Monday, 30 April 2012

Riot grrrl: sexism and music journalism

EDIT: Just realised I forgot to link in my examples. I'll fix this today after work.

I’m not going to say that Sleater-Kinney are one of the greatest all-female rock groups of the past twenty years. I’m not going to say that at all. It’s not that I don’t like Sleater-Kinney, I absolutely adore them. What I am going to say is that Sleater-Kinney are one of the greatest rock groups of the past twenty years.

This distinction is important. At best the addition of the words “all” and “female” would be an indication of lazy journalism; it’s easy for critics to flesh out an overdue piece by dropping in a few extra sentences about how rock groups with female membership come from some line or other inhabited largely by x chromosomes. At worst they would be a creeping indication that a troubling prejudice still exists in contemporary rock music journalism.

It might sound as if I’m creating a problem where there is none (after all, I made up my own case study), but this kind of thing is still endemic in the popular media; here are a few examples of articles that seemingly reduce female musicians to their gender alone or make tedious links with other musicians on the same basis. It didn’t take me long to find them. It’s why Spotify tells me to listen to Garbage if I like PJ Harvey, even though they‘re little alike. It’s probably why every time other I try and watch a Grimes video online I have to sit through an advert for Florence fucking Welch, and never any other more similar sounding male artist.

The issue isn’t helped by tokenism either. It’s still only ten years since Q magazine devoted an issue to “Sirens! Women Who Rock Your World”, emblazoned with the image of PJ Harvey’s bare legs and her t-shirt proclaiming “Lick My Legs” (what demographic was that particular cover aimed at I wonder?).  The issue here isn’t in championing artists who display a consciousness or interest in female issues – that would be a far more useful use of journalistic space* – it’s the idea that the artists concerned are somehow separate from their male counterparts due to gender alone; artists like PJ Harvey and Kate Bush shouldn’t have to put up with being lumped in the same category as Britney Spears on such a dubious basis. This may smack of elitism, but there is still a clearly defined trope at work here that need no longer be presented by our Newspapers, Websites and Magazines.

The clearly sexualised marketing of the issue didn’t help either, although I’m sure Harvey would have been glad of the publicity. It was, however, a marked improvement on an issue of Q seven years previously, which featured Harvey, Bjork and Tori Amos and included the tagline “Hips. Lips. Tits. Power!”

So what’s the way forward? We can start by offering our female artists a level playing field and not making an issue of their gender where there is nothing otherwise to separate them from their male counterparts and nothing otherwise to tie them to their female ones.

*one would also hope such a piece would include male artists who have championed women’s issues, such as Fugazi or Ariel Pink.

Avengers Assemble Review

Joss Whedon must be rubbing his hands together. Two years ago, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly had endured limited success with the silver screen; the original Buffy movie was a camp flop that the series largely ignored, his script for Alien Resurrection – together with Jeunet’s ill-fitting visual style – is (perhaps a little harshly) considered as the centre point of that franchise’s downfall, and Serenity flat out bombed.  Meanwhile, his meta-horror piece The Cabin in the Woods was effectively shelved. That last one’s perhaps a blessing in disguise, given that Whedon can now boast that the genre cinema of early 2012 was effectively dominated by him, and him alone. The success of Cabin has already been discussed, offering something new and fresh in a genre thats current laziness is only contrasted by its marked barrenness. In contrast, Avengers Assemble enters the fray amidst a plethora of comic book movies that in many cases only highlight how stale the “Super Hero Bubble” has already become, trading in on origin stories and boringly contrived power groupings. It doesn’t help that many of said tired films were the two hour advertisements for this all-star super hero smash fest, and it’s a testament to Whedon’s writing ability that Avengers Assemble – a film that could so easily break apart under its own weight – actually feels more cohesive and full-bodied than its foundations.

The plot of Avengers Assemble finally joins together four years worth of Marvel movies under one title, harking right back to the original Iron Man, though in terms of narrative, the film largely builds on threads established in last year’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Loki, trickster demi-god and adoptive brother of Thor, has returned to Earth to claim the Tesseract; an Asgardian energy source capable of opening portals between dimensions. With it, he hopes to lead an otherworldly invasion of our planet, installing himself as our new king. It’s all very...dense and slightly daft, but Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) takes the threat seriously enough to bring together Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) et al. to bring him down – if they can just stop tripping over each other’s egos first.

 Bryan Singer’s X-Men films are frequently regarded as the go-to examples for ensemble comic book movies, but in all honesty, they come off as hammy and overtly serious, putting too much stock into their one-liners and sense of self-importance. Whedon’s script, in injecting the Avengers with a severe case of familial dysfunction, brings a strong layer of banter to the film, allowing these characters to trade off one another and come away feeling like a team, instead of a set of SFX devices. RDJ’s Stark was of course built for this kind of humour, but it’s a surprisingly well-balanced turn by Ruffalo as Banner and his chaotic alter-ego, the Hulk, that actually sparks much of the wit – particularly in the film’s climactic New York battle. It’s a smart move that, coupled with some nice visual quirks, refutes the rather staid approach to OMG-EXPLOSIIOOONSSS that dominated Thor and Iron Man 2, leaving them more than a little deflated. In fact, Whedon does a great job all round of ensuring everyone’s character arc feels complete and weighted; even Johannson’s Black Widow and Renner’s Hawkeye come away as realised characters – despite having to contend with established heavy-hitters.

 This is not to say that Avengers Assemble isn’t a mess – it is. Really, how could it not be? But it does the best it could at holding all the threads together, offering a sharp if (in the nicest way) shambolic rollercoaster ride along the way. If you thought the original Iron Man was a blast and wonder when the fun died, Avengers Assemble might just be what you’re looking for.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A Visit to 'The Cabin in the Woods'

Better to say this right off the bat; offering an extended opinion on Drew Goddard and Josh Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods runs the risk of spoiling a film that should be watched with as little prior knowledge as possible. For those who may have just seen the trailer (or, even better) just heard a few intriguing words from friends and are curious to know more, The Cabin the Woods is easily one of the most entertaining, original horror comedies produced in awhile, and I heartily recommend it. From here on out I’m going to be pretty cavalier with regard to plot matter and genre implications, offering less of a review, and more of a straight analysis - so read on at your own risk.

 The film’s initial premise is about as predictable as horror movies get; five students – each fulfilling a genre stereotype – head on out for a weekend away from school and parents in a remote woodland cabin. We’ve seen this one before – and that’s the point. The difference lies in that this cabin plays host to a specific scenario being directed by two lab technicians (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford), figures first introduced in a jocular prologue upon which the film’s marketing strategy is founded; showing the subversion of genre at work in the film, without actually stating anything.  The Cabin in the Woods wastes no time at all in revealing that Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Holden (Jesse Williams) and co. are being run through a controlled situation, and so the audience dynamic immediately shifts from that of thrill-seeking to detection, as we try to work out why all of this is happening.

 It’s a smart move that, on the surface, allows Goddard and Whedon to point out and play with the rote plot points that make up most lazy horror films today, whilst offering a more complex critique of contemporary horror underneath. It would be easy to see The Cabin in the Woods as the Gen Y re-tread of Scream, shifting ten years forward to focus on the video nasties of the mid eighties rather than the Slasher feature – an argument that holds strong ground given how many nods the film makes towards the likes of Evil Dead. However, given how broad a retrospective on cinematic horror the film ultimately provides (setting up a frankly awesome action set-piece along the way), there’s perhaps more to the film’s focus on the 80s than mere nostalgia. In reducing its protagonists to pawns, only to then reaffirm them as characters in the final third, the film openly yawns at the horror sequences that make up much of the Buckner sequence – a zombie torture episode, complete with sadistic dungeon, that is admittedly rather limp (and I believe intentionally so). Whedon has been very open about the fact that he feels the genre has devolved since the introduction of torture porn, and it is telling that, amongst the film’ final menagerie of movie-inspired monstrosities, the likes of SAW and Hostel are side-stepped in favour of their more inventive forefather Hellraiser, and distant cousin The Strangers. If The Cabin in the Woods merely offered the same smug commentary seen back in Scream, it would be guilty of the laziness it mocks. Instead, in picking and choosing what aspects of horror are presented – and how – the movie’s critique of the genre becomes far more pervasive.

  The Cabin in the Woods is a real breath of fresh air in the current horror climate – the fact that this is the case is more than a little worrying however, and threatens to suggest that most of the more inventive horror films these days are postmodern commentaries; not exactly a progressive, healthy situation. The likes of Wolf Creek, Let the Right One In, and Pan’s Labyrinth may prove otherwise, but they’re few and far between.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Spectrum MiniMix: Electric Friends

Another week, another Spectrum MiniMix. This time around, we're taking a journey through the world of synthpop, covering some classics of the European 80s scene, before moving into more recent forays - with a particularly well-received Kavinsky track finishing things off (movie trivia, fact fans; Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn previously dabbled with Digital Versicolor - featured here - on 2009's equally awesome Bronson). Electric Friends, let's go!

1. Com Truise - 'VHS Sex'
2. Glass Candy - 'Digital Versicolor'
3. Ruth - 'Polaroid / Roman / Photo'
4. Gary Numan - 'Metal'
5. Charles De Goal - 'Technicolor'
6. The Knife - 'Like A Pen'
7. Kavinsky - 'Nightcall'