Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Transformers and Michael Jackson

Normally I refrain from commenting on pop phenomena. This week, however, my brain has reached a state of pop hypersaturation, so I'll blog in the name of self-help.

In college, a friend of a friend (and a distant friend at that...let's get this straight!) was a big Jackson fan and bought tickets for a number of his concerts on the West Coast. Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. She reported that the show included a segment where Jackson began a song and then ordered the band to stop playing after maybe 30 seconds. You see, his emotions were bubbling over, and he absolutely needed to express them via a different tune. That's nice, but it turns out that Jackson went through this routine at every concert. Offhand, I can't think of a more extreme example of feigned spontaneity.

Some call this sort of behavior "showmanship." Mick Jagger is supposed to be a great showman. When the 40-up crowd (of which I'm a member) ventures out to see a Rolling Stones mega-concert, they inevitably return with high praise - Jagger still has "got it." Then, of course, there are the obligatory comments about Keith Richard's appearance and longevity. To me, it feels like the concert-going fogeys are simply rationalizing their existences; see, us old farts can also prance around a stage. We might just still "have it." Hell, in high school, my circle of friends felt that the Rolling Stones began a downward spiral in 1967, when Brian Jones died. In the early 90's, I was pleased to hear that a decent chunk of the younger portion of the audience walked out on the Stones after a couple tunes. Pearl Jam, it seems, was the opening act, and the contrast between Eddie Vedder's genuine spontaneity and Jagger's rehearsed "professionalism" was too much to bear.

Oliver Sacks relates an anecdote from the aphasic ward of a mental hospital. Aphasics have a difficult time formulating and understanding concepts, so Sacks initially found it odd to see a group of them laughing hysterically at President Reagan's televised speech. As Sacks says, though, "It was the grimaces, the histrionics, the false gestures and, above all, the false tones and cadences of the voice which rang false for these wordless but immensely sensitive patients." Perhaps I lean a tad toward the aphasic end of the spectrum, as Michael Jackson always seemed too cartoony to take seriously. For those who perceive him a master showman, you're entitled to your own personal mix of neurotransmitters.

Regarding pedophilia, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Did he fantasize about becoming white?...no, it seems like he really did have a hangup with vitiligo. I know because I've been dowsed with spam e-mails that prove the point with attached photos. What bothers me, however, is the praise he has received as some sort of music pioneer. Sly Stone and Hendrix were crushing racial boundaries when the Jackson 5 was a generic (but good) Motown act. One might argue that Jackson's transformation into whiteness, like Emperor Leto's transformation into wormness, was an act of sacrifice, designed to carry all sentient beings to a new degree of awakening. But the vitiligo spam disproves that theory.

Then there's the idea that Jackson was responsible for MTV. There may be some truth in that. In which case, the need for a successful musician to have a pretty face, dancing and acting skills, and to be on the cutting edge of fashion and personality - a 30 year trend away from actual musicianship - is Jackson's doing.


Now, let it be known that "Transformers II" is dreck. I just have few observations. In the spirit of the film, they're disjointed.

Following release of the excellent, "Elephant", Gus Van Zant predicted the demise of the "narrative format." No more linear story-telling. That's what you got in "Transformers II", which willfully discards plot and continuity. I say "willfully" because it's impossible to believe that these myriad discontinuities (a robot busts through the wall of the Smithsonian...into a remote jet airstrip) went unnoticed in production. Van Zant's vision, of course, is one intended to challenge the audience. "Transformers II" is the ugly, cynical side of the "non-narrative" format.

In fact, it feels as if recent films like "Star Trek" and "Transformers" operate on the principle that there's no limit to the degree of "suspension of disbelief" that the human brain can tolerate. "Suspension of disbelief" has now been expanded to include much more than run-of-the-mill violations of the laws of physics. We're talking about slashing through a coherent plot and timeline.

I found the first Transformers film notable for its ability to invoke a sense of wonder. That's a rare quality in a film. Somehow, you've got to mix nature, the right music, a sense of connection to the deep past, the grandness of the cosmos, paradox, and death and suffering, in just the right proportions to pull it off. This sense was totally lacking in the second film, a testament to the slipperiness of awe and wonder.

We poke fun at Bollywood productions. Singing, dancing, and fighting. There's something for every audience sector...slapstick for the kids, sex and violence for the teenage boys, true love for the chicks, and family values for mom and dad. But films like "Transformers II" run the risk of falling into the same "variety show" trap. You've got robots speaking with ghetto accents, plenty of slapstick, militarism, and the family pulling through in the end. Unnecessary skits. When Megan Fox's foxiness is the focus, the music changes suddenly, the film slows, and the camera zooms...very Bollywood!

On the positive side, I hope that this piece of garbage forces a number of critics to reassess Star Wars Episodes I-III. Lack of humanity?

Undoubtedly, the execs are rolling in the dough and lighting Gran Coronas with critics' reviews. Prediction: they'll be puzzled when "Transformers III" fails to meet box-office expectations. Hmmmmm.

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