Thursday, December 31, 2009

Okay, we know this decade sucked but...

Surely a few good things came out of it, right?

If you asked me, for example, if the Zapatistas would still be around back at the end of the 1990s, I might have wondered. Yet, they remain in Chiapas intact and inspiring activists throughout the globe.

How about elsewhere in the Americas? Venezuela's experiment with 21st century socialism is very much alive, in spite of an unsuccessful coup attempt. Evo Morales' Bolivia is also embarking on a genuinely progressive leftist course - also in spite of an attempt to overthrow the government that occurred in 2008. Same sex marriage just became legal in Mexico City, and has been legalized in a few other municipalities and states around the Americas. There's a long way to go, but it's a start.

Since I'm a pop culture junkie, I've found plenty to love as well as loathe this decade. Right now, I'll focus on the stuff I love. There have been some incredible, thought-provoking films this decade. If documentaries are your flavor, Michael Moore has been on a tear, starting with Bowling for Columbine, then Fahrenheit 9/11, then Sicko, and finally Capitalism - A Love Story. The last one I haven't seen (one of the joys of living out in the sticks), but will be getting it on DVD. Dig on dramas? V for Vendetta was an exquisitely produced and acted film that was a much-needed tonic to our government's fear-mongering and fascist tendencies, hit on the potential for despots to use false flag operations to manipulate the masses, and in its way made a case for revolution. It was a different experience from the graphic novel, but one that I actually dug more. The Strangers was far and away the best horror flick I ever saw - the tension never let up. It had its share of blood and gore, but, it was much more of a psychological thriller. I have a thing for zombie and vampire movies (no - not the Twilight crap!), and strongly recommend films like I Am Legend, Diary of the Dead, the hilarious Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland. Ever since I read Vonnegut's novel Cats Cradle, I've been fascinated by the idea that the end of our species could occur from a combination of technology, hubris, and stupidity (in the Vonnegut novel, a substance called Ice Nine ends up freezing the planet's water supply thus ending life as we know it). In I Am Legend, it's a supposed cure for cancer that puts the human species on the endangered list. In Zombieland, a tainted burger at a convenience store is the culprit. The start of the new decade promises a vampire flick that touches on some very grave concerns about resource depletion (Daybreakers). District Nine had an interesting premise, tackling racial oppression and the role of private contractors in its perpetration, offering an allegory on not only South Africa's Apartheid era, but also contemporary Israeli oppression of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and the USA's own sorry history with its own American Indians. I've read good things about The Road, a post-apocalyptic film based on a novel, but since it bypassed my locality's movie theater, I'm awaiting its release on DVD. Apparently, I'll be abusing that Netflix subscription.

There have been some great television shows that deserve mention. I am a fan of The Office - the mock documentary thing combined with some great writing and characters works remarkably well. I wish that Life on Mars had been given at least a full season - the concept was fascinating, and my only real complaint with it was that the writers had to rush the series' ending. It was certainly not the only series to draw heavily on the 1970s, but it seemed to capture the vibe very well - although I was a kid during the period, as the series progressed, I'd find myself thinking, "damn, I remember that!" Jericho also deserved a longer run than the one and a half seasons it got. I felt it probably hit a bit too close to home - the series, I've argued is an indictment of the neoliberal corporatist state, portrays in stark detail the dire consequences of disaster capitalism, in the process offering up imagery that could have potentially stirred up populist sentiment. I suppose that the series got an airing at all is a minor miracle. Both House (which is basically Sherlock Holmes meets ER) and Lie To Me (possibly the first series in which the protagonist is an experimental social psychologist) offer food for thought, as does Criminal Minds.

On the animation front, The Simpsons has been hit-or-miss the last few years, but when it hits its mark, it's incredible. I will miss King of the Hill, which was smartly written, nicely animated, and well-cast. My favorite general satire cartoon is still South Park - funny as hell, and usually pretty thought provoking every bit as much as it is annoying. Pop culture junkies usually find plenty to love about Family Guy, which has provided a generation of viewers with what will likely be their only indirect exposure to classic comedy and musicals. Dig absurdist humor? There's always Spongebob Squarepants if you're into something family friendly. If you go for something a bit more Monty Pythonesque, might I suggest Aquateen Hunger Force? The first two seasons were arguably the best. As someone who grew up on 1960s and early 1970s action/adventure series, and who is well-versed in the era's Hannah-Barbera cartoons, The Venture Bros. has been one hell of a ride. It's beautifully drawn, has some fascinating plots and subplots, wicked satire, and its theme of failure applies not only at the individual level but at the societal level as well. Much like the Venture compound, the America of the Naughties is one that on the surface looks "normal" and "successful" but when one gets beneath the veneer, it becomes apparent that the promise of big science (in particular that wed to the military-industrial complex) was a shameless lie, as was the myth of the heroic figure who could save the day. Music is very much intrinsic to the series, and the soundtrack by J.G. Thirlwell and the incidental music that gets aired add an interesting nuance to the experience. Metalocalypse has fascinated me as well. Imagine Spinal Tap as a death metal band, and at its peak instead of in decline, and throw in a dark supernatural undercurrent to the story, and you have the series in a nutshell. Oh, and you get a cool history of heavy metal along the way - including the music's roots in the blues.

There was some great music this decade. The jazz revival that began in the 1990s continued unabated this decade. The record label Thirsty Ear's Blue Series imprint released quite a number of interesting avant-garde recordings by some of the scene's finest: Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and David S. Ware. In addition, the label released some fascinating collaborations between these musicians and artist who are usually associated with hip-hop rather than jazz: Antipop Consortium with Matthew Shipp, Beans with William Parker (see the album Only), el-p, and DJ Spooky. Cats from the 1970s resurfaced after lengthy absences. Arthur Doyle came back in the 1990s, has released a fair number of cds, lps, and singles on indie labels this decade and shows few signs of slowing down. His technique is reminiscent of Rahsaan Roland Kirk but even more out there. Detroit denizen Faruq Z Bey has been releasing albums with Northwood Improvisors and under his own name this decade after being quiet during the 1990s. Steve Reid, who was a fairly big name in Detroit area circles in the 1970s began releasing new albums this decade with his new ensemble, and has also issued some duets with electronics whiz Kieran Hebden (aka Fourtet). The early part of this decade saw the release of two albums - The Philadelphia Experiment and The Detroit Experiment - that revived and updated some fine compositions from the 1970s and in the case of the latter album brought individuals back to the recording studio for the first time in decades. Europe's Electric Barbarian issued a couple albums mid-decade that are notable not only for their incorporation of electronic and hip-hop elements into a jazz combo setting, but also brought former Last Poet Gylan Kain back into the spotlight. His poetry is as wicked as ever. Japan's "death jazz" combo Soil and Pimp Sessions deserves a listen by anyone with a love for the classic 1960s Blue Note era hard bop, and is cool with elements of death metal (stylistically, but not instrumentally) being included into the mix. I've been listening to some interesting avant-garde jazz from Russia in recent months. the form is alive and well. New York's Medeski Martin & Wood continued to release brilliant albums on Blue Note throughout the decade. Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith's band, Yo Miles!, which was started in the 1990s, released several recordings this decade that showed the band not only reprising classic 1970s Miles Davis classics, but using the spirit of those pieces to craft some very provoking originals. Former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt has appeared on and off this decade as a sideman for such projects as the fusion tinged jazz rock of Banyan. The rise of peer-to-peer networks and file sharing blogs revived many lost treasures from the 1950s-1970s that would have never seen the light of day otherwise - allowing the music to hopefully influence a new generation of artists, listeners, and thinkers. Several underground rap artists from the 1990s continued on this decade as mature artists: The Roots, Common, Antipop Consortium come immediately to mind. Although I don't dig on a lot of top-40 pop, I've been fascinated by the work of Shakira and more recently, Lady Gaga - both artists know how to write, and the latter's continuation of challenging gender assumptions in the tradition of David Bowie and Grace Jones will no doubt drive culture warriors nuts for the foreseeable future.

I'm sure I could go on, but one should get the idea. As much as I disliked the naughties, the decade wasn't a complete waste.

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