A scintillating trip through the best of what 2015 gave us — buckle up!
It seems faintly distasteful to remark upon 2015’s finest moments in produced, reproducible culture, before that year has left us. Publish on December 30th and the most potent creation of the year may well come out on the 31st! And, who knows, perhaps it did?
What were the best works of 2015? Not merely in the sense of what they say about us now, but about our trajectory? We are in the thick of what, in coming decades and centuries, will almost certainly not be called The Independent Revolution; a time dominated, at least in the worth of their works, by artists of vital independence of spirit and means. They dispense with traditional industrial machinery to finance and distribute, according themselves a far greater personal risk factor but an equal amount of volatile creative freedom. To step outside the zeitgeist, these artists do in our day and age what is enormously difficult, given that shifty and often devious forms of aggressive media now pervade both the real and digital spheres. This, to this writer’s mind, causes their work to be all the more original and accomplished, and to feel all the more alive. As a result, particularly in the fields of music, film and video gaming, many of 2015’s best moments originated from independent sources.
This year’s celebrated theme is: works that inspired us to welcome the facets of personal responsibility in times and places of extreme adversity and peril. Because we like that.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly
Much has been made of the blackness of To Pimp a Butterfly. Insofar as Kendrick Lamar’s expressed politics stands in such cordial opposition to many of his liberal contemporaries (he has been accused, glibly, of being an appeasement politician), they are certainly fascinating and have accrued a significant amount of ink as a result; far more ink than has been accorded to those elements of this masterwork that are at least as worthy: namely, the music itself and the mechanics of Lamar’s broader message.
This album, thinking of it purely as a product with ear and shake appeal, is the result of letting great players play. Flying Lotus is spoiled by the number of architectural styles Lamar can adapt his mode and meaning to. Thundercat is liberated by the knowledge that everything, from excursions into colonial parable to nerveless Makavelian séance, will go through him. Rahki, Sounwave, Boi-1da and Terrace Martin all know that one of the others is open for a pass. Rapsody, Bilal and Anna Wise all have been left plenty of room in this breathing, ageless hip-hop aesthetic to craft and turn.
Despite having a list of contributors as long as any average modern hip-hop player, To Pimp a Butterfly has been built into the kind of mode of continuity in which every word, every chord, feels like a natural extension of its predecessor. Play its first song, the triumphal-by-halves ‘Wesley’s Theory’, and you risk not being able to pull yourself out of the flow until at least the point at which ‘For Sale’ purposefully lightens the aural grip. Spit the first couplet of ‘King Kunta’ with Lamar and the rest will flow out of you as if Lamar’s first lyrical language was your second tongue.
To Pimp a Butterfly is more than a Maria Dolorosa for contemporary civil rights; anyone interested in understanding it in such a way is heartily advised to seek the wealth of pre-existing criticism of the album. The ‘meaning’ of Lamar’s album, to a detail, is geared towards the individual at the ameliorative expense (but not the detriment) of the collective. The narrative track of the album is all built in the entrenched understanding that only an individual who has attained a mastery of self, can be a true friend of, and credit to, their community — however large or small, or drawn along social or racial lines that community may be.
When Lamar exclaims at the end of the work, on ‘i’, the words ‘I love myself!’ it is not the unearned self-love mercilessly plaguing the vast groves of Instagram and Twitter feed, laid out like cornfields across the digital Earth. It is a kind of love that has been earned by an appraisal of what stands beyond the individual; of the confrontation of real personal shortcomings and the conquest of them: ‘i’ comes directly from ‘u’. Lamar’s lack of affection for his own failures is a striking message in an age indulgent with its own shortcomings, and it forms the bedrock of the record; an instructive and encouraging account of, as Anthony Fantano so wonderfully put it, Lamar’s transition from ‘this overly indulgent, emotional wreck to this bold, smart, graceful, confident, next level human being’. Lamar shoots for a meaning that transcends politics in To Pimp a Butterfly, a meaning that, one gets the feeling, he sees as being every bit as important as its delivery.
The result is pieces of work like ‘u’, which in terms of staging, the accomplishment of its performance aesthetic and the performance itself, claim new heights for hip-hop. Its digressions, ‘For Free?’ being perhaps the most scintillating of them, possess a broader meaning all their own that suggests Lamar has learned to be the cartographer of his own art. That is, he now understands where every element, both the heavily significant and the seemingly minor, fits in precise relation to another. This is a suspicion existent all over this album. From the selection and matching of its major players against its minor players, to its sequencing, which tends to the development of its narrative in such a way that, despite it standing lesser in directness, To Pimp a Butterfly tells a tale more revealing than good kid, m.A.A.d city, and a more profound one at that. Lamar’s 2012 opus spoke of the difficulties of escape. To Pimp a Butterfly chronicles where the hard part really begins; continuing to grow after one has struck out, independent of those precedents of youth. It’s hell, and Butterfly entertains like hell. It also suggests that there are plenty of places to go to next.
The Independent Revolution is one not akin to pre-Napoleonic France but to that whch swept pre-industrial Britain; it rewards the entrepreneurial for their lack of cynicism with a new means of accomplishment that may take them well beyond what the less enterprising must settle for. So, to claim hope that the future of gaming is in Undertale (i.e., the underworld) seems like the sort of tastefully poor joke that the game itself delights in. The truth though, is that this is an achievement that richly encapsulates the exact potentialities in gaming’s possession that leads to predictions that it will, before long, become the dominant form in our culture. It is not in Hideo Kojima’s ceaseless pursuit of fancy-riven realism that the potential lies, however stunning and ridiculous the presentation of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was. It may, on the other hand, lie in the grasp of a young Renaissance Man from Connecticut named Toby Fox. Every bit as much of an auteur as Kojima, but with considerably less development muscle at (or, for that matter, against) his disposal, in his Undertale Fox is responsible for something unprecedented.
As Austin Walker wrote, the point is not that Undertale’s graphics are ‘simple’, but that they are ‘communicative’. The game’s graphic design strays towards what is officially recognised as kitsch — an aged and limited pallet, alive with colour (even if there are only two of them being used at any given moment), clunky and without finesse. However, kitsch, as Scruton has it, ‘tells you how nice you are’.
Undertale, with eerie powers of interrogation, shows you how nice you are (or are not). The graphics, lovable in their simplicity, are but a minor element in this effort. This is what gives credit to Undertale as a work of art. As opposed to setting you in the nucleus of a created universe, this game encourages you to think beyond your own priorities, and adjusts itself depending on your reaction to its challenge.
Undertale leads the way, in this sense, by exposing the possibilities for the ‘player-story’ in gaming. It does this through the following: tailoring every aspect of the plot’s eventual outcome to the player’s specific choice of action throughout; rewarding a player for their diligence not with digital currency but with real, visible effect. It’s a game that intriguingly, even cutely interrogates the notion of genocide (to write it is to dismiss it but to play it is to see) in perfect synchrony with a given gamer’s own need for their experience to feel empirically ‘complete’. It may not have a passage of intensity as sustained or disturbing as MGSV’s first hour, but the way that Undertale gradually and gently develops a story of enormous poignancy seems a substantial victory for gaming’s vanguard in itself.
For all the game’s bountiful humour and aesthetic hearkening to Cave Story and Earthbound, its Baroque treatment of a bullet hell combat system and the dynamism of the work’s plot entrench Undertale in a circle of the underworld that is all its own. It has music of sufficient quality to honour the musicians of Lamar’s efforts, and writing that matches that of our film selection: all of this, largely, from a single man’s efforts. It’s no wonder that the cult of Undertale has already invaded fan-voted all-time gaming polls by its score. If there was a selection among these selections for 2015’s finest hour of finest hours, this priceless artefact of individual will about individual will would … probably be it.
And really, don’t worry about the graphics. They might just reduce you to tears regardless.
David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows
The first thing about David Mitchell’s richly composed masterpiece that hangs a bewitching hook on the viewer’s proverbial car door is what, precisely, ‘It’ is: AIDS? Unspecified death? Commitment? If any horror film of the last decade has beckoned symbolic identifications as broad as this one does, ones as curious and funny as they are disturbingly palatable, do write and tell. As far as this writer can see, from its allegorical value to its shiver-bequeathing grimness to its expansive, beautiful photography, It Follows really is it.
The harrowing ordeal of Jay (played with a brilliant expressiveness by Maika Monroe) is permeated by moments, almost of beauty; not merely in the instances of physical intimacy, which do become progressively more loaded, but in one character’s offering to their friend of a gesture, fully in the knowledge that this will see them acquire a world and more of pain and suffering on their friend’s behalf. It is far more terrifying that Jay’s friends believe her and offer their help than it would be had they isolated Jay by dismissing her torment out of hand. After all, fear is never illuminated more keenly than when met with altruism.
It takes the most classical and remote in a series of horror tropes — the futile chase against a lumbering abomination, the passing on of a curse, the reliable punishment of sexually active young adults — and pairs them with the most intimate of horrors: the inability of sex and intimacy to keep mortality at bay and the lurking potential of true intimacy to cause at least as much pain as security. Unlike Under the Skin, in which Mitchell crosses thematic paths, there is a more palpably visible (proven) set of blood vessels running beneath It Follows. It is more at ease with its contemporary zeitgeist than any horror film since The Fly, ruthlessly tapping into the fear within a post-millennial generation to close the interpersonal gap and face the ‘other’.
And yet it is this ruthless tapping that proves its worth as a picture, not by delighting in cruelty but in triangulating precisely a real prevailing fear and revealing it, meeting it, and refusing to accept it. For a horror film, it strays dangerously and wonderfully close to being authentically life-affirming.
Appropriately, for a work by a filmmaker richer in vision than budget as he proceeded to make it, this film has recouped its cost ten times over at the box office. Dubbed the greatest horror flick in a decade by individuals more knowledgeable than I, It Follows is as much proof of the potential in the Independent Revolution as anything else crawling out of the blood-filled pool of 2015, and as strong an encouragement as anything else we’ve included that, when in hell, give love anyway. It’ll buy you, at the very least, some time.
To be continued, in ‘Love and Hope in the Underworld: The Culture of 2015, Part 2’.