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The Amen break

To talk fascinatingly about 40-year-old drum break you don’t know that you know. Brilliantly oblique! This is the apparent subject of a fantastic youtube recording of what amounts to an art project, but which is also a dissertation or argument for open copyright as an essential ingredient in the health of culture. Nate Harrison made this in 2004, but the fortieth anniversary of  the Amen break is a fine reason to have a listen.

The following are excerpts just to give an idea of the arc of Harrison’s script. Butplay the youtube above for yourself. (Harrison is very dry, very deadpan.)

0:00 This is Nate Harrison recording in the summer of 2004. I’d like to talk about drums, about a particular drumbeat. I’m sure you’ve heard it dozens of time before … it’s been used so much I’d argue it’s entered the collective audio unconscious … this particular drumbeat, or break beat as it’s more accurately called, or even more simply, just ‘break’, well, this particular break is called ‘the Amen’, the Amen break. Here is what it sounds like: … Here, I’ll  play it again: …

8:40 Dozens of DJs, a number of clubs and events, in effect an entire subculture is based on this one drum loop, I mean – based on six seconds from 1969. What is it about the ‘Amen break’, what’s the fascination? Is it the punch of the snaredrum, or the overall groove of the loop? …

17:25 [Quoting 9th circuit court of appeals judge Alex Kozinski on copyright]: ‘Overprotecting intellectual property is as harmful as protecting it. Culture is impossible without a rich public domain. Nothing today, like nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new. Culture, like science nd technology grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before. Over protection stifles the very creative forces it’s supposed to nurture.’

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Defending Inglourious Basterds

inglourious-basterds1The Smart Set is an online culture magazine published out of Philadelphia. (One might say a “little magazine” in the tradition of cultural publications, but questions of scale have undergone a web transvaluation.) It’s a swell publication with eclectic and interesting material. But it really exists in order to house and publish the ingenious and glittering Morgan Meis.

Meis often writes opinions about subjects that bring me to a grinding halt and compel reconsideration, and maybe a change of mind. He’s good, damned good. His piece about Francis Bacon doesn’t reconstruct my view of Bacon – ie Bacon is the transitional painter dealing, and ultimately failing, with the implausibilities of figurative (or any kind of) painting in a technological world – but then Meis doesn’t have to. What he does instead is insert a shining blade through the morass and bring to light a previously unnoticed and possibly crucial element. With Bacon, Meis wasn’t looking at the paint, he was looking at ‘the purity of the scream’; it was an excellent point.

Recently I wrote a very moderate tirade against Tarantino and Basterds. I made the uneasy comparison between the kind of violence deployed in his film about WWII to the actual, recent violence perpetrated in the name of Americans and documented in the Inspector General’s Torture Report. Meis, as is his wont, takes a radically different line of defence, an attack in other words. Here are the two key paragraphs:

What people are really protesting in Inglourious Basterds is the idea that movies can be about anything, that they set their own terms from within. This probably bothers us about all art, but it seems to strike us more viscerally with movies. In the case of Tarantino, he rubs our faces in this freedom, so much so that it begins to feel like an affront. Tarantino is simply and deeply pleased with the fact that movies are movies, that they do what they do and nothing else. He has a special talent for using a vast array of cinematic techniques to impressive effect while simultaneously telling us a story about those cinematic techniques. This opens him to the charge of empty irony, nihilism.

That’s because movies do matter, and they don’t. Movie critics should know that more than anyone. They love the experience of the movies, whether it be in works of the highest realism or well-crafted drama or sustained acts of goofing around. Movies do matter. And yet there is no argument for why. It is neither good nor bad that movies matter to us. It is simply a fact. Movies, to a greater or lesser degree, become parts of the lives of the people who watch them. We want to justify that love, to puff up the objective importance of movies in order to validate the subjective importance. There is a gap, though, between our love for the movies and our attempts at justification. Unlike most directors and almost all critics, Tarantino is perfectly comfortable in that gap. He exploits everything troubling and uncomfortable about the fact that a love of movies has no inherent virtue.

morgan_meisSo, while defending Tarantino – whose current success requires no defence really, anymore than one can argue usefully against the success of Dan Brown – is a stalking horse for the mercurial Meis (pictured left). The deep subversion Meis is practising here is to remind us – and we can use it in these days of 24/7 media – that meaning can be discovered in the enjoyment of art for art’s sake, art without merit.

We find joy and delight whether our rational minds, or superegos, concur or approve. It amounts to a practical definition of the act of encountering art. Or, as Nietzche put it elsewhere, art is the desire to be different, to be elsewhere.

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