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.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Mario Bava - La Maschera Del Demonio aka Black Sunday, The Mask of Satan (1960)

I’m not sure if I was missing something, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by this highly considered, influential early Bava vehicle. Extremely loosely adapted from Gogol, and set in Moldavia in the early 1800s, the plot follows Katia (Barbara Steele) and her father and brother, aristocratic descendants of the infamous witch Asa (also played by Barbara Steele) and her partner in Faustianism, Javuto. Two doctors travelling through the area (the younger of whom is Katia’s love interest) accidentally unseal Asa’s tomb, and so the plot is set in motion, as Asa and Javuto take their revenge on the descendants of Asa's brother-cum-executioner (yes, it’s a tad convoluted, but don’t let that bother you). The film was censored for some years due to the gruesome opening scene, in which Asa, condemned as a witch by her brother, is branded and has a spiked mask hammered on to her face before being burned at the stake.

La Maschera... is a moodily atmospheric and melodramatic film (as a point of interest the original score was, in the US, redone by exoticist Les Baxter, a piece I must try to track down) featuring some wonderful set pieces, and one can certainly see how influential it has been in the horror genre as a whole. In particular, Barbara Steele has an unforgettable face, not classically attractive, architectural yet also vulnerable, and the focus on the eyes, in particular, and ocular violence, is almost a lynchpin on which the movie hangs. The villains, Asa and Javuto, are vampires of a sort, and again the importance of this film for the development of the vampire genre is evident, but they are by no means the clichéd creations of later films. The theme dealing with the Inquisition and with sadistic torture (as well as the underlying eroticism in the relationship between Asa and Katia) is also a landmark which we can trace through to works such as Witchfinder General and its legion (pun intended) imitations, not to mention the lesbian vampire exploitation genre. Indeed, the film was widely censored and banned on the basis of the queasy brutality of the opening scene. There is a particularly memorable Unheimliche quality to the developing scenes in which we see the regeneration of Asa’s eyeless and scarred, but otherwise perfectly preserved corpse.

Nonetheless, having said all this, there is a certain uncomfortably horsehair, overstuffed quality to the film – like the furniture throughout – which, along with its over-slow pacing (tell me I’m not a typical child of the blink generation), keeps this film from being a paradigmatic example of the dark, stylish genre masterpieces which would reach their zenith in Italian cinema of the 1970s.