Saturday, June 14, 2008

Freundeskreiss (German hip hop)

For some reason, as I was folding laundry today, I remembered the German hip hop group, Freundeskreis. Is this ringing any bells out there?

Ohhhhh, how I loved their "Esperanto" album. It came out in 1999 (or "neun-neun" as they say auf album), and I remember listening to it in my brother's car and driving all over town just so we could keep listening to it (yeah... this was when gas was like $1.25 a gallon).

Looking back, I have to say the 90s were a remarkable time for hip hop. Ohmega Watts brought this up in Imago Dei's "Yes Yes Y'all" workshop. There was so much creativity and thought going into the genre in the 90s. It wasn't just the time of Snoop Dogg, but Digable Planets, the Fugees, Common and so much more.

This album was particularly creative. Musically, was full of tasty guitar bits and old-timey samples over mellow beats. Lyrically, what I understood of it was really fun and clever. It was multi-lingual above all-- German, French, English, Spanish, even Esperanto (the International Language, if you don't count Love like the girl in "Better off Dead" did). Only Freundeskreiss could bust three languages in one phrase and make it all rhyme.

All I have of it at this point are web samples and my brother's kasset tape. Does anyone still listen to these guys? Does anyone miss them as much as I do?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Mister Lonely

Harmony Korine’s latest cinematic offering “Mister Lonely” comes hot on the bizarro heels of such oddball and often time disturbing offerings, as “Kids”, “Gummo” and “Julien Donkey Boy”. “Mister Lonely,” a slightly softer film than some of Korine’s other more controversial movies, follows the fortunes of a young American lost and lonely in Paris where he makes his living as a street performer impersonating Michael Jackson. The movie begins with Michael’s utopian belief that he can be anyone he wants to be and find in this ongoing impersonation some kind of misplaced freedom and sense of self. Michael sees himself as master of his own destiny and takes comfort in fully embracing the identity he has created for himself. A powerful opening scene finds Michael moonwalking and gyrating for a group of senile pensioners in a nursing home, repeatedly chanting, “you’re never going to die, I want you to live forever,” as if he truly believes in his own omnipotence.

Moments later Michael is introduced to a Marilyn Monroe lookalike. Besotted from the outset by her ethereal charms and the promise of utopia, (a place where everyone is famous and no one ever grows old,) he follows her back to the Scottish commune where she lives with her husband- a Charlie Chaplin impersonator, her daughter- Shirley Temple, and a number of other impersonators including Madonna, Abraham Lincoln, Sammy Davis Jr., the Pope, the Queen and somewhat bizarrely, in a film marked by the ongoing suspension of disbelief- Little Red Riding Hood. This unlikely group of individuals have created their own version of paradise in the Highlands of Scotland; farming the land, performing nightly and deciding who they each want to be on a daily basis. Korine takes great pains to create his paradise not quite lost, using haunting panoramic camera angles, a deeply nostalgic soundtrack and a number of woozy, almost narcoticized soliloquies from his cast, preaching on the perfect idealism they have finally found here in this community of the misunderstood.

Very soon however, darker powers become apparent in Eden. The Fall comes early in “Mister Lonely” as Marilyn Monroe, dripping strawberry in hand, makes her seductive move on Michael Jackson. He partakes of the fruit and the descent into sin wrecks havoc on the whole community. Death enters into paradise as disease sweeps through the livestock calling for a cull on all the sheep. Adultery, lust, anger and jealousy are all subtly hinted at and magnified under Korine’s unflinching lens. As the film progresses the director refuses to airbrush these impersonated stars who at first seemed glamorous, beautiful and somehow larger than life-we begin to see them blemished and goose bumped, cellulite bulging from beneath their sequined costumes. The effect is almost grotesque as if someone finally turned the house lights on Hollywood to find Tinseltown one hundred years old and bearing the marks of age. Each of the key impersonators begins to find a sense of entrapment in their assumed identities, rather than the initial hoped for freedom. Marilyn Monroe suffers terribly from a lecherous, abusive husband and chooses in return to flirt with adultery. Charlie Chaplin struggles with anger, lust and an inability to be taken seriously and Michael Jackson becomes the Mister Lonely and misunderstood so heavily hinted at in the film’s title. Without exception each of the impersonators begins to assume, not only the fabulous talent of their idealized star, but also their crippling insecurities and character faults. Too late they realize that no one, not even Marilyn Monroe is entirely capable of recreating themself.

Faced with the problem of a fracturing community and reality knocking darkly on their commune door, the community rally round and with forced bravado, decide to put on the show to end all shows, a swaggering wonder of a performance which will wow the locals into not only accepting them as normal but also envying them their odd standing in life. They build a stage, hoping in their own minds to ascend to Babel’s heights, practice for hours and eventually perform to an audience of eight bored looking locals. Finally the penny drops and Korine does an excellent job of capturing a community devastated by the realization of who they really are- a group of individuals unsure of their own identity, flawed, incapable of change and miserably lonely. Monroe surrenders to her assumed destiny and commits suicide, Chaplin descends into hysterics and Michael Jackson trashes his hats and costumes to attempt life in the normal world as a young man without a name.

In “Mister Lonely,” Harmony Korine has given us an excellent, if slightly oddball look, at man’s inability to force his own future. Watching the movie I was once again reminded of the many ways in which I daily attempt to force freedom and escape only to find myself caught up in an ever-contracting noose of my own making. Like a proverb, pinning this whole movie together is the gorgeous metaphor of a group of nuns whom God has blessed with the miraculous ability to fly unaided. For weeks they fly free on invisible wings through God’s blue sky, humbled by their small part in this enormous miracle. Finally the Pope hearing of this miraculous turn of events calls for a display at the Vatican, the nuns pile into a plane, suddenly excited by the idea of celebrity, adventure and actual, tangible human wonder. Korine closes his movie with a shot of these same five nuns, intended by God to plough the open skies, dead and washed up in the wreckage of their shipwrecked plane- a timely reminder of freedom found, tainted by human ambition and oh so easily lost.

Jan Carson blogs at

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Jesus, Kanye and me

This week I was lucky enough to get free tickets to see Kanye West's over-the-top, pyromaniacal concert in Portland. I'm big a fan of a lot of Kanye's music (fun beats and hyper-clever rhymes), but I'm not a fan of his ego trips. This show was definitely confirmation of that.

But we were still lucky to go because it was such a huge spectacle. The show had a spaceship theme (which looked SO cool!) and a story that concluded when Kanye realized he was the biggest star in the universe and that he alone had the power to send his broken spaceship back home... by rapping his most recent radio hit. Umm... yeah.

But in the midst of all the flashing lights, naughty lyrics and ego-mania, Jesus was with me. Yeah, it was kind of a surprise, but it was really cool.

Kanye has one remotely religious song that's called "Jesus Walks." Musically, it was the best-sounding song of the show, which was interesting because it was also the one where God spoke to me. Hopefully it spoke to other people too. The song starts with these lyrics (try to get past the hip hop lingo!):

"Yo, we at war
We at war with terrorism, racism,
And most of all we at war with ourselves

(Jesus Walks)
God show me the way because the Devil trying to break me down
(Jesus Walks with me)
The only thing that I pray is that my feet don't fail me now."

What clicked with me was the phrase "at war with ourselves." Suddenly I realized that I'm not much better than Kanye. I don't show my faults and my pride to the world as extravagantly as he does, but they are there. God knows they are there, I know they are there, and they are wearing me out.

A lot of times I feel like I'm at war with myself, just like good ole Kanye. Because of some weird past experiences, I usually cringe when people talk about spiritual warfare. But as I was boppin' along to the "Jesus Walks" song, I realized that it's good to see some of my own struggles as a war-- they are not to be taken lightly. In many ways, as I work to overcome the weakest parts of my humanity, I am in a spiritual war, and Jesus is with me on it. It's something I've been told my whole life, but it finally sunk in. If Jesus is with me, what can be against me? Nothing, unless I try to face it myself, which is usually pretty ineffective and exhausting.

Kanye kept going:

"To the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers even the strippers
(Jesus walks with them)...
Now hear me, hear me, want to see Thee more clearly
I know he hear me when my feet get weary...
I ain't here to argue about his facial features
Or here to convert atheists into believers
I'm just trying to say the way school need teachers
The way Kathie Lee needed Regis that's the way I need Jesus."

OK, permission to laugh is granted here. I really love those last lines. They're hilarious because they're true. And I'm really grateful that they are.

Charity blogs at