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?