Thursday, 24 January 2008

I AM LEGEND


PLOT SPOILERS happen big time in what follows…


Before you ask, no this will not be another snobby burial of a Hollywood action film. For one thing, there seems little point seeing Deep Impact then complaining it wasn’t much like Wild Strawberries. Hollywood action films shouldn’t be criticized for just serving up the thrills, particularly when for the most part they can’t even serve up the thrills. They’re less than functional, like a broken toaster or a takeaway that doesn’t even fill you up after you’ve paid for it.

However, every now and then you get a film that’s more than serviceable, that manages to top up the serving with something a bit more tasty. Of course we’re still talking about a takeaway as opposed to a sit-down meal, it’s just a takeaway with some salad added. But sometimes I’ll eat a takeaway, and I prefer them with some salad. I Am Legend deserves comparison to something like Terminator, possibly even Alien, in keeping up its combination of roughage with taste for most of its length. (More on that caveat later.) Perhaps part of its appeal is that its very much a psychological rather than political story. Its ‘enemy’ are not something ‘foreign’ so much as a distorted version of us. As we shouldn’t be expecting anything intelligently political from Hollywood right now (including from the ‘liberal’ camp), this is something to be welcomed.

Channel Four summed it up well when they described it as “a film that blends a blockblustery bluster with a gaunt apocalyptic sobriety to good effect.” I am admittedly a sucker for ‘empty city’ scenarios, but this film put a chunk of its considerable budget into portraying a quite awesome deserted Manhatten. While everyone’s compared these scenes to 28 Days Later they seemed to me much more indebted to 12 Monkeys, with their deliriously incongruous shots of wild animals wandering the boulevards. I might well have been happy with an installation piece rather than a film, which just panned over such shots for ninety minutes then went to the credits.

The empty city is a potent image which is unlikely to be tied to one meaning, in fact it probably lends itself to several quite contradictory meanings. For example, the abundant flora and fauna on Fifth Avenue give off a Ballard-like vibe, portraying the seductiveness of entropy. There’s probably a wealth of existential stuff about the primacy of the self. However the film really focuses on the psychology of being the last man alive in a whole city. At first our hero Neville (Will Smith) seems to be leading quite an idyllic life, hunting game down from a Cadillac like a post-modern hunter-gatherer.

Despite the screech of types it’s akin to the recurrent image of the single walker in a city at night. Only when the hustle and bustle’s taken away can we really see the city for the monument it is. Indeed the absence of others can feel liberating, like all those times you’ve wished those clogging crowds away. Significantly no-one in the early scenes appears dead – merely absent. As director Francis Lawrence has commented, “"We didn't want to make an apocalyptic movie where the landscape felt apocalyptic… there’s something magic about the empty city.”

However, in another sense, the emptiness just enhances the way the city feels anyway. The crowds are so ubiquitous, there’s simply so many other people that they become unindivudated and anonymising. The film flirts with the first take on Neville’s life, only to hit us with the depth of his isolation. When I first heard Will Smith describe the film as primarily a psychological study I was cynical. But the fantastical scenario is genuinely being used merely as a magnifier to explore facets of life we all recognise. The fancy effects and CGI budget are just a means to tell us about a guy who hasn’t been on a date for a long time. His hopeful broadcasts to other survivors sound like the saddest lonely hearts ads out there. (“I haven’t seen another person in three years. If anybody is out there. Anybody. Please.”)

Meanwhile these elaborate survival practices and non-stop checking of his watch start to feel more and more like a bad case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Needless to say, when one of his daily visits to a non-existant rendezvous actually pays off and he comes across Anna, he doesn’t cope with it very well. This moment is underlined by showing the scene from Shrek where Shrek rejects teaming up with the Donkey. Having clearly been watching this video as regularly as all his other routines, he’s able to mouth along to every one of Shrek’s words. (Yet, as we all know, Shrek eventually accepts the Donkey.)

Even Anna’s Godbothering, though otherwise cringeworthy, adds to the theme. Her faith in God’s plan is matched to her belief that there must be other surivivors, the communal mixed in with the communion. (Though how so naive and unskilled a character has kept alive both herself and a small child is best not gone into.) Naturally, Neville responds by aggressively insisting on the death of everybody, like a neurotic insisting on the special nature of his problem.

As the film progresses we learn there’s two kinds of other folk in Neville’s life, the empty automata of showroom dummies and the Infected, a brutal antagonistic force. (The Infected are riven with the disease from which only Neville is immune.) While one is the passive crowd, the other is the active, antagonistic crowd, the danger in the city streets. While the look of the Infected is admittedly unimaginative (post Lord of the Rings bad guys) and identikit (as you’d expect from CGI creations), this does better enable their plot function – to represent the social group. In a neat plot twist Neville underestimates them, assuming them to be an unindivuated horde. He only learns the truth as they descend pack-like upon him…

Given this description, establishing a mood is obviously of central importance to this film. It must not only be clearly told, and both evocative and thrilling where appropriate, it must put up on the screen Neville’s mental state. Moreover, for much of the film Smith has no-one to act with apart from a dog and a few tailor’s dummies. It succeeds surprisingly well at this, allowing the pace to slow right down where it considers it necessary, a welcome change from the standard freneticism (which also serves to enliven the action scenes when they do arrive). Even when Neville’s dog is ‘vampirified’ by the virus this is not portrayed as a twist or even turns into a fight scene, the camera instead zooms in on the look on his face as he is forced to strangle it.

Moreover the story is conveyed less by exposition than by a kind of patchwork of clues, for example briefly showing a magazine cover on a fridge door that conveys vital information. Neville goes through his daily survival routines, and only later do we recognise the significance of some actions. There are flashbacks (which also allow for juxtaposed scenes of teeming New York streets as everyone tries to flee), but these are smartly kept short – usually cutting off just when we think we’re getting some useful information. One handy side-effect of this implicit approach to storytelling is that the nerds at Wikipedia have driven themselves nuts trying to determine what is ‘plot’ and what is merely interpretation.

Ironically, considering the high budget and heavy reliance on CGI, one of the most effective sequences couldn’t be more simple. In precisely the sort of thing you’d expect to happen in a film like this, our hero has to enter a darkened building likely to host enemy combatants. At this point, and like you would, he starts hyperventilating from fear. It shouldn’t be surprising but it is. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from a trained military man, nor from a hero in a mainstream Hollywood movie – and absolutely not the sort of thing you’d expect from Will Smith. Though this simple act, subconscious triggers are pulled and we can’t help but think “well if he’s worried…” (The effect is also heightened by this being our first encounter with the Infected.)

The power of so non-special an effect also exposes the sheer inadequacy of the term ‘plot spoilers’. A plot spoiler would tell you whether he does run into the Infected while he’s in there, or whether he manages to get out again… two things which on a lucky day you might be able to guess. Something like the hyperventilating is rendered unguessable through being so incidental to the plot, yet its very simplicity makes its effectiveness easily crushed by forewarning. It’s simply not going to get to you like it should if it’s preceded by a big caption saying ‘Hyperventilation Scene Coming Up’, it needs the space to steal up on you. It reminds me of the release of Blair Witch Project, a film almost entirely predicated upon such simple devices which was derailed by your knowing the most basic information about. Despite what others argue, ‘plot spoilers’ is not only an issue for films serving stock twists.

Sadly this good stuff can’t be kept up throughout. Most accounts agree the film goes off the boil before the end, but get arguing over where. Certainly the coda, where Anna and the boy are waved into an idyllic-looking citadel of survivors, is possibly the worst bolt-on feelgood ending since the one originally imposed on Blade Runner. You’re best off doing what us old ‘uns had to do with Blade Runner for years – shut your eyes and pretend it isn’t there.

But the real problem is that the actual ending isn’t that much more satisfactory. It’s not just that everything descends into a shoot-‘em-up, you’d kind of expect that. There’s even a strong image in our heroes locked in the laboratory against the teeming hordes, the last bastion of civilization shielded by just one thin sheet of glass. But then Neville merely passes the cure to Anna, then blows himself up to aid her escape. He makes some reference to her “God’s plan” business, which was a latterday and shoehorned theme to start with. You can’t help but think – so what?

As if turns out, a different ending was intended. We were supposed to learn that the Infected are only after the return of the significant other of Alpha Male Infected, who Neville has captured to experiment on. Once she’s back with the family, everyone can part as friends. This version of the ending is thematically much more consistent. Neville has previously dismissed the Infected as subhuman, and has got himself into this predicament precisely by underestimating them. Now he finds that what his survivalist instincts had seen only as adversaries or objects of study… really, they’d been his neighbours all along.

But the problems with this ending start with plot consistency. By this measure, it’s completely stupid. It’s been well established the Infected live off flesh and had been trying to turn Neville into dinner well before he ran off with someone’s girlfriend. Are they now offering to subsist off soyblood? Moreover this forgetting about all animosities, in a Rodney King moment of group hugs, conflicts with the tone of all that’s gone before. (Those familiar with the ending of the original Richard Matheson novel will also recognise this ending for the travesty it is.) But the real problem with it is that it’s both forced and neat, far too tidy a tie-up.

Before developing that point, let’s concede something the film does do well. Despite Neville’s obsession over keeping to his New York post and curing the virus, it’s actually caused by another, otherwise redundant character. (Somewhat unsubtly called Dr. Krippen.) I’m presuming here the film-makers considered the obvious, that as a scientist Neville could have created the virus and they chose to rule it out. If so, we should all be thankful.

By the Hollywood rulebook, a film is always structured around the hero’s ‘journey’ or ‘arc’, with every other character, scene and incident merely there to illustrate some point along this. As Andrew Rilstone has pointed out, the Batman, Daredevil and Spider-Man films all took the common thief who kills the hero’s father figure and turned him into the adversary. (In fact the Spider-Man films even pulled this trick twice just in case we missed it the first time!) It transforms from a random incident triggering the hero to fight crime on behalf of society, to a causal incident causing him to fight his personal enemy. It sucks in quite a literal sense. It sucks everything social and chance from the world, and builds instead a hermetic, even autistic mindset where everything that happens is happening to you and you alone – the perfect epitome of the ‘me’ generation.

Yet even with this saving grace, the intended ending still maps too closely to the Hollywood rulebook. It’s emphasised how Neville isn’t staying in Manhattan out of military duty or compulsiveness, but because to him it’s personal. It’s not even supposed to matter if the Infected totally transform in nature before the film’s over, because they were only ever put there to tell us something about Neville. Moreover, it contradicts with the film’s better instincts. The moral becomes about trusting your neighbours, which is not only somewhat trite but is ill-fitting for a film so obsessively about one man that it echoes his self-centric mindset. Even the other humans aren’t real characters, arriving with the barest of backstories. As the saying goes, there’s no team in I Am Legend.

Okay smartarse, so how should the thing have ended? As Neville has the cure in his bloodstream and all his setbacks revolve around getting it out, it occurred to me he might get eaten by the Infected but in so doing cure them. While this might have been harder to capture on film (perhaps relying on montage and voiceover), it would have created the irony where his own srvival instincts were the thing preventing humanity getting cured. Like genes, his cure would have only been of value while passed on.

Or there might have been an ‘open’ ending. Neville and the others could have been safe behind that extra-thick plexiglass but unable to leave and so unable to use it. Perhaps the lab could have doubled as his living quarters throughout, and contained food supplies. (Something which would also underline his compulsiveness.) Perhaps he devises an airborne cure, which he can’t spread without opening the door yet he’s dead if he does open it. Perhaps the situation even gets ‘normalised’ in that standoff, everything that was happening before on a huge scale reduced down to this one-room microcosm. Then it fades out and we leave the cinema wondering what we would do…

But perhaps there isn’t an alternative ending which would do justice to the film’s themes yet meet the expectations of a multiplex release. The earlier parts of the film combine the feeling of a mood piece or character study with being a chronology of events. But at its finale it loses this balance and finds itself forced to come down on one side or the other. Films will often end in an explosion if they prove difficult to resolve otherwise, such as Hell in the Pacific. So this film obligingly picks up a hand-grenade and autodestructs.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

THE GOLDEN COMPASS



"This is my review of the film of the The Golden Compass. It tells the truth. As for how to read it, you'll have to learn by yourself."

Before we go anywhere else, I first claim my civilian status! I have read precisely nothing from Phillip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, from whose first part this film is based. Consequently, while having had the books recommended to me, I have no opinion whatsoever on whether this adaption is honest or not to the ‘atheism’ of his theme. Instead I’m going to sidestep the question and instead use this ‘review’ as a springboard into the whole question of the contemporary fashion for books adaptions.

Whether it draws its power from the books or not, this film is far from the worst of its type and there are definitely things to commend about it. While it doesn’t have the dizzying sense of being hurled into the numinous you’d get from a Miyazaki film, it fares well enough at world-building. The set design is often elegant and imaginative. But beyond that it understands that it’s not the ‘otherness’ of other worlds that provides the frisson, so much as the sense of distorted familiarity. As in dreams we see familiar items rearranged and thrust into unfamiliar contexts. (Though a transformed Oxford may give a stronger sense of this to UK audience visiting.) Perhaps the appeal of such things lies in demonstrating to us how provisional our ‘reality’ really is, the product of accident piled upon accident.

[SKIP NEXT TO AVOID PLOT SPOILER!]
It must also be said Nicole Kidman also makes a splendid villainess in her portrait of Miss Coulther. She’s glamourous in the original sense of the world as spellbinding. But more than that she manages to convey some maternal twist to paternalism –convincing you she genuinely believes her bad deeds are for the greater good of the little folks, even when she openly admits she doesn’t consider herself bound to the same restrictions. While she’s clearly Lyra’s ‘bad’ parent to Azriel’s ‘good’, the truth is slightly more complicated – she makes it clear where Lyra gets her willfulness from, even as it’s the very stuff she uses it to defy Miss Coulther. She wants Lyra to become independent, just not too much. An argument over Lyra wearing a bag is simultaneously pettily familiar and sinister. (Of Dakota Blue Richard’s Lyra, however, perhaps the best that’s can be said is that she can’t stick to her adopted accent for very long. What’s ‘best’ about this will become obvious when she does remember to use her ghastly ‘urchin’ voice.)
[SPOILER OVER]

However, at times the film gives you just enough to suggest you’d have done better to stay home and read the book - floating interesting-sounding concepts only to let them drop. One of the central conceits of this parallel world is that everyone is accompanied by an animal ‘daemon’, a cross between an externalised soul and a witch’s familiar. (A very visual notion which might suggest Pullman always had one eye upon the film rights.) But rather than explore the effect of such a conceit upon their world the film quickly makes them mere plot devices - while Miss Coulter is cooingly seductive her daemon is an aggressive monkey. Meanwhile Lyra’s is made timid to emphasise her bravery, forever saying “do you really think you should go in there?” Ironically, the polar bear Iorek might have made a better ‘daemon’ for her than the one she is given. We first meet him chained and pressed into labour by humans, the obedient adult Miss Coulther would have her grow into. Later he comes to represent her defiant bullheadedness, the side of her that needs to hook up with her smarts. (Admittedly, more promising ideas appear later in the film, which I won’t spoil here.)

But the classic example of this is the Golden Compass itself. (NB You have to call the Alethiometer ‘the Golden Compass’ for the same reason you have to talk about ‘sci-fi’ in front of Isaac Asimov fans.) The first time Lyra uses it the hands point to a series of icons, a set of juicy clues to puzzle over. But for subsequent uses it just spells everything out in cheesy ‘dream logic’ scenes, misty-edged excuses for an info-dump.

On a more functional level, however, the film does not suggest such good things of Pullman’s books. There’s too many absurd plot-holes and logic lapses, even for indulgence of genre to allow. When we first come across Lord Asriel the bad guys are indulging in a clumsy plot to poison him, then a later twist reveals their actual plot revolves around keeping him alive. It also becomes tiring the degree to which Lyra gets rescued by the Cavalry – I caught four at least. And when the film ends she embarks on yet another perilous quest, while neglecting to take her last rescuing army with her! Perhaps she’s just figuring another will be along in a minute…

However, don’t these up and downs sound familiar? Isn’t the film/book relationship a strangely mismatched one to start off with? In its early days, cinema almost entirely subsisted from adapting books. At the time this was most likely aimed at reassuring middle class audiences (ie those with the money) that cinema-going was a ‘respectable’ activity, like novel-reading. But of course this literary baggage soon became an impediment to cinema’s growth, a counter-weight to the savage clash of images which the Surrealists saw in early Hollywood. Nowadays film is firmly wedged inside the feedback loop of re-making already existing films but (perhaps with the twin hits of Lord of the Rings and The Da Vinci Code) adapting books has also found some mini resurgence.

There may be many reasons for this. In a parody of its earlier days, punters may flatter themselves that by seeing a film of a book they are doing something semi-literary. In our time-poor present, they may figure they will never get round to reading the source novel and this is their best chance. (Which is, after all, the very reason I saw this film.) There may be some lurking notion that having an external source may be a way to establish a core for a film, and escape the through-line-less ‘death by committee’ so many suffer from. (This film alone suffered two changes of director and script.)

But the upside of the earlier aping of ‘respectability’ was an implicit commitment to see the book honoured. (Klunkers like the ending imposed upon Great Expectations notwithstanding.) It’s as if, after over a hundred years to practice in, film has learnt none of the basic rules of adaption and instead lost the will to really try.

First and foremost, it seems abundantly obvious that whatever your measure the contents of an average-length book will not fit inside an average-length film. Lining one up against the other is like the Dadaist cabaret turn, where a typewriter would be nonsensically ‘raced’ against a sewing machine. As with so many adaptions, this film feels like an assemblage - created from some Cliff Notes summary rather than the book itself. Whole scenes seen to consist of half-explained characters manifesting themselves, telling our heroine Something of Great Plot Importance then saying “anyway, must dash”. (Check out the Witch’s first appearance here for a classic example of cramming.) The effect is like opening an over-packed suitcase and having a whole bunch of stuff flung at you haphazardly.

This of course compounds with a general modern desire for films to be rushed, as if faster always meant better or more exciting. In the same way the trailer’s just tantalysing snippets of info strung together to get you to see the film, the film just plays the same trick at greater duration to get you to buy the Playstation game or spin-off single (or maybe even the book). Each incident crammed shoulder to shoulder with others, none is ever a moment to itself.

A possible solution might seem to merely up the running time. It’s to this film’s credit it doesn’t try this, but keeps itself to a modest 113 minutes. The fad for longer films may partly come from the absurd notion that length is a measure of quality, but more particularly derives from the Lord of the Rings films. Yet a film based on a Tolkien book lasting 178 minutes is one thing, a film based on a JP Rowling book taking up 161 minutes is quite another. Popcorn makes for a poor three-course meal.

But more importantly, it should be understood a book is a different medium to a film and merely upping the number of reels will not compensate for this. Novels, even adventure novels such as this, present what’s ultimately an intangible world. People sometimes say they do or don’t see a particular character as a particular actor, but while we’re reading we don’t have a mini-film playing inside our heads so much as a nebulous fog of concepts and images. Too often a book is merely reduced to a bulleted list, a series of plot points and encounters which are then stuck in front of a camera. If we’re lucky, enough of them make it through editing to leave some semblance of shape. It’s like making a 2D diagram from the contours of a 3D photograph, anything not easily captured in the new medium is simply ignored and left behind. (It would also be interesting to speculate that the novel is itself suffering a kind of backwards contamination, as writers emaciate their own work in order to make them ‘film ready’.)

After over a hundred years of attempts, do we really need to point out that an adaption is not the same thing as a retelling? An adaption cuts to the heart of something, boiling it down to its very essence, then distills it into something new. There was a more-or-less faithful version of 1984 released in (naturally enough) 1984. But no-one remembers it because everyone thinks of Gilliam’s masterful Brazil, which took massive liberties with its source.

About a decade ago, the BBC staged an adaption of Gormenghast. It was dubbed ‘Gormenghastly’ by the Sun in about five minutes flat, and correctly so. But it did provoke me to read Peake’s books, which had previously been lying forlorn on a dusty shelf and proved just as good as people had always told me they were. Would that I had remembered that lesson here…

Friday, 11 January 2008

I'M NOT THERE - OR MAYBE I AM!!!

I love it when someone smart-sounding turns out to have come quite separately to the same conclusions as me. However, while it gives a nice feeling, it doesn’t really goanywhere. In a way it kind of closes something off. So I love it even more when I stumble across someone smart-sounding who is saying the diametric opposite of whatever I was saying. It’s happened twice in the few months since I started this blog, and here’s to many more!

To wit, here’s what PatrickXMM has had to say about I’m Not There. What’s below is own summary from a message board on Barbelith. You can read the whole thing on his blog here.

“…the film takes Dylan as a case study to explore the way we all construct different identities and struggle to reconcile the different sides of our personalities as we grow older… In that sense, I think the film does have a linear narrative, fractured though it is among the many storylines, and I think it's a narrative that has relevance for everyone, not just in relation to what happened to Dylan.

That's one of the major reasons why the film is so much more effective than a traditional biopic. It's not about becoming famous, it's about the human condition, the way our past traps us into being certain things, the way idealistic notions of youth fall away as we see our idols fall. I think one of the trailers said that we are all Dylan, and that's what I took away from the film, the universality of transient human identity.”

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

I’M NOT THERE



1. An Antidote to Biopics
Only recently I was bemoaning the paradox that while technology has made it so much easier for us to re-watch films, what’s being churned out is less and less worth even a single viewing. The growth of the rock biopic is a classic case in point. We pretty much know the parade of clichés and anecdotes before we even buy our tickets; in fact we wait for them to reassuringly appear, like children being re-read their favourite bedtime stories. The auspicious first meeting, the early rehearsal where everything just clicks, the later ‘creative differences’… Of course urban myths always cluster around culturally important figures but biopics seem to do to them what collectors like the Brothers Grimm did to folk tales – emaciating them, not just cutting out the good parts but ossifying them, weighing them down with literalism and pinning them to one definitive version.

So I was interested to hear of this far less literal approach to the life of Bob Dylan, in which he’s played by six different actors who look neither like him nor even each other. I was doubly interested to hear that the director was Todd Haynes, whose earlier glam rock picture Velvet Goldmine (1998) had been a favourite of mine. Even if turns out to be a complete white elephant, as have so many of Dylan’s own forays into film, I reasoned better a white elephant than a regurgitating parrot like Oliver Stone’s toecurling take on the Doors.

Impressively, the film actually feels like a Dylan song rather than some prosaic account of events surrounding its recording. It feels like one of his sprawling mid-Sixties electric numbers, packed with hallucinogenic images and allusions like an over-wired fusebox ready to blow… In fact, it feels more than that, it feels like several key Dylan numbers from different eras, spliced together by an remixer so audaciously they now feel like a new work. It would be as absurd to review this film after a single viewing as it would for such a song after a single playing, but it’s what’s going to happen anyway…

In fact, as far as its relationship to the prosaic goes, it lays its cards on the table almost straight away by killing its central character and sticking him on the slab. Most of us know Dylan didn’t die in his 1966 motorbike accident, in fact the most likely story is that it never even took place – it was already mythologised. We’re being tipped off the film intends to take the overly familiar elements of Dylan’s story and screw with them, like a poet or painter referencing folk-tales and legends. But the image of an autopsy (intercut with ‘another’ Dylan sat in front of a McCarthyite hearing) is the film’s verdict on conventional biopics - cutting someone’s life down to a recognisable set of elements, killing the subject of interest via the very process of examining it.

2. From Basements to Backwoods
This has led to a common WTF response, particularly on film message boards - with frequent carping that none of the six characters are actually called ‘Bob Dylan’. The critical response has generally been kinder, normally praising Cate Blanchett’s cross-dressing performance as ‘Jude’ (mid-Sixties Dylan) while scratching their heads over Richard Gere’s later role as ‘Billy’. ‘Jude’s “going electric” (and alienating his original folk fans) is perhaps the most famous Dylan story, being captured on film almost immediately with Pennebaker’s documentary of the ’65 tour Don’t Look Back.

Ironically, the ‘Jude’ incarnation of Dylan lasted for a mere two years while the lesser-known ‘Billy’ hung around for the best part of a decade. Admittedly, there are exacerbating factors which separate this section not just from ‘Jude’ but all the others in the film and can make its presence jarring. For one thing, the otherwise consistently frenetic pace is suddenly dropped to a slow amble. Also, the other strands all pack an array of cinematic references. Though ‘Billy’ refers to Dylan’s role in Peckinpah’s 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, there are few visual references to this film. (Indeed, it’s more naturalistic style would make it harder to borrow from than the ‘artier’, less linear examples elsewhere, such as Godard, Bergman and Fellini.) It does at times feel reminiscent of Jodorowsky, but mostly the imagery comes straight from Dylan - particularly the Basement Tapes album, and it’s evocation of the “old, weird America”. Indeed, it often feels as if the cover of Basement Tapes had been made a window and we’ve stepped through it.

While other sections are interwoven, this leads straight on from Jude. Jude’s (now fatal) motorbike crash is morphed with the legend that Billy the Kid faked his death and lived his life out in anonymity and seclusion. Billy is the Jude who has given up on staring the world in the eye and got as far away from it as possible. There’s a convention that when a films portrays several different levels of ‘reality’, there’s always one that turns out to be ‘really real’. Here it’s the reverse. It’s as if the other strands have occurred in some kind of reality but here Dylan has become a hermit inside his own imagination.

But having been living in retreat there for some time, he’s now decided to sell up. He leaves his rural hideaway to go into town, but even there he meets not stand-ins from reality (Joan Baez, Edie Sedgwick) but characters from his own songs (Mrs. Henry). His ‘imprisonment’ by Pat Garrett is but his sublimated lingering wish to remain, which he rejects to jump a boxcar. He finds a guitar there left by ‘another’ Dylan, his talisman to re-enter the world. The soundtrack jumps from the languid Basement Tapes track Going to Acapulco to the later One More Cup of Coffee, a song about a journey.

(Disclaimer: I may simply be biased here as this has long been my favourite Dylan era. But my candidate for least memorable strand would be the pedestrian marital problems undergone by Heath Ledger as actor ‘Robbie’. Or perhaps the underdeveloped ‘Pastor John’ strand, representing Dylan’s born again era. This felt somewhat tokenistic, like it was being included solely so no-one could claim it hadn’t been.)

3. “I is Another”
Nevertheless we won’t always find such linkages and the critics are correct to find Blanchett’s Jude central. However the crucial line is said early on by ‘Rimbaud’ (the Dylan on trial), when he quotes the real Rimbaud’s line “I is another”. Many accounts of this film quote this while failing to recognise its importance. They tend to see the six faces of Dylan as facets which the viewer combines into a multifaceted portrait, like a 3D object being built up in a Cubist painting. Indeed, even one of the film’s own posters seemingly gives credence to this idea with a composite image of Dylan’s like a police photofit – see above. Yet the same accounts almost all refer to the centrality of Cate Blanchett as Jude. Blanchett’s performance is universally praised, but with few seeming to ask why a woman would be cross-cast in such a role to begin with. Partly it serves to underline the theme of Dylan’s misogyny, whenever ‘he’ says for example “just like a woman” we’re reminded it’s actually a woman who’s saying this. But there’s more…

Dylan’s electric ‘betrayal’ of the outraged earnest folkies is of course covered here. But while one of these even tries to assassinate him, everyone he comes across seems out to get a piece of him. A more important character is the challenging BBC interviewer constantly out to pin him down, work out his allegiances, at one point triumphantly announcing his parentage to the world. He typifies everyone else out to access the man beneath the act, the haircut and collection of mannerisms propelled into life by Blanchett. But the very casting of Blanchett reminds us there is no real Dylan underneath the disarming non-sequiters and cryptic put-downs – the act is all there is. I’m not there, remember?

While Blanchett’s been praised for her acting what she’s really doing is impersonating. (The style is similar to, yet greater than, her version of Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator.) In fact, fully half of Dylan’s personas are named after other people, Woody Guthrie, Arthur Rimbaud and Billy the Kid… or more than half if we accept the obvious Jude/Judas comparison. Meanwhile, many of the Dylan songs on the soundtrack are actually performed by others.

One of Dylan’s famous dictums was “a poet tells you what you feel.” Part of his disenchantment with the folk scene came from the didactic, literal interpretation of that statement, the sense that his job was to neatly summarise and sloganise stock notions of oppression. But an artist who can intuit, regurgitate and flatter his audience’s expectations is just a politician who can rhyme. As Jude, Dylan consequently takes the opposite tack of refusing to confirm or deny any interpretation of himself or his music. “You just want me to say what you want me to say,” he complains to the BBC reporter. (Recalling Sillitoe’s “whatever you say I am, that’s what I’m not.”) In the Ballad of a Thin Man scene the reporter obviously imagines the sneering song to be about him, visualizing it as a cage built to trap him. But we immediately cut to the Black Panthers, arguing over their own quite different interpretation. We write the song by the act of hearing it, the process of recording and releasing it is nothing more than the process of turning some meaningless splodgy inkblots into a Rorschach test.

Jude is a kind of anti-messiah or devil clown, his hurtling life becoming like the speed pills he continually necks. He’s living off all the negative energy (the hostile press, the angry crowds, screwed –up sexual encounters), at the same time as it’s killing him. Though Jude most epitomises this aspect of Dylan, it’s prevalent throughout. ‘Rimbaud’ warns us never to create anything, for the object will then get stuck in time and people will act as though you’re still beholden to it. The film starts and ends with scenes of different Dylans riding the boxcars, the blues image of escape. The artist’s job is to keep moving while leaving as short a shadow as possible, as if he’s perpetually behind enemy lines.

4. The Dylans They Aren’t Really A-Changin’
Praising the film in the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw comments it “addresses an unfashionable subject, the artists need to change in order to survive.” In some ways the earlier Velvet Goldmine dealt with a similar theme, with its focus on Bowie. But despite Bowie even writing a song called Changes, Dylan seems more associated with change - largely for the very reason you don’t get the sense of him playing out a set of characters. To say Ziggy was not ‘really’ Bowie, just a role, would be a banality. To say Dylan’s protest singing years were just a role would be quite another.

However, ten years into a New Labour ‘project’ almost entirely predicated upon the supposed intrinsic value of change, we might wonder just what Bradshaw finds so daringly unfashionable about this theme. It’s almost like the agenda of the most dated of Sixties films, opposing the ‘straight’ and ‘uptight’ to the ‘hip’ and ‘with it’. But more importantly, the term ‘change’ seems entirely the wrong one for what’s presented here. The only time Dylan ‘changes’ in the film is when Billy decides to abandon his hermitage and stand up for the townsfolk. What Dylan does the rest of the time is perpetually reinvent himself; when tired of one personality he doesn’t progress from it but burns it down and starts up another one. He transforms his way of being in the same way he transforms his way of dressing; he loses his old set of thoughts as fast as his last hat. He’s the ideological equivalent of a serial monogamist. (It even becomes one of Rimbaud’s ‘rules’ that no incarnation of Dylan must have any contact with any other.) Change is associated with growth, like coral building new shapes on top of the existing ones. Reinvention is what’s done to the wheel, oblivious to the fact that there’s already a wheel.

Blanchett takes over to the point where the film comes to feel like her performance; a cluster of mannerisms and smart remarks, a collection of allusions to and quotes from not only Dylan’s music but numerous other films– a stand-in for something else. Despite the film’ strengths there is something self-congratulatory about the way we’re asked to spot these allusions, in many ways as self-congratulatory as the sense of moral virtue found by the folkies from listening to ‘pure’ music. But there’s also something almost post-modern about its making its landscape from of a mere sea of allusions. In fact Sadie Plant has used this very metaphor to describe post-modernism:

“…we step into the postmodern with the same sense of giddiness and trepidation that accompanies the first step onto a boat. The deck shifts and sways beneath us; for a while there seems to be nothing to hold onto since everything is moving, and we look back with longing and fear as the land disappears. But after a while, we relax enough to turn our attention to the horizon, forgetting what dry land was ever like.” (The Most Radical Gesture, Routledge, 1992)

Admittedly this angle shouldn’t be pushed too far. Traditionally post-modernism in popular culture is reflected by a fixation upon the primacy of the media. Dylan may have many similarities to the media thus conceived – it’s ceaseless quest for novelty, it’s sacred right to contradict itself. Yet we shouldn’t forget the journalists or fans are not the subject here but Dylan, who is presented as something inscrutably outside the media – hardly a post-modern notion!

However at this point it may be worth asking, didn’t the folkies have a point? They may have had pathologically restrictive conceptions of ‘authenticity’ in art. They certainly had naïve enough notions of politics to venerate Castro’s Cuba. But they stood for something which was often worth standing for - and they kept standing. That’s what’s unfashionable. After years of standing for some ill-defined underdog, perhaps they have now become the underdog themselves.

And besides, how valid is this notion of ‘reinvention’? The idea Dylan woke up one day and was somebody else… it may feel compelling, indeed it may feel particularly compelling to Bob Dylan, but does it actually fit the evidence? Take Dylan’s second acoustic album, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. As well as featuring the protest classic Blowin’ In the Wind, it also features examples of the surrealistic urgency later taken up by the electric songs (A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, Talking World War Three Blues or I Shall Be Free). Even his desire to upend and junk his folk following was prefigured on earlier acoustic songs such as Bob Dylan’s Dream (1963), It Ain’t Me Babe or My Back Pages (both ’64).

Of course realism is not the object here. But something vital is being missed. If Dylan’s mid-Sixties hallucinogenic albums were better than the earlier protest material (and I would agree they are), it’s largely because they better epitomized their era. Just as Dylan’s shield of semi-meaningless put-downs only makes sense in the context of earnest folkies and gormlessly literal BBC interviewers, his early electric material only makes sense in the context of the chaos and confusion that typified America in the Sixties. Dylan changed the way the surrounding society changed, not in sudden flashes of inspiration but in a slower process of development and modification – just the way it always is.

But we get very little sense of the surrounding era from the rarified atmosphere of this film. After dismissing his earliest incarnation as a Woody Guthrie copyist who needs to “find your own time”, this film about the guy who wrote The Times They Are A’ Changin’ seems disinterested in the whole question of time. It’s like each section has been built up like a cartoon; first the central character is sketched in, given a look and some mannerisms, then the surrounding world is built up radially around him. Even with the arch-antagonistic Jude, there’s a sense he’s made his world the way he wants it – lots of stuff to react against.

The very centrality of Blanchett’s role as Jude also presents a problem for the film’s main conceit. If we have one defining Dylan, is there any real reason to continue employing the other five? Worse, the goes-electric story is the central, most iconic Dylan myth of all. For example Scorcese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home not only centered itself around this but continually returned to it, as if it were his ‘origin’, the point where he was bitten by his radioactive spider. Ironically, Dylan fans now seem as fixated upon his ‘electric’ self as the folkies were over his ‘acoustic’ one.

Dylan changed his style of music (plus his personal image) and went from playing solo to with a band. Perhaps the killer app was that his music became more confrontational just as it became more oblique and allegorical, turning his listeners into confused ‘Mr. Joneses’. But it’s interesting that it’s always the ‘goes electric’ part that is expected to stand for the rest of that. The central image of electricity (complete with apocryphal stories of Pete Seeger attempting to axe his power cables at Newport) carry connotations of progress, as if the folkies were the losers of evolution - akin to the guys who’d walk in front of the first motorcars with red flags. The film underlines this, with the electric guitar arrive limousines, celebrity cameos, speed pills, fancy visual effects - even machine guns! It epitomises something found elsewhere – all too often the devices used to portray Dylan’s mythologising are hyperbole and exaggeration. Motorbike accidents go from injurious to fatal, heckling folkies become assassins. Surely, particularly for myths coined as long ago as the Sixties, we need to consider some de-mythologising, over linear notions of progress in particular.

5. Down to One
At many points the film does leaves you wondering who precisely it might be aimed at. Those with no knowledge of Dylan’s mythology may be entirely mystified, like being handed a jigsaw puzzle with the lid missing. Perhaps its made for the Dylan obsessives, but planned in the same way his Newport Folk Festival performance was – purely to annoy them, and confound their notions of possessing privileged information they just need to assemble correctly. If so I suspect it’ll backfire just like John Lennon’s Glass Onion, they will merely use its goading for further fuel.

But despite often attempting to be as elusive as its subject, the film is shown in a clearer light if contrasted against Velvet Goldmine. Though loosely based on the characters of Bowie and Iggy, Velvet Goldmine was primarily a film about metamorphosis, about suburban kids escaping the humdrum life they’d seemingly been born into with nothing more than an act of will and some eyeliner. This is a film about mythologisation, an important distinction. But it’s not just that Velvet Goldmine adds up to something while this film determinedly dodges the bullet of interpretation. Velvet Goldmine had an ensemble cast, not all of them modelled on the famous. This employs an ensemble cast merely to present us with one man, and we react to his life as spectators. Even when ‘Rimbaud’ gives us seven lessons they’d be useless for us to follow, he’s telling us what he’s doing. Earlier we used the quote “a poet tells you what you feel”. But this film seems narrowly concerned with what we feel about Bob Dylan, like he’s some cultural beacon for the rest of us to orient ourselves around, rather than using his songs as a kind of correspondence, his music as a jumping-off point to look at the wider world.

However, it can’t be denied this approach does hit a moment of truth. A key part of the appeal of Velvet Goldmine is that it wasn’t made by a movie producer who’d well researched his subject – it was made by someone who instinctively knew and got glam. Similarly it often feels that Haynes instinctively gets Dylan in a way few others have, certainly not his fans or enthusiasts. It’s perfectly possibility that it’s a perfect photofit of Dylan, but all objections stem from the fact that the picture isn’t particularly pretty. Dylan became irritated by journos constantly asking him whether he was for or against the Vietnam War, but this could have had a simple reason – for him the real issue was who was for or against Bob Dylan. In his biography No Direction Home. Robert Shelton recalls how Dylan wouldn’t look back – he’d obsess over his current recording, only to lose all interest in it once it was released. However, there is a line between dealing with the mythology of Dylan and feeding Dylan’s mythologising of himself. That line gets terribly blurred here.

Despite all these caveats and criticisms, I feel I need to see this film again. As mentioned earlier it’s a film you simply need to take in more than once. Despite its length this review doesn’t really cover the film in enough detail, there’s little focus on ‘Woody’, ‘Jack’ or ‘Robbie’. But beyond that I feel I need to see it again – if only to see if I came out with a similar response. It’s in many ways an audacious antidote to the clichéd genre of biopics, which in many ways does show the way forward for portraying figures from popular culture on the screen. It’s the epitome of the film you might love or hate but can’t ignore. Even where I disagree with its approach I can’t pretend it’s bad, merely say I it falls out of my favour. It just didn’t tell me what I feel…

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

2007 RETROSPECTIVES PART 2: GIGS & EXHIBITIONS

GIGS OF 2007
Seeing as I seem to have given up writing about gigs all year (with one solitary exception), I’m just going to anally list the gigs I went to.
CALIFONE The Hope, 29th Jan
The perfect thing about this languid yet inventive Americana outfit was said on the late, lamented Mixing It. There’s nothing self-consciously ‘experimental’ about what they do, however out-there it gets it always sounds like that music’s just been waiting somewhere to be played.
CLINIC Concorde, 9th Feb
Precipitated a healthy debate about the appropriateness of bands wearing surgical masks on stage.
BONNY PRINCE BILLY Corn Exchange, 12th Feb
Sometimes you think of country as an old man with a fiddle sitting on a rickety porch. This was like apocalypse country, a gig I thought would either bring the world to an end or else never end itself. Perhaps it didn’t…
65 DAYS OF STATIC Concorde, 18th April
Splendid as always. No filmshow this year, lads?
A HAWK AND A HACKSAW with the Hun Hangár Ensemble Dome, 12th May
Slightly surprised to see the boys playing second fiddle to Gypsy wedding band King Naat Veliov. Both bands were great, but even if Hawk were going to go on first did they really only have to play for a support-act duration?
HOMEFIRES St. George’s Church, 10th June
Adem’s ‘folktronica’ festival brought to Brighton.Proceedings kicked off nicely with “progressive strong quartet” the Elysian Quartet, only to take a nosedive with the forgettable Richard Swift. A solo Nina Nastasia fared a lot better than her nervous disposition might have suggested, but the stuff I’ve heard with a band has been much better. So with everything to play for Adem (sometimes backed by the Elysians) did a patchy set – leaving me 50/50 over the whole thing. There seemed little ‘tronica’ to go with the ‘folk’, which didn’t entirely dispel the notion that inside every technogeek lurks an acoustic hippy.
HOLLY GO LIGHTLY Hanover Centre, 21st July
Holly boils down to an acoustic duo in an impromptu setting. Great stuff, marred only by the idiots who took the lack of a ‘proper’ venue to talk loudly all the way through. Take it outside!
BATTLES Concorde 2, 21st August
Battles do admittedly border on fusion at times, but a fine band nonetheless. I find it all works better live for some reason.
COLOUR OUT OF SPACE Sallis Benney, 7th to 9th Sept
Apparently this three-day festival of experimental music first happened last year, but somehow slipped past me. The perfect thing if you want a weekend full of bad-attitude Finns, screaming Japanese, feral choirs and avant garde tap dancing - and frankly, I'm one who does. It being sunny everyone gathered in the garden between acts. Amusingly, this meant someone had to come out and ring a bell like school assembly, for us all to collectively troop back in to hear the next session of freeform guitar feedback. Hoping for another next year…
(Something I wrote in response to the Sunday talks session here.)
YOU LA TENGO Concorde 2, 12th Sept
Excellent as always, shooting off a thousand ways at once. When the guy in a Strawbs T-shirt got to make a request I resovled to start wearing mine to gigs. (Till I remembered I don’t own one.)
NOMEANSNO Engine Rooms, 2nd Oct
Always an excellent band, but the second time I’ve seen them get pissed off in front of a Brighton crowd. This night in particular was brought to an untimely end. Do they dislike playing the UK, or just jock punks?
THE IMAGINED VILLAGE Dome, 17th Nov
The one I did review, despite (or perhaps because of) my mixed feelings. See here!
THE SUNBURNED HAND OF THE MAN Engine Rooms, 22nd Nov
This band has a cool idea (or at least an idea I took from them), to take the trajectory of the Sixties San Francisco sound and reverse it. While the original bands got more into the studio and ‘proper’ album releases, why not take it the other way and explore the ‘improvised happening’ angle instead? The results were mixed, but with high points. The band seemed to need a beat going for something to play against, and sometimes floundered without this. And the ‘happening’ elements (brandishing lighted crosses etc) just seemed the wrong end of hippy – ostentatious and self-consciously ‘meaningful’.
ELECTRELANE Pavilion, 11th Dec
Didn’t know before I arrived, but this was Brighton’s bliss-out queens’ final gig before an “indefinite hiatus”. Though that decision didn’t seem down to a lack of enthusiasm, they didn’t seem to want to stop playing! (To a fault, sometimes they brought tracks to a close when they just seemed to be taking off.) “Reform!” shouted someone from the crowd. “But we haven’t split up yet”, they replied.

This seems a pretty good review site for Brighton gigs, just as well as I seem to have given up covering them.

EXHIBITIONS
HOGARTH Tate Britain
This gave a more rounded picture of Hogarth and his work than you normally get, painting him as more of a custodian of public morality than sometimes thought, even suggesting his engravings (despite being art in reproduction) still weren’t cheap enough to be accessible for the working folk. Inevitably, it was still the satirical pieces which interested me the most!
DALI AND FILM Tate Modern
The notion there was something inherently cinematic at the heart of Dali’s art seemed to me more than a conceit than a credible argument. But then who cares with such splendid stuff on show?
PANIC ATTACK: ART IN THE PUNK YEARS Barbican Gallery
As reviewed here.
THE FIRST EMPEROR: CHINA’S TERRACOTTA ARMY British Museum
As reviewed here.
Still running – till 6th April!!!
SEDUCED: ART AND SEX FROM ANTIQUITY TO NOW Barbican Gallery
As reviewed here.
Still running – till 27th Jan!!!

Next year’s shaping up for a good one so far as visual arts goes. While I’m now almost certainly fated to miss the Louise Bourgeois show (boo!), From Russia is now definitely on at the Academy. (hurrah!) But perhaps best of all is a Duchamp retrospective. I’m not quite as excited by them bundling in Man Ray (I saw his solo show some years ago, and didn’t find it the kind of thing you needed to see in the flesh), but it does include the often-overlooked Picabia. (hurrah!) Plus, for the patient October will see a solo Francis Bacon show – hurrah!