Tag Archives: Lana Del Rey

How Lana Del Rey Assesses Her Character’s Complicity — “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”

by Gabriel Valdez

Lana Del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” is a phenomenal eulogy that dismantles a dangerous mythology of excess. She’s spent her career clarifying this excess by inhabiting it. She’s presented and idolized the intractable pull that makes us chase it, while simultaneously charting her own chase of it and what it costs. She’s painted haze-filled, sepia-toned stories of enjoying its conveniences and comforts as an enabler of others’ toxicity, while marking down the scars it creates.

Her albums to this point have created a lore-filled American mythology featuring celebrities as our gods and goddesses. That Lynchian, Laurel Canyon-double of her that exists in celebritized excess and 70s-era Hollywood has acted both as siren luring listeners in and specter warning them away. There’s duality and dissonance to her music, a feeling of being lost in a dream-state between the illusion and what maintaining it takes from you.

The part of Lana Del Rey that speaks to this time and generation is that she’s both one of those who’s been holding the guillotine’s rope, and the first one marched out to set her head beneath its blade. Her mythology has always been that of an enabler and beneficiary of excess, seeking to partake in that mythology and the privilege of that excess, at the same time hollowed out and distanced, victimized by what it asks her to leave behind. Her career has charted an evolution from feeling emotions through others to increasingly remembering herself.

Her first single “Video Games” in 2011 repeated:

“It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you
Everything I do
I tell you all the time
Heaven is a place on earth with you
Tell me all the things you want to do
I heard that you like the bad girls honey, is that true?”

Here was someone who compared changing who and what she was for someone else to playing a video game. It came with ease. It was expected, repetitive, and most dangerously – fun.

Compare that to “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it,” the last song on “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”

“There’s a new revolution,
a loud evolution that I saw
Born of confusion
and quiet collusion, of which mostly I’ve known
A modern day woman
with a weak constitution, cause I’ve got
Monsters still under my bed
that I could never fight off
A gatekeeper carelessly
dropping the keys on my nights off.”

In “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” it feels like she’s realized the most responsible action to take – perhaps more for herself than for us – is to dismantle that mythology in front of us. She still yearns for it, she still idolizes moments in it, and she also treats it as toxic.

Critic Izzy Black once wrote about the increasing role of the cinema of excess. This includes movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Bling Ring,” “Spring Breakers,” “Pain & Gain,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “The Counselor”. Unlike previous films regarding capitalist excess that were either tragedies or satires, these all presented excess that brought their protagonists in on the joke. As Black wrote, the characters “own this absurdity. They’re aware of it and embrace it. They participate in the comedy, as they participate in the irony.”

This risked an issue of endorsing the behaviors in these films rather than questioning them. Lessons aren’t learned. Characters don’t face moral dilemmas. Black argues that these characters present a critique of capitalism not in facing negative consequences, but in getting off relatively free from ethical struggle, remorse, and often consequences altogether. These are films that – instead of calling out the actions of their characters – seek to call out the complicity in their creation and our viewership of it.

Where those films created a reflection of the audience that’s in on the joke, Lana Del Rey created a Lynchian doppelganger of herself who’s lost in it: beneficiary, enabler, and victim all at once. Where does it end and where does that double begin? Well that’s the difficult part for all of us in an age of social media, personal branding, and influencers.

This has always been the line that Lana Del Rey has balanced on. She crafts a mythology of hypocritical iconography. She clarifies its role in complicity to excess, and creates an icon who inhabits that complicity in order to do so.

Her character initially identified with malleability to someone else’s whims. As long as she was benefiting or achieving a desire, some other part of herself could be hollowed. That was the consistent theme of her debut album, “Born to Die.”

We weren’t told whether that was a warning or not because the character was never called out on it. Over time, Lana Del Rey’s albums have become increasingly explicit in identifying the scars this has cost her, and the hypocrisy in the Americana mythology that she both worships and warns us of.

If this is her Lizzy Grant album, then Lana Del Rey is being acknowledged here as her given name’s double, as the complicit, both a shield that’s protected her and the hypocrisy that was utilized to do so. The songs here seem to move on from it because that’s where the evolution is, but they don’t try to shirk their burden.

“Norman Fucking Rockwell!” is a sloughing of skin, but not in a way that seeks to escape. She’s still squarely in the ring. The entire album calls out hypocrisies and makes more express the trade-offs her character has made. It is a dismantling of her complicity, perhaps because the artists practicing art of excess didn’t get there fast enough, or weren’t enough in number, or maybe just because that hypocrisy-as-critique wasn’t effective.

Whichever way, the most important part here is that Lana Del Rey’s still inhabiting that evolutionary moment. “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” is a snapshot of it, and it’s an honest one. She’s now holding that double at arm’s length and assessing it. She still needs to express that dreamlike foray into excess in order to make clear the path to leaving it. She treats the complicity of that double as if a recovering addict, someone who “used to shoot up my veins in neon.”

Whether that character of complicity has been more effective in critiquing it or embodying it seems to vary by perspective, but Lana Del Rey’s career has charted the course of the United States falling into an illusive and dangerous mythology of excess in a way no other artist’s has. As she sings in “The Greatest,”

“If this is it, I’m signing off
Miss doing nothing the most of all
Hawaii just missed a fireball
L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot
Kanye West is blond and gone
‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song
Oh, the live stream’s almost on.”

The featured image is from Consequence of Sound here.

The Top 35 Music Videos of 2014 (So Far) — The Full List

Hideaway Kiesza

by S.L. Fevre, Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabe Valdez

Last week, we ran a four-part reveal of the best music videos of the year (so far). Below, find the recap of every music video we chose. Want to watch them? Click on the title of each one to view it on YouTube. Enjoy!

Read our comments on #35-26!
35. “Hideaway” by Kiesza
34. “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry
33. “Shatter Me” by Lindsey Stirling feat. Lzzy Hale
32. “Shades of Cool” by Lana Del Rey
31. “Fall in Love” by Phantogram
30. “Birthday (lyric video)” by Katy Perry
29. “Play it Right” by Sylvan Esso
28. “Double Bubble Trouble” by M.I.A.
27. “Red Light” by f(x)
26. “King of Sorrow” by William Wolf

Read our comments on #25-16!
25. “Really Don’t Care” by Demi Lovato feat. Cher Lloyd
24. “Sweatpants/Urn” by Childish Gambino
23. “90s Music” by Kimbra
22. “Busy Earnin'” by Jungle
21. “Au Revoir” by Chancellor Warhol
20. “No Rest for the Wicked” by Lykke Li
19. “Crime” by Real Estate
18. “Sword in Mouth, Fire Eyes” by Norma Jean
17. “Down on My Luck” by Vic Mensa
16. “Black” by The-Dream

Read our comments on #15-6!
15. “You’re Not Good Enough” by Blood Orange
14. “Summertime” by The Head and the Heart
13. “Girl You Look Amazing” by Nicole Atkins
12. “Magic” by Coldplay
11. “The Writing’s on the Wall” by OK Go
10. “Work Work” by clipping. feat. Cocc Pistol Cree
9. “State of Grace” by Talib Kweli feat. Abby Dobson
8. “West Coast” by Lana Del Rey
7. “Problem” by Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea
6. “Wrong or Right” by Kwabs

Read our comments on the Top 5!
5. “Re” by Nils Frahm
4. “25 Bucks” by Danny Brown feat. Purity Ring
3. “We Exist” by Arcade Fire
2. “What is This Heart” trilogy by How to Dress Well
1. “Chandelier” by Sia

Thanks for joining us! We’ve had a superb response and great involvement from writers on our music video coverage, so we’ll be keeping it up!

The Best Music Videos of 2014 (So Far) — #15-6

West Coast Lana Del Rey

by S.L. Fevre, Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabe Valdez

It’s been a great year (so far) for pop videos. Coldplay, OK Go, and Ariana Grande all feature today. If there’s something to take away with you, it’s that this is the year rap matters again, the year where it woke up, looked around, got fed up with what it saw, and decided to start doing something about it. You’ve seen that already in the countdown (if you missed them, here are parts 1 and 2 of our rankings), and you’ll see it again today and tomorrow.

-S.L. Fevre & Gabe Valdez

P.S. Due to music copyright law, we can only feature some videos here. It’ll vary by country. Click on each title to watch it directly on YouTube.

15. You’re Not Good Enough – Blood Orange
directed by Gia Coppola

80s Music belonged to my older sister, who listened pretty exclusively to music like Blood Orange’s. It’s a light, airy, emotive groove reflected well in Gia Coppola’s faux behind-the-scenes rehearsal. What makes the video is how Coppola’s technical precision translates into loose, relaxed visuals – by harshly overlighting the whole picture, she achieves both the crispness and color of an HD piece as well as the flatly lit, soft tone of watching a variety show on an analog TV with so-so reception.

Combine the behind-the-scenes aspect, with dancers warming up and wearing era-appropriate rehearsal clothes, and it all sparks the feeling of getting a glimpse into a relaxed practice run from another era. And yes, Gia Coppola is Apocalypse Now and Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola’s grand-daughter.   -Gabe Valdez

14. Summertime – The Head and the Heart
directed by Chad VanGaalen

Chad VanGaalen’s unique animation style initially hints at a simple, cutesy video. You don’t expect it to be as detailed or darkly humorous as it is, but it rewards repeat viewings. The macabre takes the video over later on as if you’re watching a gorier, er, Edward Gorey. In a year flooded with complex animation videos, “Summertime” stands out as one of the few vids that’s truly different, both for its fresh style and its incredibly wicked sense of humor.   -Gabe Valdez

13. Girl You Look Amazing – Nicole Atkins
directed by Laurel Parmet

When you’re a PhD and you spend the majority of your life in Alberta, Nicole Atkins’ imaginary date out resembles way more evenings than I’d like to admit. Her performance is genuinely funny (those eyes!) and the song kills (so does the album).   -Vanessa Tottle

12. Magic – Coldplay
directed by Jonas Akerlund

While Ziyi Zhang not being able to free herself from captivity doesn’t seem quite right to me (she was my pick as the Next Jackie Chan, after all), she gives a charming performance as Cecile, the damsel in distress in Jonas Akerlund’s Depression-era tale of dueling magicians. The silent film look gets the most out of Zhang’s capability for softness and Chris Martin’s chiseled persona, while letting the video communicate a complete story without ever getting in the way from the music.   -Gabe Valdez

11. The Writing’s on the Wall – OK Go
directed by Aaron Duffy, Damian Kulash Jr, & Bob Partington

OK Go became famous because of a lo-fi music video done in one long take, “Here It Goes Again.” It involved the band dancing across treadmills in a video choreographed by one singer’s sister. They’re OK musicians, but they’re trailblazing music video artists. One-upping their Rube Goldberg machine in 2010’s “This Too Shall Pass” is “The Writing’s on the Wall.” It takes one of their better songs, plays with perspective like a Magic Eye, and literally turns you on your head all in one long, mind-bogglingly complex take.   -Cleopatra Parnell

10. Work Work – clipping. feat. Cocc Pistol Cree
directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada

Rats in the head and curb stomping. This is old school rap and old school videomaking. It hits you hard and low, catches you off-guard, and contains violence without being violent. Social comment about the state of rap? Introspective psychological exam? Or all of the above? The video is filmed in one long shot that baits-and-switches you into something you don’t expect at all. I can’t think of very many music videos that have made me jump. Can you?   -S.L. Fevre

9. State of Grace – Talib Kweli feat. Abby Dobson
directed by Daniel Cordero

Talib Kweli’s been sitting on the fence between educative rap and boastful superstardom for a hell of a long time. I’d like to think this means he’s finally chosen a side. “State of Grace” is his most important video yet, a vibrant animation full of color and emotion, a monument to hip hop’s origination in protest verse, and a call for women to take creative power and control of their image in the hip hop community.   -Gabe Valdez

8. West Coast – Lana Del Rey
directed by Vincent Haycock

Lana Del Rey leaves her loving, caring beau for an older, rich man. She burns in Hell. That’s what this video amounts to. Metaphorical Hell, real Hell, or just a certain L.A. lifestyle? Her regretful, slowdown, ‘narco’ chorus ends in a chant of “I’m in love,” as if she’s trying to convince herself but doesn’t really believe it. It eventually takes over the song, her personality and the video to the point where there’s nothing of her original, laughing self left. The story in the video illustrates the evolution of selling out, not as a celebrity but as a human being, of replacing every original part of herself with the image someone else has projected on to her. It’s a stirring, thoughtful commentary to the feel-bad song of the summer.   -S.L. Fevre & Gabe Valdez

7. Problem – Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea
directed by Nev Todorovic

This remains one of my favorite dance videos not just of the year, but of all-time. Grande, who’s extremely involved in the filming and editing of her videos, has found someone in director Nev Todorovic who she synchs up with perfectly. Earlier this year, I compared their creative relationship to that of David Fincher’s and Paula Abdul’s in the late 80s. In “Problem,” the framing constantly teases the viewer not just with Grande but with her dancers, too. The rhythmic editing style paces the music perfectly.

The video itself is filled with cinematic detail. Faux signal losses and swish pans keep the editing pace when a shot isn’t broken through a direct cut. Film scratches abound at the edges of the image, constantly drawing you to the center. A sort of psychedelic tunnel vision accompanies Iggy Azalea’s rap solo, in contrast to Grande’s trademark pinwheel and in visual complement to those swish pans and signal losses. Like the song, the video is cleverer by far than its simple pop housing would make you assume.   -Gabe Valdez

6. Wrong or Right – Kwabs
directed by Emil Nava

The story of dance is sitting there and feeling like you’re wasting away. It’s needing to get out and express yourself. It’s not caring what you look like. It’s doing it in places you shouldn’t. It’s finding other people to do it with you at a moment’s notice. It’s finding something more in that community, something you get through movement and feeling music inside you in a way that has to get out. It’s letting every frustration you have get to your fingertips and toes to shake it out. It’s impressing people one minute and embarrassing yourself the next. It’s about taking down the walls between people in a way that makes everyone in a room appreciate nothing else but moving and feeling music inside you that has to get out. It’s about falling down and maybe getting back up and maybe not. It’s about telling your story to everyone else in a way that makes them understand their own stories better. The story of dance is sitting there and feeling like you’re wasting away, and finally deciding to do anything else but keep on sitting there.   -Vanessa Tottle

Keep an eye out for our Top 5 music videos (so far).

The 35 Best Music Videos of 2014 (So Far) — #35-26

chosen by S.L. Fevre, Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabe Valdez

Here it is, our rundown of the top 35 music videos of 2014 (so far). Before anything else, I want to congratulate four friends of the blog for their music video accomplishments – Hayley Williams has helped us in the past and has my eternal thanks for her support. I can’t recommend Paramore’s video for “Ain’t It Fun” enough. The first version of the video was dropped, and even though the song represents a more adult direction for a band she had to reassemble overnight, this second video remembers to celebrate the enthusiasm that’s always run through her music.

On the other end of the musical spectrum, one of our writers today, S.L. Fevre, appeared in Machine Gun Kelly’s “Sail.” The man raps his guts out and put together a complex, charged music video.

Michael Nikolla directed La Sera’s “Fall Into Place,” a beautiful, summery music video that highlights the laid back, dreamy charm of the band’s music.

Lara Hemingway did a bang-up job on the costume design for SVE’s glamorous and suggestive post-apocalypse video “Talking to the Walls.” Her work and the cinematography are my favorite parts of the vid.

Because of these personal relationships, we won’t be ranking the videos I just mentioned, but check them out to see some of the amazing places music videos are heading.

Enjoy our rankings!

-Gabe Valdez

P.S. Because of music copyright law that still doesn’t get this whole Internet thing, we can only feature some videos here, but you can always click on each title to watch it directly on YouTube.

Hideaway Kiesza

35. Hideaway – Kiesza
directed by Kiesza, Ljuba Castot, & Rami Samir Afuni

If dancers are not going to hit every step, they should at least feel every step so much the audience doesn’t notice. Kiesza is not the best dancer, but she feels the music and her atypical crew stands out. There are many little flaws in this single, four-and-a-half minute shot, but there’s so much feeling in it I really couldn’t care less.   -Vanessa Tottle

Katy Perry Dark Horse

34. Dark Horse – Katy Perry feat. Juicy J
directed by Matthew Cullen

My vote put this one in. I fully expect to get in trouble here, but you know what? It’s colorful. It’s cute and cheerful and inconsequentially bubblegum. It’s so thoroughly B-movie that I wouldn’t be shocked to see Kiefer Sutherland waltz into the middle of it chewing scenery. Truth be told, there was a spot earlier in the year when this was on the heavy rotation I normally reserve for dance videos. Guilty pleasure? Absolutely. But as a guilty pleasure, it’s wickedly done, and its ridiculousness was put over the top when the Internet exploded with accusations of “Dark Horse” being Illuminati propaganda. That argument paled only in comparison to the debate as to whether Katy Perry is an Illuminati queen or simply a powerless peon. Because I guess even the Illuminati haven’t figured feminism out yet.   -Gabe Valdez

33. Shatter Me – Lindsey Stirling feat. Lzzy Hale
directed by Everdream

I cannot play the violin and Irish step dance at the same time. Lindsey Stirling can. She mixes a Celtic sensibility with the kind of complex hip-hop backdrops Emancipator have made their bread and butter, a dubstep percussion driving the whole thing insistently forward. As music videos go, there’s nothing particularly special about Stirling’s team-up with Halestorm frontwoman Lzzy Hale. Stirling’s been tearing up YouTube with her hip-hop stepdancing violinist performances for a few years now. “Shatter Me” stands out for some of its imagery, yes, particularly Stirling’s snowglobe figurine. What makes it really stand out, though, is the meeting of two dynamic and powerful female performers who’ve used the internet to carve the sorts of followings that even a few years ago weren’t available to women of their talents.   -Gabe Valdez

Shades of Cool Lana Del Rey

32. Shades of Cool – Lana Del Rey
directed by Jake Nava

I wish the original cut of this had been released instead. I had a chance to see it and its message is much clearer. In the original cut, Lana Del Rey is murdered, presumably traded in for a younger model, but one philosophical comment about death in a magazine and Francis Bean Cobain is shoving herself into talented people’s business. So things got recut, or so the explanation goes. It still ends with Gatsby eyes over a David Lynch road. The message is clear: men still control a woman’s image, not just personally but through the media. Critics complain Lana Del Rey glamorizes a trophy girlfriend lifestyle instead of calling it out, but whether music critics are living vicariously or trolling for readers, they’re bigger purveyors of that lifestyle than musicians today. Lana’s a hero for a lot of people who work in L.A. and understand how much the dream factory huffs its own fumes. It won’t be the first time the new prophet gets dumped by the old religion.   -S.L. Fevre

Fall in Love Phantogram

31. Fall in Love – Phantogram
directed by Timothy Saccenti

This video has flash and creativity. By putting all its effects and angles in black-and-white, my eye’s constantly drawn somewhere new. If it was in color, it might be too ordinary. Watching human forms in front of shifting fractals hints at the out-of-body experience of performing. It also shadows the song’s use of bass refrains, combating synth loops, percussion fills, and vocal codettas.   -Cleopatra Parnell

Birthday Katy Perry

30. Birthday (lyric video) – Katy Perry
directed by Aya Tanimura

I mean the lyric video (and not the horrifying music video that suggests anti-Semitism). Taking you on a tour of a bakery with every silly innuendo written on cakes and muffins makes the song more coy than it really is. Criticize her for terrible metaphors (“It’s time to bring out the big balloons”), but I enjoy a woman who can sing about sex as shamelessly as Whitesnake.   -Cleopatra Parnell

Play It Right Sylvan Esso

29. Play it Right – Sylvan Esso
directed by Remedy & Sylvan Esso

Performance videos are difficult. They have to blend simple ideas that don’t get in the way of the performers with visually arresting devices that differentiate your video of a band playing from everyone else’s. Sylvan Esso uses darkness and simple lines of color to meld the song’s steady bass line and evolving chorus. They use an accessible choreography that’s nonetheless interesting to look at. It keeps us visually interested, but in its simplicity it always refocuses us on the music. The brilliance is that this is a music video any of us could film tomorrow, but few can edit properly. There’s an expert visual rhythm here that’s always in service to the music itself, and that’s what makes this such a great video.   -Gabe Valdez

28. Double Bubble Trouble – M.I.A.
directed by M.I.A.

Essentially a big mash of GIF-ready imagery ready to go viral, M.I.A. fills a deceptively complex video full of 1984 references, “Drone Survival Guide” posters, 3-D printed assault rifles in toy gun colors, and more epilepsy triggers than that famous Pokemon episode where Pikachu sent children across Japan to the hospital. M.I.A. has been the most important cyberpunk musician working since her politically charged 2010 releases of Maya and Vicki Leekx. Hybridizing Britain’s punk imagery, Southeast Asia’s GIF montaging, India’s own habit for anachronistic iconography, and her own anti-Imperialist sensibilities, she’s making a play to become a crucial cyberpunk music video director, too. Aggressive, loud, colorful, bombastic, garish, and pissed as hell, it’s the purest music video reflection of M.I.A. as an artist that we’ve had yet.   -Gabe Valdez

27. Red Light – f(x)

Only in South Korea could f(x)’s new album, just a year off their award-winning Pink Tape, be referred to as a “comeback.” K-pop, or Korean pop, is known for upbeat tempos, flashy group numbers, simple choreography, and above all its amazing sense of schoolgirl-goth-glam fashion. f(x) is one of the guiltiest bands around – I don’t believe anyone expected their new flagship music video to be a piece of anti-government agitprop. Suffice to say, there’s much to be criticized about the bureaucracy and corruption that has put money before lives, allowing a string of avoidable disasters culminating in the MV Sewol ferry incident that cost 296 lives. f(x) uses agitprop imagery – gasmasks, burning books, a 1984 movie theater, programmable audiences – and even updates their fashion to include symbols of rebellion.   -Vanessa Tottle

26. King of Sorrow – William Wolf
directed by Casey Culver

Seedy, steamy, and very alone. I ask you who’s sadder? Women who have sex for a living or a man who has sex to cope with living? He’s stuck in his drink. He’s so sad about himself he can’t interact with the women he’s with. The women are glamorous. Their tattoos speak to individual identities. He’s in designer threads, designer drink, designer bar. What’s his identity? He returns to a silhouette that goes in and out of focus. If he doesn’t want to join in, the women enjoy themselves as if he isn’t there. He can sing into his drink. The spoils of victory – everything you ever wanted and nothing to want anymore. Welcome to Hollywood.   -S.L. Fevre

Watch this site for the rest of our countdown.

“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part three

Tropico p2 alternate

A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about singer Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a short film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico here.

In Part One, we talked about Lana Del Rey’s “Body Electric” and our culture’s treatment of celebrity as religion. In Part Two, we talked about Walt Whitman, Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters,” and what might be our forms of worship and sin in such a religion.

We stopped at Lana Del Rey’s inclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which takes place as she and several strippers arrive at a party for businessmen. As things get going, Shaun Ross bursts in with his gang, and robs them blind to “Howl.”

Vanessa: “Howl” is a call to throw out the old system. It’s a call for revolt. She knows what Shaun Ross is about to do. She’s not victimized here, she’s taking something back from that system. At the end of “Gods and Monsters,” he’s eating the apple like there’s no tomorrow. We cut to her during the robbery looking straight at us.

Gabe: So she’s in on it, that was my takeaway, too. She throws away one of the wallets during the John Wayne monologue later. It doesn’t make sense if she isn’t.

Vanessa: They don’t get to the rapture at the end without throwing out the old system. They have to take action against it.

Gabe: Cause the expected reading would be that the robbery is just a further descent into sin.

Cleopatra: That’s what I think.

Vanessa: Mary sings along to “Gods and Monsters.” John Wayne cocks his rifle right before.

Cleopatra: But Mary cries afterward.

Vanessa: At their sin or what they’re forced to do to overcome their punishment? It goes, “And so, from being created in his likeness to being banished for wanting to be too much like him, we were cast out, and the Garden of Eden transformed into the Garden of Evil.” It says the system’s got to be kicked over.

Gabe: Jesus doesn’t look too happy. You keep saying the system. What system?

Vanessa: Celebrity as religion. Everything’s celebritized now – your Izzy Black article – Wall Street bankers are the new gangster film, and The Godfather and Goodfellas are movies about worshiping the criminals who normalize it. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese doesn’t judge the piece of shit. He overwhelms you with him.

Cleopatra: So she’s saying reject criminals by being a criminal?

Vanessa: You don’t have to like it.

Cleopatra: People in those movies end up dead and arrested.

Gabe: Not all of them.

Vanessa: Yeah, but they’re gods until then. They’re treated as the ultimate realization of the American dream – people who start out small and buck the system to end up the new tyrants.

Gabe: Cycles of oligarchy. And a lot of times, it’s the peons who get killed and arrested, while the kingpins keep on rolling.

Cleopatra: But then it’s endorsing exactly what it’s criticizing.

Vanessa: Don’t take the mugging scene literally. It’s a call to change things. It’s not a call to go out and rob people.

Tropico lost faith

Gabe: Did you notice in that scene, in the hotel room where they give the party, that celebrities are looking down on the whole thing from the paintings on the walls?

Vanessa: No.

Gabe: It’s a constant throughline. You know, I’ve been raring to talk about William Gibson ever since we hit on the celebrity-as-religion idea. He’s the novelist who wrote Neuromancer and had a big hand in inventing cyberpunk as a genre. One of my big papers my last year of college was about what I called neo-feudalism, how corporation-states are making nations obsolete and essentially turning them into vassals. Point is, Gibson gave up writing cyberpunk because he said the dystopian future he had envisioned wasn’t nearly as bad as the real state of things. He had two novels post-cyberpunk that really struck my imagination. The first is Pattern Recognition. He envisions a film that gets released in clips randomly online. People can’t tell if the actors are real or CG. People can’t decide what it’s about. People can’t track down who made it. A trend analyst is hired to track its maker down, and there’s some action and espionage because it’s Gibson, but I swear to god, it plays as a brief history of the contemplation of God.

Cleopatra: I read it; I liked it.

Gabe: And then he wrote Spook Country, in which people start to create pieces of art – and some are subtle and great and some are looming and garish – but as long as you can log onto the server, you can put on glasses and see L.A. as re-imagined by, essentially, modders. You can hop onto one server and walk around the city, really physically walk around, and see great sculptures coming out of the water, or you can hop onto a different server and walk around the city and see celebrities in the exact spot in which they died – and it anticipated Oculus Rift and Google Glass and all these other innovations in how we’re about to start looking at the world, but it was also about this way in which we start to use celebrity in these artificial niche cultures to create alternate visual languages and knowledge bases to understand the world. It reminds me of a sort of return to our most basic Animist religions, where belief was based on a mountain having a certain meaning and a river having a certain spirit, and those meanings and spirits translated something important about a culture. And suddenly, we have these thousands of little niche languages, many of them becoming visually based so that we’re beginning to talk in themes and we give a movie a certain meaning or a piece of fashion a certain spirit – not literally, but effectually – and those meanings, well they translate something important onto the next collector, onto the next translator. You see it on Flickr and Tumblr and all these users who become popular cultural translators – and not just translators, I think as critics we can aspire to be those translators – but the meta-collectors of art who are creating those meanings. I posted an article on cyberpunk a few months ago that began to touch on that.

Vanessa: It sounds like Minecraft. People went through and just recreated all of Denmark on a set of servers, and anyone can log into it and make any changes they want, but it’s only up for so long.

Gabe: And then it’s gone?

Vanessa: And then it’s gone.

Gabe: Like a video game sand mandala.

Vanessa: It’s a crude version of what you’re talking about, but it lets people create landscapes, virtual landscapes that carry their own meaning. Right now, it’s for games, but….

Gabe: It’s creating a language, it’s creating a grammar that we’ll pull into tomorrow. The things they did in movies and TV for the first few decades created the same grammar we use today. And maybe visually it’s crude, and Gibson described his version as pretty crude, but conceptually, has anyone ever been able to do anything like that before? I mean, it’s funny, we have all this power taken away and taken away from us, and ideas banned, and people arrested, yet we keep on finding new ways to communicate and organize and translate ideas. And I don’t know, it may be really depressing to be just about anybody these days, but the tools we have to organize and effect change – we’ve never had anything like it before, we just need to figure out how to take those things and apply the history of art and resistance and governance to be able to take full advantage of them, to mature them into even greater usefulness and give them even more presence. And then you get the abolition of net neutrality trying to ruin it, but that’s a whole other tangent. What I’m saying about Lana Del Rey is that, what Spook Country posed as our attribution of cultural meaning onto celebrity as a tool of resistance and subtle change, as something that almost threatens to be the exact counter to neo-feudalism, a sort of visual language of ideas you have to develop fluency in to understand, is already there in Tropico.

Vanessa: Can you put a link in where people can contact their Congresspeople and tell them to keep net neutrality alive? Because everything you just described is gone if companies get to own the Internet.

Gabe: Yes. So I’m with Vanessa. I don’t think there’s a reason to include “Howl” there unless you’re saying things have to change, and we need to take charge, and that what gets us back to “America, Why I Love Her” and gets Lana Del Rey and Shaun Ross to the rapture at the end – they’ve clearly escaped that “Entrance to the Underworld,” that “Paradise lost” through their actions, she’s holding the gun and showing off the results of the money.

Vanessa: Mary’s not praying afterward for their sins, Mary’s praying for their salvation from John Wayne’s punishment, for extraction from a land of “Gods and Monsters” to someplace better.

Gabe: To the kinder God of the New Testament, perhaps?

Cleopatra: Maybe. But then is she saying to embrace celebrity and wealth as salvation? She becomes the new kingpin?

Gabe: But she uses it to extract herself, to change the equation, to leave that land and return to nature and to come closer to that ideal of herself she can never quite reach, to return to Whitman and that Mitchum poem, which was written for John Wayne – and I swear, I never thought I’d cry at a John Wayne monologue.

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Vanessa: It’s everyone’s way of returning to nature. To steal everything out from under the old system. Lana Del Rey gets a baptism back into it.

Cleopatra: So it’s Fight Club.

Gabe: It kind of is, isn’t it? It shares a lot of the same messages, although Fight Club takes on materialism where this, I think, is a much deeper contemplation on religion, celebrity, and resistance.

Cleopatra: Deeper than Fight Club?

Gabe: That would be an absolutely useless argument to have. I’d say they’re very complementary, and seeing one probably makes you understand the other better.

Vanessa: Yes, it’s deeper than Fight Club.

Gabe: The rapture scene takes place to “Bel Air,” which isn’t really about the place so much as Lana Del Rey’s character coming into her own. I think the “Bel Air” reference is something personal to the song.

Vanessa: It’s the last song on Paradise, isn’t it?

Gabe: It is the last song on the EP, yes.

Vanessa: I’ve been thinking about it as her double dissolving. It kind of wanders away into the sunset, you know.

Cleopatra: The film breaks down at the end. The skips and artifacts.

Gabe: Right, there are some skips in the visual and the audio develops background static. As they’re lifted up into the air, the entire video turns to black-and-white fuzz. Combined with Vanessa’s reading – her double dissolves, and the very method of communication that necessitates her double – the film itself – that dissolves, too. What do you think that signifies?

Vanessa: Celebrity is surpassed. If it’s something that’s really only visual.

Gabe: It’s the rapture for celebrity-as-religion?

Cleopatra: Maybe it says we’re all raised up in the end. If we all get 15 minutes, celebrity becomes obsolete.

Gabe: I handn’t thought of it that way.

Vanessa: It moves beyond the need for religion. I thought her throwing the pearls away looks a lot like throwing rosary beads away. Not like she’s throwing religion away, but that pearls are the rosary beads of celebrity, so she’s throwing that away.

Gabe: And then it all goes to fuzz, and the mode of communicating celebrity is done.

Cleopatra: Cue “Where Is My Mind?”

Vanessa: So our rapture is losing the double we create for ourselves.

Gabe: Or is it throwing out the system that idealizes the double? Gibson might say the meaning we assign to doubles is an evolution of language and religion itself.

Vanessa: Yeah, that’s why you’re on Facebook so much and I can’t stand it.

Gabe: They both have the same goals, the same message. She does use her double, as a stripper, to be able to revolt, and Shaun Ross uses a mask. They have to play the roles in order to take advantage of them.

Vanessa: Stop making points. We’re done.

Gabe: I think it’s too big a problem for Lana Del Rey or William Gibson or Fight Club to solve on their own. But all together-

Cleopatra: With our powers combined!

Gabe: That’s right, we’re going to end this with a Captain Planet reference.

Vanessa: If it works with the theme.

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A brief message from Gabe
Thank you so much for reading this series. It’s an experiment and we’re all glad it’s resonated with others so far.

We all agreed that Tropico has an incredible amount to say about celebrity-as-religion, about socio-economics, about the false exaggerations we create of ourselves in a world of social media, about activism, and about the role of artists in shoving culture forward when governments become too stagnant to do so. Some of the most peaceful and effective coups in history are the artistic ones. We may disagree on certain other messages, but we all left thinking Tropico packs more meaning into its 27 minutes than most movies can into two hours. It’s absolutely worth picking apart and analyzing, and carrying forward as a movie that’s symbolic of this very crucial moment in our history, that can both speak on it and react to it.

We never thought that was a possibility when we first sat down to watch it. We thought we’d be one-upping each other’s jokes about this crazy, ridiculous video Lana Del Rey did. But this film took us all apart, it made us each weep at different points, and it spoke to something incredibly complicated, so universal and so timely that it became deeply personal for each of us. This isn’t just a good film or a great one, it’s an important one that knows what it’s doing, what message it wants to send, and can resonate with you for weeks after if you give it a chance. Thank you for reading. This won’t be the last thing we have to say about music videos or about the work of Lana Del Rey.

“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part two

Tropico p2 lead

by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about singer Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a short film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico here.

This is the second part of our conversation. Read Part One here. Let’s dive right in:

Gabe: So far we’ve covered one song. There are still three poems and two songs to get through.

Cleopatra: Can I just say how much I like the part when Lana Del Rey bites the apple? Marilyn Monroe screams and Elvis does a kung fu move. That’s the best part.

Gabe: You guys like John Wayne and Elvis way more than I do. I think it’s interesting that she shifts right from the song “Body Electric” to the Whitman poem, but Whitman is absolutely not my forte.

Cleopatra: He based a whole bunch of poetry on the Bible. A lot of it supports ideas in it, but in a lot of it he rejects the Bible, too.

[Here’s an excellent article in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review on that topic.]

Gabe: On what grounds?

Cleopatra: Whitman said that people’s own souls should be their spiritual connection to God. He was anti-authority. He talked about people coming to their own beliefs about God and the universe, and how they should find an understanding of the universe through themselves instead of through what somebody else tells them.

Gabe: It’s like the Gospel of Thomas – “The kingdom of God is within you and all around you. It is not within buildings of wood or stone. Split a piece of wood and you will find me. Look beneath a stone and I am there.”

Tropico mid 1

Cleopatra: Where is that?

Gabe: Thomas is one of the Gnostic gospels. It’s one of several gospels the Catholic Church never accepted as canon. There are various arguments about why. Some are faith-based, some aren’t, but one of the major ones is that it quotes Jesus as saying houses of worship were bunk and people who tell you how to worship shouldn’t be trusted. You should find your own path to worship through experiencing nature and hard work. I won’t get into the politics of it-

Vanessa: Too late.

Gabe: But if it were ever accepted into the Bible, it would basically acknowledge that Jesus told people not to go to Church or listen to priests, because it would make them further from God. There are arguments for its inclusion and against, but let’s get back to Whitman and “I Sing the Body Electric.” Obviously, Lana Del Rey isn’t comparing Whitman’s views with going to a strip club.

Vanessa: Are you sure? Whitman was fired when Leaves of Grass was published.

Cleopatra: It was criticized for being indecent. A lot of people burned it.

Gabe: So what’s Lana Del Rey saying here?

Vanessa: Like I said, it links to the position men are taught to put women into because of what the Garden of Eden story says.

Gabe: You don’t agree.

Cleopatra: Maybe the strip club is just another house of wood and stone, but it’s not the Church’s house. It’s the new one we’ve built.

Gabe: The same thing the Church allegedly does to Thomas by rejecting him and building a central authority out from Jesus?

Cleopatra: With celebrity standing in for religion.

Gabe: So we’ve taken what Whitman said and, essentially, rejected him the same way the Church rejected Thomas. We’ve sort of bastardized his teachings to suit the powerful. That finds a way to marry your two interpretations, doesn’t it?

Vanessa: I like where it’s going.

Tropico connection

Gabe: So we have Eve put into a specific place in which men are trained to treat her a certain way, and we have Whitman being recited over this montage that runs counter to the meaning of the poem – and the store – Shaun Ross, the guy who plays Adam – he’s trapped in this cashier job at a mini-mart, in another house of brick and- sorry, wood and stone. Here you have the two people who commit sin, not against God necessarily – maybe it’s not a retelling of original sin. It’s a telling of our sin against Whitman and the idea of America – there’s the John Mitchum poem later, “America, Why I Love Her,” that leads up to Lana Del Rey’s rapture scene at the end. If these celebrities have become our religious icons, maybe the sin we’ve committed is against that early notion of the American ideal.

Cleopatra: I can’t really see Whitman and John Wayne in bed together.

Vanessa: I bet Whitman could imagine it.

Gabe: OK, but – look, Lana Del Rey’s obviously saying that our religion is celebrity, but she’s also saying that we’ve committed an original sin in that religion, too, that of – to go back to Warhol – that the purpose of each of our lives is to become celebrities, that that’s how we emulate our religious icons – we seek to be like them, and being like them is being beautiful and exaggerating our image.

Vanessa: Which means Facebook and Twitter are two more houses of wood and stone.

Gabe: Right, it’s the damn Richard Marshall article all over again. We’re haunted by the double we create to represent ourselves, and with Whitman involved, how do we find our own personal understanding of God if we’re busy replacing who we are as a person with that exaggerated double?

Cleopatra: We’ve sinned against Whitman. The house of worship is the strip club-

Gabe: It’s designed to make you feel like a celebrity, to practice making the body a commodity instead of something holy-

Cleopatra: -and the mini mart.

Tropico commodity religion

Gabe: “In the land of gods and monsters, I was an angel.” That’s how the next song begins.

Vanessa: There’s a place where it goes “I was an angel looking to get fucked hard.” The only way for her to achieve emotional reaction or catharsis is through sexual affirmation. And earlier in the song she says fame- the feeling of fame is something sex stirs up, and that it’s a medicine. “You got that medicine I need, fame, liquor, love, give it to me slowly.”

Gabe: Then it goes “Like a groupie, incognito, posing as a real singer, life imitates art.” It’s autobiographical, but it plays into the Warhol universe she’s posed as the reality of the film. She specifically says, “God’s dead. I said, ‘Baby that’s alright with me.’ No one’s gonna take my soul away, I’m living like Jim Morrison. Headed towards a fucked up holiday.” The double’s taken over.

Cleopatra: And “innocence lost” is the refrain.

Gabe: So this middle section – and I had this whole bit ready to go about tribalism in the Bible, but I’m pretty sure we just sent that interpretation right out the window. The middle section is all about refining that original sin, that sin against John Wayne and Whitman and all the ideas we once thought the American dream represented.

Vanessa: I like your Book of Thomas- Gospel of Thomas reference.

Gabe: This is all really depressing stuff, right?

Cleopatra: She gets through it in the end. They both do. There’s a rapture scene.

Gabe: During the return to nature.

Cleopatra: And they each embrace themselves.

Gabe: They get away from the emulation and being haunted by their false self-images and finally get a chance to have that personal understanding of the universe. And we haven’t even talked about how she uses Ginsberg’s “Howl” or the mugging scene. I think we’re all treading lightly around that one.

Vanessa: I had a good idea for that.

Gabe: I’m beginning to lean toward Tropico being one of the best half-hours of film I’ve seen in my life.

Cleopatra: Yeah.

Vanessa: Agreed.

Gabe: So what about “Howl?”

Once again, watch Tropico here. The third part of this conversation will be posted on Tuesday, May 6.

“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part one


by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a 27-minute musical film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico on YouTube here. Here’s what those writers had to say:

Gabe: The Daily Beast called this “so bad it might be good.” Billboard called it “daring…a work of overflowing, era-traversing passion.” What three words would you use to describe it?

Vanessa: Lots of tits.

Gabe: Is that really how you want to start the article?

Vanessa: Yes.

Gabe: Using more than three words?

Vanessa: It’s pretentious. It’s not my kind of movie. It gave me epilepsy. But it was pretty brilliant anyway. I love the idea of John Wayne as God.

Gabe: To clarify for readers, Tropico opens with John Wayne creating the universe. He’s accompanied by Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jesus, and a unicorn. Lana Del Rey plays Eve, and model Shaun Ross is Adam.

Cleopatra: It uses Andy Warhol’s idea of celebrity replacing God.

Tropico 1

Vanessa: Regurgitated images we place onto God. How Jesus looks like Kenny Loggins for Americans. If the real Jesus walked into an airport, the TSA would strip-search him.

Gabe: Do you mean John Wayne is a stand-in for God, or that for Lana Del Rey’s character, he is God? I think he represents a set of values that were important in Del Rey’s cultural upbringing. And he stands in for how any celebrity – Kardashian, Bieber, LeBron – becomes the moral standard we start using to make decisions.

Vanessa: Is there a difference? If we’re raised by the TV and YouTube, and “Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children,” the result is that God or whatever you believe in for a higher power gets replaced by celebrity.

Gabe: Is that a Crow reference? “Mother is the name for God…”

Vanessa: Thackeray.

Cleopatra: You don’t mean just for image. Like it assimilates the whole meaning.

Vanessa: Religious meaning? That’s what I’m saying – there’s no daylight. That’s what she’s saying. You posted a few days ago about Lana Del Rey being some weird dark mirror for the American dream.

Gabe: The Richard Marshall article. Her persona for Born to Die [her first album] is basically a ghost that’s constantly haunting her, sort of replacing her personality, yeah. It’s a perfect article. It’s perfect.

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Vanessa: That’s the same ghost that’s replacing all our personalities. We get…we get reflected, a reflection of ourselves, and especially with Facebook and Twitter and all these things we can use to portray an image of ourselves that’s exaggerated-

Gabe: That’s more perfect and more celebritized, yeah. I mean, do you think, in that way, we’re trying to pose ourselves as gods? Celebrity becomes God, then if we become celebrity, we become God-

Vanessa: Not for ourselves. Maybe for ourselves, but mostly for someone else. It’s an emulation of God. It’s what we’re taught. You airbrush the crap out of these beautiful people for the purpose of making them into Gods, and if we’re supposed to emulate our religious icons, and our religion is celebrity, then we need to be beautiful, too.

Cleopatra: That takes sexism to a whole other level. I just got depressed.

Gabe: So it’s religiously reinforced for celebrity and follower, and our Church is Facebook and our apostles are TMZ?

Cleopatra: Facebook’s more like Babel.

Gabe: I know you want to talk about the bikini, but to go back to Richard Marshall for a minute – he compares Born to Die to Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive. Those are avant garde films by David Lynch, in which – theoretically, the main characters are stuck in limbos. OK, if our religion is celebrity and our form of worship is social networking and seeking to celebritize ourselves, does Born to Die say that we’re stuck in a limbo pursuing the American Dream, seeking to become gods?

Vanessa: Absolutely.

Cleopatra: An image that isn’t there. I don’t see how you could say anything else.

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Gabe: The leaf bikini.

Vanessa: The leaf bikini. The fucking leaf bikini is everything, that’s just everything the movie’s about.

Gabe: The one Lana Del Rey wears in John Wayne’s Garden of Eden. And we talked about this before, but specifically how it cuts to her life as a stripper. We go from Garden of Eden bikini to stripper bikini.

Vanessa: The Garden of Eden one is more revealing. It’s sexier, and the Garden of Eden story in the Book of Genesis is one that punishes and subjugates women at the end. It sexualizes subjugation. Makes it hot. Not that it can’t be as a choice by two adults, but doesn’t Genesis make it a requirement? Not just socially, like the man runs the house. God lays that all out. Sexually. Subjugation and painful childbirth are Eve’s punishments. If childbirth is an oppression and sex is required for childbirth, then sex should be oppressive. That’s what the Bible says to a lot of people. Lana Del Rey equates Eve to a fucking stripper, and it’s right.

Cleopatra: I read that as her falling from Paradise into sin.

Vanessa: It is, but even as Eve, she’s sexualized – that’s the important part. Eve is always sexualized. And I want to say that stripper is a viable choice. I’m not saying all strippers are sinful people.

Gabe: You’re saying that Tropico uses it as shorthand for sin.

Vanessa: No, I don’t think so. Tropico uses it as shorthand for the male – I don’t want to say tendency or the need. It uses strippers as shorthand for the training we give males to oppress and be violent. Strippers aren’t naturally sinful, whatever “sin” is supposed to mean, but they let men play out their fantasy to- I’m losing my thought.

Gabe: To oppress and dominate?

Vanessa: That’s Biblically justified, and one component of what she’s saying.

Cleopatra: I agree with the idea, like what you have to say about the subject, but I disagree that’s what Lana Del Rey’s saying here.

Gabe: You think it’s a more natural fall into sin? More straightforward, narratively?

Cleopatra: I think that her becoming a stripper is her, yeah, falling out of the Garden of Eden. She copes however she can. She struggles and goes through sin so she can come out the other side.

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Vanessa: It’s the same thing. Her punishment could be working in a coal mine, but it’s not. It’s – I want to be careful here because I don’t want to judge a whole profession that a lot of people work.

Gabe: Just say, “In the film.” It’s what I do all the time. Blame the film.

Vanessa: In the film, she has to perform in a sexually submissive manner. Her struggle is her relationship and the gang tensions, but it’s also this sexually debased place John Wayne puts her into.

Cleopatra: But John Wayne shakes his head-

Gabe: When she bites the apple. What I find interesting is that she also plays Mary, mother of Jesus. Is that a reflection of the perfection and lack of sin that she can’t get back to? An ideal of what she was in the past?

Vanessa: Yeah. That or a judge, but like a soft judge. Someone who’s impossible to measure up to. The idea of what women are supposed to be.

Gabe: Fetishized as both a saint and a whore, you mean?

Vanessa: Yes.

Cleopatra: It’s struggle. It’s not what John Wayne, or God, puts her into. It’s what she has to undergo.

Vanessa: But it’s the society that looks up to John Wayne, or God – they’re all shooting guns in the air, they all look tough like him – it’s their idea of how to emulate God that says women belong in that place.

Gabe: I like both perspectives because yours is a very Old Testament interpretation and Cleopatra’s is a very New Testament interpretation of what Eve does and goes through, and there’s a point at which Tropico shifts from Old Testament to New Testament. It’s just that we may disagree where that point is…

Once again, you can watch Tropico here. The second part of this conversation will be posted on Thursday, May 1.

Wednesday Collective — Lana del Rey, Game of Thrones, & Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Lana del Rey, our master storyteller
Richard Marshall

Lana del Rey

Lana del Rey is our best storyteller-in-song since Pearl Jam. She portrays an image of wealth (or sometimes the emulation of it) and a conscious rejection of consequence that speaks to the profound boredom of excess. Her character is one who’s traded in her own desires so that men can project their fantasies onto her. She narrates with the idealized nostalgia that drove Fitzgerald’s Gatsby to obsession, but plays it with the despondence of Camus’ Meursault, who was apathetic to his imprisonment because he could while away the hours listing off what he once owned.

Through it all, there’s the ghostly afterimage of a soul who might break through were she not so practiced at replacing her own thoughts with the distractions and egos of others. This is mirrored by a fear of old age, of wisdom, of a loss of beauty that would force her to finally face the world as it is, of the dissipation of an illusion created from such thin veneer it threatens to tear apart at the slightest conscious challenge not immediately subdued.

Richard Marshall compares her style to the work of director David Lynch: “There’s the theme of the double in all these songs, where a consciousness of intense eagerness to survive the blackest nightmare places the feelings onto another ego, like in a diabolical pact.”

This is an elegant, thoughtful article about the woman who may very well become the most important musical artist of this generation, and it pairs superbly with last week’s article of the week, Izzy Black’s analysis of the new films of excess.

Rape as Social Issue, or Just a Plot Device
Genevieve Valentine


Game of Thrones uses rape as a plot device. That it’s difficult to criticize a TV series set in a medieval world for not interrogating the topic with a modern sensibility is a deflection. Valentine only has to go as far as Mad Men to find another male-dominated world that found a way to fold the topic into its characterization and storytelling.

It’s not that Game of Thrones chooses to use rape as a plot device. It’s that – unlike Mad Men – it fails to fully deal with what this use means, both in its own world and in ours. Thus, it trivializes rape as a MacGuffin, a lazy shorthand to get people from point A to point B, rather than seeking to understand the effects the act has. It is disappointing storytelling from a series that has a lot going for it, but might quickly be burning up its goodwill.

Thanks to Chris Braak for the heads-up on this.

An Interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Peter H. Stone

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Marquez may be the most important author in my own life. He was also a rousing and challenging interview. Paris Review republishes Peter H. Stone’s 1981 interview with the man at a time when he was at the top of his art.

A Brief History of the Art-Horror Film
Bilge Ebiri

Only Lover Left Under the Skin

I somewhat object to the delineation between art-horror and regular horror. It lacks defining structural tendencies or stylistic elements that other genres can hang their hats on, and usually devolves into simply separating horror that’s good from horror that’s bad, or horror that’s weird from horror that’s not. Nonetheless, this article at Vulture does a solid job of describing the history of critically applauded horror in the lead-up to Under the Skin and Only Lovers Left Alive.

“Why Historical Accuracy on Film Matters”
A. E. Larsen

300 Again Again

Last week, I highlighted an article I didn’t entirely agree with – why the expert review should die. I diverged somewhat from Matt Zoller Seitz’s scorched-earth approach to the subject by saying that expert reviews done by non-experts in that particular field should be avoided. From now on, I’ll differentiate those by calling them the “inexpert review.”

A. E. Larsen, my favorite medievalist film critic, rebuts Seitz with a defense of the expert review that describes our need for more contextual awareness in how we view art.

Ranking Rocky
Matt Singer


While researching an upcoming article about the best films never made, I came across this ranking of the Rocky movies by Matt Singer. Ordinarily, I don’t link to best-of/worst-of lists. I’m a recovering list addict and I find many of them – much like the inexpert review (wow, that caught on fast) – go in one ear and out the other. I’m careful about which ones we do here – there’d better be an important reason to make one. For instance, we made our No Miley Here list to highlight under-seen music videos in a year plagued by Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, and the terrible music criticism that holds their celebrity as an artistic accomplishment.

Well, this ranking of the Rocky movies passes the List Test by reflecting on Singer’s own experiences of the films growing up – defining the moment they changed from character study to superhero movie – and by describing how Sylvester Stallone himself originally envisioned the franchise and the drastic concessions he made in exchange for bigger and bigger paychecks.

“How Hollywood Killed Death”
Alexander Huls


I wrote about something similar in my Pacific Rim piece last year. American filmmakers have a tendency to treat death as an operatic moment that every single character forgets about minutes later. In contrast, many foreign films have death occur off-screen or so suddenly that characters don’t have a five-minute, slow-motion sequence with its own theme song in which to prepare for it.

It connects a bit with Valentine’s piece above, about the treatment of rape on television. We use death in much the same way, devaluing it as a basic plot point or momentary inconvenience, and not treating it as a searing moment the remaining characters deal with for the rest of their lives. There are some spoilers in this article, obviously.

Kicking a Good Bond While He’s Down
Horatia Harrod

Pierce Brosnan Goldeneye

This interview sparked an interesting discussion between some friends and myself, especially after Russ Schwartz’s article on Skyfall last week. Brosnan critiques his run as superspy James Bond harshly, taking himself to task for never fully inhabiting the role.

I tend to think this was an asset – the films he was given were so glossy and empty and badly written that Brosnan’s ability to wink his way through them made even the worst semi-watchable. If he didn’t take them so seriously, we didn’t have to either, and that moved the goalposts considerably.

Thanks to J.P. Hitesman for the heads-up on this.

No Miley Here, Insanity Edition – 2013’s Best Music Videos, #20-11

Music Videos 2013 number 2

by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabriel Valdez
special thanks to Hayley Williams

We continue into the maddest portion of the countdown with music videos that aren’t so downbeat, but are wackier and occasionally more adult. (Parental guidance suggested!)

Because of that and Vevo’s hosting, you may have to click through to YouTube to watch some of these:

#20: It’s You – Duck Sauce
directed by Phil Andelman

Duck Sauce are two DJs who are most famous for their house mixes of Tori Amos. There’s no deep message to this one that I can sort out, but it’s indescribably wacky.

#19: I Love You – Woodkid
directed by Yoanna Lemoine

The latest entry in a continuous narrative meant to span Woodkid’s entire album The Golden Age, we’re ostensibly told the story of a man who loses his love and drowns himself. What the story really tells is how a loss of faith can turn a man unfeeling, and how the instruments of his younger passion seem to wither as he grows cynical. This is one of the most stately videos to come out last year.

#18: The Stars (Are Out Tonight) – David Bowie
directed by Floria Sigismondi

Floria Sigismondi, director of The Runaways, just has a talent for fusing fashion and celebrity to tell multilayered stories. This one follows the message of Bowie’s song pretty closely, presenting an unsettling domesticity that takes to task our obsession with and emulation of celebrity, as well as our demand of that same emulation from our loved ones. Starring David Bowie and Tilda Swinton alternately as a nice, suburban married couple, themselves, each other, and various Freudian dreamstates.

#17: Hard Out Here – Lilly Allen
directed by Chris Sweeney

Lily Allen got in more trouble for featuring a music video with twerking models and champagne moneyshots than the performers she’s satirizing. You could say her critics missed the point, but I’m pretty sure they got it – they just didn’t like that she was making it so effectively.

#16: Your Life Is A Lie – MGMT
directed by Tom Kuntz

At least Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” was good for something, namely this two-minute takedown by MGMT. It’s cleverly absurd, visually rich, and incisive in its criticism. What’s wrong with us? How did we not rank this higher?

#15: King and Lionheart – Of Monsters and Men
directed by WeWereMonkeys

Please meet one of our new favorite 80s movies.

#14: Jubilee Street – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
directed by John Hillcoat

Ray Winstone stars as a man addicted to his meetings with a prostitute. It’s a beautiful, atmospheric video on its face, but it’s also a damning consideration of the male ego. It plays with the passage of time, the evolution of a place, and examines one’s stubborn steadfastness to refuse the reality of past actions.

#13: Young and Beautiful – Lana Del Rey
directed by Chris Sweeney

With a brilliant performance video, Chris Sweeney’s second entry on this list blends bright colors with a muted presentation. It communicates power through very simple artistry, evoking Lana Del Rey’s obsession with 70s glamour and the classical, Fantasia-influenced orchestral presentations of the 40s.

#12: Ohio – Patty Griffin feat. Robert Plant
directed by Roy Taylor

Gabe here. I’m not a big fan of country music, but my album of the year last year was Patty Griffin’s American Kid. It’s a reflective series of songs that surpasses simple messages and meanings and instead seeks to invoke the most pensive and difficult times in our lives, the times we learned our way through trouble. Someone once told me never to use the word “masterpiece” in criticism. Screw that guy, because it’s a good word and American Kid is exactly that. This video creates a powerful sense of place using only paper cutouts, magic lamps, and creative lighting that allow the viewer to spend a relaxing and thoughtful day along the Ohio River.

#11: Pursuit – Gesaffelstein
directed by Fleur and Manu

Welcome to the polar opposite, a Cyberpunk Rorschach Test of classical, industrial, and military imagery. It seems to declare the beginning of a new age of corporate aristocracy, the age of the test group and power through military faith, the age of excluding anything less than the image of technical perfection, achieved only by applying the same sleek designer lines to women and whole societies as we do to cars and strike fighters. It’s a video that just becomes scarier the more you watch it.

Videos #30-21 ran on Tuesday, April 8.
Videos #10-1 will run on Tuesday, April 15.