Here’s your periodic round up of culture reads I’ve been thinking about lately.
Space Jam: A New Legacy has been out for a while now. I haven’t seen it and don’t know that I will, but I’ve enjoyed some of the writing about and around it, starting with Alex Shephard’s review at The New Republic, which notes that the film’s villain, Al-G Rhythm (no, really), is a sentient Warner Bros. algorithm bent on increasing the company’s profits at all costs:
Space Jam: A New Legacy is conscious of its status. This is a movie that knows full well that it exists solely as an advertisement for Warner Bros. In abler hands, the plot could even be considered subversive. Warner Bros., in the film, is unknowingly controlled by a sentient computer, Al-G Rhythm, bent on gaining more power and recognition. To do this, Rhythm, played by Don Cheadle, kidnaps James and his son, an aspiring video game developer, and traps both of them in the Warner Bros. cinematic universe. To escape, James has to defeat Rhythm in a game of basketball—and to do that, James has to enlist the help of the Looney Tunes.
[...] The fact that Warner Bros. is the villain in Space Jam: A New Legacy also gives it an odd lack of stakes. James, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, is trapped in a giant computer by a sentient algorithm. This should be terrifying and panic-inducing. But because he and his son are trapped with the glorious content of Warner Bros., they instead have a grand old time: James, whose son has been kidnapped, is positively giddy when he finds out he’s a Hufflepuff. He can’t wait to visit the DC Universe. Shortly before the game that decides the fate of the father and son, James implores his son to realize that they are, in fact, in deep trouble. “Everyone in here is in danger,” James says. “He’s using the game to trap everyone in here!” But isn’t that what Space Jam wants?
As an aside, the knowing meta-commentary described here reminds me a bit of Screenslaver, the remarkable Situationist villain of the Incredibles 2, although Al-G Rhythm doesn’t sound quite as interesting.
Anyway, Richard Brody’s incredibly serious and thorough review at The New Yorker looks askance at the film’s plot too, but pivots to make a larger point about the uses and abuses of digital technology — an issue that Space Jam 2’s writers dip a toe into that’s also been at the heart of the backlash against Morgan Neville’s Anthony Bourdain documentary Roadrunner. Brody links the two films explicitly — first castigating Neville not for his use of A.I. to replicate Bourdain’s voice, but his guilt and timidity in doing so. “To have a tool so powerful at hand and to use it in such a minor, merely decorative way—not to use it with a full and bold range of creativity—suggests, first, his lack of imagination, and, second, his sense that he was indeed doing something improper,” he writes. Space Jam 2’s critique of tech, he goes on to argue, is similarly blinkered in a way that exonerates Warner Bros.’ suits from responsibility for the state of cinema.
Had [Terence] Nance directed “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” he’d likely have proved what artistic wonders could be accomplished digitally—exactly as the hand-drawn animation of Looney Tunes reflects not any inherent merit to the medium but the groundbreaking artistry of the series’ directors, including Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Tashlin himself. The people pulling the plug on such artists in the digital age, and the ones who misuse their own Serververses and threaten to submerge their legacy properties in digital oblivion, aren’t resentful engineers but executives such as the ones, played by Silverman and Yeun, whom “Space Jam: A New Legacy” depicts as obliviously innocent victims.
On Roadrunner — another I haven’t seen but am considerably more likely to — I think the last word on Neville’s decision and work probably ought to be these graphs from Maria Bustillo’s review at Eater a little while ago:
Neville’s slightly weird subterfuge, familiar and even appropriate as its effects may have been, created an instantaneous brouhaha around his film, among tech policy experts, food writers, and film reviewers alike. Pete Wells wrote to defend the director, bizarrely comparing the AI deception to the Woolever co-authored World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (no allegations of artifice have emerged against Woolever’s work). In the New Yorker, Helen Rosner, a writer Bourdain admired, brought nuance and clarity to a story that had grown still more complicated after Busia tweeted that she’d never approved the AI voiceovers, contradicting what Neville told Martin. Maybe what’s upset people the most about Roadrunner’s audio deepfakes is that fans, myself included, want so much to keep believing in the illusion, shared by millions, of Bourdain as a personal friend.
If the movie is ultimately dismal, and it is, that is because modern U.S. entertainment culture is dismal. The synthetic audio is a relatively trivial deceit; deeper layers of artifice and commercialism inform every moment of this movie by and about and starring industry professionals. The friends and associates who are caught weeping and reminiscing and raging in Roadrunner are on camera, subject to the lighting, angles, editing, and all the other strictures of filmmaking outside their control; even more insidiously, they’re all trapped in the television and film worlds, the crippling web of Hollywood’s freakish, dehumanizing cocktail of money, “talent,” and commercialized cool.
In his newsletter earlier this month, the historian and jazz critic Ted Gioia examined Thomas Edison’s standing as one of America’s first and most influential multi-platform content moguls and the impact his peculiar tastes might have had on music after his invention of the phonograph:
First and foremost, Thomas Edison hated vibrato—or what he called tremolo. His notes on recording sessions make this unmistakably clear. After hearing the legendary Irish singer John McCormack, Edison concluded: “Fine voice marred by a terrible tremolo. I turned him down for I couldn’t stand it.” After listening to Adele Ponzano, Edison noted: “Terrible rapid tremolo. Not wanted.” Edison’s reaction to the celebrated Italian soprano Adelina Agostinelli was caustic: “Her tremolo queers this song. Hold it.” And even the great Caruso got dismissed out of hand—Edison’s response to a 1912 session was “Caruso is getting big tremolo, tune N.G., all N.G. [no good].”
But Thomas Edison had other objections to singers. “I have about made up my mind that EVERY Italian tenor is an all around general damn fool,” was his commentary in response to a 1917 session featuring tenor Guido Ciccolini. In other instances, Edison complained about “guttural sounds,” “uneven volume,” or “ridiculous noise.”
As Gioia writes, these biases about what should have been recorded may have distorted our understanding of music history by making techniques like vibrato seem less common than they might have been in live performances at the time. And they might also have made older techniques and styles seem new and revolutionary once they were finally committed to record. “One of the reasons why African-American music sounded so fresh and exciting in the 1920s and 1930s is because alternative approaches to popular song seemed so cautious by comparison,” he writes. “When everybody else is singing right on the beat and in the middle of the pitch, jazz and blues sound liberating and revelatory.”
The New Yorker’s just run a great, great profile by Julian Lucas of Ishmael Reed, whose Mumbo Jumbo is like little else I’ve ever read. It would be easy to say he’s entered a stage of his life that invites thought about his place in place in African-American literature, but he’s obviously spent his entire career thinking that through:
“I was being groomed to be the next token,” he told me, recalling the glitzy lead-up to his authorial début. “I’d come from Buffalo, broke, and then I was in these French restaurants, dinners in my honor at the Doubleday town house, gossip columns.” He mingled with Pablo Neruda and other world-famous writers in Park Avenue apartments; he drank too much and got in brawls. Courted by editors and envied by his peers, he became fixated on what he calls the “token wars” that had deformed the careers of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. White publishing’s anticipation fell on him like the Eye of Sauron. “I could have become Basquiat,” he told me—a casualty of early stardom. So in 1967, at twenty-nine years old, Reed left for California with his then girlfriend, Carla Blank.
[...] He’s always ready with a list of Black novelists who have been denied recognition commensurate with their achievements: it includes Chester Himes, John O. Killens, William Demby, John A. Williams, Paule Marshall, Charles Wright, and J. J. Phillips, as well as Louise Meriwether, the author of “Daddy Was a Number Runner,” whose family, Reed noted with outrage, had been forced to raise money for her recovery from covid-19 through GoFundMe. “I looked at the best-sellers in Black poetry and Rita Dove comes in near the bottom,” he said. “The salesmen have taken over.”
Reed believes that the capricious tastes of white readers have made Black literature appear to be a revolving door of transient stars. “Our writers can’t be permanent,” he says, like Hemingway and Faulkner. “We just have bursts of creativity every ten years or so, and then you get a new crop in.” He’s unimpressed by the recent Black Lives Matter-inspired wave of interest in anti-racist reading, which he dismisses as hyper-focussed on “life-coaching books about how to get along with Black people.” Anti-racism, he said, is “the new yoga.”
The profile didn’t mention it specifically, but Reed’s acidic obit for jazz critic Stanley Crouch late last year is another fascinating window into his own personal history and a writing scene long-gone:
Stanley didn’t want to be a critic. I can tell you that it’s easier to write about Jazz than to play it. He went to New York to become an artist. He sent me a list of books where his short stories were going to appear. They never appeared. I was one of the few who published his fiction. Stanley wanted to create–instead, he became a critic, sniping at Black writers whom he saw as his and his sponsors’ competition and kissing up to those who could do him some good. He was used by people who wanted to settle scores with prominent Black artists. His vicious take down of Miles Davis appeared in Robert Gottlieb’s Reading Jazz because Robert Gottlieb hated Miles Davis. In the essay he displayed his pinched tastes. Rock and Roll not art? Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Ike Turner not artists? He wanted to be a musician and when a great musician told him he couldn’t play drums, he broke into tears. Poor Stanley.
Lastly, Safy-Hallan Farah recently published a very cool essay on the internet-mediated death of cool at the hands of Gen Z, which has cultural access to just about everything and exalts nothing in particular:
In America, we have had 30 Under 30 lists, award shows, and an industry of so-called tastemakers for the same reason: to tell us who or what is objectively important and worthy of our attention and money, hierarchizing the tastes of full-grown adults. But now the “status-symbolic power” of cool that used to facilitate snobbery — as Carl Wilson, the author of Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Bad Taste, calls it — is in dwindling supply because of the internet’s democratization of ideas. The great American cool is nearly dead, slipping out of the grasp of Gen Z, who seem too busy being themselves to care.
Gen X used to crate-dig to acquire taste in records and beyond, and millennials like myself had to sleuth online via forums and blogs. Gen Z, unfamiliar with the concept of obscurity, has access to the smartest iteration of the internet thus far, and cheap consumer goods. The identities — e.g. hipster, etc. — aren’t as fixed, but they’re not exactly post-consumer, rapidly acquiring things via the incredibly affordable world of fast fashion, which TikTok facilitates, Ladifa, 20, tells me. “I just consume a lot of digital content a.k.a. TikTok,” she says, “and it introduced me to a side of style I had never been exposed to, really individualized personal style.”
Reasons to Be Cheerful
A wonderful thread here from the animator Vincent Alexander about the magic of the original Looney Tunes:
That's all for now.
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