Articles by

<Russell Brandom>

01/04/12 4:00am

The Plot Against Hip Hop
By Nelson George

The rap world seems tailor-made for noir. There’s money, paranoia, grudges, an endless cast of morally flexible hustlers. Nelson George’s The Plot Against Hip Hop has even hit upon an ideal protagonist: an HIV-positive heavy named D, who makes his living working security for rap-world luminaries and spends his evenings nodding off to Golden Age boom bap.

Then D comes home to find a music writer bleeding out on his doorstep, killed to protect a secret so deep! so dark! that it cuts to the very heart of hip hop as we know it.

Unfortunately, D has to work through prose that’s clunky even by pulp standards. (“Those knives had been as tangible as his tall chai latte, and way more lethal.”) And his idea of detective work consists mostly of asking his friends to look into something for him. Strangely, the conspirators in this fiendish plot tend to crumble under mild questioning, and when the plot finally comes to light, it’s both implausible and strangely meager. Apparently all it took to ruin one of the great art forms of the late 20th century was a rogue CIA agent and a little trash-talk.

George, a cultural critic and behind-the-scenes collaborator with Spike Lee and others, cut his teeth writing about music for Billboard and the Village Voice, and he’s clearly more than a little dismayed by the hyper-consumerist direction mainstream rap has taken. He also knows his stuff, and manages to slip an impressive amount of Bronx history into the tale. But like most conspiracy theories, this one lets the real villains off the hook too easy. Instead of going after the engines of corporate rap (surely he could have saved a few words for ClearChannel), George recycles tired villains like corrupt cops and ad men. The real conspiracy will have to wait for the sequel.

01/04/12 4:00am

On a recent Thursday night, the line is around the block of the Brooklyn Masonic Temple. The crowd is split between twenty-somethings who’ve heard about the party from a friend or a studiomate, and a curious older crowd who’ve heard about it from the Times or Gothamist. For the most part, they don’t mingle.

Tonight is the premiere of the Kickstarter-funded Girl Walk // All Day, a dance movie that follows three performers through 75 minutes of public dancing on the streets of New York set to the Girl Talk album All Day. The project first appeared as an eight-minute web video in January, but the press blitz that followed was the kind of thing PR firms dream about. Nearly every outlet in New York got a piece. In May, one of the dancers took up five pictures in the bottom of Bill Cunningham’s street style page in the Times. Fast Company offered 1,750 words on what business owners could learn from the project. (One lesson: “Screw the permits.”) The lead dancer, Anne Marsen, was cast in a recurring role on CBS’s The Good Wife. And in the background, director Jacob Krupnick was busy shooting and editing, trying to produce an actual movie to justify all the buzz.

Which is how you arrive at 1,200 people curled around the block, shivering politely. Inside the auditorium, a dozen oversized balloons bounce above the crowd. By the time we get inside, it’s too crowded to dance, but there’s a lot of whooping and strange-smelling smoke. Just before the movie starts, Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler comes out to give a speech. “This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you to put away your cell phones and be quiet during the movie.” A cheer rises up, and he laughs. “Make as much noise as you want. And Instagram your asses off.”
Then, the movie. Like Girl Talk’s music, it’s a joy bomb—more a mood-altering substance than an actual movie. There’s something in there about New York and public spaces, but mostly it’s about watching people dance, and feeling as if you’ve helped make it all happen.

If that doesn’t sound like anything you’ve seen in a theater, there’s a reason. Girl Walk is illegal art; it will never make it into theaters. The soundtrack, Girl Talk’s 2010 album All Day, contains no less than 372 uncleared samples, an album-length thumb in the eye of intellectual property law. As a result, the film can never legally be sold on DVD or licensed for download. If it’s going to make money, it has to be as an event—touring from party to party like a silent film in the vaudeville days. (The producers have already booked a party at the Gutter two weeks after the premiere.) That leaves the movie in a strange limbo—halfway between traveling road show, fan video and the best-publicized video DJ set of the year. Tellingly, there’s no merch table here, just a photo booth and a generous pile of free “I’m a Backer” pins. If you’re here, you’re a backer.

Signing off, the director tells the crowd, “If you enjoy it, keep sharing it because we want to take it all over the world.” Their main export seems to be enthusiasm.•

Photos by RTS of MORE & CO

08/17/11 4:00am

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

By David Graeber

(Melville House)

We try not to think about debt. American student loans are at $930 billion and counting. The federal government owes $14.6 trillion to a network of bondholders around the world. These numbers are too large to comprehend, too large to think about without becoming afraid.

In short, the world of borrowing needs a little demystification, and David Graeber’s Debt is a good start. By his lights, borrowing brings up all sorts of conflicting emotions in the modern soul. We feel a moral duty to pay back what we owe, but we also find the whole business unsavory. Annual interest feels like creating money out of nothing, and all the parties involved are implicated in the same financial voodoo—from hedge fund managers to overmortgaged homeowners. It’s unfair, but it explains a surprising amount of American politics.

As the world’s foremost anarchist intellectual (and one of the world’s leading anthropologists to boot), Graeber is well-positioned to make the case. Across 400 pages, he traces the history of those social norms, starting with Vedic monasteries subsisting on an early form of endowments. The book’s first half is devoted to tribal examples like dowries or the debt the rescued man owes to his rescuer—debts that were more social than economic. Over time, we see the social conventions get stripped away, as debt is whittled down to a question of dollars and cents, a matter between strangers. By the time we reach present-day America, there’s almost a duty to treat anyone who owes money as if they’re less than human.

Graeber doesn’t see debt as a bad thing, though. For him, it’s inseparable from society itself, predating coinage by centuries. He’s more concerned with the rules of debt, the contemporary web of laws built to protect lenders at all costs, and the depersonalization built into every transaction. In simpler times, unpaid debts were used to forge alliances between villages, but when there’s a chance the borrower might simply skip town, that’s not an option. The result is the modern debt collection industry, an adversarial system that uses debts to break social bonds rather than strengthen them. One of the book’s more powerful points is that borrowing is always premised on equality—something that’s easy to forget in the age of high finance. You’re an economic citizen, with all the same rights as Bank of America. They’d just prefer you didn’t act like it.

01/19/11 4:00am

Haiti Noir

Edited by Edwidge Danticat


Noir usually deals with criminals making their way on the margins of a law-abiding world—so what does it mean in a country where the rule of law has little to no power?

The latest in Akashic’s long-running series of regional crime fiction, Haiti Noiranswers that question with 18 stories from as many writers. The result is catnip for anyone interested in the tropes of noir or the customs of Haiti. Inside, you’ll find a kidnapping, countless murders and a vodou ceremony complete with a decapitated chicken. But except for a few tales of doomed detectives, you’ll find almost no references to the police. As an old man tells us towards the end of a kidnapping yarn by Josaphat-Robert Large, “it’s almost impossible to discover what’s behind a mystery in this country.” Accepting the unknown is part of Haiti’s culture—and that includes mysterious cadavers. No one in the book worries much about prison, either: they’re more concerned with not becoming the next victim.

The editor is memoirist Edwidge Danticat, and perhaps not surprisingly, she errs on the side of social commentary over genre tropes. Nearly every story involves some species of crime, but that crime could be anything from a businesslike home invasion to decades-old Dominican atrocities.
Or possibly an earthquake. The book was assembled and, except for a sober introduction, entirely written before the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, but the quake is felt on almost every page, whether in Katia Ulysse’s Poe-like story of expat resentment or more literally in Patrick Sylvain’s story of an old woman shunned for witchcraft after a smaller quake. What emerges is a portrait of a people on the edge—facing down poverty daily, with only bad luck separating the innocent and the guilty. In short, the stuff of which good noir is made.

06/15/10 2:00pm

One day in 2005, Andy Wilton was flipping channels and caught a glimpse of Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about Terry Gilliam’s doomed attempt to film Don Quixote. For some reason, he couldn’t look away. “It was fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time,” he said recently. “It stuck with me and for days I kept thinking about my own disasters.”

After a little consultation from Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew, he made the movie himself with an unpaid cast, equipment borrowed from his film-company day job, and an opulent budget of a thousand British pounds from personal savings. The film was Behind the Scenes of Total Hell, a mockumentary in the vein of The Office focusing on disastrous film shoot for a horror movie called Total Hell. The film-within-a-film was saddled with a non-existent budget, a ludicrous premise and a borderline psychotic director named Jamie Gunn (not coincidentally, Wilton’s two middle names) —only some of which overlapped with the actual film. A year and a few catastrophic equipment failures later, Wilton had a movie on his hands. He shopped it to a few distributors who found it hilarious but completely unmarketable. After dreaming of an indie festival unveiling, he settled for a premiere in the same Newcastle-on-Tyne theater where Jamie Gunn’s fictional film premiered.

For most movies, that’s where the story ends, but Wilton had an idea. Searching for unconventional alternatives, he connected with a California-based developer called Stonehenge Productions and got his film made into an iPhone app, suddenly available to anyone with five dollars and enough wit to search for it. Within a few months, almost as many people had seen the movie on iPhones as saw it in the theater (a few dozen in total, in case you were getting excited), and Stonehenge was getting him ready for the next step: the iPad. Set to arrive in the app store this summer, Total Hell will be the first indie film on the iPad. If enough others follow suit, it could be the start of a whole new era for film—provided Apple doesn’t stomp it out first.

04/14/10 2:00am

The Ask
By Sam Lipsyte

Straus & Giroux

If you’re over 30 and nursing increasingly sickly artistic aspirations, this book could be your life. The hero is Milo Burke, a failed painter toiling in a thankless corner of a mediocre university (helpfully dubbed “Mediocre University”), supporting an indifferent wife and an increasingly unsettling child, and rapidly approaching the end of his rope. He’s pushing 50, but give or take a decade and he could pass for half the people in North Brooklyn.

As forecasts go, it’s not good news. Aside from attending to a lurid family drama (more on that in a minute), poor Milo spends a great deal of his time dwelling on his days as a gloriously stoned college painter too eager to understand the cruelties of the world. Understandably, he’s curious about where it all went wrong. It doesn’t help that he keeps running into old friends who made good, including a startup founder named Purdy Stuart. (If you hadn’t noticed, Lipsyte has a way with names.) Stuart has a secret child who’s reappeared as a disgruntled war amputee, and soon enough Milo is tasked with the soul-destroying work of keeping him under control. As it turns out, nothing makes you rethink your priorities like swapping expletives with a legless veteran.

Like most of Lipsyte’s work, the prose overflows with tweet-worthy phrases. There’s Milo on television (“the national hallucination”), pot-fueled torpor (“bong slavery”), and best of all, the novel’s McKibbin lofts stand-in (“a homeless shelter for people with a liberal arts degree”). He may be staggering through post-bohemian squalor, but Milo is rarely at a loss for words. In fact, his verbal faculty is part of what makes his situation so frustrating. As they close in, the walls are described more and more vividly.

All of which makes for some surprisingly hard-won wisdom. For all the pessimism on display here, Lipsyte never loses touch with basic human sympathies. If anything, he seems to think that we have.

03/31/10 3:30am

The Hollywood Economist
By Edward Jay Epstein
Melville House

What do you do with a book that’s all access and no insight? It’s hard to heap praise on it, but if you’re looking for the next step in the movie business The Hollywood Economist offers a pretty good place to start. It comes from Edward Jay Epstein, a former MIT professor and writer for Slate (much of the book is culled from his columns of the same name), and while the access is nothing short of breathtaking, he stops just short of the indictment his research suggests.

Here’s the worst news: the indie film financing cocktail used to fund everything from Nashville to Lost Highway is effectively broken. For the past 40 years, the hustle went like this: get a star attached, get foreign distributors signed on, and set up a bond to borrow against the foreign release revenues. Following that playbook, producers could get money to fund a film with nothing but a good idea and a whole lot of trust. 

But after the real estate bust and twenty years of diminishing returns, banks aren’t lending money to anything as shaky as an indie film—and even if they were, foreign distributors aren’t large-hearted enough to buy rights in advance. It’s terrifying stuff—the kind of thing that sends eager young film students into CPA programs—but Epstein’s too busy picking the brains of the executive class to think about what this will mean for film as an art form. It’s not even clear whether he likes movies. Like the studios, all he sees is the bottom line.

It’s a shame, because Hollywood is in desperate need of a reassessment. Epstein’s book shows an industry so addicted to video game tie-ins and audience-building ad campaigns, it can’t see anyone over the age of 13. (Naturally, the author’s too timid to describe it that way.) Instead of fire and prophecy, we get a book that feels like a candid afternoon with the head of MGM. It’s interesting, but the ideas are so shopworn, you can see right through them.

09/12/07 12:00am

Edmund White
Ecco Books
Available now

Although it presents itself as a historical speculation on the last days of the author Stephen Crane, Hotel de Dream is mostly an excuse for Edmund White to write The Painted Boy, his imagining of Crane’s final work, which takes up almost half of Hotel’s pages. The novella-within-a-novel is stylistically impeccable — as you would expect from White, one of the most proficient living writers — even if it shows an interest in homoerotic obsession that Crane never displayed. The Painted Boy hits even harder as a story because we see it being written. We watch Crane, sick and gradually dying, dictate his final work to his wife, Cora. Crane’s obsession with finishing the story mirrors the sexual obsession of his protagonist, and the line between the literary and the erotic is blurred, if not erased altogether. In the meantime, a cameo from Henry James gives White a further workout for his mimicry skills, appearing as one of the most straight-
forwardly comic characters White has ever rendered. Somewhere in Ireland, Colm Toibin is wringing his hands.