This is an open call for artists who are interested in contributing a piece of their audio work to an upcoming digital compilation that is being assembled through this humble blog. Now that our radio arm has a much more secure digital outpost over at BlasphuphmusRadio.com, we want to finally fulfill a dream of ours since the mid-’90’s: to release music by artists that we love. However, technology has always prevented us from pursuing this dream fully. Now that digital distribution has created a world where we can easily overcome the hurdles we encountered in those days, I want to take advantage of this new world in an effort of creating something I think will be quite fun. But I need your help to do it.
The Compilation will accompany a new ‘zine that will be coming out in the near future. It is tentatively titled, “Lost In The Supermarket.” The ‘zine will be roughly 30 pages, and will come with a digital access code that you can only get with a copy of the ‘zine. This access code will allow readers to enjoy a companion compilation, featuring artists that contribute their audio creations. The first print run will be 100 copies. I may do a second printing if there is demand.
This is as much an experiment as it is an opportunity to finally put my spin on a music compilation. I would love to include your work as part of this project.
Please contact me at email@example.com if you have any questions.
As we begin to look down the barrel of the end of the year, it seem appropriate to direct listeners to some of the seasonal highlights that are on the horizon. We have a number of great opportunities coming our away as we close out the year, and I wanted to give them mention well in advance, to give you ample warning so you could put these dates on the calendar. As usual, you can keep track of all upcoming Blasphuphmus Radio events here, where the calendar is as up-to-date as we are.
11 September falls on a Tuesday, and this year I’ve decided to do a tribute to our fair country in a holiday broadcast, tentatively titled “Bless This Mess.” While I am making every effort to keep this episode in the realm of “harmless fun,” I should warn people with sensitive natures to avoid this episode entirely, as I am sure that there will be some elements of this program that will undoubtedly offend. I would feel bad if I didn’t, actually.
October is our annual Halloween Spook-tacular!, where we pull out all the stops and bring you the best in the only kind of holiday music I care about. Certainly one of my favorite series of shows, you can subscribe to only these episodes – and many of our past Halloween shows – at this handy iTunes link, which includes tributes to The Mad Daddy, Ghoulardi, a number of Edgar Allen Poe stories, and every Halloween novelty record I’ve been able to get my hands upon. This has been a tradition now going back to 2002, and if you love Halloween music as much as I do, then these shows are gonna be up your alley.
27 November will feature a relatively new tradition here on the program, our Thanksgiving Leftovers! series, now in our fourth year. You can also subscribe to this series in iTunes. While the last few years have been sort of a hodge podge of this, that and the other, but I’m thinking of taking this series into a different direction. If you have any suggestions, do not hesitate to send them our way.
We have the good fortune of having both Christmas and New Years fall on Tuesdays this year, which means that you will not only get an X-Mas Memories episode, but a New Year’s Dawning program that will fall on the appropriate date, even! While our previous New Year’s episodes are only available via hunting them down in the archive, you can receive a number of our past X-Mas episodes in iTunes. My opinions of the holiday have changed drastically over time, and I’ve celebrated this time of year in a number of different ways since 1998. This particular podcast feed offers you live music performances, anti-holiday sentiments, experimental holiday jams, and everything in-between.
We’re also hoping to fit in a number of other shows here and there, and we’re still hammering out the complete details for some of these shows. In the near future we will be broadcasting a collaborative show with Cornelus F. Van Stafrin III, a great experimental artist who I’ve recorded a few times over the years. There’s also a few other irons in the fire, but I don’t want to speak too prematurely. I will merely say that you will know the moment I do.
As always, don’t forget to hit us up in the myriad of ways the Inter-Web-A-Tron offers in this far-flung date of 2012. Audience participation does happen at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at blasphuphmus on Skype. Feel free to “enjoy” us on MyFacester+, or berate us @blasphuphmus on Twitter.
While it may seem corny to request your digital support in this way, there is an actual difference that is made when you interact with those interfaces, and click those buttons. The more traffic our pages gets, the more other people get a chance to see the site, learn about what we do, and become exposed to this particular thing we all know and love. If you are a fan, and if you enjoy the program, go to our pages, give us a thumbs up, tell us why you like us, what brings you back for more, and what we can do to improve the show. Just because I’ve been at this for 14 years now doesn’t mean I exactly know what I’m doing. I keep learning with each passing year, and I am always treading new territory when it comes to how I can improve what I do. The best way I can do this is to hear from you.
You guys are wonderful, you guys are beautiful, and without you there would be now show.
There are any number of albums that you can legitimately claim might be the greatest album ever made: White Light / White Heat, Who’s Next, Ramones, Pink Flag, Nevermind, Trout Mask Replica. The list goes on and on, and while many come very close to feeling “right” when I apply the title, I’m not quite sure it fits.
Recently I was introduced to the 12 minute, 7″ masterpiece Tumours, a complete rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album, Rumours, and I have to admit that so far, I cannot deny the possibility that the greatest record ever made was recorded by a band named Schlong.
To make a claim like this is clearly absurd, undoubtedly. And yet, when I bounce around the phrase, “Tumours is the Greatest Record Ever Made,” it does not feel dishonest. And what is not to love about every element of this record? Merely the cover alone is a dissertation’s worth of amazing punk rock imagery. (What woman isn’t looking for a can of Olympia, and the right man who might offer it?) Rumours itself was born the same year as Punk Rock itself, and where bands like Fleetwood Mac & The Eagles were beginning to define the “California Sound” that was dominating Top 40 Radio (and taking all the edge off of rock music), Punk Rock as an idea began to work its way into the underground in every city in the world.
By the early ’90’s, punk rock was already 10+ years old, and was already looking for reinvention at a time when many bands were becoming constrained by what “kind” of punk they were going to be. Pop, Hardcore, Crust, Political, Vegan, Christian and “Traditional” brands were already codified, where bands were being virtually stamped out by cookie cutter molds that seemed to align with a “sound” their label had developed. (How many bands are identifiable by the “Fat Mike” filter that they’re all run through?) In a dadaist move that would make any artist pleased as punch, it was already time for the idea of punk rock to finally infect punk itself.
Schlong was born out of the scene in Santa Rosa, just after Operation Ivy Broke up. Dave, fresh from Op Ivy, joined up with his brother Pat, and their friend Gavin, to start fooling around, making music. They spent the year mostly following to fruition every random musical idea they could come up with. Having never performed a single show in that year, they worked out almost three hours of music – a total of fifty songs – ready to play to anyone who would listen.
They relentlessly worked on material, pursuing covers and original tunes with a sort of fervency that studio hands might find disarming. While the brothers were proficient in and of themselves, and developed the aesthetic that was later made famous by Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, they each credit Gavin as “the musical genius.” His contribution to Schlong was a mixture of Carl Stalling by way of John Zorn, as interpreted through a Captain Beefheart sensibility. Even this description pales in comparison to the actual songs they wrote and played. Yes, they were THAT good.
“We’d come up with ideas just to prove to ourselves that we can do it,” was how Dave described the band. “We strived to fail because we thought that was funny and that entertained us. If somebody really liked something that we did, we would’ve changed it.” Gavin put it another way: “The biggest drive for me is somebody going, ‘That’s really stupid. You shouldn’t do that.’ ”
For both of them, they describe much of the aesthetic ideology of original punk rock in a way that few other artists have ever been able to articulate, before or since. Punk Rock has always been about the subversion of mainstream culture – fashion, music & media – into a sinister, Bizarro-universe version of itself. Rather than write music with the consideration of it as a product, Schlong would pursue the alternative notion that they could parade as a band for a few years and create “failing” pieces of art, merely for the entertainment of themselves. Their inversion of the very elements of what it means to be a working musician – even by the loose standards that had been codified by the American punk scene in those days – is (in my mind) some of the greatest work done by ANY working artists in the last few decades.
Dave again: “We would play musical games. We’d change a beat where it shouldn’t be changed, and see if the other guy would catch on. My brother Pat would play a reggae beat, and all of a sudden I’d just chop something up into a grindcore beat, or a Latin beat, in the middle on an odd time. We started writing songs a minute long. We couldn’t stand playing the same thing for long periods of time. We’d have 60 parts in a two-minute song. If it made us laugh, then do it.”
Fortunately, Schlong was not only another attempt at The Great Rock & Roll Swindle, because from an objective point of view, the are undoubtedly really good. Their most well-know work, Punk Side Story, has already established itself as an essential part of the mid-’90’s cannon of albums, and even that statement is to far undersell what they were as a band. While it is true that their real power lay in their ability to introduce covers, partial covers, stolen hooks, and appropriated ideas as a part of their repertoire, their original songs were even stranger concoctions, taking punk into places that was more akin to détournement in the same way that Negativland was taking tape splicing and sampling into newer and stranger lands.
Their stage shows are fondly remembered by people who saw them, a sort of last-minute punk rock cabaret with narrators, Christmas themes during the holidays, the band sometimes playing as an all Steely Dan covers act called Royal Scam (where they didn’t tell anyone they were a cover band), and on the whole, used lo-brow gimmicks to keep things light and fun on tour. As far as the band was concerned, they were always just entertaining themselves, trying to come up with the wildest ideas, and then executing them with a “Schlong” vision.
Dave describes the exact circumstances that lead to Tumours: “We were listening to the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album a lot on tour. So we covered “Go Your Own Way.” After that it was like, let’s just do the whole album as fast as we possibly can, and put the whole thing on a 7-inch. We tried to make it sound as garagy as we could. Tumors. One take. We recorded it in a couple hours.”
Here’s a link so you can hear some of it yourself (at least, 10 minutes worth… it cuts off the last couple tracks). Listen to the instrumentation. Yes, they are doing extremely succinct versions of Fleetwood Mac songs, true. But listen to the arrangements. Each song takes on a different flavor, forcing these various songs through appropriate punk tropes. “Never Going Back Again,” has a great bluegrass tinge to it, and “Don’t Stop” staples a hardcore verse onto a ska chorus. “Go Your Own Way,” almost sounds like a Crimpshrine record, and “Oh Daddy” is pulled off with crust-core precision in 28 seconds. Again, Dave insists that it was all Gavin. “Gavin would learn things in a matter of seconds.” But the more you listen to Schlong, you begin to realize that as a band, they become more than the sum of their parts. With an endless knowledge of the history of rock and roll, and the attention span of three kids in Santa Rosa who love loud music, this is the only possible outcome.
Where Punk Side Story was their magnum opus, their sort of punk-prog epic pushing the form to the very edges of what it could do, Tumours is their fuck-you-kick-the-amps-over-and-deliver-a-concentrated-blast-of-Ramones-style amazingness. Not only is the length incredibly inviting – the entire thing is over in 12 minutes – but this allows every person still in the closet about Fleetwood Mac a chance to enjoy a rare treat.
Finding Tumours may be tricky. Aside from Punk Side Story, which is easily available on both LP and CD, their entire catalog is in-and-out of print (depending on the year and what part of the country you live in), and I have never seen anything of theirs in a used bin. The copy that I’ve been playing has an even more mysterious origin: my buddy Trevor handed it to me on CD. It turned out to be a data disc containing a single, mono .wav file of the entire record. The only thing to even indicate what it might be was the green sharpie writing on the disc. This just goes to show that, even In the digital age, it is still possible to recreate some of the aesthetic attributes that shitty cassette tapes used to offer an aspiring punk artist.
Give Tumours a chance, and sit on it for a few weeks. I think you might have some trouble deciding if it is or isn’t the greatest album ever made, too. Which is okay. There’s plenty of other records out there that have really worked hard at the title, and they’ve probably earned it. In the world of Schlong, the greatest record ever made would remain unsold in the back of a store, ignored and unlistened to by all, influencing no one, and known only by the ones who made it, as they hold extended middle fingers to all the other records around them.
That is what I hear when I listen to Tumours.
But I’m in a bit of a paradox, in that to announce how much I enjoy it is to invalidate the record itself by the band’s own criteria. Is that the final joke? I’m sure there’s one or two other’s that I’ll never manage to unpack, either, and that’s what makes bands like Schlong so much fun. While it is predictable that the Schlong story ends just after Punk Side Story, I like to imagine a world where their version of music history is the way everyone views the world. What is incredible about this band is not the world they did inhabit, but the game they have created that is being re-imagined by every generation of band to follow in their wake: what would x sound like if I ran it through the punk-rock filter?
And if I’m not mistaken, you’re starting to play that game right now, too. Which is their ultimate triumph.
The thing that is the most frustrating for someone who suffers from depression is that it is impossible to know what is going to set you off. One minute you can be doing a chore, or listening to a song, or watching TV, or cooking, and the next you’re sobbing for no readily apparent reason. You could be ready to take on the world, energetic, full of vim and vigor, and then find yourself morosely upset about everything, unable to get up, find food, or perform any of the basic tasks that it would take to leave the house. In some ways, being depressed is like playing a role playing game: you could be a very healthy, extremely well-off character who laughs at the thought they could ever miss a target, and then find themselves on their ass because they randomly failed at something like walking up the steps. There’s a lot of questioning and wondering how it could be possible, and yet you know it is, because it happened.
As long as I can remember I’ve have ups and downs with my own depression. There were times I spent in therapy, and other times I was on medication (prescribed and self-administered), and still other times when I could not bring myself to leave the house, followed by years of positive experiences that were never questioned or even considered. I’m sure that many of my hobbies do not lend themselves to the kind of person that can become depressed. I like my chemical intake, my preferred profession does not include a lot of physical exertion, and I am a fan of many sedentary activities. I am not unhealthy, though I should probably quit smoking, and my diet could probably use a little management. But I’m conscious of the condition I happen to be in, and I’m constantly monitoring my own ability to do the things that I’ve always been able to do. Aside from loosing a tooth recently, there have been few ailments that did not run a normal course before returning to normal.
So, good but not great. And the literature does support the notion that if you are not in peak physical health, you could be more prone to depression. However, this is something I’ve been combatting since a time when I ran six miles a day, when I had no unhealthy habits, and when I was in the best physical condition I’ve ever been in. While I’m sure my current habits don’t help, there is something deeper at work. There could be a bit of a linguistic component to this, too. Over time, the experiences and events that we internalize become the framework through which we see the world around us. When you start to combine your parents divorce, your breakups, your betrayals, and add to it a formal education that reinforces a pessimistic view of the world, reality itself starts to appear to be coded in a way that is founded on misery. Though, I’m not sure how accurate that may be, either, considering that there are long periods – sometimes up to a year or so – where nothing occurs that inspires any kind of misery, no matter how bad things might be.
It seems to me the kind of depression that I experience is founded entirely on the random chance. Which is to say, it is unpredictable, seems influenced by my own brain chemistry, and finds comfort in the misery of the past while content to ignore all of these at a moment’s notice. I used to think I was manic / depressive, but I’m pretty sure this is not the case. I don’t have manic episodes in the same way that I have seen others experience them, and I seem to fluctuate between “socially acceptable” and “miserable,” rather than the hyperactive energy that manic people tend to have at their disposal.
The most difficult thing to communicate when you are depressed is that it is a real thing that you cannot control, and that this is not a situation where you can shut it off, or something that you can just smile and ignore. At moments of depression, it is a full body experience. You are sad. You don’t have any energy. You can barely express yourself in a production, positive way. If you could snap out of it, if you could just pretend that you are fine and go about your day, you would just do that. Anyone would. But it is like an illness, in that it actually aches. You have no energy to draw upon to go about your day. Nothing you hear anyone says can cheer you up. Sometimes, the best you can do is make yourself something to eat and hope it goes away.
But when you try to explain this to someone who doesn’t suffer from depression, they have no grounds for comparison. Most people are not paralyzed when they feel upset, or morose. Most people find that these feelings go away and they can still put on a happy face and go about their day. Most people don’t understand what you mean when you say, “I’m depressed,” because their entire relationship with being depressed is a temporary one. They don’t understand that these feelings come back, over and over again, and last for days, and sometimes weeks. The language that exists surrounding depression is one sided on both ends of the conversation, where the terms we used to express these ideas mean different things to both parties.
There’s not real conclusion to these thoughts, and no solution to these problems. I’ve been in therapy a few times, and these experiences convinced me that talking to someone is not a solution, but closer to the act of taking medication. Talking helps in the short-term, but does not cure anything. Medication itself is very temporary, and sometimes the side-effects are worse than the problem it is supposed to cure. (One pill I was taking caused me to throw up, like clockwork, every day, without eliminating any of the depression.) In some ways, dealing with depression is like dealing with the tedium of everyday life. It is ever present, and on-going, and there are things we can do to temporarily ignore these problems. But it does not fix anything, and it is still there afterward.
More than anything, I wish people could understand my point of view. I do not want to feel like this, and I would will it away if that were all that it would take to be rid of it. But something that genuinely helps is understanding. To know that someone else sees that this is a real problem, that it is something that we suffer from, and that we really are doing the best we can, is sometimes the biggest help in the world.
To put it another way: everyone is guilty of having a habit, or a behavior, or some element to their humanity that they are not comfortable with. These aspect of their person rears its head from time to time, and is not something they can manage consciously. It just happens. Wouldn’t they want someone to be understanding when it comes up in public? Wouldn’t they prefer to be seen as a person who needs sympathy and understanding?
I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently performing another attempt at archiving my digital files. There have been several major events in my life where I suffered extreme data losses, and it seemed reasonable to try and prevent this from happening again. As part of this process, I decided to sort through some of the files themselves, a sort of digital spring cleaning. I deleted a number of things, consolidated various folders all labeled “photos,” and attempted to properly label the many “untitled” documents I found, some of which contained some surprising (and forgotten) things I’d written.
It is difficult being a pack-rat. Even the smallest attempt at eliminating possessions seems as if you are cutting off a limb. While I have yet to really enter into the realm of hoarding, I definitely have an obscene number of boxes in storage that are labeled “stuff to go through,” that I keep promising I will deal with, and then don’t. (Or, even worse, I open it, notice what is in it, and say, “Well, I can’t get rid of that.”) However, in the digital realm – space not withstanding, which is less and less of an issue anymore – even when you create more files, they occupy the exact same amount of space. Your computer desktop can be a mess, and yet the machine itself weighs no more than it did before. It’s hard to feel like you need to do anything proactive, when there is no discernable physical difference.
To go further down the rabbit hole: I have been accumulating digital files since the early ’90’s, and while I don’t have everything I’ve ever typed or created, I started to notice that I did have files in formats I can no longer access from 1993. In the last 20 years computers have progressed in unfathomable ways. Just the fact that you can now store photos and music without too much hassle is light-years ahead of the text-only Inter-Web-A-Tron I used to cruise when I first started getting access in 1994. But this problem of reverse-compatibility is something that is just going to (eventually) lead to another form of data loss. Not being able to read these old formats is just as bad as having a corrupted hard drive: you still can’t get at the files. I’m sure there are services to overcome this, but I wonder what the value of that might be given that loosing data is often a good thing.
In scrolling through the last 20 years of computing, it occurred to me that perhaps there is a reason that we can’t remember everything, or that some things just disappear over time. In re-reading old journal entries, I was reminded of past relationships that I was devastated by, and yet haven’t thought about in the last five years. I found records of stories I wanted to write that I’m very glad I didn’t, and the remains of photos of people that were practically my best friend and who I’ve seen very little of recently. It’s not that all of these reminders were terrible; it has prompted an overall memory-recovery project, so that I can try and establish some of these lost connections again. And there have been a few stories that I still think might be worth revisiting, with major re-writes, of course.
On the whole, there were a lot of things I was very glad to have behind me. Depression is interesting, in that while you are in it, there is nothing else in the world except those intense feelings. I am sure that everything I felt in those years were sincere, genuine, and mattered at the time. But in looking at these documents now, it is hard to remember exactly why I felt those things, and as extremely as I did. Which, of course, is at the heart of depression: you are miserable for chemical reasons, and not for the usual reasons. Or, the smallest things become the biggest tragedies of all time. All you need to do is combine depression and OCD into a detailed journal, and suddenly the entire microcosm of your emotional landscape is the whole of your entire life.
That is not to say that there weren’t actual things to be upset about. Between the shitty jobs, friends and girls I had in my life against my own better judgement, there are plenty of things to really be depressed about. But not for 10 years. And certainly not several hundred pages worth of single-spaced journal entires worth of misery. In a way, I’m glad this stuff is digital, because to see them in print would definitely be akin to Morgan Freeman finding the handwritten books in Seven. You just shouldn’t see that much solipsistic text in one place outside of Proust.
One curious feature of sorting through these files is that I’ve found evidence of previous attempts to stay organized that failed miserably. I would come across a folder labeled “Stuff To Sort.” Inside would be a meticulously organized set of folders. Inevitably I would find among them another folder labeled “Stuff To Sort,” which would contain an even older, yet also meticulously arranged, set of further folders. As I did more investigating, it became apparent that there were a number of duplicated items, too. But not completely duplicated, either. Clearly, I would copy some of the files inside of these items to sort, and move them to the outer level of folders, without deleting the interior items. Probably done in a drunken evening where I was looking for a specific thing and sloppily retrieved it from a system of which only I can make sense.
Part of me wonders what good this archiving will serve. Clearly, these files are a glimpse into my own life and my own, disoriented, confused, and endlessly repeating thought processes. But is this of any value to anyone other than me? It seems unlikely that at some point in the future an actual archivist will dig through these, to find something that the world cannot live without. Considering the glut of information that exists already, I will probably be lucky to be remembered as anything more than a memory and a tombstone. Still, in the present, I feel the need to fix these files in a permanent way, to find a means of preserving them so that they exist in a more real form than just 1s and 0s on a hard drive. A sort of way to prove that I really did experience everything I thing I have.
In a way, that is the entire function of an archive: it is an attempt to create a record of a time, a place, a person, or a thing that is no longer “here” but is relevant in the here and now. But at what cost? Consider the documents that were created by our parents. Could they compete with the volume of documents we have created? What about our grandparents? There was a time not too long ago when trying to fix anything, in even a semi-permanent way, was beyond the everyday person’s ability. Were their lives any more or less meaningful? Now I can record nearly any kind of media I wish, in a number of different ways, and there is still this desire to create more. Will this behavior make my life more meaningful?
Already, there is more work to be done. Yesterday I noticed that I had mixed a number of radio-related files in one folder, where there needs to be a clear distinction between “old” files for archiving and “current” ones that are not complete. And there’s still a folder labeled “Old Data” that contains several of those recursive storage arrangements I mentioned above. But it is the self-reflection inspired by this spring-cleaning that has allowed me to recognize that real, positive, soul-improving change has occurred in the last 20 years. As real as “the good old days” seem to be at certain times, and as much as I long for elements of the past that are completely irretrievable now, there are many things I’m happy to know are deleted from my mainframe, never to clog up my internal processes again.
And that’s a hard lesson to learn: the value of forgetting to be nostalgic. Perhaps the perfect archive would contain nothing but folders, perfectly labeled to remind us of where we’ve been but without the minute details that allow us to feel things were better then than they are now. It’s not that they were better, by any stretch of the definition. They were just other times, when things happened that did affect us in a different way than “now” does. Nostalgia, in a way, is just a convenient excuse to ignore today, and I’m not convinced that I should give up on today.
So far, Pixar has had an incredible batting average with their filmic output, releasing hit after hit that appeal to multiple generations. Using a wit and sense of humor that is simultaneously family friendly without condescension, they have brought the computer animated film out of the realm of niche-market and brought it into the realm of the blockbuster. It was no small surprise that kids would find Toy Story or Cars endlessly re-watchable, but its quite a feat to string along the parents, too. Even people without kids, and film nerds who love to hate on everything, have to admit that Pixar have done what few other animation studios could ever accomplish: create an output that is both popular in its time and well after the fact.
My love of Wall-E was, sadly, hard won. I spent a lot of time avoiding Pixar, merely because they seemed marketed towards “kids.” However, after much soul searching, I realized I was exactly their target market, and have now come to love the ones I’ve seen. However, Brave has created in me some doubt. What came across as a Scottish adventure featuring a female lead, became a mother / daughter bonding flick that was better suited as a Disney Channel afternoon film, rather than a theatrical release. By ingraining the characterizations with stereotypes and anachronistic motives – and relying on a very overt metaphor to convey the central thrust of the film – the few adventurous moments came across as if they were tacked on, rather than the backbone of the story.
Brave revolves around three central stereotypes and a cast of ancillary Scots that fulfill more sitcom-inspired relationship dynamics than three dimensional characters rendered by top of the line computers should be able to. Both of the parents appear to be cut from modern American behavioral cloth: the perfectionist, commanding, family leader, Queen Elinor, and her oafish, loud, butt-of-most-jokes husband, King Fergus. The father makes no attempt to understand anything more than what is immediately ahead of him, while the mother is constantly concerned with her daughter’s future. It’s suggested that this is because the daughter will eventually marry an important prince, and thus bring peace to a land that could break out into war at the drop of a hat, but as it turns out it’s very easy to talk the entire kingdom out of this. (In fact, their daughter Merida convinces everyone in Scotland that they don’t need to follow tradition at all, in what amounts to a couple of minutes in the middle of the film, thus leaving the family problems to take up the real story arc being followed.)
Ultimately, the film is about Elinor wanting to control Merida, Merida wanting to control her own life, and her father being just clueless enough that he foolishly thinks they will work this out between themselves without the help of magic. The arguments and fights between mother and daughter are so predictable that when Merida runs away, we feel that we’ve seen this story play out hundreds of times, and when she brings in a witch to help convince Elinor to be more understanding, it seems so incredibly swiped from the Disney trope-of-the-week bin that you have to wonder if this is even a Pixar movie anymore. Perhaps even more ham-fisted than the hodge-podge of plot-predictability is the use of the most literal metaphor I’ve seen in years: Merida’s mother is actually a bear for the majority of her time on screen. Get it? The fact that any girl has not referred to her own mother as being a “bear” since the era that is depicted in this film was probably considered to be one of the references “for the adults.”
What saves the film are the advances in computer animation, something that has always been an element of Pixar’s films. It’s true that the hair & cloth look more like the real deal than either ever have in any computer animated film. The range of the color pallet is fantastic; this is a vivid, compelling film that looks great on the screen. The sound design is some of the best ever realized in a theater, and there is a lot of evidence to point to that illustrates these technical achievements. The short before the feature – La Lune – is probably one of my favorite Pixar films, period. It uses a very simple premis, all of the technical know-how up the studio’s sleeves, and practically nothing else, to create a fantastic gem that is unfortunately overshadowed by the feature that follows it. In many ways, Brave comes off as a film that wanted to show off all the new toys that Pixar has developed, but forgot to call the writers that usually work on their films to punch up the story.
Probably the most disappointing aspect of the movie are the blatant stereotypes: fiery daughters, heavy accents, an intelectual shortfall among the men, and a general amount of oafishness is added to every scene, and every Scottish gag and jab is thrown in time and time again. Pixar has never been afraid of adding a liberal layer of jokes overtop the emotional thrust of their stories, but in Brave the effort seems directed at making the subject of the film the butt of every joke, and the emotional components of the film seem whiney. Pixar has made the claim that this is their first “fairy tale” film, and thus many of the tropes therein are most certainly going to bubble to the surface. But there are only so many negative Braveheart references that any viewer can take before you feel beaten over the head with the Scottishness of everything. Yes, it is set in Scotland. We get it. Stereotypes do exist for a reason, true, but they are not a replacement for good story and characterization.
And the stereotypes are not just limited to Scottish jokes. Men – middle aged, at least – are constantly poked fun of, and it is suggested that this oafishness is merely a male trait that must be put up with. Women fare no better, coming across as short-tempered and demanding, with no ability to see the point of view of others without having to go through an ordeal to learn that lesson first. In many ways, the film suggests that mothers and daughters all follow one path: mom cares for daughter, daughter becomes ungrateful, mom becomes a bear, daughter helps mom overcome this by growing up a little herself, and they both spend their days living out a sort of Gilmore Girls fantasy friendship where they finally see eye-to-eye. In much the same way that Disney films tend to reinforce pop gender stereotypes, Brave presents the same sitcom gender roles that have been present for the last 30 years or so.
This is not to say that Pixar has lost all hope. In spite of its shortcomings, Brave is incredibly well made, and La Lune is entirely worth the price of admission on its own. But as Pixar’s first fairy tale, and their first film with a female lead, I was hoping for something closer to Mulan and less like Freaky Friday. They spend a lot of time setting up that Merida is accomplished with a bow and arrow, and yet aside from some great trick-shots the typical “school’s out” scene, Merida’s marksmanship does not help save the day. Her fiery, impulsive nature gets her intro trouble constantly, and its suggested that tempering her adventurousness is what will guide her in the future. In fact, it becomes clear pretty early that, rather than a fun adventure fairy tale, its actually a pre-teen coming-of-agestory.
And there is always a market for a movie like this, undoubtedly. Brave will find an audience, and I’m sure it will even do well in the future. The open mocking of men, “ethnic humor” (as they used to call racial stereotypes in the 80’s), and flashy visuals have always appealed to wide audiences, and there is no question that in this post-modern age of micro-markets the film will eventually find a comfortable resting place in the media landscape that surrounds us. (I’m sure The Disney Channel is already clearing space in their after-school line-up to house Brave for a few months after it’s had a good theater run.) Still, for what was marketed as a good adventure fairy tale with a female lead, we instead I got a 90+ minute TV comedy about how hard it is to be a teenage girl, how inept men are, and how mean mom can be.