The Cult of Cartman

19 12 2008

South Park: The Cult of Cartman – Revelations
Cast: Trey Parker, Matt Stone
(Comedy Central) Rated: N/A
US release date: 7 October 2008 (Paramount Home Video)

Review by Derek Beres

“Don’t you ever, ever compare me to Family Guy! If you ever compare me to Family Guy again, I’ll kill you right where you stand.” It is here, in the middle of a desert somewhere between South Park, Colorado and Los Angeles, that Eric Theodore Cartman makes a heartfelt and impassioned monologue about his normally humorous penchant for storytelling, before shoving Kyle aside to escape on his Hot Wheels tricycle. Indeed, he almost succeeds in getting Family Guy pulled from the air. If not for his continual nemesis—Kyle—trailing him all the way into the television studio, he would have completed his mission.

Cartman isn’t always so unlucky—in “Scott Tenorman Must Die”, he successfully murders Scott’s parents and feeds them to him in a bowl of chili, right before Radiohead appears to laugh at the boy who had sold Cartman pubic hairs for $10. Cartman himself even refers to this incident in the two-part “Cartoon Wars”, when scaring Bart Simpson out of line to speak to Rupert Murdoch and present his case about the dangers of Family Guy.

Pop culture references run rampant in South Park, as do the equally biting social commentaries. Let me pause briefly before exploring that idea. Suffice to say, I’m somewhat of a South Park addict. I won’t go as far to claim that I’m a South Parkian, a la Trekkies and other slightly skewed people with too much time on their hands, who dress up like film characters and attend conferences to discuss the existentialist ramifications of Luke Skywalker not finishing Jedi training to help his friends. I’ve never dressed as Yoda and demanded that people “Do, or no do. No try.” I have no plans on buying a costume dedicated to eight-year-olds with large mouths and no morals. But to say that South Park isn’t one of the most culturally relevant (and funny) television shows we have would be equally unacceptable.

I have this friend who pushes buttons. He has the amazing ability to push to the point of complete and unapologetic exhaustion, and then still he pushes more. Somehow you never quite go over the edge. This is most definitely a skill: some people push a little bit and set others off on wild tangents. To annoy, and yet not destroy, is a discipline, and I have the feeling that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are well versed. Besides a run-in they had with Chef (Isaac Hayes) after taking a strong right hook at Scientology a few years back, they are usually let off the hook, no matter what they say or how they say what they say.

Read the full review on PopMatters.


The Science of Systems

19 12 2008

This blog was originally posted on

By Derek Beres

I spend a lot of time in Whole Foods — probably too much. Nearly every day I’m in (at least) one of three of their four New York City locations. As a store, the company has a lot going for them, including one of their greatest inventions: the automated line. At the end of each row of cashier lanes sit between three and five rows, with a screen and computerized voice informing you which counter to go to. It’s ingenious in its simplicity, the most logical system imaginable. And yet, time and again, it confuses the hell out of people.

Take Monday, for example. It’s primetime, I’m trying to buy a bar and coconut water, it’s very crowded. As I approach the end of my prospective line, a man is spotted in the middle of the floor walking aimlessly from line to line, trying to find the clerk who he is assigned to. The worker at the front has to go over to him and tell him there’s an actual row to wait in, that the screen will tell him where to go. He gets confused and frustrated at the system, calling it “stupid,” though eventually finding his place within it.

This is not an isolated incident; I see this confusion often. Thing is, there are always different results. Most often someone will realize what happened, laugh, and get back in line, or go to the right clerk. Yet sometimes someone will act as this man did, calling a very basic system “stupid” simply because he did not know how the system worked. Obviously, this sort of response is not limited to supermarket lines.

In fact, I used this incident as the theme for my yoga classes this week. There is a correlation to asanas — sometimes when I call out a pose that a student does not understand, or cannot perform, they have a similar reaction: the class is too hard, this pose is too challenging, I won’t even try. Thus, they were defeated before they even began. Just because one does not understand the posture — the system — it is therefore at fault.

Most systems are essentially benign, at this level. A yoga posture is not “good” or “bad.” It is a structure, and how you adapt that structure into your body, or how you adapt your body to that structure, is indicative of your psychology. If you get easily frustrated, the posture is only bringing out the reaction already inside of you, like a seed waiting to sprout. If you laugh, or embody the challenge and move forward, this is where your head is. Your experience is defined by the thoughts you project into it.

A friend of mine who took my class last night, Daniel, sent me an email today:

In the beginning of class, you talked about this idea that, “There are no broken systems”; problems arise in “the way we relate to those systems.” The example that you suggested was a good one, in that it clearly supports your theory. The Whole Foods line situation really is a good system. Some people just find it confusing and their confusion, their lack of patience, etc. pisses them off, and then all of a sudden the system sucks. However … there are countless systems that truly are broken. Broken in the sense that there are very balanced, patient, wise people that are f*cked not because of their “relationship” to the system, but because the systems are unjust: colonialism, apartheid, fascism, the current American healthcare system, unregulated banking … the list is long. Anyway, I was stuck with this thought last night, and again as I woke up this a.m.

He is undoubtedly correct. When a system is devised for the gain of a few people, at the expense of others, it is broken, and will only eat its own tail, as the mythology of the uroboros goes. And yet, how many of us throughout history have not lived within some sort of broken system? Daniel mentioned the healthcare system, which is a great example. How we relate to that system in modern America is certainly a challenge. As someone who was uninsured for four years of my adult life, I know those struggles well. Still, the same principle applies: how I relate to it — if I let it defeat me, or if I stand up and move forward despite the greed of a few — is indicative of my psychology. I cannot believe the world will bend to my needs whenever I want. The flexibility of yoga involves my own bending, my own understanding that the world is not exactly how I want it to be. (Ironically, I’m currently reading the biography of V.S. Naipaul, fitting titled The World Is What It Is.) Once you know the limitations of your environment, only then can you find freedom within it.

Still, Daniel’s points are spot-on, and I had mentioned that while systems are usually benign, some people wrap and warp them to suit their own needs. What do we do then? Well, to the extent possible, we create our own systems to accommodate the good of the many. One friend recently forwarded me a link to her doctor in Brooklyn, whose company works by each member paying a monthly fee, instead of the one-time whopping bill. The fees are manageable for most, and the doctors reply by text messaging and emails, and always — I repeat always — follow up within a day. Generic prescriptions are free, and from what I understand they are very popular. (Last week they had a flu shot party at the office with a live DJ!) So here you have on a small scale a system that has become so in demand that the four doctors have to open another location in Manhattan. They were fed up with the healthcare system, and so founded their own, to help others, and to improve their own careers. Everyone wins, and the science of medicine, not the economics of it, takes precedence.

Embrace: EarthRise SoundSystem feat. Morley

19 12 2008

Death, Interrupted

15 12 2008

Death With Interruptions
José Saramago
Harcourt Books
October 2008, 256 pages, $24

By Derek Beres

It remains essential to the paradoxical nature of existence that only an atheist can write so beautiful and meaningful a theological masterpiece as José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. At the time of its 1992 publication, the work was barred against competing in the European Literature Prize by a government crying blasphemy.

The main problem, it seemed, was that Saramago portrayed Christ as an actual human being with real feelings, real problems, real doubt. Unlike what you’d expect from an atheist dealing with religious topics—perhaps we’d prepare for strong-worded refutations—Saramago instead created a heartfelt epic. To this set of eyes, it was more meaningful than the Bible—it taught me more about true Christianity—in that it made the man a man, and therefore accessible, instead of portraying him as some divine cosmonaut that we can never touch.

Saramago has a way of personifying subjects purported to be unfathomable. Take death, for instance, the topic of his latest work. Much like the book that most likely secured him the Nobel Prize for Literature, Blindness, Death with Interruptions shares common traits: there is no location (although it is easy to discern that it is Portugal), and the characters remain nameless. In this latest chapter of his literary quest, there is the cellist, the vigilantes, (and later the maphia—the “ph” distinguishes them from the traditional mafia), the prime minister, the cardinal, and, of course, death—he places emphasis on the lower-case “d”. The only thing we know about death is that she’s a woman and, by the end of the book, actually acquires feelings, not to mention the ability to sleep.

What Saramago loses in specifics he gains in ambiguity, putting readers right where he wants them. This is part of the reason he resisted a movie version of Blindness for so long; it took director Fernando Meirelles years of convincing (and rejection) to get the thumbs up. When something is vague, it is more likely to apply to a broader audience—Saramago’s novels are meditations to be experienced by those willing to journey down the labyrinthine mazes he constructs. He uses only commas and periods, and the occasional colon; dialogue, thought, narrative, first person, third person, these all blend and merge in one continuous monologue of sorts. It is rare to say that any author has found a truly original voice, but Saramago deserves such a citation.

Read the full review on PopMatters.

The Ubiquitousness of Ubiquity Records

12 12 2008

Global Beat Fusion: The Ubiquitousness of Ubiquity Records
By Derek Beres

Last week while going through one of those unavoidable clean-out-the-studio moments, I continued my digitizing and filing process to clear the clutter of over a decade of music journalism. And while the chaos cannot be contained in any sort of recognizable order, I have been good about separating certain labels during the process. It is to one of those processes that we turn to this month.

One of the most ubiquitous packages to arrive in my mailbox every few weeks over the last six years has also been one of the most welcomed: those thin brown press packages from Berkeley-based Ubiquity Records. Size does matter, but not necessarily in terms of largeness. The size of quality is more relevant than the number of albums a label pumps out. And while they have certainly been proficient, these listening ears over in Northern California serve a unique and important function in modern music, even if half of their albums take us back a few decades.

Ubiquity is to record labels what Wax Poetics is to magazines: small and stubbornly focused, with a diehard allegiance of fans that collect the albums as much as listen to them. There is no clear-cut definition of what the label produces, unless we go for universal terms like “good” and “dope”. Not to say all of their albums are the golden fleece. Yet somehow even their mediocrity is understandable and forgivable. And, thankfully, rare.

So now the last six years of Ubiquity Records are in one place, simultaneously, in a brand new CD booklet. And while a comprehensive overview would take many columns to produce, I’d rather focus, however briefly, on some of my favorites.

Read the full column on PopMatters.

Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy

12 12 2008

Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy
By Lawrence Lessig
October 2008, 327 pages, $25.95

By Derek Beres

“They are dazzled by the machines they import,” wrote Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul in his 1979 classic, A Bend in the River. “That is part of their intelligence; but they soon start behaving as though they don’t just own the machines, but the patents as well; they would like to be the only men in the world with such magical instruments.” While the author may have been referring to the character Mahesh’s fascination with the opening of his BigBurger franchise in Africa, we can understand, and sympathize with the universality of this statement.

Men have long hoped to own the machine and the patent with it, though that process was not so begrudgingly legislated until the 20th Century. In his previous book, Free Culture, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig challenged the trademark process like no one else was able to. Not only did he make his plea against the overbearing legislation in which grandmothers and tots were being called to court over downloading “scandals,” but he did what few other authors attempt: something about it. His Creative Commons trademarks have helped level the playing field in entertainment, offering the creator of art numerous levels of control over their creations.

Remix reads like a eulogy for Lessig’s decade-plus work in the field. It is his siren call, his offering of how the industry could benefit both corporation and consumer. He has recently announced that he’s done all he can in that realm, and instead of beating (and beating and beating) the proverbial dead horse, he will be focusing his efforts on corruption in Washington. He is not looking to franchise his own industry of trademark philosophy—he has raised the baby; now it’s time to let him stand up for himself.

More than anything, Lessig understands and often wrestles with a rather understated theory: common sense. Many of our ideas about the presentation and execution of entertainment have been carefully molded by a very small number of people who want the general population to believe that this is how entertainment should be presented and executed. From the outset, Lessig tackles this demon: “Here were two examples of free riding: people downloading Britney Spears’ music without paying her and people listening to ‘All Things Considered’ without paying NPR. With one, we criminalize the free riding. With the other, we don’t. Why?”

Read the full review on PopMatters.

Three Generations of Sarangi

4 12 2008

5 Ragas: Sarangis and Tabla (Arc)

Perhaps few instruments in the world have a distinct and pervasive enough sound to instantaneously define the culture that birthed it. The sarangi is one of them. While India is first and foremost known for its sitar, due to the ambassadorial role played by Ravi Shankar some four decades ago, the sarangi—as the literal translation has it, “hundred colors”—is the bowed lute that creates a texture unlike any other in the Hindustani tradition. In America Ustad Sultan Khan, a contemporary and friend of Shankar (they both played together in Tabla Beat Science, for one), is usually the first name to mind. The instrument has also been in various members of the Sabri family for eight generations, and this album is the first to invite three generations of players into the studio: Ustad Sabri Khan, Kamal Sabri, and Suhai Khan, along with tabla player Sarvar Sabri. Along with “colors”—which is also the meaning of the word “raga”—the sarangi has the intonations of a voice, often as if in urgency, or in calm. The paradoxical nature brings out its beauty; the 21-minute “Raag Megh,” an evening raga played during the monsoon season, captures elements of both serenity and fury. The genius of this musical system has always been its correlation between nature and sound, with humans mimicking the external circumstances. Playing predominantly evening or night ragas, by the time the closing morning raga, “Raag Pancham,” emerges, you feel as though you’ve gone through a journey with these talented kin. Over the course of five ragas and fifty-five minutes, they clue you into what has made this sound so important to their nation, and so appealing to the world. Derek Beres