Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses (Paperback)
  • Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses (Paperback)

Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses (Paperback)

Paperback 496 Pages
Published: 01/04/2008
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Twenty years as an outsider scouring the underbelly of American culture has made Howard Hampton a uniquely hard-nosed guide to the heart of pop darkness. Bridging the fatalistic, intensely charged space between Apocalypse Now Redux and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” his writing breaks down barriers of ignorance and arrogance that have segregated art forms from each other and often from the world at large.

In the freewheeling spirit of Pauline Kael, Lester Bangs, and Manny Farber, Hampton calls up the extremist, underground tendencies and archaic forces simmering beneath the surface of popular forms. Ranging from the kinetic poetry of Hong Kong cinema and the neo–New Wave energy of Irma Vep to the punk heroines of Sleater-Kinney and Ghost World, Born in Flames plays odd couples off one another: pitting Natural Born Killers against Forrest Gump, contrasting Jean-Luc Godard with Steven Spielberg, defending David Lynch against aesthetic ideologues, invoking The Curse of the Mekons against Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, and introducing D. H. Lawrence to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “We are born in flames,” sang the incandescent Lora Logic, and here those flames are a source of illumination as well as destruction, warmth as well as consumption.

From the scorched-earth works of action-movie provocateurs Seijun Suzuki and Sam Peckinpah to the cargo cult soundscapes of Pere Ubu and the Czech dissidents Plastic People of the Universe, Born in Flames is a headlong plunge into the passions and disruptive power of art.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674027329
Number of pages: 496
Dimensions: 202 x 130 mm


Born in Flames encompasses literature and movies, television, the jazz of Anthony Braxton and William Parker, the post-punk of Wire and Essential Logic. It’s one thing to make seemingly wild connections among genres, artists and epochs, pairing Buffy the Vampire Slayer with D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature or Apocalypse Now with Nirvana. It’s another to make those connections stick… Best of all, he’s fun to read… An aesthetic of pleasure runs through Hampton’s writing… The best criticism forms an unconscious self-portrait of the critic. When Howard Hampton describes the work that matters most to him as having ‘a personal touch that brings something unique and special, always that sense of discovery, of finding things they didn’t anticipate and going further than they thought,’ he’s perfectly described his own. - Charles Taylor, Los Angeles Times

[Hampton] never substitutes cleverness for incisiveness; reading Born in Flames’ alternate history of the late 20th century’s zeitgeist isn’t just exhilarating but illuminating. Describing an anthology of fellow netherworld traveler Lester Bangs’ articles, Hampton praises a ‘book that could make a person want to become a critic, or remind one why he became a critic in the first place.’ I know what you mean, sir. I’m holding just such a volume in my hands. - David Fear, Time Out New York

This is writing that exposes an imagination’s workings, overlapping, a floating stew of reference points that encompasses high culture, mass culture and everything in between… [An] astonishing example of the critic’s art. - David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Hampton’s method of combining film, music, and literary references to make cases for low and high culture he admires or deplores can be overwhelming if you read this collection of essays straight through: The synthesizing brilliance Hampton has perfected over the past couple of decades is almost impossibly rich. So I suggest you let the book sit on a nearby table and regularly explore a chapter such as ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,’ his enthralling gallop through rock music as it has been depicted, included, and misunderstood in movies ranging from Easy Rider to A Hard Day’s Night to Carrie. In the latter, Hampton says, ‘De Palma’s Carrie realizes one of rock’s primal fantasies: the bottomless pit of teen anomie made into macabre comedy, the ultimate eroto-destructive distillation of Alice Cooper’s ‘Eighteen’ and ‘School’s Out.’ And Hampton is right, as usual. - Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly

Exhilarating, astonishing, and immensely entertaining… [One of] my favorite books of the year so far… Charged with intelligence, originality, and consummate style, constantly challenging and deeply personal. Hampton’s collection has been with me since the beginning of the year, and, each time I pick it up, I still find new things to investigate. His voice is one of pop-culture delirium, a mind beset by all manner of furies. - Anthony Miller, Los Angeles City Beat

Howard Hampton, semireclusive resident of Apple Valley and lover of the eclectic, is one of the smartest cultural critics alive, in Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses, a collection of his writings from The Village Voice, Film Comment, and Artforum, among others, Hampton tackles everything from Saijun Suzuki films to Nirvana. One of the first Americans to cover the Hong Kong film industry’s golden age and one of the few to champion Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hampton loves savaging criticdom’s sacred cows (Jean-Luc Godard, the Easy Rider soundtrack) and delights in the weird juxtaposition. When he draws connections between, say, Forrest Gump and Natural Born Killers or Jimmy Cliff and Robert Mitchum, it all makes wacky, glorious sense; what seems at first prankish or showboating ultimately enlightens. - Robert Ito, Los Angeles Magazine

Howard Hampton’s exploration of Hong Kong action films, Walter Benjamin, Pere Ubu and Lars Von Trier (and what they have to do with each other) is a delight to read—his dense arpeggios of wordplay and obscure musical references vie with high pitched fan-boy enthusiasms to form an engaging ode to ‘the allure of extremity.’ A true critic in the manner of Pauline Kael or the late, great Lester Bangs (both of whom are subjects of excellent essays here), Hampton, like all pop culture theorists, revels in the juxtaposition of high and low. Unlike many of his ilk, he understands the potential pitfalls of swinging too far into the pop camp—he refuses to dumb anything down, and is as likely to reference Captain Beefheart or D. H. Lawrence as Buffy the Vampire Slayer… Born in Flames is a gleeful embrace of the ‘poignant and hilarious’… Hampton’s analyses pit the best of pop and academe against each other in a marriage made in heaven—a harmonious medium is achieved, and, in his words, ‘a beautiful, slightly insane relationship is born.’ - Ali Riley, Calgary Herald

Born in Flames fairly teems with such cunning punning and ticklish postulations. While some critics are correct to note that the aggregation of so much cleverness can prove exhausting, there’s also something exhilarating about a writer who galumphs across so much ground with so nimble a tread. - Adam Nayman, Cineaste

Hampton’s enthusiasm—not mention his writing style—is infectious. I like this collection, its unresolved tensions between the marketplace of entertainment and the bazaar of the soul, between the critic as functionary factotum and high priest of low-culture ritual, between the writer’s dread that nothing matters and the writer’s need to assert that every little semiotic nuance and secondary character in Buffy, not to mention Buffy spinoff Angel, matters… In this collection, Hampton consistently reminds us that the great thing about pop culture was, and still is, its populist capacity to inspire without demeaning or deluding. - Hal Niedzviecki, Globe and Mail

The 40 pieces in this anthology representing some 20 years of Hampton’s writing on a broad cultural panorama are, quite simply, a hoot. - Robert Birnbaum, Morning News

[Hampton’s] an encyclopedic pop-culture jukebox, skipping from track to track faster than a caffeine-addled teen mouse-clicking through cyberspace. He links Forrest Gump to Natural Born Killers as ‘magnetic poles of America’s mania for order’ (‘American Maniacs’) and finds the music of Sting wanting when compared to hillbilly twanger Hasil Adkins (‘Bring Me the Head of Gordon Sumner’). The torrent of allusions presupposes an Olympian level of cultural indoctrination, and some sentences are so dense as to require a little thoughtful chewing, but Hampton offers something that grows scarcer as today’s media bombardment grows in volume: fresh thinking. Knee-jerk intellectuals may find it easy to lampoon someone who takes pop this seriously, but Hampton is a writer—possibly the only one—who can analyze Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the context of D.H. Lawrence (‘American Daemons’) and make it work. - Keir Graff, Booklist

It’s fitting to find a tribute to Lester Bangs halfway through this collection of film and music reviews, as Hampton appears to be a qualified successor to Bangs in the realm of pop cultural criticism. In these essays, written for alternative newspapers and art magazines, Hampton charts a freewheeling path through Hong Kong cinema, riot grrl albums and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That last show is something of a touchstone for Hampton: in one essay, he links it to Nirvana as part of the same cultural moment; in another, he views the series through the prism of D.H. Lawrence. The book is filled with similarly unlikely pairings that wind up making perfect sense, from the connections between Dennis Potter and punk rock to a revelatory description of Meat Loaf as a B-movie version of Bruce Springsteen. And when something offends Hampton’s sensibilities, watch out. Pans of Forrest Gump and the ‘perfumed gunk’ of Sting cut with a scathing fury. For the most part, though, Hampton chooses to devote his energies to music and movies he loves—and no matter how eclectic your tastes, there’s bound to be at least one artist in this collection he’ll make you want to track down. - Publishers Weekly

We live in an age of barely-concealed hysterias, and what is the reason for this terrible reality? It is a mystery. Howard Hampton’s great achievement as a critic is to see this reality, and to reveal it to the rest of us. Reading him makes me pop-eyed with fear. Reading him a little more makes me realize that I have been pop-eyed with fear all along—the sign of a first-rate cultural critic. - Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism and Power and the Idealists

You may not know half the things Howard Hampton is talking about as he takes us on a breathtaking roller coaster ride through the high points and low points of pop culture, but you’re sure to find a lot to interest you. For me, the highlight was the best essay I’ve ever read on Joss Whedon’s wacky apocalyptic TV drama Angel. Hampton neatly sums up its message: ‘If you ask for water and life gives you gasoline, you better learn how to make Molotov cocktails.’ Who says TV has nothing to teach us? Howard Hampton is one of the most distinct voices in pop culture commentary today. - Paul A. Cantor, author of Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization

In an appropriately explosive writing style, Howard Hampton refreshingly illuminates the freestanding alternative aesthetic in the past half-century. His extremely rigorous critique and electric writing revives the genre of cultural studies for the late twentieth century in the way that the Ramones ripped seventies music out of anaesthetized Osmond disco and sanitized Jackson Browne into the grit of punk. - Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch’ien, author of Weird English

Mr. Hampton’s writings form a sort of triangle with those of Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs. Mr. Hampton writes with a fluid, insistent, occasionally delirious sense of linguistic play. The style itself operates as a kind of argument, demonstrating the pleasures of a kind of rapacity and restlessness of intelligence. I find the reasoning, of itself—the modeling of ways to apprehend material culture—deeply useful, and exciting. Even in my disagreements, I come away thinking better and more intensely. - Joshua Clover, University of California, Davis

For the better part of twenty years Howard Hampton has been one of the three or four greatest American writers about popular culture, and it seems the more unhinged the culture gets, the more he’s up to the job. If Hampton were a movie, he would be Melville’s Le Samouraï: cool hair-trigger instincts, two-steps-ahead-of-everyone savvy, and an outlaw heart expressed with white-fedora elegance. - Steve Erickson

Howard Hampton is one of the most original critics at work in the country today, and Born in Flames shows all his sides. Who else can write so well on William Parker and Chris Marker and Tsui Hark? He makes words flow like pinballs in a cyclotron. - RJ Smith, author of The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African American Renaissance

Born in Flames seems to have sprung from the pen of someone who walked out of the apocalyptic ending of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. While by no means parochial, his is a vision deeply grounded in Southern California, resting on a worldview shaped by violence, unkept promises, and a cornucopia of images, spectacle, and pop commodities. Hampton is a polymath and cultural omnivore, and what emerges from the pages of this dizzying and dazzling collection is an example of what important criticism is and can be: critical intervention not only into the meanings of individual genres and oeuvres but into our culture generally. - David Suisman, University of Delaware

Who is Howard Hampton? Who the hell isn’t he? A tragicomic master of doom and glee, of seething and serenity, analysis and outbursts, horror and hope, he’s the fun kind of unsettling. Somehow, this closest of close-ups inside his own trickster head ends up also being an accurate wide shot of American art and life. - Sarah Vowell, author of Assassination Vacation

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