Sunday, May 29, 2016

CORPORATE MUSIC STORE: Dispatches 5/29/16

There aren't many music stores around and that hurts a bit.

I notice it by the very fact that I still buy CDs. I can get any album online in moments. I have a subscription account to binge-listen to almost whatever I can dream of.

But I went to a store hoping to get a CD.

I went to a Walmart because the only two that are within 20 minutes are in a mall and I was on a lunch break. One of the two was downsized from what felt like a quarter-acre of space and is now a boutique store, basically. They're both corporate, the same broken, clueless corporation that I used to work for. My store eroded and vacated its fading strip mall.

To make matters worse, I wanted a Bob Dylan album.

A new one.

A covers album of Frank Sinatra songs...

..that is a sequel to a similar one that came out last year.

If I wasn't already embarrassed enough to listen to such anemic music, I had to go into a Walmart to find it.

But it wasn't enough to simply go in and find it. I had to ask for it. And when that didn't work I almost had to beg for it.

What was once carefully curated sections, or even automated-yet-comprehensive Soundscan aggregates, are now a slop bucket and some barren wired shelving, begging for the rest of the recall to put the entire section of its misery.

Why do they even bother letting all of that music suffer? Are they hedging their bets that somehow that part of the music business that still supports the physical medium is going to come around? They are like a company that tries to restructure after declaring bankruptcy. Maybe they can survive, but not with whatever bit of tin starred prestige they had managed to hold on to.

I spent a few minutes flipping through a strange mix of edited recent hip hop releases and both budget and deluxe editions of classic albums. The older artists had multiple greatest hits albums with terrible covers, likely the victims of bad contracts and/or being too dead to protest. The albums themselves might still be profound but in this section, and in this thoughtless selection, they had all been reduced to banality. Everything was out of order. It was terribly neglected.

Still no luck. I have always hated asking for help in a music store. I know the alphabet and I know how to spell. I've done whatever research is necessary to act on the motivation that brought me into the store. Asking for help was a sign of weakness, like admitting that I couldn't read. Even if help was necessary, it came at a price.

I asked the woman at the grey monolith where she and a coworker were congregating. Their jobs were not specialized and none of us were under the illusion that this was a music store. I thought I understood the system enough to have hope that this sad album, this sign of loneliness and loss of a pioneering spirit, could maybe be someplace in this glorified electronics section.

"Hi, I know this might sound weird...", something I normally preface to a request that, in truth, sounds perfectly reasonable to me. "...but I was wondering if you could check to see if you have the most recent Bob Dylan album." The moment these words left my mouth I felt like I had truly vacated whatever marketable demographic I had hoped to still inhabit. I'm 35 but I might as well be 50. Balding, almost completely greyed hair and, now, asking for a Bob Dylan album. A Bob Dylan album of Frank Sinatra songs. I'm no different than a 75 year old baby boomer icon. A man born just a year after my own father. Except they were both brilliant and I'm just someone skating between ice ages.

The cashier looks at me weird and edges towards her computer/register to check before she too realizes something. It's clear that that she doesn't get people asking for CDs very often.

"We can't check stock on CDs. They don't come in through the normal stock. Someone comes in and does it from the outside. You'd have to ask him. He's actually here now. He has a green shirt on."

I then realize that Walmart gets music in precisely the same way that truck stops and supermarkets get their bargain DVDs in. It's a vender charged with bringing in...stuff.

I approach the man with the green shirt, who is pushing a shopping cart that contain 5 cardboard boxes.

" was told that maybe you can help me. I'm looking for a new release. It definitely just came out. It's the new Bob Dylan album?"

I end on a question. I'm humbled. This is how low it gets. It's not like the day I confidently asked for the new Slayer album, knowing that it's there and that it's good and, at that point, not made by old men who are just prolonging a lifestyle in spite of their bad backs and desire to have more quality time with their families. Buying that album made you a part of something. Today is like getting the last ticket on the last day of a nearly-abandoned rail line.

He thinks for a second but comes back abrupt. "I haven't seen that."

Such an air of authority, not of taste but of a truly limited pool of stock on hand. He opens a box and rifles around while I peer in. It was the kind of box that would come in on a Monday from a label whose newest release was modest but had been the product of many months of writing, recording, mixing, mastering, art production, merchandise preparation, promotional preparation, and tour planning. It was often a catalyst of the next year of a band's life.

"It's not here. There's only one big release for this Friday, it's...yeah, it's the new Dierks Bently."

"Ok. Thanks."

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Dramaturgy and the Wolverine

Last night I watched 2013's "The Wolverine" again. I've watched it more times than probably any high profile movie to come out in the last decade. I've watched it more than any other so-called "superhero movie" and I've reviewed it more than any other short form artwork that isn't the Bible or Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns". I've watched it a lot.

"The Wolverine" got a skimpy score from movie review aggregates. Metacritic has it at 60% and Internet Movie Database has it at a 6.7 out of 10. Rotten Tomatoes, which in theory should be drawing from the same pool as Metacritic, had it at a respectable 70%, which is by no means bad but certainly not anything special. "Max Mad: Fury Road" was probably the best reviewed action movie and it set a new standard for things but it isn't really helpful to compare these kind of things. Apples and oranges, really.

It's too bad that the scores are so close to middling because it's an awesome movie. It's a sort-of adaptation of a run of comics written by Chris Claremont, one of the most important comic book writers spit out by this century-old modern art form. The most notable artist from this story line was the same Frank Miller who wrote and illustrated the aforementioned "Dark Knight Returns". It is by no means a true adaptation but it's a good reworking of the atmosphere created by that series. I'd be hard pressed to give a play-by-play of that series, but it felt awesome reading it.

The setting has the same mood as "Blade Runner" or "Lost in Translation" or even "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan". It feels a little like the Japanese sequence of the first "Kill Bill" installment. The mitigating factor is, of course, Japan. Much like Jean Renoir's "The River" or David Lean's "A Passage to India", it's hard to shake the fish-out-of-water trope typical to colonial and post-colonial story telling. The story isn't about integration but, rather, juxtaposition. Everyone in "the Wolverine" is compared with someone else, even if it's simply by association. It's a reminder that the world really isn't homogenized and that, despite the ubiquity of mainstream technologies and fashion, that there still exists a real difference between the cultures of the world. We're much further from turning culturally grey than we may realize.

It's hard to shake the concern that the movie is exploiting its setting. Pachinko machines, bonsai trees, dark decora, bullet trains, and samurai abound. It feels like an idealized travelogue, hopefully less like Marco Polo or even less like Louis Malle's "Phantom India". "The Wolverine" offers little editorial other than that which normally occur in the use of stereotypes. It's also hard to shake the sense that the Japan of this film is built on well-known and oft-used stereotypes.

But maybe it's me creating the stereotype. Stereotypes are the definition of a set of characteristics in a person or culture that are reduced in the process of being made absolutes. But describing something as a stereotype is also a form of stereotyping, a reductio ad absurdum that can be a perpetual definition of definitions, an unending interplay of "this" and "not this" where what is original and what is parody spiral in the fluidity of culture. Maybe not pointing out the existence of a bullet train as characteristic of an image of contemporary Japan is in as much danger of stereotyping as pointing one out. Traditionally, it all comes down to storytelling. "Does it serve the purpose of the story?" the critic asks, "or is it arbitrary? Is it it merely establishing the mise en scène? And who decides that a bullet train is characteristic of modern Japan?"

Perhaps that critic is a western critic, who can be quick to point out the collective guilt of cultural imperialism that has only homogenized a global society in the same way gentrification homogenizes neighborhood cultures or how logging eradicates the ecosystem of the rain forest. There is a sense that we ought not to inhibit cultures by reducing their diversity, to not propagate these stereotypes as a way of constricting the opinions of others who aren't in contact with these cultures, and to preserve the uniqueness of a culture by allowing it to "be".

Of course, this might be the same kind of control that is often typical of American culture, an appeal to the oldest form of domination: the power to name. The oldest argument in this phase of western modernity tends to begin with the words "who are we to...". "Who are we to decide what's best for a culture?" "Who are we to interfere or define?". The process of "naming" exhausts itself because the gaze into our own navels is endless. Identity collapses within itself.

Of course I am also stereotyping the western critic. The whole concept of "western" is part of the myth of Orientalism, that "east" and "west" are accidents of the Occident, those self-appointed authorities of western European origin. Perhaps a native critic would receive "The Wolverine" differently. I'd have to ask.

But what if they didn't like it? Where would that leave me? Could I appreciate it on its own terms? I don't understand the critics because I don't understand what has determined dramaturgical excellence. Where did it fall short and on what terms? I liked it. I think it's excellent. Great, moody storytelling that doesn't try to be realistic but also doesn't try to be fake either. There are hints beyond the fantastical aspects of the storytelling, Silver Samurais and prescient mutants. How about the redub of Svetlana Khodchenkova's voice, devoid of all ambiance and echo? Or Yashida's hospital bed? These are choices of style and atmosphere, not at all flashy or showy but manipulators of mood that bend what we think we should see and what we think we should here. We expect mythic figures articulated in a grounded idiom and we expect realistic settings. But the smaller choices that affect mood and convention change our expectations much like the score (which is excellent) does. The unsettling moment created by the lack on sound upon the impact of the hydrogen bomb on Nagasaki grounds me in natural unreality, those things that suspend normality but are quite explainable. Sound and set design are natural manipulations and so defines the mood.

"The Wolverine" is excellent. I think it's on purpose.