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Friday, October 24, 2003
  Faces set to stunned...

Ok ok, I apologise profusely, in advance. Can't you see the sincerity? But it is such a bad joke, it belongs here...

Sophie Ellis-Bextor was found dead in a French footballer's apartment today.

The police believe it was murder on Zidane's floor. 
Thursday, October 23, 2003
  You are part of a conspiracy to steal public space

is what I should have said to him, but instead we had a nice little chat about how the barriers go up and down; after what time you no longer have to pay.

I didn't realise the floors had been different colours in order that you could remember where your car was. I just thought the brightly coloured doors were beautiful!

So I'm outside the multi-storey, taking photographs of it. Yeah, okay, whatever. But it's my space, and they paid for it with my [public] money, so why not?

I get spied on the CCTV, and sure enough blokey says I can't do that, gotta move on. Says, 'why would you want to photograph this ugly thing?'

  baal bile

blistering stuff recently at Erase The World. he’s bang on about rugby of course. watching rugby with posh people is an unpleasant experience. they call the players by their first names! as in ‘jonny’s saved the day again!’ or ‘that was great from rupert!’ (is there an english rugby player called rupert? i don’t know. there should be.) that’s fucking freaky. actually i guess in lots of cases this is because they probably are on first-name terms with them. the number of people i’ve met this week who actually do know the players. shivers down the spine.  

Listen. I run a $500million company. This is serious. When my people travel, if they’re not downloading their email in the taxi from the airport, if they’re not up till 2 or 3 in their hotel room answering emails, catching up on the time they’ve missed on the flight, I consider that gross negligence. That kind of lack of respect for their own time is really unforgivable. Listen, if a client calls me, asking for top-line data, and I say, I’m sorry, so-and-so is compiling the report, but they’re in a plane over Indonesia, that’s no good whatsoever. That is a relationship abused. Trust disappears quickly you know. We’re not talking about small amounts of money.
Listen. I know what I’m talking about. I was in the army. Listen. I’ve given the order to kill a man you know. In Bosnia. That’s right. It was a split-second decision. Them or us. One of my men was standing there with a rifle pointed at his head, some trigger happy teenage border guard. He’s on the radio. What do I do? He says. No time to waste here, no time to get emotional. Kill him I said. Act first, take the initiative, show you’re in charge. That was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. But I did it. Of course it wasn’t easy but in war that’s the reality. The kid lost his nerve, dropped his weapon, so it was OK in the end, nobody got hurt. But these lads. I felt sorry for the Serbs you know. My boys – these psychopathic Brummies and Geordies, itching for a scrap, I tell you, they were some hard bastards. I used to watch them ride out in the morning on their reccies, tooled up, joking with each other, staring at the hills, waiting, and I thought, the poor Serbs aren’t going to know what’s hit ‘em!
  hong kong central market

is a large 3-storey (above ground level) building where (the guidebooks say) you can find all kinds of livestock, food, cheap stuff. google it and the top results you get are still recommendations to visit. anyway. it’s closed. the building is completely abandoned. boarded up, no signs explaining why. SARS i guess? it was habitually the target of government 'urban clean-up' operations, unsurprising really, it being a bloody great smelly mess of an eyesore slap bang in the middle of the pristine commercial district. maybe the virus was the excuse they’d needed for ages to just shut it down. god knows what they’ll do with the space. walking around it yesterday i found one of the huge metal gates at one of the side entrances was slightly ajar. i poked my head in. rows and rows of falling-down stalls. light coming through the ceiling. drips. puddles. then i saw one man, sitting behind one of the stalls, his feet up on the table, staring at the open doorway i was standing in. i don’t think he was a guard. he was wearing normal clothes. i left.
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
  Old brother Left-Hand

With predictable counter-intuitiveness, the scariest moment in the history of cinema involves no blood, no pointy teeth, no hormonally endangered teens and no hockey masks. Instead it is laced together from innocuous ingredients: a horse, a hill, a full moon and a hymn, The passionate menace of Robert Mitchum’s Reverent Harry Powell in ‘The Night of the Hunter’ is encapsulated in a scene that is the antithesis of the modern shocker. There are no jumpy edits, and no orchestral stabs to activate the bundle of grey matter at the base of your spine that frustratingly refuses to learn the techniques of 21st century Hollywood. The preacher rides in the distance, silhouetted against an implausibly full moon, in unhurried procession over the upturned bowl of a hill. He is unquestionably a diabolical figure; the outline of his wide brimmed hat suggests that he is a missionary of malice and yet in his pursuit of the children he wanders forward with assurance, confident as if he tells the truth when he claims to be guided by the Lord. His malevolent implacability is what makes Mitchum’s character so frightening. As he rides he sings an old hymn:

“Leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms…”

but it is impossible to watch the scene without succumbing to the feeling that it is Harry Powell who is unbending, that he requires no other support than his greed and fervour.

The otherworldliness of the scene is compounded by the way in which it fits into the film’s overall aesthetic. Charles Laughton’s only effort behind the lens is a mixture of two competing worldviews. We open in the hard world of depressed south, the indelicate interior of a prison cell, and then the open roads and fields of an agricultural economy. This sense of environmental verity is continued through the opening stages of the preacher’s assimilation into the community, particularly the harvest festival celebration and the wooing of the children’s mother. The turning point is perhaps one of the most haunting images in cinema; the preacher’s wife, John and Pearl’s mother drowned, one foot tied to a sunken car, writhing in the current like sea-weed. This image completely dispenses with naturalism – perhaps inevitably in technical terms – but from this necessity a clear artistic direction is taken, and the river bed and the fish and fronds are avowedly not approximations of the real thing, they are objects of another world, the world of the shared imagination. Jane Campion unsuccessfully pays homage to Stanley Cortez’s photography at the conclusion of ‘The Piano’, and she is defeated by the most unlikely of foes – the innate beauty of the open sea. Her drowned woman sinks below real waves; she is a human figure lost to the natural world. Laughton’s victims however fall prey to something entirely unnatural and imaginary.

This hallucinatory sensation reaches its climax with the flight of the children downstream and their pursuit by the furious preacher. Owls, frogs and spiders sit in perfect focus on the river-bank, too still and attentive to be real. As they struggle towards a rebirth of sorts at the other end of the river, John and Pearl move through a fantasy, imponderable to them as innocents, as must be the dreams of the unborn.

It is the exacting detail of these sequences that fixes them as a kind of unhappy reverie: after all, in dreams the unconscious mind sees objects from all angles simultaneously, and with perfect comprehension of every single form. The production design of the film is superb, allowing the camera to slowly swim from the grimy naturalism of the agricultural south to the nightmare world which at some time is occupied by all children when they sleep.

The unconscious landscape has also been explored in a more experimental setting in Neil Jordan’s ‘The Company of Wolves’. While the film’s interplay of legend, nightmare and sexuality is interesting, it is not really important here. What is absolutely integral to the success of the film is the production design of Anton Furst. As with ‘The Night of the Hunter’, Furst weaves a world that looks as we imagine it should look if we were to read about it in a book, or hear of it as children from an adult intent on scaring us. The trees of Furst’s wood have not emerged via biological evolution, but through the punctuated equilibrium of our collective imagination. The pillar-like oaks, strangling with ivy and caked with dusty organic matter have grown in the fertile soil of thousands of generations of fear; fear of the dark and fear of the creatures that dwell among them. Every adrenally quickened heartbeat that has ever been felt in a danger-prowled forest can still be heard echoing between Furst’s grizzled but unbowed trees.

It is tempting to see Furst’s relentlessly dark vision as an emanation of the frame of mind that eventually led him to suicide. It may be that this is a sound assumption, but I prefer to see in his rhyme-haunted forests something of the courage and playfullness that comes from baiting your own fears. There can’t be many people who haven’t forced themselves to cross a churchyard at night, or taken the canopied path home just to enjoy the tension and barely submerged strength that is the body’s reaction to fright. When we emerge unmolested on the other side of the menacing path, that energy remains with us, undissipated, a reward for our bravery. Furst’s designs wonder at the idea of fear, they try to perfect that relationship between our instinctive dread, and our ability to provoke it for our own amusement. If you could dream the perfect nightmare, it would look like an Anton Furst creation, as its beauty would be the most terrifying thing of all.
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
  Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent...

So there was a plot. Buried in the dark heart of the establishment is an even darker secret. They killed her. The long arm of royal influence stretched across the Channel, took hold of the steering wheel and plunged the armoured Mercedes into the central reservation of a Parisian underpass. It also likely that it unbuckled the passengers’ seatbelts and took a few paparazzo photographs of the dying Princess, though it was later made to give those back.

The Butler claims to have seen it all coming. He was given a letter sealed in an envelope with his name on it, containing four sheets of paper covered in what seemed to be Diana’s handwriting. I like to think she might have been using automatic writing or experimenting with a planchette at the time, but that might be taking all this a little too far. What is inarguable apparently, is that a conspiracy is at hand. Of course, there isn’t any real evidence of this plot, only grief, paranoia and that sweet human refusal to accept that sometimes people die when you’d really rather they didn’t.

As far as conspiracies go, it is an odd one. No one really gained from it. No shadowy organisation preserved its ability to control the successions of Europe’s monarchies by killing a doe-eyed clothes horse; there was no irascible and boundlessly ambitious LBJ to bully John Glenn’s wife and then arrange the death of the president. Diana wasn’t friends with the mob, and if she met Sinatra at all, it was probably during that period of his life when he was hobbling around Japanese stages, trying to forget that the orchestra sounded much better when Nelson Riddle or Billy May was in charge. No, if profit is the motive for this conspiracy, then send the Black Maria down to the headquarters of Interflora, and be careful to avoid the Deadly Nightshade by the front door. As far as I can tell, the car didn’t really contain anyone of significance (surely an important factor in a good conspiracy killing), just a couple of people with greater confidence in the structural integrity of the ‘S’ class than most would be prepared to wager.

So why does the conspiracy refuse to go away? Why does it multiply endlessly, gaining new layers of skin without shedding the old ones? Quickly it becomes a fat narrative snake, consuming column inch after column inch to maintain its cold-blooded momentum.

Conspiracies are like theologies or ideologies. They presuppose the existence of an architecture upon which life is built – and thus an architect that built it. Conspiracy theories serve the exact opposite purpose to the one you might expect. Far from imbuing the world with a greater sense of mystery or excitement, they make it predictable. They deny the underlying chaos of life, its blank-staring unfairness. If Prince Philip cut the brake cables, or LBJ handed the man on the grassy knoll forty pieces of silver, the world simultaneously becomes more explicable, and safer (after all why would anyone want to kill you or I… we don’t matter). It is far better for our peace of mind if the High Priestess of compassionate privilege died for her beliefs and the happiness of her children, than for want of a clunk and a click.

Added to this historical comfort blanket effect, is the sense of inclusion, of being one of the initiated. Conspiracy theories are exclusive: those that enact the conspiracies are powerful and insubstantial figures, who curl around world events like a fog which burns off immediately whenever the lights are turned up for a little scrutiny. So if you are one of the few who has performed the trick of looking out of the corner of your eye and noticing the figure crouching behind the throne – that makes you and them kin of a sort. Jon Ronson’s ‘THEM’ illustrates this brilliantly. The self-satisfaction of the conspiracy hunter is exactly the same as the imagined satisfaction of the conspirator… they have climbed higher and seen further. Not for nothing is the friendly rhetoric of the conspiracy theorist similar to that of an evangelical speaking about the devil. They use terms of familiarity, almost of endearment: He’s an old so-and-so, a tricky feller… the unspoken assumption you are invited to make is that to speak of the devil on these terms, you have to have a little of his power, his know-how.

There are different flavours of conspiracy that suit different paranoias and different aesthetics. A well-constructed conspiracy is absolutely beautiful; a fabrication that binds the history of the world to the history of the individual, that binds art to cryptography and religion to mendacity. The conspirator is a micro-manager of the past, in which nothing that matters is beyond his control. ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ takes this discipline to its logically absurd conclusion, where there is nothing that is not inter-connected, but perhaps this is not the real ideal. An infinity of disparate conspiracies is a conspiracy in itself; a conspiracy against the seeker of truth. Without a unified theory of deceit there is only an ever expanding alternative history, as large in terms of narrative as the version presented to us on a daily basis, but requiring a colossal level of analysis and interrogation before it will give up its secrets.

Unsurprisingly, conspiracies work rather well on film. The viewer is always playing the role of initiate, no matter how undemanding the film they are watching; the conspiracy movie simply chooses to utilise this inevitable side effect of passive observation. I could wade through countless worthy and intricate politically aware thrillers of the 1970s, glorying in their ambition, but frankly that all seems a bit shallow, a bit obvious. After all, if a conspiracy has a shiny glowing edifice, it is more likely to already have been noticed.

The current advert for Channel 4’s ‘Hundred Greatest Scary Moments’ special ends with a shot of the head of the Wicker Man, burning in the Hebridean sunlight (unfortunately in terms of the shock of that particular image, it is shorn of Edward Woodward’s terrifyingly fervent declamation of ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’). ‘The Wicker Man’ is perhaps the most powerful conspiracy movie ever made – it conspires against our not-entirely sympathetic ‘Christian copper’, and it conspires against the viewer. We are led through Howie’s investigation, spotting clues moments before he does, invited to revel in how clever we are at seeing the alternative version of events unfurl before the detective does. Our intelligence is flattered in exactly the same way as Howie’s, we are in effect led to the Wicker Man ourselves, which is perhaps why it comes as such a shock to those seeing the film for the first time. I question the inclusion of the climax of ‘The Wicker Man’ in a poll of scary moments – it is not like the dénouement of ‘Don’t Look Now’, the film it criminally played B movie to in 1973 – the sacrifice is theatrical, almost comical as it must be in order to reflect the anarchic, frenzied and joyful celebrations of May Day, still seen in bowdlerised form in towns like Padstow. Howie’s death has its own unavoidable logic; once you have realised what that is, it is impossible to be scared of it.

The characters themselves are impenetrable, everyone chuckles openly at the big joke, there isn’t a sad looking islander in the whole film. Christopher Lee in drag singing ‘Summer is a-cumen in’ is a frightening sight, but not in the blood-chilling sense. It is the documentary movement of the camera among the smiling celebrants that makes the burning such an unsettling sequence. Throughout the film a fictitious world has been presented as fact, from the thank-you to the people of Summerisle at the outset, to the use of local people as actors in the harbour and during the procession. The photography is washed out and two-dimensional like TV, rather than glossy and wide-angled like much of the rest of 1970s cinema.

Also the music serves only to confuse and undermine. Opening with a beautiful skipping arrangement of Burns’ poem ‘Corn Rigs an Barley Rigs’, the soundtrack is a compelling mix of folk songs and incidental pieces composed and performed by Paul Giovanni. The unexpected mood of pastoral anachronism is established through songs such as ‘Gently Johnny’ and the hugely bizarre ‘Maypole’, sung to the accompaniment of Jew’s Harp and trilling children’s choir. However, revealed in the musical sequences are the underlying and ultimately horrifying themes of the film. Sexual license, paganism, sacrifice – all the things Howie discovers have been set to trap him are conveyed to us within these traditional deft melodies: they drift in under the radar, fearsome beneath the soothing cladding of flute and softly strung guitar.

The traditional conspiratorial form is that of the brilliant elite against the unwitting world. What makes ‘The Wicker Man’ such an unusual and memorable example of the genre is that it explores the hopelessness of being the sole victim of a conspiracy designed and played out by the rest of the world.
Monday, October 20, 2003
  "Some years ago I came to the conclusion that to write a poem was to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem."

Philip Larkin, 1964 
Friday, October 17, 2003
  Because it was to be personal...

I can’t drive a car and I’ve never been an American teenager. These might not be crucial experiences for the following reflection, after all biography is only one strand of criticism and occasionally a pretty tedious one at that (that’s sort of an apology in advance). However, when I listen to ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ by the Beach Boys I can’t help but wonder about the authenticity of the mental landscape it forces me into. That Spector-ish pizzicato guitar, the shuffling broken-legged drumming, the softer than down ooooooooohing harmony: this really all ought merely to herald the catalogue sound of a motorbike revving and the Ronette’s voices shifting into gear. Instead we get something quite different; the bright incipience of Brian Wilson’s falsetto sails into view and breezes off to a world neither of us ever inhabited.

The song was recorded in 1964, but sounds at least a decade younger, a tale of fast cars, and boys who are only brave when their girl is around to assure them that everything will be alright, (incidentally my three year old nephew has a habit of saying to me ‘Don’t worry, everything’s alright’ when he sees me, like he knows something is up). More than likely the racer’s car is black and beetlish, with some incandescent decal stuck on the side. I’m picturing Marty McFly and that faux fifties that only existed in a slick of pomade and an embarrassing hearkening for a time that might have been more innocent, but probably wasn’t and only seems that way because of the thickness of the curtains. From the Beach Boys to Back to the Future, and here’s where that important precognitive apology for being biographical comes into play. The first tape I ever bought with my own money, of my own volition, was ‘Summer Dreams’ a BB compilation, which I still listen to fourteen years later on the bus on the way to work because I only own a walkman. Part of my enormous affection for Brian Wilson and the rest of his family is born from this memory of youth: the slightly flat first bass note of ‘I Get Around’ is my Madeleine, the childish sensation of sheer happiness coming from a tune and a tone of voice my Combray. I remember being fascinated by cars, by surfing, by music that made you want to smile and dance around if only that kind of behaviour was permissible when you have four older brothers.

My admiration is different now, though it still contains a healthy amount of that same euphoric joy I felt when I was ten years old and had never known the kind of disappointment that haunts the other songs, the songs that now come to mind first when I think of the Beach Boys. There is something about the human voice in volume, interlacing and intricate, that moves on a level no other instrument can match - the Beach Boys are the choral music of Pop: ‘Til I Die, Surf’s Up, God Only Knows, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times; these are the Requiem Masses of popular music. Whether that makes them a good thing depends I suppose on your attitude to loss, to music, to life…

As I listen to ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ I keep asking myself, do I just identify with the song’s narrator? Is that why it still moves me even after fourteen years of listening? There are definitely works of art that have the capacity to retain their original hold on you, just as there are others that relinquish it slowly over time, even though at the outset you would have promised and protested that they would always have this same power over you. ‘Lolita’ wont allow me to move beyond it; the night I finished the book is still the most profound experience I have ever had of being influenced, changed by art. Not since reading about the death of a character in a comic (Transformers I think) when I was about five or six had the simple act of reading made me feel upset, and not just upset, devastated. An English teacher once tried to persuade me that ‘A Handful of Dust’ contained the saddest line ever written in English, but it does not, “Mrs. ‘Richard F. Schiller’ died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest” is to me the most moving sentence I have ever read, because the first time you read the book it is forgettable, forgotten by the last page, not recovered until you turn back to just flick through the book before turning off the light, and realise what has actually happened.

I read Lolita during that period of growth from adolescence to adulthood, which is I suppose the time of greatest emotional and intellectual instability. It was the backdrop to some formative experiences, and I suppose it’s a plausible explanation of why the book still means so much to me now. Someone who I used to know once tried to reason that they only meant something to me because they had completely occupied one of what they called my ‘Developmental Stages’; the brutal bloodlessness of this analysis shocked me then, and still angers me now. Books and people and songs have a value that is not derived from my relationship with them. I am getting dangerously close to suggesting that there is intrinsic worth in certain things, which I know is a cardinal sin which will get the Ratzingers of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Critical Faith on my arse, but is it such a dangerous proposition… Everyone is a critic, all relationships with art are personal, unknowable, and the act of public criticism is a showy exercise in trying to get people to feel the same way as you by virtue of exploration and explanation. Do novelists and poets write to describe universal truths, as is often lazily stated, or is it more cynical than that… do they wish to propagate their own truths, to make the world feel the way they do?

Back to the song.

It is of course another masterwork, demonstrating Brian Wilson’s Billy Liar-esque capacity to inhabit a lifestyle he rejected, or couldn’t access because he was shy and clumsy and preferred the piano to most people. The life of the surfing, racing, jock is a conjuring act, perhaps based on his brother Dennis, perhaps just on people who passed by the window on their way to the Mall. But there is more to truth than the bland conveyance of experience. If Wilson really was just a nervous hot-rodder who needed his girl to calm him before the race, the song would be nothing more than narrative, the story of a moment already experienced by half the slick haired teens in post-war America, and everyone else since who has seen Grease. The song is more than that – it is an evocation, a eulogy for a kind of life you might have enjoyed had you been given the opportunity to live it. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ might have caused Brian Wilson to mourn for the countless alternative lives he could have led to the one he chose. For me, I have to mourn the countless alternative lives that I can experience vicariously, but never fully recreate.
Thursday, October 09, 2003
  I want to be Todd Rundgren's Utopia singing 'This Guy's In Love With You'. 


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