favorite album of 1991). The most memorable moments of Lost in Translation all centered around music: Murray singing Roxy Music to express his disillusionment, a very young ScarJo crossing a bridge in a cab to Loveless highlight “Sometimes,” a stripper dancing to the teaches of Peaches (“Fuck the Pain Away”), and of course a pretentious ending slathered in “Just Like Honey.” The latter (putting a hip song over the credits just because you like it) felt like a device employed by countless student filmmakers in order to show off their musical taste (guilty), not something that Nic Cage’s cousin, born into Hollywood royalty, needed in order to wrap up her movie.
I’ll return to the topic at hand.
Some people ridicule that fantastic falconry cover, but I can’t imagine Avalon without it. As much as this was a departure from a lot of Roxy Music’s 70’s fare, the image fit into their singular fantasy world, drawing from the Arthurian legend and not using a sultry female model (or models) to get their point across. I would imagine that Morrisson’s book will address this, too, but I’m willing to wager that Ferry was seeking his own Avalon upon which to recover from the 70s, ultimately building a musical one. Either way, it’s appropriate, because Avalon is much more reflective and infinitely less horny than “classic” Roxy Music. Rather than playing like a raucous night out at some club, it feels like an ex-clubber approaching middle age, taking their coffee out onto the back patio and thinking about all of the mistakes they’ve made. It’s overwhelmingly tasteful music that still manages to be funky and doesn’t abuse saxophones like 98% of the coke-recovery (or coke-relapse) jams that followed in the decade. Andy Mackay deserves recognition on that feat alone.
I think I’m going to stop here. I did some light Googling in order to fact-check myself, and I wound up spending about twenty minutes reading up on Welsh mythology. Listen to Roxy Music’s Avalon. If you have a record player, buy it on vinyl. Get home from a particularly long day, put the needle at the beginning of Side 2, prepare a hot compress or grab a cold drink during “The Main Thing,” and make sure to lay down with either source of comfort by the time the mysterious, drifting into to “Take a Chance With Me” begins. It’s bliss.
For those of you interested in my Top 10 Albums of 1982:
Roxy Music – ‘Avalon’
Descendents – ‘Milo Goes to College’
Angry Samoans – ‘Back from Samoa’
Discharge – ‘Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing’
In late July, I drove from Florida to Michigan. On the way through the Florida panhandle, I stopped through the one-stoplight town of Mayo, where I’ve paid a visit every five years since I wound up there during a filming trip in 2010. I stopped into a thrift store which used to be the town’s thriving pharmacy, striking up a conversation with Vi, the elderly woman who owns the building and runs the shop. I didn’t find any tapes, records, or books that I felt the need to own (save for a cool-looking yet too-water-damaged book on Sacco and Vanzetti), but I did find one of those old K-Mart one-time-use cameras. Vi asked me for one dollar, which I gladly paid for yet another analog experiment.
The camera itself was sealed inside a silver polypropylene bag inside a cardboard package, though one corner of the camera’s cardboard casing was beginning to disintegrate. The packaging suggested bringing it to my local K-Mart for the professionals there to develop once I took all 27 exposures, ideally by the latter part of 1999. As one might expect, I took this as a challenge. I made sure to keep the camera inside the poly bag to protect it from sunlight and (as much as possible) excessive heat in my car.
Over the course of my drive, I took most of the exposures, finishing the camera-roll when I was back in Central Michigan. The mechanism appeared to work fine, and I heard a definitive “CLICK” whenever I wound and then hit the shutter button. I tried to charge the flash to test the outside chance that it would work, but alas, whatever self-contained mechanism these disposable cameras use to generate a flash had withered over the two decades it spent sitting in the Dust Catcher).
Anyway, I contacted my colleagues in the CMU Photography department, who regretfully were unable to help me out, between workloads and COVID-related restrictions to darkroom use for people not registered in the program. I didn’t blame them, since I don’t recall being in a darkroom since around the time when my 35mm Disposable Camera was manufactured. However, they did direct me to Express Photo in Livonia, one of few (if any) labs in the state who still routinely develop consumer-grade 35mm film. I called them up, and they had me ship them the camera along with a very simple form to request processing and prints.
Within a few days, I got an envelope from them in my mailbox. I expected them to call me up and tell me that the film was too faded to be worth printing, but that was not the case. Here’s a sample of what turned out.
I scanned these photos using my extremely frustrating EPSON XP-400, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you are given one (which I was). I did not color-correct or contrast-correct any of the pictures. Of course, no LCD screen is capable of fully recreating the original, no matter how high-resolution, but hopefully these images give you a good impression of just how rich the film remained over twenty years in the can.
I imagine that, had the one-time-use camera not been sealed in its poly bag, the whole thing would have been dust. Not to knock on K-Mart, but I don’t associate them (or anybody in the one-time-use camera market) with enduring quality built to last decades in a high-humidity area. I’ve found similar blogs that shoot and develop film that had sat somewhere cool and dry for 10-15 years, but shooting a roll of consumer film manufactured in the late-90’s was on the whole next level. Thankfully, I’ve always had a healthy skepticism of expiration dates on consumer goods, especially those which were marketed during the run-n-gun, waste-waste-waste late-20th century.
Also, despite my professed love of retroactive archives of 20th century culture like Scene In-Between and Dirty Old Boston (thanks to one of my GEO 350: United States & Canada students for the latter), I’m usually squeamish about scanning analog media and posting them haphazardly on the internet, which is why I’m only sharing a handful of the pictures. They’re nothing terribly personal, at any rate. I hope this may influence somebody to take a chance on a similar roll of film and not let it just go to waste, especially not throwing it into a landfill.
When I was visiting DC in November, my friend and I were preemptively reminiscing about how we’ll remember the 2010’s. I said, from where I sit, it seems like where the 2000’s were the decade of us spelunking into the technical possibilities of the digital century, and the 2010’s were the decade of humans reckoning with affiliated dangers (some more evident than others) and escaping the vortex when they could. Resistance, when it boiled down, was so much more than just a buzz word related to people upset at the actions of an administration or particular politicians. To me, it’s about resilience and breaking punching through the wall of a near-Orwellian dynamic of cultural conformity – the kind of society where I got ridiculed for (get this) paying for music in 2005, or daring to use an iPhone 4 in 2016.
Of course, it’s hard to see these trends in action. They’re only observable in terms of, for example, physical book and turntable/vinyl sales, which are still both arguably niche markets. But their meaning and importance transcend those niches, and then some. The process of digital detox is an intensely individual, private phenomenon. One cannot easily observe people cancelling their Facebook or Twitter accounts, and (let’s be honest) the ones who post publicly about plans to do so are usually back around in a week or two.
I just finished David Sax’s 2016 book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Not only is Sax a very (very, very) good writer and journalist, but at least once every few pages, he made a point that hit me like a ton of bricks. This paragraph did, in particular, considering the wastelands of digital detritus I’ve spent much of the past month sifting through to find some old photos across at least 4 different hard drives:
Writing this out now, I think one of the greatest victories of Sax’ book is how it helps me realize how easy it is to just take stock of all the great analog businesses in my life and realize that I’m not alone.
By the way, to paraphrase Sideshow Bob, I’m aware of the irony of taking a digital picture of a block of text in an analog book to post on the internet in order to prove a point, so don’t bother pointing that out.
Cool Maps on Instagram
I haven’t really taken time to express how many fun maps I’ve seen on Instagram (and really, why would I?), but it’s definitely a fun-map-lover’s dream over there. Here is one particularly head-turning one for those of us who haven’t visited South Asia.
Shudder to Podcast
Craig Wedren, who spent his teens through mid-twenties helming Shudder to Think and much of the past two decades scoring almost every show on television, is starting a meditation/ambient music podcast that sounds just as interesting as everything else he does. You can read about it here.
Bad Brains and Defiance
Speaking of DC punk veterans, The Root published a great little piece on how defiance crafted Bad Brains in honor of Black History Month.
The Wild World of VHS Digitization
A piece of non-journalism on VICE (which I’ve already RT’d; they don’t need any more exposure) clued me into The VHS Vault. Everything from the extremely copyrighted to the mundane. Further verification of my opinion on just how much data and media exists outside of the internet, especially given the way the home video market blew up in the 1980’s. What a time to be alive.
While we’re on the topic of the weird early-80’s techno-glut, I had the rare opportunity recently to visit a friend in Ohio who is a brilliant archivist, coder, and trader of vintage video game equipment. It was remarkable, given the legendary Video Game Crash of 1983 (Wikipedia), to be able to play some of the flopped systems and realize, “Oh…that’s why it happened.”
Here are a few of the digital antiques.
A fluffball named Lucky poses with a pair of early Apple Computers. If I’m not mistaken, the one on the right was the model I used in elementary school in 1988.
The Timex Sinclaire 1000. This thing was just the worst.
A floppy disk with games coded for an old Commodore system.
Happy February, everyone. This is shaping up to be quite a busy month for me, if this week is any indication. I’ve actually got two talks in two different countries planned for this weekend, both of which are about musical geography.
Friday, I will be paying a visit to the University of Windsor over the river in Ontario to talk about Capitals of Punk with students at the School of Creative Arts, in the Armouries. The talk starts at noon.
Saturday (6pm) and Sunday (12:30pm), I’ll be speaking about the Boss for a bit following CMU Film Festival screenings of his performance film ‘Western Stars.’ The Saturday screening will be at the CMU Main Library, and the Sunday screening will be at the Broadway Theater, downtown.
Have a great week, everyone! I’ll be back with some more clips, announcements, and randomly chosen videos next week.
Kyle Kilday checking levels before our interview for ‘The Last Scene,’ 12/30/19 Burbank, CA. This accidentally looks a bit like an emo album cover.
Recently in LA, I sat down with Kyle Kilday, the director of the forthcoming documentary The Last Scene. Kyle invited me to talk about the turn-of-the-millennium burst of mainstream interest in pop-punk, hardcore, emo, and “emo.” We had a great conversation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the final product. If you’d like to support or learn more about the project, you can do so at the official website, here.
My friend Nick Huinker, a co-founder of Central Cinema, came by my American Popular Culture class (AMST/GEOG 423) yesterday. We had a great discussion about how independent theaters have been reintroducing a distinct local flavor and sense of ownership to the moviegoing experience. As you can tell from how companies like Regal have been adopting practices held for generations by locally owned theaters (alcohol, personalization, fundraising events, screenings by homegrown directors and producers, etc.), it’s a pretty great idea.
As I’ve often discussed in the class, art-house theaters have been purposefully resetting film to its classic context, in many respects: produced for a communal, interactive experience. For the first half-century of film, it was considered a low-brow art, something that true thespians would never touch. In other words, it was a wonderful cauldron of innovative, thought-provoking, and genre-transcending/defining art. Unfortunately, a lot of this has been lost to history. Central Cinema and theaters of their ilk are doing great work in bringing it all back to the nickelodeon era (as well as the Nickelodeon era, screening Good Burger soon).
Thanks again to Nick for taking the time to come through! Stay tuned to this blog for more updates on new projects in the Geography of American Popular Culture, and if you haven’t yet, take a dive into the wonderful rabbit hole that is Cinema Treasures. You’ll be glad you did.
Not only is this brief sketch one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television, it provides a perfect encapsulation of (1) what a national treasure Tracy Morgan is, and (2) how baked-in racism and racist caricatures are in American popular culture. When I first did my lecture on the thick undercurrent of the Minstrel Show in pop culture, I realized how little context I had to understand how brilliant this sketch was when it first aired in 2000 (or so).
I was only vaguely aware of Song of the South, as much as Disney was still largely capable of keeping it under-rug-swept at the time, a few years before streaming video and user-side online reference became the norm. I don’t remember if I had yet connected the dots between Splash Mountain, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” other relics of the post-War/pre-Civil Rights era with the beautifully modulated satire here. Then and now, it was an exceptional use of television as a medium for sketch comedy and one of my favorite moments in SNL’s decades-long, peaks-and-valleys history.
I had an absolute blast teaching 423 (cross-listed with American Studies) for the first time this past Spring, and my department has rewarded me by adding a section during what would otherwise have been an off-year. A colleague has invited me to present this as a guest-lecture in a course on race and racism next month. I also hope to incorporate this into my discussion on symbolic gentrification at Relix Mic Nite on November 8th. It’s all coming together…slowly.