Adam Race

Adam Race can mostly be found mucking around the foothills of Appalachia.

Machine Girl and Her Remedies

  When I first heard a song by Lana del Rey, I was tipsy-drunk and wondering whether or not we were going to run out of alcohol in the midst of an escalating party. The song was “Video Games,” her first, immensely popular single, and it only took a few moments of hearing the pleasant strings and gentle vocals of that song to convince me that I loved the woman who was singing to me. “Video Games” is about love in all of its idol fascination, and argues that the only true reason for living is “if somebody is loving you.” Even in my rum-fogged state of mind I knew that was a special moment. I had found the woman for me—Lana del whatever—and we were going to have a lovely life together. I downloaded the song within the hour and our love affair began amidst the din of chatting partygoers and the haze of hard drinks. I think Lana would have preferred it that way.

———-

Lana Del Rey (aka Elizabeth Woolridge Grant) is the face that launched a thousand think pieces. She was born in New York City and sings songs made for hot, sultry Manhattan summers. The following is some historical perspective:

Lana Del Ray

After “Video Games” was released on her MySpace page, the music world was abuzz with speculation and expectation regarding this self- styled “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” Who was this girl who seemed so aloof and elusive in interviews? How do we react to a young woman who openly admits to choosing her stage name because it evokes a ”faded seaside glamour” aesthetic? Doesn’t she realize that you can’t be this honest about image creation with music critics? Name dropping Williamsburg and claiming that she “had a vision for making her life a work of art” in interviews didn’t help the question of authenticity. Authenticity. It became hard to refer to Lana Del Rey without at some point mentioning that troublesome word. And all of this was before her wealthy upbringing came to light. She didn’t fit the indie motif she peddled. Occupy Wall Street and Brooklyn co-ops were cool. Trust funds and cocktail parties in the Hamptons were not. Yet the indelible quality of “Video Games” could not be questioned. It was what Betty Draper would have listened to if she could have taken a break from shooting birds and vomiting in cars. 1960’s glamour is cool, right? Keep in mind all of this was before her full-length album “Born to Die,” was even released.

All of this expectation was smashed by an SNL performance in mid January, two weeks before the official release of “Born to Die.” Lana Del Rey looked nervous and sounded shaky in what some called one of the worst SNL performances ever. The expected backlash burst forth. SNL parodied her performance and Lana’s perceived awkwardness was confirmed for many– mere few days before the release of the LP. I’m sympathetic towards Lana’s SNL performance. Selecting the worst SNL performance, music or otherwise, would be an almost impossible task for anyone due to sheer volume of possible selections. But I digress, and the story continues.

Reviews were mixed when Lana’s “Born to Die” was finally released. Pitchfork, Paste, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly all gave it less than stellar marks. Pitchfork, the Death Star of music publications, compared the album to a “faked orgasm.” Ouch?

Let us conclude this bit: due to sky-high expectations and an environment of hype usually reserved for new Radiohead albums, coupled with her own innate ability to raise questions of authenticity and arguments pitting sincerity against phoniness, Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die” is hyper- scrutinized and her inability to live up to all of the buzz seems to disturb.  And thus concludes the back-story of Miss Elizabeth Grant.

———-

 There is a serious tension in the cultural discussion of Lana Del Rey. The combination of the hype and her own Devil-may-care attitude toward any criticism has moved perceptions of Lana Del Rey away from the actual quality of her music (let’s give her a solid B) to a her role as an emblem of greater culture values.  Does the fandom of Lana Del Rey illustrate the end of authenticity in music? The perpetuity of narcissism? Or is she just another weird trend-celeb that vapid music “fans” can gravitate towards?

Lana Del Rey’s own music only adds to this exchange. Her song “National Anthem,” a love song to materialism and decadence, which if performed by any other artist would be considered social commentary, but feels sincere in LDR’s hands, talks of “blurring the line between the real and the fake;” her own admission that she “wanted to be part of a high-class scene of musicians…hoping that (she) would meet people and fall in love and start a community around (her), the way they used to do in the ‘60s,” sets her up as an architect of her own public personae. Again, is she real or is she fake? Does purposely trying to construct an identity make it any less authentic once it’s achieved? At some level, I would argue that all artists are trying to purposefully create their own perceived realities. While no artist admits to this, LDR seems proud of her “vision for making (her) life a work of art.” The femme fatale personae feels contrived and overly produced; Lana Del Rey simply doesn’t give a damn that it bothers.

Rather than address the authenticity of Lana, I view Miss Del Rey’s place in popular culture as a remedy for an affliction: the constant need for icons of cool.

Popular culture rides on the ebbs and flows of consumer tides, and the concept of “cool” is the moon to these mercurial obsessions. Modern cultural taste develops from one artistic icon of reality to another. Consider the following: real life occurs (the 1960s), art creates a perspective on the actual event (books and tv shows about the 1960s), a particular piece of art is constructed rather well (AMC’s Mad Men), this exceptional artistic snap shot becomes associated with the authentic “real life” and established as cool (critical acclaim and 1960s themed cocktail parties) and the new icon is born. For those who didn’t experience America in the 1960s, art such as Mad Men is now the widely accepted version of those real events. In essence, Don Draper as an icon of American masculinity and complexity informs the new perception of the 1960s, bringing with it the label of cool due to proper artistic construction. Perhaps in 10 years a different historical era will emerge as cool, but for now Mad Men serves as the icon of cool that leads to a potentially misplaced nostalgia. It is this process of icon creation and the subsequent cultural attraction to these icons that powers the machine of Lana Del Rey. It may be true that at one time Lana Del Rey may have “just wanted to be seen as a good singer, and not much else,” however she now seems more than pleased to become much more. Lana Del Rey is a machine: a hype machine, a sex machine, a beautiful, glassy eyed machine that provides all of our pop culture remedies.

———-

 Lana Del Rey has attempted to build herself as yet another icon of cool, taking advantage of the storehouse of nostalgia in modern pop culture created by past icons. What makes Lana Del Rey ultimately so compelling is not her attitude or questionable authenticity, but rather the positioning of herself in perhaps the most potent “cool” icon factory of all: the cultural tradition of New York art.

New York City seems to always find a warm welcome in the American mind, and this New York mythos of popular imagination provides the appropriate blueprint for understanding the Lana Del Rey machine. Countless articles can and have been written about New York as a nexus of art, culture, and as an idea; Lana Del Rey has inserted herself within this context and seeks to gain from the established affection for New York art. When I refer to New York art, I do not just mean art that has been created within the geographic confines of the five boroughs and surrounding landscape, but more specifically art that directly addresses and reflects the varied manifestations of New York City in popular perception. Let us briefly examine a few select New York icons of cool:

 

For the bibliophile:

Few American novels are held in such high regard as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a series of slices of the elite New York lifestyle revolving around the exploits of the determined-in-love Jay Gatsby, the ever-observant Nick Carraway, and the dynamic duo of Tom and Daisy Buchanan during the Roaring Twenties. Booze- filled parties, philandering husbands and a prevailing carefree attitude define the lives of the Long Island socialites. Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die would have been played on loop at one of Gatsby’s rollicking parties while she downed cherry schnapps with three lacrosse players in the moonlit pool. The Great Gatsby’s legacy as an icon of cool? Drinking became sexy and the high school prom theme of the “Roaring Twenties” was born.

For the classy music fan:

So he was born in New Jersey and he spent an unhealthy amount of time in Las Vegas– Frank Sinatra has still become almost inseparable from any pop culture representation of New York, thanks in part to his music and his legendary affection for Gotham City’s nightlife. When she describes herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” Lana Del Rey isn’t leaving too much up to the imagination. Yes Lana, we get the connection you’re making. Sinatra in New York? Yep, that’s about as cool as it gets.

For anyone who has ever met a sorority girl:

The movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, based on Truman Capote’s novel of the same name, is sublime. I hated this movie the first time I saw it, and then I awoke from my dream, ate some cake, and realized the whole thing is genius. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly is one of the most iconic characters of all time. Go into ten female freshmen dorm rooms in an American university and I’d bet at least six of them have a poster of Audrey wearing that black dress and those pearls, holding a cigarette in that hoighty toighty way of hers. Breakfast at Tiffany’s took the raging party fun of The Great Gatsby out of the Hamptons and into the Upper East Side. Mix in some implied prostitution, a struggling writer, mobsters, and some uneasy racial tension on the part of the audience (sorry Mickey Rooney), and you have a New York tale forever engrained in popular consciousness. Holly Golightly would have probably listened to Born to Die after waking up with her cat wrapped around her neck. Lana Del Rey simply modernizes and continues the iconic party-girl aesthetic popularized by Holly Golightly and her New York escapades.

 For the  angsty, barely-holding-onto-the-y yuppie:

Don’t worry, The National has nothing in common with Lana Del Rey…except for the song “Available.”

Did you dress me down and liquor me up, to make me last for the minute, when the red comes over you, like it does when you’re filled with love, or whatever you call it.”

Yes, Lana Del Rey could have easily written those lyrics. Watch it, Matt Berninger.

For the same people who listen to The National:

Mad Men has already been referenced enough in this piece, but it bears reiterating the important role that this show has had on creating a modern perspective of the 1960s, a perspective that paved the way for Lana Del Rey styling herself as a throwback to the newly imagined glamour and swank of that decade. Without the “cool” icon creation of Mad Men, it is hard to imagine that such a high level of expectation would have existed for LDR’s 1960s personae.

———–

In an attempt to provide an alternate interpretation of Lana Del Rey, I find comfort in viewing her as yet another icon of cool in the New York City tradition, rather than just the most recent vapid addition to the female pop star carousel. The image of Lana Del Rey as a machine is crucial to this understanding: she knowingly creates the remedies for popular culture’s desire for new emblems of cool, conveniently packaging all the allure of past icons into one sexy and, admittedly, talented machine girl. It seems that Lana got what she wanted after all: her life has become a work of art, and we’ve all been caught staring.

 

Other Worlds Than These

I’ve always enjoyed driving by myself on long trips; it normally provides a time for reflection and sifting through thoughts. It was on one of these drives down a vacant highway through north Georgia when my sister alerted me to the sudden death of author Brian Jacques on the morning of February 5, 2011.

Upon hearing of Mr. Jacques’ death, my meandering mental preoccupations gave way to an emotional progression of abject shock soon followed by a slow, creeping sadness that still seems to linger in the more nostalgic corners of my heart. Appropriately, after a few moments of reflection on that winter road, I realized that nostalgia was what always attracted me to the stories of Mr. Jacques.

The first book of Redwall was published in 1986, and over the course of the next 25 years would eventually grow to a 23 book series that chronicled the adventures and histories of a world of anthropomorphic creatures. Generally, the stories revolved around “good” animals (mice, hares, badgers, otters, squirrels) protecting themselves against “bad” animals (rats, ferrets, stouts, foxes, crows), with the occasional complex extended riddle or search-for-the-Holy-Grail type quest thrown in for good measure. These stories, with names such as Martin the Warrior, Marlfox, The Pearls of Lutra, and The Bellmaker, occurred within the deceptively safe confines of Redwall Abbey, the vast expanses of Mossflower wood, and even in the far, cold reaches of the Northern Isles across the sea. The vast, action- filled world of Redwall completely engaged my pre-Tolkien literary framework and for the first time in my life as a reader, I was able to experience a text as more than a means to rack up reading points in fourth grade English class.

To say that I was infatuated as a nerdy, now book-devouring elementary school kid would undervalue the depth of my affection for Redwall: I was in love, and I was in for the long haul. When we changed classes in school by simply walking across the hall, my current Redwall book went with me. When my family drove to church on Sundays, my “animal book” as my mother called it, was on my lap, open for me to enjoy. When book report time came around each month, guess what I chose to read? No, it was not A Wrinkle in Time.

When trying to convey the attraction and charm of Redwall to those who have yet to experience it, it is imperative to not simply mention the spirit of high adventure and otherworldliness of Redwall. Rather, any synopsis must include Mr. Jacques’s consistent detail of the unadorned joys of life, such as food. Shrimp’n’Hot Soup. Stuffed Savoury Mushrooms. Rubbadeedubb Pudding. Deeper’n’Ever Pie. All of these were common foodstuffs in the world of Redwall; forget reading for a moment, Redwall taught me a deeper appreciation for food and the process of cooking in ways I never even considered as a kid. Out with Little Debbie and in with buttered scones. Gold star, Mr. Jacques!

Prior to achieving worldwide acclaim, Mr. Jacques held such jobs as a truck driver, railway fireman, boxer, bus driver, playwright, and even milkman, but it wasn’t until he worked as a milkman that he discovered his finest vocation: storyteller. The tales of Redwall grew from the stories Mr. Jacques shared with the children of the Royal School for the Blind in Liverpool, one of the stops on his local milk route. Mr. Jacques always warmly referred to this original audience as his “special friends,” and spent a great deal of his time volunteering at the school later in  his life.

As the original audience was the children of the Royal School for the Blind, the stories of Redwall were experienced by those who lived with the trademarks of an unfair, challenging life. Maybe Mr. Jacques’s words were simply an escape for the children. Perhaps his stories were voices to describe the wonder of an unseen world.  As a boy, I saw no difference between escaping the toils of life and embracing something wonderful and otherworldly; perhaps the children of the Royal School felt the same way.

It is impossible to look back on those early days of reading wonder without taking stock of where I am now in my literary tastes.  A quick survey of my bedside table uncovers titles by Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie, and Don DeLillo; no tales of woodland creatures and sea-faring vermin. Sexual frustration as a vehicle for violence. The nightmarish realities of certain 20th century dreams. Seemingly impassable ideological divides between East and West. The palpable pain at the heart of romance. The stories I read now are consumed with these tribulations, yet Redwall was a realm free of such tropes and themes; it instead nurtured a longing for a simple joy, and belief in a valiant, journeying narrative.

Good and evil were clear in Redwall; evil was sometimes in the most unlikely of places, but always recognized when it appeared in all its malice. Brian Jacques’s creation was the beginning of fiction for my young, naïve self, from which my current literary framework grew and hardened with experience. For those who prefer labels, Redwall was the ultimate post-post modern world, without which I would be unable to appreciate the complexity of the human condition as interpreted in modern literature. I think it has been an appropriate literary transition from childhood absolutes to my current complex adulthood. All journeys have a beginning, and Redwall was the front door I walked through in fourth grade on my literary road through life.

Stories of courage tested and angst-free coming of age in a far away, chivalric world have a way of making the pain in modern literary realities not so important or emblematic of one’s existence.  Redwall was a land of not only welcome, fine cooking, and a quaint life, but also war, loss, and vengeance. However, Redwall taught that this war, loss and vengeance were not the defining elements of some prevailing existential condition, instead presenting them as unfortunate but unavoidable pitfalls on the road to lives of pastoral elegance enclosed in peace.

Perhaps Redwall was just escapism and ignored the realities of humanness so vividly illustrated by modern adult literature, but I’m inclined to assert Redwall illustrates a life that recognizes evil and resists it, one that chooses not to portray the beauty in brokenness, but rather embrace beauty in its purest, simplest pleasures.

So now I return to my drive down an empty highway through rural Georgia, still caught up in the nostalgia of a land of warrior mice, brave hares, and evil ferrets. As a young boy, the tales of Redwall and Brian Jacques’ unique, far away land were the epitome of high literature. As an older, more cynical twenty-something experiencing a world of post-modern malaise, it is still the myth of Redwall that I look to for a reflection and reminder of the beauty around me.

It seems that Mr. Jacques may now add one more occupation to his long list, for he was the architect of Redwall Abbey and the wondrous lives of its inhabitants. It is with great sadness and respect that I say good-bye to Brian Jacques and Redwall, resting assured that such men and such worlds cannot be forgotten. The absence still hurts though.

Laid Bare: Snow, Photography and Truth

The notions of nature are lonely photographs.

Think about it for a moment. How does one go about describing nature?

Where does one begin? What does one include?

Perhaps more importantly, where does one end their portrayal?

For instance, I may say that I find few images of nature more beautiful than the silent, meditative impressions of a snowy field backstopped by a stark black wood.

Pause again, slowly reading the previous line.

I find few images of nature more beautiful than the silent, meditative impressions of a snowy field backstopped by a stark black wood.

Hmm.

You may be sitting there thinking, “Yes, I understand, I know exactly the scene he describes. I saw just a similar scene this morning while driving to work.”

or

You may feel something like this: “Ok, what are these ‘silent, meditative impressions’ and how does snow convey them? Also, how black is this wood? Is this just a poetic term for a fence on the edge of a field, or is he indeed speaking of a very dark forest? The Black Forest perhaps? Germany?”

Quickly it becomes apparent that the reader is no longer engaging with nature vicariously through the writer’s description, but is instead trying to find meaning through the chosen words, carried along by streams of consciousness.

The experience has morphed into an understanding of semantics rather than substance.

At once the reader is confronted with one of the obstacles and beauties of nature writing: it is impossible to recreate in your mind the scene as described by the writer. Only the writer knows the image he describes.

Take for instance another line describing this indisputably snowy landscape.

The subdued blankness of the snow contrasts with the harsh void of the forest, forming a scene that sings of elegiac serenity amidst its bleakness.

Apart from the creeping thought that perhaps Cormac McCarthy has abandoned violence for simpler pursuits such as wax poetic nature writing, one still runs into the barrier of language in the search for full understanding of the image described.

Put simply, this winter scene is a snapshot, a photograph captured by my eyes and left to develop in the recesses of my conscious, sitting and waiting till a kindred sentiment appears to save it from loneliness. Put even simpler, I saw this image of snow, a field and trees last week while driving home. It cannot be completely understood by anyone but myself, as it waits warm and alone inside my head.

As I said, the notions of nature are lonely photographs.

——–

August Sander, The Right Eye of My Daughter Sigrid, 1928.

In his 1927 remarks on a photography exhibition at the Cologne Art Union, German photographer August Sander stated that photography “can render things with magnificent beauty but also with terrifying truthfulness; and it can also be extraordinarily deceptive.”

He continued, “There is nothing I hate more than sugar-glazed photography with gimmicks, poses and fancy effects. Therefore let me honestly tell the truth about our age and people.”

August Sander spoke regarding his work People of the Twentieth Century: A Cultural History in Photographs, a collection of forty-five portfolios of photographs of German society during the post-WWI Weimar Republic.

Sander sought to portray German life as it was, photographing what he called “archetypes,” documenting through photography slices of the German citizenry. As such, his collections bore titles as The Farmer or The Artists.

By objectively presenting the German people as they were, Sander included the handicapped, vagabonds, androgynous women, and Communists in his work, not just standard, traditionally imagined faces of moderate, mainstream Germans.

Purely, August Sander wanted to tell the truth.

——–

This is not a meditation on snow. This is not a lesson on the history of German photography. This is not even a case for the aesthetics of nature, which, let us agree, is of the highest value.

This is a question of truth in reality, of accepting beauty in this world as it is. The contrasts of the white snow and black forest harkened back to the black/white of August Sander’s photographs, a thread of connectivity stretching decades.

Does a specter of a snowy field hold as much truth as the images of August Sander? Yes, but it is an aesthetic hybrid of truth, trapped as it is within myself, understood only by me and locked in its time just as the objects of Sander’s camera were trapped within theirs.

Maybe there are times to simply accept the truth of life as it is, not as it ought to be. Perhaps these imperfect images are the truest signposts of a world to come, indications of the need for rebirth. But until that time, let us not ignore the beauty in the brokenness. Let August Sander find pride in his people. Let me find solace in a lonely snowy field. Let that image lie dormant in my mind, reminding me of a past photographer’s attempt to find truth.

Winter always seems to instill a desire for things to come, but for that passing moment, riding in my friend’s Subaru Forester, all I wanted was that field surrounded by a dark wood, and the truth it hid.

Arise, Southern Gothic

Now hold still, ‘cause this is really going to burn.

Lately I’ve spent some time watching the films of David Gordon Green. If you aren’t familiar with this little known filmmaker, don’t fret. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered him myself. How did I come upon such a little known, “indie” filmmaker as David Gordon Green? The lead singer of Ola Podrida (the band that is single- handedly keeping it real for indie folk), David Wingo, is the soundtrack composer for many of Green’s films. As a fan of Mr. Wingo, it was only a matter of time before I discovered his alternative means of supporting himself. In a word, David Gordon Green is an auteur. Green’s films carry such a unique and indelible mark that his style and, more importantly, tone are impossible to miss. His intimate and serious treatment of material evokes the solemn reverence of a boy unable to look away as he stares at the time-stained remains of a skeleton. Put simply, David Gordon Green makes Southern Gothic films.

Prior to watching Green’s films, my experience with the Southern Gothic genre was composed of collections of short stories about redemption and the grotesque by William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, William Gay, and Cormac McCarthy early in his career. These names are synonymous with the Southern Gothic canon, which for me has always been the dry whiskey of literature: the first taste and swallow undeniably bitter, yet never failing to produce lasting, powerful effects. The same holds true with Green’s cinematic Southern Gothic. When sincere attempts to breathe new life into aged genres are rare, it is comforting and refreshing to experience on screen the same Southern Gothic sentiment that is so familiar when written upon a page. That, my friends, is the true mark of a rich genre.

Rule one of tasting Southern Gothic: one cannot forget the bitterness of the swallow, a sensation David Gordon Green’s films linger on. I recently watched Green’s Undertow (2004) and Snow Angels (2007), and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about both.

Film stock, please meet Southern Gothic.

Undertow stars Josh Lucas, Jamie Bell, and Dermot Mulroney as an uncle, his nephew, and brother, respectively, locked in a struggle over a family secret in the hot summer backwoods of Georgia. The film drips with Southern Gothic conventions. You can practically taste the humidity in every shot. The environments that Green conjures up are characters unto themselves: a rundown house in the middle of the woods as the site of a murder, the skeletal ruins of a junkyard, the lazy movements of a passing stream, rain-slick pigs struggling in muddy mire. Film stock, please meet Southern Gothic. Really, Green has nailed it. And his pacing is so subtle, so laid back, that one gets the impression that the characters might not actually ever reach the anticipated conclusion, filling the viewer with apprehension of the reckoning that awaits at the film’s end. David Gordon Green takes his damn sweet time telling this story, and the overall effect of a meandering family tragedy is only strengthened by such patience.

Snow Angels is David Gordon Green’s reminder of the oft-repeated adage that life is pain; suffice it to say, Snow Angels is one of the most sincerely depressing films I’ve ever seen. It makes Requiem for a Dream look like a nice movie about three twenty-somethings living in New York. The film’s overwhelming grimness is at once obtrusive and absorbing, leaving the viewer unable to do anything but pray that things get better for the characters. Spoiler alert: things never get better. Bleak mood aside, Snow Angels is filled with unbelievable performances from Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale. As in Undertow, the actors so fill their characters that it is almost impossible to look away. David Gordon Green evidently excels at getting the very best out of his actors, a trait that seems to be lacking in many contemporary directors. The story digs through the smiles and tears of human relationships, exposing the raw consequences of unfettered affection and untended heartache. David Gordon Green’s film operates in very much the same way as a firing squad. The catharsis of the film’s climax merely serves to reload and give the audience a moment of respite before discharging another salvo of tortured midwinter angst through the film’s wounded characters. Along with this double-barreled emotionalism, Green’s use of environment gives an otherworldly feel to the film, as though the nameless town the characters inhabit is some netherworld trapped in eternal winter, existing in an undertone of a higher power’s omnipotence throughout the story’s unfolding. Ultimately though, Snow Angels’ strongest character is the human heart and Green’s best revelations are the tremors of that heart breaking. Viewer beware, Snow Angels is rough, but then again, the bitterness of the Southern Gothic always gives way to a lingering sense of understanding and poignancy. Snow Angels knocks the air out of your lungs, and you’re not sure if you’ll ever get it all back.

As artistic beings, in the traditional sense of “those who create,” it behooves us all to keep an eye on the work of David Gordon Green. The fusion of a seemingly tired and often overlooked genre as Southern Gothic with the film medium is no easy task, making Green’s personalization of the genre while still keeping a strong grasp on its classic conventions all the more impressive and nostalgia inducing. This guy certainly has a style unto himself, and it is steeped in Southern Gothic whiskey. Sip slowly.