Sunday, August 28, 2011

Climbing in your Windows: Snatching your Culture Up

Chatting with my Music Theory grad student brother-extraordinaire recently I learned of the developing field known as Music Cognition. "What's that?" I immediately got excited. He explained its a mix of hard cognitive psychology, aesthetics, philosophy, and sociology used to figure out how we understand music. I thought of a dozen lab-coat clad academics gathered around some dude with headphones on. Creepy.

So many parallels between music and art, I thought. So, why not Art Cognition, or Media Cognition? (it does exist in scattered texts). If used for the forces of evil, much money could be made. Today's communicators must be psychologists as well as designers.

So who succeeds in an age where novel content is outshadowed by even more novel media? YouTube's most popular video of 2010; The "Auto-Tune the News" Bed Intruder Song exemplifies a familiar phenomenalism, but with viral videos taking the place of radio tunes or blockbuster movies. This well produced hip-hop mash up caught us off guard with its shockingly relevant mix of music and media. It elicits no response from the self-centered viewer, but is interactive in that it inspires them to afterwards view and create other remixes.

But if it wasn't the Gregory Brother's skill with software then it was their specific choice of each elements; a cliche snippet of network news, the auto-tuned voice of an urban black figure, a shiny pop song. It's classic yet avant-garde, a collision of the old and new, familiar yet fresh, safe yet edgy. A similar aesthetic is present in Dub-step, where the DJ/musician combines left-over 90's hip hop, drum n' bass, and reggae tropes with digitally produced sounds that early electronic artists only dreamed of.

But these cultural phenomenon have little to do with furthering art unless using the former to achieve the latter. Both will continue to change in appearance according to the spirit of the times, but for now the Gregory brothers seem to have the winning formula.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Zombies are Real: Post-Apocalyptia in Pop Film

In the words of the wise [guy] Jason Windsor who created the crappy early 2000's flash meme End of Ze World; "Ruling out the ice caps melting [sorta like Day After Tomorrow], meteors becoming crashed into us [definitely like Armageddon], the sun exploding and the ozone layer leaving us, we're basically going to blow ourselves up." Okay.

It is said that every generation believes that they are the last. "The world is going to Hell in a hand basket." But modern history is especially saturated with doom, during which a pair of World Wars brought to us such manifestations of the macabre as tanks, bombers, gas, and eventually, the nuke.

Ever since, the imaginations of authors and filmmakers have come to rest upon the Apocalypse. What will it be like in reality? What will it be like in the darkest nightmare? And how can some combination of the two be used to expose the destructive nature of humans and perhaps in some way prevent a ghastly conclusion to all of humanity.

Indeed, in apocalypse-narratives, the viewer is almost always placed (for dramatic effect) in the situation of an individual or small group as they struggle to survive the end of the world, or the immediate aftermath of whatever climactic event that aspired.

But more than gimmicky effects, this style of story-making appeals to us because we are cast into the standpoint of the main characters, and are cast into the decision making process of someone who disregards all conventions of a now non-existent society and performs various illegal and destructive acts in the name of self-preservation, such as stealing cars, or weapons, and in the case of zombie films; using them against people.

George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead was so successful in examining some of these themes, that it is rightfully credited with popularizing the phenomenon that would come to be known as zombie film. Night of the Living Dead begins with a young woman, Barbara, who acts as the viewer's surrogate throughout the first part of the movie, but once Barbara becomes incapacitated by fear and insanity so caused by her new apocalyptic reality, the viewer quickly transitions into the thought processes and actions of Ben, a young black worker, as he snaps into action boarding up the farmhouse they've both taken refuge in. Romero here draws a clear duality of reactions to the impending doom; one of denial and ultimate defeat versus a voracious will to fight and to keep alive. He continues to juxtapose the two characters throughout the film, emphasizing Barbara's uselessness and Ben's composure and usefulness, forcing the viewer to ponder his or her own natural reaction to a disaster of similar proportions.

The middle-aged father character, Harry, embodies yet a third paradigm of a human reacting on an animalistic level to the stresses of an apocalyptic environment. Generally unlikable, Harry is more proactive than Barbara, but his efforts are mostly counterproductive and clearly motivated by a cowardice that sharply contrasts Ben's altruism. His stubborn conservatism is demonstrated through his desperate attempts to convince the rest of the group to join him in the basement stronghold over which he feels he has control, and can be seen as a reference to the underlying ignorant fear and discrimination that defines the politics of state and national borders and home spaces.

The final and most compelling moment of the film occurs after each character is lost, one by one, to the "ghouls." Ben, the last remaining survivor, emerges from the basement to a quiet, zombie-free atmosphere, only to be gunned down immediately by an armed posse who mistook him for a ghoul. This abrupt ending to the film leaves the viewer in shock, numbed by the disregard for human life displayed by the zombie hunters, who like soldiers in a "hostile zone" show no hesitation to kill when they themselves perceive a threat to their own lives.


Most subsequent zombie and other post-apocalyptic narratives examine the same basic theme in various ways, but the common thread is the hand-delivered fantasy of operating outside the common laws and norms of refined society in a survival situation, including cannibalism. Some very successful texts in this area include most subsequent Romero flicks, 28 Days Later, AMC's Walking Dead, and a score of related non-zombie films like Mad Max, Children of Men, and The Road.

One doesn't need to be an expert in environmental science to understand that the human population has exceeded what our environment can provide and that an impending dieoff is indeed a reality. In a world where major social and environmental issues are innumerable, and their solutions seem as distantly hopeless and densely intertwined as the problems themselves, could our unconscious minds be seriously preparing for the real post-apocalypse? Does this explain the pop-realism imbued within these films and their subsequent achievements in the mainstream? Is Hollywood subtly trying to tell us not to go off eating each other when the shit really does hit the fan? I'm not sure, but what I can say is BRRAAAAIIINNS!