Friday, March 07, 2008

Post-modern top 10

Writer/columnist Tim Riley wrote and asked me to think of a list of 10 favorite post-modern moments. Here's what I came up with.

1. Bugs Bunny "Rabbit Rampage" (Warner Bros, June 11, 1955)
One of Chuck Jones' many classic cartoons with that rascally wabbit, this is also the baby of one of his long-time partners, Michael Maltese. Here, Maltese's background as a story board artist comes into play as most of the action in this cartoon involves Bugs battling with an unseen artist's paintbrush. The rabbit frequently dashed off witty asides to the audience, letting them in on the joke with a sly nod and a wink but never before had Jones' cartoons made us feel that this was something above and beyond the usual pratfalls. Reality's constantly yanked from Bugs as he loses his trademark rabbit hole, gets disfigured, gets disgraced and gets turned into a grasshopper and a horse. Bugs takes the only way out he can, grabbing a sign saying THE END. The camera pulls back and we see the punch line: Elmer Fudd's finally gotten his revenge on his ol' nemesis. Runner-up: 1946's "Hair Raising Hare" where Bugs scares off an orange sneaker-wearing monster at the end by showing him the people in the audience watching the cartoon.

2. The Monkees "Dance Monkees Dance" (NBC, December 12, 1966)
From their first season, America's TV version of the Beatles (with an English singer though) has the boys tangled up with a crooked dance studio that tries to bilk them- this episode also featured their hit "I'm A Believer" (courtesy of Neil Diamond). While they scratch their heads, figuring how to weasel out of the con, Mickey Dolenz decides they need a "brilliant idea." To get it, he walks off of the set to find the show's writers. The camera follows him as he walks through the studio, brashly trashing TV's fourth wall. He comes into a small room full of old, long-haired Mandarin men to plead his case. They type up an answer on white paper but when he gets handed it, it's turned to yellow. Dolenz reads their answer as he returns to the set and decides it's garbage and tosses it away. The real writer was James Frawley, who would go on to direct episodes of Ally McBeal.

3. Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments "Turn it Up" from Bait and Switch (Onion/American, 1995)
Recorded for master producer Rick Rubin's label (which also put out Johnny Cash's last albums), this Ohio band was head by former Great Plains singer Ron House, a boozy literary-minded smart-ass- you wouldn't always know it though with him howling (not singing) in front of rambling, noisy indie-rock bands. He once told me that he was "trying to find cerebral ideas about inebriation." The narrator of this song might just be the song itself, literally- "he" was born at the start of the tune after all. He keeps yelling the song's (his?) title at the listener again and again, as if to say "I'm alive!" (for now at least). Whoever's voice it is, they keep promising to reveal their killer but the end comes before that happens. House claims that he failed ultimately, having run out of space but I like to think that he (the narrator) is gone at the end because the song ends so he's dead, over and out. Country great Tom T. Hall, who was so obsessed about songcraft that he once called an album (and a tune) "In Search of A Song," would appreciate the idea (hopefully).

4. Luigi Pirandello Six Characters in Search of An Author (1921)
Now a staple of 20th century theater, like many pieces ahead of their time, this play got a mixed reaction when it premiered in Italy with the author supposed running out of the reception to avoid a pummeling. What Characters gleefully did was not just poke fun at the medium's conventions but to also tear them into pieces with only one of its characters sporting an actual name. The rest were just labelled "Father," "Mother," "Boy," etc. as each of them pleaded to be made into a memorable part of the action. And yes, Pirandello had a cosy relationship with Mussolini but if we've generally forgiven the anti-Semitic Wagner, isn't LP worthy of rehabilitation also? Pomo that's decades ahead of its time.

5. John Jesurun "Deep Sleep" (presented at La Mama, February 1986)
As part of his media triology, Jesurun's seventy-minute Obie-winning play had the audience surrounded by two large screens on either side of them and actors perched in between. All kinds of bizarre interactions would take place with one boy seemingly trapped within the video screen and at other times, video characters arguing with the live actors and ordering them around. Eventually, the stage actors are sucked into the video itself (shades of David Cronenberg's Videodrone). A few years later, when the Internet started to permeate the lives of millions of people, sucking them into a cyberworld, Jesurun's bizarre world seemed eerily prophetic. See the New York Times review here.

6. Bob Dylan "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" from Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia, March 22, 1965)
The first side of this classic album (one of his finest achievements) ends with a goofy story of madcap, slapstick antics. Maybe it's fitting that the song begins with a false start that's actually included on the record (and even funnier than the dream he had on his second album). Dylan jumps in, barely spitting out the first two lines before he breaks down into laughter as the band misses their cue. Someone else cracks up (producer Tom Wilson?), telling Dylan to start again, then cracks up some more and then orders "OK... take two," all of which takes up about the first 30 seconds of the song. Next Dylan tries it again, this time with the band blasting alongside him now for a final take. Most any artist would have otherwise cut out this bit but Dylan and Wilson decided the behind-the-scenes gaff belonged there. Wonder what the Columbia heads thought when they heard this...

7. Vladimir Nabokov Palefire (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962)
Literary criticism as literature, where a 999-line is poem is transformed and disfigured by its interpreter's insane fantasies into a 300-plus page sci-fi world. A comment on commentary? A poke at literary estate executors (i.e. the evil, tight-fisted Stephen Joyce)?

8. Alan Resnais Last Year At Marienbad (Argos Films, June 25, 1961)
Like Pirandello's play, the characters here have no real names, only letters of the alphabet. Most of the "action" of the film is a man named "X" trying to convince a woman named "A" that they know each other, even though she insists that they don't. So who do we believe? Is either of them a reliable source? Is it all a dream? A comment on the emptiness of the privileged class? Does it matter, especially when the scenes are so beautifully filmed at such an elegant estate? Does it also not matter because the figures are vacuous? A piece of art that presents all questions and no answers and can madden you until you realize that. Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo might be a more obvious pomo statement but Resnais' film feels more like a satisfying artistic statement even if it's ultimately a huge engrossing puzzle. Also, if a supreme jackass like Michael Medved hates it so much, isn't that another reason to admire the film?

9. Frank Lloyd Wright- Guggenheim Museum, New York (1959)
A decade and a half's work (which the great architect wouldn't live to see completed) on the ultimate art object- a museum itself. After all the bickering with the museum overseers and the city, this rotunda became one of the most recognizable and unique buildings not just in Gotham itself but also the entire art world, though it was later shown up by its Spanish namesake. Credit is also due to artist Nam June Paik who transformed the long, continual spiral ramp and huge hollow center into yet another massive work of art for his 2000 exhibition.

10. A Tribe Called Quest "Scenario" (directed by Jim Swaffield, 1992) and De La Soul "Ego Trippin' (Pt. 2)" (directed by Frank Sacremento, 1993)

Two of the funniest, canniest rap videos, both intent on turning the whole genre on its head. In the Quest video (incorrectly credited to Spike Lee many times), cartoon GUI video controls are shown as if Swaffield is surreally mixing the images on the spot- backgrounds change with a click as do clothing and hairdos. Sacremento's video for DLS (who have a cameo in the Tribe video) is a pie in the face to all the gangsta rap cliches about consumer culture gone wild- showing off curvy women, gold chains, flashy cars, etc.. Here, when we see a fly ride, the caption is "it's a rental." When one of the singers gets a hot girl in bed, "in your dreams buddy" flashes on the screen. At the end, a close up of another singer reveals that he's a "stock boy at K-mart." Bertolt Brecht would have been proud.


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