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Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Thin White Dude's Lisztomania Vol. 1 - Top 10 Movies Hipsters Tried To Ruin (But As With Everything In Life, Failed Miserably In The Process)

Just to make things clear from the get go, I despise the hipster mentality and elements of it's subculture, and because I'm bored, have a day off work and don't feel like writing anything of any real significance, let me assure you that this is going to be a completely biased article. These people who I feel to be cultural parasites are in the line of fire today as I shoot from the hip.

The hipster, with their skinny jeans, plaid/flannel shirts, rolling tobacco, stupid haircuts with resplendent and overly-groomed facial hair, are often used as a go-to label for people to insult others, but what is a hipster? As I mentioned already, I have a pretty certain idea of what a hipster is, so here you have it: to me, the hipster (and the subculture as a whole) is a reaction to all of the stuff that is being more or less force-fed to us in contemporary society. Before, people could just choose to listen to their CDs instead of the hits in the charts on the radio, could rent a video instead of watching television, or if all else failed just read a damn book. With the advent of social media, the continuing prominence of the Internet (today, largely ubiquitous) and the absolute bombardment of advertising, these things are nigh-on unavoidable. As such, people are rightfully and righteously pissed off, and this negative effects tend to have to two different kinds of spawn; on the one hand, you get genuine 'trend-setters,' if you will, people who don't actively fit or class themselves as part of any subculture, who live against the fold of contemporary society not out of active choice but because that's who they are; on the other hand, you've got the hipster, the aberration, the diametrical opposite of what a true trend-setter is, people who actively choose to go against the fold because it's considered 'alternative.'

When I was about fourteen or fifteen, I don't know how or when exactly, but at some point in my life something clicked and I had the same reaction to everything around me as those two types of individuals I outline above. The good little Catholic altar boy began to question, and when I didn't get the answers I was seeking, I was pissed off, angry, full of angst at the lack of love and romance in my life. I grew my hair out, got political, read books like a machine and since I've left school sported a beard for a lot of the past five years. Music wise, I got into metal and punk primarily, the patron saints of my youth being the likes of Nirvana, Metallica, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and David Bowie. Now, while at the time it was dismissed by my elders as a "phase," the good people around me generally acknowledge that this hairy degenerate cinephile is who I am. Call me pompous, but the fact that into adulthood I continue to live in this, my own natural way, legitimises, in fact, the legitimacy of my character. I could have went the hipster way of gradual assimilation into society, sitting in my early-thirties having dinner parties and making light of the follies of my youth. For me, these were character-forming years that made me who I am today, a "real human being," to quote a phrase. Hipsters are a spit in the face of people who strive for authenticity in the often confusing, at times terrifying postmodern landscape of the information age. "Hipsterism fetishizes the authentic" and then "regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity." To actively try to live against the vein is to fall like sheep into a different but in fact rather similar fold to the unreality of popular culture.

The message: just be yourselves, for god's sake!

Well, that went on for a bit! I detest falseness, so you'll have excuse me and indulge the occasional high-fallutin' rhetoric that has preceded and will continue throughout this list. I have a little bit of an informal criteria that these films have to tick in order to make it:

  • Alternative - perhaps the key to the hipster's heart, the fact that there are other, more popular options to be had, but regardless of quality, they adopt the less popular films.
  • Irony - a knowing, cheeky humour that plays in references, self-referentiality which differs from what something appears to be on the surface
  • Quirk - involving characters or humour that borders on eccentricity, outside of the ordinary
  • Cool - no standard definition, but a stand-out, unique artistic style and traits
  • Darling - a director or actor who has been accepted as an "auteur" or "indie" in some way, shape or form ("Hollywood need not apply. Tom Cruise may be a great actor, but he's in way too many popular movies." - A Hipster)
  • Genre - gits into traditional genre confines, but does something different within those confines
  • Closet Romantics - appeals to the idea that despite the protagonist most of the time being outsiders of some sort, ultimately they are looking melancholy star-gazers looking for love
  • Transgression - features themes or content that most people will never do in their own lifetime
  • Awards (or lack thereof) - the fact that the Academy Awards et al fail to acknowledge their beloved, which will no doubt in retrospect be viewed as a mistake ("Pan's Labyrinth didn't even win Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, it lost to a conventional German drama movie which I haven't even seen" - A Hipster. "That 'German drama movie' you haven't seen, The Lives Of Others, happens to be the better movie. If you haven't seen it, you're not in the discussion, so shut up you baboon!" - Me) 
  • Score/Soundtrack - featuring either use of non-original songs from different periods or an unconventional score.  
  • Nostalgia/Retro - the final and a major feature of the hipster movie complex: a harkening back towards a different time period, made all the more bizarre especially given that most hipsters will not have actually grown up during that period
Top 10 (in alphabetical order)

1. The Big Lebowski - 

A terrific way to start this list. When the Coen brothers burst onto the scene with films such as Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink, they were rightly accepted with open arms for their irreverent sense of humour and defiance of genre conventions. However, when after the universal acceptance of Fargo their follow-up The Big Lebowski disappointed at the box-office and got mixed reviews, the hipsters had their movie. Fargo and their later No Country For Old Men were way too widely praised, and Lebowski ticks just about everything hipster box: there's irony, eccentric characters, the Coens unique style, the darling(s) in Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro et al, the bucking of the traditional whodunnit, following the exploits of a layabout stoner with a penchant for bowling and White Russians (Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice owes alot to this film, I think), plus the soundtrack, featuring Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, Elvis Costello, Nina Simon and The Gypsy Kings' cover of The Eagles' Hotel California. It even has it's own religion (Dudeism) and film festival (Lebowski Fest)! 

Now, while it may have all the hipster demon's ingredients, don't let that fool you, because this is an outrageously humorous and fun comedy that is a pleasure to watch every time. Jeff Bridges is terrific as The Dude, as is John Goodman as Walter, and there's a whole litany of brilliant characters who may only have one or two scenes, but provide a whole lot of laughs. Hipsters begone, The Big Lebowski is ours!

2. City Of God -

Even at a fairly young age (and as a budding cinephile), I remember when City Of God came out and the attention it received. It's a kinetic firecracker of contemporary cinema, and one of the finest films to come out since the turn of the century. However, the fact is is that it is, for all of it's 'world cinema' (a term I detest) qualities, a rather accessible film. Labelled upon release as "the Brazilian Goodfellas," it's an episodic crime saga spanning two decades and has a score/soundtrack which features both the driving drumbeats of Antonio Pinto and Ed Cortes and songs such as Carl Douglas' Kung Fu Fighting. It became massively popular at home (the highest-grossing film in 2003 in Brazil) and abroad, bagging four Academy Award nominations. Unfortunately, for all it's brilliance, City Of God has become one of those populist 'world cinema' pictures that hipsters regularly cite as a go-to film when espousing their worldly knowledge in international cultures. Try to engage in a dialogue about French filmmaker Marcel Camus' excellent 1959 picture Black Orpheus and their brains will implode!

City Of God transcends this with the immediacy with which it addresses it's subject matter. For all of the more stylish qualities in the editing and music, there's something that feels so truthful in the layered portrayal of life in the Cidade de Deus suburb of Rio de Janeiro. The dialogue is conversational and often outrageously funny, the characters and story full of depth and poignancy. At times, it's also staggering in the abrupt brutality of its violence. 

3. A Clockwork Orange -

From the opening titles, shot and initial narration in the first scene of the film, I fell in love with A Clockwork Orange. For a long time, it was my favourite film, and I'd still include it in my top ten, maybe top five of all-time. However, that beginning also sees the hallmarks of a hipster film. I mean, come on; you've got that twisted Warholian production design, Wendy Carlo's synthesised perversion of classical music and, of course, the sociopathic delinquent protagonist Alex (played to charming perfection by Malcolm McDowell), who revels in the heinous acts of rape and ultraviolence he denigrates his victims with. Also, with thematic content concerning free will and thought control, thy hipster can read into this as a metaphor for his existential struggle to live in a world concerned at oppressing his 'individuality.'

Beware though, because A Clockwork Orange's moral messages transcend such simple readings, positing that the viewer ask more than just the base surface questions. Amidst all of this, you have a director at the peak of his powers (yes, this is Stanley Kubrick's best film) who despite letting his characters go wild in this mad little ditty, exhibits the directorial intent of a true master. 

4. Drive -

Ah, yes. If ever there was a great movie which hipsters tried to ruin, this is it. The great contemporary hipster movie, when Drive came out in 2011 I was very positive about, and considered it among the best films of the year. Upon release though, hipsters flocked to this movie. Featuring Ryan Gosling (perhaps this generation's epitome of 'indie darling') in the central part of a stuntman moonlighting as a getaway driver, it boasts a retro soundtrack with tracks which have become cult classics in their own right (the amount of DJ/electronic gigs I've worked were Nightcall was on the PA immediately before a group or artist came on is countless) and fitting in with this whole eighties-electronica/synth revival thing going on (among which I have to say there are some artists I listen to). Also, the visual style of the film, which director Nic Winding Refn puts down to his colour-blindness, starts out with it's contrasting palette, and there's a lot of Gosling and Carey Mulligan's Irene looking long into the abyss while ethereal pulsating dream/synth-pop waifs sing about real human beings and being under a spell. Melancholy, melancholy, melancholy. 

However, despite these things being attached, Drive is an excellent film. I watched it again recently and it reminded me of just distinctive the picture is how even near a half-decade after it's release it still feels fresh and stands out from the pack. It's a genre-inflected, neon-lit fairy tale, and while the fickle hipsters may have adopted it as one of their own (you want fickle, just look at their negative reactions to Only God Forgives. Oh I'm sorry, were you expecting Drive 2?), but I still love it.

5. Edward Scissorhands -

Ah yes, Tim Burton, one of the resident hipster go-to filmmakers when it comes to them discoursing with their beginner's guide of cine-literacy how much they love the movies. As far as his whole oeuvre, I find his work to be at times rather patchy, lacking objective self-awareness as far as quality control, and while I admire his distinctive qualities, I don't think he's up there with the very best of filmmakers. This film has Burton's and the hipster film's trademarks: fronted by an indie darling in Johnny Depp, full of starkly juxtaposed sets, middle-American suburbia clashing with the gothic design's of the mansion on the hill and the thematic content involving an isolated loner who is rejected from society purely on the basis of his looks. 

Despite this things in the hipster's favour, Edward Scissorhands breaks out from because of the sincerity with which it is executed. It's a beautifully told fairy tale of people coming-of-age, romance, heartbreak and adventure. Johnny Depp, for all of his charisma, has never been better here, channelling a tremendous amount of sympathy in a role that is largely silent, and you get the sense that there is something legitimate here. After the tremendous box-office success of Batman, Tim Burton could have done anything, but he chose something small, yet close to home. He put his heart and soul into the picture and twenty-five years on it's his best film to date.

6. Let The Right One In -

Let's make on thing perfectly clear: however much they may deny it, hipsters love vampires. They're moody, broody and occasionally a wee bit melancholy. So why aren't they jumping on the Twilight bandwagon, eh? Maybe it's too commercial, it's too mainstream, maybe it just lacks the rich emotional complexity that it so valiantly strives for. Enter Let The Right One In. Released in it's home country of Sweden in Autumn 2008, the same season Twilight fever was abound, and over the course of the next year, 'the Swedish vampire film,' as it became known in film circles before most had even seen it, a reputation was cultivated around it. This was the movie that really delved into the thick of things, twisted and bending the genre on it's head, that wasn't a PG-13 picture and wasn't pulling any punches, and most importantly, was a viable alternative to the inescapable juggernaut of Twilight. So of course hipsters flocked...

... and hipsters were subsequently spurned. The film, adapted by Tomas Alfredson and John Ajvide Lindqvist (one of my favourite writers) from the latter's novel of the same name, is indeed a movie that turns the genre on it's head, but at the same what many don't understand is that it also embraces much of the tropes involved with the vampire mythos. Furthermore, it's an elegantly crafted piece of work and beautifully acted by Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, whose relationship as Oscar and Eli is the crux of this picture. What really separates this from the pack is the sincerity with which the whole thing is done. This is not part of some grand design to do something different. Ajvide Lindqvist, as he does with much of his literature, firmly entrenches these fantastical elements in the real world, making them feel familiar and genuine.

7. Mulholland Drive -

Another resident hipster filmmaker, Mr. David Lynch. It's not exactly anything new to say that David Lynch has a very unique approach to many aspects of filmmaking, from sound design to lighting to set decorating to soundtracks, right down to dense and occasionally complicated stories. Mulholland Drive is perhaps both the go-to example when suggesting a beginner's guide to Lynch (although my choice'd be Blue Velvet). Given that the film is such a hotbed of discussion, one can quite easy imagine a litter of hipsters with overly-groomed facial hair sitting in a coffee shop (how very meta, discussing Lynch in a coffee shop, oh ho ho!) musing over the picture that none them really quite understand or have any conclusive answer for because most of them can't think for themselves. That's an image I want out of my head right about now.

What does it for me with this film is that for all of it's rich complexity and food for thought (and don't get me wrong, it is, and I also have my conclusions as to what it's all about), it's a film that is primarily, for me, a sensory experience. You see, you hear and more or less feel the tapestry of this picture as it drifts along, floating as though in the unconscious world of dreams. Everything about this film, the startling imagery and sound design, often working as separate parts in a cohesive units, the strangely powerful performances by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, the many pieces in the great big puzzle of Lynchian wonder, all adds up to a big, rather paradoxical question-mark. It's about how you interpret that question mark which will see the blue box open and unveil the true answer.

8. Pulp Fiction -

Perhaps the ultimate hipster movie, Pulp Fiction ticks just about every box on the hipster list: it's alternative, ironic, quirky, stylish, directed by an indie darling filmmaker hot off of his first picture, full of stars, both cult and classic, does some very transgressive things inside standard genre trappings, has the closet romantics looking for the meaning of life, a retro feel, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes (the hipster's film festival, even though it's as commercial as Hollywood), has an eclectic soundtrack and is full of nods and references to pop culture and film lore, giving hipsters the opportunity to spew insider knowledge about films they've never even seen. Long, fucking, sentence!

What saves Pulp Fiction though is that, although I ride on Quentin Tarantino and his recent work a lot, it's easy to forget that at one time he was one of the most fascinating, bold and audacious filmmakers around. Reservoir Dogs was a real eye-opener that made you go, "this guy's got class," and then Pulp Fiction came along like a firecracker had been launched under the table of a mildly influential politician at an evening gala. Although every young writer-director now tries to write and direct like Tarantino, when he first did it nobody was making movies like this. Nothing compare to this film, not even Tarantino himself, who has been endlessly repeating the formula for twenty years since in his films, most of which could do with being an hour shorter and have none of the density or rich tapestry to be found in this film. However much I rag on him, I'll never deny him the masterpiece that is Pulp Fiction.

9. Shaun Of The Dead -

Why is Shaun Of The Dead a hipster movie? After all, isn't it quite a popular film, and Lord knows, hipsters hate popular films? Well, it's a genre film, but that mish-mash of horror-comedy so it isn't explicitly one or the other, it has a throwback learning towards nostalgia and (most importantly) there is a strong sense of ironic, tongue-in-cheek humour, schooling the wannabe genre enthusiasts in referential tidbits to horror films that they might not ever end up bothering their arses to see.

Shaun Of The Dead defies such a label though because it is one of the few horror-comedies (alongside the likes of The Bride Of Frankenstein, An American Werewolf In London and Re-Animator) which manages to be simultaneously hilarious and legitimately scary. Looking back on Shaun Of The Dead, it's actually quite startling that they don't hold back on the violence and dare to match the levels of brutality of found in the likes of George A. Romero's Dead films or Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters (and that's saying something). Finally, over and above it's status as a comedic homage to the zombie film genre, it's also in itself one of the finest entries into that genre period. 

10. Waking Life -

I love Richard Linklater, but man do hipsters flock to his pictures. There's a bevy of films in his oeuvre that I could have selected, from Slacker to Dazed And Confused to the Before trilogy, but in this case I've decided to go with Waking Life. I was first introduced to this film by a good friend a number of years ago and was mesmerised, but clearly also were the hipsters. Why, you say? Well, everything about the picture screams alternative, from the uniquely stylised rotoscoping to some of the legitimately transgressive topic matter, which also gives the hipster a crash course in philosophy for them to pontificate about later on, and the fact it's the brainchild of Linklater, a bonafide indie darling.

Waking Life, despite this, is an intelligent, thought-provoking film. The terrific thing about Linklater's episodic collection of philosophical ideas is that they are just that, ideas. We are not supposed to take them as gospel (for some of the ideas posed directly contradict others in the picture), but instead form our own conclusions for them. It's a starter point. Furthermore, between these ideas and the rotoscoping, it's a cerebral experience that defies traditional narrative logic, floating fluidly between dreams and reality, blurring both of their lines into one individual piece. In a rich body of work which includes the aforementioned films, A Scanner Darkly, Bernie and the widely-acclaimed Boyhood, Waking Life remains one of his most accomplished films.

Well, there you have it! You can't half tell I've been writing this article in bits and bobs over the past few months. I can assure though that I am back for the time being and I hope to banging out some material this week, so, for all the latest and greatest as regards the movies, keep your eyes posted!

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