Alan Pyke

Certainty is the sickness. Doubt is the analgesic. There is no cure.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman, RIP

Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.

Philip Seymour Hoffman has died, apparently of a drug overdose, apparently of heroin, apparently in a New York City apartment bathroom, apparently aged 46. Over the last 22 or so of those he gifted the world dozens of gripping, versatile, note-perfect film performances.

From the manic, cultish psychological wilds of his lead turn in THE MASTER, to the electrifying passion, molting indignation, and unverifiable sense of innocence of Father Flynn in DOUBT, to the blood-freezing tension of his mormon entrapment gangster character in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, Hoffman seemed always to have tapped into some essential set of truths about the person he was inhabiting for the cameras. That talent leavened some otherwise-dreadful films too, saving THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY from itself and giving MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3 a place in shoot-em-up history it never could’ve deserved without him.

Athletes have to worry about fast-twitch muscles, with winning and losing separated often by microseconds and fractional differences in some physics equation. If the essential talent of acting could be located in some similar property of the body, rather than the mind or soul, perhaps we’d have used the same kinds of words to describe Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Words like “freak” and “uncanny” and “unnatural.” He was an acting Bo Jackson, a three-sport athlete of the page, equally gripping in comedic turns like his preening secretary in THE BIG LEBOWSKI as in unremittingly tragic fare like BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, just as capable of carrying such hard-to-categorize stuff as MAGNOLIA or LOVE LIZA as of nailing smaller ensemble contributions in STATE AND MAIN or BOOGIE NIGHTS or RED DRAGON or THE 25TH HOUR.

Whether squared off with fellow titans like Meryl Streep and Joaquin Phoenix or “slumming it” with your Ben Stillers and your Adam Sandlers, Hoffman always came correct and made movies better than they’d have been without him.

The quote above is from the opening sermon in DOUBT. “What do you do when you’re not sure?” Father Flynn asks at the top of that speech. The positive value of doubt is philosophically dear to me, and so Hoffman’s work as Flynn in the cinematic adaptation of that play will always be especially dear to me when I look back on his now-felled career.

You never had to doubt Philip Seymour Hoffman, though. He was a certainty for filmgoers. You need not know what was coming out in a given year to be able to put at least two stunning Hoffman performances on your calendar. In ink. Without knowing what the project would be or in what way his work would linger in your mind in the hours and weeks afterward, you could always count him reliable.

Plenty of folks are likely wondering what they’ll do without him, not least the director Paul Thomas Anderson who used him in every one of his films save for THERE WILL BE BLOOD. But atop that list are Hoffman’s three children, aged 10, 7, and 5. As with all brilliant artists laid low by substances, the talent and product are inextricable from the chemicals and the demons. The temptation to thunder impotently against this or that hypothetical culprit will pass long before the grief does, and what will ultimately remain is the work. Few humans can claim the sheer scope and quality of legacy that he could.

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RIP Jason Molina

This is sad, as the passing of beloved musicians always is, but for some reason this one’s hitting me harder than most. I’ve got some broader reflections up at The Daily Banter, which I hope you’ll read, but since a friend who knows more than I do about non-rap music asked me for some entry points to Molina’s catalogue today, I thought I’d also republish here what I sent to him, for anyone wondering what the fuss is about:

He was brilliant, and probably every americana quasi-rock quasi-indie minimally-hippie revivalist act you and I enjoy these days owes him a significant debt of influence. I discovered him in the form of Magnolia Electric Co’s What Comes After The Blues, which my brother-in-law put me onto just as I was starting college. That’s where most of my favorite songs are from: The Dark Don’t Hide It is probably my very favorite, though it may set your expectations inappropriately, as most of his output doesn’t have the edge and grime and snarl of that song. Hammer Down and Northstar Blues from that same record are also amazing, as is Leave The City. And the other half of the album too. Just go get that damn record.

What I loved about him, beyond the fluttering, overburdened-mule dignity of his voice, was the imagery he used. The economy of language in his songs. The evocative diction. “I think the stars are just the neon lights/Shining through the dance floor/Shining through the dance floor/Of heaven on a Saturday night" is pretty damn good on its own, but then you sling it atop that already-struggling mule and it crackles and shudders and breaks into this crushingly beautiful moment, not just of visual imagery but of depressed thought. You imagine someone imagining that and despairing at it and — probably, given the hook — eating a gun. Ditto for "The earth was empty on the day that they made it/But heaven needed some place to throw all the shit" and "Something held me down & made me make a promise" from Dark Don’t Hide It. It’s breathtaking stuff, of the sadsack variety sure, but no less beautiful for its darkness.

MEC’s most recent album was written in the shadow of another death in the band. It never managed to take up permanent residence in my brain like WCATB, but Josephine has some stunners too: “An Arrow In The Gale” could be 3x as long, for me. “O! Grace,” “Ten Paces,” and “The Handing Down” all great too. (Can’t find YT links for those, sorry.)

Further reading includes the Songs: Ohia album Magnolia Electric Company, “Farewell Transmission" in particular, which he liked so much he changed the band’s name to it. His solo stuff doesn’t stick with me as much, as it’s far more sparse, but Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go is a pretty great record too if you can’t get enough of Molina. Which I hope you can’t, even though we won’t get any more, ever again. Fuck everything. Hopefully he’s forming a band with Alex Chilton and they’re calling itShuffled Off and they’re going to refine rhapsodical sorrow to its Platonic ideal, and have that waiting for us when we die too. “Happy Monday!” is what I’m trying to say.

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More Wrong Than Right On Privilege-Checking & Oscars Jokes

I’m accustomed to disagreeing with Freddie DeBoer, but I’m unused to seeing him employ lousy logic and self-defeating arguments. So it was surprising to see him do so poorly on the subject of privilege — the subject of some of his best and most personal writing — in a post about the debate over jokes and offense-taking that followed the Oscars:

People of the world, I implore you: what is privilege checking doing for anyone? Is anyone in the world going to materially benefit from someone in some grad seminar checking their privilege? Has all the privilege checking in every cultural studies class in the history of creation ever put clothes on someone’s back or food in their belly? Ever stopped a single cop from beating a black man senseless? Don’t mistake your purification rituals for progress, please.

This is a worthwhile set of questions, in a vacuum. If it never goes beyond a classroom exercise, privilege-checking becomes self-serving. At its most conspicuous and vapid it can be a vehicle for social positioning and alienation rather than, y’know, good things. (Such as making economically-disadvantaged white people realize they are still privileged, and using mass awareness of the bad-hand-at-a-good-table reality of social capital and skin color to shift public attitudes towards the systems of oppression and privilege-protection Freddie so rightly assails.) This is why privilege-checking isn’t and shouldn’t be a constant apologia or a hair-shirted gnash-toothed exercise in look-at-me posturing. White people who run around flashing their awareness of privilege like a credential of their Good Guy status are not helping anything, save themselves. And when they turn their awareness of privilege into a cudgel in interactions with less-aware (or less-overtly-signalling) white folk, they prove Freddie’s point. In a vacuum, this is provocative and potentially enlightening stuff.

However, he didn’t ask those questions in a vacuum. And the context transforms the above-quoted into a foolish wholesale renouncing of the public, interactive, instructive privilege-checking that a lot of people use the internet to pursue. Here’s how Freddie’s piece starts:

When I saw, in this Atlantic Wire piece, that Internet personality “Jay Smooth” was lecturing Radley Balko on his attitude towards people of color, I laughed out loud. It’s like God decided, “I’m going to create the perfect possible example of cultural liberalism’s preference for feelings over material conditions.”Jay Smooth makes videos on the Internet. So he’s got that going for him. Radley Balko, meanwhile, has gotten actual black people out of actual jail. He has worked tirelessly against police abuse and corruption, the drug war, and mass incarceration, and specifically the mass incarceration of young black men.

He goes on to extend his slap at Ill Doctrine's Smooth into a familiar indictment of social media as a dead end that saps social liberal energy in a meaningless game of who's-the-coolest — in this case, by encouraging folks to the kind of showy, vapid privilege-checking discussed above.

Right out of the box, you’ve got Freddie declaring that only material accomplishments have value, and that in any given interaction, the person with the fewer material accomplishments has no standing to critique the actions of the person with more of them. We should ignore or discount those whose contribution to a better world is in improving and expanding the running conversation about how to achieve a better world. You could probably take that as a cue to ignore Freddie himself (or me!) and be done with it, but then you’d miss the real cockery:

If you’re a white person who thinks that “Jay Smooth” has the right to lecture Radley Balko about race in America, you care more about your social positioning than about the material conditions of the nonwhite people you claim to be speaking for. Period.

Let’s count ways in which this is convenient, obfuscatory horseshit:

Read more …

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A Way To Be Productive In Discussing Gun Violence, And Several Ways Not To Be

A bunch of kids were murdered today at an elementary school in Newtown, CT. Most reports put the number of fatalities at 27, 18 of them children. The tragedy is inspiring familiar responses. Some insist that it is disrespectful and wrong to discuss gun policies and culture in the immediate wake of a tragedy, without inviting that discussion in the future. Others insist that it is this confirms it is time to ban guns, or at least to enact some set of far stricter laws around access to guns.

The people who insist we can’t today because it’s improper don’t give a damn for propriety. They never want to have this conversation. They are assholes. We should all be talking about this, but we should also take care to have an actual discussion. It’s too easy to yell things you already think and see them echoed back to you by fellow ideological travelers.

If your reaction to this kind of too-common event is to present any one “solution” to gun violence in America, you’re doing it wrong. You’re pretending a very complicated thing is simple. Your declarative solution, your frustration that others disagree with your solution when it’s so obvious that it’s the right policy and the right reaction to 18 murdered kids at school—those make you feel better but they do not help. They do not speak to the complexity of American gun culture and policy.

Violent crime rates nationwide have been declining for two decades. They remain, however, wildly higher than those of other developed countries. (The FBI’s statistics show the decline continuing in 2012, but the Bureau of Justice Statistics disagrees.)

There is, of course, a huge variance in gun violence rates depending on where you live. The shootings that get attention tend to come with massive death tolls for a single day, and to involve a mass targeting of innocents that is far more horrific and harder to understand than any individual homicide. But similar deathtolls in similarly compressed periods were, for example, shockingly common this summer in Chicago.

Consider how you sound, kneejerk gun banners, to Americans who live with gun violence as a daily phenomenon. Imagine life in places where gun violence is a constant background hum instead of an occasional timpani crash. This takes nothing away from the horror today in Newtown, but while the standard self-defense arguments are insane as applied to an elementary school classroom, they are perhaps less so in New Orleans. Or Chicago. Or the Brooklyn that doesn’t show up in HBO comedies. (The Brooklyn policed by the ugliest product of good gun control intentions, “Stop & Frisk.”) If you’re not ready to account for this disparity in experience, then you’re guilty of kneejerk there-oughta-be-a-law-ism. And you’re guilty of the pattern whereby violence that is (tragically) routine in underprivileged places becomes newsworthy and law-worthy only when it hits us in our uncalloused places.

All this to say nothing of the impracticality and unlikelihood of ridding an armed-to-the-teeth nation of guns (which is at the heart of my own half-formed thoughts on gun policy).

If your opinions fail to grapple with this kind of complexity, they may get retweeted and liked by those who agree with you but they aren’t changing any minds. They’re entrenching, self-gratifying. They’re about getting that awful feeling about this event out of you in a way that feels righteous. They aren’t righteous.

Your questions are more valuable than your certainty. 

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On sheer quality, it’s more than enough to say that “Fancy Clown” is a stand-out sample flip on a record full of insanely good Madlib flips. The songwriting is as clever as MF DOOM fans have learned to expect, too, of course. Beyond his standard high level of lyricism in individual bars, the setup is a lot of fun— Viktor Vaughn writing a furious kiss-off to a lover who cheated on him with one of DOOM’s other characters.

But the verse traffics in a crippled understanding of fidelity. Forgive me for trying to extract a serious point from DOOM’s brilliant, light-hearted comic book world, but Viktor Vaughn is so pissed his girl stepped out on him with Metal Face that he tried to hurt her by boasting of his own infidelities? With her friend, their maid, and her mother? This misapprehension of fidelity as being optional or even unreasonable for men, but mandatory for the women they deem special from the rotating cast of partners they brag about, undermines many of hiphop’s best breakup anthems (Ghostface’s “Back Like That” for example).

But “Fancy Clown” and “Back Like That” and “Song Cry” and a dozen others that pretend separate, gendered standards of fidelity are valid still work in some essential way. By baking that regressive inequality into such magnetic breakup songs, male rappers are guarding their own privilege and validating other men’s refusal to let go of theirs, even as they lower their guard and emote. It’s troubling but it definitely doesn’t stop me listening to and enjoying these cuts. Maybe that’s partly because of the psychology of romantic collapse, where we often need to feel righteous and better-than, and where it’s easiest to succumb to the temptation to wound people we care(d) about. But it’s probably mostly because these songs are so damn effective on a musical, emotional level. That brings us back to the samples.* “Song Cry” has that chorus-of-weeping-angels backdrop taken from Bobby Glenn’s “Sounds Like A Love Song.” “Back Like That” has Neyo in top form, and if you listened to rap when Fishscale came out there’s a 93% chance you walked around humming or singing that hook for months in 2006. And “Fancy Clown” makes brilliant use of ZZ Hill’s “That Ain’t The Way You Make Love,” a spurned-lover anthem that can’t decide if it’s out for reconciliation or well-meaning slut-shaming:

A beatsmiths’ ear for the right emotion freeze-dried into even a single note from someone else’s record, and the fusion of a track to a vocal, is the source of all hiphop’s power. It’s what makes songs affecting. When it’s done well, it makes space for emcees to smuggle ideas into verses, to bury them a bit so that they can germinate with listeners. When it’s done really well, it can almost save painfully on-the-nose rappers from themselves, as with Macklemore’s equality anthem “Same Love.” But that fusion is just a tool. Hiphop’s revolutionary roots are no guarantor of it’s future concerns. It pays to be especially vigilant in moments that seem like progress, like Jigga making a smash hit out of a song that simultaneously highlights and defends a concept of manliness that is increasingly outmoded. Because those moments are progress, and should be celebrated, but never with blindness.

* is an incredible resource for this stuff, though if you’ve googled around to pin down a sample flip before you probably already know that. 

Filed under music strays hiphop feminism masculinity MF DOOM Jay-Z Ghostface sample flips

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Roky Erickson Show Writeup [BYT]

I’m really glad I watched the Roky Erickson documentary again the day of the show. It helped erase all expectations, which I think would’ve screwed up my ability to enjoy the man’s pure existence, which is such a triumph given where his life went. From my writeup:

You can still hear the raw material of about a dozen sub-genres of rock in Erickson’s vocals. The lilting top end of his range, where he made his money with the Elevators, isn’t all the way gone, but he spent far more time down in the gutty, rubble-strewn zones of his voice, the bits that James Hetfield would envy. That contents-under-pressure edge was there from the beginning of his career, packing menace and threat into the melodic drugged-out R&B stuff that made him famous. Now it’s moved in from the edge, taken up residence right in the middle of his cavernous chest, and his voice sounds like distant explosions filtered through a layer of ground-up glass and crusted-over heartache. For all the gruffness and sorrow and performative distance, though, it was impossible to miss how content he was to be playing music for enthusiastic strangers. […] 

Watching You’re Gonna Miss Me, it seemed like Erickson might be the sex, drugs, and rock&roll equivalent of one of those animals the Soviets launched into space—a pioneer who was never coming back to Earth’s gravity.

Rest of the review & some great pictures by Ryan Kelly at BYT.

Filed under BYT music Roky Erickson 13th Floor Elevators concerts

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[Severine] gives no sign of being sexually interested in Bond, merely of being incredibly scared and unhappy. So he creeps uninvited into her hotel shower cubicle later that night, like Jimmy Savile, and silently screws her because he is bored.

That’s Giles Coren, arguing too much from the vile moment in Skyfall where Bond climbs silently into the shower with a woman he’s correctly identified as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and trafficking. I say “too much” because I don’t think Coren’s larger interpretation of the film based on that one blithely awful moment really holds up. His other datapoints (impossible to discuss without big spoilers) are far weaker, and in the Bond context Skyfall is practically a feminist text. Its women are highly competent, and while Severine’s short arc conforms to the problematically utilitarian and disposable shape of the classic Bond Girl characters, that stands in contrast to the competence, agency, and self-determination of the movie’s other women. She’s exploited, but she is not the totality of the movie’s representation of women. Coren’s attempts to draw the other two female characters into the shadows cast by that ugly moment in the shower of Severine’s sailboat read like haphazard lunges that reduce M and Eve to single moments. Feminist critique and interpretation is more complicated than the binary toggle-switch approach he takes. (Go read Alyssa’s take on the Bond Women & Bond Girls in the Daniel Craig entries to the canon.)

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Crazy People Make Great Music, Sometimes Get Second Chances

I’m watching You’re Gonna Miss Me this afternoon, the documentary about 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson, who is playing in DC tonight. It’s a wild story of drugs and psychological disorder and misdiagnosis and institutionalization and law enforcement example-making. I never picked up the album he did with Okkervil River, titled “True Love Cast Out All Evil,” and I regret that. Not just because I’d enjoy tonight’s show more for being familiar with Erickson’s new material, but because that pair of 13th Floor Elevators records from five decades ago were so surprising and lively and captivating, and he’s been through such extensive internal and external trials in the intervening period, that whatever music he’s making these days is bound to fascinate.

I discovered the Elevators, and Erickson’s nimble, swerving vocals, by way of High Fidelity. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” opens the movie, in that moment where John Cusack rips the headphone cord out of his amplifier and cranks the angry bluesy howl of the song up to help him feign defiance as his girlfriend leaves him. I’m among the millions of romantic self-absorbed music dorks my age who went through an obnoxious phase where we either reenacted High Fidelity or insisted that Rob was Just Like Us, Man. (We need a name for that experience, fellow nerds.)

The upside of that fixation was discovering a bunch of great music I wasn’t already listening to. The 13th Floor Elevators were my big takeaway. The surly kiss-off lyrics, the ringing lost-epoch guitar sound, that what-the-fuck? electric jug that signifies the band’s sound almost as much as Erickson’s voice… “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is a potent musical germ when you’re 14, and the incubation period is very short. I ran out and grabbed all the 13th Floor Elevators I could find pretty much right away, subconsciously expecting that I’d found the band that’d get me through the next few months of the Why Don’t Girls Like Me years. But “You’re Gonna Miss Me” sets the wrong expectations for the band in a lot of ways, and instead of having two records full of palliatives for my angst, I had something bigger and more spiritual to get my arms around. I may have taken the Nick Hornby/John Cusack back door into finding the band, but I think lots of fans got to wrestle with the weird expectations “You’re Gonna Miss Me” sets, since it was their breakout hit.

But they weren’t the ’60s equivalent of The Black Keys, or whatever the hell I was expecting based on “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” They were fathering a new music. They were birthing a sound to go with the tumult their generation was inflicting upon their own minds. They were giving us psychedelia, not lovelorn blues rock. I think my favorite tune of theirs is either “Pictures,” embedded above, or “I Had To Tell You,” even though it’s sonically boring by comparison to most of their stuff.  Just a couple chords recorded in that open-air tape-to-tape studio sound, and those squalls of harmonica, and the lyric about “if you fear I’ll lose my spirit like a drunkard’s wasted wine, don’t you even think about it— I’m feeling fine.” Those favorites stick to my ribs even though they can’t stand up to their “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” cover (a contender for Greatest Dylan Cover Ever) or the spooky invitation of “Kingdom Of Heaven.” But if they’re less innovative in musical terms, they’re still brilliant writing. Erickson’s ability to move between soulful balladeer and half-exalting, half-terrified keening is a huge part of what makes the band so fascinating, and when you watch You’re Gonna Miss Me you can’t help but connect his sound to his schizophrenia. It’s going to be very interesting to see if any one facet of his music identity has prevailed in this second career of his.

Filed under strays music movies Roky Erickson 13th Floor Elevators You're Gonna Miss Me High Fidelity

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On Barbara Kingsolver, Perspective, And Being Wrong

I’m listening to Barbara Kingsolver talking about her new book “Flight Behavior” on Science Friday. She’s saying really smart things about how climate science fails to persuade even those most directly impacted by climate change. The book takes place in southern Appalachia, and revolves around an unusual demonstration of climate change, and how it’s received by locals. It sounds fascinating, but the conversation has me reflecting on a very different intersection of Kingsolver, misperception, and human hardheadedness, this from my own youth.

We read Kingsolver’s “The Bean Trees” in one of my high school English classes, I think during my sophomore year. I hated it. I railed against it. Primarily because the male characters in the book felt like such absurd caricatures— one monstrous and the other angelic, each impossibly extreme and unrecognizable as human men. Men, I felt, were getting a raw deal from Kingsolver. It seemed very important, at 15 years old, to tell everyone in class that. To even question its place in the curriculum. It never occurred to me that women characters in widely taught and even (or especially) canonical literature are treated with that exact same shadow-puppet exaggeration. It never occurred to be that Kingsolver might be combating a long tradition of warped, convenient femininity in fiction.

Why did that never occur to me? Worse, why did I continue to declaim Kingsolver when her name came up through my first couple years of college? I think it was because I was so confident in my own feminism— for years, I’d been fiddling with that label inside my own mind, tracing mental fingertips over it to be assured that it was there, that I was One Of The Good Ones. Some kids in my school kept the tags on their clothes as status symbols. I wore my Feminism tag so it showed. And so I felt indemnified. And that helped me ignore the merit or at least the context of Kingsolver’s treatment of male characters in “Bean Trees,” though it seems so obvious to me now.

From the SciFri interview about Kingsolver’s newest book, it sounds like it’s sort of the same way with the agricultural peoples who resist the science on climate change. An area of expertise, once taken for granted, can become a blind spot— and malicious media forces can prey upon that secret blindness, that unknown unknown, to protect the status quo from those who should be most apt to attack it.

Filed under Barbara Kingsolver Feminism being wrong introspection strays books

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Mission Statement

When writing about pop culture, I try to abide by Craig Ferguson’s rules of thumb: “Does this need to be said? And does this need to be said by me?” I’ll be posting a mixture of things here— mostly excerpts from and links to my full reviews at Brightest Young Things and, on occasion, other places. There will also be shorter postlets when I have thoughts too small for full pieces, or when I have comments or critiques to tack onto good writing I see elsewhere. And I’ll be backfilling this site with my writing from the past year.

Please do let me know what you think in comments or emails. Suggestions, criticisms, flame wars, flattery— all welcome. Thanks for joining me. I promise not to waste your time.