"Dedicated To The Winners & The Losers..." - Raekwon

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

BatBush, Harvey Obama & Osama Bin Joker: The Politics Of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight

"There Will Be Spoilers..."

If Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” were to only exist in a vacuum, it would be merely the greatest comic book movie ever made. To me, this is not up for debate. “The Dark Knight” is the rare film to transcend it’s humble origins as a mere superhero movie and enter the pantheon of truly Great films. “The Dark Knight” is simply amazing. It inexplicably surpasses it’s great predecessor, “Batman Begins”, in almost every concievable way possible as the performances in the film are richer, the story is more engrossing and expansive, the action is tighter and better shot and it features one of the most iconic, villainous performances in the history of cinema. As noted by virtually any critic and fanboy alike who actually have functioning eyeballs, Heath Ledger manages to completely re-define and revolutionize the role of one of pop culture’s most notorious bad guys, the Joker and does it with a sense of style and utter menace. As almost $300 million dollars worth of Box Office in a mere two weeks can attest, this is the truth and if you want another mere glowing review of the film, you can always read Rolling Stone. I want to the discuss the politics presented in the film.

The film does not exist in a vacuum. It exists and has been released into a very real, post-9/11 world where the threat and fear of terrorism has become painfully clear to the American people. “The Dark Knight” to it’s credits does not ignore this. In fact, it’s one of the first mainstream American film’s to truly deal with a post-9/11 America that is truly mature and without hyperbolic jingoism or vitriolic cynicism. It’s truly a remarkable feat considering the nature of the Hollywood system and it’s shyness towards dealing with difficult political topics that might harm a film’s potential blockbuster. “The Dark Knight” is about society’s use of power against unspeakable evil and the political and personal cost that the exercise of that power costs. It’s also quite unexpectedly about the dangers of placing too much faith in any one political figure in saving the figure.

As many writers and cultural commentators have noted in “The Dark Knight” that there is a striking resemblance to the mass murderous actions of the Joker as analogous to modern day terrorism of groups like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah and that Batman’s less than legal actions in stopping the Joker’s reign of destruction as similar to the actions of Bush Administration in their “zeal” to stop (*cough* steal oil *cough*) terrorism. Some cultural commentators on the right and left see the film as tacit approval of the Bush Administration and that the film is painting Our Glorious Leader as a misunderstood hero doing what needs to be done in order to protect ourselves against true evil. It’s true, at least, on a superficial level that Batman’s actions bear a resemblance to the policies of the Bush Administration over the last eight years in combating terrorism. In the film, Batman breaks numerous laws fighting organized crime and the Joker and in his desperation and zeal resorts to borderline torturing criminals for information and employing a highly-illegal sonar wiretapping system that allows him to easily track the Joker’s movements. All of this bears more than a little similarity to the Bush Administrations by any means necessary methods to protecting our country from terrorism. In the end Batman gets his man and Gotham is saved so I suppose if you want to read it as an approval of these methods than I suppose it is there. However, I find this to be an incredibly superficial and self-serving reading of the film because it ignores the consequences of these actions and the toll it takes on the character’s psyche and lives.

In the film, Batman grapples with the weight of his actions and quickly learns that his methods have only made things dramatically far worse than he had hoped. In “Batman Begins”, Bruce Wayne had hoped that by using the Batman as a symbol, he could inspire good in the people of Gotham City and they would rise up against the wave of corruption and organized crime in the city and save their city. In “Dark Knight”, Bruce learns that while his violent vigilantism has inspired some good in the city that the actions he has also caused the conditions of the city to get exponentially worse. He hoped that his activities would inspire the citizens of Gotham towards political activism and philanthropy but finds that instead he has inspired it’s citizens to become more violent copycats of his nightly escapades and after nearly destroying the cities organized crime families, the crime lords of the city turn to the ultra-nihilistic psychosis of the Joker who only wishes “to watch the world burn” and shares little of their interest in money and power in desperation of returning the city to it’s previous corruption. Instead of the threat of being mugged by a desperate criminal as Bruce’s parents were, Batman creates an environment where there is a threat they could be blown up in a hospital. Nolan is hardly tacitly approving of Bush Administration policies. The film argues almost completely against that. If taken at literal value, Batman’s violent activity has only served to increase the criminal level in the city instead of alleviating it. This mirrors the real-life situation in Iraq and Afghanistan where U.S. invasions under the pretense of liberating the people of these countries from tyrannical rule has only served to radicalize and create more terrorists in the native populations of the country which only creates further danger to the U.S.

The film also questions the effectiveness of Batman/Bush’s illegal methods like torture and wire-tapping in preventing terrorism. In the film’s best and most memorable scene, Batman confronts the Joker about the location of Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes in a police station holding cell and in a rage beats the Joker to an inch of his life hoping to gain the information. The Joker whose twisted sado-masochism actually enjoys the beating he receives cruelly mocks Batman for the presumption that this will actually elicit the information that he wants and that he has “nothing to do with all of his strength.” Eventually, Batman gains the information that he wants only to discover that the locations of the hostages have been switched and the Joker was lying to him. Nolan is questioning the effectiveness of torture against a prisoner as Batman’s “strength” is negated against a strong-willed opponent. Information gained from torture is notoriously unreliable as the prisoner will often say anything to stop the attacker from continuing the punishment. In Batman’s case, the information received caused the death of somebody he deeply cares about and the mental breakdown of another. The film also takes care to debate whether or not, some of the illegal activities are truly as ineffective as others. Lucius Fox upon discovering that Batman has created an illegal wire-tapping system of the entire city’s cell phones threatens to resign immediately from Wayne’s employ but still goes along with a scheme he finds deeply troubling. The wire-tapping in the end helps Batman defeat the Joker but his sins do not go unpunished. Batman finds himself the pariah at the end of the film, having his reputation permanently damaged, and he loses people that are close to him because of it. This is hardly an approval of Bush who faces no retribution for the crimes that he’s committed over the last eight years (Thank You, Nancy Pelosi!).

The other political idea of the film that Nolan takes care to critique is the idea that society should place too much faith in one political figure into saving their people. Harvey Dent is portrayed in the film as a Barack Obama-like “white knight” and the cities true hope to save Gotham from its despair. Bruce Wayne wishes to end his charade as Batman and give the mantle of the cities’ hero over to Harvey Dent who he sees as a transformative political figure capable of inspiring the citizens of Gotham. He places great faith in the man. However, over the course of the film, we learn that Harvey Dent isn’t quite the golden boy as he seems. Even before he goes through his radical transformation, we see Harvey threaten one of Joker’s men with a gun and even Commissioner Gordon is hesitant to his place his faith into the man due to Harvey’s days as a “two-faced” careerist hack opportunistically prosecuting dirty cops to advance his political career. In the end of the film, Harvey Dent is corrupted and destroyed by the Joker and becomes Two-Face, a murderous vigilante hell-bent on revenge. Nolan seems to be arguing that we shouldn’t place too much faith in “white knight” political figures because in a moment’s notice all that they work for and represent can be taken away at a moment’s notice by either a moment of weakness by a candidate or the media’s zealous “gotcha” news coverage. Gordon and Batman have to conspire at the end of the film to prevent Harvey’s crimes from reaching the light of day in order to protect the message but it costs both of them unimaginably. In an election year, where one of the candidates is seen as an almost messiah-like figure by parts of the country, this message is as salient as ever. I believe in Barack Obama but it’s nice to be reminded that it could be crushed in a moments notice. Nolan argues that if we want to save our world, we shouldn’t place faith in one man. We should save ourselves.

I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that “The Dark Knight” will go down as the ultimately the best film of the entire decade. It’s transcendent. Taken on it’s own, it’s a stunning piece of crime noir wrapped in the pulp traditions of a superhero film. I mean Heath Ledger’s incredibly scary turn as the Joker alone is worth the price of admission. It’s superb entertainment on it’s own right but the political message of the film is equally as salient as anything done in any snooty art house pic or big-budget Hollywood message movie. Nolan has crafted a truly important film and the fact that he managed to do this re-inventing one of America’s most beloved characters is simply awe-inspiring. I can’t wait for part three.

Film Of The Decade... with all due respect to Peter Jackson.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Back In Business: Random Bits Of Hating For A Friday

(As If I Wasn't Gonna Post About This...)

- I know, I know. It's been a long time. I shouldn't have left you... but I've been taking a little bit of a well-deserved break since I ended the tyranny of Tom Breihan's oppression and freeing the Lands Of Hip Hop from Tom's tragic taste in music. It was a long, hard fought battle and now without a proper villain to focus my energies against my life has become listless and meaningless. I've touring the lands of the blogosphere looking for a new man to shamelessly rip but there isn't a worthy arch-nemesis for me. I guess I'll just have to settle for hating on Lil' Wayne for the time being but it's just not the same. I'll soldier on but my heart is heavy. I promise to have a substantial post up this weekend but for the moment, you'll have to settle for my thoughts on a couple of things that have been going on in hip hop since my absence.

- Killer Mike's new album, "I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind 2", is simply amazing and pound for pound the best rap record released all year. Killer Mike has crafted a fantastic record full of wall-to-wall bangers, fiery impassioned lyricism, and sharp political commentary. It's simply better than "The Show", "Europass", "The N.I.G.G.E.R. Tape", and "The Mixtape About Nothing" (and it's definitely better than that Weezy jawn people are still pretending is classic) I'm shocked that this record has not gotten the attention that it deserves from the blogs that "Untitled" and "Tha Carter 3" have received this summer. Killer Mike is basically the Ghostface of the South and the fact that this record is basically being ignored by everybody just gives credence to the idea that their a significant bias towards the South (which admittedly, I gleefully perpetuate but yet again, I have no soul). I really can't praise this record enough so go out and cop it (or at least, illegally download it) because you are missing out if you haven't heard it yet.

Download: Killer Mike's "God Is In The Building"

- The Complex Blog has a hilarious post featuring All-World douchebag, DJ "No, Seriously. I Can Drop The N-Bomb With Impunity!! I'm Friends With Fat Joe!" Khaled's most annoying moments ever. A particularly choice moment is when Khaled hits a game-winning shot in a pick-up basketball game in what looks like a game featuring teenage girls and proceeds to run around the court celebrating in typical overly enthusiastic way. looking for somebody to hug or even notice him, while everybody basically stands there and stares in utter disbelief at this clown shoes. It also features video of the infamous moment where Khaled forces Kanye and Consequence to listen to one of his shitty songs on his new song as Kanye desperately tries to grin through his teeth. Utter intentional comedy galore! See Kanye, now you know what Mike Myers felt like.

- Who is Mickey Avalon and why the fuck is this clown in a Boost Mobile Commercial with Young Jeezy and Jermaine Dupri? Everytime I'm watching SportsCenter with my brother and I see this dude kicking rhymes written by Boost Mobile's marketing team, I always spit out milk from my cereal and scream in horror over why is one of the dudes from the Strokes rapping with J.D. and the Snowman. Did I miss the announcement by the Global Hipster Conspiracy where they decided that Mickey was going to be the next shitty rapper they were going to champion? I've never heard of this guy. I gotta wonder who turned Boost down if they are reduced to working with a suspiciously fey-looking white rapper named Mickey Avalon. What was Skee-Lo unavailable? Jesus.

-And finally, it would be a massive and completely unacceptable dereliction of duty if I did not comment on Richard "The Boss" Ross being exposed as someone who is not, in fact, close personal friends with Manuel Noriega and Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria but rather a lowly prison guard. I can't believe it. I won't believe it. Rick Ross wasn't a drug dealer?!?! The next thing you'll tell me is that 50 Cent was only shot 8 times instead of nine? You can't trust anything you read on the internet, anymore!

As a satisfyingly hilarious it is to discover that one of my least favorite rappers of all-time was not a drug kingpin, I've got to say: Who the fuck believed that Rick Ross was wholesaling cocaine, anyway? I personally could give a rat's ass if any rapper sold drugs in their life if their music's hot but I can't believe anybody would take Rick Ross' claims, seriously. Does anybody remember the time that Rick Ross jumped off a suspension bridge to avoid a speeding ticket in that music video? I mean I could understand it if DJ Khaled had farted in that passenger's seat and you wanted to escape the odor (jumping off a bridge is an acceptable alternative to hanging out with DJ Khaled, anyway so...) but no self-respecting drug dealer would willingly make themselves look that ridiculous.

This just further illustrates the tentative grasp of reality that rappers and rap music fans have these days. Why does it matter that Rick Ross was a prison guard, anyway? The stories and lifestyles written in rap music has and will always be fiction because if they were true the chances are that Rick Ross would've been locked up for 30 years or dead since that's what actually happens to coke dealers. The fact that Ross' lack of "realness" is even an issue further illustrates the growing sense of juvenilia that rap music has been undergoing since it's supposed "death." Rappers and rap fans need a gross sense of reality. Rick Ross should simply come out and admit that he was never a drug dealer and that's ok because he writes fictional music. It should be enjoyed as fiction and only as fiction. It's not a documentary about Ross' life. But fuck it... Here's the "Speedin" video, anyway. Marvel.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Nas - The Album That Shall Not Be Named: Review

There is an inherent dichotomy going on with Nas’ new album, “Untitled.” Due to the intention of originally wanting to call the album, “Nigger”, and all of the baggage that surrounds that name, we are not only left to judge the album for it’s music but also as a sociopolitical statement as well. Although, the Evil Hordes Of Political Correctness and Good Taste led by the dreaded tyrannical warlords, Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr. and Jesse Louis Jackson, have successfully forced Nas and Def Jam to cut the balls off of Nas’ album title, we all still know what the album is actually called so as a critic we must take care to remember this dichotomy as we judge Nas’ latest opus. This album ain’t your typical rap album. It’s not even really your typical Nas album.

Surprisingly, the album works much better as a sociopolitical statement than it does as a traditionally great rap album. Nas, who always harbored some grandiose delusions of being a revolutionary political thinker, has always had some troubles translating his somewhat muddled politics into his music. Nas’ strength as a writer has always been his ability to articulate meticulous details in a story and creating mood. Unlike Chuck D whose ability to get his message across clear and concise, Nas was always able to convey rage or pathos but not necessarily be coherent. That’s not a problem on this album. This is Nas’ best lyrical performance in ages and if you are into hearing somebody kick lyrics for kicking lyrics sake than this album will go down as the best lyrical performance of the year. “Untitled” is about the consequences of being black in America and whether by blatant prejudice or by unconscious neglect and systemic oppression, a black man in America is still considered to be a “n*****”. Two of the best songs on the album “Sly Fox” and “Testify”, explicitly and deal with this fact. On the guitar-smashing, aggressive “Sly Fox”, Nas chastises the media and more specifically Fox News for hypocritically poisoning the public with their distorted half-truths and lies to the detriment of hip hop and black people. It’s a personal and angry screed unleashed by Nas in retaliation for the Bill O’Reilly’s personal attacks on Nas last year after the Virginia Tech Controversy. It’s a damn powerful song. On “Testify”, a downtrodden Nas laments and accuses his mostly white fans of only buying his records but missing the spirit of his music and refusing to stand with him and help change the world when the chips are down. The album is meant to make the listener uncomfortable and in that regard, it succeeds. Nas isn’t pulling any punches. He’s going to alienate a few of his fans with some of the material on this album. However, the fears that is album was simply using it’s original title to be exploitative are largely unwarranted. Unlike 2006’s Hip Hop Is Dead, another “message” album, Nas’ message is clear and focused. The album deserves, at least, an honest listen without pre-conceived notions to allow Nas to speak his mind.

Ultimately, the problem with the album though, like every Nas’ album post-Stillmatic, is going to be the production. After years of pressure from every fan in the hip hop world, Nas wisely lost the phone numbers of long-time collaborators, Salaam Remi and L.E.S., as the latter doesn’t appear at all and the former only contributes the RZA-biting (or Daniel Dumille biting if you really want to get technical) “You Can’t Stop Us Now” (a song I actually sort of like). Instead of using the laid-back sample-heavy easy listening production that Nas has favored this decade, Nas opts for more live instrumentation and a more diverse crowd of producers than he has before employing the services of the likes of Jay Electronica, stic.man of dead prez, Polow Da Don, and Mark Ronson to handle the production duties on this album. The results for the most part are hit and miss. Polow Da Don continues to prove he’s one of the best producers working as he produces the glittery commercially-minded single “Hero” which continues to sound better and better the more I hear it. The song builds to a fever pitch by employing these twinkling synths and butt rock guitars that helps to make “Hero” one of Nas’ better commercially-minded singles ever (Granted, I suppose the competition is really only “If I Ruled The World” because we all remember the “You Owe Me/Nastradamus/Oochie Wally” trifecta of suckiness earlier this decade unless you’re like me and completely repressed it from your memories). Mark Ronson’s “Fried Chicken” is another standout track which uses the obvious but still weirdly odd metaphor of eating fried chicken to being in love with a promiscuous women.

In other places on the album, however, the album is strapped with Nas’ traditional slow-tempo snoozefests. As songs, “Breathe”, “We’re Not Alone”, and “America” don’t do a hell of a lot for me and while they are still interesting to listen to for Nas’ sheer lyricism, they don’t exactly have a lot of replay value on their own accord. In other places, Nas’ tradition of including one horrifically half-baked abortion of a song continues. “Make The World Go Round” featuring The Game and Chris Brown plays the goat here as it matches “Birthday Girl” in sheer, commercial fuckery. Often the album can fall into the lyricism for lyricism sake category which a lot of Nas’ haters loathe Nas for. If you aren’t a Nas fan or don’t like his brand of music, you’ll probably hate this album but if you’re looking for hot beats and mindless lyricism I suppose there is always that Weezy album people are falling over themselves to worship it’s gleaming testicles. As I mention earlier, lyrically Nas sounds absolutely inspired and comes across as a complete firebrand. “Queens Gets The Money”, the minimalist Jay Electronica produced intro, is a stunning display of sheer lyricism that honestly puts pretty much everybody to shame. Nas’ stampedes over the beat and simply unleashes his potent poetry. It’s an awesome thing to listen to if you are into raw lyricism.

Ultimately, the album is going to appeal to a select audience. It’s kind of a masterpiece of hip hop lyricism and political theater but it sort of eschews what modern audiences are accustomed to when listening to an album so if you aren’t a Nas fan or fundamentally disagree with the politics being presented I can’t necessarily recommend it. In fact, you’ll probably hate it. I’m sort of torn myself. While the album is much clearer with it’s inherent message than “Hip Hop Is Dead”, I was instantly fond of and enjoyed “Hip Hop Is Dead” while I’m left feeling less than satisfied after listening to “Untiteld.” Honestly, I feel that Nas’ awesome mixtape that he did with DJ Green Lantern prior to the release of this album, The Nigger Tape, is the superior piece of music (notice I did not say album, folks). There were a couple of tracks on that mixtape that were begging for proper commercial release most notably “Esco Let’s Go” (which is my favorite Nas song in a looooooong time) and “Cops Keep Firing.” If Nas had replaced some of my lesser favorite tracks on the album with a couple of the better ones on the mixtape, I’d probably be running through the halls naked at my office screaming “Nas is back! Nasty Nas is back!” in sheer enthusiasm for the album. However, I can’t help but feel that this was the album that Nas wanted to make and he wanted to say it exactly this way. It’s too bad the world had to catch a hissy fit over the name because Nas’ is not playing this time around.

No Words...

Honestly, I literally had the same thought that Busta did at the end of the video after first seeing this over at 2Dopeboyz. I heard about Ne-Yo doing a freestyle over this song a few weeks ago but I figured he was singing but this is just too much for me to handle.

However, I'm going to try to put this lightly with the least amount of hate possible but... am I crazy or is Ne-Yo mercking this track better than Weezy did? I mean I know he's completely biting Wayne's flow but I totally think he gets him. I'm not even trying to be a contradictory asshole with this one.