Category Archives: Millennial Literature

Jennifer’s Body

I was really hoping I’d like “Jennifer’s Body.” We’ve had quite a few good-to-great horror comedies in the last few years (most of them dealing with zombies, from “Zombieland” to “Shaun of the Dead” to “Fido”), and with “Juno” scriptwriter Diablo Cody handling the script here, I thought we might see an insightful and humorous look at high school life and the objectification of young women.

Instead, though, “Jennifer’s Body” tries to hide its cliched (and fairly uninspired and lazy) story by relying on witty dialogue and banter. There’s an interesting monster/creature at the center of the story, and Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried are both game for a gory horror-comedy, but–in terms of high school slasher/creature features–the movie just feels like more of the same. It wants to be dark and different, but throughout the entire film, I always found myself knowing what would come next, able to see which new dot would be connected next. And as I said, it seems that Cody even knew this as she drafted the script, slopping “Juno”-style dialogue atop stale plot points.

And the worst thing about “Jennifer’s Body” (and my confidence in Diablo Cody’s career as a scriptwriter) was its reliance on a voice-over to tell us what was happening. No, not all voice-overs are bad, but all voice-overs do draw attention to themselves, because as we listen to the character tell us about his/her life and the events depicted in the film, we start to wonder who they’re talking to. Do they realize that someone is filming them (this works in “The Office,” because the characters are supposedly stuck in a documentary)? Are they telling someone their story (as is the case in films like “Forrest Gump” or “Shawshank Redemption”)? Is the voice-over supposed to function as interior thoughts (this is the case in “Dexter”)? In “Jennifer’s Body,” there’s no real reason for the voice-over other than the fact that Cody probably thought it would be cool to have a sassy narrator. There’s no consistency to when the voice-over comes; there’s no one that Seyfried is talking to, but yet she’ll talk to the audience as if she knows she is in a movie (which, of course, breaks the illusion of the movie itself).

No, wait. The voice-over isn’t the worst thing. The worst thing about “Jennifer’s Body” is that it desperately wants to be important. Not just good and/or fun (like “Zombieland”), but important, as if it has really big and interesting things to say about Women and Society and Youth and Celebrity. It’s got ambition, but it wants to fool us into thinking that it actually has something to say. In other words, it’s like a drunk guy who tries to tell a joke or story REALLY LOUD because he knows (halfway through) that he’s working with really bad material.

A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

“Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” is a pretty spectacular undertaking, a book that attempts to chart the birth, coming-of-age, and growing pains of a so-called “hip-hop generation.” It’s always readable, always interesting, and surprisingly inspiring, but it isn’t without its issues.

First, I can’t help but think of the idea (and subtitle) of the “hip-hop generation” as a bit of a gimmick. This book follows the growth of hip-hop over 35-40 years, and while Chang attempts to debunk the very notion of “generational theory” in his introduction, I just kept thinking that his arguments against easy generational classification were simply self-serving. In other words, he writes an introduction in which he states that “generational theory” is an inexact science, and that because of the sweeping generalizations of categorizing and organizing generational data, we can be loose when we define the nature of a single generation (i.e. when it starts, when it ends, who it includes, etc.). With this argument made, he lumps 40 years of hip-hop musicians and fans into a single “generation,” a problematic premise. 40 years is half a lifetime, not a generation. Of course, the subtitle “A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” is likely to sell quite a few copies, as generational theory–inexact though it may be–lines the nonfiction shelves of the average Barnes & Noble.

So, from the start, it felt to me that Chang was a little dishonest in his approach, that he had created a flawed angle from which to tell the story he wanted to tell. There are at least two generations of hip-hop culture-makers depicted in this book, and the birth of a third generation. But Chang seems to surrender to marketing, choosing a title and an angle that pretends that this entire movement brings together hundreds of millions of people (between ages 5 and 75) into a single generation.

That flaw aside, though, Chang is indeed a magnificent writer, and the story is uniquely compelling. Above, I mentioned that the book is “inspiring,” and this is why I think so: Chang captures the spirit of the movement, the many different elements that came together to give life to a culture, the (as cliche as it may sound) blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of different types of artists. To read about the passion of so many individuals, most of whom had no idea how this “hip-hop” thing would pan out, is incredible. They believed that something needed to be said, that a new art form needed to be created in order to give voice to the youth, and they worked tirelessly to make it happen. It’s the sort of story that makes you want to be part of a movement, and makes you wonder if/when it will ever happen again.

There are other issues with the book overall, of course, from the sometimes-over-the-top sympathy Chang shows for criminals and violent aggressors (as if their actions are excused by their circumstances) and the disdain he heaps upon all systems, institutions, and governmental agencies (as if all law enforcement officers are thugs and cowards, and all criminals are victims), and in the paperback edition, the font choice (a sans serif) seems better suited for internet reading than for printed text…but overall, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” is quite the achievement. It’s a must-read for every youth who thinks that there is no culture to represent him/her, and it’s a must-read for every aspiring rapper or DJ who does not yet understand the decades of tradition that came before him/her.

Here’s a quick link to Jeff Chang speaking at the University of Arkansas:

GasLand as Horror Documentary

“GasLand” is the scariest documentary I’ve seen since “The Corporation” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and maybe the scariest film I’ve seen since “Paranormal Activity.” No, wait. Scratch that. It might just be the scariest film I’ve ever seen.

Here’s why: first of all, Josh Fox–the director–comes across as a genuine and likable narrator, an everyman who never once feels like a filmmaker. This isn’t Michael Moore, who we’ve come to distrust, and this isn’t some suave and good-looking TV host who was hired for his plastic good looks. Fox just seems like an everyman, a dude who bought a camera and decided to film his journey toward understanding something crazy happening all around him. He’s a dude who goes on a road trip to learn the answers to a great number of questions he’s been wondering. In this way, the movie carries all of the “this could happen to me” fright-power of “Paranormal Activity” and “Diary of the Dead” and even “Cloverfield.” It is amateurish, in a good way, and it is immersive. Josh Fox is us, and we are Josh Fox, and we are never allowed to leave the nightmare world he has entered.

Second, “GasLand” has the Stephen King-esque ability to take the ordinary ideas and objects that motivate us or that surround our daily lives, and transform them into something hideous and dangerous. King made cell phones into instruments of death in “Cell,” and the common flu into a worldwide plague in “The Stand.” Whatever is ordinary becomes terrifying in his hands. In “GasLand,” Fox pairs our unyielding pursuit of new energy sources (in this case, natural gas) with our most taken-for-granted natural resource (water), and creates the overwhelming feeling that we could be headed for a truly cataclysmic future. When he sets fire to ordinary tap water, just by holding a lighter to a running faucet, the images are at first shocking…but then they marinate in your mind for awhile, and what at first was just a shocking visual soon becomes an epic nightmare: what if all well water is ruined, polluted by natural gas? What would we do if all of the systems that we relied upon for a functioning society (our faucets, and running water, first and foremost) were to break down?

And finally, “GasLand” does what so many other frightening documentaries have done: it not only showcases the problem with the natural gas “fracturing” technology, but shows clear evidence that the major corporations know of its detrimental effects, have attempted to silence or discredit those who try to speak out, and have essentially paid off any politicians who might stand in the way of their continued pursuit of natural gas and further profit. In the end, we have seen so many stories of “salt of the earth” people in Wyoming and Arkansas and Pennsylvania who have been intimidated and ignored and hushed, that we feel like there’s nothing we can do. We are powerless; we are doomed to the future nightmare that we have imagined.

Hey, listen: I’m not entirely naive. I know that this film is an argument, and that Josh Fox has made it as frightening as possible so that he be as persuasive as possible. He has perhaps made the danger more imminent than it is, the stakes higher than they really are. Perhaps. As “everyman” as he appears, he’s also a very skilled filmmaker.

But I’ll tell you what: there were moments in this movie where he didn’t even have to try very hard to make the images frightening, where a single five-second scene could do far more than any camera trick, any sappy music, any rhetorical flourish or savvy speech. “GasLand” is a scary movie for all of the strategies I listed above, but mostly, it’s a scary movie because Fox doesn’t even *need* to be a skilled filmmaker in order to terrify us; he only needs to let the images speak for themselves, and in the end, that’s what keeps us awake at night. Brilliant and haunting. “GasLand” is a must-see, and the issue that Fox explores is certainly one that we should all be worried about.

Away We Go: Potential Millennial Movie?

Perhaps because Dave Eggers penned the script (and his “Heartbreaking Work” was/is the quintessential novel of Generation X), and perhaps because Sam Mendes was the director (and his “American Beauty” is one of the quintessential films of late ’90s/early 2000’s suburban malaise), I expected great things from “Away We Go.” And while it was light and funny and had a great premise, it never really amounted to much. In fact, it just sort of felt like an extended collection of Saturday Night Live sketches, stitched together into a film.

Yes, the dialogue is often smart, and yes, the direction is skilled. John Krasinski is a likable lead, strange and quirky in very different ways than his character from “The Office” (giving us a unique experience in this film), and Maya Rudolph shows surprising range, going from slapstick to bitchy to heartbreak to strong, sometimes all in a single scene. For the two leads alone, the movie is definitely worth watching, but I suppose I just expected more.

“Away We Go” could have made an amazing statement about the current generation and about child-rearing/raising practices; the idea that a pregnant couple would take the opportunity to decide where they wanted to live when they raised their child, would forsake any firm attachments to either of their families, would travel the country in an effort to truly formulate their own unique plans for how/where they wanted to be parents (and to hell with what society told them about how they were supposed to start their family)…that’s an incredible idea, an incredible concept, an incredible opportunity that Eggers and Mendes had, and the cast is up to the challenge. But in the end, it’s just a light comedy.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that this movie could have been so much more.

Into the Wild

It’s taken me a little while to process my thoughts on “Into the Wild,” which (I suppose) is another way of saying that it’s a complex movie about complex characters without any single clear message. The very best literature avoids easy answers, opting instead for questions, and “Into the Wild” definitely fits this mold. It also covers a wide spectrum of emotions, making us both love and hate the protagonist, making us (depending on the scene) hope that he fails, and hope that he succeeds.

And there are moments of real beauty in the film, also, shots of incredible simplicity that also carry incredible power. There’s never a dull moment in the imagery of the film, and director Sean Penn knows this, milking the scenery and the long shots for all they’re worth.

But there’s also an uneven quality to “Into the Wild,” a sense that perhaps Penn didn’t really have a clear mission in mind as he set out to adapt this book into a film. Much like the protagonist at the center of the story, Christopher McCandless, he was intoxicated by the romance of the wild, the romance of life away from evil evil society, and so he just went at it. And though I am certain that he loved every minute of the filmmaking process (there’s definitely a true passion on display in every shot), I’m just not sure what to make of it all because I don’t think Penn was quite sure what to do with it all.

When Jon Krakauer decided to write a book about McCandless, it seems to have been for the same reason that he decided to write about Pat Tillman, or the extremist Mormon murders in Utah…the same reason that Truman Capote wrote about the unexplained murders in Kansas that became “In Cold Blood.” Krakauer was curious. Krakauer wanted to figure out how a boy with such potential, such a future, such means and education, could simply leave it all behind, tell no one, elude all family for over a year, and then wind up dead in an abandoned bus in the wild of Alaska. How does such a thing happen? What is the story behind this? That seems to have been Krakauer’s motivation as a journalist and writer: to piece together the mystery of McCandless.

But Penn’s motivation must have been entirely different. After all, this isn’t a brand-new documentary which exposes new facts about the story. This is just a visual depiction of the book. And as Penn adapted the book, he transformed McCandless from a subject of inquiry into a protagonist. After all, we watch nonfiction in a completely different way than we watch fiction, and this movie utilizes the techniques of fiction, not nonfiction. Now as we are viewing, we aren’t watching out of simple curiosity (the way we might if this were nonfiction), but we are watching in order to sympathize with a protagonist…and that’s really tough to do with this particular character. There are moments when he is interesting, sure, and moments when we care about him, but also quite a few moments where he is absolutely unlikable (the way he abandons his family and his sister is mean-spirited, and actually represents all that he claims to hate about “society” and how people treat one another). His philosophies about truth and fairness and life and other abstract concepts are about as intriguing as a high schooler’s poetry.

As a protagonist, McCandless is less compelling than he is as a subject of nonfiction inquiry, and this is the real mistake behind Penn’s focus. He doesn’t realize the difference. And so the movie sometimes seems as if it is celebrating McCandless’ decision, and other times seems as if it is condemning it, because nonfiction generally takes a side. Nonfiction (and documentaries), by its very nature, is an argument. Society is evil, and we should all live in the wild. Or family is good and pure, and should not be abandoned. Etc. But fiction doesn’t need to take a side. Or, rather, fiction should only take the side of its protagonist, making us care as much as possible about that protagonist, even when this character does some really stupid stuff. But, as great as Emile Hirsch was in this film, “Into the Wild” seemed more about statements than about truly getting to know Christopher McCandless: that’s why the camera falls in love with the scenery, and that’s why some moments in the film try to make social/ political statements. It’s not about McCandless; it’s about putting the book onto the screen, taking a fiction approach with nonfiction.

And while there are moments that are engaging, and while it’s all very pretty, it sort of reminds me of a specialty pizza (BBQ chicken and cheddar, or “The Caesar Salad Pizza”). Interesting for a slice, but not something you can really stand behind. A gimmick, not as honest as the mozzarella and pepperoni that we’ve come to love.

The Epic Eminem Analysis: Part II

“The Slim Shady LP” had introduced the world to a prankster, a rapper named Eminem and his crazed alter ego Slim Shady, who both seemed custom-made to combat the boy bands and bubble-gum pop of late ’90s radio. The characters swapped songs on that first CD, with the Eminem tracks containing just a hint of I-came-from-poverty humility, the sadness of a tough former life (see the songs “Rock Bottom” and “If I Had”), and the Slim Shady tracks bursting with over-the-top expletives and violent narratives (with “My Name Is” and “Guilty Conscience” as the two main examples), but the characters would certainly grow and change in the intervening years between “The Slim Shady LP” and Eminem’s second major album, “The Marshall Mathers LP.”

The zaniness would still be there (listen to the song “Bad Meets Evil” from The Wild West soundtrack, which is the closest Eminem ever came to a Will Smith “Men in Black”-style track), but now there was a much darker tone that had settled over the songs and the characters…and we could see this dark tone creeping into Eminem’s work before “The Marshall Mathers LP” was even released, as the rapper appeared on several collaborations and soundtracks from 1999-2000.

In “Dead Wrong,” we have some of the most disturbing lines we will ever find (not just on an Eminem CD, but–because of the words and their natural, matter-of-fact delivery–on any CD from a mainstream studio artist), a one-up response to the extremely graphic Notorious B.I.G. verses that came just before:

There’s several different levels to Devil worshippin: horse’s heads,
Human sacrifices, canibalism; candles and exorcism;
Animals, havin sex with ’em; camels, mammals, and rabbits,
But I don’t get into that, I kicked the habit – I just
Beat you to death with weapons that eat through the flesh
And I never eat you unless the fuckin meat looks fresh

I copied these lyrics from an online lyric depot, but it even feels dirty to look at them. Yes, the songs from the original album had their share of disgusting images, but now it seemed as though Eminem was making a statement: “I will never be a pop icon. I am not cuddly and accessible, and I resent that anyone would think so.”

And “Murder, Murder (Remix)” remains one of the grittiest records I can remember Eminem recording, a song that–like Obie Trice’s “Dope Jobs Homeless”–just feels like a lyrical portrait of the hopelessness of Detroit:

Left the keys in the van, with a gat in each hand.
Went up in Eastland and shot a policeman.
Fuck a peace plan, if a citizen bystands
the shit is in my hands, here’s yo’ lifespan…

…But I ain’t set to flee the scene of the crime just yet
Cause I got a daughter to feed
And $200 ain’t enough to water the seed.
The best thing would be for me to leave Taco Bell and hit up Chess King
And have the lady at the desk bring
Money from the safe in the back, stepped in wavin the Mack,
Cooperate, and we can operate, and save an attack…

And in his verse with Dr. Dre on “Forgot About Dre,” we see the against-all-odds/ I’ve-made-it optimism of the first album beginning to fade; we see a discomfort with fame and pop stardom. It will grow stronger by the time we hear “The Way I Am” and “Stan,” but check out how the Eminem character seems to be using this opportunity to show the world how he identifies with Dr. Dre, his mentor, the man who’s been through all of this already.

After all, Eminem sings the chorus:

Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got something to say
But nothin comes out when they movin their lips
Just a buncha gibberish
Motherfuckers act like they forgot about Dre

This is what fame means? That no matter how important you were, a new generation will forget you? That you are doomed, regardless of what you produce? It’s a realization that we hadn’t seen so vividly in that first gleeful album, and it manifests itself with violence in the verse itself:

So what do you say to somebody you hate
Or anybody tryin to bring trouble your way?
Wanna resolve things in a bloodier way?
Just study your tape of NWA.

And Eminem also appeared on “What’s the Difference?” from Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001, where the friendship with Dre became more pronounced, where that feeling of joyless fame again seemed to creep into the lyrics, and where we hear real sadness and camaraderie-under-fire:

Stop the beat a minute! I got somethin to say.
Dre, I wanna tell you this shit right now while this fuckin weed is in me.
(Dre: What The fuck?)

I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I love you, dawg,
I got your motherfuckin back, just know this shit.

But this was just the build-up to what would come with “The Marshall Mathers LP.” This was just the character telling us–in his guest appearances–that all was not well in his life, that the merry prankster who had challenged mainstream music just a year earlier would not reappear in quite the same way. We could not expect the same feeling of an impoverished/ blue-collar kid from Detroit, happy to be there, happy for the attention, dreaming of a new life while sweeping away the gnawing concerns of the old. No, no, no. The characters we would see in the songs of 2000 and 2001 would bring to mind another B.I.G. song, certainly, but the reaction to dealing with “Mo Money, Mo Problems” would be distinctive to these specific characters (in other words, Eminem didn’t just write a general song about how mo money causes mo problems), and that reaction would cause a new set of complications in the lives of all of his characters, a continued rising action that would compel us to see what would happen to Eminem, Slim Shady, and Marshall Mathers in “The Eminem Show.” Each new album, then, was a reaction to complications created from the last. And the complications themselves would grew continuously more complicated.

next The Marshall Mathers LP

previous – The Slim Shady LP

The Epic Eminem Analysis

So Eminem has just released his sixth major album (seventh, if you count the 8 Mile soundtrack), one that I’d been simultaneously anticipating and dreading ever since last summer’s supposed comeback album, Relapse. Perhaps more than any other album in my lifetime, this new disc Recovery had the potential to either immortalize or dismiss one of the greatest musical artists of my generation. After an incredible run of four straight genre-defying/ worldwide-chart-topping successes, Eminem fell into heavy drug abuse and released two half-assed clunkers(three, if you count “The Re-Up”) made interesting by a sparing handful of songs, made relevant by the artist’s previous successes, made chart-toppers by the faithful fans (like myself) who convinced ourselves that the albums were better than they were.  Now, with Recovery, we would either see Eminem emerge as a victorious hero, battling his way from the belly of the beast…or we would see him as a tragic figure, a shadow of his former self, a talented Daunte Culpepper type who–we could now be convinced–would never regain the fire and the confidence and the smarts that had propelled him to the top.

In short, Recovery would–whether positive or negative–provide an interesting climax and resolution to the first decade and a half of a still-ongoing career.

So before I really delve into my thoughts on the CD itself, I want to truly analyze the musical (mainly the lyrical content) of those first 13 or so years. Why did this album mean so much to me, and (likely) to so many others? Why did it sell over 700,000 copies in its first week, even when the last CDs were so disappointing? I don’t necessarily want to analyze Eminem as a person…just the literature that he has produced, the character that he has created…in an effort to figure out why I think he has become the greatest musical artist (and–again–one of the greatest fictional/semi-fictional/ autobiographical characters) of this generation.

Really, I think, you can call Eminem the “Last Great Artist of Generation X,” or the “First Great Artist of the Millennial Generation,” and either would be appropriate. He’s 37 now, but his music first hit at a time when the marketplace was dominated by the first wave of Millennial glitz and glamour: boy bands and bling-bling. He was the counter-culture in 1998-2002, the answer to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, the scapegoat after every Colombine-style act of teenage violence. He might belong to “Generation X” if we apply a strict definition of that generation’s age range, but his music? In 1999, if you were between the ages of 13 and 20 (the Millennial age range), and you were vomiting every time you had to hear “Tearing Up My Heart,” you were silently applauding every time you heard “My Name Is” or “Guilty Conscience” come on the radio.

And so that’s where we start.

The moment where the character first appeared and disrupted and redefined the entire spirit of the times.

The Slim Shady LP: Irreverent, Controversial, Aggravating, Refreshing

End of the century. Final years of the Clinton era. Monica Lewinsky. Armageddon and Aerosmith and Ben Affleck and Saving Private Ryan. Nathan Holic graduates high school, starts college, wears these crazy new khaki shorts called “cargo shorts.” Finally gets a car with a CD player. Discovers something called a “CD-R,” and mp3s.

And hey, remember this lyric? “Everytime I come around your city bling bling/ Pinky ring worth about fi’ty bling bling/ Everytime I buy a new ride bling bling/ Lorenzos on Yokahama tires bling bling.”

Ironically, this hook–which represents the lowest point of rap music, an era where lyrics overwhelmingly focused upon money and jewelry (yes, more than usual), where rappers became caricatures, a stretch of several years as mystifying and ridiculous as the “Hair Metal” 1980s for rock music–was actually sung by Lil Wayne, who faded in and out of mild popularity throughout the next few years, along with the rest of the Cash Money Millionaires. When anyone talks about the “Bling Era” of rap, they will inevitably point to Cash Money and to this song, even though Lil Wayne somehow persevered and later redefined himself enough in the latter half of the 2000s to become one of the most popular rappers of the last couple years.

It seemed as if all late-90s mainstream music was sparkling somehow, glittery, covered with a studio-created veneer, slick. Yes, you had the obvious Bubblegum Pop of Backstreet and Britney, but you also had the disingenuous and generic rock of Creed, the let’s-talk-about-diamonds rap of Juvenile and B.G. The raw emotion of the grunge era and the gangsta rap era had finally been contained by the record execs, polished and spit-shined and plastic-wrapped and made safe for the world.

And then you had this:

“Hi kids! Do you like violence?/ Wanna see me stick Nine Inch Nails through each one of my eyelids?”

And:

“My brain’s dead weight, I’m trying to get my head straight/ But I can’t figure out which Spice Girl I want to impregnate.”

And:

“Well since age twelve, I’ve felt like I’m someone else/Cause I hung my original self from the top bunk with a belt./ Got pissed off and ripped Pamela Lee’s tits off/ And smacked her so hard I knocked her clothes backwards like Kris Kross.”

Quite the contrast. No, violence wasn’t anything new to rap music…but this? The easy pop culture references, the backslaps to the bubblegum world of 1998 and 1999. And this was a white rapper? Produced by Dr. Dre, alternating between references to “white culture” and “black culture?” It seems taken for granted now, easy to predict, just like Allied victory in World War II…but this was indeed a major unexpected jolt to the system back when “The Slim Shady LP” was released. But there was also the self-deprecation, the cruel jokes at the rapper’s own expense, something we didn’t hear in other take-me-seriously music of the times:

“My English teacher wanted to have sex in Junior High/ The only problem was, my English teacher was a guy.”

And:

“Am I coming or going? I can barely decide./ I just drank a fifth of vodka — dare me to drive?/All my life I was very deprived./ I ain’t had a woman in years, and my palms are too hairy to hide.”

Really, the character of Slim Shady–new to the world–could be summarized with a single line from “My Name Is”: “I don’t give a fuck, God sent me to piss the world off.” That was the point. That was the reason for the ridiculous success of the CD. Does it matter whether it appealed to everyone, whether it was the best-selling CD of the year, the winner of more Grammy’s, etc.? Nope. Like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Eminem’s first major single (and the character it introduces) is important because it did–yes!–piss the world off.

But what sticks with me most about the entire album, even now, are the other ways in which Eminem was introducing his three personas (Eminem the rapper, Slim Shady the prankster, and Marshall Mathers the vulnerable human) to the world. The stories he was telling: rich, vivid narratives in his verse; characters in every song; detailed settings; complex cause-effect actions, memories, reflections over the course of four-minute raps. Consider the ballad of “Just the Two of Us” (or “’97 Bonnie & Clyde,” as it was renamed from EP to LP), controversial for its subject matter (Marshall Mathers kills his wife, and with the help of his baby daughter, tosses her dead body into a lake), thematically important for its stark contrast to the positive Will Smith song of the same name, but skillful and memorable for the quality of the narrative itself:

“Wake up sweepy head, we’re here, before we pway/
we’re gonna take mama for a wittle walk along the pier./
Baby, don’t cry honey, don’t get the wrong idea/
Mama’s too sweepy to hear you screamin in her ear./
That’s why you can’t get her to wake, but don’t worry/
Da-da made a nice bed for mommy at the bottom of the lake./
Here, you wanna help da-da tie a rope around this rock? (yeah!)/
We’ll tie it to her footsie, then we’ll roll her off the dock./
Ready now, here we go, on the count of free../
One.. two.. free.. WHEEEEEE!/
There goes mama, spwashin in the wa-ta/
No more fightin wit dad, no more restraining order/
No more step-da-da, no more new brother/
Blow her kisses bye-bye, tell mama you love her (mommy!)/
Now we’ll go play in the sand, build a castle and junk/
But first, just help dad with two more things out the trunk.”

Dark? Twisted? Yes, yes. And a thousand other adjectives. But damn it, it was a story. It was a fictional story, sure, but this narrative was pulsing with more honesty than a stack of Britney or Puff Daddy CDs.

And consider the characters in “My Fault,” another disturbing ballad-style rap about a mushroom overdose:

“I went to John’s rave with Ron and Dave/ And met a new wave blonde babe with half of her head shaved./ A nurse aid who came to get laid and tied up/ with first-aid tape and raped on the first date./ Susan — an ex-heroin addict who just stopped usin’/ Was into booze and alternative music./ Told me she was going back to use it again./I said wait, first try this hallucinogen,/ It’s better than heroin and the booze and the gin.”

Or the characters of Eddie and Stan from “Guilty Conscience,” or the high school bully DeAngelo Bailey from “Brain Damage”: “Way before my baby daughter Hailey/ I was harassed daily by this fat kid named D’Angelo Bailey/ An eighth grader who acted obnoxious, cause his father boxes/so everyday he’d shove me in the lockers./ One day he came in the bathroom while I was pissin/ And had me in the position to beat me into submission./ He banged my head against the urinal til he broke my nose,/ Soaked my clothes in blood, grabbed me and choked my throat./ I tried to plead and tell him, ‘We shouldn’t beef’/ But he just wouldn’t leave, he kept chokin me and I couldn’t breathe./ He looked at me and said, ‘You gonna die honkey!'”

Or the full dialogue from that same song:

Something told me, “Try to fake a stomach ache it works.”
I screamed, “Owww! My appendix feels like they could burst!
Teacher, teacher, quick I need a naked nurse!”
[T] “What’s the matter?”
[E] “I don’t know, my leg, it hurts!”
[T] “Leg? I thought you said it was your tummy?”
[E] “Oh, I mean it is, but I also got a bum knee!”
[T] “Mr. Mathers, the fun and games are over.
And just for that stunt, you’re gonna get some extra homework.”
[E] “But don’t you wanna give me after school detention?”
[T] “Nah, that bully wants to beat your ass and I’ma let him.”

This rapper…Eminem…he was a storyteller, not just a musician, and this CD…this was our introduction to an entire cast of characters in what would be an ongoing piece of literature that has now spanned longer than a decade. At the time, critics and listeners would dismiss it–and particularly the prankster-style songs of the Slim Shady character–as childish, sophomoric, juvenile. Foul-mouthed. Base. Violent. Gratuitous. Homophobic. And maybe it is all of those things. Maybe Marshall Mathers (the real man) is all of those things. Or maybe he’s just one, or two, or none.

But–then as now–I became interested in the story. I became interested in this saga as literature, the heartbreaking honesty of a narrator willing to spill his feelings about every aspect of his own life…feelings that seemed eerily appropriate for America at the end of the 20th century…and if you listened closely to that first CD, you knew that the story was not over. You knew that it would only get more interesting, that the dark lyrics of “If I Had” were just the beginning:

I’m tired of being white trash, broke and always poor,
Tired of taking pop bottles back to the party store.
I’m tired of not having a phone,
Tired of not having a home to have one in if I did have it on.
Tired of not driving a BM,
Tired of not working at GM, tired of wanting to be him
Tired of not sleeping without a Tylenol PM,
Tired of not performing in a packed coliseum,
Tired of not being on tour,
Tired of fucking the same blonde whore after work,
in the back of a Contour.

These sometimes-pessimistic (but ultimately, by album’s end, optimistic) reflections would soon have a sequel. Soon, Eminem would no longer be tired of “not performing in a packed coliseum.” The success of “The Slim Shady LP” was the destruction of the Death Star, the joy of the celebrating Rebels, but you knew…Darth Vader was spinning away, spinning away, staring all around him, growing angrier by the second…and the next time we encountered this storyteller, the narrative would grow far more interesting.

next: The Marshall Mathers LP

Can the Mockumentary Truly Work as Good Fiction?

From a technical standpoint, “Death of a President” is a remarkable little film, the “mockumentary” of what might have happened had the anti-war and anti-America movements in the U.S. and abroad led to actual assassination attempts. The film commands a modest budget, but is still able to manipulate real footage of key political figures in ways far more striking than those at-the-time revolutionary clips from “Forrest Gump” fifteen years ago. Kudos to the technical crew on this movie.

And from a social commentary standpoint, “Death of a President” also has some interesting things to say about protest and violence. If war brings unintended and tragic consequences (no matter the motivation behind the war), think of the consequences for the death of a major leader (again, no matter the motivation behind the killing). If a president were truly to be assassinated in this day and age, I agree with one of this film’s primary theses: there would be no end to the legislation enacted, and there would be a remarkable loss of civil liberties for the average citizen. Not to mention the racial hatred, the racial profiling, etc.

But technical achievements aside, and commentary aside, “Death of a President” just isn’t a captivating film…not after the first thirty or forty minutes anyway. Once the immediate aftermath of the assassination is over, we lose interest, but yet the film keeps going for another forty minutes. We don’t really care about the manhunt because we don’t really care about all of the phony characters. This is really the problem with “mockumentaries”: we aren’t “learning” anything, as we might in a real documentary, so in order to hold our interest, we’ve got to have some solid character development, and we’ve got to really have someone to root for. Without that, we’re just sort of learning a history lesson for a history that never happened, and…well…who cares?

On a slightly different note, though, I’m astounded to read about all of the commentators and critics and news outlets who declared this film to be “dangerous” and “inappropriate,” etc, without ever having seen it. Well. Maybe not astounded. Because there’s always political capital in criticizing other political statements. But I’m disappointed. Especially by the film critics. No, it’s not a good movie. But it *is* an attempt at art, an attempt at creating meaningful commentary out of fictional events, and the use of a real president as the victim is necessary (not gratuitous or exploitative) for the storytellers’ purpose. Personally, I think that the destruction of the White House in “Independence Day” (as amazing as that was, from a technical standpoint) was far more gratuitous, created as it was for the simple shock-and-awe value of seeing a treasured symbol destroyed.

Apparently, the entire film is online, and you can access it here.

“Iron Man 2” as Post-9/11 Literature

Back when I saw the original “Iron Man,” I called it the first major example of “Post-9/11 Literature,” the first book or movie that was not actively attempting to document our feelings about the fall of the World Trade Center and the War on Terrorism and the War in Iraq and the Quagmire in Afghanistan…but somehow, had managed to capture our feelings and attitudes better than any American film since “Spider-Man.” (And “Spider-Man” was *successful* because of 9/11–a hero saving New York!–but was not a *response* to 9/11)

“Iron Man,” quite simply, was the story of a single guy with limitless resources who flies to the Middle East and Asia and single-handedly destroys vast terrorist networks. No mercy. Shaking off the shackles of bureaucratic meddling. Yes, there have been a hundred books that try to capture the somber or paranoid mood of Post-9/11 America, but they are all too forced. “Iron Man” was effortless, and it made a gazillion dollars.

So what would “Iron Man 2” do, I wondered? The same exact thing? Would it feel like “Spider-Man 2,” a great action flick, but sapped of the same Zeitgeisty feeling of the first film? Excellent film, but no major cultural commentary or relevance?

“Iron Man 2” focuses not upon the terrorists this time around (an interesting turn), but upon the government’s attempts to get its hands on the Iron Man technology. And, while the national furor over government spending is nowhere near as volcanic as it was/is over terrorism, the film has indeed found a subject that resonates in the current climate. Here, we have a guy–Tony Stark–with an amazing technology that he owns and operates, but that he might be forced to give up. And the film does a great job of playing up the fears of both sides of this issue: do we want a single dude with all that power, especially one as volatile as Downey’s character? On the other hand, do we want an entity that can control what we own, that can force us to give up what we create? It’s a classic Patriot Act sort of argument; what civil rights are you willing to give up in order to feel safe?

No, I don’t think “Iron Man 2” was as strong a film as the original, and the overall narrative was sometimes shaky (though the filmmakers did a great job of juggling several different storylines…in the hands of another writer or director, this could have become a “Spider-Man 3” or “Batman and Robin” style mess), but I love the franchise and the actors; everyone seems to “get it,” that this is escapist adventure, sure, but that–in order for us to truly escape–we need to know what we’re escaping from. They know, and the fears of our Real World compose the Villains of the Marvel World.

Best American Comics?

Each new year, it seems, the genre of “literary comics” (my term of choice is “graphic narratives”) grows and matures just a little bit. Thirty years ago, when the comics medium was dominated mostly by teenage/escapist fare, the most important evolution in the comics medium was the rise of “comix,” a sort of indignant response to the innocent animals and superheroes that many perceived to be the only subjects of comics books. We suddenly had dirty comix, animals engaged in sexual acts, characters whose faces looked like genitalia, anything to change the perception of the medium.

And then the 1980s, and Maus, and a Pulitzer Prize, and the 1990s, and a dozen well-respected graphic novels (even superhero comics receiving serious attention), and the 2000s, and graphic novels reviewed in the pages of the New York Times, and Houghton-Mifflin adding a “Comics” edition to their esteemed “Best American” series, and some literary journals (including The Florida Review, where I’ve worked for several years) adding comics as one of the literary genres we publish. Comics will always have the “kid’s stuff” perception, simply because so much of the market will always be dominated by superheroes and cartoon characters, but at this point, isn’t it foolish to argue that they aren’t respected as a serious artistic medium?

This is the main problem with The Best American Comics 2009. It has the same indignant attitude as the dirty comix of the 1970s, a lot of sexually explicit material, an R. Crumb piece, stuff that seemed appropriate thirty years ago (including an Archie-like piece called “Gropius” that is absolutely annoying, and appears five times in this book) when comics needed to change their perception, but which just seems irrelevant and stupid today.

(Gropius, apparently, is a well-reviewed collection…but at least one other critic agreed with my assessment of the material.)

To be fair, this book also includes some fantastic work from several cartoonists who really appear to be tackling interesting subject matter, and using the medium in a way that truly reflects the current culture. Kevin Huizenga is one of these artists, and his “Ganges” piece–an extended story about a guy caught up in the web bubble of the late ’90s, whose company doesn’t know what it’s doing, and whose employees spend their days and nights immersed in the video game culture–is brilliant, a perfect representation of the rise and fall of Generation X. Truly, it was the highlight of this anthology.

But too often, this book just seemed to be a collage of excerpted work that couldn’t recapture the energy or focus of the original, and stories and art that seemed to try way too hard to be “comix,” a genre that I wonder why we cannot move past. The “Best American Short Stories” series works well because we’re dealing with self-contained stories, not novel excerpts, and until the comics series can avoid the excerpted work, and avoid the temptation to include work that (to be fair) would have been included 15 or 20 years ago, had there been a “Best American Comics” series back then, it will feel disjointed and won’t quite live up to its potential. We don’t need to make up for all the decades during which comics were ignored. If you want to do that, create a “Best American Comics of the Century” (which would be fascinating). No, we need to see how comics are maturing and growing in the past year, and this anthology doesn’t yet feel like it is doing that.