Thursday, 25 December 2008

CINECITY 4: THE QUAY BROTHERS – QUITE DEFINITELY THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS



Yes, I am not exactly being timely here, finishing my posts on a festival which actually ended two weeks ago. However, I am due extra nerd points for posting this on Christmas Day!

One of the most exciting things for me about this years’ Cine-City festival was the programme dedicated to the Quay Brothers, whose work I’d only ever caught snatches of before. Here we had three showings of shorts, one full-length film (Institute Benjamenta), a Q&A session plus an exhibition! Though Americans living in London, the Brothers are celebrated for their films and animations in the fantastical East European style of Svankmayer and Borowczyk. (NB All direct quotes below are from the programme notes or this interview –a site which looks worth bookmarking in it’s own right.)

They comment “we want to make a world that is seen through a dirty pane of glass. You can’t exactly get at it because it is elusive.” What’s crucial to their work is the distance between a puzzle and a mystery. With a puzzle, the pleasure lies in the working out – the cutting through the convolutions to arrive at a solution. With a mystery the pleasure lies in the precise opposite, embracing the inscrutability, tasting the strangenes. To clear away that pane of glass would be a violation, not a clarification. However, giving the game away on these compelling films is not our biggest worry here! What follows is instead a few hasty scrawls upon that dirty pane.

As with Svankmayer, what’s vital to their aesthetic is the fetishification of everyday objects. Screws, combs, pencil tips, all the little things which lie almost beneath our vision are suddenly rendered animate. This gives rise, to drop a Freudian term, to the all-important sense of the unheimliche, or strange familiarity. As they put it, “what we’re trying to do is release the strangeness.” We peer into this other-world, but it is not grandiloquent and distant - for sheer freakishness is unengaging. We peer into it with the vertiginous sense that we could topple into it at any time. (As much as I will venture any ‘explanation’ for anything here, I’ll suggest the primary puppet in Street of Crocodiles somehow represents the man who starts the machine up.)

Perhaps paradoxically, this sense is enhanced by the Brothers’ refusal to play up the dramatic illusion. Street Of Crocodiles starts with an old man looking into a peep-show, effectively reminding us of our status as audience. Similarly the Optical Boxes in the exhibition often contain viewing slots, or distorting lenses which enlarge the insides once looked through. In the catalogue they speak of the importance of seeing their work on a large screen, where puppets are no longer smaller than us but suddenly blown up to giant-size.

This “extraordinary power of the camera to ‘make strange’ “ is central to their fetishism, but of course they are merely magnifying something cinema does already. Hitchcock, for example, is full off innocuous objects fixated upon by the camera and plot. Even a film as apparantly at variance to the Quays as Bicycle Thieves does this. At one point we see the bicycle large upon the kitchen table, attended to by the son. Later we see it ridden off stolen, growing tinier and tinier against a teeming Rome.

Unfortunately, some of their later shorts abandon animation for pixellation, rusty screws for computerisation. The Comb, for example, loses some of this object-fetishism by creating an all-too-obviously virtual world. It was vital that their animations looked unreal but hand-crafted, with even the credits often hand-written or even carved. Alas, in their Q&A the Brothers explained that this change was not a creative choice but a financial necessity, a response to the more difficult funding situation we now live in. Perhaps their more live-action films such as Benjamenta provide the best hope for them now.

The Brothers also spoke of the importance of music to their work, sometimes even commissioning scores first and working their animation around them. “We much prefer to obey musical laws because they’re not logical,” they explained. You can’t print logic on music, it’s outside of that.” Without having read Schulz’s Street Of Crocodiles, I assume their animation is ‘based’ upon the book the way a musical piece would – elaborating on themes and moods, with scant interest in reproducing the string of events. After watching it I found sequences and images were set to loop in my memory, just as if they were snatches of music.

It’s notable that even when their work isn’t specifically based upon novels or operas, their references tend to be to other artists – composers, authors, even other animators. After all their whole approach stems from accidentally coming across an exhibition of Polish film posters while still students. This can often be a bad sign, creating work which (even when not merely imitative) is is nothing but referential – at it’s worst even post-modern. But perhaps the Quays bend this hermetic quality to work for them. Their references become like their peep-shows and cabinets, creating spaces of strangeness to fall into and get lost. The clusters of allusions almost knot, adding to their works’ sense of ponderousness and claustrophobia.

However, I did at times experience a niggling doubt – that the Quays could pull off this style superbly, but not themselves inhabit it with anything. Are they reliant on outside sources for their substance? Or are they even a superior cousin to those award-winning rock videos, the ones which recycle the tropes of art cinema but never any more? (The Quays made rock videos, for His Name Is Alive, but not in a dumbed-down fashion and anyway that alone should not be considered damning proof.) The question is difficult to answer because you’re not looking for anything discernable in terms of content, more an idiosyncratic spirit. However, it’s most likely to reveal itself in their full-length films, where style alone won’t maintain interest over the duration. I suspect if I could see more of their films, or even these films again, this doubt would either grow or be dispelled.

Watching the films, you can’t but wonder how they are able to realize these works of strange familiarity. Perhaps part of the answer is the fact that they’re identical twins. Their working methods are clearly as interchangeable as their conversation, casually using phrases like “we were reading” or even “our left hand.” The interview transcript I linked to above merely quotes them together, and they even sign their correspondence with a single ‘Q’. They emphasised both their intuitive methods of working (storyboarding to satisfy the backers, then throwing the boards away) and the pitfalls of working with an ensemble to which everything must be explained. (“You just have to sense it, you don't have to think it too much.”)

Perhaps as identical twins they developed a kind of conjoined psyche – sharing their perceptions from the very beginning, in a way siblings born even a short distance apart never would. It’s scarcely innovative to see something child-like in their enclosed worlds of object-fetishism; to children, all objects are infused with character and life. It’s even possible to argue that it’s the very development of communicative skills which banishes such perceptions; as soon as you able to speak of it, you lose your sense of what was so sublime. But for these twins the unspoken remained preserved and, not through words but the manipulation of space and objects, they have effected a means to transmit it to the rest of us. (Disclaimer: As an only child, I am the very opposite of the Quays in this respect.)

Sunday, 14 December 2008

CINE CITY 3: ANDRZEJ WAJDA



I must admit to having a fair bit of catching up to do with legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda, having only seen the early (if widely considered seminal) Ashes And Diamonds and A Generation. (No, I wasn’t starting with the A’s.) So when Brighton’s Cine-City Festival announced this year would include of two of his films, I was suitably attentive.

However, though keen to see his most recent film Katyn, I was in some ways wary. Directors often try to achieve the summation of their career near its end, and this had many of the signs. Aged 82, Wajda is putting on the screen the Soviet wartime massacre which not only set the tone for their subsequent occupation but also claimed the life of his own father. (As the Guardian commented: “In many ways, Katyn is the film that Wajda has been building up to throughout his career.”)

Does this sound bad? Perhaps counterintuitively, it can be. Such portentousness can crush the life from a film, leaving something sumptuous but stately – perhaps even stodgy. (Kurosawa is a classic example, compare Yojimbo to Kagemusha.) And despite their wartime settings, his early Films had a contemporary Fifties feel. The young lead Zbigniew Cybulski agonized so pensively over how he fitted into society, all the time sporting a pair of sunglasses (the era’s symbol for alienated cool), that he earnt the nickname “the Polish James Dean.”

SPOILERS IN NEXT PARAGRAPH!

In some ways Katyn takes this heritage head-on, introducing a headstrong and impulsive young nephew. He’s not exactly Cybulski reborn, in fact he’s quite precisely committed where Cybulski was conflicted. But the film first follows and indulges his swingheeled romanticism, seeing the world from his elevated rooftop perspective, only to swat him.

SPOILERS END!

However, it would be more accurate to say that Wajda’s concerns have now shifted to the adult generation. His characters are less concerned with where to place their idealism, and more burdened with balancing their consciences against the encumbering business of survival. At one point the authorities smash a tombstone for bearing the wrong date. (Suggesting it was carried out during the Soviet, not the Nazi, occupation.)

But the film is not the celluloid equivalent of that tombstone, proclaiming something which no reasonable person now rejects. Instead his focus is not so much the moment of the massacre as it’s aftermath, not those who died from it but those who have to live with it. As he himself said: “While Stalin’s crime deprived my father of life, my mother was touched by the lies and the hoping in vain for the return of her husband.” Living with such knowledge becomes a microcosm of Soviet occupation, where the unbearable must daily be borne. No easy solutions are offered for this, and the collaborators are given their say as much as the rebels. This gives the film a tension which prevents it from falling into heritage status.

Of course, all of this could not be further from the Hollywood treatment of political events as a backdrop to a ‘personal journey’, like a yuppie backpacking through Nepal to “find himself.” Wajda’s famous deep field photography comes in here. Characters never look like lead actors, posing potogenically in front of some neatly arranged backdrop. They always seem to spring from and inhabit the space around them.

MORE SPOILERS COMING!

Only in the final scene, shifting back in time, do we see the actual massacre. The horror here is that it’s shot neither through the eyes or the victims nor the perpetrators – instead it merely follows their hands. As corpses are repeatedly piled onto slides to enhance disposal, the killers work in a detached a way as workers in a slaughterhouse. Such behaviour has become normalised.

SPOILERS END!

But if Katyn is the summation of Wajda’s career, Man of Iron is the departure. Made at great speed during the first wave of Solidarity strikes in 1981, it trades in much of Wajda’s reflectiveness and becomes much more of a bulletin. Often shot on location and incorporating real news footage, it has an almost Sixties cinema verite style. Like such films as Medium Cool, the process of film-making is often foregrounded. The film starts with a woman making a passionate and poetic speech about freedom, who then stops to ask the radio engineer for another take. It’s protagonist, Winkel, is a journalist ordered to perform a hatchet job on the strike leaders. Wajda commented afterwards “we were learning to understand this new reality and to show it on the screen at the same time, which was not easy.” (Notably, while Western films of this style seek to dispel the chimera of ‘journalistic objectivity’, here the question never even comes up. Winkel must choose one side or the other, no third options.)

However the film also has a reflective half – with the frequent flashbacks, which set the current strike (and the main characters’ behaviour) into context. Here Wajda’s patented style comes back – muted colours, deep field photography and poetic composition. (These refer back to an earlier film, Man Of Marble, which was presumably shot in that style.)

Functionally, this is effective – the two distinct styles never leaving us in doubt which era we are in. But the two tones can at times jar. You naturally indulge Wajda’s more poetic instincts when they take on a poetic form, less so when they are inserted into a news report. One example would be Winkel’s symbolic pilgrimage towards the worker-occupied Shipyard. (Which he is only able to enter at the very end of the film.) We seem supposed to infer that this swapping sides has cured him of the alcoholism which has plagued him up until then. There is also a subplot, involving a striker’s father, which drops a smart expectation-denying twist, but then one which simply seems to get forgotten. More pettily but still notably, whilst Katyn has a score by Pendereski, the music here is mostly Eighties synth stuff!


However, Wajda is keen as ever to keep matters nuanced. The provisional nature of the worker’s victory is stressed, and even Winkel’s side-swapping is not altogether welcomed. This cautious optimism was validated, when the authorities later imposed martial law. Wajda later commented he’d earlier asked the military to borrow their tanks as props for the film – but been denied. A year later, those tanks were on the streets for real...

Monday, 8 December 2008

CINE-CITY 2: SQUARING THE CIRCLE



Tom Stoppard’s account of the birth of Poland’s free trade union Solidarity was, according to the Cine-City site, “broadcast in the ‘golden age’ of Channel 4...never released on DVD and its last transmission 20 years ago”. Indeed, the film has almost fallen through the cracks of history - with the most perfunctory IMDB page and no Wikipedia entry at all. And yet, as Mike Hodges mentioned in his Q&A after the showing, about the last thing it could be accused of is being a period piece.

The film makes no attempt approximate Polish accents (Lech Walesa speaks Scouse throughout), or even pretend it’s not being shot in a studio. Mike Hodges revealed this Brechtian style was originally budgetary, but he soon came to see the aesthetic advantages of it. By the end he insisted beach scenes be mocked up in the studio, which ironically it would have been cheaper to just film on an actual beach.

Of course such effects tend to universalise the story, no bad thing when a British press was insistent free unions were great for Poland yet somehow all wrong for Britain. Yet it’s interesting to note that Brecht himself strayed most from his patented ‘distancing effect’ when recounting contemporary events, notably in Senora Carrar’s Rifles and Private Lives of The Master Race. When your story’s so close to the headlines, wouldn’t a verite effect have worked better?

In fact, Hodges’ choice has specific advantages. There’s a point where a party dignitary gives a TV speech in a cosy-looking Library. Transmission over, he slides his chair back with promptly knocks over the ‘bookcases’ – mocked-up studio flats. If everything in the film is a facade then so is the Polish regime, in their pretence either to hold independence within the Soviet block or to have the workers’ interests at heart. Hodges also revealed that the only non-studio shot was of a rising helicopter, used to suppress a strike. This is also fitting, for the subsequent repression was no doubt real enough.

It also induces an appropriately hermetic effect. The dignitaries and bureaucrats live in a rarified world where they are constantly discussing real-world events in the abstract, talking steel production while never visiting a steelyard.

The film’s also quite courageously willing to present Solidarity warts and all; arguing amongst themselves, making tactical errors. Walesa comments near the end that they started marching together, but the road they were on forked and then forked again. Though this might have risked criticism, with several Solidarity members imprisoned when it was transmitted, it makes for a stronger, more interesting and more nuanced film.

Throughout the film is dense with information and ideas, without ever falling into polemicism. Some scenes are played more than once, in varying permutations of what might have happened. The narrator is himself frequently interrupted by passing Poles, challenging his assumptions.

Despite such courage and these many strengths, it perhaps has two weaknesses. First, we have the role of narrator itself. As Hodges admitted, this role was intended to be played by Stoppard himself, but an American presence was forced upon him by the backers. (Though he praised Richard Crenna’s actual performance.) It’s not a problem that the authorial voice takes on an American accent; as mentioned, the Narrator is continually perceived by locals as a clueless outsider who needs correcting. But had we seen the scriptwriter having his own script corrected, as Stoppard intended, the effect would have been stronger. Also, at a point in the film American bankers appear. This is the first time ‘natural’ accents have been used, for the ‘Poles’ have all been English. This jarring is presumably deliberate, to emphasise the bankers as outsiders. Yet the accent already given the Narrator dilutes this effect.

Also, though the work is clearly well-researched and Stoppard doubtless has a keen brain, his politics are somewhat liberal. (He’s described himself as “a timid libertarian”.) This shows through mostly over Walesa. It’s as though, just by placing characters to Walesa’s ‘left’, he is immediately made a ‘moderate’ and is therefore correct in all he says. This takes us to strange places. The Wikipedia article on Solidarity mentions how their “example was in various ways repeated by opposition groups throughout the Eastern Bloc, eventually leading to the Eastern Bloc's effectual dismantling.” Yet at one point, Walesa rules out links emerging in other Eastern Bloc countries, because as Poles they should concern themselves with Polish affairs. As in other places, the film seems to side with this petty-nationalism rather blithely. Similarly, his personality cult and its effect on collective decision-making is repeatedly brought up, but never particularly closely examined. It might even be possible to argue this film enhanced such a cult, by making him so central a character. (Though of course Stoppard couldn’t have known at this point of Walesa’s later career as a rather free-market-oriented Polish President.)

But for all such criticisms, this was a bold and intelligent piece of film-making that honoured rather than trivialised the seriousness of its subject. Hodges quite casually remarked that it would be impossible to make such a film for British TV today. (The decline of Channel Four was also noted by the Quay Brothers in their own Q&A session, though more of that anon.) ‘Squaring the Circle’ refers to a mathematically impossible act. Yet for a few short years such a thing was possible. Switch on Channel Four now, and you will see with which substance they have replaced their Golden Age. Alas, that was one kind of freedom that didn’t need helicopters or troops to be brought down. Look out for this when it’s shown again. Only another twenty years to wait...

Monday, 1 December 2008

CINE-CITY 2008 PART 1: BICYCLE THIEVES



NB If you’re worried about plot spoilers for a 1948 film, they follow! And yes there is more to spoil than ‘someone’s bike gets nicked.’

The Cine-City Festival is back in Brighton for another year, and (among other delights) has given me the chance to finally see De Sica’s acclaimed drama Bicycle Thieves. As it turns out, this film is just as good as everyone has always said it is!

Of course, as a totem of Italian post-war neo-realism, it’s also a magnet for brickbats. It’s been criticised by some for not being ‘realist’ at all, with accusations that it’s even “manipulative.” But these are arguments against some absurd caricature of neo-realism rather than the style itself. (Though it doesn’t help that the genres defenders, such as Bazin, often made almost as foolish claims.) It’s abundantly clear that De Sica isn’t concerned with finding something ‘real’ and pointing a camera at it. ‘Realism’ is an artistic genre, and hence a form of artifice, as much as any other. To turn his sense of cinema into a criticism is the height of ludicrousness. A measure of the film’s success is that, even when you know it’s based upon a novel (by Luigi Bartolini) you find it almost impossible to imagine it as such – so pure is the sense of cinema it exudes. Similarly it’s sometimes claimed that the storyline is not as casual and free-flowing as it looks but actually conforms to a narrative structure. Again, this is not a criticism but a compliment with an identity crisis.

De Sica’s talent is not to dispel cinema’s devices but know which ones to keep in. Cross-cutting, for example, is rarely used here – the focus is almost all upon our protagonist Ricci. When he pawns his own bedclothes we see the pile of linen in the brokers, testament to how many have come to the same step. But we see the size of this pile via a reaction shot - through his eyes. Similarly, we learn almost nothing of the actual thief – where he’s put the bicycle, his relationship to the old man. We don’t even know if his fit is fake or not. We only know of him what Ricci does. Cross-cutting is minimised not because it’s not ‘real’ but because it would mitigate against seeing this world through Ricci’s eyes. The weaving camera shots give us the feeling the film is being shot in long takes in real time, even though this isn’t actually the case.

The Forties Rome we see feels almost like another planet, not only the palpable poverty but also the astonishing labour-intensiveness of life –fleets and flurries of workers continually pass us by, such as the army of street-sweepers that descend upon the morning. It adds weight to my hypothesis that, as a modernist art form, cinema has some inimical connection to the urban environment. (Alas, the Cine-City festival has now almost given up honouring its name as a festival of city films.)

It’s perhaps interesting to note that, upon release, the film was often criticised from the left. (Though the scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini was a Communist Party member, De Sica was not.) “As a form of social criticism,” claims Aristides Gazetas, “[it] never attempts to examine the root causes behind the poverty, nor criticize the ‘system’ that creates the injustices and inequalities.” Tomasulo even insists that "at best, the film is reformist; at worst, it legitimizes the ideology of bourgeois liberalism." De Sica was accused of propounding nothing but empty humanism, eight reels of weepy sympathy rather than an ounce of constructive suggestion.

To this charge, that the film’s chief deficiency lay in offering no ‘solutions’, it’s tempting to reply facetiously. Perhaps Ricci should have caught his thief, then united with him against a system which exploits us all. They could then have refused to put up their Rita Hayworth posters until the capitalist edifice crumbled around them. However, this criticism does illuminate what the film is doing to a greater extent than those who simply complain it’s not ‘really real’.

It’s true that, while Ricci faces problems which are typical of his time, he is still individualised. He is different from the types which inhabit Eisenstein films, who often feel as if they’ve stepped down from the geometric forms of Soviet propaganda posters. And this emphasis on him as a man, like you and me, is vital. Compare the plot to an outwardly similar story, Will Eisner’s acclaimed newspaper strip Ten Minutes, published the following year. (A semi-accurate summary of it is here.) Like Ricci, Freddy is hard pressed by life and in a moment of weakness resorts to crime. Both acts are presented as out of character, and neither ends well.

But Eisner emphasises this moment, closing in on the point where Freddy finally gives in to his weaknesses. He’s like a bridge which breaks the first time a heavy truck passes over it. The truck may have precipitated the break, but the problem was a structural flaw in the bridge. De Sica and Zavattini, conversely, contextualise the moment. Because we have inhabited Ricci’s reality up to this point, we understand his temptations. The very causes of his hesitation cause us a sense of dread, as it is all too credible to us that he’ll try to steal the bike. As Zavattini said, “that man is bearing what I myself should bear in the same circumstances.” To use Tomasulo’s terminology, it is Eisner’s work which “legitimises the ideology of bourgeois liberalism” (an abstract ‘morality’ devoid of context), De Sico and Zavattini have other fish to fry.

The whole of the film expands from the agony of that moment, including Ricci’s subsequent capture. (Which by then feels fated.) We are invited to consider what we would have done in the same situation. Any ‘solutions’ then offered would not only by necessity feel pat, but would crush the poignancy of this moment. As it stands the film is not closed and didactic, but open and troubling. It’s emphasis is not on the possibility or otherwise of living any other way, but the impossibility of the way we live now. As Zavattini said: “It is not the concern of an artist to propound solutions. It is enough to make an audience feel the need, the urgency, for them.”

It’s also arguable that the film is making a concrete point, albeit a harsher but more worldly one – that to survive in this world a poor man needs to be part of a gang. The fleets of uniformed workers come in here. Workplaces in Italy then were normally associated not only with a union but a political grouping, all who worked there were expected to join the grouping to enhance collective strength. A smart worker whose political inclinations lay elsewhere would learn to shut his mouth.

We first see Ricci sitting apart from his peers, having to be called over to hear about the job he’s won. Later he catches the titular bicycle thief but is unable to confront him when the lad’s neighbourhood comes together to defend him. Even his final desperate attempt to steal a bicycle himself come to naught from, unlike the original thief, having no accomplice to throw pursuers off the scent. (Admittedly he does at one point raise a posse in search of the stolen bicycle, who even seem to represent Leftism as much as anything does here. But this withers away.) Ricci suffers, what Bosley Crowther called “the isolation and loneliness of the little man in this complex social world”. He is a man with only his own determination, which he finds to be not enough. Perhaps such savage honesty is more productive than abstract calls for class unity.

More Cine-City reports to follow...

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

TOP 50 ALBUMS: JOHN WESLEY HARDING

Bob Dylan, 1967


Despite being another reprint from Ye Olde Print Days, this is also part of an occasional series where I eulogize some of my favourite albums. (Or, for younger readers, CDs.) Content may therefore be more celebratory and less analytical than usual. Despite this being the first entry labelled as such, I really started the series here without knowing it.

I‘m currently in the habit of borrowing my flatmate’s CDs to take into work. Thing is, I can only ever fit one in my jacket pocket. Marooned for a day with a single CD, I’ve learnt the wisdom of choosing wisely. But this is an album I’ve always liked which I haven’t heard in a while, so I should be okay.

As it turns out, listening to it again serves to confirm my view that the highpoint of Dylan’s career is either this or Basement Tapes. (Though admittedly you do have to mentally edit out the lesser Band tracks from Basement Tapes.) This was a realization that came over me slowly. I spent many angry teenage years playing the electrified hallucinogenic grotesquery of Highway 61 Revisited as loud as the volume dial would let me, until my Dad would rush in and accuse me of damaging my hearing. Admittedly, the more subdued sound on display here doesn’t generate that instantaneous antagonistic reaction in Dads, but that just obscures its true worth.

I wonder if the switch had a strange disconcerting effect on the rock audience, who had assumed Dylan was now their mascot after plugging in and turning off his original folk followers. The songs from those albums have been the subject of many a rocked-up cover, from Hendrix’s almost instantaneous cover of Watchtower to Patti Smith’s more recent Wicked Messenger - like they wanted to drown out and extinguish the unamped originals.

Though Highway 61 may have marked a step away from the literalism of the original protest songs, this era makes for even more of a sideways leap – into the allusive land of parable. Much of the appeal lies in the way the songs take place inside some mythic past, what Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America”. After the frenetic modernity of Highway 61, John Wesley follows more leisurely trails. Telephones that don’t ring become telegraphs and steamboat whistles, passports become messengers and horsebacked strangers, cars become churches and Napoleon in Rags transforms into St. Augustine.

Alongside the old, weird West we also have the old, weird Victorian England and no shortage of the old, weird Bible either. John Wesley Harding, Tom Paine and St. Augustine all inhabit the same imaginary neighbourhood. Befitting Dylan’s new quietism, all this is assumed rather than paraded, there’s no “long-time-ago-in-galaxy-far-away” style bookends.

(Though of course Dylan’s just foregrounding tendencies he had earlier. Back in ’65 he was already enthusing how folk music was “just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and nothing but mystery. Roses growing right up out of people’s hearts and seven years of this and eight years of that and it’s all something that nobody can really touch”.)

The music’s similarly unassuming, a pick-up band of Nashville session men just clock in and do their job. His voice itself is almost unrecognizable from the nasally whine set to wind up Dads, instead it’s deep, gruff and gospelly. He sings distrustingly of the Wicked Messenger “whose mind it multiplied the smallest matter”.

His language is effective through being unassuming, a line like “all across the telegraph his name it did resound” resounds more for its apparent lack of effort. Such simple, direct language is more redolent of folksong than the bogus “these” and “yees” that make most such attempts sound like a bad issue of the Mighty Thor. Writing is about building up a picture gradually through accumulating small and seemingly innocuous words, not painting broad and grandiose flourishes that just flake off in the memory.

But what really makes the album linger in the mind is its beguiling quality. Underneath the simple surface lie pithy parables you never quite get to the bottom of; “nothing was revealed” as he deadpans at the end of Frankie Lee. I was surprised to see so many of these allusion-stuffed songs clocking in on the CD display at under the three-minute mark. Dylan apparently complained at the time that simple was harder to write, but the extra effort was worth it.

There’s a distinction between the gospelly first-person songs which mostly inhabit the second side, which seem to feed from Basement Tapes, and the symbolist character encounters which open and eventually dominate the album. The two final tracks stand out by being as simple and direct as they appear. After the “too much confusion” of all the cryptic allusions, I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight is a song about being your baby tonight. These songs offer the “way out of here” longed for on Watchtower, a redemptive coda to send us home happy and satisfied. But ahead lay Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait where, extended to album length they wouldn’t maintain interest. Dylan dipped and, while he rose again eventually, he’d never recapture what he manages so effortlessly here.

Postscript: When first writing this piece I seem to have somehow overlooked Blonde On Blonde entirely. Not sure why, as between them those four albums are surely Dylan’s most essential.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

PLEASE SIR, THE DOG ATE MY HOMEWORK

Alas, a surfeit of stuff has stopped me blogging anything new for a while – and may well stay that way into the near future. Some of that stuff is fun stuff. Most isn’t.

So superlative gigs by Acid Mothers Temple, Lightning Bolt, The Hanson Brothers and Jackie-O Mothefucker shall pass unrecorded here.

As will the equally superlative films Gomorrah and Hunger and the not-bad-at-all Linhade Passe.

When all these wrongs right themselves again, offerings currently stalled in the works will appear. Including (but not limited to) the much-promised screeds on Quatermass and Doctor Who. If you’re absolutely desperate to read something I wrote lately and have an abiding interest in the Marxist theory of light bulbs (I kid not), try here then scroll down. Quite a long way down...

...further...

...further...

...there.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

ZOMBIES DON’T RUN. COMMUTERS RUN FOR TRAINS. ZOMBIES AREN’T COMMUTERS.


In today’s G2, Simon Pegg may come off like an obsessive purist whingeing about the rule-bending in more recent zombie flicks. (“I know it is absurd to debate the rules of a reality that does not exist but this genuinely irks me. ZOMBIES DON’T RUN!”) But he’s right to be irked! He’s right to point out that, when George Romero set the zombie template to lumbering mode, he knew just what he was doing.

By co-incidence, I’d just been reading the zombie-themed issue of the horror comics fanzine From The Tomb, and noted how often Romero’s name came up as the recognised father of the zombie mythos. And this despite the fact, as semi-acknowledged by contributor Alan Richardson, comics adaptions of his films are generally ill-suited and fall flat!

Now parents of horror genres are supposed to hail from the Gothic era – Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and the like. Yet Romero’s first zombie film was made in 1969! Zombies had existed before then, but almost always as drones – labouring for a mastermind. Despite this division between mental and manual labour, they were really concerned not with wage-labour but slavery. Horror became a symptom of the old world, a nightmare which scared us through reminding us of times past.

Romero first of all got rid of the controlling brain, and let his zombies lumber loose in the world. Then he let them loose in a deliberately contemporary world. Perhaps part of his films’ standing comes from spacing them a decade apart, giving each a new set of contemporary trends to pick up on. Made back to back, they would have risked repetition. (As it is they rise above the schematic by sheer iconoclasm and effort of will.)

In these films we are not just given all the advantages, we’re tauntingly given all the ones that we imagine make us so modern and special – we’re smart, we’re quick, we’re adaptable. These are then slowly trampled and revealed to us as useless by a remorseless horde. But the films’ real triumph is to appear as though they’re just telling us something we really knew all along. The best monsters are always those we stare into and see first the other but then ourselves.

The thing which separates us from these lumpen masses of motor functions, the thing in which we invest so much, turns out to be merely a flicker – something so faint and fragile it can be snuffed out in an instant. Perhaps we only ever imagined it was there, to feel better about ourselves. Perhaps the zombies are really just us stripped of our pretences. (Hence the dangling accoutrements of humanity with which Romero always decorates his zombies.)

One of the chief gags in Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead, that he doesn’t notice when the world gets zombie-hit, is therefore double-jointed. First, it’s telling us as a character he’s somewhat dumb. But at the same time is there really all that much to notice? Our world could reach this state in but a flicker. Yet Pegg can only have this gag through slow-moving zombies, lunging clumsily at him as he passes by obliviously. He’s right to compare quicker zombies to fast food – their only advantage is that they’re over quicker.

More by me on Romero’s zombie films here and here

Sunday, 19 October 2008

DO YOU SCREAM IN COLOUR?

Francis Bacon, Tate Britain, 11 Sept 08-4 Jan 09



”An Old War, Not Even a Cold War...”

Starter for ten – Think of all the post-war British figurative artists who are likely to receive retrospectives at the Tate. Then look down at the piece of paper upon which you’ve written ‘Francis Bacon’ and wonder why.

Bacon himself sought to keep the answer mystical. He infamously refused any political or philosophical interpretation of his work, denying any influence from expressionism or existentialsm or congruence with current events. Well, he also denied ever making preparatory sketches and then a slew of them turned up after his death. Now he seems so emblematic of an era he’s practically marinaded in it.

This exhibition takes the opposite tack, even providing a timeline to set events of his life alongside the Cuban Missile crisis, the death of Stalin and so on. (It’s also notable that, though Bacon was painting before the War, none of those works are shown here. Traditionally, exhibitions show one or two early works – even when they’re just juvenalia.)

Now if your main image of the Cold War reflected in popular culture is Frankie Goes to Hollywood videos, you may not at first recognise the connection here. A few paintings do feature two figures tussling, with the viewer never sure whether they’re fighting or fucking. (Something which literally put Bacon on trial on one occasion.) But most feature figures in isolation. (Not single figures, but figures in isolation.) Where do they fit into these post-war climes?

A key feature is that almost all the works are interiors. (Even Two Figures in the Grass, despite that titular grass!) Of course the interior stands for the psychological. Bacon is trying to capture not real rooms he has seen but something far more conceptual. The handouts describe the figures as “trapped within the composition,” and indeed its ambiguous whether we are looking at a frame or a cage. It’s reminiscent of Sartre’s 1944 drama No Exit, where Hell is presented as a giant hotel. It’s not so much inescapable as there’s simply nothing else outside of it. Crucially, these figures are not so much at war with themselves as with their very existence. If you were to distill Bacon down to a simple phrase it would be ‘flesh is a trap’. “Well of course,” he’s quoted as saying, “we are meat.” (Oh the irony he took the name of a cut of meat!)

It probably is hard for the young folk of today to understand how all-pervasive the Cold War felt at that time. It was a war for which we must all stand ready to fight, which could never actually be fought. It came to feel not merely political but existential, as if Berlin Walls inevitably imposed themsevles not just between nations but between (and within) individuals. Separation came to feel so much the natural state of things that it transcended the unique conditions which created it and it inscribed itself back through history - even into pre-history. Bacon’s animal paintings mirror the cod-Freudian pseudo-science of Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey, whose books filled the era - usually adorned with a snarling baboon transforming into a businessman, or something similar. (The handouts locate these paintings in a post-Darwinian condition, yet that alone would not explain the preponderance of these books in the post-war era.)

The result is a paradox in Bacon that is perhaps true of existentialism in general. Its concerns are universal, it seeks to present immutable truths about the human condition. But at the same time it’s profoundly of an era. Intriguingly, Bacon chooses to play up this paradox until it turns round to his advantage. Adrian Searle notes how many of his incidental details are contemporary – “modern furniture, men in suits, plumbing, fitted carpets.” In Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians a character who sees Buchenwald finds the horror not in the slaughter but in its combination with the mundane accoutrements of everyday life – coat pegs next to gas taps. (“This was a place like any other!”) Bacon puts in his plumbing for the same reason.

But even without that element, none of the above would necessarily dismiss Bacon as a period piece. Some of his fixations now seem outdated, it’s true, such as the anti-clericalism. (There does now feel something shock-by-numbers about all those bestial Popes.) But art does not die when taken out of its era, any more than it gets taken to a place where it can be catalogued objectively. Its journey through each subsequent era redefines it: like a man on an expedition encountering new worlds and cultures, until he is no longer the man who first set out.



Hail the Drab Screams!

The crucifixion paintings are made the centrepiece here, granted a room all of their own. This breaks with the chronology and puts Forties and Sixties works alongside each other, providing us with the chance to compare them. If you want it in a soundbite, the Forties Bacon is the guy Ralph Steadman got it from and the Sixties Bacon Gerald Scarfe.

Traditionally paintings depict a timeless space or else embrace some form of narrative, but neither belongs here. The Forties paintings are not just rougher in execution, but have a writhing quality, a feeling of flux, as if the paint has almost not quite managed to pin down the struggling figure and place it in it’s cage. Perhaps this effect came partly from Bacon’s habit of working from photographs, they often have the sense of blurry motion photographs without attempting to reproduce the outward blur. This gives them the tension that propels them, as if the war of being was waging before our eyes with no hope of resolution. They’re given a dark and muted palette, reminiscent of a world of post-war austerity. Some are so dark you peer into them like caves, your eyes attempting to adjust to the gloom. These are the drab screams.

Later works are both bigger in scale and more detailed, but in a different sense are starker. More plastic, they have a forensic quality, like joints of meat trapped inside shrink-wrap at the supermarket. They sometimes depict wounds but often look more as if the skin surface had somehow been rendered transparent, becoming a mere bag of bones and organs. (Eliot’s “skull beneath the skin.”) The figures are less often monstrously ambiguous and more often ‘distorted human’, with faces in particular looking like a cross between Picasso’s Demoiselles d'Avignon and a fairground hall of mirrors. Palettes become more vivid, in fact just plain louder.

The exhibition offers an explanation for this change in style, which it saves for a later room. It transpires that, on visits to Tangiers, Bacon had found the light a revelation and reacquainted himself with van Gogh. There’s even an imitation van Gough of his on show (dated ’57), which is poor in itself but arguably significant in spite of that.

But is there another explanation? Could it be that in the Sixties society went into colour and Bacon, not wanting to get left behind, abandoned his drab screams with their rationing-era hues? This suggestion isn’t necessarily as cynical as it may sound. As we’re already seen, he was but one of many artists who subscribed to the myth he stood outside his time – and a myth was all it ever was. Having previously been so influenced by the preceding era, why would the next one not have a similar effect upon him? The zeitgeist is something bigger and more compelling than mere fashion, and even the strongest of steerers can find himself caught up in its sway.

Then again, let’s add a cynical twist. Though there are changes of imagery visible here, they are not huge. Many visitors might not even notice them. Bacon was literally an obsessive artist, painting and repainting the same images over and over. Perhaps the only thing left to him to vary was the style, the size and the colour the screams came in.

Of course the clincher is the value of the later works. Some are good, but overall the trade-off is a familiar one. Ultimately, they become plastic in the second sense of the word. They’re more polished, but the same time they polish over something of the vital force. They lose the sense of claustrophobia and convulsiveness that makes the earlier works so memorable. If the earlier figures were fascinating for never quite being pinned down, here they’re caught in a gaudy spotlight like failed jail escapees. Bacon was simply better when he was messier. The drab screams win out over the technicolour ones.

As things descend through the Eighties and Nineties the canvases grow bigger still – and the figures correspondingly smaller. A charitable soul might call these minimal, though semi-empty might be a more accurate term. Large geometric shapes start to appear and vie with the figures. Adrian Searle comments: “feel the disengagement – yours as well as his – setting in.” The busy gallery-goer can speed-visit rooms Nine (‘Epic’) and Ten (‘Late’) here, and not worry about missing much.



“A Gust of Cheap Magazines...”

How would Bacon compare to Philip Guston, whose own retrospective went on show a mere four years ago? (As covered in Ye Olde Printe Days of Lucid Frenzy!) There are striking similarities. They were not only defiantly figurative artists in an era of abstraction, but had similar themes and obsessions. At times they even share motifs, such as the dangling lightbulb. They can even seem to swap them, pointy red arrows hovering around details of interest might feel like a Guston device but actually its Bacon. However, the chronologies differ markedly - by the time Guston reverted to representation (the late 60s) Bacon was over twenty-five years into his game. And of course Bacon never turned against abstraction, he merely decried it from the start. But perhaps the real difference between them is something else, which we’ll approach sideways.

The Telegraph’s Richard Dorment sniffs “his attempt to symbolise the human condition might appeal to an adolescent or a fan of science fiction.” But this snide comment actually brings up an interesting point. Bacon’s influence on popular art feels huge, you see echoes all around you in Scarfe, Giger, Clive Barker and many others. But for someone so influential, Bacon himself seems to have been paradoxically uninterested in popular culture. While you can’t miss the Bud Fisher in Guston (to the point where he’s been accused of plagiarism), Bacon’s corresponding totem would have to Velazquez. He may have used photos of low culture events (such as boxing), but his work transformed them out of recognition. Dorment typifies the art establishment ‘s disdain for Bacon, as someone they saw as a showman and cheap populist. But, from his insistence on his works being shown behind glass to his retrogressive disdain for abstract art, Bacon saw himself as a Proper Artist. He may have tried to escape the cage of flesh, but never the snare of capital-A Art.

Guston’s dallying with low culture game him a vibrancy and a shot of humour which (however black) is missing from Bacon. The handouts claim “he faced death with a defiant concentration of the exquisiteness of the lived moment”, but that’s merely auto-luvvie-seak. This show ends with a figure stepping away from the viewer into a black square. It’s like Malevich upside-down, the geometric shape representing not eternity but nothingness – the end of a struggle which could never be won. Bacon might have opened the door to so many followers, but could only close his own.

The Tate's on-line guide has a nifty interactive 'explore' function for following the show virtually. This may be handy if you don't think you'll make the show. However, it's so thorough, if you are thinking of going in person, you're probably better off not clicking on it until afterwards.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

IT ALL STARTS WITH A DRONE



If I’m being slow to respond here, that quite possibly suits the subject matter. Pete Ashton wrote Loving The Drone back (yes, really) on Dec 17th. This response has since been slowly maturing all that time, like a fine wine, and not at all because it got stuck under something else and forgotten about.

Peter wrote how he was listening to Sunn O))) (pictured) and “like a blast of dark light, I suddenly got it.” Though there wasn’t such a single cinematic moment where I got drone, I’m delighted to hear this. However, Pete then goes on to quote Paul Morley as an articulation of his experience. To which I ask, what is “the drone of meaning and no meaning” supposed to mean? WTF has “life on Mars” got to do with any of this? But the worst thing about Morley’s nonsense is Morley’s sense, that he manages to mix so much meaning up with his blather. Reading this, some might come to dismiss all drone music as emperor’s new clothes stuff. (Disclaimer: If you say my comments are no more substantiable than Morley’s I will not argue. If you claim they’re equally pretentious I will sulk terribly but not actually respond.)

In writing this rejoinder I find I’ve stumbled into writing a trilogy on musical forms. I asked here ‘Is Impro the Primal Musical Mode?’, then here the related question of whether folk music constitutes our identity? The fact that I answered ‘no’ in both cases may be considered a clue as to what I will say about drone.

However, while I might deny that folk is the music to we’re biologically programmed to respond, a fuller response might be that folk is itself born in the drone. This might have largely been quite accidental - folk instruments tended to produce drone effects only as a byproduct, like the tape hum or disc crackle of its day. But I can’t see why this should change anything. Accident is always the mother of discovery. To me this just adds weight to my contention that drone is not a genre of music. To me drone is music, with all the other forms the offshoots and sidelines.

Drone is the music we first played to ourselves. It was a ritualised use, where the music itself wasn’t the focus but a means towards the effect it had upon the participants. It’s widely believed so many ancient rituals were held in caves, stone circles or similar places in order to echo and maintain the sustained tones. Its likely mantras are more individualised attempts to simulate the same effects.

Of course you can’t listen to drone the way you can other music. You tend to listen to music at a meta level, not to the instruments so much as the interplay between them. In popular music, this comes out like a conversation between a ‘group’. In classical music, it’s like words or phrases strung together by the composer. Listening can become almost like watching a film, as you start to sense things like the climax coming in. Popular music in particular seems keen to approximate a sense of forward momentum; how many songs contain words like “let’s go”, “here we go” or similar?

Drone dispels all that by immediately pulping all the separate instruments down into a kind of primordial soup. All our conventional descriptive terms, such as ‘allegro’ or ‘fortissimo’, are designed to explain how fast or slow music is progressing. But drone music doesn’t progress, it’s just maintained. Notes don’t get replaced by other notes in a string, sounds just merge with sounds that arrive after them. This often leads to the complaint that drone music is monotonous and (inevitably) boring. However if is endless that doesn’t mean it is static. It merely means people are listening to the music in the wrong way.

Though drone is not precisely analogous with minimalism, it does exhibit why the term ‘mininmalist’ can be such a misnomer. Through extended duration, apparently simple textures reveal greater and greater levels of complexity. It’s like looking into the grain of wood, or following the falling of a waterfall; the more you look, the more there is to see. It’s like looking into a cave. First your daylight-tuned eyes make out only murk, but the longer they look the more emerges. In many ways I can’t think of a more maximalist music than the immersive world of drone.



Of course it’s quite possible that the sub-tones and variations to be found in drone appear quite accidentally. To me that’s even part of the point, the essence of drone’s ‘sameyness’ is that nothing is ever the same. Indeed, much drone music tries to minimise the player’s role by enabling rather than playing the sustained tones. (‘Drone’ is after all also used as a term for unwilled or unmanned.) This is different to impro music, where the musician tries to let his consciousness surrender to his subconscious. In drone the musician must surrender altogether, like a medium becoming a mere conduit of communication. In Sound Projector 8, Ed Pinsent enthused of drone-merchant Jilat that he “has done his level best to efface the traces of playing.”

Sometimes this was achieved by preparing instruments to be permanently held down, sometimes by exploiting and amplifying imperfections in equipment. The guitars on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music were ‘played’ only by force from their own amps, in a complete feedback loop without human involvement. Disinformation boiled things down further by creating performances from nothing other than the mains electricity used to power them, sometimes for up to six weeks at a time.

There’s also a strong overlap with electro-acoustic music and field recordings, for example Chris Watson recording wind blowing or ice cracking. Drone is about the elemental – it’s not so much composed and then performed but captured and set up to run. (In this way, and however name-defying it may sound, drone isn’t even reliant on sound. After his tenure in Eternal Music, Tony Conrad made films via, for example, hitting the film-stock with a hammer so fault and fracture-lines appear.)

In one of the best comments I’ve heard about music, David Byrne said a function of it was to give us a sense of time outside clock time. In our linear, deadline-driven, time-poor culture, I’m sure he’s right. But drone doesn’t just contend clock-time, it suspends it. The Theatre of Eternal Music would always start their performances before the audience were allowed in the venue then make them leave again before it was finished, to give them a sense of a music not bound and formed by duration but (you guessed it) eternal. We only experience a segment of the music, just like our lifespans permit us only a segment of time. Head honcho La Monte Young went on to construct a ‘dream house’, where the drones were perpetual and visitors could stay as long as they chose.

Over Metal Machine Music (long dismissed as a mere wind-up), Lou Reed dismissed accusations it was unchanging by insisting it was ever changing, and was in fact the sound of the universe. Similarly there’s a (quite possibly apocryphal) story that La Monte Young discovered drone from the sounds his fridge made when it went on the blink! While the Slits recorded ‘In the Beginning there Was Rhythm’, I would counter it all starts with a drone. One of the Jilat pieces mentioned earlier is titled “a long drone-like pieces of muisc which attempts in its minimalism to be a thing in itself without external reference, having an analogue in certain states of consciousness where being is experienced also as a thing in itself and not contingent upon meaning or purpose.” (Though of course I’m kidding about that being the title of the piece. The full title is longer.)

While drone is sometimes dismissed as bliss-out and escapist, it doesn’t have to refer out to anything else in the universe because it already encompasses the universe. It doesn’t merely encompass the sound of the big and the small, it denies the distinction between those sounds. “As above, so below” is an important concept in drone. Blake’s conception of “infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour” is just up drone’s street. Once the sounds are isolated, can we tell the grand scheme of the universe from electricity passing in a wire?

Typically of drone, it sounds at once like the universe and at the same time like the womb. Morley is surely right to say it’s “the sound inside the womb, the sound of your thoughts before words became your thoughts”. Charlemagne Palestine has insisted “I was born in the drone!” Experiments have suggested that maybe everything did sound like that then, but I’d go further and suggest that everything felt like that then too. Ed Pinsent has commented “loud intensive drone music [lets me] retrieve some deeply personal memories I thought were long buried.” Drone music draws it’s effect from enveloping you in sound, like a womb state. (Conversely, when I first heard the cacophonous rush of Tomorrow Never Knows the first it made me think of was the rupture of being born.)


However, drone reaches back further than the deepest personal memories. Morley is also right to describe drone as strangely comforting. But I’ve often felt a paradox within drone, its sheer eeriness can at the same time be unsettling. Some ‘dark’ or ‘doom’ drone leans more to one and some ‘ambient drone’ to the other, but it’s an important factor that it contains both. Drone ultimately reaches back to ancient conception of the Wyrd:

“Our tribal ancestors and mystics of ancient Europe lived out a view of life called Wyrd: a way of being which transcends our conventional notions of free will and determinism. All aspects of the world were seen as being in constant flux and motion…Following on from the concept of Wyrd was a vision of the cosmos as being connected by an enormous, all-reaching system of fibres rather like a three-dimensional spider’s web. Everything was connected by strands of fire to the all-encompassing web. Any event, anywhere, resulted in reverberations and repercussions throughout the web.”
Brian Bates, the Wisdom of the Wyrd, Rider Books, 1996

My contention is that we respond to drone music not simply because we genetically recognise something ancient, but because we respond to this non-linear anti-causal conception of reality which it embodies. It is quite simply humans playing not only in harmony with each other but with everything else. And it’s unsettling quality is partly because of its unfamiliarity to our modern sensibilities but more because it is unsettling – it presents a view of the universe which is never settled. True drone music is a world away from the soothing soundscapes that accompany New Age utopias. Drone was, is and will forever be something savage.

See also:
Lucid Frenzy on Tony Conrad’s Tate performance this summer
Wikipedia’s entry on drone music
A reasonable starter’s guide to drone musicians

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

THE UPSIDES AND DOWNSIDES OF COLOUR OUT OF SPACE

September 2008, Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton



“Welcome to the third Colour Out of Space. Three days of unstructured, cross platform sound experimentation featuring concrete poetry, re-wired electronics, avant-noise, out-jazz, home-built instrumentation, Kabuki free-vocalists and more.”

...”and more” there was! After the first Colour Out of Space inexplicably passing me by, I can now only hope that this event becomes an annual fixture. Not only is the sort of music you never expect to hear now on for a reasonable price at a venue practically down the road from me, the event has a nice organic feel to it. There’s nothing reserved or stuffy about proceedings, nor is there much sense of avant-guarder-than-thou. In fact, intimate and dripping with camaraderie, it partly reminds me of the small press comics events I attend such as Caption. (As one example, all the acts seem to hang around the whole weekend to catch their fellow performers at flow. And I was particularly enamoured of the way acts were announced by the ringing of a school bell, whereupon we’d troop in from the garden for our next instalment of droning Berlinners.) I’m sure if I were to suggest that this festival rocks I would be immediately put to the torch by a posse of Finnish noisemongers. But...you know what I’m trying to say.

Of course with over thirty (count ‘em!) performances to blurt, screech and drone, the odds are you won’t like everything. In fact, with almost every act incorporating some degree of improvisation, this is almost inevitable. Improvising is something like mining, you strike out hoping to hit a seam of something rich. But one night can be a lot of labour for little gain, then the next you strike lucky straight away. That’s all to be expected, and even adds to the excitement of the moment. Want the handsome prince and you have to be prepared to kiss some frogs.

A classic example of the bounty of serendipity working would be In Camera’s set. As they launched into their delicate electronics and ethereal bowed strings, the marquee tent creaked in a sudden summer storm, the rain pattering accompanying percussion on its sides. Have you ever been tucked up in bed on a winter night, reading a tingling ghost story by candlelight? Well multiply that feeling by a factor of ten! It was perhaps the ultimate moment in an ambient set meeting and perfectly merging with the room ambience.

As a consequence of this essential unpredictability, there seems little point in making a nerdy little list of each troupe next to a mark out of ten. See the exact same acts another night, and the whole order might be re-thrown. (Unless of course In Camera have hired that storm to tour with them.) Instead let’s look for patterns, stuff which worked and which didn’t, upsides and downsides of this sort of music.

Despite my enthusiasm for all things bleep, I had spent some of last year hoping for a few more words. Of course there’d been lots of vocals, culminating in Phil Minton’s glorious feral choir. But only post-Dada prankster Jaap Blanc and a few others had incorporated discernablewords. Do some see improvisation as the opposite of storytelling? Surely we can make up a story as easily as we can a feedback guitar drone! David Thomas was to make a latter-day career out of it. But that’s not what I’m on about here...

There’s the scene in Donnie Darko where the ousted teacher writes ‘Cellar Door’ on the blackboard as a goodbye to her charges. She explains “an expert linguist” (actually Tolkien) claimed the phrase to be the most beautiful in the English language. Of course this has nothing to do with doors to cellars, it’s turning the sound of the phrase into a musical miniature in your mind. The fact it’s now removed from it’s meaning is precisely the point. It’s like the exercise of looking at a page of text (say this one), until all the letters turn back into shapes. The way the word is seen as such an epitome of cultured thought makes it fair game for such undoing.

Koichi Makigami took up Blanc’s ‘sound poet’ role this year, an excellent performance perhaps enhanced by our lack of understanding of Japanese. (The nonsense comes easier that way.) Byron Coley ran a workshop on the word I didn’t manage to make, but I didn’t enjoy his performance so perhaps I didn’t miss much. Overall, I’d say there were no more words than last time, but then there’s always next year...

One frequent critique of this sort of thing is that there’s nothing to look at, bar some spotty herbert doing some diffident tinkering. The Sound Projector’s Ed Pinsent has written before that this shouldn’t be seen as a failure of electronic music so much as its incompatibility with old-fashioned spectator-style venues, and he’s at least part right. Things often felt more natural in the outdoor marquee, where acts tended to play in the round, than the school assembly room that is the main hall. (While a recent Brighton Expo night of laptop music pretty much failed in the Concorde rock venue.)

However, in our modern multi-media world, you have to ask – why choose to stimulate only one sense at a time? It seems pointlessly restrictive, particularly in a venue which doubles as a cinema, which even separately shows films as part of this very festival! When, early on, some quite spectacular visuals erupted around Core of the Coal Man, hopes raised – only to be, for the main part, dashed. (It was even some effort to find an illo for this blog-piece, even with the assistance of Google Image!)

Of course other acts tried to overcome this problem in their own way. Leslie Keffer attempted to finish her set by stepping from behind the laptop to reveal an party skirt then dragging everybody up to boogie - a plan sadly scuppered by technical failures and English reserve. Dave Phillips and G*Park dimmed the house lights almost entirely, and performed a piece with such redolent sound design that your ears followed it around the room and you felt inside those cavernous sounds. The whole question of what to do with the room was thereby extinguished. Equally, groups such as Skullflower (see above) look and act more like regular bands (in every way except their sound) so that particular problem doesn’t arise.

Let’s emphasise what we need is some visuals or performance element which synaesthesiastically merges with the music. Coal Man’s great visuals wouldn’t have saved things if the music had been bad (which it wasn’t). It was notable that the two acts which most stressed the performance angle (HRT and Weirding Vessel) pushed the ritual element of performance but scrimped upon musical substance. Both came on with a huge splash. Less than five minutes later, you were bored. Closer to the mark would be Bruce McClure’s ‘projector performances’. From what I gathered, the musical element was pre-recorded to which McClure manually adjusted celluloid loops. But very soon in, you were no longer looking and listening, you’d lost your category distinction between the two things. You were just taking it in.

Another recurrent weakness... far too many acts seemed content as mere demonstrations of their instruments. The scene’s ceaseless faddishness for new gadgets and devices may be partly down to this. It sometimes felt like a new toy had arrived on Christmas Day, and the recipient was running through the menu to check out what it could do. New and unusual sound sources are, of course, all to the good. But this misses the essential point that all instruments are merely... guys... instrumental. This argument has nothing to do with proficiency, it’s of no importance whatsoever who is proficient in their instrument and who isn’t. You don’t get any sense of the personality of the performer coming through, just a tourist trip through some settings.

Step forward, Gastric Female Reflex, for your wooden spoon award in this regard. But perhaps a more interesting example was Limpe Fuchs, whose set was emblematic precisely because it danced upon this very dividing line. Fuchs came complete with some mouth-wateringly inventive home-made instruments (including a ten-foot glockenspiel made of slate) plus some equally inventive ways of approaching them (including dragging stones down those slate keys). But she’d flit restlessly from one instrument to another, abandoning it as soon as things seemed to be getting going. It was like watching a child in a playpen, jumping hyperactively between all the toys. But instant composition isn’t the same thing as non-composition. Fuchs needed to either make something with the toys or release them into a workshop situation where we all got a go. She should either have come out the pen, or invited us into it.

But perhaps these comments lead into one wider criticism. David Toop once complained the electro-acoustic scene was a genre without an audience, and thereby hermetically trapped.
The electro-acoustic influence was not rife here, but perhaps his words carried a warning. Indeed at its worst, you did feel that afore-mentioned spotty herbert was just doing on stage what he normally does in his bedroom. This might lead to a scene, but only a backslapping society where each and every new set is treated as a masterwork appreciable only to the elect few. (Impro music isn’t auto-innocculated against cliché, despite what some of its adherents like to claim.) Art needs some kind of outreach, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as showbiz.

Taking the same point the other way up, it has always amazed me how ‘outsiders’ assume all this is some cerebral affair where we applaud the clever innovations of the performer. Well me, I wouldn’t know Pro Tools from an effects pedal! As I have often argued, it’s abstract nature means music can have a more direct effect upon your emotions than other styles of art. Sad music doesn’t have to spin you yarns about dying dogs or orphan boys, it can just be sad. But, by cutting itself off from the more obviously man-made elements such as melody, this music has the opportunity to instill a more immediate and direct effect upon your emotions. It’s rawer than rock, and richer than symphonies. In the right hands, its power to affect you is immense - and absolutely not dependant upon specialised or rarified knowledge. It should not be consigned to the bedroom or kept in the conservatoire!

You may observe that even the organisers’ own attempt to label all this (quoted up top) ends up not as a term to pin all this to so much as a semi-tongue-in-cheek list. While non-afficonadoes lump all this stuff together, there is far more variety available here than at the most eclectic regular music festival. You could pick any two acts at random, and there’d be more space between them than, say, a speed metal and a roots reggae band.

Speed metal and roots reggae are, at least to some degree, still based in blues. It’s like all the other music you ever heard was some shade of blue or other, then suddenly the rest of the spectrum is supplied and you get to hear orange, green, scarlet and black. (There was definitely no shortage of black.) Extra colours, courtesy of outer space.

http://www.colouroutofspace.org/
I expect most of these acts have websites of their own, in some capacity.The Colour site doesn’t list them either...

Thursday, 4 September 2008

EVERYBODY’S GOATEED NOWADAYS (A HARANGUE ON HIP, A CRITIQUE OF GEEK)


As proof I don’t just use the internet to read Andrew Rilstone’s comments on Doctor Who, I was recently perusing K-Punk’s critique of hipsterdom. Despite the fact that neither article he’s reacting to is worth reading of itself, I’m a fan of K-Punk - even at the points where I disagree with him. For example, when he condemns hipsters as “pathologically well-adjusted” he is surely bang on the money.

However, when he calls the hipster “a vague irritation at the periphery of awareness” of “the general population”, I would claim quite the opposite. Of course, the self-conscious hipster has always cared more about his hipness quotient than anybody else has done, or indeed even could. But in many ways the culture-surfing hipster has come to determine our post-modern era. For one thing, culture has largely abandoned segmentation for a grey homogenisation – we are all brand-wearers now, everybody’s goateed nowadays. Listening to “keep-it-real grime” or “rad hip-hop” no longer places you outside the mainstream, for it will all win a Mercury Prize eventually. So the only distinguishing marker left is to be ahead of the curve. And “I used to be into them last year” is precisely where the hipster plants his pad.

More pertinently, the hipster has come to epitomise our relationship to culture. The hipster hangs out inside a hermetic, rarified world where there is only room for appearances. Music and art become interchangeable with the brand-name clothing as signifiers for the self. The objects are merely there as something to hang the labels from, which stand so easily for a projected ‘self’ with no greater depth to it than they do. Devoid of substance, everything can safely be jettisoned as soon as it’s classed “last year”. Thereby insulated against attachment, the hipster can feel neither pain nor pleasure – save a temporary salve of peer approval. With the world so shrunk, everything appears effortless to the hipster. His life is one of perpetual torpor.

One example of the leakage of hipsterdom into the general culture is the rise of ‘smart casual’ workplaces. You’re no longer required to wear a stock uniform to work. But you’re also aware that to wear the same clothes you lounge about in at home is not an option. You are as judged for what you wear to work as ever, making it your de facto task to generate some pseudo-individuality within conformism. This is the hipster’s challenge in a nutshell.

But the point where I really disagree with K-Punk is where he negatively contrasts the hipster against the geeko-outsider, the “sense of abandonment and maladjustment” found in “Metal, Goth and even, Gold help us, Emo.” It’s not just that the geek is any less a stereotype than the hipster, it’s that they are the two sides of the same tarnished coin.

At the level of general appropriation, the charismatic, smart-casual Blair was (by politican’s terms) a hipster. (Bono was exultant at finding a tuned guitar in his office, pronouncing there “hope.”) While of course the crumpled, number-crunching Brown couldn’t be more of a geek. And of course the media encourages us to focus on this difference, and of course it’s the last thing we should actually do. It merely serves to obscure the fact that their policies are interchangeable. The same is true of the wider culture.

K-Punk’s comments are particularly bizarre, for geek culture has penetrated the mainstream almost as surely as has hip. With both defined by consumption, what differentiates them is their method of consumption. The collectivist geek is the addict of consumption, wanting the set of everything irrespective of whether he even likes it or not. The dilettante hipster passes his faddishness off as connoisseurship. In general, everyone else now consumes as addicts whilst carrying the belief this makes them connoisseurs. In the past, only geeky genres such as Science Fiction made it onto video collection releases. Nowadays everything’s available on DVD, from nature shows to sitcoms to cheesy cop shows.

But the real exemplifier of geek culture penetrating the mainstream must be comics. Back in the early Eighties comic fandom almost reflected gay culture, with its mix of ‘out’ fans and ‘closets’ who kept their sorry hobby a secret from friends and workmates. Nowadays... well, just read those reviews of Dark Knight.



K-Punk is however, much closer to the nub of it than the above might make out: “When youth culture was interesting it was because of alienation... the sense both that the young were not adequate to the world and also that the world was not adequate to them. I am nothing and should be everything.

Of course in a fucked-up world, the only non-fucked-up response is to be is fucked-up. But what makes those moments of youth culture special isn’t when they abandon cool for alienation, or when the two are held in separate-but-equal contrast – it’s when the two were dialectically synthesized. You need to be grub and butterfly simultaneously. Think of Ziggy-era Bowie or Stooges-era Iggy, it’s impossible to separate them into examples of alienated outsiderhood and of cool-as-fuck-ness. (As John Lennon once said “part of me thinks I’m a loser. The other that I’m Christ Almighty.”) What makes it alienated is also what makes it cool. Even the more credible ‘cool’ icons such as Jim Morrison seem to suffer from the lack of something to me. There’s no tang to the taste, no sense of internal conflict, merely a sugar rush.

The chief drive to alienation in youth culture is, after all, not social or political but merely hormonal. Of course this can sharpen a youth’s antennae to wider concerns, but it can as easily narrow into sheer self-pity. Merely insisting on your right to feel fucked-up leads nowhere except wallowing. Once you’ve made your alienation your identity, you’ve become a hopeless case. Youth culture must carry feelings of alienation, but to avoid the sulky bedroom it must also suggest an antidote. At the same time this antidote must feel volatile and tenuous, something precariously grasped. It’s not a formula, where the two can be combined in the correct amounts – the key is the reaction which then results.

You probably won’t be too surprised to hear me say this, but at root it’s all to do with shamanism. The shaman is the sickly kid who has the task thrust upon him to heal himself, and through this stumbles upon some strange new form of transformative power. The shaman is no master of his trade, like a blacksmith or carpenter. He doesn’t truly understand this power itself, but can only explore it and offer it to the rest of the tribe through performance. The shaman remains an outsider to the rest of the tribe, even at the same time they join in his rituals.

Okay, here’s a question for the reader. What about the ‘geek chic’ image, first put forward by Talking Heads and Devo – which side is that on? No conferring. Your time starts now...

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

DARK KNIGHT

Be warned! Great big bat-spoilers ahead!
(NB Such is the popularity of this film that it’s still showing at the flicks – meaning this review counts as current. Fear not good citizens - normal service will shortly be resumed.)


1. A Different Bat Time, A Different Bat Channel


Before the feature started, the cinema played the old Batman TV theme. (You know, the one where his Bat-mum calls him in for his dinner.) Surely a calculated piece of cheek, for this is preannounced to be not Batman but Dark Knight! Even if you’re not enough of a comics fan to know the Frank Miller associations of the term, you’ll have seen the trailer where the Joker talks about killing “the Batman”. That pronoun alone is enough to tell us this is Batman for grown-ups, the creature cursed to wander the night battling its monsters. The TV show Bats was always too weighted down by the contents of his utility belt to find use for a pronoun.

...none of which is good news. Its a peculiarity of superhero films that they’ve become stuck in the same trap as were comics in the Eighties. “Finally”, the argument goes, “we have the sophistication to give these characters the gravitas they always deserved.” Perhaps it’s just me, but I tend to reserve the term ‘gravitas’ for those who keep their underwear inside their trousers. To quote from the film, “why so serious?”

Christopher Nolan’s earlier Batman Begins, though popular among many, seemed to me a classic example of such folly. It spent its time building up a credible case for how a man might take up pointy ears in order to frighten off the Mob... in short it set itself up to fail. But others who had reacted to Begins in the same way seemed to take to Dark Knight (for example PatrickMM), so I tried it out. And found it genuinely was from a different Bat Time and different Bat Channel.

There’s an early clue that we’re in for a different take. Lieutenant (not yet Comissioner) Gordon has made a pin-board of ‘Batman sightings’, with pictures of the Sasquatch, Loch Ness Monster and the like pinned to it. Though the film has almost no plot overlap with the Miller comic whose name it borrows, in this way it picks up something Miller did which was missed by many of his imitators. Miller was never interested in the mundane details of how superheroes might function, whether they changed into their costumes on rooftops or in phone boxes. His fascination was with them as beings larger than life. He used them as symbols rather than bearers of supposed psychological depth.

2. Join the Laugh Side


So to start on a high note and go out on a limb, let’s praise Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker – which brings out this approach to a tee.This icky, feral monster, smeared in peeling make-up, is the film’s centrepiece. Compared to Ledger, Jack Nicholson now seems a gurneying cabaret turn.

Super-villains tend to be more interesting than the straightlaced heroes. But this is the Joker’s film to the point where even the makers aren’t working very hard to pretend otherwise– some of the film posters feature only the Joker. “Ledger has a weird collection of tics and twitches, kinks and quirks” comments The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. Ironically, this is the sort of Hollywood ‘method acting’ that’s normally so irritating, assembling a bag of mannerisms and calling that a character. (Check out Meryl Streep in just about anything.) But it so happens for the Joker this is absolutely perfect.

Origins tend to take a special place in superhero films. Comics often saw them only as an excuse to get going. Films, conversely, fixate upon them. Partly this is for formal reasons. Unlike comics, films aren’t ongoing but are one-off events, and so require a starting point. But also, films often aspire to supply a psychological dimension missing from the flat paper. Characters in the comics just are, they’re described by their appearance. In film, as in the first rule of drama workshops, they always need a motivation. (In the comics, Batman himself waited six months to get given one.) In Batman Begins, Tim Burton’s Batman , or for that matter Spider-Man or Daredevil, their origins continue to define them through the films.

In the very inverse of the Batman from Begins, the Joker has no backstory. When he’s caught, he can’t even be pinned to a set of fingerprints. (Gordon grumbles “No matches on prints, DNA, dental... Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No name, no other alias.”) He taunts his victims with supposed origin stories, each a bedtime story tailored to terrify that victim the most. Taking his origin out is a powerful a statement as putting something in. As K-Punk points out “What Ledger does... is play the make-up... evacuating the Joker of all interiority, by refusing anything which would contain the Joker's wildness or compromise the autonomy of his facepainted persona.”

Partly as a consequence, you’re never quite sure how crazy he really is. One moment he’s looking like he can’t reach the end of his next sentence, the next he’s pulling off the most audacious masterplan. Is it all an act, calculated to induce fear? Or is he really limitlessly malevolent? It even feels possible he could be completely crazy and entirely calculating. This serves to keep the Joker unsettling and unknowable. You can neither reason with him nor even give in to what he wants – for you don’t even know what he wants.

Though he commits crimes, the Joker is entirely unmotivated by personal gain. When he ends up with the money, he does with it what he’d do with anything else – he burns it. As K-Punk comments “The Joker is free in the same way that the death drive is free: he acts with indifference to consequences, glorying instead in a kind of ungrounded unbinding of orderly causal sequences.” Hence the scene where he is brought in ‘dead’ for a mobster who’s taken a contract on him. Of course it’s a ruse, but the point is he’s unbound by mortal fears - he’s living as if already dead.

Yet despite his fully indulged pyromaniac tendencies, what he really loves to take apart is people. He sees the law and the mob equally as his opponents, and devises elaborate and sadistic schemes purely to disrupt their schemes. “The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon's got plans,” he complains. “You know, they're schemers. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I'm not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.... Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos.” The really scary thing about the Joker is that he thinks he’s doing what’s best for us. When he dresses as a Nurse, he’s administering us a short for what ails us – no matter how much it stings.

The Joker is what Rogan Taylor labelled a Demon Clown in his study of shamanism The Death and Resurrection Show. Demon Clowns, though themselves part of tribal societies, would recklessly disrupt the most sacred ceremonies and provocatively break the most deeprooted taboos. Taylor associated them with the immaterial underworld demons who tore apart the astral shaman. Both were about assaulting and stripping the psyche, reducing all that’s false and extraneous to leave us with what we’re really about. When we have all our illusions torn from us, how will we see the world then?

The character’s propensity for knives and (in one case) pencils comes in here as a counter-weight. He may be an agent of an abstract, but these serve to make him feel immediate and in your face, not some phantasm of boogeyman. He’s half-whispered-legend, half-feral monster.

But like all good updates on a theme, all this also harks back to the original Joker from 1940. To quote K-Punk again the film “manages a feat that is near impossible: it reinvents The Joker look whilst also maintaining fidelity to the comics.” His schemes are often the same as in his very first appearance, audaciously announcing his crimes in advance purely to trounce the authorities, declaring war on the criminals as well as the cops. The original, more dandyish Joker look may simply have come from being easier to draw than all those cracks in that make-up. (Wikipedia states the film’s also based on a more recent comic I haven’t read – The Long Halloween.)

3. The Two Faced Contagion



If it’s significant that one film poster features a solo Joker, it’s as significant that another manages to combine a signifier for himself and Batman. “You complete me”, the Joker tells pointy-head exultantly, professing them to be eternal forces who will “do this forever.” But it’s not just a matter of the laughing Joker against the scowling Bats. The one thing Batman Begins did get right was to find parallels between its heroes and villains. If we only see a contrast between them, we’re watching a fixed system, with no movement, no interplay. The Joker’s scheme to bring down Batman is not to kill him after all, but to make the two of them more alike. And in a sense they are alike, both operating outside of society to force their vision upon it. There is always the paradox that Batman does to criminals what they would do to their victims – terrify and intimidate them. He’s not big on due process. Batman’s chief differentiator from crime, that he doesn’t work for personal gain, is struck out here – neither does his adversary. The Joker would agree with Batman that criminals are superstitious and cowardly. He’d just say the same about everybody else.

But they are not the only parallels in town. Notably, Rick Norwood complains “every other character [bar the Joker] is one-dimensional... None have any of the complexity of real human beings. Even Harvey Dent {Two-Face] switches between all good and all bad at the flip of a coin.” This criticism isn't wrong, at least in the sense of being inaccurate. But it misses what the film is trying to do.

The characters are big and bold as primary colours, but we get our shades and patterns from watching their interplay.There’s a key scene where the camera circles Batman, Gordon and Dent on the police station rooftop. (A scene echoed in the film’s finale.) Dent is the sun to Batman’s moon, the public face of good. He’s endlessly referred to as “the shining light” or (still less subtly) “the white knight.” He will clean up Gotham by legal and public means, by rallying the people behind him. But Gordon contrasts the others too. He’s more anonymous than the crusading Dent, low-key and pragmatic. While Dent wants to focus on cleaning up the Police Department, Gordon would rather see it imperfect but functioning. At one point Gordon ‘dies’ to go undercover. Meanwhile Dent publicly takes the rap for something he didn’t do, to a roomful of flashbulbs.

Moreover, characters are often contrasts with themselves. This is most obvious in Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two Face, but is also true for Batman. Of course, we know that, ike Dent, he wears two faces. But here, when Bruce Wayne, he’s given to talk about Batman in the third person. There’s a repeated scene where he faces his Batsuit on a stand, as if it were somebody else.



To get here, something of a leap is made. After a film which concentrated entirely on Batman’s origin, it’s never mentioned here at all. This isn’t akin to the Joker’s tauntingly with-held backstory, this film is a continuation and we assume it’s there. But it is pushed into the background, and for a solid reason. When Wikipedia claim “a main component that defines Batman as a character is his origin story” we might quibble about those first six months, but when they add “Batman is...driven to fight crime” it seems unarguable.
However, a major plot element rests upon the conceit that Bruce Wayne is not similarly driven. He imagines that Gotham will one day be cleaned up, at which point he can retire Batman and marry his fiancee. Wayne’s will for this can even make Batman more fanatical, more intent upon his mission.

All of which are smart ideas... which don’t quite come off. Dark Knight is part explosive action film and part cop thriller, and manages this join. It’s also part slam-bang superhero story and part polyphonic psychodrama...and here it gets itself into more trouble.

Which isn’t to say such a thing couldn’t work. But transcending genre conventions is like transcending the rules of grammar. You have to understand those rules before you can go breaking them, or the results become messy and incomprehensible. Here the whole three-way thing tends to vie with Batman as the titular hero. It’s not that genre has limits which preclude anything morally ambiguous happening. It’s that its conventions stack so high that we need it telegraphed when something morally ambiguous is incoming. Perhaps his bat-vices need to be more telegraphed, like the Dalek episode of Doctor Who.

And it doesn’t help that the Joker’s star shines so brightly no-one else really competes. Batman has unfortunately come across as something of a stiff in all his films. He doesn’t look action-figure ready, he looks like he’s already the action figure. What can be rendered sinewy on paper merely looks blocky and lumpen on screen. They implicitly acknowledge this during the film and give the costume a redesign, to ill effect. Batman looks great as a shadowy figure, hovering on the corner of events. But when the spotlight falls on him he looks uninteresting.

Neither can Two Face match the Joker for villainy. His make-up, the very thing that so sells the Joker, seems something of a mash-up - like they couldn’t quite decide whether to make him frightening or cartoony. This is never more evident in the um... eccentric decision to leave the Joker out of the finale. You realize at that point that the whole emotional triangle only really works as a supporting act. Asked to carry the show, it limps home. Bereft of the Joker, none of the film’s other themes really adhere. They’re just.... you know... plans.

4.Torture Porn For Neo Cons?


Perhaps as a measure of the way we’re supposed to take this sort of stuff seriously nowadays, the political ramifications of this film seem to have sent the hens a-clutter. Some liberal commentators have seen in it a dangerously right-wing agenda, such as Spencer Ackerman’s review ‘Dark Knight Reflects Cheney Policy’:

"The Dark Knight" weighs in strongly on the side of the Bush administration. Confronting the Joker, a nihilistic enemy whose motives are both unexplained and beside the point, the Batman faces his biggest dilemma yet: whether to abuse his power in order to save Gotham City.”

Needless to say, Conservative sites have been lining up in agreement, such as SouthCon:

“Chris Nolan's Batman is basically Dick Cheney, forty years younger, in a black ninja suit. How cool is that?”

(Meanwhile, check out the mailing comments here)

Of course as I noted in my Spider-Man 2 review (from Lucid Frenzy’s Olde Printe Days), this partly just par for the course. Superheroes are big broad symbols, not tight and focused ones. We imagine what lies under the mask, and we imagine what we want to see. Picture a superhero appearing in an editorial cartoon, and you already picture him getting cramped and diminished, pinned to a position. And, as with Spider-Man 2, just because someone’s interpreted a film doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re right. The Neo Cons were presumably busy counting up all their foreign policy victories all the times the Joker manipulates his enemies into torture, including the occasion this leads directly to his escape. This is clearly not built to be a pro-Cheney treatise.

Nevertheless, the liberal critics are tapping into something, for there is something problematic going on here. Ultimately, Dark Knight trips over its own genre roots and fails to reach anything a genuine anti-conservatism would entail. Part of the problem is putting the larger-than-life characters in a ‘realistic’ (please note inverted commas) city setting. There’s a gulf between the main characters and the troubled populace which cuts as deep as any Shakespeare. The vigilante Bat-men seem to be there purely to make it clear we should be cheering his Bat-deeds rather than aping them – don’t try this one at home, kids. K-Punk is correct to dismiss the Neo-Con reading, but still see in this the shadow of Leo Strauss and his “noble lies and deadly truths” doctrine. Perhaps the conceit is that these main characters decide to give the populace what they consider them to need, but then just morph into their own roles.

The classic example of this is what everyone is calling the Deux ex Nokia finale. Batman’s collective eavesdropping on all the City’s mobile phone conversations is a brick-subtle analogy of the infamous Patriot Act. It’s openly questioned within the film, by the Bat-sidekick Lucius Fox. However, we also seem supposed to associate it with an earlier conversation about Caesar. With the barbarians at the gates of Rome, the populace decide to grant Caesar absolute but temporary power. Except... surprise!.. when its time for Caesar to give up these powers he seems less than keen to. But why is this analogy raised? Is it all a red herring? For having won his battle Batman merely torches his own device. Is his sheer ‘goodness’ supposed to stem from the fact that, if he can’t hang up his cape, at least he’s always wanting to? Or is it, as seems equally likely, that he’s our hero so is ipso facto untempted by such apples? It’s like Frodo slips the Ring on anyway, luckily finds there to be no adverse results and everybody can just go home. As an answer to the problem of granting others supreme power it isn’t one.

Superhero films do not naturally offer us the concept of collective responsibility. The one time the populace do rise above the status of a bewildered herd is in the twin boat/prisoner’s dilemma scene. Here they are only partly rescued by Batman, and they do much to resolve the situation themselves. However, it should be noted that the implications raised are themselves literally anti-social. Society is merely a kind of mob, inside which we feel safe to bay for blood. Everyone votes for the other boat to be blown up over theirs, but when asked as an individual to be the one to press the button we then assume responsibility. But even granting this conservatism, the scene rings false. You’re simply not convinced they would have acted the way they did, either in reality or the world the film has conjured up. Like the scene in the first Spider-Man where the crowd turn on the Goblin, you can’t help but feel the makers baulked at the implications of their own logic and bottled it.

In some ways this scene feels a microcosm of the film. The whole structure can’t withstand the presence the Demon Clown it itself releases, he corrodes what it is trying to create. If all we have to hold us together is these noble lies, this mask of bogus heroism, isn’t he the one actually telling us the truth? Isn’t his shock therapy actually setting us free after all, while Batman merely offers us the blue pill? The film can never quite raise itself up above its own genre conventions, indeed it often seems to fail to understand them, so is riddled with fault-lies for him to exploit.

Of course you can argue this doesn’t matter much. With the twin boat scene as perhaps a glaring exception, and unlike the characterisation problems raised earlier, none of this is likely to disrupt our ride too much. These are politico-philosophical questions that might not occur to too many popcorn-munchers. And as Savanaroloa puts it, commenting to K-Punk’s Bat Mailbag: “The real political ‘problem’ with the film...is also a political insight... It is a sign of the times that the people is simply a fickle opinionated multitude (with) never a collective in sight.” A film can be more expected to encapsulate its era than fix it. In which case it is only too appropriate for the poster to be given over to the Joker.