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Uploaded January 19, 2020
PICKS OF THE MONTH
Belated November-December 2019 Picks
"Feel-Good Story," "The Kidney Stays in the Picture". Episodes 3 and 6 of BoJack Horseman's season 6 part 1, along with the other part 1 episodes of the season, came to Netflix Philippines on October 26 of 2019. But just because Netflix uploads the episodes of a TV or Web TV series' entire season as a bundle on its day of launch on the service . . . doesn't mean that it means for you to consume those uploads in a marathon of viewing inside that very day or that very week of that series' release (TV series are ordinarily run within a month or more in their respective channels or OTT media service, and not without good reason; Hulu, for instance, would stagger the release of a new series season's episodes, one episode a week, instead of as a bundle, emulating TV channels' tradition). So, Netflix would understand if it would take one at least a week to finish the first eight 26-minute episodes of BH's season 6, four weeks at most. . . . We, for one, got to watch episode 3 of BH season 6 only on November 2, the reason why you're seeing this entry in our November 2019 picks list instead of in our October one. Meanwhile, we were able to watch episode 6, that BH episode titled "The Kidney Stays in the Picture" that we're placing under this number as "Feel-Good Story"'s co-pick, in mid-November already. . . . Anyway, why are these episodes here? Well, let us say this: what a surprise those two turned out to be!
A surprise?―you ask. Uhmm, not really. Let us explain:
That this season would expand the Raphael Bob-Waksberg-created story concerning Bojack Horseman's and the other intelligent characters' alienation from their families, from each other, or from society at large, in contrast to that concerning the social blindness or jaded emotional IQs of the series' happier citizens, was not the surprise. Of course the new season would try to better its past tragicomic treatment of its primary theme―the meanness and ultimate aloneness of the people in America's entertainment industry (or in the entire United States), the industry that Donald Trump himself had been aspiring to be a permanent mean fixture of, as well as the intermittent humanity (ridden with guilt) that these people would either end up displaying or struggling to produce. Or of course the series would try to maintain the high standard it set for itself through its previous episodes' and seasons' propensity to show off a black-comic smartness in taking potshots at the social and political realities around us, it being the very high standard that a BH fan would expect to experience again in this sixth season.
In fact, we ourselves were sure that this new bundle would come up once more with an episode similar in intent to season 2's "Hank After Dark" (which called attention to allegations of sexual misconduct against beloved TV celebrity Hank Hippopopalous) or season 4's "Thoughts and Prayers" (which mocked television personnel's forced efforts to show a shallow sensitivity towards the victims of a mass shooting, perhaps because these people/animals lacked the vision to either introduce actions or legal solutions). Surprise! That certainty of ours would be gifted when we got to season 6's episode 3, "Feel-Good Story"!
This episode's situation gives us a rest from Bojack's overwhelming presence (only his voiceover is here) and brings us to Diane's escaping her own depression through her focusing on that part of her persona with a ready bevy of social causes and an ability to shout about those causes on the Internet, thanks to a website called Girl Croosh that employed her journalistic skills. As the episode progresses, she and her cameraman would be overwhelmed by the reality bite of a powerful media conglomerate's acquisitions that would end up eating even her own projects, against which development Diane and her new partner would set out to expose the political paradox behind the actions of this holding company, called Whitewhale. This time, she takes something on, a powerful institution at that, from within. In the end, she is defeated, as a matter of course, no thanks to federal-level legislators and a US President who would side with the conglomerate anytime, even to the point of not vetoing a law legalizing murder committed by rich people (that may sound comic, but black comedy being black would actually make you think twice). So, that was the surprise: we never realized very funny tragicomedy and dark, zealous social realism can be that cozy together inside a single narrative mega-flow! Well, that's successful contemporary satire for you.
Then came "The Kidney Stays in the Picture," the sixth episode written by Minhal Baig, where the activist efforts of a striking group of entertainment-industry servants also end up being eaten by the cunning of talent agent Princess Carolyn who knows all too well everyone's price or weakness; it seems everyone is corruptible. A redeeming element here is Princess Carolyn's remembering her own experience with being exploited financially and sexually, nudging her to presently reverse her managerial pressure upon one of the strikers about to sign a waiver. This part of the episode is interspersed by a cruise into 1) the rehab center for alcoholics from where Bojack graduates, and which is soon exposed as being run by one who is an alcoholic himself (this sounds familiar), and 2) another side of Whitewhale Industries' president as a stockpiler of human organs (being "a rich old guy who wants to live forever").
The ultimate surprise was this: to see BH's dealing with social issues elevated from largely American domestic concerns (sexual assault in the workplace, which in black and Italian and Latino and Asian neighborhoods might generally be immediately dealt with by family members with baseball bats or kitchen cleavers, or mass shootings, which in other cultures could lead the masses to attack their respective NRAs) to ones of universal urgency . . . was the one big and happy surprise. After all, plutocracies elsewhere enjoying the inefficiency of antitrust laws can readily embrace "Feel-Good Story"'s gist. These same nations may also have weak secretaries of labor, thus would be able to place constructs like "The Kidney Stays in the Picture" in their shelf of familiar gems.
Ah, already we're itching for season 6's second bundle (episodes 9-16), which should be with us come February 1, 2020.
the cover art for Sean O'Hagan's fifth solo album
Radum Calls, Radum Calls. The same thing with this fifth solo album by The High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan. Released in late October, it took us a while to appreciate the new collection's British chamber pop puzzles (Irishman O'Hagan formed The High Llamas in London in 1991). But when the light within its own tunnels showed up on our cerebrations by November, we just knew: this album's clarity should not escape our articulations of a utilitarian and post-Marxist valuation. We focused on facets of it that other reviewers either chose to ignore or found it too liberal-ish of them to be constructing at all.
In other words, other reviewers took to their keyboards to harp on the music side of this body of compositions, compositions in the avant-pop tradition aided by the latest electronic sonics. Which was actually just necessary, given that the chamber pop imaginings of the tracks here do not exactly stay with the formulas of Burt Bacharach, even while they celebrate those formulas. Those subtle departures or developments, with a salute to rock guitar solos here and to archaic rock keyboard timbres there, for instance, are most clear in the instrumental tracks.
We, however, being governed by both utilitarian and social measures for an art product's place in a community, as we said, saw something else in the collection to focus our attention on. The lyrics.
Now, given chamber pop lyrics' affinity with psychedelic rock's surrealism, one could surrender to recurrent marketing calls that say chamber pop lyrics, when they seem to mean something political, don't really mean anything; or say these words might indeed mean something, but only as an accident of the juxtaposition of images from reality, an accident which can only come from one's treating the lines like puzzles; or say their meaning must be personal to each listener and cannot be assumed to come from the lyricist's intent. We respect the first offer, but would very much okay the second and the third as marketing's subtle counter-salute to the audience's ability to embrace semantics, even semiotics.
On the other hand, aesthetic philosophy-wise a Marxist might ask: why make it difficult for a lyrics reader/listener to embrace a political lyric, assuming there is a political reading to be derived from it? The answer is simple. Songs don't always have to either lament or scream at something and be extra-clear with their allusions. Maybe songs must just be songs first, nothing else (therefore our respect for meaninglessness). After all, not all songs will be used as soundtracks to a cause or another. In many a poetic chamber pop song's case, the effect of the lyrics' theatrics within the near-incongruous music, when a social reading of a lyric is seen within it, would almost always border on black comedy. And one cannot deny the beauty and efficacy of black comedy, quite unique in its ability to combine fear, mockery, and analytical philosophy! . . . In short, the beauty of poetry is often its own end, a situation that would apply to chamber pop poetry-making as well; often they'd only reflect the poet's politics instead of have the politics as their primary message. After all, songs are not speeches, although some Dylanesque songs can be. . . .
But wait! All this banter seems to forget one thing. That chamber pop . . . has actually been a narrative genre in pop music! So, there!
So, having put all that on the table, let's proceed. . . .
Now, perhaps opening song "Candy Clock" can be nothing more than a set of verse prompted by an afternoon immersed in the ever-popular Candy Crush Saga with its itchy clock. We doubt it, however. Because we recall a 2013 similarly-titled song by American psychedelic rock band Thee Oh Sees, from that band's album Floating Coffin that was ostensibly ridden with tracks that "occur in the mindset of a world that's perpetually war-ridden." In O'Hagan's candy clock in "Candy Clock," which he refers to as "my candy clock," his character sings of this subject clock as being lost in his garden. The character decides to shut his charity, irritated by the absence of that aforementioned object (as symbol of a never-ending sweet life still in progress). He refers to the beneficiaries of his charity as spooks ("I hate their guts"). Despite this cancellation, he sings: "The holy war I set in train / Will still obtain." Back to the spooks, of which he says: "Your kids, so pale and short, / See, they will live in shopping carts / Which you can wheel from place to place. / But they won't hate." A shopping cart in a charity looks very much like an image of someone's ample generosity, but that same object wheeled from place to place also recalls European homeless people with them. And the character's wishful thinking that these children of the homeless "won't hate," being beneficiaries of his charity, reeks of anti-socialist, anti-welfare neoliberal sentiments with a firm belief in trickle-down economics and Ayn Rand balderdash. . . . The song's situation turns dark when someone shouts "cut," as if life is show business (Donald Trump thinks so, though). Here, the song's character "larks about. / He starts to laugh into his phone, / His lawyer's home." Like a Trump, he speaks of men who "speak in decrees." In this new showbiz scene, "crisis actors all they see. / The bullets fly, blood seems to flow, / It's just for show." Indeed, the verse now seems to display a hawk of a governor who decided to let bullets fly (in his holy war) in light of an impeachment proceeding against him. Oh, "Candy, candy, / Where could you be?"
Third track "I Am Here," meanwhile, to us cannot be anything other than a Bacharach-ish song of an immigrating worker who celebrates thus: "Sure there's hope, always. / I am here." As if simultaneously dancing in a musical film scene, he sings: "Persian sun, English sky, / Your words are now mine, and / I am here, I am here, I am here." The hoping is occurring because, in the meantime, everything's still "For the customs papers to clear / For the block, the crank, and the gear." But "I am here."
Another track that would become such a timely one, especially later in December and then in January of the year 2020, is the waltzy "The Paykan (Laili's Song)," which is sung from the point of view of one Laili (an Iranian woman's name) asking her husband to make up his mind and pack so that they can get out of there on their Paykan (an Iranian-made car). Of course this could be referring to the period after the Shah's departure, as she sings: "The streets are alive, / But not with our kind." Could this character be Sunni or Baha'i, or simply one not into Islamism? For she sings, "It's Laili, your wife, / I'm at my wit's end. / They steal joy from life, / So let's not pretend." In an earlier verse she explains: "The '60s were good, / We shopped and we dined. / But think of the kids / And make up your mind." Later, there is a thumb-up to the promise that in democracies a man can work himself up to live like a king, as against being in a country where one can be nothing more than a poor subject of a theocracy: "Darius, you are a husband of mine, / Not such a king, just a man. / So pack up your dreams in the passenger door / Of the Paykan."
Then there's "McCardle Brown," a slow one dedicated to a New York City cleaner here "to bring a shine where there is none." It's a sympathetic poem, too, with lines like "Never will there be a word to share."
Here's a question only a genre like chamber pop can answer in the positive: can you still be melancholic, nostalgic, elegiac, in a song to whose rhythm you can go hopping in the rain? Yes, the genre would tell you. Try "On a Lonely Day (Ding, Dong)," about a ghost lamenting the changes in Covent Garden. Some of its lines go: "I recall shouts / As they once were. / Rain, roof and glass / Covered the square."
We're not sure if nearly samba-esque "Spoken Gem" could be O'Hagan's ars poetic toast to himself and his dedication to a now merely "celebrated and missed" music genre. It almost brags about the genre's lyrical tradition and its game with critics by saying, "Make them suffer, hear them splutter, / Make them bluster aimlessly. / Therein lies immortality, / In the folly of the enemy." We just can't place the "silicon" anywhere, though.
Then he focuses on the altruistic persona of one Nora Bramms in "Take My Steps (Nora Bramms)." He sings: "Friday night ought to end / With a cab ride and a friend. // Most will simply carry on / Past a fallen citizen." Nora would say, "Listen, Michael, I am with you. / You're safe now, do what I do: // Put your arms around my shoulder. / I'll see you live much older." Our favorite line here is "Take my steps, they're yours to borrow." What a contrast to the boy-man at the beginning of this album, screaming for his candy clock.
Anyway, the last words in the album tells, "Radum calls, radum calls, / So don't call me." We have to confess we have no idea what O'Hagan is talking about here, but radum in Marathi means "crying."
the official trailer for Honeyland
Honeyland. Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov's film Honeyland was first seen at the Sundance Film Festival (where it won three awards, including the Grand Jury Prize) on 28 January 2019, then had a release in some theaters in the United States on 26 July. After a slew of other festival appearances, it was released in the filmmakers' own country, the Republic of North Macedonia, on 29 August, in some UK and Ireland theaters on 13 September, and in Germany and Denmark on 21 November, simultaneous to more scheduled festival appearances. By 31 November it would still be at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in Groningen, and on 20 December had its appearance in some Polish theaters, and then on 29 December was at the MoMA's The Contenders showcase. It would later be seen on 9 January 2020 in select theaters in the Netherlands and is scheduled to open in a theater in Turkey on 31 January this year. In our case, we got to preview the film, ahead of a Philippine release which may or not be ordered, only this December, and here's our thumb-up:
The amazing thing that happened to this documentary, made under the cinéma vérité style of shooting, was that after 400 hours of footage the narrative that was produced had all the makings of an indie film story. Could it be the reason why it got nominated in both the Best International Feature Film and the Best Documentary Feature categories of this year's (the 92nd) Academy Awards?
The film follows bee-keeper Hatidze Muratova as she gets on her daily life as a bee-keeper in a mountainous area of North Macedonia; Muratova is also tending to her bedridden elderly mother. Three years in the making, consisting of many separate five-day shoots, what resulted was a film 1) detailing the science and art of beekeeping as an ecological effort and 2) presenting the conflict between this devotion to practical ecology and another man's devotion to familial survival that could, ironically, also destroy the tiniest of his (and his neighbors') resources. It's not at all a Jean de Florette kind of narrative focused on the limits of greed; everyone here is just trying to survive, although we must admit―there is a bit of that sort of selfishness that one could not find a way to avoid. But as an ultra-rural story, in the end the film functions as one of 2019's subtlest allegories treating of one of our globe's greatest and most urgent worries. [d]
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