Monday, December 28, 2009

Catharine Arnold - Bedlam: London and Its Mad (2008)

Catharine Arnold has already taken us through the history of burial practices in London, in her fascinating earlier work Necropolis; here, she explores the treatment of the mad – and theories of madness – through a history of London’s Bethlehem Hospital, better known as ‘Bedlam,’ a byword for unwanted disorder and uproar. Bedlam doesn’t reach the high standard set by Necropolis; given that this work is more closely focused, the early part of the book, in which we wade through the a maze of dates and figures tracing the early history of ‘Bethlem’ from its establishment as a priory in 1247, is heavy going at times. Also, in contrast to her earlier book, histories of Bedlam, though more scholarly than this work, are already in circulation – so what we have here is an at-times frustrating mélange of the straight history of a single institution, a broader history of ‘madness’ and institutionalisation in English history, and a narrative of the evolution of concepts and treatments of ‘madness’ from roots in Greek thought and the theory of the humours,through to the bifurcation of models and of treatment into an organic-psychiatric model, as opposed to a psychoanalytic-therapeutic understanding, and the failures of so-called ‘care in the community’. Cultural history is also engaged in looking at representations of madness including Hogarth and the Victorian sensation novel. We meet a great number of significant (and often tragic) characters here, including Richard Burton, George III, Richard Dadd, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

The later part of the book – that dealing with the Victorian era onwards (or is that just me?), takes off, exploring subjects such as gender, sexuality and inequality, institutionalisation by husband or family as a form of control, to the unexpected phenomenon of shellshock in the First World War and the ways in which it changed both theories and treatments of mental disturbance – for the most part, for the better. The rise of bureaucracy and institutional culture casts a constant shadow over the work, and those with an interest in other authors who’ve been concerned with these questions may find this interesting, though not necessarily new – in particular, there is an obvious resonance with the more scholarly themes of Michel Foucault, although Arnold doesn’t share his interest in the (identity of the) subject as the locus of the processes taking place here. The constant swing of the pendulum between sympathetic care (often characterised as ‘moral treatment’) and brutal violence, neglect and corrupt mismanagement is an ever-present theme. Arnold doesn’t treat some of the more interesting aspects of twentieth century mental treatment – for example, later developments in electro-shock therapy, the infamous lobotomy, or the development of Freud’s ‘talking cure’ – although these may extend beyond her (admittedly rather unclear) remit.

Although the work is endnoted, here more than Necropolis, the lack of a thorough scholarly framework for the work peeps through at times – for example, one wonders about undocumented claims such as that that the beauty marks of the seventeenth century were designed to hide syphilitic sores. More seriously, I was extremely disappointed by a coda in which Arnold trots out the damaging and hackneyed argument that antidepressants are overprescribed for the slightest lack of happiness, whereas ‘some of us’ (presumably those both wiser and more admirably fortitudinous) prefer to ‘endure melancholy in its various manifestations’ and ‘accept it as part of … identity,’ to embrace and welcome it as a teacher. Anyone who has actually experienced depression or other forms of mental illness recognizes the complete absurdity of this argument, which, though based on a soupçon of truth in its criticism of the modern self-help industry, is nothing more than a deeply self-congratulatory myth perpetuated by those fortunate enough not to have encountered serious psychic disturbance, who mistake unhappiness for mental illness, which is hence conflated with weakness, self-absorption and self-pity. One would hope that an author who had done enough research into the subject to write a book on it would have recognized this fallacy for what it is.

Despite these criticisms, however, Bedlam is an interesting work, one which I found worth persisting with, and one which, if not a thorough treatment of any one subject, is nonetheless a pleasure to dip into and an excellent collection of fascinating anecdotes and characters.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Mermen - Krill Slippin' (1989)

I’d dismissed surf music for years as realistically represented by Dick Dale’s track on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, remembered from my teen years (not that I’d dismiss Dick Dale presently, but good-time Misirlou doesn’t really give a sense of the potential of surf for atmosphere, and the combination of driving joy and senseless euphoria with beauty and intricate technicality).

However, in the last year or two I’ve begun to realise the error of my ways and the many joys offered by bands old and new from The Ventures and Australia’s very own Atlantics to The Space Cossacks and Laika & The Cosmonauts – among others (not to mention those delectable areas where surf overlaps with tiki exotica, space age pop, and with darkwave and psychobilly). However, in terms of the genre overall, I would have to pick The Mermen as the unique cream – or perhaps foam – of this crop.

The sound of their early albums – their first, Krill Slippin', in particular – is unmistakeably surf – the monumental guitars, the echoing atmospherics, the rolling pull of the sound – but is also deeply psychedelic in the true sense – not the faux psychedelia of sixties and seventies rock with its clunkily naïve mysticism, its sitars and picturebook lyrics, nor the irritating melodiousness of psychedelic trance, but a psychedelia which combines dreaminess, insistence, the evocation of unfamiliar mental and physical states, the sense of a journey both embodied and transcendent. The bizarre beauty of the ocean documentary - one of my favourite televisula genres - is definitely an appropriate reference point.

As much as being a soundtrack to a white-plumed voyage above and within rolling waves populated by mer-creatures and horses of foam, Krill’ Slippin is also a soundtrack to a bedazzled, lazily drifting state of beach becalmedness infused with mild melancholia – in other words, perhaps the perfect summer music. While their later works tends towards being heavier and more experimental, Krill Slippin’ (with their second album, 1993’s Food For Other Fish, running a close second) is their masterpiece – a masterpiece of navigation between crests and lulls, the evocation of a half-mythical, echoing space of flows, located somewhere in uncharted waters.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Vivian Girls - Vivian Girls (2008)

While there is a lot of new music that I listen to and appreciate, I do tend to think that there is a process going on whereby the vast majority of music that has been released since the mid-1990s rehashes old genres rather than doing anything new. I don’t want to think this – it sounds like the kind of cliché produced by every grumpy old curmudgeon since the inception of recorded music – but when I think about new genres which have come about since, say, trip hop, I have to wonder what really counts as such – Folktronica? Dubstep and grime? Glitch? Many of the currently lauded acts seem to be those who are very successful rehashers of olds genres, particularly when those genres were little known in their original incarnations and thus sound new to the majority of listeners and critics (for example, The Horrors = The Chameleons, The Knife = Switchblade Symphony).

However, sometimes an act comes along which surprises you. There is a question about whether taking old genres and melding them together produces something which is actually original, or which only seems so – that is, is it more than the sum of its parts? When I first listened to Vivian Girls, I liked them a lot, but I felt like I had definitely heard this sound before – and that seemed to be the general critical consensus. But the more I listened to their work, the more I couldn’t really think of any other act which had this sound – rather, what I was actually experiencing was a sense of familiarity which the music contains which is not a result of a lack of originality, but rather of the artistry with which these songs hook into your brain while nonetheless never being obvious. The sound itself, to take the lazy path of description, is a combination of garage and girl groups, shoegaze, punk and no wave: fuzzy scuzzy guitars, distortion, catchy hooks, often-indecipherable vocals and beautiful harmonies, all with the rough-edged sense that this was thrown together in a few days (which was, apparently, the case) and a delightful raucousness which precisely balances those hooks and harmonies.

While their second album, Everything Goes Wrong (2009) has some wonderful moments, the first, clocking in at twenty-two minutes or so (and that’s ten songs, folks) is a masterpiece, an absorbing, joyous and cathartic experience which also happens to contain individual tracks which will worm their way into your brain and groove around there without giving rise to the slightest hint of irritation. The lyrics tend to the exploration of love and its loss, but given the sixties influence, this is no problematic thing, and their shoegazy incoherence also means that this sweetness does not cloy – having said which, perhaps my favourite track, ‘No,’ consists solely in repetitions of that one syllable. The darkness which can also be found at times is foreshadowed in their chosen moniker, a reference to the work of outsider artist Henry Darger whose work combined sweet kitcshiness with graphic brutality and an obsession with the child – a combination which seems quite appropriate for the contradictions which are balanced and embodied here. The finest qualities of the album are embodied in a sense of irrepressibility – the undemanding demandingness of the Vivian Girls’ bubblegum atavism.

Pedro Almodóvar - Volver (2006)

I’m coming to think of the three movies made by Almodóvar between the late 90s and the mid-2000s – Todo Sobre Mi Madre, Hable Con Ella and La Mala Educación – as his trinity of masterworks. Volver doesn’t achieve the giddy heights of those works, but it is still a work in which Almodóvar’s skills are evident. The convoluted narrative - which, in typically postmodern fashion, began as the novel which formed the crux of the plot in La Flor De Mi Secreto - follows Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), a working mother living in Madrid who, as well as concealing her own secrets, begins to discover those kept by her deceased parents, her good-for-nothing husband, her sister Sole, and other figures from her childhood in a small village in La Mancha.

The story contains all the Almodóvarian trademarks – the secrets of the past emerging to shape the present, the strong bonds of family, film and – especially – (reality) television as media through which the story refracts, a strong aesthetic sense – but here these elements don’t mesh in quite the same way as in other works, don’t have the vivid freshness which they take on in the different combinations in which they are employed in his earlier films – they feel a little tired, a little too worked over. The visual character of the film doesn’t have the exuberant but stylised joy of earlier works, but neither does the subduing of this tone function in concert with a succesful exploration of serious emotional issues as it does in the films mentioned above. The conceits begin to lack sustainability – in this case, in particular, the ‘ghost’ of Raimunda’s mother, Irene.

One of the problems, to my mind, is Penélope Cruz – one of the great things about Almodóvar’s films are his female actors, who are never stereotypical Hollywood beauties, about whom there is always something a little rough around the edges, imperfect. Cruz, however, although she is a fine actress, never looks less than a pampered, doe-eyed star – and this tells against her (and thus against the film) particularly in her role as an exhausted mother working three menial jobs. In other films where he has employed actors of this typical type – as with Antonio Banderas – it has functioned with the role given to the character, but with Cruz, as also in her appearance in Carne Trémula, this is inappropriate – and Almodóvar seems besotted, unable to recognise this problematic. Indeed, the appearance of other Almodóvarian favourites here – the wonderful Chus Lampreave, who steals the show in her smallish role as Aunt Paula, as well as Carmen Maura as Irene – leave Cruz looking paradoxically washed-out in comparison. To take an emblematic example, if one compares the scene here in which Cruz sings at a party after not having allowed herself musical voice for years, in comparison to the similar scene featuring Caetano Veloso in Hable Con Ella, it seems almost kitsch, maudlin – but in a way which is most uncharacteristically unintentional.

Having said all this, Almodóvar has set himself extremely high standards, and Volver is by no means a failure. In particular, Blanca Portillo is wonderful as Agustina, the unconventional village neighbour. It’s interesting to see this film move away from solely exploring the cityscapes which Almodóvar loves so much, to the small La Manchan village which is the setting for the backstory and to which the characters periodically return – the villa in the countryside has certainly been a staple of Almodóvar’s work, a space to which characters retreat and which may also represent the grasp of the past and the way in which it encompasses the present, but here that space is expanded and filled with life – or rather, with the untrustworthy, gossiping, black-clad widows who may be seen as representing the ghosts of the past, but also, conversely, as an inescapable community of survival in the face of grief and loss. An interesting piece, but one which leaves hanging the question, whither next? Has Almodóvar’s obsessive exploration of a small number of tropes – one revitalised by the deeper emotional dimensions of his later work – finally reached a point of staleness, or does the master of the reinvention of events we believed to be known still have surprises lurking for his throng of faithful spectators?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cowboy Junkies - Whites Off Earth Now!! (1986)

Cowboy Junkies' first album has remained underappreciated in light of the success of their later work. But despite its flip title (Cracker From Another Planet, anyone?), Whites Off Earth Now!! is a mesmerizing and beautiful album, one with a great deal to say, and with hidden depths which reveal themselves on repeated listens.

There is only one original track on this album – and the loose theme is blues, but a unique blues in which Margo Timmin’s smooth, emotionless voice creates a sense of disconnection and menace which gives a new edge to the melancholy and despair inherent in that genre – while the gender disconnect in the lyrics adds to this sense of disquiet - a later comparison might be found in Martina Topley-Bird's work on tracks like Black Steel or Bad Dream. This is a highly atmospheric album – the songs evoke late-night driving both in their slow, loping rhythms and in the lyrics of tracks like 'State Trooper'. There is a sense of quiet threat here, an understated coldness, a hint of the precursor or aftermath of violence, which may be little apparent on cursory listens but which deeply informs the entire work and forms its central sensibility. Timmin’s vocals haunt the songs, floating above them, while the non-vocal work on the one hand creates an hypnotic atmosphere as figures and rhythms repeat, minimalistically, with a slow but building insistence, and on the other disrupts this very atmosphere with unexpected shivers, tones and caterwauls – an effect which reminds me of the way in which dub uses the tension between repetition and the dropping of unexpected intrusions into and out of a work to create aural landscapes.

While covers include such Americaniac icons as Springsteen, John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, if there is a figure presiding over the proceedings, it is Robert Johnson (whose tracks 'Me and the Devil Blues' and 'Crossroads' are both featured) – and, looming behind Johnson, the devil himself, but a devil personified within and without the figure of a sorrowful, vengeful protagonist making his way (and, as mentioned above, ‘his’ is the appropriate pronoun) through an updated Hopperesque landscape of urban ghettoes and murky swamps, striplit highways and backwoods hovels. You’ll never get out of these blues alive…

Monday, December 14, 2009

Patrick Wolf - The Metro, 09.12.09

I’m not a particularly big fan of Patrick Wolf’s most recent album, The Bachelor – I tend to think that The Magic Position brings together all the elements that were interesting in those which came before (Irish folk, soulful balladeering, enigmatic and somewhat literary lyrics, electronica, orchestral flourishes, and of course that amazing voice) with a skewed pop sensibility that brings his work into focus in such a way that the new album (apparently the darker, more down-key sibling of The Libertine, to be released next year) appears a retrograde step. But having missed the tour for The Magic Position, I wasn’t about to miss Mister Wolf in person. And boy, was that a good decision!

If Patrick Wolf is anything – and he’s a lot of things – he is a consummate performer. Deeply charismatic and theatrical, but also with a charming sense of naturalness and spontaneity, he’s one of those musicians who makes you feel (and wish) that despite the adoring crowd they’re performing only to you. The energy he brings to the presentation of his rather kooky, queered material is phenomenal. Like Morrissey (with whom he shares the similarity of inhabiting an interesting liminal position between Englishness and Irishness, and a fascination with that landscape) he clearly inspires obsessive devotion. And, on the spatial note, the landscape in which his work sits is an interesting one – somewhere between the artificial glitz, grime and sleaze of the post-industrial urban centre, and the bucolic landscapes of the rural village and the surrounding woods, comfortingly familiar yet vaguely melancholy, even sinister. This is apparent in the stage show, with a literal image of 'the wind in the wires’ playing backdrop to a performance which encompasses three changes of costume (including a black, white and grey union jack one-piece number, and a golden vulture costume).

Live, even the most recent work, less impressive on record, is vibrant and moving in turn. There is a mesmerising quality to the show, a welcome relief from familiar the ‘going through the motions’ presentations, or on the other hand entirely artificial theatrical spectaculars which rely on gimmicks and rehearsed moves. Standouts are 'The Libertine', 'Blackdown', and 'The Magic Position' (naturally). I was hanging out for 'Overture', but you can’t have everything… Ultimately, this is one of those performances that makes you want to plaster a singer’s posters all over your bedroom walls like a naïve teenager, while at the same time invoking the nostalgia that one feels for that period – the same combination of energy, dedication and lust with melancholy, mythology and half-forgotten mystery which Wolf’s music itself evokes.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Russ Meyer - Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

I’m somewhat abashed at admitting that I have never thus far seen the film that John Waters called ‘beyond a doubt the best movie ever made.’ I must say, this was a better film than I expected – not only a kitschy classic, but also a compelling, fast-paced and well-filmed piece in its own right. The soundtrack itself, seeming a distillation about all that was good about sixties pop, sleaze and instrumental, is worth the journey, and the dialogue is witty, hilarious and eminently quotable. The landscape, too – the bare desert of California is deeply atmospheric, and adds a touch of Western gothic to the proceedings. The cinematography is excellent (leading to descriptions of the film as the Citizen Kane or Battleship Potemkin of trash) – in particular the technique of lending the proceedings a grandiosity by shots from below or shrinking the action within landscape vistas.

The story follows three go-go dancers, Billie (Lori Williams), Rosie (Haji) and the instantly memorable karate-trained, black-clad leader, Varla (Tura Satana), who get into a murderous random encounter during a drag race, after which one thing leads to another leads to a ranch inhabited by a paralysed old man sitting on a fortune, and his sons, the muscular but slow ‘Vegetable’ (Dennis Busch) and Kirk (Paul Trinka). The character of the aggressive and sexual woman is a trope which could also be seen in the sixties in music like Nancy Sinatra, and would emerge as a prototype, in particular, for many underground female performers in the punk, postpunk and no wave scenes of the late 70s and 80s, as feminism moved into the postmodern era. There is a cartoony pop-art aesthetic at work here which is evident in other works from the period such as Barbarella and Satanik.

The influence of this film on later work is immediately apparent (not to mention the influence of Varla on the femme fatale personae of later artists), from the underground work of filmmakers like Richard Kern (who also uses the Californian desert as a site of wildness and transgression) to the indie mainstream of Tarantino. As for the much-discussed topic of misogyny, I think the picture is by no means black and white. There’s certainly an objectification of women in the way that they are dressed and depicted as objectified objects of desire, in voyeurism of the female as sexually vulnerable (in the person of Linda), and in the scenes of ‘girlfights,’ showers and so forth, although, in Mae Westian style, there is very little actually revealed here – no frontal nudity, for example. The argument that women using their sexuality to get what they want as a form of empowerment is a tired furphy, but what happens here is more complicated – rather than a conservative depiction of female sexuality unleashed as the embodiment of depravity, what we see here (again characteristic of the films it would influence) is a delightfully jaundiced view of humanity where no characters are admirable – where the men are equally pitifully lecherous and weak, where the ‘moral’ characters – Tommy and Linda – are pathetic and laughable, and indeed where men are equally targets of objectification – the camera caresses the Tom of Finlandian form of Dennis Busch, depicted as little more than a fantasy of the mindless, biddable muscleman.

Ultimately, this is less a misogynistic work than a charming piece of misanthropy in which the sacred cows of morality and realism are sacrificed on the altar of spectacle and sensation – an offering which is richly rewarded.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pedro Almodóvar - Kika (1993)

Kika was the first Almodóvar film I saw – late one night on SBS – and although I didn’t dislike it, it did make me pigeonhole his work… until I saw the amazing Hable Con Ella, still, I think, his best film. But as I draw near the end of my on-again off-again project of watching my way through his films, it seemed time to revisit the point of departure. Kika is, ultimately, a failure, one which is equally interesting and distasteful. The convoluted story involves Kika (Verónica Forqué), a chatterbox cosmetologist, her narcoleptic husband Ramón (Alex Casanovas), Ramon’s father Nicholas (Peter Coyote), his wife and Ramon’s mother (whose suicide opens the film), Andrea ‘Scarface’ (Victoria Abril), Ramon’s ex-girlfriend and reality TV host with an obsession for a story, Kika’s butch lesbian maid Juana (Rossy De Palma) and her imprisoned pornstar brother, Paul. You see why I use the term ‘convoluted.’

The film is aesthetically beautiful in typical Almodóvar fashion – indeed, one of his most visually spectacular - and also makes characteristic Almodóvarian references – Hollywood films of the 40s and 50s, the telenovela, Hitchcock, Weill, masochistic Christianity. As so often, the soundtrack is amazing, and is employed in ways which are integral to the narrative rather than remaining incidental. Again characteristic of Almodóvar, the trope of filming within a film, and the crime novel within a film, and the unfolding revelation of the secrets of the past and the present, are deployed to interesting effect. I also have an extremely soft spot for the fabulous Rossy de Palma (once a member of Peor Imposible). The use of the extreme reality TV show as a trope and a plot device is also an incisive commentary on contemporary culture, and one far ahead of its time.

Having said that, however, this is a confused film and one which is highly problematic. The social commentary aspect tends to become more confused as the film progresses. Almodóvar has suggested that each character belongs to a different genre, and, while an original conceit, in practice this plays to the sense of unintentional dislocation. More importantly, however, the tone throughout is one of high farce, vaudeville and melodrama, and the opening third of the film shapes up to be an excellent exercise in Almodóvariana. But when Kika is raped – in an extended slapstick sequence, which sets the rest of the plot in motion – the deft touch which has hitherto been apparent disappears in a welter of insensitivity. In a sense, one can see what Almodóvar is trying to achieve – if extreme violence and other forms of crime and cruelty can be subjects for this kind of treatment, as is so often the case, then should sexual violence be considered off-limits? But in fact, this treatment, which is misogynistic and highly distasteful, might well be the evidence that it should be so considered – or at least that to attempt not to do so is a task beyond the talents even of a filmmaker as skilled and canny as Almodóvar. Indeed, one can’t help thinking that the fact that the title of the film is the name of the main character, rather than Almodóvar’s usual tendency to more meaningful titles, is in itself a comment – and the director himself mentions that he rejected one preferred title, ‘An Untimely Rape,’ because ‘touchy people’ might misunderstand it as arguing for the possibility of a timely rape, a fact which suggests the lack of understanding or empathy apparent here.

From this point, the film cannot make up its mind whether to continue the light tone (à la Almodóvar’s earlier works) or to do some more serious exploration of human emotion in extreme situations (evident in his later work) and in the attempt to walk this tightrope verges into a heavier-handed melodrama. In this sense, we can read Kika as perhaps the central film in Almodóvar’s ‘bridging period’ leading up to the slew of extraordinary explorations which would begin with Todo Sobre Mi Madre (1999). Ultimately, as my own experience confirms, this is a film which has more to offer Almodóvar fans than the uninitiated.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Iggy Pop – Préliminaires (2009)

It seems odd that, despite Iggy Pop’s prominence and importance in the musical landscape, his breathtaking new album has arrived with little fanfare or critical attention. I couldn’t buy it, for example, from any of the mainstream music retailers and it hasn’t featured in any music of 2009 roundup that I’ve come across. But perhaps this only adds to its subtle charms.

Pop – both his work with the Stooges and his solo output – is clearly a hugely influential musician, but one who, for me personally, hasn’t been central, with the exception of his album The Idiot (1977), a work far ahead of its time. But Préliminaires changes all that – and changes what we can expect from Iggy. The menace and sexuality that characterises his work are still present, but here they are sublimated, swathed in a world-weary, self-deprecating and sophisticated atmosphere which is still, paradoxically, raw. The influences here are French chanson, orchestral lounge and jazz, cabaret and touches of electronica, and this combination, combined with Iggy’s guttural delivery and deeply original lyrics, creates a completely unified album (purposefully belying its title in a stroke of characteristic irony) which is an unlikely departure and a stunning success.

The album (with cover art by Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis fame), is loosely based around Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island, but, to my taste at least, outshines its progenitor, exploring in more intelligible ways not only the themes mentioned below, but the concept of reproduceability in the age of (post)industrial capitalism. Another point of reference for me would be the eroticised biomechanical criminal underworlds of William Burroughs – and the other aspect of this album which is in tune with the sensibility of a Burroughs (in works such as Queer) or Hubert Selby Jr. is the vein of melancholy which runs through it, particularly manifest in the covers of 'Les Feuilles Mortes' (known in English as ‘Autumn Leaves’) and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s 'How Insensitive,' memorably sung by Astrud Gilberto (among many others). The raw side of Pop remains in evidence on tracks like 'King of the Dogs' – the figure of the dog being another theme, stemming from Houellebecq’s work. As with that work, Pop is evidently engaging with the themes of aging and mortality, their relation to emotion, physicality and sensuality, but where I usually find that exploration of these issues produces work which is deeply banal in artists who have otherwise been known for imagination, in Pop’s case I venture to say that the reverse is true. One can only hope that this deeply original album is truly a preliminary…

Buzzcocks – The Forum, 20.11.09

There’s just something about Buzzcocks. While there aren’t too many ‘classic’ punk bands that I have a lot of time for (X-Ray Spex is probably the only other real contender), their songs of angsty, failed youthful romance are deeply sublime in capturing perfectly a particular moment, a particular desire, and in themselves lyrically (in both senses) foreshadowing the nostalgia with which one will look back at these times. Orgasm Addict remains one of the most archetypal manifestations of ecstatic (not to mention sexually ambiguous) polymorphous perversity in music (along, I’d add, with Richard Hell’s Love Comes In Spurts) - for a completely different version which captures the same spirit of (tender) perversion, try Momus' cover.

While in the 70s they may have been twenty-one wishing to be sixteen, from the vantage point of their early 50s, how does their music now come across to the listener? Well, for a start, only two original members remain – Pete Shelley (resplendent in a Mondrian-esque shirt), and Steve Diggle. But this tour, playing their first two LPs in their entirety (Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites) along with selections from the Singles Going Steady compilation, was not to be missed. At first, I found the performance to be a little straightforward, so to speak –the mood that many reunion tours have, a feeling that the band are fulfilling their roles by appearing on stage playing their songs, but no more. But as the night progressed, the atmosphere seemed to come together, and despite the contrast between the teenage sentiment of the songs and the appearance of those performing them (and despite awful sound quality), the performance as a performance came together with coherent enthusiasm. Highlights were the aforementioned Orgasm Addict, masterpiece and perennial crowdpleaser Ever Fall In Love, and my other personal favourite, Promises.

Ultimately, the sheer craft of the songs, how well they’ve stood the test of time, the beauty of the harmonies compared with the aggressive guitars, at times choppy and insistent, at others epic, along with the sheer pleasure of having access to this music which remains so vital, made this a night marked by the contradictory pleasure taken in energetic release, and in nostalgia.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Ruben Fleischer – Zombieland (2009)

While brains do seem to be the flavour of the moment – second only to fangs – that’s not to say that among the dross, there won’t be some moments which are entertaining, if not exactly original masterpieces. Zombieland does what it sets out to do very well – to entertain and amuse. The story, such as it is, follows an ‘odd couple’ – nerdy college student (Jesse Eisenberg) and a hard-living macho type (Woody Harrelson), thrown together by chance in the aftermath of the disease-based rise of the zombies – as they journey across a near-empty America (in echoes of the wonderful opening scenes of 24 days later, minus the poignancy, but also the incoherent self-importance) – on the way encountering two sharp-witted sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) who serve as foils and provide the inevitable love interest (one does wonder why the male hero is an atypical unattractive nerd, while the female is a typical fox, but perhaps the good boy/bad girl role reversal makes this inevitable). The visual aesthetic, in particular, is very nicely done, with a cartoony feel reminiscent of Fight Club, while the humour is self-aware without giving the sense of trying too hard. The narrative is thin – and the Bill Murray cameo, though amusing, perhaps outstays its welcome – but overall, this is a simple film which is highly entertaining, the perfect popcorn experience – along with Shaun of the Dead, another one to chalk up for the fast-expanding genre of zombedy romcoms.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

J. Sheridan Le Fanu – Wylder’s Hand (1864)

Like many, I’m a fan of Le Fanu’s best-known works, his short stories (including the canonical Green Tea). I’ve also read and enjoyed his sensation novel, Uncle Silas – but it’s outdone by Wylder’s Hand. Again in the mould of the sensation novel (one of my favourite genres), WH tells the story of upstart Mark Wylder’s unlikely impending marriage to Dorcas Brandon, scioness of the ancient Brandon family (who share a history of intermarriage and murderous feud with the Wylders). But when Mark Wylder conveniently absconds to the continent, his rival, Captain Stanley Lake, steps into the breach… but what does he have to hide? Why is his relationship with his fiery but despairing sister, Rachel, so tense? And what role will be played by the pious hypocrite, lawyer Joss Larkin?

Wylder’s Hand is not without flaws – a first-person narrator who rarely appears, when the narrative is otherwise told from an omniscient perspective, is odd, and the novel contains the typical flaws of the sensation genre such as a reliance on coincidence and a too-convenient tying-up of loose ends – but overall I thoroughly enjoyed this macabre and mysterious tale, more so than the aforementioned Uncle Silas. The characters have a depth and complexity which is fascinating, and, unlike many Victorian novels, the women – Rachel Lake and Dorcas Brandon – are not stereotypical personality-less heroines who are little more than objects of fate, but agents with subjectivity and complexity of their own (though, like the other characters, ultimately at the mercy of fate). Likewise, the villains are not embodiments of evil (and indeed, in another original twist, the role of villain changes over the course of the work), but humans whom we may recognise, and even at times feel sympathy for. As in Le Fanu’s other work, the writing is fine and the milieu is beautifully depicted – an atmosphere which is gothic without being overblown, one interspersed with critical observation of the day-to-day social and economic exigencies of Victorian life, is created in impressive fashion. Like the best works of its kind, the feeling of uneasy tension rises over the course of the book, to come to a climax in a grisly crescendo.

This novel was one of Le Fanu’s most popular in its day, but is now, unfortunately, for the most part forgotten. My edition is published as part of the Atlantic Classic Crime series, and if we think of the Victorian era and the sensation authors as forerunners to the crime genre (the classic example is, of course, Collins’ The Moonstone) then we can read this work as a crime novel, by no means a procedural as is the case for the aforementioned, but certainly a narrative of manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre in which a hidden and mysterious deed, which is made to seem impossible, is brought to light and its mechanics explained. Insanity (as well as the ‘blood curse’), that staple of the sensation genre (and something with which Le Fanu was personally familiar in the tragic life of his first wife, Susanna Bennett), makes an appearance in the prophetic figure of Uncle Lorne. The notes to my edition quote Terry Eagleton’s suggestion that the novel is heavily influenced by Le Fanu’s Irish background (Le Fanu set his later works in England on the basis of his publisher’s injunction that Irish settings were not commercial) – that the family blood feud and its relationship to land and property (and indeed, inherited land as sacred is one of the characteristically Victorian themes here) were characteristic of the Irish rather than English landowning gentry. That other doyen of the gothic tale, M. R. James, is also quoted commenting on melancholy as a defining tonal characteristic of the author’s writing.

Wylder’s Hand is a work which skilfully conceals and reveals the dark and mysterious underlying the everyday, which is deeply atmospheric, and which evocatively calls forth a mounting unease, drawing the reader subtly but relentlessly into a vortex of inhumanity and bloodshed. As do the characters, I intend to delve further into the depths of Le Fanu’s oeuvre.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ronald Welch – Knight Crusader (1954)

This was a book which I had very fond childhood memories of, which, I discovered upon investigation, is now a collector’s item – I had to get a university library copy. The narrative follows the journey to manhood of Philip d’Aubigny, a young noble in twelfth-century ‘Outremer’ (the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, conquered in the First Crusade). Philip undergoes challenges involving clashes with the forces of Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb), capture, encounters with the Assassins and with his own countrymen in the struggle between Richard and John.

This was a work well worth revisiting (and, incidentally, one which won the Carnegie Medal in the year of its publication). Welch’s depiction of the intricate history of the Crusaders during this period is fascinating and evocative without being dry, avoiding the danger of the text seeming a vehicle for the history. Landscape and architecture, in particular, are strengths – I found myself researching, for example, Krak des Chevaliers.

For a work written in 1954, the religious and racial politics are very progressive – Welch finds much to admire in the people and civilisation of the ‘Infidel,’ while the Crusaders themselves, and English society, are by no means presented in a rosy light. This is not to say that the Crusades, and the world of medieval chivalry, are not presented in a romantic light – reading the book, I remembered the childhood allure that that society had held for me, rather than the clichéd boys-own fantasies with which this milieu mostly seems to be associated (though that spirit of hardy adventure is alive and kicking in this work, in which there are essentially no women whatsoever). But the romance is tempered with a noticeable dose of realism – the reader may be reminded of other works such as the battle scenes in C. S. Lewis’s The Horse And His Boy, or T. H. White’s The Sword In The Stone (the first part of his wonderful and neglected book, The Once and Future King). As in the latter work, as well as valiant heroism, there is moving tragedy here, too.

Perhaps my only criticism is that Philip himself is one of those characters who rarely if ever puts a foot wrong, praised by all, virtuous and courageous, and ultimately successful in all his endeavours. Although his character develops to some extent over the course of the novel – which develops episodically, dealing with the major events in Philip’s early life, rather than in a strictly continuous narrative -one wishes that he would show a little more humanity, that his experiences would make of him a more complex character. Nonetheless, Knight Crusader was a work that I thoroughly enjoyed, and one which has a great deal to offer in terms of atmosphere, history and sheer storytelling punch.