Category: Arts etc.


Rank/Artist & tags/2013 plays

Stand to Reason 267
Falling You 120
Shiva in Exile 78
Passion 69
Cell 63
Connect.Ohm 55
The Lost Patrol 52
Hillsong United 51
Hillsong Live 50
10 Biosphere 47

(source: http://www.last.fm/user/jkwood/charts)

I love music!  As has been my habit over the last few years, I like to do a backwards glance into the things I’ve been listening to over the past 12 months or so.

Looking at the chart above and comparing to last year’s, it seems that I did not listen to as many individual tracks this year, and so not as much music.  However, I believe the truth is that I listened to more spoken word, which runs much longer, and so it likely works out that I was listening more this year, and not less, just different things.

So what was I listening to in 2013, anyway?

1. Stand to Reason – Ok, so first disclaimer, this is not actually music.  But since it appears in my last.fm database, and at the top slot, and by a very large margin, I think it is worth taking some time for.  STR is a Christian organization led by Greg Koukl dedicated to “Equipping Christian Ambassadors with Knowledge, Wisdom, and Character.”  Their especial strength lies in making a compelling case for the Christian worldview in a concise and culturally timely and relevant manner.  Early in the year, I purchased their three-part Ambassador Basic Curriculum which covers many diverse topics including the relationship between faith and reason, tactics in conversation (from Koukl’s excellent book), decision-making and the will of God, evolution, homosexuality, and others.  I listened to this curriculum over and over.  I recommend it highly to those interested in presenting a winsome case for Christianity.  Below is a sample of Greg Koukl speaking in a video blog on prayer and wishful thinking.

2. Falling You – Really, I’m running out of things to say about Falling You.  Year after year they remain in my top ten because I keep coming back to them.  Ever since my mid-twenties, my musical tastes have largely mellowed to the point that most of what I listen to is ambient, trance, etc., most often with female vocals, and Falling You is a prime example of my tastes in that area.  During 2013, Falling You released a new album “Blush”, which, while it displayed terrific production values, just did not inspire and move me in the way that the previous releases did.  Because this album is still somewhat new, and Falling You is not very well-known, I could not find a video link for songs the new album.  You can listen to the release on their website, or see below for a video featuring a song from an earlier release.

3. Shiva in Exile – This band is one which I have been listening to off-and-on since I discovered them in 2011.  I fell instantly in love with the electronic-middle eastern fusion in sound.  I listened to them quite a bit this year, and so they appear in position three in my charts for the year.

4. Passion – “Passion” is the name of the worship albums performed by a  collaboration of several Christian musicians, including Chris TomlinDavid Crowder BandMatt RedmanSteve FeeKristian Stanfill Charlie HallChristy Nockels and Nathan Nockels.  During 2013, I discovered their release “White Flag”, and found that almost every track was catchy, worshipful, and memorable.  I listen to it a lot, and recommend it.

5. Cell – Producing music of ambient, electronic, and downtempo genres, Cell is the work of electronic artist Alex Scheffer.  Introduced to me by Spotify’s “Discover” feature, I spent a couple of days listening through all of Spotify’s available albums.  I find it excellent music for reading and studying.

6. Connect.Ohm – Another artist found by Spotify’s “Discover” feature, Connect.Ohm has become a new favorite among the ambient/electronic genre of music.  Featuring Hidetoshi Koizumi of Hybrid Leisureland and Alex Scheffer of Cell, Connect.Ohm produces ambient music that is both interesting to listen actively to, as well as being relaxing focus music for reading or studying.

7. The Lost Patrol – Another artist which, if not always in my top ten, consistently stays in high rotation in my listening patterns.  For genre, I like to classify The Lost Patrol as “reverb surfabilly.”  Most of their songs are short, catchy, and feature female vocalists over reverb-heavy guitars in a rockabilly style.

8. & 9. Hillsong – I have combined my number nine and ten slots this year, as Hillsong Live is simply the live recordings of Hillsong United.  If you are unfamiliar with Hillsong, they are a contemporary rock style praise and worship band which originated in Hillsong Church in Australia.  Along with my number four ranking for last year, Passion, I listened to Hillsong quite a lot as I listened to more worship throughout the year.  They have produced many great worship recordings and I enjoy listening to them in my personal worship.

10. Biosphere – Finally, at number 10 is Biosphere, yet another good call by Spotify’s Discover feature.  With an experimental ambient electronic style, Biosphere is the musical project of Norwegian Geir Jenssen formerly of dream-pop band Bel Canto, and features musical loops and samples from sci-fi sources.  As with Cell and Connect.Ohm, this is great background music for performing focused tasks.

(view last year’s top 10 here: https://jkw00d.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/my-top-10-musical-artists-for-2012/)

What do you think?  Does any of this music grab you, inspire you, or influence you?

My Top 10 Musical Artists for 2012

Rank/Artist & tags/2012 plays

1
Ulrich Schnauss – ambient chillout electronic
2
Qntal – electronic medieval fusion
3
Armin van Buuren – electronic, progressive trance
4
Above & Beyond – electronic, vocal trance
5
Ladytron – synthpop electronic
6
Falling You – ethereal ambient, female vocals
7
Dean & Britta – dream pop
7
Sey Hollo – post-rock instrumental
9
Dash Berlin – electronic, vocal trance
10
Delerium – chillout electronic, female vocals

(source: http://www.last.fm/user/jkwood/charts)

Image representing Last.fm as depicted in Crun...

I listen to music a lot.  Almost always I listen from my computer or phone, and since I have their client installed on these devices,  the tracks are noted in the Last.fm database.  So, I am able to see what kind of music I am listening to over time.  For an OCD person like myself, this is great.

Last year, three things happened that had a big impact on in the ways I listen to music, and allowed my access to music as never before.  Prior to then, most of the music I listened to was from my personally owned MP3 library of about 50 gb of music.  The effect of these things listed below is that my exposure to new artists and music, as well as old favorites, has been dramatically increased, and so the top 10 for 2012 is full of a lot of newcomers to my annual lists.

Spotify Logo

First, I expanded my use of Spotify which, conveniently, has the last.fm client built-in.  (Spotify users: look for the links to the featured songs below, or listen to them all in this playlist.)  For me, Spotify is the greatest thing since sliced bread: most any song and album I can think of available on demand with no cost, other than being ad-supported (ad-free available with subscription).  In addition, Spotify has the ability to generate a radio station based on artist, song, or playlist.  I have used this quite a lot.

The official online color is: #A4C639 . 한국어: 공...

Second, late in 2011, I got a smart phone (Motorola’s Droid Bionic, to be specific).  Spotify has a client for Android (with last.fm built-in as well) which, while not allowing track-on-demand play unless subscribed, does allow radio for free users.  I have used this phone as my portable music player while away from my computer and in need of a music buzz.

Turntable.fm Icon

Third, my use of Turntable.fm continued from 2011.  Turntable is a social music site which allows on-the-fly creation of rooms in which people can play music tracks for others in the room.  This site also allows connection with last.fm to track the songs you listen to.  These rooms often are genre-based, but can also be free-for-all, depending on what rules the room moderator (the room creator or designee) has established.  When using this site, I am most often in the Trance Out room, and #3, #4, and #9 in my top ten are a result of hanging around in this room.  A sense of how much I listened to Trance electronic music last year can be gained by considering that I mostly listened to trance in a radio-station format, rather than listening to albums, and even so, three of the top ten artists last year were trance.  Indeed, if my last.fm charts are sorted by tracks instead of artists, the top 14 songs I listened to the most in 2012 were all electronic trance.  If you are interested in hearing more great trance music, check out my Spotify Trance playlist.

So let’s talk about my top ten from 2012…

  1.  Ulrich Schnauss – Emerging at the top of my list last year is a German composer whom I had recommended to me in the late part of 2011 (thanks, Ben!), Ulrich Schnauss.  If I recall correctly, the first song I heard by him, “…Passing By”  (video below), became an instant favorite.  Schnauss blends the feel of atmospheric ambient with harder-edged electronica, somewhat akin in feel to Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” to my ear.  Other standout tracks include “A Letter from Home,” “Coming Up for Air,” and “Clear Day.” 
  2. Qntal – My second most listened to last year was a  longtime favorite German band.  Qntal blends electronic synth performed by Fil, classic medieval instruments played by Michael Popp, and the haunting vocals of Syrah to create music based on historical works such as Carmina Burana (“Ecce Gratum” and “Flamma“) The songs are mostly in Latin, medieval German, and other European languages, but I enjoy the music all the same (or perhaps because of this), as for me the vocals become one of the instruments of music and further draw the two seemingly incompatible styles of electronica and ancient music together into an entrancing, beautiful mix.  For more great tracks, try “Vedes Amigo Illuminate,” “Am Morgen Fruo,” and “Entre Moi Et Mon Amin.”
  3. Armin van Buuren – And now, we start seeing the effects of my trance bingeing last year, as the number three spot goes to Armin van Buuren.  This Dutch-born progressive trance producer is a well-known and loved name in electronic music, having been experimenting with the genre for over two decades.  Armin enjoys much fame from remixing other artists, but also has won awards for his original work on albums “Shiver” and “Imagine.”  He also broadcasts a radio show “A State of Trance” with over 26 million listeners a week.  Standout tracks include “Birth of an Angel” (video below), and “J’ai Envie De Toi.”
  4. Above & Beyond – Number four on my list is the British uplifting trance artist Above & Beyond.  Much of A&B’s music is light vocal trance with guest female vocalists, my favorite of whom is Zoë Johnston.  Above & Beyond also has a popular weekly radio show called “Trance Around the World.”  Great tracks by this artist and Johnston include “Good for Me” (video below), “Alchemy,” and “You Got to Go.”  
  5. Ladytron – Moving up from number 9 in 2011, the British band Ladytron continued to impress and entertain me this year as I leveraged Spotify to listen to more of their tracks and further discover their sound.  Perhaps best described as new wave synthpop meets modern electronica, Ladytron delivers an appealing indie/80’s music feel without being too lo-fi gimmicky or kitschy.  Favorites of mine are the tracks “Tomorrow,” “Destroy Everything You Touch,” and “Ghosts.”  
  6. Falling You – If you have read my previous years’ top ten lists, you get no points for guessing that this artist made my list this year.  Always on my top ten, Falling You continues year after year to be a source of soothing, inspiring music.  Featuring a varied cast of female guest vocalists and dark ambient-pop accompaniment, Falling You is my “comfort food” of music, being often what I fall back to when I am looking to relax and de-stress, and it does its job well.  As with 2011, their newest album “Adore” received the most of my attention (see my review of this album here).  My favorite tracks last year by them include “Firestorm,” “Song of Summer,” and “Moving One.”  
  7. Dean & Britta – Tied for number seven is Dean & Britta, a band which I discovered through Turntable.fm, and was glad I did.  This group was another instant favorite, evoking dream pop acts such as Mazzy Star, Tearwave, and Cocteau Twins.  Favorite tracks include “Night Nurse,” “Moonshot,” and “I Deserve It.”  
  8. Sey Hollo – Sharing the number seven spot is Sey Hollo, a one-man project by the Swedish artist Sebastian Larsson.  Sporting a rich, heavy, post-rock grunge reminiscent of early Starflyer 59, Sey Hollo is an instrumental act that achieves both beauty and power.  My least favorite part of my favorite tracks, are the last half minute or so of political sound bytes.  All the same, the music itself is so good that I don’t mind skipping the last bit of the song to go to the next.  Best tracks: “Growth,” “World Trade Center,” and “Eighty Five Percent” (warning, brief explicit language).  
  9. Dash Berlin – The number nine spot belongs to Dash Berlin, of the Netherlands.  I first discovered this artist in the Trance Out room of Turntable.fm and have been consistently impressed with the clean melodic style of this uplifting/progressive trance artist.  Recommended songs: “Till the Sky Falls Down” (video below), “Never Cry Again,” and “Waiting.”  
  10. Delerium – Wrapping up the top ten is Delerium, consisting (presently) of Bill Leeb from Skinny Puppy and Rhys Fulber of Conjure One (both also of Front Line Assembly fame).  Over time, the sound of Delerium has changed somewhat from a dark ambient to a mellow electronica.  Their newest album, “Music Box Opera” refines this style even more with some trip-hop influence, reminding me of Morcheeba and Massive Attack, especially in these suggested tracks, “Hammer” and “Sky.”  

(view last year’s top 10 here: https://jkw00d.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/my-top-10-1-musical-artists-2011/)

Rank/Artist & tags/2011 plays

1

Falling You – ethereal ambient, female vocals 341

2

Within Temptation – symphonic metal, female vocals 325

3

Shiva in Exile – ethnic electronic, female vocals 304

4

Burial – ambient dubstep electronic 172

5

Irfan – ethereal ethnic, female vocals 161

6

Conjure One – chillout electronic, female vocals 97

7

Solace – ethnic/world rhythms 93

8

Amethystium – ambient ethereal electronic 89

9

Ladytron – synthpop electronic 68

10

Lycia – ethereal darkwave, female vocals 62

11

Shiny Toy Guns – alternative electronic 54

(source: http://www.last.fm/user/jkwood/charts)

  1. Falling You– always a favorite, been in my overall top 10 for years.  This music is great for relaxing, and I use it often for that purpose.  Most of 2011’s plays came from the new album, Adore. (Falling You’s Magnatune page)  
  2. Within Temptation– While I’ve been a mostly casual fan of Within Temptation for a few years, the release of their album The Unforgiving in March 2011 excited me about this band, as I think this is their best album yet.  The symphonic metal style is a little out of place within this top 10, but this album is really more rock and symphony than metal, in my opinion.
  3. Shiva in Exile– Another Magnatune artist (as is Falling You), this is a new band for me this year.  I have been growing in recent years in my appreciation for ethnic music, particularly middle eastern influences.  SIE has heavy influences of middle east fused with modern electronic music, creating a very catchy and unusual sound.
  4. Burial – another new artist for me.  I discovered the music of Burial through the social music site www.turntable.fm (as I did #9 Ladytron, #11 Shiny Toy Guns, and many others), after which I purchased their two albums, Burial and Untrue.  With a dark ambient sound, heavy electronic processing and vocal sampling, I found myself attracted to this music, listening to the albums on repeat several days in a row.
  5. Irfan – This is one of the original sources of interest to me of middle-eastern/Arabic-influenced music.  I finally bought their albums Irfan (http://www.last.fm/music/Irfan/IRFAN) and Seraphim (http://www.last.fm/music/Irfan/Seraphim).  I have not been disappointed!
  6. Conjure One – Continuing an apparent trend in this year’s top music, I have also discovered this mellow electronic side project of Rhys Fulber (of Delirium and Front Line Assembly fame).  Also of no surprise to those that know my music taste (or who glanced at the tags in the list above), most of my favorite music features female vocalists, and while there is no permanent vocalist, Conjure One has many featured female singers (Falling You has a similar rotation of guest vocals.).  These singers have a variety of styles and sounds that compliment the accompaniment well.
  7. Solace – Still on my new music search this year, Solace popped up on my radar during my subscription to Magnatune (www.magnatune.com, home also of Falling You and Shiva in Exile from this list) as an artist similar to Shiva in Exile that I might like.  As I would consider this a less “westernized” Arab/Middle-eastern style, it may appeal less to some than does Shiva or Irfan.  Indeed, even though it is in my top artists, I must admit that there are no real standout tracks for me to recommend.
  8. Amethystium – Another longtime favorite, Amethystium is one of those artists I default to when I need something light in the background for reading, studying, or working.  Not that this is elevator music, by any means.  A variety of world music sounds combine with electronica and New Age styles to make many interesting and different-sounding tracks.
  9. Ladytron – Having been exposed to Ladytron through www.turntable.fm, my appreciation grew over time as I recognized that my foot tapped to this female-fronted electronic (another trend for me this year) music each time it came up.  Spotify and Turntable account for the many plays on this list in 2011.
  10. Lycia – A steady favorite throughout the years, Lycia has throughout their albums kept my eager interest as the sound morphed from droning guitars and low-key vocals to female-fronted ethereal and experimental when Tara Vanflower came on board.  This group steadily stays in top rotation.
  11. Shiny Toy Guns – Yet another www.turntable.fm discovery for me, I’ve grown to appreciate the style of this group which I was initially inclined to dismiss as another pretentious indie garage band.  I’m glad to be wrong; I find that this band has a catchy pop appeal with strong electronica/dance values underneath.  A quick favorite (once I gave them a chance!)  My expectation of further growth in my esteem earns them an honorary place in the top 10.

(view last year’s here: https://jkw00d.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/my-top-10-musical-artists-2010/)


Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Dist...

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Liberal bias in the media: does it exist?  Or is this a misconception born of a persecution complex on the part of the right?  Or worse, is it a weapon in the arsenal of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” used to attempt to discredit moderate or liberal voices?  Perhaps bias does exist in the news networks, but so what, one might say, FOX is just as biased in the other direction, so it is no big deal.  Is liberal bias in the media existent, and if so, how would we spot it, and why should we care?

These are the questions that  Bernard Goldberg addresses in his book BIAS.  In 1996, Goldberg wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal in which he accused the major television network news programs of a liberal bias in their reporting of news.  This article, critical of his employers among others, was impolite and imprudent, Goldberg admits, yet it needed to be written since his internal efforts to bring this to light had been ignored.

This bias is nothing conspiratorial; according to Goldberg, “we don’t sit around in dark corners and plan strategies on how we’re going to slant the news.  We don’t have to.  It comes naturally to most reporters” (from the op-ed article linked above).  This bias is simply denied as being existent, that the views being expressed are balanced and neutral and ought to be acceptable to every normal American.  If they are indeed being presented in a balanced and neutral fashion, then the charges are without merit; if, however, it can be shown that bias in favor of certain political interests consistently exists in the delivery of the news, it should be recognized by the network executives, reporters, and the general public as coloring the ability or willingness of these agencies to report the unfiltered truth.  As it turned out, these news networks, who pride themselves on prying into everyone else’s business and ferreting out dirty laundry, did not appreciate Goldberg’s accusation and exposure.  He soon found himself out of a job and ostracized by his former friends and associates at CBS who proceeded to label him a right-wing ideologue, simply by having raised the question and proposed the accusation.

After describing his ousting from CBS and the vindictiveness with which he was treated, Goldberg describes the television report which raised Goldberg’s own awareness of this bias and compelled him to write the article.  The bias was expressed in the February 8, 1996 CBS Evening News segment “Reality Check” in phrases such as “flat-tax scheme,” “economic elixir,” and “wackiest flat-tax promise” in describing Steve Forbes flat-tax proposals that year.  The reporter, Eric Engberg, then interviewed three economists who all opposed the flat tax.  There was no representative of the affirmative side; this seemed like a rather large imbalance to Goldberg.  He rightly points out the uproar if a network reporter had referred to Hillary Clinton’s health care program as “wacky.”

Further, according to Goldberg, this sort of double standard is rampant.  He cites as another example, the coverage of the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999, when the senators were signing their names in an oath book, swearing impartiality and fairness.  As each came forward, Peter Jennings identified each, taking care to label each conservative senator, but only mentioning the names of the liberal ones, as if the viewing public needed to have them identified and warned of dangerous views.  Liberal politicians and organizations (such as NOW) do not need to be labelled because, Goldberg contends, the media elites do not view them as liberal, but as reasonable,middle of the road moderates, the same as themselves.

Goldberg gives many other examples of one-sided reporting and liberal slant, but the overarching conclusion seems to be that the big problem may not be that there is bias, but that it is denied and presented as a balanced view.

I found this book to be fairly compelling in its presentation and in the examples cited.  As I do not have the resources to fact-check his research, I presume them to be correct.  Does this acceptance of Goldberg’s contentions of liberal bias definitionally make me a ultra-right-wing conspiracist?  Well, I don’t have on a tin-foil hat yet; besides, as it is said, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you, right?

(BIAS, A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, by Bernard Goldberg, Perennial Publishing, 2003.)

“Adore” by Falling You

Released last week by musical project Falling You, the new album “Adore” can be listened to and purchased (currently, only) through Magnatune. In their four previous albums, Falling You has cultivated an ethereal, dark ambient, sometimes trip-hop sound characterized by haunting female vocals and echoing electronic music and percussion.  From their bio page on Last.fm:
“Falling You is instrumentalist and producer, John Michael Zorko, with a revolving cast of guest vocalists including Suzanne Perry (of Melodyguild and Love Spirals Downwards), Dru Allen (of Mirabilis and This Ascension), Victoria Lloyd (of Claire Voyant and Mono Chrome), Aimee Page (of Vishnu’s Secret), Anji Bee (of Lovespirals), Kirsty Hawkshaw, Sara Ayers, Erica Mulkey (AKA Unwoman), Amanda Kramer (of The Golden Palominos), Shikhee (of Android Lust), Krista Tortora (of Full Blown Kirk), and Jennifer McPeak (the original band vocalist from Mercy). They are known for haunting, ethereal, emotive ambient-pop, best heard when the moon is high and the atmosphere serene. ”

In this, their fifth full length album release, Falling You expands their sound towards a slightly harder edge.  Their sound is still recognizable, yet adds a more structured feel that may be more casually accessible to new listeners.  From this album’s page on Magnatune:

“Adore finds ‘Falling You’ exploring a more optimistic, rock-oriented motif. Though the ethereal / ambient base is still there, the music ranges from ambient, to jangly shoegaze, to melodic space-rock, to dream-pop and finally back to ambient. The concept is a simple one – life is a varied and wonderful thing, and though it’s trials can weigh heavily on us, it’s tribulations can lift our hearts. ‘Adore’ is about exploring the more optimistic side of emotional music and this gift called life.”

Before listening to the album, upon reading this description, I confess to feeling a bit disappointed, as the floating, dreamy soundscapes created by the haunting vocals and minimal accompaniment of their previous releases were what I treasured about their music.  I was concerned that expanded instrumental support would change the feel and appeal of the music.  However, based on prior experience, I was more than willing to give it a listen; indeed, if Magnatune had not had the album streaming for preview, I would probably still have bought it unheard. Tentative as I was, “Adore” hooked me from the first sampling, and it has grown on me steadily these ten or twelve times which I have since listened through.  It seems more that the heavier instrumental accompaniment make the music more rich and lush and enhance rather than obscure or detract from the vocals.  Some of my favorite tracks so far are “Firestorm,” “Adore,” “Song of Summer,” and “Moving One.”

If the descriptions of the music style or of this album have interested you, I recommend you sample their music and support this artist!  You can also listen to this album (and their others) on Spotify: <iframe src=”https://embed.spotify.com/?uri=spotify:album:6nPR6Dq0xKySbWH5gkSpkf&#8221; width=”300″ height=”380″ frameborder=”0″ allowtransparency=”true”>

Neil Patrick Harris stars in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a tongue-in-cheek, superhero/villain, writer’s-strike-born, musical comedy, originally released in three (roughly) 15-minute acts on the internet in 2008.  Created by Joss Whedon of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” fame, this movie shows Dr. Horrible’s (Harris) efforts to earn a coveted place among the Evil League of Evil, win the affections of girl-next-door Penny (Felicia Day), and defeat his nemesis, Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion).

First, the music: the actors each display a surprisingly good voice talent in this movie whose plot is largely driven by song.  The songs are well written, funny, and delivered to great comedic and/or dramatic effect to advance the plot in a way that dialog alone could not have achieved so well.  Of special enjoyment were “My Freeze Ray,” “Brand New Day,” and “Everything You Ever.”

The acting: Harris and Fillion especially display a great sense of comedic timing in the delivery of their lines and songs, and their physical acting and body language really contribute to the fun of this movie.  Felicia Day also puts in a good performance as Penny, and her interaction with Horrible’s bumbling alter-ego “Billy” is both sweet and funny.  But it is mostly in the interaction between struggling villain Dr. Horrible and over-the-top “good guy” Captain Hammer that the comedic glory of this movie shines.

The production: Hey, this is a low-budget film.  Still, it looks great for what it is, and the props and locations are used to good effect.  (Trivia fact: according to IMDB, several props from “Firefly” are used in this film.) The movie is 45 minutes, so is shorter than most feature films; I wanted more!  However, the editing is concise and effective; there is no filler dialog or useless shots.  The story moves along in a flowing current up to the climactic showdown between Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer.

Watch this film, not looking for something deep and insightful, but as a fun satire on heroes and villains super; you might find something deeper all the same.  When I watch this, I am moved to think of the emptiness of blind ambition, achievement of one’s goals at the price of that which is more important in life.  After I catch my breath from laughter, that is.

I give this fun movie 4.5 of 5 stars.

I recently watched the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” for the second time, and it made a strong impression on me, as it did the first time.  I thought I’d write about it for those interested.  There may be some spoilers here, so be warned.

This movie tells the story of Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) who meet and hit it off, only to discover that they have a history together which neither remembers.  Clementine has had Joel removed from her memory, and in a fit of grief, Joel elects to have his memories of her erased as well.  However, as the procedure begins, Joel relives the memories as they are being stripped away, and he realizes that the memories of their time together are worth more than the removal of the pain of separation.

This movie, written by Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich,” among others) proves to be a unique and well-constructed tale, showing a love story in reverse, beginning with the tension and breakup and moving backwards to the idealism and romance of the early relationship.  Much of the movie takes place within the decaying memories in Joel’s mind, and the surreal deconstruction of the scenes as the memories are erased is poignantly depicted by the crumbling landscape and structures, and the removal of characters.

Jim Carrey plays a role in this less like those of “Ace Ventura” or “The Mask,” and more like “The Truman Show” and “Man on the Moon.”  There is certainly a lot to laugh at in this movie, but it is no slapstick.  Carrey is believable and sympathetic as Joel, and his struggle to protect his memories leaves the viewer feeling the loss as he does.  Kate Winslet, as the spontaneous and outgoing Clementine and Joel’s memory of her, is the outrageous character, often playing off Carrey as the “straight man.”

In the end, this is a love story, and seems to lend truth to the old adage, “It is better to have loved and lost, then never loved at all” by showing the enrichment of Joel’s life through Clementine.  He becomes willing to accept the pain of the loss if it comes with  the joy of love, even for a short while.  By the end of the movie, the couple know the ugly truth, and that their relationship had failed previously, yet proceeds (almost) anew, even though they expect it will end badly as before.

On the negative side, Joel and Clementine seem to be resigned to the fate of their doomed relationship, “nobly” facing it to wrest whatever pleasure can be had before it is over.  There does not seem to be any effort or resolution to try to change or learn from past mistakes.  One hopes that this will happen, but the cynical indication is that these characters are not even capable of change.

Overall, I rate this move 4 out of 5 stars.

My top 10 Musical Artists: 2010

  1. The Lost Patrol (female fronted reverb surfabilly)
  2. Amethystium (ambient electronic)
  3. Falling You (ethereal ambient female vocalist)
  4. Lycia (female fronted darkwave)
  5. Saviour Machine (christian symphonic goth metal)
  6. Blutengel (goth darkwave electronic)
  7. Qntal (electronic medieval fusion)
  8. Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings soundtrack!)
  9. Austere (ambient electronic)
  10. Steve Taylor (christian alternative satire rock)

Honorable mention goes to Corey Olsen, a.k.a. The Tolkien Professor; Fixed Point Foundation, and Ronald Nash for lecture content.

(culled from here: http://www.last.fm/user/jkwood/charts) (compare with last year: https://jkw00d.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/my-top-10-musicians-for-2009-122909/)

No Country For Old Men

Image by Roscoe Van Damme (In Memory of Maureen) via Flickr

“All truth is God’s truth,” so said St. Augustine.  Art through the ages has been the attempt to communicate truths about emotion, beauty, and humanity, and usually does so with more immediacy and widespread impact than does ordinary discourse or prose.  This is as true today as ever, perhaps more so with the ubiquity of multimedia access and its intrusion in every conscious moment of our lives.  Art convincingly communicates the philosophy and worldview of the artist, and films and novels can express these views more effectively and completely than many other forms of art.  Because of the strength which artistic form adds to the communication of a worldview, it is of vital importance that we be aware of the quality of aesthetic virtues employed in an artwork to convey or distort truth.  The crime thriller No Country for Old Men is a film written and directed by brothers Ethan and Joel Coen and adapted from a novel by the same name, written by Cormac McCarthy.  This film can be examined to reveal the worldviews of the film directors and the book author and the accuracy of the truth claims of these worldviews in light of the truths of Christianity and the philosophy of aesthetic virtue.   

Assuming that there are means of objective judgment for art, and that beauty is not simply “in the eye of the beholder,”[1] some criteria need to be established by which the quality of a work of art may be measured.  These are aesthetic standards and virtues which, as defined by Steve Cowan and James Spiegel,[2] and similarly by Francis Schaeffer[3] include elements of genre mastery as well as excellence in the qualities of artistic virtues.  Artistry in the medium of motion-pictures involves technical skills of lighting, narrative pacing, character casting, scenery, and dialogue, to name a few.  Other measurable standards for which achievement of status as “great art” by any artwork require development of skills in the appropriate use of complexity of parts with unity of theme; intensity, or vividness of the art; originality, new ideas or presentation of the familiar in new ways; and expressiveness, or the effectiveness of the transmission of themes to the audience.  Additionally, the form of the art must be appropriate for the content; that is, the style of the artistic delivery must fit the tone and message of the themes.

Virtue in aesthetics regards the application and expression of moral qualities in the creation and transmission of the art.  These virtues include diligence, the dedication and perseverance to complete the artistry with excellence, veracity, the authenticity and sincerity of the artists in the depiction of a worldview, and truthfulness and accuracy in their worldview expression and explanation.  Since evil exists in this world, and humanity is significantly defined by its response to the evil it faces, it is appropriate that man’s art depicts evil as a common element.  As Schaeffer puts it, art that focuses only on the major themes of Christianity, the meaningfulness and purposefulness of life, is “romantic” art which often only turns off its audience by implying a worldview which contains only optimism and idealism, and which does not relate to the world they know.[4] Virtuous depiction of evil, however, is possible and can be relevantly evaluated for its appropriate purpose and presentation.

Set in rural Texas in 1980 when drug trafficking and associated violence was starting to escalate at the Mexican border, the opening scenery is timeless, displaying the sun rising on the vista of a sparse scrub-dotted landscape, reminiscent of many familiar western-genre movies.  A voiceover opening narration by Tommy Lee Jones’ character, aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, sets the scene and the mood for the film:

I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five.  Hard to believe.  Grandfather was a lawman.  Father too.  Me and him was sheriff at the same time, him in Plano and me here.  I think he was pretty proud of that.  I know I was.

Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun.  A lot of folks find that hard to believe.  Jim Scarborough never carried one.  That the younger Jim.  Gaston Boykins wouldn’t wear one.  Up in Commanche County.  I always liked to hear about the old-timers.  Never missed a chance to do so.  Nigger Hoskins over in Batrop County knowed everybody’s phone number off by heart.  You can’t help but compare yourself against the old timers.  Can’t help but wonder how they would’ve operated these times.

There was this boy I sent to Huntsville here a while back.  My arrest and my testimony.  He killed a fourteen-year-old girl.  Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn’t any passion to it.  Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember.  Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again.  Said he knew he was going to hell.  Be there in about fifteen minutes.  I don’t know what to make of that.  I surely don’t.

The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure.  It’s not that I’m afraid of it.  I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job – not to be glorious.  But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.

You can say it’s my job to fight it but I don’t know what it is anymore.  More than that, I don’t want to know.  A man would have to put his soul at hazard.  He would have to say, okay, I’ll be part of this world.[5]

He feels like a failure to his community, to God, and to his revered sheriff forerunners, particularly his deceased father.  He has held onto his position for decades, but feels like the time is coming for him to retire, as he is faced more and more with increased flagrant displays of the depravity of humanity.  Jones’ character serves as an anchor and represents the “Old Men” of the film’s title.  This movie is, at its heart, about him.

Another central character is Llewelen Moss (Josh Brolin), an “everyman” character who is a hardworking, conscienced man who loves his wife.  Moss accidentally discovers the aftermath of a drug deal gone badly: many dead bodies and a satchel containing $2 million, which he decides to keep.

The third important character in the film, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is a contract killer with no humor, remorse or humanity.  In the opening scenes of the movie, he gruesomely strangles a sheriff’s deputy to escape arrest and shortly after, kills a motorist for his car.  Throughout the movie, he pursues Moss as he flees for his life with the money, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.  Cold and relentless, he mercilessly removes anyone in the way of his goal, including other men sent to hunt Moss and the money.  Sometimes, he allows fate to decide if a person lives or dies by flipping a coin and having the victim “call it” for their survival. 

Another character of interest is Carson Wells, played by Woody Harrelson, who is another assassin hired to find Moss, the money, and also Chigurh, who has become more of a threat to the man who hired him than an asset.  Wells, himself an experienced professional killer, seems quite tame and almost wholesome compared to Chigurh, and perhaps that is his role in the film, to provide another contrast to this darker evil that Chigurh represents.  Instead of eliminating Chigurh, Wells is ambushed and is himself killed by his target.

In the end, Moss is gunned down and the money taken by Chigurh, who disappears like the ghost that Sheriff Bell describes him as.  Bell, feeling overmatched, retires and gives up the fight.

The Coen brothers are masters of their craft, technically speaking.  Having previously directed the critically acclaimed movies Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou, the Coens have displayed a mastery of the techniques of their art as directors and writers.  Their particular specialty, which is used effectively in No Country for Old Men is originality in using the familiar and taking it somewhere unexpected, breaking formula expectations.  This film combines the genres of western, crime drama, thriller, and film noir, and the first-time viewer of this movie cannot foresee the ending before it unfolds.

The expertise and direction mastery of the Coen brothers are expressed by the cast and crew[6] as being well-prepared, dedicated, approachable, collaborative, and good leaders.  They have built a team of trusted and proven technical crew, and spend the needed time with their cast and crew to inspire and achieve excellence.

In this film, the Coens ably express intensity without garishness and distraction, taking a minimalist approach to the elements of the film, but still effectively and boldly conveying the emotions and plot.  The scenery is harsh but beautiful, and the dialog and musical score are as sparse as the landscape; but this fits well with the content of the film, adding to the mood of loneliness and desperation of the characters.  In one scene, the tension rises as Chigurh menacingly dialogues with an elderly shopkeeper, whose is clearly at stake.  Chigurh drops a crumpled up cellophane candy wrapper on the counter, and the camera briefly focuses on it as it noisily and almost painfully expands.  The tension of the moment is perfectly represented by this, and thus is a dramatic device expertly employed.  Another interesting dramatic technique used in this film is the proximity of the three main characters to one another: they never appear in frame together, even as the plot draws them closer together. This, too, builds suspense and tension, keeping the viewer wondering about the reality of the relationship among the three main characters in the movie.

Clearly, the directors, as well as the author of the book from which the film is based, have an understanding, or at least a plausible familiarity, with the scope and magnitude of evil in men’s hearts and printed in the newspaper headlines every day.  They know of what they write and it shows in the authenticity of the characters’ reactions and dialogue.  Major characters (except perhaps for Chigurh, who may be more a symbol of evil than a man) are well developed, believable, and sympathetic. 

No Country for Old Men, being a story of the sweeping tide of evil, unsurprisingly contains many depictions of evil.  These depictions, mainly in the form of murder by various methods, are necessary to the theme and plot of the film.  The depictions of murder are grisly, particularly at the beginning of the film with the graphic strangulation of the deputy, but progressively become less and less a focus, until by the end of the film, the killings, even of the main characters, are done off camera, reported by a character or newspaper, or otherwise hinted at.  This could have been done so for dramatic effect, to emphasize the gravity of the crime by showing it in more detail towards the beginning of the movie, but exercising discretion in not sensationalizing or dwelling on the gore of it as the movie progresses.  It could also be a method of involving the viewer by symbolizing the desensitization of the audience itself to violence and evil.  The evil acts are still there, but not gratuitously flaunted in the faces of the viewers, and certainly not presented to the audience in a way that endorses, glorifies, or romanticizes it.  On the contrary, the sympathetic characters of the film deplore and resist the violence and evil.

The message and worldview that the movie expresses is somewhat subject to interpretation, but mostly seems to be one of hopelessness in the face of spreading and unstoppable evil, and the choices made by people confronted with that evil. Death pursues, personified in the cold relentless Chigurh, and is portrayed as fate, with Chigurh often flipping a coin to decide whether someone would live or die.  As an embodiment of evil and/or death, this flipping of the coin may also be intended to represent the fact that sometimes people make choices that directly affects the admission of evil and death into their lives.  Of course, many times Chigurh does not offer the coin toss, and death comes upon man without their intervention or control.  For Llewelyn Moss, the “everyman” character, the choice when confronted by evil is at first to try to outrun it, but when the futility of flight is realized, he turns to fight it, but is, himself, defeated by it.  Moss’ wife, otherwise very child-like in the film, also defies evil when he visits her, denying that it is her destiny to be killed and refusing to “call it” when he flips a coin to choose her fate.  She insists that he does not have to go through with killing her, but she becomes a victim as well when Chigurh dispassionately executes her.  (An associated truth about the consequences of choices is evident here too: choices affect not just one person, but many others in a circle about that person as well.  Moss’ morally deficient decision to keep the money leads not only his own death but that of his innocent wife.)  Even Sheriff Bell, the ostensible representative of order and goodness, is overcome, and retreats into a shamed retirement, sad and weary.

The movie ends with Bell talking with his wife, some time after his retirement.  He recounts two dreams that he had during the night:

Okay.  Two of ’em.  Both had my father.  It’s peculiar.  I’m older now’n he ever was by twenty years.  So in a sense he’s the younger man.  Anyway, first one I don’t remember so well but it was about money and I think I lost it.

The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night…goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and snowin’, hard ridin’.  Hard country. He rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by. He just rode on past and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down…and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon.  And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead.

And then I woke up.[7]

These dreams, along with the opening narration given by Bell, act as symmetrical bookends in which he remembers his father and other old lawmen from simpler times and laments the overwhelming evil overtaking the country, questioning if there is any hope for redemption for himself or the world.  The first dream could be interpreted as a perceived failure on his part to guard justice and goodness, a duty which he feels has been left for him by his father.  The second dream seems to be about hope, which Bell’s father carried ahead of him into the dark cold lands that the country had become, a beacon of goodness that waited for him to claim or join when he arrived.  But then he woke up, and this seems to be a dispelling of that dream and a return to this world:  no country for an old man. 

From an atheistic worldview, this movie seems relentlessly depressing, with no hope in reality for defeating evil and death.  One can only be swept away in the tide of fate, escaping, however temporarily, in the unreality of dreams.  There is no justice to be found here: the “good guys” do not win, but are unceremoniously and anticlimactically defeated by death or retreat.  Evil triumphs and justice is thwarted, with no hope given that this will ever change.  This is, of course, perfectly logically consistent with the atheistic worldview, in which there is no ultimate justice, and the victims of injustice are pitiable but not truly avenged or recompensed.

However, applying a Christian worldview to the movie, one might rename the movie No World for Old Men, realizing that the world is the kingdom of Satan, and that his corrupting influence in the hearts and minds of the unrepentant is leading the world headlong into more and more egregious evil, such that the culture and climate of each passing generation is unrecognizable and inconceivable to the one before.  The hope in the dream, then, is that the father, who could represent a righteous influence or God himself, goes ahead of us and gives us the light of hope to follow in this world, and a hope of justice and the ultimate triumph over evil in eternity.  We then “wake up” to the reality of our temporary world with light and hope for ourselves and for any others that will follow and receive it.

The fact that the Coens leave the interpretation of the dreams (and thus the movie itself) for the audience permits the audience to make their own moral judgments and estimates of what it all means.  Certainly the scope and pervasiveness of evil is not unfamiliar to the viewers, and the hope or despair felt after reflecting on this movie can perhaps indicate to that person the implications of their worldview.

No Country for Old Men is an example of art that has been carefully and expertly crafted by artists who prove themselves masters of the technique of their art.  The Coen brothers display many admirable aesthetic virtues as directors in their work ethic and relationships with their cast and crew.  Since the ending of the movie is somewhat subject to the viewers’ subjective interpretation, the ultimate message of the film is also vague, but this, too, is intentional, and perhaps can be useful to confront the viewer with their beliefs and challenge a change.  This film is not for everyone; the violence is bloody and difficult to watch, and there is a fair amount of profanity.  However, as a sum total package, weighing the strengths against the shortcomings, and considering it from a Christian perspective, this movie succeeds as aesthetically virtuous art.


[1] For a good case supporting objective standards in art, see Cowan and Spiegel The Love of Wisdom, p.430

[2] Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel, The Love of Wisdom (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 432-437.

[3] Francis A. Schaeffer, Art & the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 41-48.

[4] Ibid. 58.

[5] No Country for Old Men, DVD, act. Tommy Lee Jones, 122 min. (Paramount Vantage, Miramax Films, Scott Rudin Productions, Mike Zoss Productions, 2007).

[6] These are based on cast and crew interviews in the DVD special features.

[7] No Country for Old Men, DVD, act. Tommy Lee Jones, 122 min. (Paramount Vantage, Miramax Films, Scott Rudin Productions, Mike Zoss Productions, 2007).

http://www.last.fm/user/jkwood/charts?rangetype=year&subtype=artists
1 Falling You (ethereal ambient female vocalist)
2 The Lost Patrol (female fronted reverb surfabilly )
3 Lisa Gerrard (ethereal ambient female vocalist)
4 Arcana (darkwave ambient female vocalist)
5 Narsilion (darkwave midieval-fusion female vocalist)
6 Dark Muse (experimental ambient)
7 Saviour Machine (epic goth rock)
8 Tearwave (dream pop female vocalist)
9 Sidewaytown (shoegaze alt-rock)
10 Howard Shore (soundtrack)