My dear friend Alex, who did his honors thesis in mathematics on knot theory, and now works as a research assistant for a large and powerful think tank in DC, has generously submitted a review-review that is sure to delight you. Enjoy.
Did you know the Mountain Goats is just one guy?  Of course you did.  If you read any review of any of their (his) records, you’ll know it by the end of the first sentence.  People writing about the (one man) band talk a lot more about John Darnielle than they do about The Mountain Goats (about three times as often).  I’m not sure this is important, but I find it a little interesting.
Interesting enough that I decided to do a little too much counting, which gives us this table.  I thought of as many one man band-y artists things that I could which gave us a sample of: The Mountain Goats, St. Vincent, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Cat Power, Panda Bear, and Fever Ray.  I decided to add MIA, sensing that she was different.  I probably should have thrown in some sort of multiple person band as a control, but this is plenty of data for something that nobody could possibly care about.
For each of said artists’ most recent release, I have gone to four of websites that I sometimes read reviews on and counted the the number of times that the band name appeared in each review, as well as the number of times that the name of the sole member of the band is mentioned.  I’ve recorded the percentage of real name use from the total use of both names.
The big loser in all this is Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, who is completely overshadowed by Will Oldham (the starkest display of this is Pitchfork’s review of Beware, which says “Oldham” 25 times and doesn’t even mention the Bonnie), but the practice of ignoring artists’ made up names is pretty widespread (unless your real last name is Arulpragasam and your stage name is three letters; or it could be a genre thing: nobody is referring to Ghostface as Dennis Coles in reviews).
I don’t have a lot of strong conclusions to draw from this, but I have some ideas about what explains the bits of variation that exist:
I think the reason Panda Bear gets called “Panda Bear” relatively often (but still less than half the time) is because people think of “Panda Bear” as the person, rather than a one man band.  For instance “Panda Bear’s Noah Lennox” gets a small fraction of the google hits of “Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox)”.  The same is partially true for Fever Ray, I think (and completely true for MIA).  Conversely, “The Mountain Goats” really sounds like a band name.  If I saw John Darnielle on the street, I’d probably wouldn’t go “hey, it’s the mountain goats.”
I don’t think last name length and band name length are insignificant (although I should use a different word, because we’re not talking about any statistics here).  On the flipside of MIA, “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” is just a lot to write.
Related to the second point, and moving into reviewer variation, I think A.V. Club posts lower rates because of their lower word count.  I didn’t keep track of word count, but A.V. Club’s reviews are way shorter.  And what happens, is that (just about) every review mentions the band name at least once.  So, if you assume that all usages after the first are a function of word length (it takes a few hundred words to say “Oldham” 25 times), then it would hold that the shortest reviews would have the highest ratio of band names.
Is the new Mountain Goats album any good?  All four of these reviews have been pretty favorable, but the clips I listened to make it sound a little boring.

My dear friend Alex, who did his honors thesis in mathematics on knot theory, and now works as a research assistant for a large and powerful think tank in DC, has generously submitted a review-review that is sure to delight you. Enjoy.

Did you know the Mountain Goats is just one guy? Of course you did. If you read any review of any of their (his) records, you’ll know it by the end of the first sentence. People writing about the (one man) band talk a lot more about John Darnielle than they do about The Mountain Goats (about three times as often). I’m not sure this is important, but I find it a little interesting.

Interesting enough that I decided to do a little too much counting, which gives us this table. I thought of as many one man band-y artists things that I could which gave us a sample of: The Mountain Goats, St. Vincent, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Cat Power, Panda Bear, and Fever Ray. I decided to add MIA, sensing that she was different. I probably should have thrown in some sort of multiple person band as a control, but this is plenty of data for something that nobody could possibly care about.

For each of said artists’ most recent release, I have gone to four of websites that I sometimes read reviews on and counted the the number of times that the band name appeared in each review, as well as the number of times that the name of the sole member of the band is mentioned. I’ve recorded the percentage of real name use from the total use of both names.

The big loser in all this is Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, who is completely overshadowed by Will Oldham (the starkest display of this is Pitchfork’s review of Beware, which says “Oldham” 25 times and doesn’t even mention the Bonnie), but the practice of ignoring artists’ made up names is pretty widespread (unless your real last name is Arulpragasam and your stage name is three letters; or it could be a genre thing: nobody is referring to Ghostface as Dennis Coles in reviews).

I don’t have a lot of strong conclusions to draw from this, but I have some ideas about what explains the bits of variation that exist:

  • I think the reason Panda Bear gets called “Panda Bear” relatively often (but still less than half the time) is because people think of “Panda Bear” as the person, rather than a one man band. For instance “Panda Bear’s Noah Lennox” gets a small fraction of the google hits of “Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox)”. The same is partially true for Fever Ray, I think (and completely true for MIA). Conversely, “The Mountain Goats” really sounds like a band name. If I saw John Darnielle on the street, I’d probably wouldn’t go “hey, it’s the mountain goats.”
  • I don’t think last name length and band name length are insignificant (although I should use a different word, because we’re not talking about any statistics here). On the flipside of MIA, “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” is just a lot to write.
  • Related to the second point, and moving into reviewer variation, I think A.V. Club posts lower rates because of their lower word count. I didn’t keep track of word count, but A.V. Club’s reviews are way shorter. And what happens, is that (just about) every review mentions the band name at least once. So, if you assume that all usages after the first are a function of word length (it takes a few hundred words to say “Oldham” 25 times), then it would hold that the shortest reviews would have the highest ratio of band names.
  • Is the new Mountain Goats album any good? All four of these reviews have been pretty favorable, but the clips I listened to make it sound a little boring.

Guest critique continues! This generous contribution, Metacritique’s first review of a music review, comes from Tess Lynch.
One of the loneliest feelings in the world is being isolated from your peers in matters of taste. In this corner: you, uncool, refusing to enjoy Interpol. In that corner: they, having a laugh, having the fun kind of one-night stands, drinking a shot of Jagermeister in the backseat of a Prius, bounding into the Wiltern in a big herd of happy, music-loving fanaticism. A week later, on a Friday, you’re all at dinner.
“I love how, when I listen to Interpol, it’s like I’ve done a bunch of blow? Even when I haven’t done blow?”
“Man, I was sitting in my studio apartment last Tuesday and listening to Interpol and all of a sudden I felt like I could hear the intensity of urban life being played out on my eardrums, and then I was like, why did I always conflate these guys with The Killers when they are like so totally different?”
There’s a moment there where you could say it, couldn’t you? You could pipe up and mention that actually, now that the topic has arisen, Interpol does nothing for you, not even “Slow Hands,” not even the painfully moody ones that really can make you feel like you’re on a lot of blow.
Toward the end of high school I traveled in an emotional circle. “Intensity” was a common conversational topic. Often, when something “intense” happened, such as a pop quiz in pre-calculus or a sudden awareness of the seemingly rapid march of time towards semi-formal (“too intense!”), my friends and I would skulk home after school to (separately, or together, depending on the day of the week) pout in our rooms while listening to dismal tunes and being snotty to our parents. After graduation, we continued this tradition; handily, I stumbled upon the Red House Painters and  burned their whole catalogue into my sad little brain during freshman year of college.
Beck’s album Sea Change, released in 2002, arrived right on time. I ordered it through Amazon. I didn’t bother to read any reviews before I bought it, because how on earth could it be anything but awesome? For one thing, I loved Beck. Beck spoke to me in a personal way, which I later found out is a sentiment shared by most people who like to smoke pot and get amused by lines like “take me home in my elevator bones!” and hand claps. I also loved to be miserable, and Sea Change was rumored to be a very effective downer.
A friend who’d downloaded a copy told me, “I listen to it when I get in bed, and when I fall asleep, I’m like, crying.” I was pretty jealous of that. That’s a real record, right there, I thought. When I got my copy, I climbed up on my dirty futon, got in the fetal position and thought about my on-again, off-again relationship, and how sad it was to be a mortal human, and the relatively short lifespan of my cat.  Meanwhile, Pitchfork reviewer Will Bryant was probably waiting with a similar level of anticipation for Beck to deliver his charismatic take on the blues, on lo-fi, or like maybe a kind of Gothic Roxy-Music-like drama. I don’t know if his friends were liking it, as mine were. He probably had extremely music-savvy friends, working at Pitchfork in 2002. But most of my friends were absolutely nuts about Sea Change. I felt like I was missing something. And then I happened upon this review, which, though it gave the album a halfway-respectable 6.9, expressed the same disappointment as I’d had for it:

A cloud of mind-numbing melancholy hangs over Sea Change, from the world-weary grandpa-Beck voice he     employs on most of the tracks to its unfailingly morose lyrics. “These days I barely get by/ I don’t even     try,” Beck sings in “The Golden Age”, and that’s just the tip of the jagged iceberg that looms ever larger     in Sea Change’s periscope. It’s obvious just from perusing the song titles— “Lonesome Tears,” “End     of the Day,” “Already Dead,” “Lost Cause”— that the 2002 model Beck is one sad sack (and it’s impossible     not to armchair quarterback which of Beck’s celebrity girlfriends inspired such gut-wrenching bile). But     though the songs are jam-packed with typical Beck imagery (stray dogs, moonlight drives, diamonds as     kaleidoscopes) there’s very little here that measures up to the eloquence of “She is all, and everything     else is small.”

It’s nice to hear the difference between poignant sadness and ponderous, ponderous depression articulated so well. When listening to Sea Change, now perhaps even more so than in 2002, try imagining the following scenario: you are in the car, with your least favorite relative, driving on a freeway in the desert. The previous night, you smoked three packs of Camel Reds in a casino, where you lost $100. Now you are in the worst traffic you’ve ever seen. You’re really thirsty. And the only CD you have in the car is Sea Change.
Bryant goes on:

Too often Beck saddles these songs with half-baked cliches and easy     rhymes: “sky” always rhymes with “die”, “care” always rhymes with “there”. He doesn’t even sound like     himself on many of Sea Change’s more paint-by-numbers cuts. On “Guess I’m Doing Fine” Beck emotes     in an unnatural croak that’s likely the product of a digitally decelerated vocal track, but he mostly just     sounds constipated. Likewise with the karaoke-honed Gordon Lightfoot impression Beck turns in on the hoary     “End of the Day”: “It’s nothing that I haven’t seen before/ But it still kills me like it did before.”

The brilliance is that Bryant never exploits this album, as perhaps I would do if I were in a particularly nasty mood. The real problem with Sea Change is that it could have been so much better, not that it’s a really terrible album. Bryant reminds us of 1998’s Mutations, by drawing parallels between the missteps in that (earlier) album and Sea Change, but the real sadness of the whole thing is that the whole album seemed so lazy, especially on the heels of Midnite Vultures, which came between Mutations and Sea Change and was totally awesome. There was no good reason why Beck should have produced this version of what the album could have been:

On Sea Change, Beck sounds intentionally world-weary, but it’s the songs themselves that sound     labored. Is it no longer enough for Beck to write profound, genre-bending tunes that stand on their own?     Does he really need the crutch of suffocating overproduction and bold strokes of orchestration to shock us     into caring again? Two turntables and a microphone, man!

‘Cause there was a time when Beck didn’t need Nigel Godrich to space out his white-collar blues. A winter     spent in Calvin Johnson’s basement, an afternoon spent with a beatbox and a slide guitar in a friend’s     living room was all he needed to pluck otherworldly songs from the fertile Beckscape of desolated views,     crazy towns, lost causes and stolen boats.  Given how much soul-searching obviously went into this record,     it’s distressing how little soul the finished product actually has.
Seven years later, I see Sea Change in a slightly different light. “Paper Tiger,” the one track I (and Will Bryant was, too) was kinda into at the time, wore out a few mix CD’s in. Even its dynamic jangly-ness, relative to the rest of the album, at least, seems oppressive now. Why?
It’s hard to trust an artist to maintain whatever it is that you like about him or her when you can’t pinpoint exactly what that is. Beck seems to project effortlessness: you knew that his taste was better than yours, you trusted him, and you didn’t have to watch him sweat while he impressed you. I would not have thought that Beck’s sadface was one I was never meant to see. I would have thought that it, like the personas he wore for Odelay and Mellow Gold, would be something that would show me a new and dynamic side of sadness! Like a tear that becomes a diamond!
Instead, I felt like I was under a velvet lead jacket, its softness lulling me into accepting the dentist’s drill of despair. It was not terrible, but it made me feel terrible. And I hid this for years from the sensitive scenesters I call my friends, but Will Bryant made me bold enough to come clean.

Guest critique continues! This generous contribution, Metacritique’s first review of a music review, comes from Tess Lynch.

One of the loneliest feelings in the world is being isolated from your peers in matters of taste. In this corner: you, uncool, refusing to enjoy Interpol. In that corner: they, having a laugh, having the fun kind of one-night stands, drinking a shot of Jagermeister in the backseat of a Prius, bounding into the Wiltern in a big herd of happy, music-loving fanaticism. A week later, on a Friday, you’re all at dinner.

“I love how, when I listen to Interpol, it’s like I’ve done a bunch of blow? Even when I haven’t done blow?”

“Man, I was sitting in my studio apartment last Tuesday and listening to Interpol and all of a sudden I felt like I could hear the intensity of urban life being played out on my eardrums, and then I was like, why did I always conflate these guys with The Killers when they are like so totally different?”

There’s a moment there where you could say it, couldn’t you? You could pipe up and mention that actually, now that the topic has arisen, Interpol does nothing for you, not even “Slow Hands,” not even the painfully moody ones that really can make you feel like you’re on a lot of blow.

Toward the end of high school I traveled in an emotional circle. “Intensity” was a common conversational topic. Often, when something “intense” happened, such as a pop quiz in pre-calculus or a sudden awareness of the seemingly rapid march of time towards semi-formal (“too intense!”), my friends and I would skulk home after school to (separately, or together, depending on the day of the week) pout in our rooms while listening to dismal tunes and being snotty to our parents. After graduation, we continued this tradition; handily, I stumbled upon the Red House Painters and burned their whole catalogue into my sad little brain during freshman year of college.

Beck’s album Sea Change, released in 2002, arrived right on time. I ordered it through Amazon. I didn’t bother to read any reviews before I bought it, because how on earth could it be anything but awesome? For one thing, I loved Beck. Beck spoke to me in a personal way, which I later found out is a sentiment shared by most people who like to smoke pot and get amused by lines like “take me home in my elevator bones!” and hand claps. I also loved to be miserable, and Sea Change was rumored to be a very effective downer.

A friend who’d downloaded a copy told me, “I listen to it when I get in bed, and when I fall asleep, I’m like, crying.” I was pretty jealous of that. That’s a real record, right there, I thought. When I got my copy, I climbed up on my dirty futon, got in the fetal position and thought about my on-again, off-again relationship, and how sad it was to be a mortal human, and the relatively short lifespan of my cat. Meanwhile, Pitchfork reviewer Will Bryant was probably waiting with a similar level of anticipation for Beck to deliver his charismatic take on the blues, on lo-fi, or like maybe a kind of Gothic Roxy-Music-like drama. I don’t know if his friends were liking it, as mine were. He probably had extremely music-savvy friends, working at Pitchfork in 2002. But most of my friends were absolutely nuts about Sea Change. I felt like I was missing something. And then I happened upon this review, which, though it gave the album a halfway-respectable 6.9, expressed the same disappointment as I’d had for it:

A cloud of mind-numbing melancholy hangs over Sea Change, from the world-weary grandpa-Beck voice he employs on most of the tracks to its unfailingly morose lyrics. “These days I barely get by/ I don’t even try,” Beck sings in “The Golden Age”, and that’s just the tip of the jagged iceberg that looms ever larger in Sea Change’s periscope. It’s obvious just from perusing the song titles— “Lonesome Tears,” “End of the Day,” “Already Dead,” “Lost Cause”— that the 2002 model Beck is one sad sack (and it’s impossible not to armchair quarterback which of Beck’s celebrity girlfriends inspired such gut-wrenching bile). But though the songs are jam-packed with typical Beck imagery (stray dogs, moonlight drives, diamonds as kaleidoscopes) there’s very little here that measures up to the eloquence of “She is all, and everything else is small.”

It’s nice to hear the difference between poignant sadness and ponderous, ponderous depression articulated so well. When listening to Sea Change, now perhaps even more so than in 2002, try imagining the following scenario: you are in the car, with your least favorite relative, driving on a freeway in the desert. The previous night, you smoked three packs of Camel Reds in a casino, where you lost $100. Now you are in the worst traffic you’ve ever seen. You’re really thirsty. And the only CD you have in the car is Sea Change.

Bryant goes on:

Too often Beck saddles these songs with half-baked cliches and easy rhymes: “sky” always rhymes with “die”, “care” always rhymes with “there”. He doesn’t even sound like himself on many of Sea Change’s more paint-by-numbers cuts. On “Guess I’m Doing Fine” Beck emotes in an unnatural croak that’s likely the product of a digitally decelerated vocal track, but he mostly just sounds constipated. Likewise with the karaoke-honed Gordon Lightfoot impression Beck turns in on the hoary “End of the Day”: “It’s nothing that I haven’t seen before/ But it still kills me like it did before.”

The brilliance is that Bryant never exploits this album, as perhaps I would do if I were in a particularly nasty mood. The real problem with Sea Change is that it could have been so much better, not that it’s a really terrible album. Bryant reminds us of 1998’s Mutations, by drawing parallels between the missteps in that (earlier) album and Sea Change, but the real sadness of the whole thing is that the whole album seemed so lazy, especially on the heels of Midnite Vultures, which came between Mutations and Sea Change and was totally awesome. There was no good reason why Beck should have produced this version of what the album could have been:

On Sea Change, Beck sounds intentionally world-weary, but it’s the songs themselves that sound labored. Is it no longer enough for Beck to write profound, genre-bending tunes that stand on their own? Does he really need the crutch of suffocating overproduction and bold strokes of orchestration to shock us into caring again? Two turntables and a microphone, man!

‘Cause there was a time when Beck didn’t need Nigel Godrich to space out his white-collar blues. A winter spent in Calvin Johnson’s basement, an afternoon spent with a beatbox and a slide guitar in a friend’s living room was all he needed to pluck otherworldly songs from the fertile Beckscape of desolated views, crazy towns, lost causes and stolen boats. Given how much soul-searching obviously went into this record, it’s distressing how little soul the finished product actually has.

Seven years later, I see Sea Change in a slightly different light. “Paper Tiger,” the one track I (and Will Bryant was, too) was kinda into at the time, wore out a few mix CD’s in. Even its dynamic jangly-ness, relative to the rest of the album, at least, seems oppressive now. Why?

It’s hard to trust an artist to maintain whatever it is that you like about him or her when you can’t pinpoint exactly what that is. Beck seems to project effortlessness: you knew that his taste was better than yours, you trusted him, and you didn’t have to watch him sweat while he impressed you. I would not have thought that Beck’s sadface was one I was never meant to see. I would have thought that it, like the personas he wore for Odelay and Mellow Gold, would be something that would show me a new and dynamic side of sadness! Like a tear that becomes a diamond!

Instead, I felt like I was under a velvet lead jacket, its softness lulling me into accepting the dentist’s drill of despair. It was not terrible, but it made me feel terrible. And I hid this for years from the sensitive scenesters I call my friends, but Will Bryant made me bold enough to come clean.


The guest critique marches on. This one comes from Trev, who decided to review one of my review-reviews (the one about Inglourious Basterds). This is Metacritique’s first review-review-review. 

ex·ploi·ta·tion [èk sploy táysh’n]n.1. The act of employing to the greatest possible advantage

Art is vanity. To take what is private or privately cherished and cast it upon the world in a show of noise and color: to spraypaint in true detail one’s love and frustration on the walls of Babylon. It is for the sake of such cries for attention as these that men make slaves of themselves in dark offices, whipped like an Israelite by some poem or manuscript. Others take their pains with the very stone of the earth. In any event one hopes to be freed and exalted by the labor’s final end, praying that one will be remembered with one’s work, seen and loved wholly once enough of an effort has been made. The artist hopes to pay his dues in flesh.
The torture of these silent laborers is the existence of the casual producer, the man who seems to perceive in life no debt or dues but rather simple fun: to whom creation is a revel in himself like any other, for whom an opus is formed not of flesh but the same easy stuff as a joke at the bar. His art too, of course, is vanity, but its profile is light and palatable; while the auteurs struggle in the dark to discover and speak their hidden names, his rolls off the tongue like a mere innuendo, a phrase of perhaps-fine form but—the auteur suspects and claims—little content.
Such are the criticisms leveled at famed director Quentin Tarantino by Manohla Dargis in her review of his latest film, “Inglourious Basterds.” Or so claims my brother-in-arms Ben Lansky, here, in his review of her review. Tarantino is a good target for this form of resentment, famous as he is for his overpowering style and unabashed, seemingly unexamined indulgence of stereotypes and fetishes widely considered to be obsolete. The word “exploitation” is tossed about, and one is made to reflect on the double meaning of this word in the context of Tarantino’s work: he is as shamelessly derivative as he is shamelessly lowest-common-denominator, stealing symbols and tropes from every which where like a slightly less educated George Lucas. Blackness, for instance, is a concept without which no story’s palette would be complete, and both directors have been known to apply it with less than perfect subtlety.
This promiscuous attitude toward the use and re-use of heavy-handed, especially violent, imagery seems to contribute in great part, to the intellectual disdain frequently directed towards Tarantino’s work. In these cases, “exploitation” seems to be locked in an unfortunate marriage with its modern connotations of wasteful, non-team-playerish negativity and white male oppression.
Dargis hints [that Q.’s values] are either weak or sinister, most pointedly articulated in her reference to Tarantino’s “chortling exploitation of spectacular violence.” Do Tarantino’s movies exploit violence? There are whole sections of university libraries devoted to this question. Some argue that Tarantino’s movies are in fact about cinematic violence, or violence in general, commenting on exploitation more so than perpetuating it…
Though seemingly committed to the same definition of the E-word as Ms. Dargis, Lansky is right to cast doubt on the black-and-white interpretation of Tarantino’s exploitative behavior. He draws our attention to the positive possibilities presented by the director’s shocking images. The presentation of a remorseless killer may cause us to reflect on the necessity of moral sensitivity, rather than simply desensitizing us to it; similarly, the remorselessness of the presentation itself may open new paths of contemplation on the subject of symbolism, of represented life and its relationship to the real, of represented morality as a part of that:
Tarantino’s fascination with the moral trials of criminals pervades all of his movies, and just because the characters may not wrestle with self-doubt doesn’t mean that the audience isn’t meant to.
Likewise, Tarantino himself may act as the same order of example. If we find ourselves struggling with or becoming bitter over his casual dalliance with images we believe to be uncasually profane, the opportunity is presented us to examine the source of these reactions and critique the subtlety of our eye as viewers. His misbehavior is an instructive object for us, though our instruction may begin in a storm of frustration. This attitude should extend, in this review review reviewer’s opinion, to his very egotism, his casual pride: what do we, the darkened toilers, have to resent? His belief in his greatness steals nothing from ours. When we despise his vanity, it is a mirror in which our own is reflected.
—T. Clark DeTal, 2009
P.S.: The scrupulous reader may have noticed that in this review and in Mr. Lansky’s, the term auteur is used in two directly opposed senses. Let it be observed that this does not in all likelihood reflect a difference in beliefs about the meaning of the word or our perspectives on creation, but more probably on our rhetorical flexibility. See, this is why you’re scrupulous, is because of weasels like us! Gold star.

The guest critique marches on. This one comes from Trev, who decided to review one of my review-reviews (the one about Inglourious Basterds). This is Metacritique’s first review-review-review.

ex·ploi·ta·tion [èk sploy táysh’n]
n.
1. The act of employing to the greatest possible advantage

Art is vanity. To take what is private or privately cherished and cast it upon the world in a show of noise and color: to spraypaint in true detail one’s love and frustration on the walls of Babylon. It is for the sake of such cries for attention as these that men make slaves of themselves in dark offices, whipped like an Israelite by some poem or manuscript. Others take their pains with the very stone of the earth. In any event one hopes to be freed and exalted by the labor’s final end, praying that one will be remembered with one’s work, seen and loved wholly once enough of an effort has been made. The artist hopes to pay his dues in flesh.

The torture of these silent laborers is the existence of the casual producer, the man who seems to perceive in life no debt or dues but rather simple fun: to whom creation is a revel in himself like any other, for whom an opus is formed not of flesh but the same easy stuff as a joke at the bar. His art too, of course, is vanity, but its profile is light and palatable; while the auteurs struggle in the dark to discover and speak their hidden names, his rolls off the tongue like a mere innuendo, a phrase of perhaps-fine form but—the auteur suspects and claims—little content.

Such are the criticisms leveled at famed director Quentin Tarantino by Manohla Dargis in her review of his latest film, “Inglourious Basterds.” Or so claims my brother-in-arms Ben Lansky, here, in his review of her review. Tarantino is a good target for this form of resentment, famous as he is for his overpowering style and unabashed, seemingly unexamined indulgence of stereotypes and fetishes widely considered to be obsolete. The word “exploitation” is tossed about, and one is made to reflect on the double meaning of this word in the context of Tarantino’s work: he is as shamelessly derivative as he is shamelessly lowest-common-denominator, stealing symbols and tropes from every which where like a slightly less educated George Lucas. Blackness, for instance, is a concept without which no story’s palette would be complete, and both directors have been known to apply it with less than perfect subtlety.

This promiscuous attitude toward the use and re-use of heavy-handed, especially violent, imagery seems to contribute in great part, to the intellectual disdain frequently directed towards Tarantino’s work. In these cases, “exploitation” seems to be locked in an unfortunate marriage with its modern connotations of wasteful, non-team-playerish negativity and white male oppression.

Dargis hints [that Q.’s values] are either weak or sinister, most pointedly articulated in her reference to Tarantino’s “chortling exploitation of spectacular violence.” Do Tarantino’s movies exploit violence? There are whole sections of university libraries devoted to this question. Some argue that Tarantino’s movies are in fact about cinematic violence, or violence in general, commenting on exploitation more so than perpetuating it…

Though seemingly committed to the same definition of the E-word as Ms. Dargis, Lansky is right to cast doubt on the black-and-white interpretation of Tarantino’s exploitative behavior. He draws our attention to the positive possibilities presented by the director’s shocking images. The presentation of a remorseless killer may cause us to reflect on the necessity of moral sensitivity, rather than simply desensitizing us to it; similarly, the remorselessness of the presentation itself may open new paths of contemplation on the subject of symbolism, of represented life and its relationship to the real, of represented morality as a part of that:

Tarantino’s fascination with the moral trials of criminals pervades all of his movies, and just because the characters may not wrestle with self-doubt doesn’t mean that the audience isn’t meant to.

Likewise, Tarantino himself may act as the same order of example. If we find ourselves struggling with or becoming bitter over his casual dalliance with images we believe to be uncasually profane, the opportunity is presented us to examine the source of these reactions and critique the subtlety of our eye as viewers. His misbehavior is an instructive object for us, though our instruction may begin in a storm of frustration. This attitude should extend, in this review review reviewer’s opinion, to his very egotism, his casual pride: what do we, the darkened toilers, have to resent? His belief in his greatness steals nothing from ours. When we despise his vanity, it is a mirror in which our own is reflected.

—T. Clark DeTal, 2009

P.S.: The scrupulous reader may have noticed that in this review and in Mr. Lansky’s, the term auteur is used in two directly opposed senses. Let it be observed that this does not in all likelihood reflect a difference in beliefs about the meaning of the word or our perspectives on creation, but more probably on our rhetorical flexibility. See, this is why you’re scrupulous, is because of weasels like us! Gold star.


As promised, there are several guest review-reviews on the queue. The first comes from Annagrams.
The problem with a lot of art reviews is that the ratio of thoughtful commentary to straightforward description is needlessly low.  The reviewer will mention a number of works in the show, but then only say a few words about each one, such that the assessments feel hollow and careless.
This becomes especially frustrating with Karen Rosenberg’s New York Times review of “The Seen and the Hidden: [Dis]covering the Veil,” at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Midtown Manhattan, an exhibition of work concerning the Muslim veil that features artists from the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S.  There are so many things one could say about the art, but instead Rosenberg gives us terse variations of ‘I liked this, but not this.’ Anonymous street artist Princess Hijab, known for black-markering veils over women in advertisements, is “hipsterish“—Next!  Iranian-born Sara Rahbar’s photographs? “Complex!”—Moving on.  The one moment something more elaborate comes through is when she remarks, “Using the veil as a physical object rather than a symbol in short video performances proves to be a winning strategy.”  She is referring to Nilbar Gures’ slow unwrapping of layers of scarves over her head in “Undressing/Soyunma” (2006) and a “mesmerizing game of tug of war with a length of billowy fabric” between a man and a woman in Fahreen HaQ’s “Endless Tether” (2005).  But even this is an all too brief insight.
Where her brevity becomes a larger problem is in her distinction between Arab and non-Arab artists.  She has few bad things to say about the art by Arab women, but she refers to the works by Austrian artists as “[not] tasteful,” and “puerile and preachy.”  This would be less bothersome if she explained why these works deserved such descriptions.  Instead, we are simply told that Katrina Daschner’s “Cartographies of Sex,” which incorporates burlesque and inspiration from 1940s Egyptian belly dancer Naima Akef, is badly reminiscent of “Bruno” (Get it?  Because Daschner’s Austrian?), and Marlene Haring’s hair hijabs, which other reviews have predictably described as Chewbacca-like, “fare only slightly better.”  For Rosenberg, “[T]he most compelling art about the veil comes from women who have some personal experience with it.”
So I’m wondering: why is someone like Princess Hijab (who, again, is anonymous) praised for mixing Eastern and Western influences, but Katrina Daschner is seen as lewd and kitschy when appropriating belly dance?  I get that it isn’t an equal exchange—that history has problematized the West’s representations of the East—but it seems like Rosenberg is just reinforcing stereotypes of Arab women as demure, and, with this, denying them a degree of sensuality (which is, of course, the complaint so many Westerners have with the hijab).  Rosenberg also seems to be assigning an authenticity to the Arab artists, claiming their interpretations of the hijab are somehow more meaningful than those presented by non-Arab artists.  Isn’t this missing the point?
There is a lot to explore in these quickly dismissed works by non-Arab artists.  Regarding Haring’s hair veils: why no mention of the significance of hair in the wearing of the veil—its ties to female sensuality, and yet, in Haring’s work its connotations of masculinity and monstrosity?  What about the differences between covering oneself with cloth and with hair, of the distinction between what is the body and not-the-body?
But even Rosenberg’s praise feels inadequate.  She begins the review by noting that she appreciated the extensive use of humor in the exhibition, but the only example she gives of this humor is a selection from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.  I was excited to learn more about the show’s humorousness, but only got Satrapi, whom I adore, but is already well-known for and glaringly marked by her edgy wit.  Don’t we have anything different to say about this woman?  I’m sure she must get tired of being ‘that sassy Iranian-born graphic novelist.’
At least Rosenberg recognizes that covering isn’t necessarily synonymous with repression—that vulnerability and agency are about more than what’s covered and what’s not.  She ends the review with a complaint that “the show doesn’t distinguish between different kinds of veils in the Muslim world: the head scarf, the chador, and the burka, to name a few.”  The comment is a bit ironic in light of Rosenberg’s seemingly monolithic view of Arab artists.  She wants a recognition of nuance, but she groups all the Arab artists as the tasteful and authentically knowledgeable ones, and she can’t give us any new insight into Satrapi?  I mean, she titled the review “Multi-layered and Multicultural” for goodness sake.  Those words are supposed to be provocative and challenging, but when topping this review they become empty formalities, just a pretty draping over her sentences without much thought given to its meaning.

As promised, there are several guest review-reviews on the queue. The first comes from Annagrams.

The problem with a lot of art reviews is that the ratio of thoughtful commentary to straightforward description is needlessly low. The reviewer will mention a number of works in the show, but then only say a few words about each one, such that the assessments feel hollow and careless.

This becomes especially frustrating with Karen Rosenberg’s New York Times review of “The Seen and the Hidden: [Dis]covering the Veil,” at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Midtown Manhattan, an exhibition of work concerning the Muslim veil that features artists from the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. There are so many things one could say about the art, but instead Rosenberg gives us terse variations of ‘I liked this, but not this.’ Anonymous street artist Princess Hijab, known for black-markering veils over women in advertisements, is “hipsterish“—Next! Iranian-born Sara Rahbar’s photographs? “Complex!”—Moving on. The one moment something more elaborate comes through is when she remarks, “Using the veil as a physical object rather than a symbol in short video performances proves to be a winning strategy.” She is referring to Nilbar Gures’ slow unwrapping of layers of scarves over her head in “Undressing/Soyunma” (2006) and a “mesmerizing game of tug of war with a length of billowy fabric” between a man and a woman in Fahreen HaQ’s “Endless Tether” (2005). But even this is an all too brief insight.

Where her brevity becomes a larger problem is in her distinction between Arab and non-Arab artists. She has few bad things to say about the art by Arab women, but she refers to the works by Austrian artists as “[not] tasteful,” and “puerile and preachy.” This would be less bothersome if she explained why these works deserved such descriptions. Instead, we are simply told that Katrina Daschner’s “Cartographies of Sex,” which incorporates burlesque and inspiration from 1940s Egyptian belly dancer Naima Akef, is badly reminiscent of “Bruno” (Get it? Because Daschner’s Austrian?), and Marlene Haring’s hair hijabs, which other reviews have predictably described as Chewbacca-like, “fare only slightly better.” For Rosenberg, “[T]he most compelling art about the veil comes from women who have some personal experience with it.”

So I’m wondering: why is someone like Princess Hijab (who, again, is anonymous) praised for mixing Eastern and Western influences, but Katrina Daschner is seen as lewd and kitschy when appropriating belly dance? I get that it isn’t an equal exchange—that history has problematized the West’s representations of the East—but it seems like Rosenberg is just reinforcing stereotypes of Arab women as demure, and, with this, denying them a degree of sensuality (which is, of course, the complaint so many Westerners have with the hijab). Rosenberg also seems to be assigning an authenticity to the Arab artists, claiming their interpretations of the hijab are somehow more meaningful than those presented by non-Arab artists. Isn’t this missing the point?

There is a lot to explore in these quickly dismissed works by non-Arab artists. Regarding Haring’s hair veils: why no mention of the significance of hair in the wearing of the veil—its ties to female sensuality, and yet, in Haring’s work its connotations of masculinity and monstrosity? What about the differences between covering oneself with cloth and with hair, of the distinction between what is the body and not-the-body?

But even Rosenberg’s praise feels inadequate. She begins the review by noting that she appreciated the extensive use of humor in the exhibition, but the only example she gives of this humor is a selection from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. I was excited to learn more about the show’s humorousness, but only got Satrapi, whom I adore, but is already well-known for and glaringly marked by her edgy wit. Don’t we have anything different to say about this woman? I’m sure she must get tired of being ‘that sassy Iranian-born graphic novelist.’

At least Rosenberg recognizes that covering isn’t necessarily synonymous with repression—that vulnerability and agency are about more than what’s covered and what’s not. She ends the review with a complaint that “the show doesn’t distinguish between different kinds of veils in the Muslim world: the head scarf, the chador, and the burka, to name a few.” The comment is a bit ironic in light of Rosenberg’s seemingly monolithic view of Arab artists. She wants a recognition of nuance, but she groups all the Arab artists as the tasteful and authentically knowledgeable ones, and she can’t give us any new insight into Satrapi? I mean, she titled the review “Multi-layered and Multicultural” for goodness sake. Those words are supposed to be provocative and challenging, but when topping this review they become empty formalities, just a pretty draping over her sentences without much thought given to its meaning.