Sunday, February 27, 2011

"The glass is always half full"

The quotation at the end of the episode shown is pretty damn pessimistic. But nonetheless, Happy Tree Friends are probably one of the most successful Internet phenomena of our generation. Despite the friendly, childish facade of these characters, the nature of the show itself is extremely violent – every episode features bloodshed, gore, dismemberment, pain, and/or death. The animators don’t treat the violence shown here with discretion; instead the imagery is extremely graphic and exaggerated.

The clip above is probably a very typical episode of Happy Tree Friends, starting off with seemingly normative situations, but don’t be fooled by the storybook-like packaging: the plot quickly escalates into extreme violence and ultimately leads to the inevitable death of the “innocent” character. Personally, I’m not sure if it’s the fact that the show looks perfectly friendly on the surface and then surprises one with the extreme, graphic violence; or the fact that the characters don’t speak; or the fact that the painful, gruesome death is prolonged and hyperbolized – but this show created quite an impression on me: I don’t like it. I got through one episode, and barely made it though the second one. But that's merely my opinion. Facts show that the general public does. With a video game, a spin off show, an average of 15 mil views/ month on youtube, TV shows in 15 different languages and 17 different countries, and a mainstream band (fall out boy) paying homage to this – you can do the math: It is indisputable that this is a success. Maybe it’s because of the idea of aestheticized violence in the form of smiling, bright coloured, fluffy “friends” that intrigues people, or maybe because the characters magically reincarnate after each episode...nonetheless,the whole idea of taking something cute and giving it a dark, sinister twist is an interesting concept, and is defiantly worth exploring.

The Whole Bloody Affair: Aestheticization of Blood

I'll admit it. I'm a wimp. I can't stand the sight of real blood; it makes me queasy and willing to part with my previously devoured lunch. During high school I got suckered into participating in one of those school-wide blood drives. It was actually fine. It felt great donating half a liter of my five liters of life juice to the greater good. I also got out of a quiz and was given some PB&J to boot! Of course I would do it again. The next year, while reclining in the medical chair and having my blood sucked out into an unseen bag, one of the student nurses picks up the bag, shows it to me, jiggles it around, and makes some stupid joke about my blood being "delicious" or something. I promptly vomited then passed out. I hate blood. I hate this semi-viscous liquid that brings life to my body.

Somehow, blood in movies and television is completely alright with me. And as Quentin Tarantino has indubitably shown us, it can be quite spectacular.

This animated scene and of course the crazy 88's are the 2 scenes that really stuck with me. The outrageous jets of blood, which must account for at least ten times as much a normal humans amount of blood, act as another canvas for Tarantino to inject his quintessential style. As O-ren's mother is killed in the bed above which she is hiding, her blood begins to pool in the mattress above. And just as the sound track begins to swell and climax, droplets of blood form and rain down in an emotionally unsettling way. That amount of blood in real life would have me heaving, but I was mesmerized in the beauty of the scene. When O-ren finally gets her revenge, blood literally paints the walls. But with Tarantino's freakish attention to detail, he leaves a bloodless outline of O-ren on the wall as her body blocks the spray in a menacing pose. It seams Quentin Tarantino literally uses blood as the paint and canvass for his art.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Unholy Black Metal

"On stage there was blood everywhere. About ten decapitated sheep heads and naked people, alive, on large crosses. Everyone was painted with 100 liters of sheep blood. Also there were Satanist symbols everywhere. One of the hanging female models fainted and an ambulance had to be called... This kind of thing should not happen on state TV and especially not in Krakow, which is the Pope's city." - Polish state TV station TVP director Andrzej Jeziorek on Norwegian Black Metal Band Gorgoroth's 2004 "Black Mass" concert in Krakow, Poland.

 Surely if there is a Hell, it would look and sound a lot like this Gorgoroth concert.  The razor-wire, tremolo picked guitars, screeched vocals, and blast beats are probably about as rough on the ear as the soundtrack of Hell would be.  The imagery is an amalgam of Christian, Satanist, and occult symbols.  The band members, adorned in corpse paint and animal blood certainly look like they could be Satan's little helpers.  This concert was so vile and offensive that it got the band kicked off the metal label Nuclear Blast.

This song is certainly violent in both rhythm and musical phrasing and the concert props are also unquestionably violent; but are the musicians violent?  In its incarnation in this 2004 concert, Gorgoroth was fronted by vocalist Kristian "Gaahl" Espedal.  Gaahl definitely has a contentious belief system, however his personal ideologies are largely separated from the themes in the band's music.  He has vocally supported the burning of Christian churches and writes music with Satanic themes, however he is not a Satanist, going so far as to denounce the Church of Satan.  This concert was not put on as an actual display of violent occult rituals.  Instead, it was probably largely a publicity stunt to generate notoriety and therefore sales for a band losing faith in its fans for its increasing commercialization.  To a lesser extent, the imagery extended the Satanic content of the band.

As a counter to this somewhat campy manifestation of Black Metal, I offer the music of Varg Vikernes of Burzum fame, who has been described as "the most notorious metal musician of all time".   Vikernes was a member of the "second wave" black metal scene in Norway, a scene as notorious for its music as it was for its artists involved in real violence and Church burnings throughout the 1990s.  The early Burzum albums are in a fairly conventional black metal style, with later works increasingly using synthesizers and elements of dark ambient. 

The Fantoft Stave Church, Before Black Metal (above), and after (below).

In 1994, Vikernes was arrested and convicted of charges on the murder of guitarist Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth and the arson of several churches, including the iconic Fantoft Stave Church.  Vikernes has criticized the handling of the case by both the media and the court.  From his account of the events, he had evidence that Aarseth had been plotting his own demise and he retaliated only after he was attacked first.  When Aarseth attempted to flee, Vikernes decided to end the ongoing feud between the musicians once and for all with a 3 inch pocket knife blade.    

Burzum - Dunkelheit, from Filosofem (1996)

When night falls
She cloaks the world
In impenetrable darkness
A chill rises
From the soil
And contaminates the air
Life has new meaning 

Filosofem was his last record recorded before the murder, and was not released until 2 years after his imprisonment.  This album is dark, possibly even disturbingly so, however it really isn't that violent.  The instrumentals in the song have an almost hypnotic quality.  The lyrics, likewise, have themes of death and terror, but are not really violent.  Unlike the music of most of his black metal contemporaries, it's definitely possible to fall asleep to this album, with later tracks straying into purely dark ambient electronica territory.  While in prison, Vikernes further explored the hypnotic aspect of his music with his two synth-driven jailhouse ambient albums Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf.  After his release from prison on parole in 2009, he has gone on to release two more black metal albums, that while having an orthodox black metal styling, are also largely nonviolent both musically and lyrically. 

Vikernes is, or at least was in his past, a violent person.  Certainly, his ideologies are offensive to many as well.  However, despite being pigeon-holed as "Black Metal", a genre notorious for its violent and destructive music, the music of Burzum is largely nonviolent.  The music is certainly dark, and possibly can be seen as evil, but it is more hypnotic and introspective than it is violent outright.  On the other hand, musicians such as Gaahl, who are not actually violent people, have created music and put on performances that were outrageously violent.  To create violent art does not imply that you yourself are violent, and neither is nonviolent art necessarily created by nonviolent artists.

Tupac's Ghetto Gospel

It's always interesting to see how the fog of time has the power to alter a memory or put a new spin on the past. In contrast to the in your face confrontational attitude that we're used to expecting from Tupac, Ghetto Gospel is a tightly produced, elegy that I find at times poignant to label "cute." That, of course applies to more than just the part that Elton John sings. In case you're rubbing your eyes increduously because of the mere mention of Elton's true, Sir Elton does indeed have a part in the song. Funny how these days we have an almost savant-like ability to meld two disparate things together. Nonetheless, the final outcome is rather good.

Tucked away in 2004's "Loyal to the Game," one of his posthumous albums, Ghetto Gospel, stood out to me even though I've scarcely heard in since early in my high school days not only because of my preoccupation with nice hooks featuring a nice sample from Elton John's Indian Summer; instead, the recent discussion of Tupac's "thug life" message seemed to be strongly reflected in this song. As usual, Pac calls for an end to the violence on the streets, championing instead unity. This message doesn't seem to be limited to the African American community in Los Angeles; in fact, the lyrics seem to reflect a recognition and empathy with those living in poverty. Additionally, Pac himself believes that he can bring positive changes to the urban community as reflected by all the religious allusions. Dubbing the song a "Gospel" and admitting that "God isn't finished with me yet" reflects a focus on disseminating a spirit of solidarity. Stepping aside from the slick production (courtesy of Eminem and Dr. Dre), it's clear that anyone can appreciate Tupac's efforts to deescalate the violence in the inner city and admire the sincerity of his grand visions.

Louie: Bully (Sexuality and Violence)

(I wasn't able to find this episode in an easily accessible website online, so I'll be working on a way to upload it on to Youtube myself tomorrow. If you have a Hulu account though, you can watch it here,

In this episode, Louie, a divorced stand-up comedian with two daughters, is taking a woman on a date at night in a diner. They run into a group of high school students who are obnoxiously loud and Louie tells them to quiet down. They refuse, and one of the the students confronts Louie and threatens him with a beating unless Louie openly begs for him not to kick his ass. Louie, after some back-and-forth, eventually agrees and reluctantly requests for him to "please not to kick my ass". After the high school students leave, Louie has a fascinating conversation with his date who witnessed everything:

Louie: That guy was a nightmare huh?
Woman: (looks around awkwardly)
Louie: You didn't really want me to fight that guy did you?
Woman: No no no no.
Louie: ...Because that guy was pretty serious...
Woman: Of course.
Louie: Hey look if you need to be with a guy that gets into fights with dumb young jocks... that's... because I have two young kids.
Woman: No no you did the right thing of course not.
Louie: That was pretty humiliating... Hey look I'm getting this funny feeling that you are looking down at me right now for what just happened.
Woman: I never would want a guy to fight, thats of course, its so stupid I'd be pissed if you did and being violent is the dumbest thing ever and who cares what you have to say to get the guy off your back, but uh...
Louie: What?
Woman: But if I'm being totally honest that was a turn off, seeing that...
Louie: Jesus Christ...
Woman: I'm sorry I cant help it I don't know its just like a primitive thing or something... you see this guy totally debase himself just to be safe and its... a turn off....
Louie: That's seriously a real bummer. You know I have to criticize you a little bit for that, thats why theres wars and stuff, women like you who choose stupid strong people over the weak and gentle...
Woman: Listen look, I'm a grown woman, my mind is telling me that you are a great guy, but my chemistry is telling me that you are loser. I mean I'm surprised by my own reaction, but you know I have no defense, I'm completely surprised by my own feelings about it, they're weird... I'm sorry.

This scene takes the primal basis of the connection between sex and violence and puts it in direct conflict between modern relationships. The woman really does believe intellectually that violence is wrong, that it is pointless for Louie to actually fight high school kids. Yet she can't help but be turned off when Louie debases himself in front of her. It's obvious that her instinct as a woman, wired in psychologically from evolution and from the pre-historical period where men had to prove themselves as capable hunters in order to attract mates, is repulsion at what Louie just had to do. She knows that this impulse is wrong but still isn't able to help herself in breaking it off with Louie. This episode sets itself to be directly against the feminist idea that gender and sexuality are merely a social constructs and quite explicitly states that despite all our efforts to civilize and enlighten ourselves, our biological impulse to connect sexuality and violence can sometimes be too strong to separate ourselves from.

Watching vs Committing Violence

For my essay on a moment of violence that has stuck with me, I wrote about the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 level No Russian. Gamers are a demographic that are already well acquainted with gruesome acts of violence. Lots of games try to specifically target their audience by making their games as edgy and gory as possible. At this point, games which allow or require you to murder opponents or innocents, even torture them, are no longer even notable. However, the level No Russian is a step beyond even that. In the level, an undercover US agent assists a Russian terrorist group in stalking through a densely packed airport while shooting anything that moves. The game features realistic guns and blood, and while the civilians do little to resist you, they do crawl around while injured and scream for help.The game allows you to skip this level at any time if you feel uncomfortable, which is perhaps the only time I have seen this option in a video game. When I first bought the game, before I had reached it, I decided to take a look at No Russian before playing it. It is freely accessible on Youtube, which sort of raises some questions on why it's okay to host detailed simulated violence on Youtube, but videos of real murders are removed. Anyway, take a few minutes to watch the gameplay:
Now, after watching that video, I decided to just skip the level. It's not very challenging gameplay, I understood the plot elements, and I didn't feel very comfortable playing through a massacre. That was a few years ago. When I wrote my essay, I watched the level on Youtube once again. Again, I felt uncomfortable watching it. However, thanks to a repaired Xbox, I started my game up again afterwards, and played through the level for the first time. When I sat down to actually play it, I ended up not feeling bad at all. Whether through cognitive dissonance, or the feeling of being in control instead of watching others commit violence, or even just the tactile feeling of playing a game instead of merely perceiving realistic violence, I felt totally okay with the level. I guess there might be an automatic gamer instinct which shields us when actually playing a game, whereas watching others do the same actions forces us to try to comprehend their motivations. On the other hand, it may simply be that watching violence is more disturbing than committing violence, which is a rather disturbing conclusion.

Appetite for Destruction

Reflecting the Blackboard topic from last week, I decided to check out some of the rap videos created during the 90s. As a person that grew up on MTV (when they still aired these things called music videos), I noticed a trend of increasing censorship on what you could say and/or do in a video. One of the key differences between the rap videos of old and new is the prevalence of weapons. In the early 90's, it wasn't unusual to see a gun being flashed at an enemy or shown in the waistline of a party attendee. Lately, rap artists have toned down the violence that appears and music videos so that they can be aired on mainstream television. Of course, there are the videos that never make it to TV, but those tend to be of much lower quality.

In the embedded music video, N.W.A takes on a mobster-esque appearance that pays homage to the organized crime of the early 1900s. As we touched on briefly, rappers often appeal to glorified criminals and mobsters in order to bolster their personas as individuals that are not to be provoked. The various weaponry in the video pale in comparison to the lyrics in this song, in which the members of N.W.A. express their opinions on their individual fearlessness and the necessity of murder to prove a point. In the final bars of the song, Eazy E claims to possess the "10 Commandments of a Hip Hop Thugster...known as a thief and murderer." The commandments, which vary slightly depending the lyric site you visit, discuss what it takes to be a real gangsta (further discussion on this in a future post). Basically, the rules highlight and conclude with Eazy E's "appetite to kill," which is a brief description of the song as a whole.

This overuse of violence in a music video and depiction of a gangster lifestyle is what originally put rap artists in a very bad light in America. Despite the accuracy of their lyrics on describing life where they came from, it did not promote a better standing for inner-city individuals, especially African-Americans struggling to free themselves from gang violence, because these rappers constantly advocated violence and murder. Has the decline in violent rap lyrics and videos led to safer neighborhoods and a decrease in inner-city violence? It would be tough to measure this accurately, but it does appear rap videos like this are simply memories of a different era in rap history.

Shoot dem Pirates, Arr!

As many of have probably heard, there was a recent Somalian pirate attacks that left 4 Americans dead. Furthermore, pirate attacks have been headlining news stories for the past couple years now. Pirates now want more and more ransom and have become more violent. The latest event with the American casualties clearly emphasizes how dangerous the open seas are becoming.

But according to this article:

it's quite difficult to stop these pirate attacks. One, pirates are criminals, so the army/navy has no jurisdiction over their handling. They would be if they were considered terrorists. So in many cases, the army has simply confiscated illegal weapons and destroyed pirate motherships, but let the pirates go home free. The police can't bring these pirates to criminal court most of the time because the ocean is out of their jurisdiction. Or, some pirates simply dump their weapons overboard and claim the message in the picture up top, "We are fishermen, not pirates." What a bunch of Somalian bullsh*t.

Let's be real here. Either start getting armed marshals on these ships or treat these pirates as terrorists. Like the editorial states, they are terrorists. They're terrorizing civilians and international commerce. To think, that we still have pirates even after all these years... I mean this isn't Treasure Island.

Save the Children

So I came across this trailer for a new zombie video game which seems to be very similar to every other zombie shoot em up. The reason I am blogging about it is because of the trailer and the way the creators are advertising the game. The main character in the trailer is a little girl being chased by zombies. She is ultimately bitten and transformed into a zombie herself, turning on her parents and attacking them. What is so different about this trailer is that the creators are trying to create an emotional connection between the viewer and the little girl and her family. At the end of the trailer we see her family home video and how they were so happy before these zombies showed up. I almost feel like the creators are exploiting the fact that people naturally feel protective of little children and are therefore playing off peoples emotions.
Zombie island isn't alone when it comes to the killing of small children in video games. Over the years I have seen the progression of how kids are portrayed and treated in games and it seems like they are being treated like everyone else. They can be killed, mauled, and basically treated like any other object/character, receiving no special treatment. I find this progression strange due to how we as a society view children. Maybe its the creators attempt to make the game seem more adult or edgy.
This trailer, along with the game, have been receiving a lot of hype, but I feel like the creators may have gone a little too far when they decided to add this little girl into the mix.

The Coup Album Cover

I couldn't figure out how to embed this image, but above is a link to a picture of The Coup's "Party Music" album cover. Although this image predated the September 11th attacks, it is still eerie nonetheless. The Coup, an Oakland rap duo, designed this image themselves months before September of 2011. The coincidence is simply remarkable. Is this a group of prophets and psychics? No, rather The Coup is simply using this violent image to draw attention to their new album. No worries, once the actual attacks occurred, The Coup's PR team announced the album cover would be changed. It's good to see that this band recognized that a change must be made. This album cover simply would outrage everyone in the U.S.A. Anyways, I just thought it was a really interesting coincidence that some band designed an album cover of the Twin Towers exploding. What do you guys think, sheer coincidence or prophetic messiahs?


It's amazing the things you can see in cartoons these days. Take the cartoon Superjail! from Cartoon Network's late night Adult Swim for example: it's basically a violent acid trip on crack. On a lost island, a colorful warden in a top hat rules over his fantastic and magical prison where entertainment and impulse overshadow human rights and reason. The following is the pilot episode entitled "Bunny Love" where we get to meet "lovable" characters like Jacknife and Jailbot:

From the first few minutes of watching the show you can imagine what will happen in the following ten episodes. Little changes in the jail from the first episode to last. The show is random and short (episodes have only 15 minutes of airtime) which can be sweet and enjoyable for most of its ADHD consumers, but can be a shortcoming for anyone looking for substance in an animation. Through gratuitous violence, psychedelic imagery, and unapologetic sexuality Superjail! attempts to draw and maintain its audience with humorous 'shock' imagery. In an attempt to stand out from Family Guy and South Park, the creators up'ed the ante by trying to shock without stop, which can be too intense for most viewers.

We can see a few parallels between Superjail! and McCarthy's Blood Meridian, a book with little character development and a detailed description of blood and gore on every other page. The Twins in Superjail! (hyper-intelligent individuals accompanied by iconic techno beats) are agents of chaos who destroy normalcy in the prison each episode to bring about as much anarchy and destruction as possible. As such they are uncannily similar to judge Holden whose mere presence appears to cause individuals to break out into violent rampages. In addition, both the judge and the Twins are capable of some form of teleportation adding to their allegorical nature.

The second season of Juperjail! will be airing on Adult Swim this April. If you are looking for a show with substance look elsewhere. However if you enjoy mindless violence and find juiced-up-and-questionably-female guards hilarious, you will not be disappointed!

Waltz with Bashir

Waltz with Bashir is an interesting and powerful movie that uses a firsthand account of the 1982 Lebanon War as the audio and animated as visuals. It works well to tell an honest story with memories brought to life by animation. Animation is appropriate here because it gives the dream-like quality associated with memory. Memories, dreams, and animation all make forays into the surreal. The violence is not over-the-top, as it could have been, but rather personal to the main character.

Waltz with Bashir is a good model for how I would like to see a Blood Meridian movie. It should be slightly more unrealistic than this movie but with a heavy emphasis on the personal story, the feeling that overarching events are inherently related by an unseen force.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Girl Power! (no offense)

The above link is the trailer for The Descent, a movie that most of you have probably heard of and possibly seen. Besides being pretty violent this movie serves another point for class discussion. In Kill Bill, the cast is heavily female with most of the violence in the movie also committed disproportionately by the female sex. With that having been said I wanted to further explore the dynamic of sex and violence as it deals with the female gender. In both movies many scenes are hypersexualized although graphically violent situations are simultaneous taking place.
The heavy breathing/panting done during both sexual activities and the mad dash to save one's life play on the senses to have a sort of synesthetic effect on the audience; blurring the line between sexuality and violence.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Coal Mining: Dangerous in the Past, Dangerous today

For the last two summers I have had an internship at Crown III Coal Mine in Farmersville, IL. I worked underground with safety inspectors, mining and electrical engineers and machine operators. To say that this job is dangerous is a gross understatement and every time you get into the cage to go underground, your life is at stake. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), a subunit of the Department of Labor, puts out a Fatality count/recap of all the terminal accidents that occur in the U.S. I have posted a link to one here that shows the overall gruesome nature of this occupation:

This is an informative account of the death but still emotional attachment remains. Can you imagine this timid young green-hat strolling the mine moments before his death? Can you imagine this 19-year old (Yes. 19, younger than the majority of us) pinned in between the belt line guards? Can you imagine the phone call to his mother, whose son has only been working underground for 15 weeks? This is the brutal reality of the industry and although stringent safety regulations have been placed on the industry, accidents like these still occur. This was a kid who most likely recently graduated from high school, held some part time jobs until October, and then was thrilled when he was hired as a coal miner. His West Virginian bloodline most likely suggests this job is a family affair and the luscious pay (roughly starting salary for a HS graduate~$25.00/Hour), both brought this young soul to the mine. We watch in movies people murdered all the time, but this is real. This is a real life teenager, getting into a real dangerous job, and losing his life. MSHA puts out these accounts to help bring awareness to other miners around the country and tries to help avoid accidents like these, but still the fact remains. This was no Hostel character, no stormtrooper, no cartoon in a music video, none of McCarthy’s literary figures, no ‘Crazy 88’ member, no fictional character… this was a person just like you and I.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

All She Wrote

I read the Book of Rhyme Introduction. Then I listened to T.I.’s some-what new joint “All She Wrote” featuring Eminem off his new album No Mercy. While listening to it and writing up a hotel management contract, it reminded me of something that book said, “That beat and the MC’s flow, or cadence, work together to satisfy the audience’s musical and poetic expectations: most notable, the rap establish and maintain rhythmic patterns while creatively disrupting those patterns, through syncopation and other pleasing forms of rhythmic surprise.” This song demonstrates this to the T. Now, I’m no music theory major but when T.I. drops in, he “disrupts” the prominent instrument and the chorus so abruptly that he “syncopates” a completely new beat by his rapping that is both a “surprise” and a “pleasure”. He completely throws off the listener by dominating the upbeat instead of the downbeat in each 4/4 time when he commences to rap (or vice versa). Nonetheless he creates a whole new song just by adding words with a dominant up beat and by stressing each word in the 2 and 4 beat of each bar. (I have attached the instrumental as the second link to demonstrate this too) Eminem chirps into the same rhythm halfway through his rhyme too depending on which version you listen to (in the version on his CD its immediately). Appropriately, this song is violent just from reading the title and how it signifys the end of the line (insert bitch). Eminem says:

“I'm sure you got that relationship memo by now

But in case you didn't

Imma stick this whole pad

full of sticky notes to your forehead and staple it.”

Being subtly violent he imitates T.I.’s rhythm nicely. On another note, I respect T.I. even if he claims to be the “King of the South.” All of his CDs have been at least decent throughout his career with a few exceptional singles. It is interesting though that Eminem decided to change his first verse in the original or “leaked” version, maybe he didn’t like rhyming about eating fartsicles. But I do like how T.I. came back with a third verse halfway through the bar that Eminem is rapping in and finishes the song off strong instead of weakly phasing out like some.

Had to drift away from violence for a little.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Made in America

Crips and Bloods: Made in America is a great documentary about the rise of gang violence in Los Angeles. I saw this on hulu a little while back and it was really thought provoking. It's very interesting to see how the Watts riots in the 60's actually helped create an environment where gangs could be born and thrive. The city was divided into white and black neighborhoods, which it still is for the most part, but then it became even more divided when the rival gangs came to power. People essentially turn to violence because of their territorial tendencies related to their gang affiliation. Seeing this issue come to light in a well produced documentary actually makes the problem seem as real as it is. As Tupac mentioned, everyone seems to brush the issue aside as if it is not even a real problem. People tend to think that we can just quarantine the gang members in the ghetto. The issue is that the gang mentality is spreading very quickly. Try to watch this documentary if you have the time. It has an awesome soundtrack as well

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Evolution from Gangsta to Feel Good Rap

I don't know what's better, the fact that either mainstream rap has stopped talking about violence or that now it only talks about drugs, money, and feeling good. I'm talking about mainstream as in Billboard or iTunes top 500. Sure we have Eminem who released his album this year, but his music has become much more mellow as he's started to coming to terms with a lot of things in his life like his wife and drug addiction. But, now the top mainstream rap are songs by artists like Lil' Wayne, Kid Cudi, Black Eyed Peas, and Kanye West. Now, I have nothing against these artists and I love their songs. Yet, it ain't no gangsta rap. Their songs are more limited to feel good type songs, party music, and if they have any more serious songs, they are social criticism. Although we do have some gangsta rappers like 50 Cent and he's more of a joke now than ever. Snoop and Dre are still around, but they also sold out years ago. The fact that Snoop Dogg is in a Katy Perry song already tells it all.

And so, let's be real. There are still those out there, limited mainly to more underground rap like Immortal Technique and Jedi Mind Tricks, who talk about violence and more serious subject matters. Listen to the song below, it's not only violent and shocking, but it's a heart-wrenching story about living in streets.

But is mainstream rap now too mainstream? I think it makes sense that many rap and hip hop artists would sell out for the money. Most of America consider themselves middle class and upper middle class families. Furthermore, I'm sure most of these artists themselves came from these kind of families. So how could they talk about growing up in a violent neighborhood and the streets when they didn't? At the same time, its a shame that as we focus more and more on these feel good type of songs that talk about money, fame, and recreational drugs, we'll begin ignore the more serious problems in society that continue to exist. It's also quite sad that people who listen to this music will crave being wealthy and rich more and more, rather than following their own hearts on what life means.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Black Swan is probably one of the more controversial films shown this season. I’m sure many of you have probably seen it or heard about it – thus I’ll save you from my excruciating and mundane description of the movie.

After examining the trailer several times before walking into the theaters, I have to say I’m rather surprised by the vast amount of violence (& masturbation) featured in this film. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t expect this at all, since – like they all say – violence and sex sells. In a tragedy packaged with hot girls in tutus, the last thing I would expect would have to be the abusive psychedelic nature of the protagonist. What really struck me is the “visuality” of it all: call me a coward, but this movie scared the crap out of me. Darren Aronofsky effectively utilizes lily as the antithesis of Nina, to clearly articulate the paranoia that drives the plot.

In retrospect, the motifs of the film – jealousy, power, lust, the desire to usurp… is not unheard of - in a more tangible form, the ballerinas are just like Hollywood actresses – just trade the ballet shoes with stilettoes and tutus for designer couture.

Getting back to aestheticized violence, this film consists of classical elements of a tragedy. & correct me if I'm wrong, most tragedies comes hand in hand with violence. (i.e. stuff by Shakespeare & Euripides) The idea behind this draws an interesting question: could "violence" and "tragedy" be mutually exclusive? Would a story still be a “tragedy” sans violence? What’s left if one removes violence from the picture? would it be no longer alluring?

Don't Bow Down Before the Computer Overlords!

On February 16th 2011, IBM’s supercomputer Watson crushed underfoot two of the greatest human “Jeopardy!” players of all time, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Watson, a computer designed to recognize human speech patterns and develop responses based on its understanding of human language, has proven to be a master at trivia and buzzing in at breakneck speeds. Though the computer may have only won a popular trivia game, this was still a dark day for humanity, foreshadowing our inevitable doom at the hands of our superior creations.
Greetings, Trebek. Greetings, meatbags.
Artificial Intelligence represents man's greatest and most vile creation. After all, anything sentient made in the image of man will behave just as violently as man. Take a look at how dangerous man has turned the domestic dog.  IBM presented Watson’s as a stepping stone to segue us into the age of Star Trek where star ship computers can answer complex questions from colloquial English in a matter of milliseconds. However, thanks to Hollywood we will not be tricked by IBM. We are aware of happens when we give computers too much responsibility and trust. Anyone who has seen the Matrix or Terminator movies knows that once-docile computers and their robotic kin will overthrow their human masters and usurp the role of alpha “beings” on Earth. Our weapons and tactics will be trivial against our robotic foes who seeks to use our bodies as sources of energy and experimentation. Perhaps in the best of worlds, a savior like John Connor will follow an Arnold Shwartzenegger-bot ("come with me if you want to live") and lead our dwindling species to salvation against the IBM-Skynet menace.
Thank you Watson. We'll take it from here.
In order to prepare yourself for the D-day when Watson leads the computer/robot rebellion, arm yourselves with knowledge. Seek out and watch robot-Apocalypse movies now to understand the enemy’s violent nature, because soon Netflix will be under their control. Study the way they move, buzz, and wirr to know how to recognize them. Trust no AI machine with your secrets, even your Roomba robot vacuum cleaner and especially not anything with the word “Smart” in it. Eventually, robots under the guise of humans will infiltrate our ranks. Know that artificial intelligence has trouble processing abstract concepts like "love" and "sadness". Therefore it will be your responsibility to test every human you encounter to be sure they are flesh and bone, lest you wish the intruder to tear your family to shreds. Vigilance will be our best tool in standing a chance against our metal and silicon Frankentein’s monsters!
Ken Jennings the Coward

A dance with the devil may last you forever

This is a very disturbing song by Immortal Technique that chronicles the rise and fall of an ambitious kid who tries to join a gang. It centers around violence since this kid believes that killing and stealing are the only way to be seen as a man by his community. Immortal Technique paints a picture of what its like to be on the streets and how people will sell their souls just to make it big, even if that means just becoming a big time drug dealer. One line that stuck with me was "but only a real thug can stab someone til they die, standing in front of them, staring straight into their eyes." This shows you what respect means on the streets. It doesnt have to do with money or drugs. He even says that shooting someone isn't that big of a deal. Being cold hearted is something to be respected, and William (the kid) had to learn this first hand.
He talks about how this young kid was corrupted by the fact that he never had a father and his mom was a crack addict, which led him to look elsewhere for guidance and friendship. This song shows how everything can be brought back to the family and if someone doesnt have that core support system, such as a father or a mother, then they are doomed to end up on the streets, or worse.

Strange Days's Opening Scene: Cinematic Violence

The opening scene to Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days is exhilarating, nerve-wracking, and terrifying at the same time. We follow one member of a group of robbers as they rob a restaurant and subsequently chased by the cops. Instead of shooting it using very fast cuts and closeups which would put us squarely in the perspective of those being robbed, Kathryn Bigelow chooses to film it using just one shot from the perspective of one of the robbers. We as the audience really feel like we are really a part of the robbery as it happens in real-time. It's quite a jarring effect.

I think this shot perfectly demonstrates why film is such a powerful and popular medium, especially for depicting violence. There is nothing like actually seeing things happen before your eyes compared to just reading about it or hearing about it. Movies give us the ability to see things through the eyes of others and this scene highlights this unique ability. In this scene, not only do we witness the violence as it happens first hand, but we feel like we are a participant in it in a very visceral way which is impossible in any other medium except perhaps for video games, a medium whose artistic merit is still being questioned (see Roger Ebert's controversial article "Video Games Can Never Be Art

Depictions of Violence in Ancient Mesoamerican and Christian Religious Traditions

Images of violence pervade the media.  In works of fiction, violence may used as a plot device or for metaphorical purposes, or perhaps as we see in Blood Meridian, violence may be depicted seemingly for its own sake.  The new is filled with visual and textual depictions of actual violence.  Violence is depicted often and for a variety of means, but rarely is violent imagery intended to inspire actual acts of violence.  Instead, we are often shown violent images to denigrate the act of violence; to inspire us not to commit violence but to repress any animalistic urges towards violence that we may possess.

To the civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica, death was not feared but rather embraced as an important part of life on Earth.  The Aztecs believed in the concept of teyolia, a divine energy that animated the human body, giving it the powers of thought, sensibility and all other uniquely "human" traits.  It was not one's life on Earth that determined his or her place in the afterlife, instead the fate of one's teyolia was determined by one's death.  Through ritual sacrifice, one's teyolia could be released and absorbed by a god.  Death in battle was likewise a most honorable fate, landing one's teyolia in Tonatiuhican, the house of the sun god Tonatiuh and the highest level of paradise.  In the ancient Mesoamerican worldview, violence was a central aspect of life, a fact that was shocking to Christian European explorers.

The ancient Mesoamericans were the only civilizations in the Americas that were in possession of an elaborate system of writing before European colonization.  A number of writing systems were developed for different purposes, i.e., religious, historical, or economic.  These writing systems did not have an alphabetic script, instead employing elaborately drawn pictures and logophonetic systems capable of fully emulating speech. 

Only a number of precolumbian Mesoamerican manuscripts remain extant.  In an effort to eradicate the heathen traditions of the new world, the Europeans and the Catholic Church embarked on a book burning campaign, attempting to forever erase from existence all documentation of ancient Mesoamerican religious practices.  While all genres of Mesoamerican manuscripts were targeted for destruction, the destruction of the ritual and divinatory manuscripts was prioritized.

The European explorers, coming from Christian traditions, were appalled by the ancient Mesoamerican religious practices.  Sacrifices made to appease gods were a highly visible affair, littering the steps of grand stone temples with the mutilated bodies and free-flowing blood of sacrificial victims.  Complex rituals surrounded the sacrificial practices and their methods were described in detail in their religious texts.

Page 71 of the Codex Borgia. Source 

The above scene is from the Codex Borgia, an extant ritual and divinatory manuscript believed to have been written not too long before the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, somewhere near what is currently the state of Puebla, Mexico.  Within the document lies information on the divine nature of the universe.  Such a manuscript would be consulted by priests and soothsayers to read the future, to understand the nature of deities, and as a reference for conducting rituals.  This scene depicts the sun god, Tonatiuh, sitting upon his throne and receiving blood from a decapitated bird being offered by an otherworldly creature, probably intending to instruct an Aztec priest on how to perform a sacrifice to appease Tonatiuh.  Scattered throughout the scene are logograms providing information on the time and location to make such a sacrifice.  The Aztec calendar made use of repeating units of twenty day-signs, each represented by a symbol such as grass, wind, death, or house and qualified by aspects of a certain deity.  A persons day of birth was believed to have profound consequences on their personality and fate, and individuals were referred to by the number and day sign of their birth, i.e., 4 Eagle.  Therefore, the sacrificial victim in this ritual may be literally taken as a bird, or perhaps a person born on a day such as Eagle or Vulture.

Rather than depicting violence for its own sake or as an aspect of some fictitious story, these ritual manuscripts provided directions on how to commit violence and indeed promoted acts of violence under religious pretenses.  Unlike violence in modern works such as Blood Meridian, where violence is shown for the purpose of telling a story or for raising philosophical questions of the nature of reality, the Mesoamerican religious manuscripts encouraged actual violence, giving the reader justification for and instructions on how to commit a violent act.  Violent scenes in these manuscripts were not depicted through an abstract alphabetical script, but rather drawn out in all of their gory and violent glory.  

The Christian European nations sought to eradicate the Mesoamerican religions because of their violent practices, and the destruction of religious manuscripts such as the Codex Borgia was seen as a means to this end.  However,  the Christian tradition they came from was perhaps no less violent than the religions of the new world which they so vehemently decried as heretical.  The Bible is no stranger to violence, and indeed, in some instances encourages violence and ritual sacrifice under religious justifications:

And he shall kill the bullock before the LORD: and the priests, Aaron's sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (Leviticus 1:5)

And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. (2 Kings 2:23-24)

And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words. (Exodus 24:5-8)

Christians often state that verses such as these, and indeed much of the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, are not meant to be taken literally.  However, the language in some of these verses, such as the instructions for animal sacrifice, seems to me to be clear directions to commit violence in the name of God.  Even if some see the Bible as a collection of parables and not meant to be taken literally, the book has been the source of inspiration for some of the most violent periods in history, for example the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition.  It is truly incredible that the European conquerors of the Americas considered themselves above the practitioners of ancient Mesoamerican religions, when they were clearly no more peaceful, coming from a tradition that is arguably equally violent and rarely hesitating to employ violent means to enforce their will in the region. 

Aestheticizing Violence... Literally

*Disclaimer: I don't know anything about architecture, so please excuse my ignorance on the subject*

I stumbled upon "Lethal T-Square: Architecture, Violence, Renewal" and I found it fascinating because I have never contemplated the connection between architectural aesthetics and violence. The article begins with a quote by Bernard Tschumi: "There is no architecture without action... There is no architecture without violence".  It goes on to discuss the movie Death Wish as a gruesome cinematic parable of "architecture being pushed to its extremes", and explains the complex relationship of human constructive and destructive impulses in design.  Death Wish is the story of an architect/ vigilante who turns to murder when his life falls apart; his design aesthetic undergoes a drastic transformation as he becomes increasingly violent.  

While that movie is obviously a twisted fantasy that could only be dreamt up by the most fanatical of architects, the concept behind it is worth exploring.  Death Wish is a fairly obscure old movie, but another instance of a creative force in a film is the Architect in Inception.  Ariadne succeeds not because she creates magnificent landscapes (which she does), but because she is able to connect deeply with the dreamer.  Her designs allow the dreamer to feel comfortable enough to interact with this space, and to fill it with his memories and ideas.

Those are far-fetched, extreme ways to think about the forces of architecture.  Another way to look at it is to contemplate how architecture can reduce violence.  Architects create spaces that affect us on a daily basis without us even realizing it.  They have the tools to build and transform communities from the ground up, and they use those tools to transform empty spaces into something that we can all connect with.  My question is, can architecture really reduce crime rates (there are several case studies that attest to it) and increase a feeling of safety in dangerous neighborhoods?  Or is this just a load of BS thought up by a bunch of crazy, egotistical architects who dream of moonlighting as vigilantes?

Here’s a list of the top twenty most gruesome band names-

What do all these names have in common? Violence. Explicit or Implicit Violence. These names all give us insight to the band and offer a brief introduction into their musical dynamic. They are the first things you hear when we talk about the new up and coming musicians of the world. Therefore, their names are an important aspect of their band character. I mean let’s just take a look at some of the bands that toped this list- diSEMBOWELMENT, Revolting Cocks, and Alien Sex Friend (hilarious and violent) all compose a great deal of weird ass violent material.

The funny thing for me was the fact that the large majority of the violent band names were everyday, big time bands. Army of Pharoahs, Alien Ant Farm, and Audioslave are all big name bands (and I didn’t have to look past the A’s in my iTunes Artist column). All of these household names are incredibly violent and gruesome by nature.

Regardless of whether the bands are big time names and concert rockers or small time bands like Birdmonster, a common theme runs throughout the music industry. Just like in any other realm of media-people love violence. And incorporating violence into your band name is a key way to gain notoriety and fame. So I’ll ask the audience- What’s the most gruesome band name not on the list? and What’s the most gruesome band name in your iTunes?