What Were You Doing in 1979? (part 1)

Paul Simon was making One Trick Pony.

Art Garfunkel was starring in Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing.

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Why Do You Need So Many Cinemas?

“Evolution of Dance” by Judson Laipply (2006) (still).

In my last post on this topic, I argued that cinema can be redefined as “the cinematic arts,” which would include not only movies and short films, but also music videos, commercials, TV programs, experimental film and video, installation art, video games, Flash animations, animated gifs, and even “nonelectrical” forms of moving images, such as flipbooks and camera obscuras. This redefinition raises a few questions:

  1. Why should we do this? What would this expansive reconsideration get us?
  2. Can it be done? Can the same critical apparatus that we use to describe and analyze feature films be successfully applied to, say, animated gifs? Or camera obscuras?
  3. What would the be the common currency of cinema?

After the jump, I’ll try answering each of these questions.

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Why I Hate the Avant-Garde, part 1

[Update: Part 2 is here]

Re: Greg’s most recent post on the term “avant-garde”—I’ve already discussed this somewhat here, here and here, but to recap:

  1. The term’s early 19th-century Socialist origins have mostly been forgotten. And that’s fine—language changes—but, personally, I find it deliciously perverse that the original Avant-Gardists, the Impressionists, essentially stole the term from Socialists, for use as a marketing term.
  2. It seems to me that anyone who wants to use the term today—especially if they want to use it to refer to some progressive art that’s free from any capitalist influence—would have to account for that history.
  3. People mostly don’t, though. Instead, they just use it interchangeably with terms like “experimental” and “unusual” and “innovative.” I consider this conflation very wrong-headed, not to mention not all that useful.
  4. For one thing, it assumes an incorrect model of how art and innovation actually proceed. It begins by positing that there’s a single conservative high art world, which follows a long and noble yet conservative tradition, and that there’s a single low art world, which is popular and commercial (i.e., crass). And then it assumes that there’s a small band of daring creative pioneers, huddled in some corner of the culture somewhere, who pass all artistic innovation to both the highs and the lows. (It’s the art world version of Reaganomics.)

I don’t truck with any of that. I think it’s important to remember history (even as it changes); I think it’s important to be as clear as possible in one’s terminology; and I regret any and all myopic views of the culture. (Not to mention, the notion of the avant-garde is rather elitist and racist: it posits a view of history in which all innovation flows from middle- and upper-class white folks.)

One need only look at recent music history to put the lie to the term “avant-garde.” Today Facebook showed me the following ad:

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Looking at Movements, part 5: New Wave (US)

Debbie Harry of Blondie

Part 1: The Post-Punk Revival
Part 2: Post-Punk
Part 3: No Wave
Part 4: New Wave (UK)
Part 5: New Wave (US)

In this installment, I’ll be looking at the late 70s American side of New Wave. Whereas British New Wave (The Stranglers, The Jam, The Boomtown Rats, e.g.) strikes me as emerging from punk, or at least leaning fairly closely to punk, US New Wave seems a pretty different animal. It has some clear punk tendencies:

  • looking backward nostalgically to “simpler” 50s and early 60s rock;
  • fast tempos, with aggressive basslines and drumming;
  • a minimalist tendency toward building songs around short, repeated melodic phrases;
  • shouted/declaimed/half-sung lyrics;
  • political overtones;

…but at the same time it’s also very different, being:

  • much more theatrical (and often more overtly bizarre and weird);
  • much poppier;
  • more willing to draw on “opposing” musical trends, such as glam, prog rock, and (later on) dance styles, such as world music and disco.

That all said, both US and UK New Wave share some similarities:

  • art/experimental overtones, resulting in complex songs often built around punk back beats;
  • an all-around angularity;
  • the heavy use of synthesizers;
  • an overall geekiness, with singers often exaggerating their faces while performing.

Not every band shares all of these characteristics, of course, but we’ll see plenty of them below…

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Looking at Movements, part 3: No Wave

Lydia Lunch with her friends Nick Cave and James Chance

Part 1: The Post-Punk Revival
Part 2: Post-Punk
Part 3: No Wave
Part 4: New Wave (UK)
Part 5: New Wave (US)

I’m going to do this somewhat backward, and look at No Wave before I look at New Wave. (But this whole series has been moving backward, so why stop now?)

What was No Wave? As we shall see, No Wave music generally was:

  • very noisy;
  • extremely fast-paced, leaning toward extremely short songs;
  • strongly influenced by free jazz (Ornette Coleman), experimental classical music (John Cage, La Monte Young), and the Velvet Underground;
  • unconventional in its playing techniques and styles (performers often invented new ways of playing their instruments);
  • more theatrical than punk, post-punk, or New Wave, belonging as much to the visual and performance art scenes as the club scenes.

While the UK’s post-punk scene was influenced by punk (especially the Sex Pistols), and sought to extend that influence, No Wave was in many ways a reaction against punk (and against New Wave punk in particular). As Lydia Lunch put it:

Who wanted chords, all these progressions that had been used to death in rock? […] I’d use a knife, a beer bottle… Glass gave the best sound. To this day I still don’t know a single chord on the guitar. (141)

And while No Wave, like post-punk, is rather funky, it generally lacks post-punk’s distinctive dub sound; rather, the music is very simply recorded, often in single takes, and without many studio effects. Indeed, many surviving No Wave recordings are from live club shows.

Let’s look at some of the bands, and what’s been recorded…

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Innovation in Art

So glossy!

What is innovation in art? This is something I’ve circled in my other posts, for example:

Now I’ll try addressing it a little more head-on.

All art contains both innovation (unfamiliarity) and convention (familiarity). Some artworks are so familiar as to preexist themselves. I didn’t like Andrzej Wajda’s recent film Katyn (2007), thinking it nothing more than a string of war movie clichés (this time in Polish). Its being unoriginal and predictable annoyed me; I might have walked out (or fallen asleep) had I not gone to see it with a couple of friends (who for the record both really liked it). And I felt as though its unoriginality trivialized its very serious subject matter, the Katyn Massacre.

On the other hand, some artworks are so radically different from what we know and expect that we can’t make any sense of them, let alone recognize them as artworks:

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