Wes Craven 1939 – 2015

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This piece was originally published on the 1st of September 2014 by The 405. This was the first full obituary I wrote, and it was difficult for a couple of reasons. First, the news was deeply upsetting as I had a considerable amount of respect for Wes Craven and his work, which I hope comes across in the piece. Second, on a practical level, the rigorous demands of online publishing don’t really afford much time to craft the thorough, detailed consideration of the subject’s life and work that one would want to write. I think I did an adequate job here, although I really would have liked more time to research. He lived a hell of a life, I only wrote about a tiny slither of it here.

It’s strange to write about someone like Wes Craven in the past tense. The venerated director sadly died on Sunday at the age of seventy-six following a battle with brain cancer, but he still feels so present. A cliché, perhaps, but no less true of a director who left such an indelible mark on horror cinema, and on popular culture writ large. This is, after all, the director of such landmark films as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996), and The Last House on the Left (1972). Had those films been made by three separate directors, they would each be regarded as legends among fans of horror cinema for having reinvented the genre; that he made all three, and countless other fascinating, idea-driven horrors throughout the last five decades, is a testament to his genius. Certainly, one of horror’s great voices has been lost, and our thoughts are with his loved ones at this time.

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Phil Hartman, Special Guest Voice

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I wrote this piece in the summer of 2015, when I was involved with a website about The Simpsons that ultimately never saw the light of day (because the guy behind it wrote a book instead, which is fair enough). The site would have had writers contributing to various A.V. Club-style discussions about Simpsons-related topics. The first piece was going to be about the point at which we believed the show began to decline. I initially wanted to write about ‘Homer’s Enemy’ (one of my favourite episodes – a deeply cynical admission from the writers that they could no longer maintain their integrity as Fox milked the show dry), but someone else involved in the project called first dibs. So, instead, I used this piece as an opportunity to exalt the great Phil Hartman, whose murder in 1998 unfortunately coincided with the show’s decline. (Which is not to say his death caused that decline  –  that would be dumb and insensitive and completely missing the point ). And, reading it back now, it’s a perfectly cromulent piece of writing, so why not free it from the tyranny of My Documents and publish it here?

Phil Hartman had appeared in fifty-one of The Simpsons’ then two-hundred-and-three episodes before his death on May 28th 1998, making him by some distance the show’s most prolific guest actor. (His final, fifty-second appearance was posthumous in season ten’s ‘Bart the Mother’.) Though the show has become increasingly concerned with shamelessly trotting out trendy guest stars in a bid to grab ratings, Hartman retains this honour eighteen years and almost four-hundred episodes later, and with good reason. Beginning with his first appearance as the sleazy Lionel Hutz in season two’s ‘Bart Gets Hit by a Car’, and ending with ‘Bart the Mother’, Hartman lent his perfect, shit-eating-grin of a voice to Springfield’s most magnificent bastards — the smooth-talking hucksters, the unabashed shysters, the narcissistic blowhards. Often pitched somewhere between sincere charm and devious smarm, his reassuring cadence imbued these characters — no matter how brief their role or singular their dimension on the page — with exuberance and a surprising degree of humanity, ensuring that even their most banal utterances (“Hi, I’m Troy McClure!”) would leave an indelible, hilarious mark on an episode.

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The Dissolve Dissolved!?

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This piece was originally published on the 13th of July 2015 by The 405. So, for a few months I wrote a weekly film news round-up column for The 405. It was fun for a while, but I soon became tired of both trawling through trade publications and translating glorified press releases into entertaining copy. It was good experience and I didn’t do a terrible job by any means, but  regurgitating casting news and commenting on future major studio follies became a bit of a grind, especially as I was not remunerated for my work in any way. One week, however, I got to go long on The Dissolve’s closure and all the concomitant anxieties for those invested in film criticism, and it resulted in what was by some distance the best thing I wrote for that column. It’s also the only one of those columns that’s worth republishing here, seeing as this crisis in film criticism, and online publishing writ large, never seems to go away.

In what can only be described as a heart-breaking loss for film culture, Pitchfork‘s speciality film website The Dissolve unexpectedly published its final article on Wednesday, two years after it was initially launched. In that article, former editorial director Keith Phipps cited “the various challenges inherent in launching a freestanding website in a crowded publishing environment, financial and otherwise,” as the reason for the site’s closure. But it’s fair to say that he was being diplomatic. Those who pay attention to and care about film criticism – and digital publishing writ large, I suppose – are fully of aware of why The Dissolve could not be sustained, and the reasons hurt.

From the outset, The Dissolve represented a beacon of hope in the increasingly cynical world of film coverage. Founded by Phipps and a number of brilliant writers from pop culture website The A.V. Club (Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias, Nathan Rabin, and Genevieve Koski) who wanted to focus on cinema, the site’s remit was to provide a “playground for movie-lovers,” and for two years it did exactly that. The editors’ approach to publishing was uniquely pluralistic, balancing high-traffic coverage of the latest blockbuster films with decidedly unprofitable articles that explored contemporary independent cinema, film history, and the downright esoteric. I mean, they were just as likely to devote significant feature space to Buster Keaton collaborator Clyde Bruckman as they were Kurtzman and Orci, the writing partnership behind Star Trek (2009), Transformers (2007), and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). In this way, The Dissolve encouraged a righteous, omnivorous kind of cinephilia, where value can be found in anything and even the most outrageous dreck could encourage a deeper understanding of the medium. It may have been a niche publication in the sense that cinema was its only focus, but, within that niche, The Dissolve gave everything a chance.

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Dissecting Flying Lotus – Part 3 (Cosmogramma)

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Photo by Timothy Saccenti

This piece was originally published on the 17th of October 2014 by The 405. Cosmogramma may very well be my favourite album, so I naturally think that this piece is woefully inadequate. (Well, I think most of my writing is woefully inadequate, but that’s beside the point). The writing about the music itself really should be stronger, although I’m not really sure I could do better today because I still find myself thrilled and overawed by this album, seven years after its release. Also: I should have written more about Thundercat. I should have written more about Thundercat. I should have written more about Thundercat. I think the original plan was to cover their partnership in the final part of this series, which I never got around to completing because of university commitments. I’ve never been fully won over by his solo work, but I’m convinced that Thundercat is one of the most important musicians of his generation because of his work as a supporting player for the likes of FlyLo and Kendrick Lamar. The guy is an encyclopaedia and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the changes in Flying Lotus’ sound on this record were motived by his friendship with Thundercat. Another piece for another time, perhaps.

“In the same way that Jimi Hendrix was completely reinventing what you could do with a guitar, Lotus is reinventing what you can do with electronic tools,” – Mary Anne Hobbs, to The New York Times

To create something resembling a cogent narrative, a number of interesting digressions had to be excised from the second part of our Flying Lotus career dissection. This included: some elaboration on Steven Ellison’s relationship with his new label, Warp Records; more details about the recording process of Los Angeles, his second album as Flying Lotus; the state of Los Angeles’ beat scene, which had been so pivotal in his early career. I mention this not to lament what couldn’t be written, but as a means of establishing and elaborating on that latter point, which, for our purposes here, warrants far more than a mere digression.

You see, there had been many changes in Ellison’s life since the release of his first album, 1983, and they all left an indelible impression on his third, Cosmogramma. As he told The Daily Swarm, “every creative step comes with its own fair share of life.” One of the most significant of these changes — and certainly the most protracted — was that LA’s beat scene became exponentially more popular following the release of his first album in 2006. The music of Flying Lotus and other producers such as The Gaslamp Killer, Daedelus, and Nosaj Thing started  to attract international attention from specialist blogs and the likes of BBC Radio DJ Mary Anne Hobbs, who told the world that something special was going down in Los Angeles. As people heard what what happening, they became inspired to produce their own music, and perhaps even move to the city, meaning that more voices, sounds, and influences converged there. This once local, insular scene soon became the epicentre of an emergent and increasingly accessible global movement of laptop-based music. Los Angeles, once synonymous with rock and hip-hop — with Metallica, N.W.A., Black Flag, Tupac, Beck, Snoop Dogg – was ground zero for a diverse and increasingly difficult to categorise electronic sound. And, interestingly enough, this all happened in perfect synchronicity with Ellison’s own career trajectory.

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Dissecting Flying Lotus – Part 2 (Reset and Los Angeles)

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Photo by Mark Mahaney

This piece was originally published on the 22nd of September 2014 by The 405. Reading back over this one, it’s definitely overly flowery and faux-deep. But I suspect that would have been more tolerable if I were more incisive about the music itself. Ah well, it’s by no means the worst thing I’ve written. 

“Grieving is an individual process with a universal goal. The truest examination of the meaning of life and the meaning of its end.” – Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal (season one, episode thirteen)

There are immutable forces at work, universal laws that we’ve discovered and established to project a semblance of order onto the chaos of Everything. Evolution. Gravity. Relativity. These are things we know. And yet, it all seems so immeasurably fucked. Random, off-kilter, fractured. Life is strange and chaos reigns in spite of our best efforts to suppress it. But if we cannot suppress it, the least we can do is try and make sense of it, to ascribe it some sort of meaning. This, I suppose, is  one of the primary functions of all art. But it is also expressly what Steve Ellison sought to accomplish with his Flying Lotus project following the release of his first album, 1983. He sought to to create a coherent universe, worlds that made sense, an existence that wasn’t exactly independent from reality, but certainly distant enough to comprehend it.

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Dissecting Flying Lotus – Part One (1983)

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Photo by Eric Slyfield

This piece was originally published on the 15th of September 2014 by The 405. It’s the first of a three-part hagiography of Flying Lotus, written in the build-up to his fifth album, You’re Dead! There was actually supposed to be a fourth piece, covering FlyLo’s fourth album, Until the Quiet Comes, but I never got around to finishing it because of life/university commitments (if I remember correctly I moved house during this time). Anyway, Flying Lotus is probably my favourite musician, so this piece is appropriately fawning. The editor initially wanted one piece about Flying Lotus’s career, but I pitched four articles about each album because one article wasn’t enough, and he said yes because he wasn’t paying me and he’d get more traffic that way. Despite all the fawning, however, I’d say this series represents some of my best work for The 405. The writing about the music itself could certainly be stronger – I was still fairly  new to music writing at the time – but I think the research and the reporting holds up reasonably well when reading it now. I loved working on these, and I think it shows. Maybe I should get around to finishing that final piece.

“I think people like what I do because I do what I want to do. So I just try and remember that and stay true to my gut and hopefully people will keep fucking with me.” – Steve Ellison, to Pitchfork in the tour documentary Fly First

Steven Ellison is many things, among them: the head of a record label; a rapper; a student of cinema. For our purposes here, however, he’s one of the most distinguished names in alternative and experimental music under the moniker Flying Lotus. Such a description seem slightly vague, but it’s appropriate all the same; Ellison derived his stage name from lucid dreaming, and it follows that he’s notoriously difficult to pigeonhole as a musician. Does he make electronic music? Instrumental hip-hop? Jazz? Avant-garde? IDM? EDM? Psychedelic? Honestly, I don’t give a fuck, and neither should you. Its more important (and interesting) to establish here that nobody else makes music like Steven Ellison, and that his complete disregard for generic boundaries is not only an uninhibited joy to behold as a listener, but a huge part of what makes him so unique and innovative. That’s not to say this is the only part, however, because the Flying Lotus project is, like the man behind it, many things.

There’s definitely a side — which you’re more likely to find in his live shows, his non-album material, and his production work on other artists’ projects — that’s traditionally mainstream, more gregarious and accessible while still retaining Ellison’s characteristic off-kilter aesthetic. So even if you’ve neglected to listen to his albums, there’s still a good chance that you’ve encountered his music. Maybe you heard him pulling off the remarkable feat of making Mac Miller sound halfway decent; or perhaps you’re into his radio station on Grand Theft Auto V; or it could be that you’re a fan of Adult Swim and have come across his bumper music. That side of Flying Lotus is meticulously maximalist by design, and tends to push sounds and ideas to their absolute limit. It’s also markedly different to what you’ll experience on a Flying Lotus album, which are more informed by Ellison’s introspection and self-consciousness. The album format serves as an arena in which he can examine his current state of mind, explore his psyche’s multiple facets: the California beat maker on 1983; the child of Los Angeles on Los Angeles (no shit, huh?); the spiritual being on Cosmogramma; the human being on Until the Quiet Comes. This reflective aspect bestows upon the project and absolutely vital ritualistic, almost confessional and spiritual qualities. The pattern is noticeable: he releases an album every two years, and on those albums he purges his mind of all his thoughts and ideas and pain.

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Don’t Cry For Me, I’m Already Dead: On the Negligible Impact of The Simpsons Movie

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This piece was originally published on the 15th of August 2014 by The 405. The version I’m publishing here has been brushed up slightly, particularly the messy first paragraph. Honestly, though, given the chance (and the money – ha!), I’d probably rewrite the whole thing. It’s not that I don’t stand by the crux of my argument, because I broadly do (albeit with some caveats), it’s just that the writing is a bit naff. I mentioned this in a previous annotation, but when I  wrote this piece I was of the opinion that Film Crit Hulk was just about the best writer around, and his style informed my writing in all the wrong ways. It’s flowery and overly earnest when it shouldn’t be, broad and superfluous when it needed to be incisive, and structurally unsound (I mean, that ending, fucking hell – at least I got a Simpsons reference out of my inability to finish a piece properly). In my defence, though, I was an impressionable idiot nineteen year-old at the time. Because of this pervasive naffness, I was considering not republishing this piece (as I have with a few other pieces). But I’m probably being a wee bit hard on myself, as there’s still some good stuff buried in there, somewhere. And, if anything it serves as an example of how my writing has changed over the years.

Once in a great while, we are privileged to experience a movie event so extraordinary that it becomes a part of our shared heritage. The Simpsons Movie was supposed to be one of them. Though it can sometimes seem as if the film exists only as a dumb pig joke these days, its release in July 2007 felt like cultural supernova to a certain generation (some ghastly amalgam of Gen X and Millennials), engulfing the world in an incomparable fervour. It was our Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie: not just an event, but the event, the defining moment of a generation, like the moon landing or something. It was, well, it was everything I suppose.

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