Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Charles Dickens - Our Mutual Friend (1865); Hard Times (1854)

As I may have mentioned previously, though a rabid fan of Victoriana I’m not a huge admirer of Dickens (I suspect I’ve been made bitter by his ascendance over his worthier and far more interesting colleague, Wilkie Collins). Having said that, however, his work always makes for worthwhile reading, even when it infuriates. Of course, the Victorian style of the episodic novel doesn’t necessarily lend itself to consistency in writing, and this, to me, is one of Dickens’ biggest flaws. However, my biggest gripes with Dickens are his characterisations, and the didacticism of his politics and sanctimonious moralising. Neither of the two volumes in question here are free of these flaws, but this is by no means to condemn them (as I would, for example, Oliver Twist).

Some of Dickens' works which have some of the most amazing characters and moments – of those I’ve read, I think of Great Expectations, in particular – also have some of the most infuriating (Joe, Magwitch & Wemmick). While Dickens was a progressive for his time, and did excellent work as an advocate for social justice reform in Victorian England, his class and gender politics (particularly disappointing given his own unusual household arrangements) remain highly problematic for the modern reader. In pursuing these prejudices even while critiquing social practices, his novels have a tendency to reify these values into flat characters who are made up of nothing more than idealised and stereotypical values. But at the same time Dickens’ gift for caricature, his sharp social observation, and his occasional prose passages of great beauty and originality, mitigate these tendencies.

How does all of this play out in OMF and HT? The first was my favourite of the pair – probably, indeed, my favourite Dickens (thus far) after Bleak House. HT, in contrast, is more interesting than gripping – but interesting, and unique in Dickens’ oeuvre, it certainly is. Both of these are later works, and it shows – they demonstrate both complexities and stylistics which are absent in earlier novels.

OMF, like Bleak House, takes as its central pole a legal process – in this case, the will of the miser Old Harmon, who made his fortune in the dust trade. Various characters become involved in the horse-trading and identity shifts and concealments which ensue. These include the young John Harmon (and his mysterious doubles), presumed drowned in the Thames (the Thames itself is really the central character of the work, along with, more generally, the dark and noisome city in which it is embedded – of all of Dickens’ works this is perhaps the most a novel of London); Mr Boffin, a working-class dustman to whom the fortune reverts, with unfortunate consequences for his open-handedness (and his contrasting employee, the scheming & unscrupulous Silas Wegg); Bella Wilfer, determined to marry into riches for their own sake, but with a heart of gold which may yet prevail; the Veneerings and the Lammles, odious and opportunistic socio-economic climbers; and Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie, who make their living finding corpses of the drowned in the aforementioned river.

As will be evident from this description, the two central themes here are the instability of riches (and of identity, both in relation to wealth and otherwise), their corrupting effect, and the unfortunate consequences of attempts to cross the class barrier; and decease and decay, both in the deaths, natural and unnatural, which take place over the course of the novel, and in the rubbish which silts the Thames (while at the same time the contrasting symbolism of water as baptism and rebirth is employed), and the dust-heaps on which the contested Harmon fortune was made. These latter, along with other examples such as the trade of Gaffer & Lizzie Hexam and that of Mr Venus the taxidermist, provide the symbolic and actual connection between these two concepts – which we might describe as ‘filthy lucre.’

This is a very dark novel, and I deeply enjoyed the gothic aspects of the plot, which are reinforced by Dickens’ very frequent Biblical allusions (which, of course, tend back to the much-neglected Biblical teachings fulminating against wealth and reflecting on its transitoriness, as part of the transitoriness of the human condition, as well as emphasising another characteristic Dickensian theme present here in spades, the visiting of the sins of the patriarch upon the head of the child). On the religious note, Dickens presents here a character, Mr Riah, who is a kindly and sympathetic Jew who owes a debt of obligation to the rapacious and antisemitic Christian Mr Fledgeby which he pays by serving as a stereotypical front for his moneylending business. This character, it seems, was purposefully created in order to allay the hurt that was felt in regard to the antisemitism perceived in the character of Fagin (and in writing thus, Dickens was charged with creating a one dimensional character of the opposite type, an accusation which contains some justice without being wholly accurate). In Riah’s sometime protégé, the disabled child-woman and dolls’ seamstress Jenny Wren, Dickens has created perhaps his finest character (although I am torn here thinking of Miss Havisham). In the latter part of the novel, as betrayal, passion and murder begin to play an ever greater part in the twisted complexities of the unfolding plot, we move almost into the realm of the sensation novel, a development which I found anything but displeasing.

The novel displays some of the typical faults of Dickens’ work mentioned above. Some characters here, in particular his women, are far too saintly to be believable and the unsatisfactoriness of their saintliness is thrown into sharp contrast by the fascinating minor characters. Dickens’ mixed feelings about class, and its instability in the Victorian milieu, are evident inasmuch as, on the one hand, parvenus are condemned and we are shown how the lower classes will never feel at home in the upper social echelons – indeed, they are gently ridiculed, as in the (nonetheless very sympathetic) character of Mrs Boffin – and that we should admire them for the virtue of rejecting charity, as in the case of Betty Higgs – while on the other, mixed class marriages are admitted as acceptable. There are numerous scenes which appeal to the extremely overblown Victorian sense of sentiment (as Wilde put it, ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”) and the plot itself is impossibly intricate (and, typically for the time, makes liberal use of coincidence) – although inasmuch as it is so, it washes over the reader like the lapping tidal shifts of the Thames – and in being so, it is highly taxing on the suspension of disbelief, as for example in Mr Boffin’s shift from generous spirit to miser and back again.

Stylistically, in the earlier parts of the work, we encounter some of Dickens’ most gorgeous and original passages, descriptive and metaphorical, but as the work progresses descriptions become more stock and the writing more functional – although this may be due, on the one hand, to the pressure of the episodic form, and on the other, to Dickens’ involvement in the Staplehurst Rail Crash during the writing of the novel (he had the manuscript with him in the rail-car), which seems to have caused him a great deal of psychological trauma (criticism of the systems which allow rail crashes to occur makes a brief appearance in the novel).

One of the most relevant concerns for the present moment which OMF gives us is, as part of its examination of the various aspects of the ephemeral nature of wealth, the criticism of market speculation, both literal and as it is found in human relationships (for example, in the newly-prosperous Mr and Mrs Boffin’s search for an appropriate orphan to adopt). HT also deals with concerns which remain highly relevant both in their resemblance and their dissimilarity to the contemporary moment, in its examination of industrialisation and its discontents.

A far less satisfactory novel, but one which remains fascinating for the social moment that it depicts and the ambiguities in the authorial stance, HT, unusually for Dickens, is not set in London. Instead, the action takes place in the fictional Coketown, an industrial mill-town which Dickens partially based upon Preston. Again unusually, the novel is short (originally published episodically, but in shorter sections than his other works) – only 235 pages in my Wordsworth edition (as opposed to the 800-odd of OMF). Dickens apparently wrote the novel in the hope of boosting the sales of his weekly periodical, Household Words, and this was successful, though in the event it was not well received critically. The novel is in essence a didactic critique of the industrial system which had been in the process of transforming Victorian England (Dickens had been horrified by visits to Manchester factories), and at the same time – and here equated with it – of the doctrine of utilitarianism (intertwined with the new science, if such it may be termed, of Political Economy), understood by the authorial voice not as a particular approach to happiness but rather as an inherently exploitative reduction of the human (and hence human dignity) to the level of the unit of labour and the bureaucratic account. In making this critique, Dickens also attacks the laissez-faire capitalism (hypocritically enabled by government at the behest of the rich and powerful, as he notes) which was also a feature of the time and which, though it was a theory and practice which already had a solid history by Victorian times, was transforming with the rise of industrial technology and practices. Another central and related concern is education – Dickens targets education by rote learning, the cramming of facts and figures deprived of meaning or context into the heads of pupils (by teachers who have only recently graduated from such methods themselves, and know no others – such a figure is Bradley Headstone in OMF, and he also comes to grief as does Louisa Gradgrind in HT).

If you think that all of these issues sound extremely contemporary (consider for example the debates of recent decades over the ethics of globalised industrial production and labour conditions, the smashing of labour power by conservative governments, the growth of Kafkaesque bureaucratic-administrative procedures of power and surveillance by governments who claim free markets as an unchallengeable secularised religion, or the ‘culture wars’ over education in areas such as history, literature and language acquisition), you wouldn’t be wrong. In this sense we can see one of the things about the Victorian era which gives it a part of its endless fascination, for me at least – for us (post)moderns, to examine the period is akin to recognising ourselves through a distorted mirror.

Again, however, in taking on his role as social reformer Dickens remains a conservative at heart. The narrative concerns Josiah Bounderby, a ‘self-made man’ (or so we are led to believe) and manufacturer with endless contempt for those who have not managed to raise themselves up by their bootstraps (again, a familiar figure in the modern context, particularly in terms of the strength of the Horatio Alger myth, with its convenient concealment of systemic factors and its equation of wealth with industry & hence morality, in the USA and the Anglophone world more generally). Bounderby is the boss of Gradgrind, a schoolteacher who has brought his own children up to reject all fancy and all emotion and to worship fact and reason. Meanwhile, Mr. Sleary’s travelling circus is set up as the positive antithesis of these exploitative, self-satisfied, cruel and unempathetic figures. In creating a further foil for these, we are given Stephen Blackpool, a downtrodden and deeply moral factory worker, and Rachael, a woman whom he loves but can never marry on account of his previous marriage to a woman now become a violent alcoholic. Dickens takes this opportunity to expound upon the hypocrisy of marriage laws in the era, whereby divorce could only be attained either through annulment or a private bill in parliament, and thus was available solely to the very rich and well-connected – this would change three years after the publication of OMF with the passing of the Matrimonial Causes Act.

Like many of Dickens’ other characters, Stephen and Rachael are little more than ciphers of morality, rather than well-rounded characters; Stephen’s despair has more than a whiff of Hardy (and, as in OMF and in Hardy, we find an overt Biblical allusion in the titles of the three volumes – Sowing, Reaping and Garnering). And like those other characters, they are not to be allowed a happy ending but must redeem themselves either through death, or through patient acceptance of suffering as one’s lot. The really interesting aspect of this pair, though, is the way in which they reveal Dickens’ ambivalence about the conditions of labour in England, and their relationship to the class system. On the one hand, the upper classes as well as the up-and-coming bourgeoisie and capitalists – such a feature of the period – are depicted as hypocritical and morally corrupt. As well as Bounderby and Gradgrind, the upper-class James Harthouse, corrupter of marriages, and the influence he exerts upon Tom Gradgrind, exemplifies this – Tom is in many ways a similar character to Charley Hexam in OMF, an upwardly mobile young man who is quite prepared to sacrifice his sister upon the altar of his own socio-economic advancement.

But before we conclude that Dickens’ sympathies lie entirely with the miserable and inequitable conditions of the working classes, we must examine his condemnatory depiction of unions and labour solidarity. Slackbridge, the trade union leader, is painted in extremely unattractive lights as an outsider, a trouble maker, dishonest and on the make; and because of a promise Stephen has made Rachael not to get involved in any politicking related to labour, he is condemned by Slackbridge and cast out by his fellow workers (interestingly, the reason for this promise – the rage Stephen feels over Rachael’s sister past loss of her hand in an industrial accident, and Rachael’s injunction to ‘let such things be, they only lead to hurt’ – was cut from the published text). It has been suggested that in having class harmony as his ultimate social goal, Dickens was unable to provide either a meaningful solution to the workers’ problems, or an optimistic conclusion, and this is seen in his failure to propose any better measures for addressing the concerns he raises than employers choosing to treat their labourers better by seeing that, morally, they should do so.

As well as the character problematics mentioned above, we have here – again as is typical in Dickens – more than one unrealistic change of heart as the events of the novel conclude. Perhaps the most interesting character here, though, and an unusual woman in Dicken’s novels (even if not granted a happy ending) is Louisa Gradgrind, who agrees to a loveless marriage to Bounderby for purely rational reasons, according to her inculcated utilitarianist lights, before almost falling into the arms of a seducer when emotion, or fancy, begin finally to rebel; passing this test of morality, Dickens allows her at least to physically escape her marriage. But her strange façade, and her later, somewhat quixotic alterations, make her one of Dickens’ more interesting characters (a later echo is found in OMF, in the person of Sophronia Lammle).

As in so many cases, Dickens knows what he doesn’t like, but, apart from moral purity and submission to the natural order of society which can be discerned beneath the distortions of inequality – mixed, to be sure, with the more comical aspects of the working class and its pursuits – he is not sure exactly what he does. Where OMF is a novel which displays some of his flaws while giving the reader a final taste of a writer with literary powers in full flight, HT remains, if not socialist, certainly sullen and didactic, but nonetheless one which combines Dickens’ own social commentary with a demonstration of the classic ambivalence of the Victorian reformer; and threads this together with a narrative in a way more successful than, for example, the earlier Oliver Twist. Both of these are late works, drawing on archetypes, suffused with social and personal melancholy, even tragedy (despite lashings of Dickens’ characteristic humour and personal optimism), and opening up panoramic socio-cultural buffets which they are not always able to resolve into digestible morsels. Exactly herein, however, lies not only the frustration of the reader of these works, but also the pleasure.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Creature Feature: In Brief

Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza - REC 2 (2009)

The first REC, while by no means a masterpiece, was a solid and original piece of horror film-making, doing something a bit different with the zombie genre and making unwontedly welcome use of the hand-held camera – and indeed, managing to extend on the technology and hence the mise en scène. The second, to my lights, is even better – though straying outside the confines of the sealed-off apartment block in a way which breaks the claustrophobia which worked so well in the first instalment, the inclusion of further back story and character diversity makes for a more complex film without losing the simple momentum of the first (and now, with a twist…)

George A. Romero - Diary of the Dead (2008)

A disappointing Romero vehicle in which, unlike the aforementioned, the use of digital hand-held disappoints and irritates, encompassing all the typical flaws of these genres (i.e., severe frustration with the camera holder who however remains untouchable due to their status as such; unrealistic failure to put it down in life-threatening situations). Meanwhile, the internet themes fail to cohere into meaningful social commentary a la Dawn of the Dead. Watch Zombieland instead.

John McTiernan - Predator (1987)

Another in the ‘I can’t believe I’ve never seen this’ canon, this was a surprisingly atmospheric film, with the shadowy South American jungle as the main character – striated shadows dappling the blazing sun and the sweat and blood of the action film. The USA redeems its sanguinaceous Cold War interference in its ‘backyard’ through the trope of the pursuit of Latin terrorists (managing to allay the inhumanity of this killing and also feminize the victims even as we fear their violence by leaving alive the lone female terrorist as a prisoner who ultimately becomes an ally), while nodding to 80s political correctness, such as it was, in the black characters and, naturally the native American who has an intimate connection with the ways of the jungle (all of these sacrificeable, naturally). The ‘reveal’ comes surprisingly late in the piece, and the strangely honourable predator, before he (?) is revealed as an overgrown dreadlocked insect, segues in with the natural world as a ripple in the trees (with effects which haven’t dated too badly, unlike the technology he uses). Apocalypse Now, filtered through the lens of an unironic Schwarzeneggerian (gubernatorial?) all-Americanism.

Jon Harris - The Descent 2 (2009)

Another film in which the environment is the protagonist – in this case, the same cave system in which the protagonists of the first Descent (Neil Marshall, director of the original, returns only as executive producer) found themselves trapped – again, we spend somewhat more time outside the closed environment, here becoming a flaw, and there is also the somewhat unrealistic, but effective, choice to send the sole survivor of the first film back into the tunnels. Essentially we are re-exploring old ground in a less effective rehash of the first film, which was an entertaining diversion with some early moments of fear and claustrophobia before ‘descending’ into a fairly typical monster gore hunt (colour-coded, a nice touch) – here, without the benefit of that unfamiliarity, while the caves remain an original and atmospheric setting, despite a final twist there is nothing here which adds meaningfully to the film’s predecessor.

Wes Craven et al – A Nightmare On Elm Street 1-4 (1984-88)

I wasn’t actually sure if I’d seen the first, but I’d certainly never seen the sequels. And what pleasant – or should that be unpleasant? – surprises were in store! Unlike other the other classic protagonists of the genre – Jason Voorhees & Michael Myers – these films did not have the stigma of having given birth to the rather unnecessary slasher genre, but instead of playing an important role in the development of the blockbuster horror comedy (not to mention the ongoing horror-queering of the all-american dream suburbs) – and we love ‘em for it (and I’m not just saying that because we’re inhabiting here my favourite decade of the twentieth century – the 80s)! Camp as all get-out, with absurdist, ‘body horror’ pre-CGI special effects (reminiscent of other films of the era such as the unjustly neglected Society, or even Videodrome) which invoke a great deal of nostalgia – and a twisted, Burtonesque atmosphere to boot – not only the initial NOES, but also, unusually, the sequels, are extremely worthwhile. Part 2 is noteworthy really only for the extremely overt (and apparently intentional) homoerotic elements (with just a touch of B&D in the shower room), but 3 kicks into high and rather dark gear – featuring Freddy’s intended teenage victims in a mental institution as a result of their belief in the reality of their dreams, and the unexpected appearance of Patricia Arquette (not to mention Laurence Fishburne) - a punk edge, and rather nasty addiction and sexual violence themes (these latter in the development of Freddy’s backstory), also creep in. Part 4 can’t quite live up to the claustrophobic institutionalization and traumatic edge of the third film, but nonetheless it remains a romp, featuring particularly memorable scenes in which Freddy inhabits a roach motel and a pizza (!), as well as an extension of the theme, used to brilliant effect throughout the series, of the indistinguishability of the line dividing reality and fantasy, in a time-loop sequence. Oh, and I was forgetting, we also have a soundtrack showcasing Sinead O’Connor with MC Lyte performing the ultra-catchy I Want Your Hands (On Me) – not to mention the Are You Ready For Freddy rap by the Fat Boys featuring Robert Englund. Dark comedy of the absurd, accompanied by nostalgia for the tainted eighties.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gus Van Sant - Elephant (2003)

In the heady days of my youth, I was a big true crime aficionado. But although I remained fascinated by perpetrator mentality, as my early twenties passed, I began to feel just a little too much empathy with the victims, and just a little too much of the uncomfortable voyeurism of the position of the true crime fan (in keeping with the pulpiness and sub-pop psychology of most of the writing, though not all), to keep pursuing this vein (having said which, interest in these things, I would argue, is an inherent part of human nature which a modern culture of sanitized medicinal miracles has – ironically – unhealthily shunted to one side).

So what was I to make of Elephant? This is the central film in Van Sant’s ‘Death Trilogy,’ (beginning with Gerry and closing with Last Days), each based on actual events and dealing with the eponymous event – though death is, of course, a major feature of virtually all of Van Sant’s films. In this case, the event in question is the infamous Columbine massacre, still perhaps the cultural paradigm for all the other mass shootings (including many in schools) to which the USA seems so tragically prone. While I’m not sure how I’d feel about such a work – released four years after the events – if I was personally connected to the tragedy, this work comes across as a thoughtful reflection rather than an exploitation, though there is always a certain question about purposefully creating a work of aesthetic beauty – which Elephant undoubtedly is – from such a subject.

In regard to Columbine, as was widely noted at the time of the film’s release, Van Sant offers no explanations (indeed, the killers as depicted here do not seem to fit any recognisable profile, for what such profiles are worth), and this is a strength of the film in that we are offered no pat explanations (nor resolutions), nor too-easy indictments of particular aspects of a society which produces such events. In any case, if we are to take Dave Cullen’s non-fiction work Columbine (2009) – which also uses fiction-style conventions (it’s been called a modern-day In Cold Blood) and has become the definitive work on the massacre – as a guide, most of what we think we know about these events is in fact mythical. So rather than watch analysis (and for that, after all, we have Bowling For Columbine), we drift in a leisurely way through the lives of various students in the period preceding the massacre, tension slowly building as we realize what is afoot. The film plays with time and perspective in Rashomon-esque fashion – scenes are presented numerous times as we follow different characters, and new aspects of each moment become apparent – although there are no secrets, no slowly unfolding narrative of truth or of revelation for the viewer – only a gradually mounting sense of unease which combines with an easy langurousness – slow, but never tedious – as we watch in extended tracking shots over the shoulders of the characters as their lives and social circumstances unfold.

The title itself comes from the (oft-misunderstood) Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant – Van Sant named the film thus in tribute to Alan Clarke’s BBC film of the same name (dealing with violence in Northern Ireland), as a reference to the way in which Clarke's and his own work explored one event as seen from different viewpoints – although he would later realize that Clarke’s title was in fact a reference to the phrase ‘the elephant in the room’ (and we may think here of the unexpected synchronicity of this denial with the incomprehensible US refusal to recognise the deadly consequences of the easy availability of guns).

Like many of Van Sant’s films – with the possible exception of Mala NocheElephant is somewhat imperfect – almost as if, as an artwork, it is realizing itself just a touch clumsily as it unfurls. This adds to the charms of Van Sant’s oeuvre, but keeps any one film from being a central masterpiece. Here, as well as occasionally unrealistic behavior in service of moments of drama, the addition of a homoerotic episode between the killers, despite making a stunning set-piece, seems a little too much like a rather queasy wish-fulfillment (the erotic object as embodiment of masculine violence), and sits uncomfortably with the real-life events on which the film is based, in which (as far as I’m aware) there was no suggestion of such a relationship between Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold, the actual killers – indeed, they seem rather to have been homophobic. In a similar vein, the scene in which they watch a television show on Nazism is unconvincing and indeed cliched and psychologically problematic - if watching material about 'evil' killers makes one a killer, then criticisms of Elephant itself would be grounded - though the connection with their actions is not laboured. The depiction of high school life is, if anything, somewhat idyllic (despite occasional moments of bullying), a too-vivid memory of a past full of promise in a way that is reflected in the gorgeous colours and languid cinematography – despite the troubled families and social ostracism, the pain of (some) teenagehood is elided in presenting a processual collage of the ‘ordinary’ which is contrasted to the murderous violence by which it will be shattered.

What this flaw reveals, though, is the way in which Van Sant’s work carves out a deliriously original territory which on the one hand is immersed in realism – the fragmentation, muttered dialogue, improvisation, lack of traditional narrative arcs, untutored actors, the naming of characters after the actors who portray them – and, on the other, a kind of hyper-real idealism expressed in the visual techniques he employs, the dramatic events he turns to and the stunning features of his male actors (in contrast to the everyday looks of female characters) – we might also think of his overt rejections of realism, as in the Shakespearian dialogue in My Own Private Idaho. In the character of John McFarland, indeed, we can see the germ of the way in which Paranoid Park – also dealing with death and teenagers – became virtually a paean to the features of Gabe Nevins. In refusing to reconcile these disparate tendencies – in its slipperiness, refusal to bow to emotional kitsch, low-key intensity and deeply memorable set-pieces – Van Sant’s work, of which Elephant is a stunning example, has a haunting quality of insinuating itself into the viewer’s consciousness.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

James Pants - Seven Seals (2009)

Biblical occultism – via Kabbalah – may be the new age fad du jour (although isn’t it getting just a little, well, so noughties?), running the culture fiend through a gauntlet beginning with Dan Brown and ending with Madonna, but that’s not to say that the resurge of interest in Judeo-Christian mystical traditions doesn’t have anything to offer. Before Brown there was Umberto Eco’s labyrinthine Foucault’s Pendulum (Eco argues that Dan Brown himself is, in fact, Eco’s own creation) and after it comes James Pants’ magisterial Seven Seals.

In an unexpected leap from his first album, Welcome, which was much more of a workout in downtempo electro lounge, funk & r’n’b (not to mention the intriguing and inaptly named library music exercise All The Hits), Seven Seals is a concept album exploring Revelations, mysticism and the oc/cult in general. It is to Pants’ credit that he manages to do so while maintaining a light touch, rather than straying into the leaden, satire-ready seriousness of most music dealing with the darker side of the occult. In putting the album together Pants holed up in a cabin for two weeks, and if his cultural reference points are anything like mine then the mood that that created – from Evil Dead to Antichrist – has been shaping here. In other words, the ‘70s synth sleaze which garnished Welcome – reminiscent of Pants’ idol, legendary outsider Gary Wilson – is here transmuted into scuzz, the darkness of exploitation deepening into that of psychological-religious alienation (with gratuitous angst thankfully absent). The forceful fuzzy beats of tracks like I Live Inside An Egg give this album an emotional contrast lacking from Welcome – which, in comparison, seemed altogether a work more promising than fully realized – while the synthesizers which permeate tracks like Thin Moon (the first single, and perhaps the highlight) add touches of gorgeousness tinted with melancholy (here and elsewhere we find distant echoes of the abandoned sensuality and electrofunk touches of Welcome).

In evoking these moods, one might think of the noughties post-punk revival (guitars are indeed in evidence here, and Joy Division has been frequently mentioned in reviews), and the recent flowering of the rediscovery of minimal wave. Both of those tendencies are definitely present, but both the vehicle of the concept album (always a risk, but one which pays off here), and the music itself, mean that this is a work of reinterpretation rather than imitation. In terms of a synthesizer synthesis, the other major point of reference here, both musically and thematically, is Bruce Haack’s seminal Electric Lucifer – although here we are dealing not so much with powerlove as a Totentanz. On the topic of genre, while I hesitate to use the phrase ‘witch house,’ fst becoming as reviled a term as ‘chillwave,’ in the combination of lo-fi synthesizers and DIY occultist imagery (in the album art no less than the lyrics) this album definitely picks up on that trend, but again, without the pretension or purposeful obscurantism which can be dangers of ‘witch house’ in particular and the ‘instant genres’ of the blog house age in general.

Ultimately these seven seals, as a counterpart to a half hour silence in heaven, are a heavenly forty minutes on earth.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Susan Hill - The Woman In Black (1983)

I don’t know how I’ve managed to miss Susan Hill, given the strong feelings I have for the classical English supernatural tale as manifest from the Victorian era through to the first few decades of the Twentieth century. Perhaps it’s because I have a general dislike for pastiche in literature (if not in other genres) and, in the postmodern age in particular, I tend to find it an excuse for failing to make up an original plot and/or use an original style (while the often anachronistic attempt at adoption often merely puts the skill of the writer being pastiched into an even more flattering light). None of these faults, however, are to be found in Hill’s ghostly novella.

The Woman In Black – set in the early part of the twentieth century, where cars still vie with pony traps – is told with the classic framing device of the elderly reflection on a terrifying and traumatic event of youth; the occurrence in question is the visit of Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, to lonely Eel Marsh House. The house, with attendant crumbling cemetery, lies on a piece of land far out in the windswept salt marshes, accessible only by a causeway which is periodically covered by the rising tide. Kipps is in the process of going through the papers of Mrs Drablow, the late unlamented inhabitant of Eel Marsh House; but when he sees an emaciated woman in unfashionable black clothes at the funeral (getting only surly hostility from the locals on questioning), and starts to hear strange noises from across the marshes and from the locked room at the end of the passageway, things take a turn for the sanity-destroying.

As that précis indicates, all of the ingredients of the supernatural tale of terror are present here, as are James’ five key features of the English ghost story. Hill herself has indicated that her earlier novels are ‘serious,’ while her latter works, including TWIB and her Serailler detective series, do not fall into this category. Certainly it could not be said that TWIB is an original piece (though we might also say that of many of the ‘classical’ works of supernatural fiction), but it stands as a consummate example of an art which might have been considered lost in the age of torture porn and gritty realism. Indeed, we might ask whether originality is an important demand in genre work. Hill’s writing is fine (in the best sense of that word, and in contrast to the lonely setting), despite the frequent comma splices (but please ignore my soapboxing a pet peeve), rising to more poetic heights in some beautiful descriptions of landscape and atmosphere:

Away to the west, on my right hand, the sun was already beginning to slip down in a great, wintry, golden-red ball which shot arrows of fire and blood-red streaks across the water. To the east, sea and sky had darkened slightly to a uniform, leaden grey. The wind that came suddenly snaking off the estuary was cold.

Am I wrong in thinking that, mood-wise, the echoing spaces and sudden emotional stabs of The Cure circa Seventeen Seconds/Faith/Pornography (that is, in the same period as TWIB was written) would be an appropriate soundtrack? Rosemary Jackson, bringing a feminist analysis to Hill’s work (more on this anon), has suggested ‘coldness’ as its imaginative centre, and the tension between detachment from and desire for life as fundamental. The themes here are the ‘sensational’ passions – possessive love, revenge, fear, memory – refracted in sharp shards through the mirror of the past, a liminal demarcation (reminiscent of James’ own story 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad') which takes form literally in the flat sea surrounding the house, stressing the inaccessibility of the recollected, and the dangers both of the alluring yet treacherous waters of forgetfulness, and those of painful recollection – a double Charybdis which in either case leaves the overcurious subject isolated and, ultimately, suffocated.

In this sense, there is an aspect of the ‘psychological ghost story’ to TWIB, manifest in a not-so-pathetic fallacy, which is heir to works like de Maupassant’s The Horla or even Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (though without that work’s prescient questioning of perception itself) – and we might associate this existential alienation, resolved but never quite forgotten or overcome, with the dislocated temporal position of the narrator, trapped between old certainties and modernist innovations, with the house both as a space of security from the external world (the classic Victorian model), and as manifestation of anxiety - in being, on the one hand, the place par excellence for the determination of (cultural) capital, and, in this case, empty, that is, both void of any audience for such a display, and signifying the growing bourgeois realisation of the ultimate emptiness of the endeavour of wealth accumulation and conspicuous consumption.

On this note, class issues – fluidity and the lack thereof – are central to the landscape here. Class transformation is evident in the narrator’s own trajectory (given in the framing story), and a symbolic moment occurs when he transforms, in the eyes of a friendly but unsophisticated, new-moneyed landowner local, from suave young solicitor to dishevelled and fearful victim of the irrational. Beyond this, the fact that class mores were a determining factor in the events which led to the haunting is made explicit in the text – figuring, in other words, the (equally oceanic) arriviste on a lonesome road (one whose lonesomeness is only exaggerated by the many who tread it yet dare not recognise each other), desiring yet dreading to turn his head to see the ‘frightful fiend’ of class ignominy (a common theme in the sensation novel).

This anxiety – the prevailing mood of both the psychological ghost story, and of modernism itself and those who literarily anticipated its concerns – is also manifest in gender relationships. The narrator here moves in a masculine world of solidity (and reassuring, if undesirable, stolidity) while the appearance of the feminine in the text foreshadows catastrophe and unknowability – whether the unseen Mrs Drablow, the ‘woman in black' herself, or Kipps’ fiancé, Stella, who remains offstage and undescribed virtually throughout. One of M. R. James’ rules for the ghost story is the absence of gratuitous bloodshed and sex, and while this is certainly the case here (and while not wanting to emphasise overmuch the repressive hypothesis), nonetheless the events in question are put in motion by the sexual act (not to mention the absent father) - and the attraction-repulsion between the narrator and the ‘woman in black,’ who is a fallen woman both in the sexual and soteriological sense, who is both punished and who punishes, who is caught textually somewhere between the figure of the ‘natural’ and the ‘unnatural mother’ – certainly holds a strong sexual charge, the most obvious manifestation of which occurs in his discernment of the traces of beauty in her wasted features. One might ask, is there a scent here of the unnamed ‘wasting disease’ – the highly sexualised consumption, perhaps – as a punishment for sexual and maternal misconduct? It might be drawing too long a bow to recognise here the advent of HIV/AIDS, but it certainly resonates with the historical moment in which the novel was published.

Meanwhile, the counter-balancing feminine forces, equally without character – the remembrance of the maternal care of Kipps’ mother and his nurse, the warm asexual figure of his latter-day wife – certainly play into a narrative of the saviour Madonna in contrast to the unnatural whore or the barren hag. But I wouldn’t by any means say that this is a novel in which there lies concealed a misogynist narrative – rather, that these tropes of the supernatural genre, in the hands of a female writer (not that that necessarily counts for mitigation), are played upon and indeed complexified in their emotional import. Indeed, we might read the presence of these ‘silent women,’ and the reasons for their silence, as a statement in itself.

In order to appreciate TWIB, however, it’s not necessary (though it’s certainly enjoyable) to analyse the ways in which this work is a reflection on the sensibilities which shaped the classic ghost story, as filtered through the lens of the early 1980s (a period in which the gothic was once again beginning to take hold of popular culture). In short, what we have here is a worthy heir to James, Le Fanu, Mrs. Gaskell and the other luminaries of the luna-nary canon.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Pedro Almodóvar - Tacones Lejanos ('High Heels') (1991)

As the film beginning a run of mid-period Almodóvar vehicles which, while interesting, were more problematic than the dark intensity of his earlier works but hadn’t yet developed the majesty and emotional kick of his finest later films (the trilogy comprising Todo sobre mi madre, Hable con ella & La mala educación), I wasn’t expecting particularly much from TL (particularly given the cold critical reception it initially received). Mistake!

The Almodóvar trademarks are there – the gorgeous design and vivid colour (in Almodóvar’s universe, the perfect interiors provide the ideal contrast to the messiness of human relationships, emotions and the body), as well as stunning lead performances by two notable Almodóvariennes, Victoria Abril & Marisa Paredes. Like his other films, TL quotes the classic female melodramas so adored by Almodóvar (in particular, here, Bergman’s Autumn Sonata), and echoes the narrative of such works, inflected through a sensibility which turns the transgression, sexuality and queer knobs up past ten.

The plot concerns the troubled relationship between Rebeca (Abril), a newscaster, and her mother Becky (Paredes) who is returning to Spain after fifteen years in Mexico (the Spanish title, Tacones Lejanos, translates as ‘distant heels,’ capturing the melancholy of this relationship in referencing Rebeca’s childhood memory of her mother’s presence, rather than the more comedy-oriented nature of the English title). In the meantime, Rebeca has married Manuel (Féodor Atkine), once a lover of her mother’s, and become close friends with a drag queen, Letal (Miguel Bosé), who pastiches Becky’s 60s persona. And when Manuel is murdered, things take a turn for the even-more-complicated, leading to the unraveling of facades within facades, an exploration of history and identity in terms of surface and reality (not to mention celebrity), delivered with the hysterical emotional lability which is also an Almodóvarian hallmark.

Unlike some of his other works, this narrative is compelling and never drags – a particularly impressive feature is the Rashomonesque untangling of Miguel’s murder – a theme which ties in to the central question of appearance and reality in world as hyper-real as its décor, where characters are ‘larger than life’ in the sense that their identity is lived out through stage or screen personas, and where events gain emotional reality and even truth status (only) by their enactment in such venues. Oh, and just in case there weren’t enough exploitative elements here, there are a number of set pieces (including a bizarre but strangely fitting choregraphed dance piece) set in a women’s prison. But here we can contrast Kika, Almodóvar’s next work – where Kika takes the (prescient) exploration of ‘reality’ and truth on the screen, as well as acts of cruelty and transgression, to absurd extremes in ways which, while intriguing, fail inasmuch as they betray a callous insensitivity to human emotions, TL walks this tightrope much more successfully. The soundtrack, which features various divas of the Spanish musical world and at times becomes powerfully diegetic, is also particularly strong, comparable only to Todo sobre mi madre, while the score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, works well within this context (despite Almodóvar’s expression of dislike for it).

If there is a weak point, it is the performance of Bosé as the male lead – his casting was apparently a cause célèbre given his status as a famous Spanish-language singer, but his acting and indeed his ‘look’ seem stilted and banal, out of place in the lush and vivid environment of the film, while his transformation into various personas as the film progresses is obvious in a way which takes the omniscience of melodrama a tad too far. Despite this, however, this is a work which is beautiful and thought-provoking, one which fits beautifully into an evolving, yet circling, Almodóvarian project, yet at the same time holds its own in terms of the visceral and intellectual pleasure of the viewing experience, and in terms of originality.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Louie Psihoyos - The Cove (2009)

It took me some time to get around to watching this widely-hailed documentary, because I thought the scenes showing dolphin slaughter would be awful – and they were. Despite, or because of, this shocking footage, this is a work which deserves the plaudits which were heaped on it. The story begins with Ric O’Barry, a fascinating character whose relationship with dolphins began in the 1960s when he was the trainer for the dolphins who performed in Flipper. His moment of revelation came soon after the filming finished, when the dolphins were returned to aquariums where, like any creature in captivity, they were deeply unhappy – to the point that one committed suicide by choosing to stop breathing in his arms. The day afterwards, he was arrested for trying to free a dolphin.

But apart from the biography of a man who feels responsible for the dolphin mania which has resulted in the widespread capturing and use of dolphins for human amusement, and the concomitant deaths of captive or unwanted dolphins, this is a taut documentary in which the tension continually ratchets up, as the participants head to the Japanese town of Taiji and the secret cove of the title, a highly-secured zone forbidden to all but the local fishermen, where the slaughter of dolphins captured by batteries of sound (in another memorable moment, O’Barry says that he hears the banging of the metal poles in his dreams) is carried out. Using hi-tech equipment (from military-grade thermal goggles to cameras disguised as rocks) and low cunning, in constant danger from the local fishermen and the Japanese authorities, the team finally manage to film the slaughter in order to bring it to the attention of the world.

The slaughter of dolphins per se is not the only issue which this film explores – paths which lead away from this locus include fisheries and overfishing, mercury poisoning as a result of water pollution and public policy, dolphin awareness and questions of animal consciousness, whaling as an activity, and Japanese history and the relationship to the West, questions of tradition and ethics, and the cynical plutocracy of international influence. In opening out into such a broad spectrum, the film reminded me of another excellent documentary dealing with marine life – Sharkwater. Some accusations of racism or cultural prejudice toward the Japanese have been made toward the film, and there is perhaps an implication of enlightened Westerners journeying into the dangerous Orient in order to mitigate their barbaric practices, but on the balance I would say this charge is unwarranted – as the work itself demonstrates, most Japanese people are unaware of the slaughter and the dietary danger that it poses to them themselves.

Having said that, I was disappointed that in all of these complexities the question – which is raised by a Japanese advocate of dolphin slaughter – of why these Westerners find it acceptable to kill cows, but not dolphins, is not addressed. It may be the emotional attachment that Westerners have to dolphins as smart and cute animals (premised on Flipper and its inheritance) which make us want to keep dolphins in captivity, but it is these same traits which allow outrage over dolphin slaughter in non-Western countries while our own practices remain unexamined (I’m sure that footage of an industrial slaughterhouse would be equally disturbing and difficult to capture – though it is out there to some extent in works such as Meet Your Meat). I would suggest that, in order to get to the bottom of the relationship between humans and dolphins, so dysfunctional not only for dolphins but also for humans, a broader critique is needed of human relationships with non-human animals and ‘the animal’ more generally.

Nonetheless, this is a well-made, shocking and compelling documentary, one which is only now being screened in Japan itself, and one which makes up part of an increasing movement drawing attention to animal issues (we might also think, for example, of Jonathan Safran Foer’s widely-read Eating Animals) both from ethical and (somewhat more closely related to human self-interest and thus more likely to spur action) from environmental perspectives.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Matteo Garrone - Gomorra (2008)

This sleek and brutal film, like Roberto Saviano’s book on which it is based, is a work of docu-fiction, but it is only a light transposition of the everyday reality for Neapolitans and their ongoing relationship with the Camorra (while the Sicilian Mafia/Cosa Nostra are the best known, they are not the only Italian criminal organisation; others include the aforementioned, the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita). The film traces a number of different individuals through their generally tragic trajectories through the poorer echelons of Neapolitan society (though while much of the ‘action on the ground’ happens on the streets, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Camorra and other similar organizations exist at every level, including the highest, of Italian politics and commerce - in this film this is evident for the world of high fashion in particular, though in a way which can also be considered representative).

In this world of scummy, decaying concrete high-rise projects (Italian criminal organizations have a lengthy history with the construction industry, and concrete in particular), the Camorra are so deeply implicated at all levels of society that the attempt to remain disentangled, or worse, to disentangle oneself, may be impossible, except at the price of one’s life (not to mention the lives of one's family and friends). Rampant poverty and the standard social and economic alienation of urban underclasses only contribute to these patterns. While we are fairly familiar with this kind of narrative from films such as City of God or La Haine and television series like The Wire, it remains shocking to see the scabrous underbelly of an affluent European society revealed when the rest of us are more used to the Tuscany of tourist dreams and the Italian self-image as bella gente (although in Italy the social and racial tensions, sense of doomed inevitability, and corruption which permeate the society depicted here are equally apparent, and equally repellent, in politics and the media). The film itself is both violent and viscerally beautiful, a treat for aficionados of post-industrial decay and tawdry glamour, and anyone who has visited Naples will recognize, if not the scenery, the atmosphere greasy with fear, history and opportunity.

Italian criminal organisations in themselves are a fascinating subject – some of the books that I’d recommend on the topic include Peter Robb’s Midnight In Sicily, Toby Jones’ The Dark Heart of Italy and John Dickie’s indispensible Cosa Nostra, as well as the moving documentary Excellent Cadavers (based on the book of the same name), telling the story of heroic anti-Mafia judges and martyrs Giovanni Falcone & Paolo Borsellino - and I’m about to embark on David Lane’s Into The Heart of the Mafia – and they are important not only as interesting histories in their own right, but in any attempt to understand contemporary and historical Italy – not to mention all countries of Italian immigration, but in particular the USA and various South American nations.

The representation of the Mafia in documentary and fiction itself is worth considering, with all its connections with dietrologia (‘behind-ology,’ the Italian obsession with conspiracies and ulterior motivations for action, one which is hardly surprising given the history of moments and organizations such as the Calvi case, the P2 ‘shadow government,’ and the murderous intrigues of Rightist and Leftist terrorist groups during the anni di piombo, the ‘years of lead’). This sense of shadowy manipulation from behind the scenes is reflected in the Italian giallo (and, perhaps, deflected in the love for the Manichaean Western) – but there have also been (rare) Italian cultural figures (such as Dario Fo) who have more openly addressed the issue - in particular the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia in works such as Il Giorno della Civetta ('Day of the Owl') and Il Contesto (published in English as 'Equal Danger'), which give a sense of the Borgesian, truth-defying mazes within mazes which are encountered when one delves into this subject. But the semi-fictionalised presentation given here - in the emerging Italian tradition of the Unidentified Narrative Object - is a novelty; one, however, which does not impede the seriousness of the topic at hand (Saviano himself has been subject to serious death threats and has been granted a permanent police escort).

Like the film itself, the present Italian situation can be seen as a tragedy garbed in beautiful raiments - particularly while a corrupt and well-connected Berlusconi continues to prosecute his war against the judiciary, the meaningful Left, and the independent media.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Six-Six-Sixties: the number of the angel?

God Help The Girl - God Help the Girl (2009)
The Magic Theatre - London Town (2010)
The School - Loveless Unbeliever (2010)

While 1960s pop of the kind pioneered by Phil Spector with African American girl groups brought to England’s shores the brash and brassy Lulus, Cilla Blacks and Sandie Shaws, to my mind it was at its finest in the more melancholy fragility of a (vastly underrated) Twinkle or a Marianne Faithfull. But this isn’t to say that these two tendencies can’t be profitably combined.

I’ve recently become enamoured of a number of groups doing just that – the revival of the English brand of sweet orchestral 60s girl-group pop. Revivalism, as I may have written before, is a double-edged sword – on the one hand, I might prefer to listen to something more original (whatever that might be), but, on the other, given that historical material is ultimately limited (even if the quest to unearth entire genres is more than a lifetime’s work), why not enjoy yesterday’s sound today? And if it’s done well, a self-consciousness and quality control can be brought to styles which may have been somewhat lacking in that regard during their heyday – a latterday perfection of the essence of the sound, so to speak.

The first of these is God Help the Girl’s self-titled album, essentially a side-project for Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. But while I’m a big fan of The Boy With The Arab Strap (which itself is deeply indebted to Nick Drake’s 60s masterpiece Bryter Layter), I haven’t been particularly taken with the rest of Belle & Sebastian’s work, or with their performance as a live band. This album, however, while certainly not without its flaws, crystallizes some of my favourite aspects of their work – the gorgeous melodies, sense of vulnerability and a barely perceptible edge of darker melancholy. When I first listened to the album I thought that it was all a little too much the same, with no standouts except the title track (a perfect pop tune which remains by far the finest moment) but the other tracks reveal themselves more gradually as the plot unfurls – the story, which is outlined in the accompanying booklet, is a ‘musical film’ which Murdoch plans to shoot in 2011, though there is no clear narrative arc that I can ascertain. Catherine Ireton’s vocals are gorgeous, smooth but by no means devoid of personality (compare her version of Funny Little Frog to Murdoch’s own from 2006’s The Life Pursuit), and bring a freshness to the music itself – so, while the album suffers from flaws including Murdoch’s tendency to insert himself vocally a little too much into a project which is ostensibly not Belle & Sebastian, as well as a lyrical habit of straying into an irritating faux-naivete which is not always held as well in check as it could be, this is nonetheless a work which is undemanding and pleasurable in the best possible sense.

The concept album theme continues with The Magic Theatre’s London Town, a fascinating album of chamber pop which owes its existence to a strange story of market capitalism, the music industry and the struggling artist. When Ooberman, the previous band of Magic Theatre duo Dan Popplewell & Sophie Churney, failed to sell enough copies to pay their wages, despite support from John Peel and other indie luminaries, the band split up and Popplewell found another way (of the very few remaining) to make a living from music creation: library music. Ultimately, this became a career, and one in which he could explore new musical directions (hence the involvement of the Slovak Radio Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir on this album); but at the same time, the pop sensibility began feeding back into his work, until he was writing library pieces which were also backing tracks for the London Town album songs.

From these extraordinary beginnings comes a narrative, according to their website, is “a time-travel love story set in 1968 and 1888, where the young 60s hero falls through a hole in time in The Magic Theatre in the Old Victorian Steam fair, to find his one true love in 1880’s London.” Even if the music is entirely different, I can’t help being reminded of Momus’ awe-inspiring track London 1888 – one which strikes the same lugubrious note as the conclusion of this story (which, however, is by no means so throughout, but rather follows a quartet of seasonal moods). While the band suggest that the sounds are chosen from the 19th century as well as the 60s, it is undoubtedly the second which predominate. Standouts include the hooky opener, Steamroller, and the subdued rush of the title track.

The pick of this endearing litter, however, is without a doubt The School’s addictive and flawlessly realized Loveless Unbeliever. Packed with bittersweet, upbeat 60s-influenced indie pop gems, and without the nagging twee ingenuousness which haunts God Help the Girl, there’s little to say about this album but to praise it. A point of reference might be Saint Etienne’s Good Humor (my personal favourite of SE’s work – and indeed the album is produced by Ian Catt of both SE and the Field Mice), but here we are in more straightforward territory genre-wise, and in a milieu which is much less enamoured of the atmospheric panoramas of American leisure. The lyrics, dealing with themes of love’s vicissitudes, are completely appropriate while never clichéd or unintelligent. Highlights include Let It Slip, Valentine and the 50s-bop Hoping and Praying. As The Essex might say, ‘they’ve got everything.’

All of these albums work with a joy/melancholy musical dynamic which I must confess is one of my favourite registers, and all recapture – or create – a nostalgic 1960s England of kitchen-sink dramas and funfairs, bright skies and sudden showers, one which thus far has existed mainly in the imagination of Morrissey, but which is certainly worth a (re)visit.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Sydney Film Festival 2010: In Brief

For me, the unquestionable pick of the festival was:

Raoul Peck – Moloch Tropical
It was, on the one hand, a youthful obsession with voodoo (come on, we've all been there), and, on the other, a passion for Graham Greene's underrated novel of Haiti, The Comedians which first got me interested in Haiti. This film is a fascinating dissection of the final days of a fictional Haitian dictator, an amalgam of the Duvalier authoritarians and latter-day ‘democrats,’ by a director who himself was briefly Minister for Culture under Aristide. In some ways, Downfall can be seen as a predecessor but this is by far the better film, set in a gorgeous mountain eyrie sitting not-so-comfortably above the palace torture chambers, and the slums of the Haitian people. A deeply thought-provoking meditation, both scathing and compassionate, on human weakness, political idealism, gender, race, violence and cruelty, and international politics as theatre and as cynical praxis.

And further, in order of impressiveness:

Sean Byrne - The Loved Ones
Fantastic and original Australian prom-night torture-porn. The horror which is only latently concealed in the ubiquitous pinkificated gender consumerism of the present childhood milieu is made manifest – and you’ll never hear Kasey Chambers’ Not Pretty Enough in quite the same way again.

Sylvain Chomet – The Illusionist
An unexpectedly bittersweet tale from the maker of The Triplets of Belville, based on an unfilmed screenplay by Jacques Tati, with perhaps the most gorgeous animation I’ve ever seen, and a surprising storyline, looking at the travails of a down-at-heel illusionist in the age of vaudeville, which beguiles you into thinking that it’s one kind of narrative before gently twisting into another.

Daniel Monzon – Cell 211
A taut, intense and brutal Spanish prison drama with some nasty twists. Reminiscent of the finest moments of Oz.

Sascha Bader – Rock Steady: The Roots of Reggae
A documentary on an unjustly neglected era of Jamaican music, sandwiched between the better-known ska and roots reggae, this film takes as its central premise a rocksteady reunion concert featuring various luminaries of the era, including Dawn Penn, Ernest Ranglin, Sly Dunbar, Marcia Griffiths, and Stranger Cole, an irresistible eccentric who serves as narrator. Every fan will have some favourite rocksteady moments which are left out (for me, where is the Techniques’ Queen Majesty?) but overall, a joyful and overdue celebration of an important moment in musical history and in the development of a globally influential Jamaican music scene, placed in the context of a particular moment in the development of historical, political and racial consciousness.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
An interesting failure – the use of Lynchian devices of fantasy weirdness mixed with domestic normality and hints of darkness to tell a tale based on Thai legend, mythology and religion. Particularly impressive was a central set-piece of stills from a repressive future (one wonders whether this was subversive political commentary), but ultimately an unrealised mélange whose triumph at Cannes is inexplicable.

James Rasin – Beautiful Darling
An ultimately tragic homage to Candy Darling – a dark fable of the unfulfilling nature of a life as an artwork and the cruel vagaries of Warhol’s Factory – but as a documentary, this work was itself equally unfulfilling inasmuch as the reason for the fascination Darling seems to have held for her contemporaries is never quite apparent in the film’s material.

Todd Solondz – Life During Wartime
A not-quite-worthy sequel to the stunning Happiness – some fantastic lines and domestic grotesque set pieces, with impressive performances by Allison Janney, Charlotte Rampling and Michael K. Williams in particular – but a confection which is ultimately light and unsatisfactory in comparison to its predecessor.

Ben C. Lucas – Wasted On The Young
A high-school film which looks at the timely issue of the dark side of the Australian obsession with sporting heroism and its golden boys, along with the ramifications of a crime reminiscent of the reagic and horrific Leigh Leigh case (later filmed as Blackrock) – but one which, despite some beautiful camerawork and an interesting and innovative incorporation of digital technology (one which the film industry in general ahs been behind the times in adopting) fails to move and descends to the level of troublesome gender politics in a rape-revenge story in which the female remains a fantasy object motivating male action stemming from pure love or pure lust, rather than a complete human being.

Patrick Hughes – Red Hill
A seemingly promising premise – an Australian Western/slasher genre pic set in small-town Victorian high country and starring Ryan Kwanten. But a promise which goes unrealised – despite the heavy-handed race politics twist, a film with a menacing indigenous killer who remains silent throughout? Really? No, really? Can anyone see the problem with that?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

John Vaillant – The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

Some time ago, I watched a documentary about the coldest inhabited place on earth, a town in Siberia where, if the generator failed, everyone would die within four hours – where the seasonal melting of the highest permafrost caused by the warmth of buildings gave the architecture skewed, Lovecraftian angles – and where the coffins, due to the same process of thawing and refreezing, would gradually make their way to the surface, re-emerging twenty to twenty-five years after the burial.

The world in which the events John Vaillant describes takes place – a remote region of Siberian Manchuria – is similarly surreal. Trees explode in the cold, as the heat and pressure of the sap bursts the frozen exterior, while flora and fauna of the cold North (deer, wolves, pines) mingle with those of the tropical South (leopards, large and exotic insects, and, the animal in question here, tigers). Indeed, Vaillant suggests that the region was a refugium – an isolated area which remained uncovered by snow and ice during pitiless glacial periods. But this is also an area of flux ethnically, in the mingling between ethnic ‘Russians,’ indigenous people, and Chinese; but, even more shapingly, in the aftermath of perestroika and the frontier-capitalist instability which resulted (Vaillant suggests that there are very numerous parallels between this area and the American frontier, both in terms of this lawlessness, human and natural danger, and in terms of colonialisation and resource exploitation). But although this environment may seem bizarre to ‘we moderns,’ in fact, despite the encroachments of nature in the form of logging, mining, roads and guns, life here is in many ways akin to our ancestral patterns, wherein the forces of nature continually pose an existential threat and where hunting (and not agriculture) forms an important part of most successful survival strategies. In this arena, the danger that tigers (and other wild animals) can pose is not just, as more usually, a convenient justification for humans’ meat-eating habits.

This isn’t to say, though, that human-tiger relationships are such that the killing of the tiger is justified. There is, in this area, a long tradition of what can only be described as ‘honourable’ interaction between the human and the tiger – an uneasy ceasefire, but one which generally holds (it may seem anthropomorphic to refer to honour among tigers, so to speak, but even I, someone who usually considers our understanding of the mental and emotional capabilities of animals to be radically undervalued, was astonished by both the clear laws obtaining between human and tiger and the purposiveness and forethought with which tigers here behave). Vaillant’s tale is a story of the breaking of that covenant by a human, and a feline quest for revenge – one in which the circle of human targets grows ever wider, and no-one is safe.

The story, which begins with this particular tiger’s ferocious and well-planned killing of a poacher, traces both the pre-history and the consequences of this moment, and in doing so brings in not only issues of human and tiger (we might combine these in saying ‘animal’) nature, but also politics, environmentalism, colonialism, spirituality and the relationship with land itself. The hard-bitten, hard-drinking, hard-smoking, suicide-prone, stoic characters (almost all men) who make up the human cast are in some sense familiar Russian figures, but at the same time their relationship to the taiga, the way in which they read it and feel a qualitative relationship with it as an entity, partakes in a spirituality which isn’t confined only to those with indigenous heritage in the area (though obviously it functions in different ways for those who have such heritage). In ‘man vs wild’ tales of this kind I usually tend to feel less sympathy with the human characters than the author intends, but in this case, Vaillant presents not only the plight of the Amur tigers but also the travails of these people trapped in a dying society, with few economic opportunities, caught in a pincer between the corruption of Russia’s new elite and the harshness of their natural circumstances. The tiger itself, meanwhile, is a character sprung from a Greek tragedy, wronged, injured, and with furious calculation lashing out at those whose injury can only bring cyclical retribution.

Given that I’m a sucker both for cats and for nature documentaries (especially those set in extreme environments), I may be the ideal audience for a work of this kind, but certainly there was little to forgive in this book, which is well- and tautly-written, deeply atmospheric and incisive (if we put aside a few regrettable diversions into bio-evolutionary speculation and ruminations on human nature). This is a tale both sorrowful and steeped in what I can only term majesty, a report from a front line tense with dualities – arctic and tropical, socialist and capitalist, spiritual and material, colonialist and indigenous, ‘human’ and ‘natural’ – which are both symbolic and prefigurative of ‘our’ present condition.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

James Young - Nico: The End (1994)

It’s been some time since I read James Young’s other work on that paradigmatic Germanic femme fatale, Nico: Songs They Never Play On the Radio. From memory, this volume contains some of the same material but is an expanded version which also includes a great deal of later material, including the making of Camera Obscura (produced by John Cale) and extended tours behind the Iron Curtain. As a full-fledged Nico obsessive (and one who holds the view that her critically neglected work of the ‘80s, in particular Camera Obscura and The Drama of Exile, represent the pinnacle of her achievements) this was an essential document.

Young himself gives the impression of a slightly unreliable (not to mention bitter) narrator, at least as far as his faux-deprecating picture of himself as naïve outsider is concerned (he left a degree at an Oxbridge to become Nico’s pianist, thereby entering a bizarre, shabby and deeply seamy underworld of addiction, immorality and eccentricity). Having said this, however, is prose is poetic without being overblown or over-reaching itself, perfect for the task at hand, and in itself this book is an important historical document of a figure whose genius, at first so little recognized as a result of her beauty, was never eclipsed by her spiral into the darkness of addiction and poverty (indeed, Young suggests that she herself had felt that beauty as a burden in that regard).

I generally don’t read biographies of artists in whom I’m interested, because I often emerge liking them less, but in this case – well, Nico certainly doesn’t come across as a likeable character per se, as one who you’d trust or lend money to, but (as in the case of White’s biography of Genet) my respect for her was, if anything, heightened by this severely unglamorous work which scours the depths of the abject. John Cooper Clarke, on the other hand, another pet cult figure of mine, doesn’t come across quite so well during his cameo role (though if any song encapsulates the mood and environs of this book, it’s his most well-known piece Beasley Street). On that note, other figures are also dragged down from their pedestals – in particular, John Cale, who appears as a thoroughly nasty piece of work in both his drug-addled and health-yuppie phases (which casts an interesting light on his appearance in the essential documentary Nico:Icon, which closes with his particularly moving cover of Frozen Warnings). Nico’s son Ari (fathered by Alain Delon, who refused to acknowledge him) is also depicted as almost unbelievably venial, although with his background (disavowed by his father, abandoned by Nico and raised mostly by Delon’s mother) one wonders what chances he had. As in other junkie narratives, the pursuit of a fix forms part of a rambling and cyclical rather than traditionally-shaped story arc, but unlike those (with the singular exception of William Burroughs’ work of that title) this in no way becomes frustrating for the reader. Ultimately,as a tale of the dark underside of fame’s excesses and the characters who inhabit it, Nico: The End outranks in darkness even other notable works such as Marc Almond’s Tainted Life.

Nico, like certain other artists (Emily Dickinson springs to mind) is an anomaly, inasmuch as one is bound to ask – where did her art come from? It seems to have emerged fully-formed from an alien place, unprecedented, with a quality of liminality in its very appearance in our reality. One of the interesting things about this book is the fact that Young doesn’t really recognize or discuss Nico’s work as such. This is refreshing, given how many books are written by adoring fans, but he does, at least from the perspective of my taste, misrecognise the value of the work that he was actually involved in – in particular, the amazing, experimental synth-driven Camera Obscura, and in particular its cover of 'My Funny Valentine,' personally by far my favourite rendition of that standard, which Young excoriates in detail. Finally, though, the inherent and unaffected alienation of this subject position is nothing if not apt.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Alan J. Pakula - The Parallax View (1974)

I came to this peculiar film from k-punk (with roots in Jameson, Žižek, Kojin Karatani, Joyce, Lacan and Hegel – how’d you like them lucubrations?) Extremely prescient and deeply paranoid, the work, in the unravelling-the-thread theme familiar to the conspiracy thriller, follows reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) as he investigates the assassination of a US senator, slowly becoming aware of the seemingly accidental deaths of witnesses and a conspiracy, taking on increasingly monumental and systemic proportions, behind which lies the hand of the shadowy Parallax Corporation, the depersonalised and a-responsible corporate institution par excellence.

There are some impressive Hitchcockian and schematic setpieces here, which, mingled with the scungy reality of Frady’s life, create a pleasing tension in their depiction of the interaction, central to the Western (post)modern condition, between the captivatingly sheeny surfaces of capitalism and antiseptic bureaucracy (one area, but one only, where Kafka now seems out of date), and the inevitable messiness of human existence (even if that messiness is ripe for colonisation and replication, a process which is currently well underway). The centrepiece is a fantastic, deeply disturbing montage which is shown to Frady during his (apparent) infiltration of the Corporation, featuring stills of political and religious figureheads, violence and trauma, and popular culture (and in this latter, foreshadowing the neo-fascist and neo-conservative tendencies of the present slew of films based on comics, most overtly works such as those involving Frank Miller, but not excluding the more subtle and unintentional reactionism of films like V For Vendetta).

We observe here the way in which the system incorporates rebellion, literally – that is, not only neutralising it, but using rebellion to make itself stronger – or, to paraphrase Žižek on the parallax, however much ‘I’ may want to be an observer of the picture, in being such ‘I’ inevitably find myself within it. While the Parallax Corporation itself can be seen as representing a fear of the growing power and lack of transparency or accountability of corporations – a fear which, in the intervening decades, has proven to be entirely well-founded – the film sees such an organization as inimical to Western democratic politics (in the fact of the assassination), whereas what seems to be the case (a long-term historical connection which was somewhat shifted from view during the period of the Keynesian consensus) is the increasing intertwining of these institutions. But perhaps we could view this assassination – which obviously has deep roots in the killing of Kennedy, Watergate, and even, to draw a somewhat longer bow, Martin Luther King – as a narratorial fear of purposive systemic blowback, that is, the methods which for so long have been employed in subject areas – the colonies – have created apt pupils now re-importing them to their land/s of origin. A further criticism might be that the Corporation’s induction process, whereby it seeks out rare individuals who are psychologically suited to its brutal and secretive practices, also strikes a false note inasmuch as these projects are not, in a sense, the aberrant or perverted underside of contemporary society – they are embodied in every part of it (the system replicating itself in the individual), as has been shown by scholars and practitioners including Zygmunt Bauman, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo (these latter two operating in the decade or so before this film was made, and in some ways addressing the same concerns). In saying this, it should be recognised that these moments of naïveté do not undercut the central cynicism (or perhaps we should say, cynical realism) of the film.

The characteristic American ‘one man standing for justice against the system’ narrative (along with the socio-personal dysfunctionality of that individual, which may be related to his – and it is generally his – stand against ‘society’), often so deeply conservative in its espousal of macho frontier individualism-libertarianism and in the positioning of the rebel as justified and outside the morality of means (and if we look at present conspiracy theories, they seem mostly of the rightist variant), is certainly in evidence here – but it doesn’t carry the aforementioned paradoxical underlying freight to a degree worthy of criticism, apart from its social message (gendered, in particular). However, even the patriarchal gender tropes inherent in the relationship between Frady and Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) are thrown into a new light when Carter’s ‘emotionally hysterical’ revelations are revealed as truth.

The belief in conspiracy (where it is not justified, and it’s worth recalling how many political and corporate operations would have seemed like ‘conspiracy theories’ before their unmasking) is, of course, a response to existential fear (‘Frady’?), a desperate search for meaning, an infusion of symbolic significance and graspable pattern into the warp and weft of mass society (though drawing on premodern and religious superstition – think of the evolution of the medieval antisemitic trope of the Jew as well-poisoner, host-desecrator and killer of Christian children into the modernist Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Foundations of the Nineteenth/Myth of the Twentieth Century).

Indeed, as an aside, those of us who’d consider ourselves scholars with an interest in subversion of the dominant paradigm may well question the meaning of our own activity in this regard – and the use of interpretation as an heuristic which does little more than the task of re-integration (‘contain the rage’) by averting feelings of hopelessness and the maintenance of the structural dynamics of late capitalism is an ever-present problematic in which we are all, to greater and lesser extents, implicated (theory as sublimation of trauma). But, to return to the film itself, the message is not so much ‘you can’t handle the truth,’ as, ‘the truth can’t handle you handling the truth.’ Or, as Lovecraft famously put it, ‘[t]he most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents’ (though, I would add, this ‘mercy,’ which knowingly or unknowingly we grant ourselves, is one whose long-term cost is existentially near-unbearable – a need to escape from amorphous and ill-perceived confines, that vague feeling that something isn’t quite as it should be, which sometimes blossoms and bears bitter fruit). In fact – and this chimes with my personal perspective as a Buddhist, though with a political-systemic rather than individual-psychological interpretation (and, I would add, the second case provides a much more cogent state of solution and method for arriving thereat) – since we are none of us sane (in the sense of accurately comprehending reality; I don’t mean to trivialise mental illness, which is of a different order), insanity is in fact sanity and vice versa. For Frady, as for Lovecraft’s protagonists, the price for apprehending these patterns, for pursuing a separate perspective – a disruptive act inasmuch as it is a reterritorialising reclamation of an agential space outside them – is the incorporation of the space on which the observer stands, in the process of which that observer is disappeared as such (and, in this case, literally). A further disruption lies in the viewer’s role as observer of the film’s unreliable narration – like Frady, we also perform a Sedgwickian paranoid reading, doubting and constantly re-evaluating our own (‘one’s own’ might be more appropriate) interpretation, a dynamic which lends the film its queasy and unsettling mood.

Ultimately, in its conclusion ‘the parallax view’ is deeply pessimistic – the house always wins. Attempts at solidarity are crushed through the use of violence. The view of the near-omnipotent system and its methods of surveillance and action both looks back to the emerging countercultural politics of the 1960s, and forward to the post-disciplinary mechanisms of the contemporary control society. In other words, a parallax which proves paradigmatic.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Colin MacInnes - Absolute Beginners (1959)

Absolute Beginners is, unfortunately, now best remembered for a lacklustre 1980s film version (except among neo-mods, where it remains a well-kept secret, depicting as it does the formative days of coffee bars, scooters and jazz as subcultural pursuits). The work is divided into four months; while there is no strong central narrative arc, the early part concerns the unnamed narrator’s life as an amateur photographer (and pornographer) and his amorous pursuit of his ex-girlfriend, Crepe Suzette, while the later – well, we’ll come to that. This is the second book in MacInnes’ London Trilogy, and, like the first (the impressive City of Spades), it is set on the fringes of London’s seamier cultural systems, and written in a colloquial-poetic register which is sometimes reminiscent of a more cheerful Hubert Selby Jr.

While CoS dealt as its central subject with relationships between black and white Londoners and African migrants, AB focuses on the teenager and ‘the birth of cool’ – and, published in 1959, we are in the early years of existence of that particular demographic – as the eighteen-year-old narrator points out, his is the first generation in which ‘yoof’ (as they’re now known) had the spare cash for independence, and the leisure of not yet being completely incorporated into the systems of adulthood (as well as chrysalidic mods, teddy boys are a central subcultural focus, in a not-so-sympathetic depiction). So while in today’s light there sometimes seems to be a naivete about the Caulfield-esque narrator – a narratorially-approved lack of acknowledgment of the way in which the image conscious and apolitical teenager does not, in fact, stand outside the system – this can perhaps be attributed to the originality of the concerns he describes in era in question, combined with the well-rehearsed figure of today’s teen, more even than at that period completely subsumed as a figure of capital and consumption. Furthermore, the question of involvement and apathy is raised in the book’s concluding episode, dealing with the narrator’s response to race riots. On this note, in some ways the work can also be seen as a bildungsroman, as the narrator, on the cusp of adulthood, transcends an individualistic and amoral focus on the survival of the self as project, and then on the pursuit of cash, to become a figure sobered by the death of his father and a central mover in fashioning a community response to the appalling prejudice and brutality of emerging white-on-black prejudice and violence (such as that which occurred in 1958) – leading to a final decision to leave behind the city, unrealizable and perhaps utopian romantic hopes, and the familiar which has now been outgrown.

As in City of Spades, race is a central concern, and MacInnes is perhaps the central figure for the exploration of this trope, the anxieties (and cultural enrichment) caused by the reversing of the direction of Empire as it crumbled. As in CoS, not only racial outsiders but others, such as queers (MacInnes himself was openly bisexual) and pimps, are sympathetically depicted, if, again as in that novel, with occasional tonalities and implications which may strike a slightly off note for the contemporary reader – and female characters are not his strong point, though some, such as lesbian pimp Big Jill, shine here. Ultimately, this is not as strong a work as CoS, and it has the same tendency to mild didacticism. However, it is nonetheless a deeply original novel which, if it depicts a particular and formative moment in the balance between various identity relationships, still resonates in the present day (particularly with the recent resurgence of the BNP). AB is ultimately (and in this way it seems like a forerunner of the sublime-grotesque kitchen-sink urban imagery we find in the lyrics of bands like Pulp) a conflicted paean to a gorgeously-depicted city, at a tense moment of cultural crux and flux.