Saturday, 30 January 2016

“CONDEMNED TO BE FREE”: JEAN-PAUL SARTRE'S 'THE AGE OF REASON'


”He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good nor Evil unless he brought them into being... He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned for ever to be free.”

'The Age of Reason' was an early novel by Jean-Paul Sartre, first published just after the Second World War, and described as “a fictional reprise of some of the main themes in his major philosophical study 'Being and Nothingness'”. It's the first part of a trilogy commonly dubbed 'The Road of Freedom', though I'm yet to read the later books.

The way Sartre structures the novel may be as important as its contents. We're plunged into events. Though the plot is precipitated by Mathieu being told by his lover Marcelle of her unintended pregnancy almost all the characters have already met before the book starts. And yet at the very beginning Mathieu encounters a stranger on the street. It might seem mere context-setting or even extraneous, but in fact its things starting as they're meant to go on. Here “met before” or even “are involved” doesn't equate to “know one another”. Relations come less advanced than ready-entangled. When a waiter tries to second-guess Daniel's drinks order, provoking a flash of temper, its virtually the whole thing in microcosm. Characters who presume to know one another are merely projecting their own prejudices.

Hence the novel's a series of dialogues. Sartre becomes a serial monogamist of narrative perspective, switching from the viewpoint of one character in one chapter to their being framed by the viewpoint of another in the next. One of the few times three characters are present the situation quickly becomes awkward and one has to leave. Two already being a crowd, three becomes an unbearable cacophony. The nightclub scene, occurring two-thirds through is as fulsomely foreshowed as the shootout in 'High Noon', and comes as thick with conflict. (“There will be bloodshed”, predicts Matthieu, prophetically enough.)

While all this might sound fearfully Modernist, concerned with the inner life, the novel also follows the dramatic unities as faithfully as any classical play. It a clock strikes two in one chapter, you can be sure there'll be another one hitting three in the next. It finds it impossible to be in two places at once, any more than it's possible to be in two heads at once. Events are often reported to us, as if we were with others elsewhere. It then takes this fixed time period and sets it against a ticking clock - the only competent abortionist for Marcelle is shortly leaving France, leaving Mathieu scrabbling to raise the cash for his fee. 

As if that’s not enough a subplot then sets off a second clock, Ivich must pass an exam if she is to stay in Paris. And yet this race against time is frequently interrupted by digressions – visits to art exhibitions, nights out at clubs, debates over politics. However, what sounds screwy actually works to the novel’s advantage – the characters do inhabit this world, a strange mix of urgency and drift, of significance and inconsequence.

Political commitment prowls the book, as if looking for a way in, without ever succeeding. (A sense intensified by the copy I read being literally wrapped in Picasso's 'Guernica', see illo.) The stranger that Matthieu meets at the beginning hands him a stamp printed by the anarchists in Spain. Yet asked if he wants to go and fight there, he replies “yes, but not enough”. One character who has taken up the fight is conspicuous by his absence throughout, thought of but never seen, as if taking up a different role in a different book.


Yet, even if these events were recent history, Sartre's including them is a choice. Though begun in '38, he could have as easily made the setting either the peaceful Twenties or post-war Paris. But he prefers the period where to fight in Spain was a choice - it involved getting up and crossing a border. Once France became occupied, choice was less on the agenda.

Characters in fiction often have an internal life as a consequence of their eternal actions. Heroes need to think noble thoughts that they might perform heroic deeds, and so on. Here it's almost precisely the reverse, the external is almost a function of the internal. Both big and small decisions attach to themselves an intensity, as if their primary function is to define the self. Actions are at root gestures, attached not to a purpose but a statement. We see, for example, Daniel debating with himself whether to shave around a pimple or lop it off. But it's perhaps at its clearest in Boris's shoplifting escapades:

“He had drawn no profit from his enterprises: he attached no importance to possessing seventeen tooth-brushes, some twenty ash-trays, a compass, a poker and a darning-mushroom. What he took into consideration in each case was the technical difficulty... The benefit of the theft was entirely moral... it was a test of character. And there was indeed a delicious moment when you said to yourself: I shall count up to five, and at five the tooth-brush must be in my pocket: you caught your breath and and were conscious of an extraordinary sensation of clarity and power.”

And this is set up in pointed contrast to the war in Spain. When Matthieu and lvich deliberately cut their palms in the nightclub scene, we can't forget they could at that moment be firing at Francoists. Characters are often presented as at the mercy of their own idle whims, particularly the compulsive and child-like Ivich with her capricious changes of mood.

And if that seems a rather adolescent perspective on the world, its probably intended to be. Age is a feature of the novel. It’s full of characters who are older than they look, doing things others are telling them they should have grown out of by now. With its fetishisation of the self, there’s no denying it is really quite adolescent. With the era evoked so vividly, the temptation is to read the title as a reference to it, like a variant on “the jazz age”. In fact like everything else its individualised, to do with the ages in Matthieu's life. The age of reason is what he's stumbling towards.

But to critique the novel from this perspective is not only too easy, it seems to miss the point. There’s no particular attempt to dress the characters up as sympathetic, in fact pretty much everybody commits some slapable action at some point. But its less that the novel is told through unsympathetic characters than it creates such characters as a form of self-critique. The choice of the pregnancy plot-line is surely embarked on to enforce on Mathieu that he now needs to take up a man's responsibilities, that his only other choice is that of an utter bastard. When Mathieu's brother Jacques tells him that he's merely living the life of a perpetual student...

”you condemn capitalist society, and yet you are an official in that society; you display an abstract sympathy with Communists, but you take care not to commit yourself, you have never voted. You despise the bourgeois class, and yet you are bourgeois, son and brother of a bourgeois, and you live like a bourgeois.”

...its a rare scene where one character's perception of another has traction. In fact Jacques isn't really much of a character, he seems inserted specifically to say those lines. Mathieu protests, but goes away reflecting “I'm a grown-up child”.

However, if we don't require a novel to be stuffed with sympathetic audience identification figures, Sartre does come close to countenancing their actions through his own inaction. Perhaps we're not likely to get all that worked up over Boris nicking the odd toothbrush. But anyone looking for a work that's politically progressive would be lining themselves up for disappointment. There isn't really much getting round this being a novel about abortion and a man's right to choose. Marcelle's pregnancy is really there to catalyse Mathieu's existential crisis; if he all but ignores how she feels about it, then the novel doesn't do much better. Daniel's sadism may stem from his being gay in a homophobic era, having internalised society's loathing of his sexuality he's forever trying to displace it on others. (At one point he hits a gay cruising spot purely to scupper others' pick-ups.) But when the only other gay characters are sleazy low-lives, its unclear whether we're supposed to see this as a social problem or an inescapable fact of the gay mind.

And things get worse with the more incidental characters. Though the abortionist has a name, he is mostly referred to merely as “the Jew”. He never appears but then we don’t need him described to know what he looks like - the over-familiar grasping Fagan stereotype. (Its bizarre to think Sartre may simultaneously have been at work on his critique of anti-semitism, ‘Anti-Semite and Jew’, 1946). Meanwhile 'negroes' hang around the periphery of scenes, emitting jazz, producing literal and metaphorical colour in equal measure. Perhaps trying to disentangle author form characters may be the wrong thing altogether, as some have seen strong autobiographical elements in the novel.

Yet when Sartre said “my intention was to write a novel about freedom,” from that decision these became the characters he needed. Not because they are free or unfree, but because they are the only ones to have any hope of freedom. For there is an upside to youth, for all their fixations with their pimples. Their moulds are not yet set, they still have potential. Perceiving society to be an outside force exerting its gravity upon you is wrongheaded but can grant perspective. It’s like striding boldly out of your home town, climbing a hill and looking down on it. It takes effort and you’re probably just going to go back home at the end of it. But at the same time it shows things from a different perspective, however temporarily. As Sartre himself said “only the guy who isn’t rowing has the time to rock the boat”.

And this is particularly true for Sartre's definition of freedom - a very particular one, meaning something like “unattached”. Freedom to choose is spent as soon as you've chosen, so you must keep yourself in a kind of stasis. Freedom for Mathieu is defined as staying in a hotel room, with the possibility always open of moving to another. And marriage to Marcelle is defined as having a permanent address, a place in society, a fixed point to the world. Should he ever move into that flat, to leave it again would merely be stretching a chain that cannot be broken. (You can read some of this, perhaps the novel's most famous passage, here.)

Its notable that he refers to his freedom in terms of association with objects. When he feels free the objects in his flat are “no longer his accomplices” but “anonymous objects... mere utensils”. For objects are always taking on some approximation of life. When he is first told by Marcelle of her pregnancy “the lamp, the mirror with its leaders reflections, the clock on the mantlepiece, the armchair, the half-opened wardrobe, suddenly appeared to him like pitiless mechanisms, adrift and pursuing their tenuous existences in the void, rigidly insistent, like the underside of a gramophone record obstinately grinding out its tune. Matthieu shook himself, but could not detach himself from that sinister, raucous world.” While people, for their part, are frequently compared to objects. (“They have lives. All of them. Lives that reach through the walls of the dancing-hall, along the streets of Paris, across France, they interlace and intersect, and they remain as vigorously personal as a tooth-brush, a razor, and toilet objects that are never loaned.”)

Freedom for Mathieu involves grappling with his bad faith - Sartre's term for the pretence we lack free will, the passive acceptance of our social roles. Accept that domestic life and you may as well be a furnishing. Struggle against it and people must become discrete, separate. Freedom is a function of separation, hence Sartre's recurrent conjoining of “free and alone”. To pursue our freedom we must by necessity instrumentalise others, effectively turn them into objects. We are the objects in each other's lives, capable of offering function but at the same time risking associations. Matthieu states boldly “I recognise no allegiance except to myself.” (This may have worked more powerfully in Sartre's era, when very few objects were disposable and many were held as heirlooms. Objects would more readily have taken on associations for them than for us.)

Yet at least to my mind this borders on conceiving freedom as a kind of quarantine from social contact, or at least meaningful social contact. Which was refuted long before Sartre was born, by the poet John Donne in ‘Meditation XVII’:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man
Is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”

Marx went on to elaborate the point. Freedom “is not possible without the community. Only in community with others has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible…. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.” Others don’t restrict your freedom. They enable it.

The self does lie outside the world, then come up against a social context like a fiery comet getting caught in its orbit. It’s quite the opposite, the self is a social construct to begin with. Had we been brought up by apes or wolves in a world of apes and wolves, it seems likely we would behave more like apes and wolves than we do now. Sartre himself famously said existence precedes essence, but he never really took his own argument all the way.

Danny S Byrne has warned that “the ‘philosophical novel’ always walks a perilous tightrope between fiction and argument, and there are undoubtedly times in 'The Age of Reason' when the characters’ status as pawns on Sartre’s dialectical chessboard – each an embodiment of an idea, their every action, thought and gesture driven by a predetermined logic – threatens to rip the fictional fabric of the novel apart at the seams.”

Well, others are welcome to head straight to the horse's mouth of 'Being And Nothingness' should they choose. But I think the opposite. This novel seems to me the more palatable way to take Sartre, through dialogue and description rather than dense jargon-peppered prose. Reading the novel forearmed by his philosophical treatises probably gives you the key to the colour scheme before its filled in, and when you know how it will all shape up you start to wish it could just get there.

Furthermore, Sartre may well have been a skilled writer but the work's effectiveness is due to more than that. What doesn't necessarily convince as a social philosophy may work well as an organising principle of a novel. Characters are not only driven but built to inscribe their every action, even shaving off a pimple, with the most heightened significance. Characters who bump into one another and spark, generating reactions like Newtonian particles. Irrespective of whether Freudianism seems valid or correct, I naturally distinguish between Freud and Hollywood Freud. I'm not sure I do the same with Existentialism. Ultimately, its tempting to see it more as an artistic than a philosophical movement, and one laid out in this novel.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

FROM SPLENDID ISOLATION: DAVID BOWIE’S ‘STATION TO STATION’

Okay, 'Bowie still dead' may not seem an obvious news item. But its still hard to think of much else. So here's something about one of my favourite tracks of his...


”It's too late to be late again
”It's too late to be hateful
”The European canon is here”

Picture this... an album that acts as a transition between two seemingly incompatible styles, laid down quickly by a singer so strung out he later couldn't even remember anything involved. Actually, scratch that... it’s not so much in transition as occupying a kind of schizoid state, it’s rigidly black-and-white colour scheme as indicative as the jagged stripe of the now-iconic ‘Aladdin Sane’ cover.

Not, perhaps, the most promising of starts...

Bowie recorded ‘Station to Station’ late in 1975, between the Philadelphia Soul of ‘Young Americans’ and the Krautrock-influenced “Berlin trilogy” of ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’. The title suggests some kind of transference between the two places; and indeed, shortly after it was made Bowie abandoned Los Angeles for Europe. However, the album rarely bridges those styles, it mostly alternates between them – the white-boy funk of ‘Golden Years’, ‘TVC 15’ and ‘Stay’, American as eggs over easy, intercut with the Europe-inclined ‘Word On A Wing’ and the Nina Simone cover ‘Wild Is the Wind’.

Yet with the opening, title track the trains collide head-on. And “collide” is the operative word; at over ten minutes, twice the length of most of the other numbers, its construction is basically the two styles, the American and the European, crashing into one another. Surely this becomes the point where the centre cannot hold and all this falls apart? The point where the drug-addled, has-been star finally crashes and sinks somewhere mid-Atlantic.

But its the opposite. By bringing together white and black, it gives the album it's key, rending the rest of it (kind of) comprehensible. More than that, it creates one of Bowie’s finest tracks. As Benjamin Aspray has commented at PopMatters: “If Station to Station’ boils a career down to an album, then ‘Station to Station’ boils an album down to a song.” From hereon in, we can focus on this track alone and miss almost nothing.


Though joined only at the edges, the two sections oppose and mirror one other. In the lyrics you can almost match the antonyms off like a game of anti-snap; “lost in my circle” versus “I must become one in a million”; “dredging the oceans” versus “mountains on mountains”; and (most prosaic-sounding, but actually most important of all), “here am I” versus “here are we”.

This album is held to herald Bowie’s Krautrock era, and he said himself “’Low’
and its siblings were a direct follow-on from the title track”. Indeed, once in Berlin, Bowie would hang out with Harmonia until he'd absorbed their influence wholesale. But that came later... While still in LA, the yet-unseen Berlin came from films and other received images. As exmplified by the name of a predecessor band to Harmonia, Neu!, Krautrock took as its mission to break all connections with what had gone before. The emphasis here is all on the past - on German Expressionism, or the ‘Cabaret’ shtick of decadent Weimar. (That stark black-and-white aesthetic, for example, came from Expressionist cinema, to which he'd become almost as addicted as the drugs.) While once he'd mythologised America from Europe, now it's the reverse, and that past being his past just makes the images shine brighter:

”Once there were mountains on mountains
”And once there were sun-birds to soar with
”And once I could never be down”

It also revived Bowie’s earlier interest in the pre-rock world of chanson and cabaret music, which had already run to the extent of covering Jacques Brel and Kurl Weill songs. Hence the reference to “the European canon”, a classical term which seems strangely archaic applied to modern music. (Some internet discussion boards struggle valiantly to explain why cannons are suddenly being fired.)

The style is measured and almost intonatory, sounding almost restrained when set against the orgiastic excess of rock music. Though no more repetitive than most other kinds of popular music, its downtempo beat and lack of release makes it feel repetitive - glowering and oppressive, as if the music is stalking you.

When words are set to this, the result is imagery that accumulates rather than progresses; “here am I, flashing no colour, tall in this room overlooking the ocean”. Images are clipped and precise, too composed to sound like a rock song, too stark to sound like poetry. They build into the picture of a solitary figure, trapped within its own grandeur, a prisoner of his own device.

Then, just as you think the song must surely be over, it bursts into the euphoric funky soul of the final section, a juxtaposition about as arresting as seeing a statue suddenly break into dance. Live clips of the time show a stage sparsely lit, which then explodes with brightness as it reaches this half-way point. The words lose their composure and take on the rush of conversation – “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love” is less Brechtian bon mot and more like something you might have burbled in your ear at a nightclub.

And the two sections combine into something so much more than the sum of their parts. Like a sweet and sour, each taste is richer through being juxtaposed with the other. Some call it transitional, some call it completely unique in Bowie’s repertoire. Some call it commercial and some experimental. Quite often, the same people call it all those things at the very same time...

It’s often a few listens in before you realise, in a perfect irony, the words to the two halves are effectively swapped – like an exchange of prisoners. It’s the stark ‘European’ section in which Bowie describes his situation in LA, then its the funk which arrives to announce “the European canon is here!”

Indeed, for much of the first half, Bowie is simply reporting the facts of his life in LA. He really did live alone in a big house overlooking the ocean. Heavy cocaine use had driven him to a state of near-complete psychosis and paranoia. (One of his delusions being that witches were breaking in to steal his urine. Or, according to others, his semen. Perhaps the witches weren't that choosy.)

The key to the song is perhaps in the opening line (and original title) “the return of the Thin White Duke”. This was of course Bowie’s latest character, to replace and supplant Ziggy and Major Tom. But this is the first we have heard of him - how can he be returning? In the sense of coming around, rejoining the world, escaping the prison his life in LA had become.


Bowie was at the time obsessed with occultism, and the line “from Kether to Malkuth” relates to sephiroths (to you and me, points) on the Kaballic tree of life. (He can be seen sketching this out on the original back cover.) Kether, which translates to ‘Crown’, is the apex of Kaballa, the divine essence transcending the merely human - just as the crown goes above the head. Malkuth means ‘Kingdom’ and occupies the base of the tree; relating to matter or Earth. It’s the only sephiroth held to not directly emanate from God.

Yet in which direction is this “magical movement”? The Kaballa is based on the expectation the adherent will attempt to climb the tree, in the quest for divinity. Bowie is doing it the other way around, reversing down a one-way street, descending to Malkuth. This is the inverse of what he sung about in ‘Space Oddity’ – the journey of a man back from beyond, into the arms of ground control. Live,he would often accompany the line with a downward hand movement. “I must be only one in a million” means “I must become only one in a million” – end my splendid isolation.

And what’s bringing him back is the power of love – but love in a strangely pure sense. Love songs tend to be descriptive (“and then she kissed me”) or seductive (“love, love me do”). But when Bowie sings “I won’t let the day pass without her” there’s one slight snag - as yet, there’s no actual herLike Berlin, she’s a creation of his imagination he’s hoping will manifest itself. Still stuck up the Kaballic tree, he is only able to conceive of the Earth he wants to rejoin. He wonders “who will connect me with love?”, as if love comes before the lover - a mental state which then needs a physical person to connect to, like lightning aiming at a rod. (Ironically, in telephony a station-to-station call is one where “the caller is willing to talk to anyone who answers”.)

Bowie is tapping into an ancient idea of art, that it is not a device for recording events but an act of sympathetic magic which aims to change the life of the artist. (“Such is the stuff from which dreams are woven.”) He is singing not to any lover, hoping to enchant them. The Thin White Duke is throwing darts in his own eyes. He hopes to reacquaint himself with love, to emerge from his drug-induced stupor, simply by singing about himself as a lover, inventing a character which he can them inhabit. (Compare to ‘Soul Love’, “all I have is my love of love.”)

Bowie once wrote a song called ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’. We tend to want rock stars to follow the road of excess, crash their cars and generally sacrifice themselves, become beautiful corpses to look good on our posters. It’s a salacious tabloid desire, to see them burn up for our entertainment, so we might feel a bit better about sticking with our moribund day jobs. Yet what if they pass through that road of excess, make it out the other side? Even in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, death is ultimately rejected.

‘Station to Station’ came out of a direct and personal need, a missing person notice written about it's own author, a spell cast over himself that might lead to his return. That urgency, that compulsion, is a large part of its appeal. Yet if it’s a spell he wrote for himself, it’s not a spell that need just be applied to himself. It’s quite genuinely life-affirming. I have never, you understand, found myself trapped in a big house overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a life of coke-addled paranoia. Witches are not, to the best of my knowledge, after my semen. But I like the idea that, were I ever in such a place, there’s a magic spell waiting to free me.

Let's drink to the men who protect you and I.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

“THE SONG WENT ON FOREVER”: RIP DAVID BOWIE


I can vividly recall seeing David Bowie on 'Top of the Pops' for the first time. As he sang 'Starman', he put his arm around Mick Ronson and pointed out of the telly straight at...

...no, actually that wasn't it at all. It was 1979 and it was 'Boys Keep Swinging'. At which point I had absolutely no idea who he was. The track sounding vaguely new wavey, I probably assumed it was a debut single. Yet it was not the music but the video which so beset my young mind.

While in Berlin he'd often gone to see drag queens, and been taken by the way they'd 'break out' at the end of their act, sweeping off their wigs and smearing away their make-up. So he made a video which went like that.

I don't think I even got it was the same guy each time. But then I didn't get much. Were these the “poofters” which playground bullies accused you of being before shoving you, but of who no-one else seemed keen to speak? But then they were singing jubilantly about being a boy, while pulling off all that stuff. But then they were wearing it in the first place... It seemed impossible to parse. Besides, are they actually allowed to broadcast this? And why isn't my Dad slamming off the telly in a fit of rage, like he normally is? This is all really strange.


'Scary Monsters' was only a year later. But a year's a long time at that age. And that was my Bowie album, the one that happened for me in real time, the one through which I found out who Bowie was. The impact of the video of 'Ashes To Ashes' and the others was immense, but that's been covered enough elsewhere. And besides this time the music mattered too. And 'Ashes To Ashes', despite its hit status, was atypical of the irreverent playfulness of the album. It seemed thrown together with cavalier disregard for the way music had always been made, with Bowie intoning “beep beep” over the top like Road Runner. It still made no sense. Songs came with sense-defying titles like 'Up the Hill Backwards'. Was 'Fashion' a critique or celebration of the fashion industry? Beep beep. But what had been befuddling now felt beguiling. Somehow, it made my sort of no sense.

But if one year was a long time, then try three...


By 'Let's Dance' Bowie was performing dance music in big suits and arenas. He played the nearby and newly opened Milton Keynes Bowl, and many of my schoolmates went. If I say I tried to stop them I'm not really exaggerating. The fervour with which I reviled and denounced it all seems somewhat ludicrous looking back. Martin Luther had a softer reaction to Papal indulgences. The night of that gig, I'm sure I must have placed myself in a chair and deliberately not gone.

(Besides, what was to follow suggested I should really have held onto my ire. 'Tonight' made 'Let's Dance' sound a whole lot better in retrospect. In the Seventies Bowie had used music as a bridgehead for everything he wanted to do. By the Eighties it had become a day job he was stuck with. He later called the period a “netherworld of commercial acceptance”.)

But however absurd and self-righteous I was being, isn't that what popular music is for? Not chin-stroking connoisseurship but the chance to assert your own identity via the positive and negative reflections of album covers?

And Bowie knew that more than most. Even if I wasn't in the first audience for 'Starman', even if I didn't get the full force of the thing, I got enough of a deflected blow to get it. Bowie wasn't doing it for you, like a car-crashing rock star you could live through vicariously. (Even if he did all that too.) He was doing it so you could too. You didn't have to be the person everyone had always told you that you were. You could create your own self and then inhabit it. When I asked my workmates for their favourite Bowie era everyone said their era. Even when that meant dates in the Eighties or early Nineties. Which is crazy talk. But only if you're doing it by assessing the music.

That's why it was so fitting his best-of album was called 'Changesonebowie', particularly the audacious use of “one”. That's why the standard press reaction of asking everyone their favourite track doesn't cover it. That's why the cliché of his being a “musical chameleon”, trotted back out so many times in recent days by know-nothings, is so inadequate. Bowie was a musical shaman. The changes were the crux of the thing. He didn't just change, he represented change. As he sang, “I could make a transformation as a rock 'n' roll star”.



Coming soon: More Bowie stuff. What else?

Friday, 8 January 2016

“CALLS CUT OFF”: ANOTHER SPOTIFY PLAYLIST


It's been a while since we had a Spotify playlist around here. This offering starts off with some seasonal winter wine served up by laid-back Canterbury-dwellers Caravan, but be warned things don't stay chilled for long.

You'll encounter along the way the soaring organ of Brighton's own Electrelane, Bob Dylan getting dissy (hard to believe I know), Sun Kil Moon ruminating on how it feels to have outlive death, GZA dropping the G-word and Rydell chronicling how easily Saturday night hedonism slips into outright nihilism – plus more!

Caravan: Winter Wine
The Fugs: The Garden Is Open (Album Version)
Electrelane: Many Peaks
Richard Thompson: Stumble On
Gomez: In Our Gun
Gorillaz: Tomorrow Comes Today
Bob Dylan & the Band: Dirge
Sun Kil Moon: Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes
Tricky: Tear Out My Eyes
GZA: Swordsman
Swans: My Birth
Melvins: Joan Of Arc
Hey Colossus: Numbed Out
The Pop Group: Sense of Purpose
Paul Weller: Brushed
Rydell: Ghost Culture

”Faces from your past
Flashing backwards
Do they still call you?
Calls cut off
Now you have no basis
In other people
Your life is weightless"

Saturday, 2 January 2016

'NO BREAD BUT CIRCUSES': NOT A PROPER REVIEW AT ALL OF THE HUNGER GAMES FILMS

...which still manages to include what are technically PLOT SPOILERS


The Hunger Games film series have been much spilt over by ink, with comparisons to the Occupy movement, references to the arrests of Thais who took up the three-fingered rebel salute and so on. Which suggests they weren't just successful but struck a chord. Much like the Lord of the Rings series, showings of the sequels would repeatedly be preceded by ever-multiplying trailers for copycat films, with titles like 'Skipped Lunch Furore'

On another front others have complained they lacked originality. In particular, it's been claimed they're a knock off of 'Battle Royale' (2000). But this overlooks that zeitgeisty dramas are likely to overlap, if they're sourcing from the same real-world events. It also overlooks the similarly themed films from that great era for SF dystopias, the early Seventies. And in fact the distinction between the two films occurred then. 'Battle Royale' is the inheritor of 'Punishment Park' (1971), merely swapping young delinquents for political rebels. While the Hunger Games films take up from 'Rollerball' (1975). In both a gladiatorial snuff sport takes place inside a techno-Colosseum, all designed to keep the masses quiet. In both the wrong winner just keeps winning, until the games become less a safety value for a passive public and more a lightning rod for dissent.

But the real current the films plug into is much more recent. Of course, its reality TV. We've reached the point where touchy-feely TV interviews co-existing with slaughter doesn't feel satirical, it feels incisive. The success of the films lies in their exposing something innate to reality TV, even if they do it by exaggeration. Its function is to appear a bubble environment, distinct from our workaday world. After all, by its nature its unscripted. No-one knows how it will work out. How can it possibly have an agenda? And this is precisely the root of its effectiveness. What's presented as something separate from is in actuality a microcosm of our society. As Haymitch says to Katniss “your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are”.

And what reality TV really stands for is the market. Like the market all appears natural. The combating 'tributes' battle one another in a forest, seemingly following the law of the jungle. Yet the environment is not only artificial, preserved under a dome, it's manipulated throughout by unseen hands. When Katniss tries to wait the contest out, a forest fire is conjured up to push her back in the fray. (To complete the circle, a South Korean reality TV show was even called ‘Law of the Jungle’.) Like the market, the tributes have no real choice about participating – someone will be made to go. Yet like the market everyone joins in the pretence that they're taking part voluntarily, and are even looking forward to the whole kill-or-be-killed business. Because they need to, to stand any chance of winning.

Which leads us to the most important point of all. In an advance on 'Rollerball' its not all about being skilled, having a particular knack for staying alive yourself while doing the opposite to other people. At Katniss is told, your main survival skill is getting the audience to like you. Because shows such as 'Big Brother' presumes the prime commodity you trade in is no longer your labour power but you - you present that personality in competition with your peer group. Take for example this article by Tom Peters: “Starting today you are a brand. You're every bit as much of a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi or the Body Shop... [your] most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”

In short, it's a war of each against all, where the winners are already predetermined because they've made themselves the judges. This is why the bravura scene is so effective when Katniss' arrow brings down the dome that houses the Games, revealing the mechanism beneath. (Visually compared to firing straight at Snow himself.)


(Which leads to the irony that at the same time she's forced to play-act for the audience the Games do genuinely socialise Katniss. She starts the film as almost a feral creature, with no father and a remote mother - pretty much a stranger in her home territory. Almost her first line is the threat to cook a cat, while she seriously considers sneaking off to live in the woods. We'd probably look at that more if this was a proper review.)

Based on teen lit books, there's also a focus on the sacrificial nature of youth. While everyone has focused on the similarities to 'Battle Royale', they have much in common with 'Cabin In the Woods' (2012). In both, teens are put into a situation of combined voyeurism and life-threatening danger, in an apparent natural environment which is ceaselessly manipulated to pull their strings. In both this is a longstanding ritual, used to keep the unspoken at bay. The panopticon is all-seeing but iconoclastic, it has no space for anything but young faces. Its a world based around the cult of youth. But its that same cult of youth which eats youth up.

But most significantly, particularly for a modern American film, is the evocation of class. Without this, there'd be less comparisons made to Occupy and it's 99% vs. 1% narrative. Its not only a world where people sell their labour power, its a world where the many labour to keep the few in comfort. As Peeta says “our lives were never ours”. Anyone who objects will come face-to-face with a ruthless police force. Author of the source novels, Suzanne Collins has said she came up with the concept by putting together reality TV with the Iraq war. Which in many ways was America sending its young and its poor off into a TV spectacle. (This reaches its literalisation in the scene in the final film, where the IED unleashes a deluge of oil which nearly drowns Katniss and her team.)

Perhaps what's most significant is how anything like this is generally so absent from mainstream culture – not that it is here but that it isn't almost anywhere else. At the same time as class differences have exacerbated, the subject has disappeared from stage and screen. Dramas can evoke a form of anti-capitalism, but this is normally posed as a kind of individualised, subjective rejection of capitalism. Which of course is absurd and self-contradictory. It reduces anti-capitalism to anti-consumerism then makes anti-consumerism into a consumer choice. It presumes we're “free agents”, abstracted individuals at liberty to create our own association with the world, which is a fundamental supposition of capitalist mythology in the first place.

Whereas Katiss' situation stems largely from her social position. She resists not to express herself but for her and her sister's survival, no separation between want and need. She at first resists individually, but largely through force of circumstance starts to work collectively. (“Katniss, remember who the real enemy is” - that's actually pretty good advice.) Because you can't choose your way out of the Games. The dome needs to be smashed. That probably shouldn't seem unusual, but it does. (I haven't bothered watching any of the afore-mentioned copycat films. But their trailers give the impression they keep the youth aspect with none of the class.)

This clash of values is well presented in the film by a clash of styles. Katniss' home, District 12, is filmed in quite a social realist fashion. Then, just when we have become used to this, a mighty ship from the Capitol rumbles over the woods - like a Star Destroyer showing up in 'Kes'. The preening dandies of the Capital are grotesque and cartoony, yet we see these figures of satire rub shoulders with 'real people'.

In short its the scenario of the films, telegraphed in the title, which is the crux of the thing. 'The Hunger Games' is about the Hunger Games. And when the third film, 'Mockingjay' (split into two parts like they always are) transitions from the games to the revolution, it tends to lose it way. As it turns out a revolution is just a war with the odd ethical debate tossed in, in fact the sort of ethical debate which often finds their way into war films anyway. 'Land and Freedom', Ken Loach's acclaimed 1995 film of the Spanish Revolution features long debates over subject such as land collectivisation, but as they're pressing to the characters' lives and not abstract theorising they become compelling. It might be an ask to see something quite like that in a mainstream mulitplex film. But there's nothing even similar.


The second and third films makes little secret of the fact that rebel leader Alma Coin sees the revolt as her fast-track to Presidency, that Katniss is being played by her almost as much as she was in the Games. The Capital-like blonde streaks in her hair become a signifier of where she wants to be living. (Just as President Snow is less dandified than any other Capitol dweller.) At the time, this seems an advantage. We'd probably guess at what was coming anyway, so why try to hide it? We just wait for Katniss to catch up with it all.

But the problem is that when she eventually does, in the final instalment, there's not much else left to happen. The scene where Coin announces she's made herself “interim President” until things quieten down is nicely underplayed. (No-one has ever boldly announced a coup.) But the subsequent assassination scene tries to stir up tension where none remains. We never doubted Katniss would catch up, we just wondered when and how. So we know what will happen - and then it does.

The film holds Coin at arm's length, in order to make her more puppeteer than combatant. But this does two things at once. It means Coin's desire to seize power is merely a streak of her nature like the streaks in her hair – she was just like that. Consequently the implication becomes that by shooting her Katniss safeguards everything. She moves from seeing offing President Snow as the big fix to assuming arrowing Coin does the same thing. But when Coin argues, for example, that with Panem ravaged by war, they need a period of stability and consolidation - is it not in fact ravaged by war? Given that her death won't solve any of that, should that argument at not be given some credence? Just dramatically alone, wouldn't that be more effective?

In short Coin doesn't represent the wrong politics, at one and the same time she has no real politics at all and she represents politics – in and of itself. (Ironically the nearest character the film has to 'good politics', Heavensbee, is sidelined by accident, actor Phili Seymour Hoffman's unfortunate death.) Leaving Katniss as her opposite. As the Mockingjay is the Marianne of Panem's revolution, (see her next to Eugene Delacroix's famous painting below) she's the heart to others' brains. Coin says to her “may your aim be as true as your heart is pure” shortly before the inevitable. The right politics is always held to be innately and self-evidently correct, in short to not be politics at all. Listen to your heart, Katniss. Listen to the Force, Luke. Being pure of heart is perilously close to being pure heart, which is itself close to being pure symbol.



So while in many ways she is the positive role model for girls everyone talks about, while she might have the much-desired agency, Patrick Hayes is right to say in 'Salon' that she ultimately lacks in subjectivity. (Overall his reading of the film is skewed and a little too sweeping. Yet he's right on this point.) Even when she isn't acting like a poster girl for revolution within the film, she's still acting pretty much like a poster girl for revolution in the film. Watch a random scene and try picturing a thought balloon above Katniss's head, then populating it. Largely, you can't. She's driven by instinct and intuition. She often doesn't know herself what she'll do until she does it.

Yet should she gain any subjectivity, if for one minute she acts from reason rather than out of instinct, the film's schema is such that she'd need to start dying blonde highlights into her hair. In this way the film can feign at radicalism, appear to suggest that revolutions don't have to be betrayed, they're not fated to that outcome. Yet its suggestion is functionally useless. It leads nowhere.

The default example of a revolution people have today, even so long after the Cold War, remains Russia. And I'd be the first to agree that it did succumb to the “meet the new boss” syndrome, that its original egalitarian aims were ruthlessly betrayed by the Bolsheviks. But that historical example is dehistoricised and made a universal law. If revolutions don't always work that way in history, it was decided long ago that they do in mainstream media.

Notably, we see exactly the same doublethink as these films do over Coin. Its all to do with the personality of Lenin. He was duplicitous and treacherous and successfully played everybody. He even had a Ming the Merciless beard, what more proof could you need? Yet at the very same time we're asked to suppose that was all inevitable. Workers getting together to decide what gets done with the stuff they produce, clearly such a notion was doomed to failure. It was all Lenin's fault. But if there hadn't have been Lenin, there'd still have been a Lenin.

And this double act is achieved precisely by not considering Lenin's political motivations, looking at the context he was operating within or asking why others were willing to listen to him, but by depicting him as some Victorian melodrama villain. None of this is to defend Leninism or claim his draconian rule was justifiable. Its to say that before you can engage with Leninism, however critically, you have to concede such a thing exists. Arguing his politics were wrong involves acknowledging he had some. (You can of course find political writings which don't do any of this, which just damn the man and ignore not only the ball but the whole pitch. But they're political writings played at the level of Hollywood scripts, not the other way round.)

Or if Russia's not to your tastes you could consider the French, Chinese or Cuban revolution. It doesn't matter much because you'd only have to substitute the names. But this ceaseless repeat doesn't make the thing seem less likely – instead its held as proof of just how true it is.

And, to come back to the films, this is clearest in the response of the crowd. Not expecting Katniss' public assassination, even if we were, they react by rushing forward. To... well, actually they just rush forward. There's the suggestion they kill Snow. But Katniss, who has either traitorously shot their leader or rid them of a new dictator, they just push past her like they don't have an opinion... like it hasn't occurred to them to have an opinion. They're as devoid of subjectivity as the crowd in 'Dark Knight Rises'. Even the armed guards, previously presented as firmly loyal to Coin, do nothing. They're all there to confuse the picture, to provide a cover for Katniss to escape. (Or more accurately “be escaped”.) At that point, a cloud might as well have passed over the sun, obscuring everyone's view. Katniss's Mockingjay role is to stand for them. So its presumed they cannot act on their own accord.

(Reader, please note that in this context 'pro-revolutionary' does not mean the films stand or fall on their ability to incite popular revolt, that if the audience don't collectivise the multiplex's sweet counter on their way out then the whole thing was in vain. The suggestion that people could get together and agitate for political change, and that if it did so it would be a force to be reckoned with, that would be enough. This being the internet, you need to spell out that sort of thing.)

A summary, then of the Hunger Games films would be “half full, then half empty”. Of course, none of this is altogether surprising. Perhaps it was always going to be easier for a contemporary film to capture contemporary capitalism than to portray revolution, a situation we encounter daily versus one which almost none of us have any experience whatsoever. Perhaps in trying it busts the banks of what can be done in an adventure film. Perhaps things should have freeze-framed near the end of the second film, when Katniss shatters the dome and left us to figure out what might have happened next. Throwing the impetus back on the audience, not offering a neat and tidy resolution, that might have been a greater spanner in the works of mainstream movie-making than the two hundred and sixty minutes which follow.