Thoughts on art, culture and media



Taking care of the family is sometimes hard. That’s why Panadol is a gentle pain medication, making it safe even for the younger members of your family.

So what’s for dad only? IV heroin? Advertisements of this sort pretty much spill the beans on how the Western society is becoming medicalized. In effect what is being said is: We’ll take the pain away, whatever its reason. And by the way, now that there’s no reason to feel pain anymore, acquaint your kids with the idea too. When they grow up, they’ll know what to turn to when they feel bad.


Narration on steroids

A while ago I noticed a funky thing in BtVS: it uses a narrative technique I thought was long extinct. The way it works is, you forget about an explicit narrator and let the characters do the work for you via ordinary dialog. Done wrong, you get something you’d expect of an episode of the Bold and the Beautiful. People talking to themselves or the mirror. The horrifying clinical insight of Dawson and his friends. That kitsch element which eventually drives you (insane?) to change to channel.

But, done right, you get to actually tell a story, a fairytale, the way they used to be told, while the structure of the series remains superficially that of a normal teen series. That is, right down to snotty cheerleaders and teachers‐from‐hell; the ebb and flow of modern teen television is never touched.

I got to thinking, and it dawned on me that this is perhaps one of the most important ingredients in the eerie, enchanting atmosphere that is all over Buffy. Basically, even if the series faithfully obeys the rules of its genre, the plots are effectively woven from the same stuff that holds classic tales together. The whole nine yards, from once upon a time all the way to the dramatic closing words, it’s written all over most Buffy episodes. Quite a backflash, I’d say.

Doing it right—sound

Did you ever stop to listen to the soundtrack of a popular television series or a great movie? I do, all the time, being the audio enthusiast that I am. However, most do not. And I tell you, they do not know what they’re missing.

Buffy is a primary example. While the first season was perhaps a bit tame from this viewpoint (one word: plastic), starting with the second it’s been a hoot. Why? BtVS is one of those few chosen series with a composed soundtrack, borne of talent and old fashioned hard work.

If you listen to a normal teen series, you will hear a soundtrack composed of

  • the opening and closing themes
  • hit songs
  • a limited number of leitmotifs, repeated countless times over the course of the series

But what you usually won’t hear is

  • sound freshly created for each episode and handcrafted to fit what happens in it
  • music which both follows and drives a show’s dynamic
  • large variations in style from episode to episode (except in Very Special Episodes, which are Evil)
  • creative choice of instruments and timbres (tibetan drums? fully synthetic ambience? processed human voice? orchestral instruments being tortured, à la contemporary classical?)
  • idioms borrowed from fringe musical genres (listen to the soundtrack of Kubrick’s The Shining, and you’ll understand)
  • music from foreign cultures (short, clichéd references, as in panpipe for Peruvian, do not count)
  • material aimed primarily at being subliminal, something which simply creates moods but does not qualify as music (Star Trek’s constant background hum is a notable exception)
  • tasteful silence (some shows increasingly get this; most do not)
  • collage, pastiche or irony being used as compositional techniques
  • obscure and/or old tunes, no matter how well they might fit the storyline

All of those you will hear, though, if you follow Buffy closely enough. If you’re not convinced, try these

  • 2nd season: Xander gets Amy to cast a spell which makes every female in Sunnydale fall head over heels in love with him. The soundtrack is quite an unforgettable mix of orchestral teases, macho funk, sexy lounge jazz and whathaveyou. You wouldn’t think that can work, but it does.
  • 3rd season: in Doppelgangland, the alternate Buffy is killed in slowmo, accompanied by the most beautiful—and incredibly sentimental—Slayer’s Eulogy.
  • 3rd season: Buffy meets The First Evil, dressed up as Jenny, in a cave beneath a cemetery. The scene is accompanied by what is probably one of the stillest electronic ambiences known to man.
  • 3rd season: in the season finale, Buffy gets bit by Angel in a scene just about the most arousing there ever was. The music rises to new ominous heights, majestic yet intimate, only to drop into an even stranger, lingering serenity; it’s sex with a vamp, that is, playing with death, and it sounds like it too.
  • 5th season: in The Gentlemen a bunch of nastier‐than‐thou demons steal people’s voices. From there on, there’s no dialog! This is one of the things you simply do not do on prime time television. Yet still…
  • 5th season: probably the most amazing use of silence in the series is the long pause during which Buffy realizes that her mother is dead. Again, you couldn’t do this without great actors/actresses to carry the plot through the gap. But even more amazing is the absolute stillness of the next episode—this time there’s no background music.

In toto, it’s easy to see that Buffy’s soundtrack is no exception to the show’s high general standard.


Lilja 4‐ever

Lilja 4‐ever is a movie by the Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. It’s the life story of a 16‐year old Russian girl ЛиляLilya (ОксанаАкиньшинаOksanaAkinshina), and a truly heartbreaking one at that.

The story goes, Lilya’s mother wants to move stateside with her new boyfriend. Lilya thinks she’s going, too, but gets left behind. No money is forthcoming, either, and the hardboiled aunt who’s left to care for Lilya evicts her from her former apartment; she’s to move in there a short while later. The girl’s left alone in a Russian hellhole of a neighbourhood, with no way to support herself. She turns to prostitution; also, she gets acquainted with a young boy from the neighbourhood. A warm (but more or less platonic) friendship develops. The two youngsters take solace in each other, while their individual lives pretty much go to hell. Inebriation is the only escape they know.

Lilya meets a handsome boy of her own age. She goes out and enjoys herself. The younger friend warns Lilya, but she doesn’t heed the advise. Life is good. The new friend promises to take Lilya to Sweden and get her a job. Lilya naively agrees.

Once Lilya is on her way out of the country, the new boyfriend decides to stay a few days longer. He’s never to be heard of again. Lilya is on her way out of the country, alone. And who is it that waits her on the airport? Her new pimp, of course. The first thing he does is lock Lilya up. Next day, it’s a new country; it’s still business as usual.

There’s no hope for Lilya, now. She lives behind a locked door, and…entertains…older gentlemen. She begins to lose it. One day, she tries to escape, but gets caught. She’s beaten senseless.

When Lilya left Russia, her younger friend killed himself, of course. Now his spirit comes to Lilya, telling that the pimp accidentally left the apartment door open. The girl gets out. She wonders around, and ends up on a gas station. A police car rolls in. Lilya gets scared. She runs.

And runs, and runs. There is no place for her to go to. She gets up on a walkway, and throws herself down. The next scene is Lilya being carried away in an ambulance. The next, Lilya doing the one thing she ever really wanted to do, playing with her young friend on top of a dilapidated Russian housing block. They’re both happy; they’re both dead.

It’s a long time since I’ve seen anything this beautiful. The acting is excellent. The storyline hits you like a sledgehammer. The music’s techno, falling towards severe plasticity. Cinematography, it’s every bit as gloomy as you’d expect from a film as depressing as this. There’s ample room for political interpretation. And topping off the whole thing, there’s Oksana, meandering between motherly warmth toward her young friend, the cool detachment of a working girl and the endearing, confused escapism you only find in a teenage girl on the brink of adulthood proper.

It’s a potent blend.

White Oleander

Yesterday I saw White Oleander. It was beautiful. Then I jumped onto IMDB’s fora, and got surprised with how people interpreted the movie. Especially Ingrid’s (Mom) character. Surprisingly many people argued that mommy dearest was a psychopath. That’s an easy mistake, but I can’t fathom why nobody seems to have picked up on the real theme.

Sociopaths are by definition sociable and appear nice, but are essentially unresponsive to other people’s needs and emotions. Ingrid on the other hand is something else. Beautiful, interesting, insightful (just see how she reads Astrid) and blessed with enormous manipulative ability, sure, but also introverted (the artist’s stereotype, the best parts of me are kept hidden), abrasive, brutally honest, emotional as hell (it was a murder of passion, after all) and quite caring of Astrid.

Ingrid wasn’t a psychopath. She also didn’t fear people; she had no reason to. She was the enemy, just as Astrid says. Far too strong to suffer even in prison, and far too eccentric to be safe to be around. So who’s like that?

I think the point of the film was that Ingrid is what we might call an alpha female. Someone who is essentially self‐sufficient, highly intelligent and charismatic, but ultimately driven by instinct and passion. A feral sort of character. Someone you instinctively bow down to, and who immediately gets a grip on you, without really trying. A predatory feline well beyond such trivialities as religion or morality.

You would be loved fiercely if you had someone like that for a mother, but you couldn’t be your own person. You also wouldn’t be able to leave by just getting mom’s game, because there is no game. It’s not about the cynical manipulations of a sociopath, but about growing up with someone who naturally captures and overshadows every bit of you.

Ingrid does care, since she once did the right thing. We must take her letting go of Astrid at face value; she has already proven to us she loves her daughter. But apparently that isn’t enough because she still has to let go, even after Astrid sees her own dependency and rebels against it. Ingrid has to disappear from Astrid’s life and leave her be, because she cannot help her personality or her power over her daughter.

This is what Astrid begs for, and if it wasn’t for the $20 whore look and the deal, Ingrid wouldn’t have understood what she’d done. She did make Astrid, but she made her wrong. In her own image, against her daughter’s wishes, simply by the way she is. Now she has to let go, because other people simply cannot be made like that without twisting them. Unlike most, she now has to make an active effort to release her daughter.

She has to take herself away from her daughter’s life. And so she does, being who she is, fierce yet ultimately a loving mother.

This also nicely explains much of the rest of the movie. A self‐sufficient, primal personality often comes at a price: when someone breaks through your barriers, you don’t know how to deal with it. You start to dissolve. And when you’re not bound by morality, you do the most destructive things to defend your essence. You leave your child (want, want, want—a sociopath simply wouldn’t care) or murder your boyfriend (self‐defence). And if the other party chose to hurt you, you wouldn’t be sorry. Luckily Astrid didn’t, so Ingrid eventually does the right thing for the second time.

It’s all so obvious, and fascinating. I wonder why so few people seem to understand this dimension of human personality. I actually liked Ingrid’s character much better than Astrid’s, even if I usually tend to go with the young girl in pain.

But really the most annoying thing about the movie was Astrid’s suitcase on her mother. Unlike the other ones, it didn’t capture its subject. It was far too cool and impassionate to express Ingrid’s real nature. The glass shards worked, true, but the rest didn’t.

I just hate it when they ruin essential semiotics in an otherwise engaging work.


One more misdemeanor

I just heard Missy Elliot’s Pass that dutch on MTV. Goddamn, woman!

I’ve got a wicked ear for rhythm—I was basically weaned on early 90’s breakbeat, in the Prodigy vein. I listen to things like Stravinsky, Squarepusher, Afro‐Cuban funk, dub and samba. Brandy, she managed to rattle me up a bit once, but even that made sense after three or four rounds. Polynesian and central African folk music proves a bit harder with their polyrhythm, but they’re still manageable.

But Missy’s latest, that proved a genuine misdemeanor. While the basic beat is simple enough, it’s staggered and syncopated beyond belief. That’s something you do not slap an MTV grade video on. Especially with Missy’s trademark lyric catatony. Not absent a gun on your head.

As of now, I’m officially in love with Missy.