Tuesday, 25 October 2011

This can be solved only one way...Manson/Goulding rap battle!

I've been listening to a lot of music recently, thanks to my shiny Android phone, my shiny headphones, and my new habit of listening to music at work (thanks, co-workers with annoyingly loud headphones of their own). This has led me to discover quite a bit of new stuff, and it's also caused me to discover anew a principle that I already knew — namely, don't judge a book by its cover.

That's unnecessarily cryptic, so let me expand a bit. When you're looking around for music (and I'm thinking particularly of people buying music for others, maybe for kids), there's a great temptation to listen to a couple of tracks and get a quick impression based on those. That's not something I can really fault that much, as people are often rushed for time; that said, it can be a pretty bad idea, because what you see on the surface of a track is not what you see underneath. That point was driven home for me recently when listening to a couple of songs whose worth (or otherwise) is not necessarily apparent from a casual listen.

The first is Garbage's track "Sex Is Not The Enemy", off their 2005 album Bleed Like Me. Garbage are possibly the most adolescent band I can think of. I don't mean that in a bad way at all — their music certainly doesn't lack for either skill or sophistication. Rather, I mean that no other band I know can capture the feeling of what it's like to be about 16, knotted up with anger and anxiety and uncertainty, but also knowing that the entire world with all its potential is not far away from you. The energy of their songs, topped off by Shirley Manson's distinctive voice, means it's no surprise that they appeal to the young.

They probably don't appeal much to parents, though, given that Garbage's lyrics tend to be pretty unapologetic in their coverage of sex, violence and politics. And let's be fair, if you were a parent who had just heard their daughter listening to the song below (or worse, seen the video, what with Manson rolling around on a bed and getting her pixelated boobs out), there's a chance you wouldn't be overly happy about it.

Now, there's plenty to criticise about that song, and it would be pretty easy to take a message away from it of "have lots of sex all the time, right on!" But dismissing it entirely on that basis would be a big mistake. Let's have a closer look at some of the lyrics.
I don't feel guilty
No matter what they're telling me
I won't feel dirty and buy into their misery
I won't be shamed cause I believe that love is free
It fuels the heart and sex is not my enemy
Any song that is telling young women not to feel shamed, not to feel dirty, and not to let anyone else use their sexuality to make them miserable instantly puts it miles above a lot of the dreck that gets pumped out into the charts these days. And if you'd avoid the song because you're a Christian...take a look at the third verse.
True love is like gold
There's not enough to go around
But then there's God and doesn't God love everyone?
Give me a choice
Give me a chance to turn the key and find my voice
Sex is not the enemy
Yep, direct appeal to the universal and all-pervading love of God to argue against the horrendous Hollywood concept of "there's one person who is your perfect soulmate and you must search for them alone". The theology is possibly a mite dubious there, but those are still some pretty powerful and thoughtful lyrics. Not bad for a thrashy, provocative teenagers' song, eh?

Now let's go to the other end of the scale, where you might find someone like Ellie Goulding. I should probably mention that I quite like Goulding — she's got a great voice, and her fusion of folk, pop and electronica is pretty unusual and works really rather well. "Starry Eyed" and "Under The Sheets", in particular, are very good and well worth a listen. But then you have something like...well, this:

That's "The Writer", off Goulding's debut Lights. Our hypothetical parent is probably feeling pretty good about this one. It's a gentle, twinkly ballad, with some lovely imagery in a soaring chorus. Frankly, Goulding being an unthreatening, pretty young woman isn't going to hurt matters either. But once again, let's have a closer look at some of the lyrics.
You wait for a silence
I wait for a word
Lie next to your frame
Girl unobserved
You change your position
And you are changing me
Casting these shadows
Where they shouldn't be

We're interrupted by the heat of the sun
Trying to prevent what's already begun
You're just a body
I can smell your skin
And when I feel it, you're wearing thin
Nothing too strange there, right? I suppose there's a couple of slightly ominous hints — what is that's "already begun" that they're "trying to prevent"? What does it mean that he's "wearing thin"? Well, maybe we'll get some more out of the second verse.
Sat on your sofa...it's all broken springs
This isn't the place for those violin strings
I try out a smile and I aim it at you
You must have missed it
You always do
Well, that's even more ominous. In context, "violin strings" are probably a metaphor for romance, which apparently is lacking in this relationship. "You must have missed it / You always do" is more worrying, as that seems to imply that there's not a lot of warmth here; having to "try out a smile" doesn't sound good. This also puts a nasty spin on "girl unobserved" from the first verse — I don't think our unnamed dude is paying Ellie much attention at all, and things are slipping badly. So what's a girl to do in this situation? Hit us with the chorus, Ellie!
But I've got a plan
Why don't you be the artist; and make me out of clay?
Why don't you be the writer and decide the words I say?
Because I'd rather pretend
I'll still be there at the end
Only it's too hard to ask... won't you try to help me
Now, call me paranoid, but that sounds a lot — an awful lot — like Goulding's proposed solution is to allow herself to be changed entirely. The message, in brief, reads very much like "you don't love me any more, so I'm going to let you change me into someone that you do love". I may be misinterpreting it, but if that's the message I took away from it, it wouldn't surprise me if a bunch of Goulding's audience (many of whom will be teenage girls) did the same.

And that message, right there? That is poisonous. Yes, relationships involve give and take, and a certain amount of change on both sides is inevitable. But the idea of handing over complete control of one's character to another person, particularly when it's a girl suggesting this course of action, is worrying on a whole lot of levels. The icing on the horrible, horrible cake is the line "Because I'd rather pretend / I'll still be there at the end", suggesting that Goulding's character in the song is happy to just fake it, being in the relationship for the sake of it while she subsumes her own identity into that of her partner.

If it's a choice between young people listening to that, and having Shirley Manson declaim sexual liberation messages at them with a megaphone? Bring on the Garbage.

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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Anyone who even thinks of the word "midichlorians" is not welcome here.

(Yes, I know it's been the best part of a year since I posted here. No, this probably isn't the start of a resurgence in posting. Sorry to disappoint.)

As a fully certified geek, it is not at all surprising that I'm entirely familiar with the Star Wars universe. I hear and recite quotations from the films frequently, I own two of the video games, I can give you a potted summary of the "Han shot first" controversy at the drop of a hat — I have certain credentials here, is what I'm saying.

So I was rather surprised to realise recently that not only did I not own any of the films in any format, it had actually been well over ten years since I had seen any of them. (We're talking the original trilogy here, of course — my geek cred extends far enough to know that the recent prequels, aka abominations against the very concept of cinema, don't count.) So, taking advantage of the January sales, I headed into London to pick up the DVD box set, and spent a reflective couple of hours the other night watching Episode IV.

It took me a while after finishing watching it to decide what I thought of it. Given that the established wisdom of...well, pretty much everyone I know, with the exception of my mother, who wanted to take a tin-opener to C-3PO when she first saw him...is that the original films are classics of modern cinema, masterpieces that soar above lesser films like an X-Wing twisting between bursts of turbolaser fire, it's difficult to have any kind of unbiased viewpoint here. Nevertheless, for what it's worth, here are my conclusions. (One note on formatting in this post &mdash I'll use the italicised Star Wars to denote Episode IV, as that's its original theatrical title, and plain Star Wars to denote the franchise.)

1. Good grief, this is EPIC.
From the opening shot, as an Imperial cruiser (I don't think the term "Star Destroyer" is mentioned anywhere in the first film) slides almost endlessly across the top of the screen, to the climactic battle above a space station the size of a moon, Star Wars has a sense of scale unlike almost any other film. This continues almost everywhere &mdash our heroes move between entire star systems, at speeds greater than light, landing on worlds that consist entirely of desert, fighting an Empire that, we're told, spans the galaxy. Lucas went all-out to create this compelling atmosphere, and he pulls it off admirably.

2. Intergalactic Planetary Planetary Intergalactic
An essential element of the sense of scale throughout Star Wars is John Williams' score. It's utterly beautiful, moving from urgency to wonder to triumph to shock with ease. I was surprised that even after having so long over the years to become sick of it, the mournful theme as Luke looks out over the desert he's so desperate to leave behind was still really moving. As with his score for Jurassic Park, Williams came up with something at once unique and yet very obviously his own.

3. It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know
As Ben Kenobi strode onto the screen, I began to wonder "how did they persuade Alec Guinness to appear in as large a gamble as this?" I think the answer has to be that Guinness could tell he was among people who knew what they were doing. All the casting is inspired — Mark Hamill probably wouldn't thank me for saying that he really looks and sounds very ordinary in this film, but that's precisely what was required for the role of an everyman farm boy, caught up into something larger than himself. Carrie Fisher is as Princessy as you could wish for (in looks, if not in character — more on that later). Even the Rebel fighter pilots and the various generals on the bridge of the Death Star are well-portrayed. (And, as Eddie Izzard is fond of pointing out, they're all British.)

As for Harrison Ford, well, it's a shame that he picked up the "action hero" stereotype in this franchise, because he really can act. There's a scene towards the end, when Obi-Wan has just died (or been absorbed by the Force, or whatever — the film's intentionally ambiguous here) and Luke is sitting on board the Millennium Falcon, stunned and unable to take it in ("...can't believe he's gone."). Han Solo comes down the ladder to find Luke, as he's going to need him to fend off Imperial fighters, and he says just one thing: "Come on buddy, we're not out of this yet." It's a simple line, over almost immediately, but Ford's delivery of it is pitch-perfect, conveying kindness without being at all sentimental, and still maintaining the urgency required by the situation. It's worth noting here that the script is also better than one might expect from a sci-fi blockbuster — I'm not certain, but I think this is the first time Solo refers to Luke as "buddy" rather than "kid", and the quiet character development signalled by that tiny change is significant.

4. My Explanations, Let Me Not Show You Them
One of the most surprising aspects of Star Wars, for me, was the extent to which it doesn't fall into the trap of so many bits of sci-fi, that of over-explaining everything. We're treated to practically no backstory for any of the characters, at no point does anyone tell us just how a lightsaber works, the Force is vague and mysterious. The most stunning example of this was when Han Solo talks to Greedo and then Jabba — there are no subtitles, despite both the characters he meets speaking completely alien languages, and we're left to decipher what they must have said from Solo's side of the conversation. (Come to think of it, my DVD-playing setup is a little ropey, so the subtitles may simply have been broken. If that's the case, then feel free to disregard this point!) This general attitude towards the viewers — that they are intelligent enough to figure out what's going on, and that the story is more important than explaining the fine details of the setting — is refreshing, and really helps to move things along.

5. I Am No Man
Speaking of subverting expectations, I was really impressed by the role of Leia. The word "princess", when applied to a film role, is usually code for "fairly drippy character whose involvement in the plot is restricted to a) getting captured and/or rescued, and b) falling in love with the male lead". And yet our first sighting of Leia is when she is confronting the 7-foot tall, half-man-half-machine-all-evil Darth Vader. And it is a confrontation — she chews him out for boarding a diplomatic vessel, threatens him with the wrath of the Galactic Senate, and shows no fear whatsoever. This kind of can-do attitude isn't a one-time thing, either — she's the one who gets them out of the detention levels, she's the only character who cottons on to the fact that their escape from the Death Star was too easy, and she's pretty handy with a blaster too. Even though there is a romantic subtext between her and Han, it's never over-the-top, and she maintains the upper hand throughout — note that in the ceremony at the end, it's Luke and Han who have to walk up to Leia to receive their reward, not the other way around.

6. Aaaaaaaagh I'm Running Out Of Time
And so we come to the only thing I really didn't like about Star Wars. At the end of the film it took me a while to put my finger on why, though I'd enjoyed it a lot, I'd also found it a bit disappointing. I think the answer can be summed up in one word: Pacing.

The impression throughout the film is that, much like me when starting to write one of these epically long posts, Lucas thought he had all the time in the world. We spend seemingly forever in and around Luke's home, meeting Obi-Wan, and following the droids. Oh, man, the droids. Is there any particular reason why we had to go through the whole "R2-D2 and C-3PO go off in opposite directions, complain for a few minutes, get captured by the same set of characters and have a glorious robotic reunion" storyline? It has precisely no bearing on any of the rest of the plot, and could equally well have been done by simply having the Jawas find the escape pod as soon as it landed. As it stands, this and other scripting and editing decisions mean that the first half of the film moves glacially slowly.

Now, there's nothing wrong with a film that runs slowly to give the audience time to take in the atmosphere. Nor is there anything wrong with a film that builds pace throughout. But Star Wars does this to a ridiculous extent, such that it takes at least a good quarter of the film before we've met all the main cast, while the final battle, from the Millennium Falcon landing on Yavin to the destruction of the Death Star, takes place in-universe in less than half an hour.

Even the pacing within some of the scenes is odd. Take the destruction of the Death Star, for instance. Luke drops his bombs into the shaft, he and Han fly off, Vader spins away, we cut to the people on the Death Star looking unconcerned, and then it immediately blows up. The whole sequence has taken a couple of seconds at most. No anticipation, no time to wait for it, just BOOM. For me, at least, that took a lot away from what should have been the climactic shot of the film.

For much the same reason, the final ceremony is unsatisfying, because it feels forced and tacked-on, leaving completely unresolved the question of what the Rebels are going to do next, how the Empire is going to be destroyed (it's only lost one of its weapons, and is far from powerless) or even how the various character relationships are going to work. From a position of knowing that there were two more films, it's not so bad that things haven't been resolved — we know there's more story to come. But if you're going to do that, you surely have to either do an explicit "to be continued" type of ending (as the Lord of the Rings films did) or make the films stand entirely on their own (as the Matrix films would have done, had there been any sequels). Star Wars, however, doesn't know what it wants to do and it ends up falling between two stools, with a rushed and unsatisfying ending that leaves too many questions open.

Obviously, given that I've just spent 1800 words discussing this film, I found a lot to enjoy, and I'm certainly glad I came back to revisit this touchstone of geek culture. If you agree or disagree with me, feel free to argue violently in the comments. And maybe — just maybe — come back soon when I re-watch The Empire Strikes Back...

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