Features, Film, Kids' Stuff

Kids’ Stuff: The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland

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By Nathan Smith

As a critic, I don’t believe that it’s necessarily my job to tell you exactly what a movie means. Interpretations differ base on one’s background, biases, and life experiences, so red to you might be blue to me. I can offer theories and evidence to support them, but I can’t necessarily make you accept those theories as fact. I can, however, succeed at another job. If I can’t get you to agree with me, I can at least make you try to think for yourself. Recently, when most of my movie-going friends found themselves surprised by the movie Edge of Tomorrow, they usually said that Tom Cruise was to blame for their initially low expectations for the film.

“But I don’t like Tom Cruise.”

I’m not by any means a fan of Tom Cruise; while Top Gun is actually one of my favorite movies, I haven’t seen a performance of his in the last decade that’s truly struck me. As more and more people talked about their dislike of Tom Cruise, the more I got to thinking: do people dislike Tom Cruise because they actually dislike Tom Cruise, or do people dislike Tom Cruise because other people dislike Tom Cruise? There wasn’t an especially practical way to test out this hypothesis, so instead, I started suggesting that maybe Tom Cruise wasn’t as bad an actor as people thought, that maybe *gasp* he was actually a good actor. Did I necessarily believe this in its entirety? No. But that wasn’t my purpose. My purpose was to make those who bought into an over-sold opinion decide for themselves.

That being said, I have a few words to say about the movie The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. In the late 1990s, PBS and Sesame Street found themselves struggling to compete with a new kid on the block: Blue’s Clues, and more broadly, Nick Jr. While I was strictly a Sesame Street guy, most kids I knew dabbled in both. Looking back on the latter show, it hasn’t aged nearly as well as the former. While Henson and company went for the whole family, Blue’s Clues and subsequent shows like Dora the Explorer opted to talk directly to the kid in front of the television. When you’re young, this seems amazing. The people in the television can actually hear you talk! At an older age, it seems at best incredibly condescending, at worst incredibly creepy. The model must have proved incredibly popular, as children’s programming still uses it to this day, but it alienates a good part of the audience. One can’t forget that the parents are watching too, and the most successful, enriching, and timeless kid’s classics have spoken to everyone in the room.

So in 1999, Sesame Street decided to try something new out, and it must have worked. But it signaled a radical sea change for the greatest children’s show of all time, and a downward slope in quality. Despite being a box office bomb, The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland marked Elmo’s continued rise in popularity, and he quickly become the character most aoften ssociated with the street. Even to this day, “Elmo’s World” takes up a significant chunk of each episode. I’d argue that part of this is because Kevin Clash, the man behind the Muppet, is an incredible performer; he imbues Elmo with an incredible sense of humanity, and sometimes even pain. In one moment he’s your best friend, the next he’s bitter and vicious, and in other moments still he’s sad as can be.

Even though Elmo in Grouchland heralded radical shifts for Sesame Street, there’s a potentially more radical message within the film- and here’s where I connect back to the first few paragraphs. While you might just write off Elmo in Grouchland as, well, “kids’ stuff,” part of me suspects that it’s actually a pretty potent treatise on property rights. Yes, you heard me- The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland might be a low-key adaptation of The Communist Manifesto. I don’t say this because Karl Marx scares me and I look for his hand in everything I do- I’m saying this to get you to think. So think about it! Elmo (who just so happens to be RED) loves his blanket, but once he goes to Grouchland, he loses it to a greedy landlord who oppresses the local population by taking their “stuff.” The grouches are kept so low by Huxley, played by Mandy Patinkin and his eyebrows, that the only thing that unites them is their apathy. But once their furry red leader arrives, they are able to come together, overthrow the “rich,” and take back their land- and blankets- for themselves.

Ridiculous, I know. But if you view any cultural object with the right lens you can find something. As I talked about in a piece published earlier today, you shouldn’t merely let others dictate to you what art means or doesn’t mean. If you notice a certain talking pointed recycled enough, maybe you should reconsider it. The point of criticism isn’t to tell you what to like or what to believe- it’s to understand other people through popular culture, to relate to them, to empathize. And many times, it’s a means for the promotion of alternative thought. Just like Elmo and his blanket, it can be used to battle conformity and oppression. But don’t believe me. Take your own word for it.

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Editorials

Not ANOTHER Manifesto: Why Criticism Isn’t Dead, Just Misunderstood

By Nathan Smith

I spend too much time thinking about criticism. That’s interesting, because I generally don’t like pieces on the “state of criticism.” What is the state of criticism? It exists, and that’s enough for me. But I also feel that criticism, a service and art form deeply misunderstood by the public-at-large and even many of its own practitioners, has gotten the shaft as recently. We seem to have mistaken “criticism” for snark, for cynicism, and for “criticizing.” My frustration with these misconceptions has led me once again to that most dangerous of hobbies: manifesto-writing.

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Music, Playlist

smash cuts: mustard or pants

mustard

By Nathan Smith

Considering that I ride or die for rap more than any other genre, it’s strange that I haven’t delivered a strictly rap playlist to you guys yet. To repent for the error of my ways, I’ve decided to cleanse myself in the mustard and offer up 20 of the past several years’ best booty-shaking bangers. From Young Thug to YG, “Dipshits” to “Move That Dope,” no beat is too fat, no chain too low . You say “Jump in da paint,” I say “How hard?” Get ready to go to death row, because it’s about to be a Suge Night, and you’re not going back to your old life neither. Don’t worry. We’ve got sadboy bangers too.

And yes, I did put Cam’ron & A-Trak’s “Dipshits” on here twice, because it’s just that good.

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Album Reviews, Music

Mixtape Review: Signed to the Streets 2 and Lil Durk’s Absurdist Moment of Clarity

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By Nate James

Originally published on A Feeling I Get

Lil Durk’s 2013 tape, Signed To The Streets, is a Chicago drill classic, both sonically and emotionally. Durk is and always has been a fighter, but he fights in a loving, romantic way that emphasizes sacrifice. Signed To The Streets placed him in the drill movement as the scene’s heart – Durk is more absurdist than nihilist, responding to Englewood’s violence with a romanticization of existential sacrifice as a means of brotherly strength and solidarity. Instead of becoming emotionally hardened by the deaths of friends, he presented himself as a wound – vulnerable, suffering, and wholly unafraid, with nothing but his family. His self-image rested on a conception of himself as the bleeding heart that carried that family, willing to lay his life down for his kids and his crew. The sound carried with this theme – tracks like “Don’t Understand Me” and “Times” brought out Durk’s unfuckwithable strength but also pointed past the bullshit and insisted that there was something better, some strength to be derived from the horror of all the death around them, pain that could be escaped in one another.

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Film, What We Watched

What We Watched: 07/21/14

By Jack Evans

Apocalypse Now

This week in Films Jack Still Hadn’t Seen: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is every bit the stone-cold classic it’s made out to be, with every shot perfectly composed, every actor at the top of his game, every moment significant. I read Heart of Darkness a couple of years ago, and Apocalypse Now follows it more closely than I expected, drawing every ounce of bleakness from its source material. And while the film’s journey into the heart of Cambodia does primarily serve as an exploration into the depths of men’s hearts, that doesn’t mean it’s not damn entertaining or engrossing.

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Music, Singles

Throwback Track of the Week: The Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach”

By Jack Evans

In the Ramones’ first press release, which was written by Tommy Ramone and resurfaced after the legendary drummer’s death last week, Ramone writes that “the Ramones are an original Rock and Roll group of 1975.” It is true that the Ramones, along with the rest of the first wave of punk in both America and Britain, were unlike any other groups around, with only a handful of earlier acts like MC5 and The Stooges as easy points of comparison. But that “original Rock and Roll” has another significance: unlike the era’s other early punk bands, which – especially the British ones – were highly reactionary against the old guard of rock, the Ramones’ work, especially in their early days, shows a reverence for the pop and old-school rock and roll of the late 1950s and early-mid ’60s. The group’s early aesthetics – shaggy black hair, tight pants, phony British accents – even reads as an actualization of Thomas Pynchon’s satire of 60s American bands in The Crying of Lot 49. The Ramones may well have been the world’s first pop-punk band, and while the Ramones songs that most influenced my early punk development (namely, the anti-Reagan pop of “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)” and the group’s foray into hardcore, “Warthog”) were part of the band’s 80s catalog, it’s their mid-to-late 70s work, with the original lineup intact, that finds them at their best and shows how they influenced everything from Black Flag to the Blue Album to Blink-182. “Rockaway Beach,” from the 1977 classic Rocket to Russia, is one of their best songs, an upbeat, 3-chord burst of harmony-stuffed joy. And Tommy Ramone’s stead floor-tom grooves anchor the whole thing, a prime example of how he influenced every drummer to ever play punk. RIP.

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Music, Tape Swap

Tape Swap: June 2014

There are so many new rap and hip-hop releases that deserve our time and consideration each week, but only so many writers with so many hours in their day that we can assign to cover them. Luckily, two new contributors have entered the smash cut fold, Malcolm Baum and John O’Brien, with that specific purpose in mind: to review the hip-hop albums and tapes you might be giving heavy rotation, as well as the ones you might have slept on. Every so often they’ll bring you those thoughts as part of our latest feature, Tape Swap. I know it’s July, but here’s some of last month’s releases. – Nathan

Bones – Garbage

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Los Angeles rapper Bones is one of the more interesting up-and-coming rappers who has gotten big through the internet, for better or for worse. Coming off of his often cringeworthy TeenWitch mixtape, my hopes weren’t high for Garbage, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bones has really come into his own as far as his aesthetic is concerned. Usually, his tapes come off as extremely hit-or-miss, but the first track, “ReturnOfThePimp”, shows that he’s really not fucking around this time. The tape is full of dark, atmospheric tracks, but what really sets this apart from his other tapes is that everything fits. Every time Bones chooses to sing (or even scream, as he does on “IfYouHadAZuneIHateYou” and “HeartagramAdios”), it feels warranted and contributes to the overall feel of the tape. Sure, there are duds as far as the rapping is concerned (the first verse of “Butterfly “comes to mind), but overall this is a surprisingly strong tape rom a rapper with a lot of potential. Hopefully he doesn’t waste it pandering to the internet’s emotionally unstable sadboy population. – John O’Brien

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Music, Playlist

smash cuts: break stuff

Fred Durst
By Jack Evans

Though I consider myself to have a pretty broad taste in music nowadays, there was a time (read: middle school) when the vast majority of what I listened to was metal. While I don’t listen to as much metal anymore (at least, no more than any other genre), my childhood fascination with the heavy stuff did lead me to discover different forms of aggressive music that have played a big role in shaping my musical taste over the past couple of years. Since I’ve been running Smash Cut for the past week, I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay tribute to the hard stuff at least a little bit. Accordingly, here’s a playlist of hardcore, metalcore, grind, and screamo, for when it’s, you know, just one of those days.

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Film, What We Watched

What We Watched: 07/11/14

By Jack Evans

Goodfellas

I mentioned last week in my Annie Hall write-up that I’m seriously lacking in my experience with film classics (and that includes modern/recent classics). Here’s where you can continue making fun of me, because I hadn’t seen Goodfellas until earlier this week. I can see why people have called American Hustle a hollow rip-off of Goodfellas, because, well, it kind of is. I can also see why Goodfellas is considered a classic: it’s engrossing and masterfully composed, and while its 2-and-a-half hours don’t move rapidly, per say, every minute feels important. It’s certainly stylistically distinct, but it also has heart, something that can’t be said for certain imitators.

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Music, Singles

Track of the Week: Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate)’s “If It’s Bad News, It Can Wait”

By Jack Evans

Those who preach about the Emo Revival tend to forget that emo never really left, at least not altogether. That’s not to understate the importance of the recent surge in emo bands – it’s probably my favorite recent musical movement – but keep in mind that for every one of today’s Brave Birds, there was a Snowing practicing similarly hyperactive pop-punk half a decade before; when we look at State Faults and the like, it might be easy to forget that Touché Amoré have been doing their thing for seven years.

Among the bands keeping the emo faith alive in the past decade has been prolific Michigan outfit Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), whose far-reaching twinkles and importance as part of preeminent label Count Your Lucky Stars helped jump-start the genre’s resurgence. Despite the fact that Empire! Empire! has been operating since 2006 and has released a slew of EPs, 7”s, and splits, the upcoming You Will Eventually Be Forgotten is only their second full-length, following 2009’s excellent What it Takes to Move Forward. While “If It’s Bad News, It Can Wait” is the album’s first single, the band has been posting the album’s lyrics song-by-song on Facebook, each song a self-contained autobiographical short story by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Keith Latinen, and “If It’s Bad News…” continues that trend. Entwined with the song’s rise-and-fall of ringing guitars is a tender, sun-drenched coming-of-age narrative that stretches from the unbound adventurousness of youth to silence in the wake of tragedy. Emo bands have long been adept at pairing their music with lyrics in a narrative structure – look at the mewithoutYou/La Dispute musical lineage – but more uniquely, Empire! Empire! finds its strength here in its soul-baring simplicity and in its dedication to its tradition of songs built on layers of twinkling guitars, resulting in an affecting short story.

Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate)’s You Will Eventually Be Forgotten comes out August 19th via Count Your Lucky Stars and Topshelf Records.

 

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