Yeezy’s fall from grace

So Kanye’s back on Twitter and, surprise, surprise, he’s once again doing his damnedest to prove how much of a free thinking innovator he is. This time, though, he’s going about it in a particularly puzzling manner – by actively endorsing conservative talking points and reiterating his love for President Trump.

Now, Ye’s never been one to shy away from politics, whether it be by incorporating relevant social commentary into the lyrics of his songs, or by openly accusing Bush of not caring about black people on national television as the events around hurricane Katrina made it evident that the State’s response to the tragedy had been less than adequate. Bearing this in mind, it’s not surprising that Kanye would continue to voice his opinions on matters of political or social relevance, especially considering the fact that his new album is coming out in a little over a month; controversy is the most valuable form of marketing currency for those who can afford to sacrifice some of their core audience in the name of achieving even further popularity with the masses.

What is surprising, though, is how Kanye seems to have undergone a complete metamorphosis and transformed into a new beast entirely; whereas his previous records featured songs like New Slaves wherein he lamented the systemic pitfalls placed squarely in the path of every poor black person in the United States, Kanye’s current stance seems to be more in line with the hard-right’s view on issues of race and poverty in the black community; slavery, according to West, is a trend, a fashionable excuse for those who haven’t managed to succeed in life and are much too weak to face the reality of their own ineptitude, constructing instead a web of historic and political circumstances that kept them at the bottom. iuu.PNG

These tweets come just hours after Yeezy’s endorsement of Candace Owens, a TPUSA collaborator and black conservative thinker who recently delivered a speech on the irrelevance and even downright toxicity of the Black Lives Matter movement as TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk looked on and smiled at Owens’ repeated jabs at what she described as a victim mentality that is widespread among black communities around the US and also acts as the primary driver behind poverty in said communities.

Owens’ talking points are hardly compelling or original – her views basically amount to a race-centered reframing of the so called ‘bootstrap’ mentality that initially started out as a joke about trickle down economics during the Reagan years but turned into a genuine argument that conservatives employ when discussing issues of generational poverty, unemployment, and crime; to engage with purveyors of bootstrapping, one must first understand the a priori reasoning that lies at its heart – a Randian conception of the individual as a sort of pseudo-economic unit whose one and only true pursuit is that of its own rational self-interest, ergo every failure to achieve said self-interest is to be analyzed as a failure of the individual rather than as a consequence of the mechanism by which some overarching apparatus of repression operates (this only applies within the frame of the only economic system that conservatives and libertarians truly believe in, laissez-faire capitalism). And, as most right-wingers regard the US as a bastion of free trade, free enterprise and all other forms of freedom, it stands to reason that the only thing truly holding African-Americans back are they themselves, their refusal to acknowledge the potential afforded to them by the current system, or their inherent inadequacy. This is not to say most conservatives are racists, to be sure; by inadequacy, I refer not to a focus on skin color, ethnicity, or some other superficial marker, but rather a weakness or meekness of the spirit. There can only be so many John Galts in the world.

This line of reasoning is the basis for Candace Owens’ TPUSA talk, and it seems to be one of Kanye’s new obsessions as he continues to stride the world, ridden by survivorship bias and an utter incapability to keep in tune with the issues of those outside his bubble of stardom and pretentious pseudo-artistry. Harsh words, yes, but ones that ring true once one delves deeper into the incessant stream of consciousness that Kanye has unveiled to the world through his newly reactivated Twitter account.

Every day West spits out whole torrents of bite-sized thoughts that can only be described as a mile wide and an inch deep, superficial bits of pop philosophy masked to appear as some great revelation regarding the state of modern self-censorhip and thought policing, with some nonsensical elements of spirituality thrown in for good measure.

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“The more people contribute to real time global consciousness the faster we evolve” sounds like an incredibly dumbed down reading of Hegelian dialectics, except delivered in a manner that is, paradoxically, even more impenetrable than the German philosopher’s ideas in Phenomenology of the Spirit, as Kanye fails to provide even the slightest bit of context behind this word salad of mid-life angst. This is preceded by West basically advising his fans to “break out of the simulation” in order to get more in tune with their feelings, an idea that just about might’ve counted as original if it had been written in 1999 before the release and subsequent commercial success of The Matrix.

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Of course it wouldn’t be a Kanye twitter feed if it didn’t feature some incredibly cliched quote of the sort that are perpetually misattributed and have already lost any semblance of meaning by the 1000th time they’re posted and reposted.

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On and on it goes, tens of tweets that are completely devoid of meaning, pathos, of anything that could be even remotely regarded as intellectually compelling. Kanye went on a spree the other day, filming the screen of his MacBook with his phone in order to show his audience the incredibly valuable input of renowned paranoiac and snake oil salesman Scott Adams who, rather than admitting to having flip-flopped from Trump to Clinton and then back during the 2016 election campaign, came up with a not-so-elaborate story about how dangerous and life-threatening it was for him to be a Trump supporter and how he was at the ‘top of Clinton’s kill list’ after making some half-baked videos about Trump’s impressive qualities as a businessman and a captain of industry. The video that Kanye filmed and tweeted of course was concerned with some abstract notion of a collective awakening, ‘people breaking out of their mental prisons’, as Adams puts it, ushering in a new era. Typical MAGA chest thumping, once again nothing new under the sun; most people who’ve used the Internet for something other than Facebook and 9gag are aware of the delusional Trump supporters who hail the now-president as the man who will finally complete the system of German Idealism and raise the great cities of Thule and Atlantis, unveiling their splendor to the mortal world. And make no mistake, there are those who would, unlike Kanye, go very in-depth about their ridiculous notions, who will dredge up excerpts and quotes to support their theories as to the greatness of this celebrity or that politician, who will go to impressive lengths to provide some manner of justification for claims that are, in most cases rightly, seen as absurd or idiotic. As they should be. Not all opinions are valid, and some deserve nothing more than to be met with ridicule and derision.

In conclusion, let’s be honest for a quick second – this is all fucking meaningless. Kanye thrives on attention and we’re giving him just that. Every bit of controversy is simply going to make him even more confident in the legitimacy of his hyperinflated ego until the inevitable snap back to reality, which will most likely look exactly like it did last time – he’ll have a break down on stage and spend some time in a mental health facility, before returning home and commencing the next stage of the cycle that is Kanye’s insatiable desire to set himself apart while simultaneously being painfully generic in every aspect except for the one he should be focusing on but isn’t – his music.

 

 

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Thoughts on The Walking Dead/ Fear The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is one of television’s most lasting phenomena. AMC’s post-apocalyptic zombie soap opera has been one of the, if not the, most watched shows globally for close to a decade at this point, and with each season passing by it becomes ever harder to discern why that is. Nostalgia, I’m sure plays a part in it; even I, long since having grown to despise the show for all its failings, continue to return to it every few months in hopes of finding it reinvigorated and reinvented, closer to its exciting, Darabont-directed roots. Never mind each one of my endeavors to give the show another chance has so far been met with overwhelming disappointment, I’ll keep trying as long as I still remember the excitement of those first episodes, of the introduction to the world and the dreams of what could’ve been but never came to be.

I’ve been through this whole spiel before, and if I were to indulge my disillusionment for just a moment I would once again end up ranting about the technical ineptitude of the crew, the horrendous quality of the script, and of course the cast’s increasing reluctance to even attempt to hide its overwhelming lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of being dragged into yet another season of a show that should’ve ended years ago. I have no wish to go over this for the umpteenth time; none the less, I will now do just that so that I can finally have an article to link to whenever mentioning The Walking Dead in one of my other TV-related works.

Season 8 followed the All Out War plot line from the comic books which focused on Rick’s group of survivors, now known as the Alexandrians, facing off against the Saviors, a rather large community ruled by wannabe authoritarian Negan. Authoritarians, as we know, are as authoritarians do, and Negan ends up using his military strength to subjugate nearby groups and communities, dragging their people into serfdom while murdering all those who misbehave and show signs of rebellion. Alexandria is one of those subjugated groups… not for long, of course, as plot armor has a tendency of giving its wearer superhuman strength and confidence in his or her abilities.

The final episode of the season was (sort of) dedicated to the titular All Out War, as in it was supposed to feature the long awaited confrontation between the two main forces in the story’s world, but once again AMC’s attempts to make as much profit off as small an investment as possible resulted in a laughable stand-off that featured all of 40 extras alongside the dozen or so main characters. The bad guys’ guns got sabotaged by an undercover good guy who won their trust before betraying them, the baddies turned out not to be baddies after all but just ‘people doing their jobs’, the good guys spared them and let them go in the name of some abstract conception of a better world, and Negan got his ass handed to him after allowing Rick to drone on about peace and all other manner of kumbaya shit rather than killing him on the spot in mano-a-spiked bat combat. Oh well, the idiot plot is one of the most common tropes in modern entertainment and one could scarcely imagine a big-name television show or blockbuster movie not utilizing it in order to both provide cheap thrills and appeal to the lowest common denominator in the name of commercial viability, but that’s to be expected, and it doesn’t always necessarily result in a sub-par product, so much as it just adds certain elements that are necessitated by the desire for dumbing down. The issue is that every single aspect of the show has deteriorated beyond comprehension at this point; there is not one facet of The Walking Dead that works, not so much as a minute of quality film making to be found not only in the finale, but in the entire season as a whole.

Where to start? It’s hard to decide what is the worst thing about the way the show presents itself nowadays. Is it the horrendous CGI that turns every supposedly serious battle into a schlocky snooze fest straight out of a cheap 80s knockoff movie you picked up at the local Blockbuster? No, it can’t be that; AMC pulled the same stunt with The Terror and that ended up being, surprisingly, one of the best shows to come out in more than a decade, meaning CGI, while integral, doesn’t make or break a show as long as it isn’t a constant presence on the screen (which it thankfully isn’t). Could it be the overly hammy acting that ruins even the brief moments of mediocre writing in an ocean of straight-up awfulness? It’s possible, but that’s more of a consequence than a cause.

No, for my money, the most infuriating part is the ridiculous faux-psychologism that the show runners have made such a huge part of the show over the past few seasons. A never-ending barrage of surface-level ruminations on morality in a collapsed world and the choice one has to make in order to keep one’s sanity and purity. None of this ever goes anywhere, there is no synthesis in sight, just more and more rehashes of the same few ideas, retold ad nauseum, with each iteration becoming slightly more melodramatic and shoddily thought-out; the show’s attempts at being intellectual are the cinematic definition of diminishing returns. Morgan switches his opinion more often than Maggie switches designer hairstyles during a zombie apocalypse – he’s either in ‘kill nobody’ or ‘kill everybody’ mode with no in-between and he seems liable to switch states at the drop of a hat, he’s already done it about three or four times and there’s no signs of him getting off this wild pseudo-philosophical joy ride that the contemptible dilettante Gimple’s decided is much too thrilling to put an end to. And then, of course, there’s the single most pretentious aspect of the show – its laughable attempts at mimicking Terrence Malick’s plot retardation and non-diegetic character monologues.

Malick’s late career is characterized by a certain type of slow-burning, almost poetical, character-driven drama that features long passages recited by the protagonists to the backdrop of scenes of nature going about its existence as it usually does, that is to say in a rather uneventful manner. These naturalistic shots are often purposely overexposed or feature overwhelming lens flare that gives them a very hazy, dreamy feel, and they are usually interspersed throughout the movie in order to cut up what little action there is, or to provide some manner of context to what is happening on screen in order to make explicit some of the themes that Malick wishes the viewer to explore while experiencing his work. Now, this works with Malick because the man actually knows how to write and how to meaningfully position these moments of extreme introspection and make all this enjoyable, despite its having halted the plot completely and taking the viewer out of the cinematic moment and transporting him into a completely different intellectual frame.

As one might imagine, the creators of The Walking Dead lack the expertise of one of modern cinema’s greatest directors, and their attempts at biting his style amount to less than nothing. What they instead produce is a mind-numbing series of back-and-forths between poorly paced drama, extreme close-ups of character faces while they repeat what amounts to unintelligible gibberish over and over again, and moments of inane dialogue for the purpose of performative character growth where there is no need for such. This is exactly the right use of the word pretentiousness – the parading of certain ideas that could potentially merit further discussion and analysis without engaging in said discussion and analysis, the equivalent of reading the intro to a Wikipedia article and presenting the knowledge gleaned from such a short summary as having been acquired through the consumption of the main source rather than the aforementioned watered down version.

Of course a critique of The Walking Dead wouldn’t be adequate without at least a passing mention of its horrendous editing and cinematography – the grainy 16mm picture was a nice stylistic touch in the beginning while the show was in the hands of Frank Darabont, but now it merely acts as a disgusting layer of slime that coats the camera’s lens and gives the story’s worst characteristics a fitting visual representation, aided by generic camera angles, frenetic editing during battles that befits an early 2000s action movie, some of the most boring and mistimed shot-reverse shot conversations I’ve ever witnessed in my years of watching film and TV, and above all else, a general lack of artistic flair. In that sense, it’s hard to even view The Walking Dead as quality escapism – it looks and feels more like a family drama set in a zombie amusement park, complete with the plastic-y sets and artificial environments.

There is still hope, though – Fear The Walking Dead has proved a much more adequate spin on the tired story, brimming with interesting characters, great performances (especially by the young Frank Dillane who somehow manages to impress me even more than his father did as Stannis in Game of Thrones), at least some degree of technical aptitude, and some decent to good writing that, while not exactly groundbreaking, doesn’t leave me scratching my head and scrambling to figure out why each and every single character behaves like an actual idiot. Season 4’s premier was rather promising, despite Gimple’s involvement – some tight editing, especially in the beginning of the episode during the montages featuring Morgan’s deliberations and consequent travels, decent bits and pieces of visual storytelling (especially as it concerned the passage of time and space as Morgan made his way out of Virginia), and a more competent hand behind the camera that added some cool movement and long shots that gave a better look at the post-apocalyptic world in the span of 20 minutes than the main show has throughout its past 2 seasons put together. Garret Dillahunt’s likeable character is also a breath of fresh air in a universe that has shifted too far into grim-dark territory with its protagonists and has become a self-serious nightmare of humorlessness.

In conclusion, The Walking Dead is absolute trash, but I’ll probably keep watching it out of habit. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, fool me three times, I stop caring and accept the fate of a gullible fool.

The Terror

TV has rarely been put to good use as an artistic medium – the entertainment value that has, in recent years, become an integral part of every artistic effort is there, but the artistry itself is nowhere to be found, sacrificed in the name of cheap thrills and instant gratification, as evidenced by the slow yet steady decay in the quality of writing of shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Certain tropes and behavioral cliches have cemented themselves in television and one would be hard pressed to escape the constant onslaught of genre schlock. Instances of plot armoring, irrational decision making in service of a shoddily planned out story, Mary Sues and Marty Stus are all aplenty, and these are just some of the most superficial and glaring examples of lazy writing that can be encountered in the majority of modern TV shows. That isn’t necessarily bad, if of course one has a particular predisposition towards, say, drawn out soap operas set against the back drop of a poorly outlines zombie apocalypse with only a very limited set of rules governing the in-story world.

But every once in a while there arises a show that breaks the mold in more ways than one and earns the right to be analyzed as a serious work of art, worthy of both the praise and criticism inherent to careful scrutinizing. The latest to do so is AMC’s The Terror, a 10 episode period piece based on Dan Simmons’ eponymous book. The story is that of the real life search for the Northwest Passage on what would be Sir John Franklin’s final expedition. A cursory glance at the historical facts surrounding this expedition is more than enough to gain a rather firm grasp as to the tone of the show that’s based on it – dreariness, dread, claustrophobia and, most of all, utter, crushing hopelessness. It becomes abundantly evident from the get-go what the fate of the 132 strong crew of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror will be, and nonetheless the viewer is invited to insert themselves into the life of these ships, to get a feel for the nautical life. This very quality is one of The Terror‘s biggest strengths – its ability to construct realistic interpersonal relationships, to lead the viewer through the world of this isolated hyper-masculine community during its hour of distress and still invite empathy and sentimentality while deftly avoiding the pitfalls of melodrama and faux-emotionality. Characters grow and change before the viewer’s very eyes; as the years pass and the ‘man vs. nature’ narrative solidifies itself as the thematic center of the show, we witness the natural progression of humans under extreme duress and in conditions that few men of the modern ages could even begin to understand. And it’s not a case of virtuous men becoming wicked cannibals out of desperation and hunger, it’s a complex set of transformations that are all borne out of the material necessities and realities of each individual’s experiences, the best parallel I could come up with off-top would be the virtue system of Darkest Dungeon in cinematic form, except rather than having pure RNG dictate the virtues and shortcomings of characters, we see clear causational links between the person’s journey and their final state. Tiny details about each character reveal themselves through meaningful scenes, some of them quick and to the point, others longer, more dialogue-driven and harder to understand in the moment but extremely satisfying and helpful in retrospect. This is partly why mainstream audiences have reacted rather negatively towards this show, often recoiling in disgust at its ‘slow pace’ and ‘boringly long scenes’, both traits that, quite ironically, are shared by another one of AMC’s shows, international hit The Walking Dead, but whereas The Terror‘s pace is deliberate and thought out even when it stagnates, TWD is simply a mess in terms of story structure and plot progression, to the point where it seems as if the show creators themselves are having trouble figuring out how to turn the abomination into something at least somewhat presentable, to no particular avail, one might add.

What allows The Terror‘s brilliant characterization to shine is the stellar camera work; the first half of the season is a wonderful exercise in claustrophobic cinematography -frames within frames, slight camera movements in constrained areas, long takes of dialogue set to ambient natural lighting in dimly lit cabins that sway back and forth ever so slightly, wonderful character set-pieces that are aided by deliberate blocking and composition. Those episodes set on the ship are cozy and quaint and make for a great viewing experience both aesthetically and intellectually even without provoking the viewer to constantly be on the look out for details or intense action scenes (of which there is a surprising amount, thanks to a certain supernatural subplot).

The second half of the season sees the crew leaving the confines of the grounded ships and venturing out into the barren wastelands of the Arctic – never before have such vast expanses of land seemed so constraining, so suffocating. Flat, traversable land as far as the eye can see, and nary a second goes by without the viewer feeling like they would like nothing more than to retreat into one of the crew’s crude tents in order to hide from the crushing emptiness that makes all that empty space seem paradoxically insignificant and devoid of sense. Again, this is all enhanced by some stellar cinematography, mainly the way the void is framed by the camera and always made to serve as more of a backdrop to what is happening inside the characters’ tired minds and weak bodies. At times The Terror almost looks like part of an extended cut of The Revenant, with its icy color palette and the occasional jerking motions that are reminiscent of the ones Lubezki weaved into his one takes in Iñárritu’s movie.

Unlike most wastelands in film and literature, this one isn’t meant to symbolize any sort of spiritual emptiness or a search for some existential truth, The Terror is as old-fashioned as old-fashioned gets in that it is purely a story about Man’s struggle against Nature, a desperate battle not for dominance, but for a meager survival. There’s very little that could be described as philosophical about The Terror, save for some one-off musings by characters that are at the very edge of their physical capabilities. Instead, there is an intense examination of the psychology of struggle, a visceral representation of how far one would go in order to insure one’s own continued existence in a rather primitive and animalistic sort of way.

All of this plays out like a fever dream, the entire show feels like a series of vivid nightmares that you would hastily scribble down in your notebook upon waking up. The editing often breaks chronology to show characters retreating into moments of joy in their old lives as their current predicament becomes too much to bear; at other points scenes seem to jump around in a somewhat disjointed manner which makes the experience all the more terrifying as you’re bombarded with an endless stream of discussions or occurrences that serve only to solidify the dreadful awareness of things to come. Well, one thing to come, really; death has never been more palpable than in The Terror, its presence is at first a source of mobilization and fear, then an almost comfortable companionship, at least from the viewer’s standpoint, as the crew’s situation becomes ever more bleak, ever more excruciating in its hopelessness. Each main character to die receives a sort of send-off scene, a delicately directed and personalized take on their final moments – we get a glimpse at what these men think of as they go into the long night, their fears, their regrets, their pain. What’s most impressive is how tasteful each of these scenes is, the characters we’ve come to know, and in some cases even love, keep their grace and emotional depth even as they sometimes struggle with shocking physical injuries and illness.

Overall, I’m quite stoked about this show. It’s a brilliant work of art that I truly didn’t expect to see being produced by AMC, one that displays technical proficiency, attention to detail, and a love for storytelling. I can confidently say that The Terror is one of the greatest shows of the 21st century.

 

 

Some thoughts on Eminem and Revival

It’s hard to explain Eminem’s appeal to someone who didn’t witness or experience the Detroit rapper’s golden days, that famed run between 1996 and 2000 that landed him in the pantheon of hip-hop and made him a contender for the title of greatest emcee to ever grace the mic. To the outside observer, Eminem has always represented one thing and one thing only – shockingly offensive music. This impression only solidified itself further as his capability to produce meaningful (or at least funny) songs deteriorated and gave way to even more desperate attempts at forcing the listener to pause the song in a fit of pearl-clutching horror. As the memory of Slim Shady’s glory days began to fade, his discography became more ridiculous by the album, all of a sudden songs like Fack and Superman began popping up at an alarming rate, to the point where they became the rule rather than the exception in 2009’s Relapse. It was at that point that even the most dedicated Stans began questioning the value of Eminem’s work. Marshall Mathers was becoming the butt of the joke, and by the time he realized he was in the midst of a rather violent fall from grace, he was already back at the foot of the mountain he’d climbed just years prior.

Skipping a few other middling releases, we find ourselves in the current year. Revival is Eminem’s newest project, coming on the tail end of a 4-year long hiatus. The response has been, well, not exactly encouraging, to say the least. Instead of finally listening to his fans and going back to the earlier style of hip-hop that made him popular, Eminem doubled down on the glossy, pop-inspired rap music that sounds painfully pedestrian and is all too familiar for anyone who’s ever found themselves within the vicinity of a radio station at least once over the past few years. The man who once prided himself on sticking out like a sore thumb and regularly went after the hottest pop stars of his time for being vapid and boring released an album featuring the likes of Ed Sheeran and Beyonce, with a lone rapper feature floating in the sea of generic, wishy-washy female singers like Kehlani and Skylar Grey. Eminem’s own delivery sounds as robotic as ever, the choppy flow that he’s come to be known for is on display in 15 of the 19 tracks, and to their detriment, I might add. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the majority of this album, it’s Eminem at his most inoffensive and uninteresting. He continues to backtrack and disown the words and actions of his previous self, while becoming ever more stale and blandly centrist with each pathetic attempt at attacking Trump or his supporters. But I digress – the intent of this essay isn’t to review Revival and pick it apart lyrically or sonically. I’m more concerned with the metamorphosis of Marshall Mathers and how it has affected his music.

There is, in my mind, something very profound about the anger and aggression of Eminem’s most significant and noteworthy alter ego, Slim Shady. As an angsty teenager, I always found it refreshing to hear what felt like my own thoughts blasting through the speakers, to in a way experience my most perverted, hormone-fueled fantasies in a safe environment. There was something liberating about hearing Shady going off, to see him waving his middle finger up at the sky and laugh at the ridiculousness of the world we inhabit. See, it never felt like Slim was doing what he was doing because he was mad at anyone in particular or even because he was pissed off by this event or that one; it seemed like whatever he felt, he felt towards the world at large. His seething rage was directed at existence itself, almost like a form of coping with an all-encompassing sense of nihilism that never truly let him enjoy himself. There never were any moral boundaries or rules that could stop him or make him censor his thoughts, not even his mother was safe from his bitingly cynical sense of humor. Slim Shady was a force of human nature, the voice of resentment and lower-class desperation but with an incredibly aggressive twist. It was liberating to see someone who grew up as poor and disadvantaged as Marshall break free of the oppressive reality of poverty and speak to his listeners in a very personal and intimate way without even being particularly serious about it most of the time. Sure, tracks like Rock Bottom were incredibly emotional because they showed the depressing inner workings of the man behind the mask and captured the reality that we all know in a very gritty and grimy way, but most of the time the feeling of ‘getting’ Eminem was just that, a feeling that didn’t need to be stated explicitly; it was this subconscious process of connecting not with the man but with the experience.

But Shady is very much dead now, as is the spirit that he captured. The world has moved on, and the weird transitional period of the late 90s and early 00s cannot be replicated today. The rage and frustration are still there, possibly more so than ever, but the desire for them to be manifested and acted upon is not. Eminem’s reach could never be compared to that of the internet, today websites like 4chan and reddit allow for every angsty-ridden individual to vent without having to experience the repercussions of their diatribes and actions, filling that very same niche of a ‘safe space’ for passive aggression that Shady once did. Slim Shady is dead and we have killed him might be an apt way of putting it.

And finally, what of Marshall Mathers, the shell of a once-great artist? Sadly, he himself seems unsure as to the direction he wishes to go in. His music and persona are an oddly melancholic remnant of a bygone era. The closest I can get to describing the feeling I get when thinking about Em’s career in context is through a personal anecdote; after finishing The Witcher 3, a game that is very close to my heart and is one of the greatest fictional experiences that I have ever had the pleasure to go through, I decided to take one last tour of the game world, to visit my favorite spots and possibly relive some of the moments that excited me the most throughout my playthrough. But nothing I saw felt the same as it did while I was going through the quests, the world felt hollow, stuck in time. My companions, the characters that I’d met and had come to know and appreciate, were gone, and so was the sense of purpose and urgency that had driven me during my adventure. For all intents and purpose, everything was mostly as it had been before the end of the game, but something felt off. It was as if I was out of place in a world that had seen all that could be seen, a world that had reached its prime and was now forever stationary and unchanging, a painting of the calm after the storm.

Best of 2017

Honorable mentions:

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A haunting experimental film by Scott Barley, shot entirely on an iPhone camera. I can only describe this as a visual journey, though not in the same way as, say, The Tree of Life might be described as such. It’s much more passive and introspective and functions more as an enabling factor for diving deeper into certain emotions. Sleep Has Her House is a gorgeous work of art that leaves me curious as to what else Barley has in store.

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Pure, unadulterated madness in cinematic form, powered by a solid central performances by Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving and some gratuitous, fast-paced and cartoonish editing a la Edgar Wright. It also serves as an interesting, if not at all subtle, commentary on corporate culture and social mobility.

The Square

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An impressively stylish collection of scene concepts that doesn’t quite come together but is nevertheless absolutely intriguing in its execution and dense thematic substance. Ruben Östlund provides us with an interesting look at the smugness of the upper classes and the ridiculous nature of modern art.

Loveless (Nelyubov)

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Zvyagintsev continues to reflect on wider problems within Russian society by looking at the microscopic, compartmentalized lives of individuals with unique stories and depressing realities that are concealed behind a veneer of illusions and soothing lies.

10. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

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Noah Baumbach’s Meyerowitz Stories is the movie that comes closest to mimicking and updating the style of Woody Allen of old, perfectly capturing the subdued and quietly introspective nature of works such as Manhattan and Annie Hall, while providing much more in the way of charm and loveability when it comes to the characters and their complicated relationships. It’s a perfect introduction to this style of film making for those unable or unwilling to sit through Allen’s often stomach churning performances and wishful self-inserts.

9. Last Flag Flying 

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Richard Linklater is a giant of American cinema and one of the few true auteurs of modern Hollywood. What is remarkable about his work is how human it is, and how precisely it manages to portray the very experience of existing, of being alive and interacting with the world around us. There is no central theme or set of ideas to be explored or analyzed, the characters are rarely aware of the answers to the questions that they ask themselves. What Linklater gives us is a glimpse into the collective world of humanity, at the fears that plague each and every one of us and of the conundrums that we are all faced with. Last Flag Flying is no different in this respect as it slowly but surely introduces us to a set of characters who have all been beaten down by their experiences in the military and are struggling to deal with the repercussions of their actions and inaction. There is no ideology to be found in this movie, no political diatribes save for those that come from places of genuine pain and anger inside the characters themselves (something that is to be expected in a work of fiction that aims to portray true people going through real struggles). There is, however, something somewhat off about Last Flag Flying’s tone, a certain glum resignation and bitterness that bleeds through at certain points in the movie. Linklater has matured and that is becoming evident in his work – the rebellious and devilishly inquisitive spirit of Slacker is more or less gone, giving this film an even more melancholy air for those who’ve followed Linklater’s career up until this point.

=8. I, Daniel Blake

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Ken Loach has long been known for his politically charged movies, but few have been quite as gripping and heart-breaking as his latest outing, I, Daniel Blake. It is a story that shows the effects of austerity and cold bureaucracy on the common man and perfectly portrays the growing sense of anxiety that arises from one’s inability to cope materially and financially in a world that is more than ready to leave the weak behind at the drop of a hat.

=8. Brawl in Cell Block 99

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Vince Vaughn’s immensely frightening performance put the movie on the map, but what truly made it remarkable was director S. Craig Zahler’s sure hand and reverence towards the golden days of the Brit prison and grindhouse genres that served as the main influence for the film’s aesthetic, which mainly revolves around creating claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing set pieces that always seem on the edge of exploding into a bloodbath of extremely graphic, if at times somewhat cartoony, violence. Brawl is a cold, utterly soul-crushing experience that leaves the viewer completely hopeless by the end of Vaughn’s rampage.

6. Dunkirk

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There’s not much to say about Dunkirk that hasn’t already been said. I would urge any of my fellow Nolan detractors to give this film a chance as it offers all of the well-executed and choreographed thrills of his prior works but with none of the shoddy scriptwriting and laughable pretenses to intellectual or emotional depth. Dunkirk is paradoxically subdued despite the grandeur of its subject matter and it’s all the better for it, leaving the individual stories to follow one simple theme – that of survival at all costs.

5. Super Dark Times 

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I place Super Dark Times so high on this list first and foremost because of its chilling aesthetic and brilliant camera work that ties the film together thematically from start to finish. It is rare for first-timers like Kevin Phillips to come out with a movie that is as effective and artistic as this one, especially considering the fact that, on its surface, this movie could have turned out to be nothing more than a mediocre clone of the nostalgic small-town gimmick that Spielberg popularized years ago (though it’s amazing how Stranger Things, Netflix’ most popular series and the one that made this 80s throwback shtick mainstream, managed to somehow be even more shallow and inoffensive than Spielberg’s habitually bland turn out). Super Dark Times is absolutely chilling from start to finish, even if its final act takes a turn for the worse and the movie devolves into a slightly-above-average slasher, and that is mostly thanks to its beautifully cold color scheme, shallow focus and consistently interesting framing that makes the unfolding events incredibly frantic.

4. Columbus

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Columbus is absolutely one of the most beautiful films of the year, not least because of the way it use the small town of Columbus’ unique architectural style as a means of portraying its characters’ relationship and internal struggles, but also because it feels authentic through and through. First time director Kogonada crafted a wonderfully intimate film that feels both down to earth and incredibly cinematic at the same time, and it is this very duality that turns it into a dream-like experience. Columbus is slow, methodical and, for me at least, weirdly depressing, as its characters appear stuck in time, unable to escape a town that feels like it’s inhabited by ghosts whose only job it is to hold the protagonists back, not through their actions, but through their dependence and inability to cope on their own.

3. A Ghost Story

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There are few movies that portray the feeling of life slipping through one’s fingers as well as A Ghost Story does. Few movies manage to utilize the strange feeling of being an observer of another’s life and of being out of place in a certain time or space, and this very characteristic leaves the movie up for interpretation – is A Ghost Story a look at futility and a source of existential dread, or is it a meta-commentary on the nature and experience of observing art, as well as said art’s relationship to man? Either way, the film is incredibly unique, not least due to its use of the outdated Academy ratio and weird non-linear story-telling form.

2. Good Time25-good-time.w710.h473.jpg

The Safdie brothers truly hit it out of the park with Good Time, a movie so kinetic and thrilling that it requires more than one viewing in order for one to fully appreciate the immense quality of its story. It fuses its social commentary on the reality of poverty and racial discrimination with an engrossing, fast-paced story so well that it is easy to miss one or the other and only appreciate it for whichever aspect you noticed first. And you most definitely will find something to appreciate about it, be it the unique take on New York with its flashy neon lights and dimly lit areas that give the city a personality in the same way as films like Taxi Driver use the mise-en-scene to tell a story of it own in the background, or because of Benny Safdie and Robert Pattinson’s remarkable performances (especially that of the latter who fills the screen with his presence in every scene and elevates the movie to even further heights). Good Time delivers exactly what it promises in the title.

1. It Comes at Night

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This is a film that I am certain will be remembered for many years to come. It Comes at Night is the high standard for the fledgling genre of “neo-horror” and serves as a shinning example of every characteristic that the movies coming after it must bear. It relies on psychological and emotional horror rather than physical scares or threats, burrowing itself deep into the viewer’s mind and prompting him or her to always be vigilant and ready to reflect upon whatever is happening on the screen. The film’s confusing nature turns it into a fever dream that keeps deteriorating until it devolves into an absolute mess of unwanted and unexpected events that spell nothing but trouble for the protagonists. The house that the family lives in is reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in that it never truly takes form or reveals its geography, forcing the viewer to reluctantly take the backseat and let the film steer its own course. The result is an even more profound sense of bewilderment, one that is encompasses every frame of the movie. No, It Comes at Night might not “objectively” be the best movie of the year, but it is, in my eyes, one of the most influential and important ones and will be hailed in the future as one of the parents of this new genre, right up there with The VVitch and It Follows. And it’s also the movie that I enjoyed the most this year, so there’s that as well.

On alienation.

What is freedom in the context of modern life? Is it the ability to switch jobs at will? To sell your house and move to a new area at the drop of a hat, consequences and implications be damned? Are we free because we get to stay at home for a few hours before and after work every day, because we’ve got a couple of days at the end of the week to go out with friends and get drunk at the local bar? Is freedom that feeling you get while listening to your favorite song on an off day, completely aware of the fact that you’ve got all the time in the world, at least for the time being, at least for this insignificant blip in your otherwise busy work life? It could be any of those, at least at a glance. After all, the overwhelming opinion on the matter in the mainstream seems to be that happiness (bear in mind that this is a state of being that I do, and henceforth will, associate directly with the concept of individual liberty or freedom) is finding the good in life, no matter what is going on on the macroscopic scale because, well hell, there’s just too much bad in this world for each and every one of us to concern ourselves with it all the time. This line of thinking, as well as other, rather similar ones that all boil down to “close your eyes and try to think happy thoughts”, is indicative of a sentiment that is becoming increasingly predominant throughout the West, the idea of every man for himself in the existential sense. It’s as if, due to the blurring of the lines between the good life and the boring, predictable life, we’ve collectively chosen to begin retreating into a land of fairy tales and empty platitudes that hide us from the truth.

That truth is that our existence is a vapid and unfulfilling one. That we’ve surrendered our place in the world, our obligation to bear responsibility for every step we take and every decision we make, in the name of relative material and physical comfort in the short term. Man has succumbed to social alienation and freed himself from the condemnation of freedom.

We’ve become divorced from our surroundings, from the world that we were brought into. The individual now wanders the limits of a personal walled garden that separates him from the outside. What influence can you and I have on the place we live in? We inhabit sterile cities, monolithic anthills that might as well have been planned and designed by an alien civilization with no direct means of contacting our own race. Rows of different-yet-familiar condos line the horizon, inhabited by strangers that come and go as they see fit, some of them just aware enough of each other’s presence to drop a “Hi!” or “Have a great day!” in passing – a momentary crack in the wall that separates us from anything resembling a true community, a thin ray of sunlight that breaks through the thick grey clouds before being blocked once more.

Each passing day brings more of the same yet each passing minute in the office brings us no closer to the prophesied sense of fulfillment and maturity that we hear about all through our formative years. Charlie Chaplin, during his fiery speech in The Great Dictator, claimed that we are not “machine men, with machine lives”, yet isn’t that, in essence, what our lives boil down to? Divorced from the product of our labor (if indeed such a product even exists, considering the pointless, cyclic nature of the majority of jobs today), divorced from the effects said product has on the consumer, on the human being that is putting the creation to use, divorced from the decision-making process at every level in our professional lives, perpetually beholden to sycophantic underlings of higher-ups that are, in turn, slaves to the whims of even more important bosses, of owners and share-holders that demand the utmost efficiency and automaton-like obedience. It’s this insane march of profit-driven progress that has left us, the ordinary people, the Joes that work 9-5 with little ambition and even less objective reason to hope for a way out of this stale and monotonous state of being, lagging behind and wondering if playing catch up is even worth it at all. But none of us are willing to make an effort to change any of this because none of us are capable of doing it on our own and the isolation has gone on too long for us to be aware of how to meaningfully organize and form a mass movement aimed at bringing about a paradigm shift in the way that society views itself, the meaning of its very existence and the point of the entire equation.

Because that’s what it’s all about in the end, isn’t it? The rat race, the alienated, consumerist-fuelled cycle that we go through gives us something to do, respite from the inevitable question – why? Why are we here, what are we doing, why should we go on doing it? Today we can hide from these questions, we can bury our noses in the internet and pretend they never even existed, we can dive into our jobs and dedicate all our free time to making the higher-ups happy and the putting a smile on the kids’ faces on Christmas Day. But they never truly go away. And each new generation is slowly coming to realize that nothing will ever get better until we come to terms with ourselves and reconcile our current reality with whatever it is we want out of our collective existence. This issue is becoming ever more pressing, as capitalism is exposing itself to be an unstable fundament for a society that exists within a finite world with finite resources and an unpredictable ecosystem that is stretching itself thin in an effort to protect itself from our short-sighted pursuits. It’s time to ask ourselves what we want to be and how we want to achieve it. Or maybe we could go where humans have never gone before and ask a question that seems unthinkable at a larger scale – do we even want to be?

Some thoughts on Mr. Robot and TV.

It is my firm belief that Mr. Robot is one of the greatest shows to have ever graced the TV screen. What separates it from the endless stream of mediocre police procedurals and contrived post-apoc dystopias is the fact that it is made with a clear respect for the conventions of film making in mind. Whereas most TV has shunned the aesthetic aspect of what is, at its core, a visual medium and taken to filming every scene as if it were part of a documentary or news report, Sam Esmail and his crew have consistently delivered crisp, detailed imagery that provides insight into the characters’ predicament, the course of the story, and the state of the world, both in-universe and outside of it. Mr. Robot takes full advantage of both its format and its medium in order to tell a tale of mental illness and socio-economic alienation and is a breath of fresh air for every cinephile who has grown disillusioned by the state of long form storytelling on TV.

Perhaps the most apt illustration of Mr. Robot‘s brilliance is the opening of this season’s second episode. It’s a long pre-opening credits fake-out that shows the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, trying to reintegrate himself into the corporate lifestyle and to right the wrongs that he commit during his drug-fulled schizophrenic episodes that harken back to the duality of the narrator in Fight Club. This part of the episode is comprised of a fast-paced montage set over cheery music, interrupted only by Elliot’s periodic internal ramblings. He seemingly condemns his prior ideas and positions and turns his back on his old cause because he has “grown up” and entered the real world. We see him wholly consumed by his work at E-Corp, once a mortal enemy of his. He blends in with the crowd and does his best to appear normal, to fit in. In contrast to the rest of the show, the camera during these scenes shows Elliot as part of the group, he’s framed alongside other people, moving through the street like anyone else would, whereas the usual shtick of the show is to illustrate loneliness and isolation through the clearest cinematic barrier of them all – putting the character in a frame of his own, off-center at that. There’s also more movement than usual, the editing is quick and snappy while the average shot length throughout the show is relatively large.

And then the title screen comes in and Elliot realizes that his efforts at being a regular, happy person are completely futile. The camera pans out, the depth of field is compressed to the point of only clearly focusing on Elliot and the montage begins once again, this time it is much more silent, with more voice-over, as the protagonist is shown pumping himself full of medicine and crying of loneliness in a scene that is a clear throwback to the first season.

Yes, this is a scenario that we have all seen before. But that’s exactly what makes it beautiful, it takes a sequence that we are already familiar with on a subconscious level and applies it to the given situation in a well-executed and visually appealing way. Instead of attempting to insulate itself from film, Mr. Robot uses it as a stepping stone on its own journey through a genre that is both remarkably familiar and oddly distant. And this is exactly what shows should be doing – using cinema as a reference point. There is amazing potential in TV and there have certainly been some remarkable efforts as of late to bring it up to par with the very best of films (the first season of True Detective, Breaking Bad and the parts of Mindhunter that were directed by David Fincher), but the overall quality of television shows is, to put it lightly, quite unsatisfactory. Game of Thrones has captured the popular interest by appealing to the lowest common denominator and shunning its literary roots in pursuit of further spectacle. In the process, the show has lost all semblance of logical continuity, and that’s not even mentioning the abysmal scripts that the admittedly talented cast has had to make do with for the past two or three season. The same can be said of The Walking Dead, another ridiculously popular show, and its reliance on melodrama and one of the most frustrating tropes of them all, the idiot plot. These are some of the most jarring examples, to be sure, but they are also the most popular ones among the shows that go for something serious rather than existing as a playground for comedy actors and stand-up comedians (to be clear, this is not a jab at comedy shows, they are a different beast entirely and cannot be examined in the same light as regular television).

Nonetheless, I remain cautiously optimistic about the future. There have been some impressive efforts over the past year (Taboo, Legion) that have managed to stand out despite the constant onslaught of garbage. More and more film directors are trying their hand at creating their own series and this migration could be the start of an intriguing new breed of television shows with film sensibilities and an artist’s steady hand behind the wheel.