Monday, October 31, 2005
I’ll withhold her name, but for me, she’s a Venus alright. I was too tight to even glance away from her eyes, despite the urge-upon-urge I had to look o'er her torso, even ever-so pronto. But her eyes, her eyes are the thing for me. Plus, I was lucky enough to know quite well the contours of her frontal curvature, for the night before I'd nuzzled up to within a hairsbreadth of her ample cleavage, to gently intone, “When can I get you on your own?”
"You're a bad man!"
"Wait until I get you alone."
I wasn't trying to impress, even though she’s just 22 - at an educated guess - but it’s all there, and I can't stop imagining her undressed with her Mermaiden hair licking to where the under-wire would be if her breasts weren't bare. Her shoulders -complemented by a spectacular and spiralling tattoo - are slightly rotund, and I’d be a rich man if I started a fund for the guys who spent a moment Edisonin' her up-and-down from behind, because the overall shape of her back is so well-defined.
Her bottom: simply divine. Her sixth scent I would write Braille about if I were blind - but I’m not - so hear me out when I say it’s hotter than the flames which once burnt terra firma on Tierra del Fuego. Not forgetting her face, which was the starter-pistol signalling this race. Again, it’s kind of round, with a slight crook on the bridge of her beak that someday I’ll get around to star-crossing with my cheek.
And what an accent... a soft North-west American drawl. I can’t pick-up all she says, but it’s the way that she says that gets me. “Graeme,” announced she, pronouncing her 'a’s' more succinctly than her 'e’s',
“that thing you asked me last night… are we still on for that?"
“You're damn right!”
"Okay, what about Sunday? Are you free?"
"Yes in-deed." And with that, I pulled out a stoogie. "Have you eh, have you got a light?"
Sunday, October 30, 2005
Portland's Pink Martini have taken out a patent on Polyglot Pop. Perversely (as 750, 000 sales, and counting, of their independently-released debut album Sympathique attest) it's proving popular.
A shape-shifting simulacrum of a popular music group, Pink Martini effortlessly transform from modern classical "small orchestra" (populated by musical virtuosi of seemingly limitless wit, erudition and skill) to the house band at Club Tropicana, Havana. Metamorphosing from cool Brasilian bossa nova outfit to polyrhythmically percussive Batucada marching band, Pink Martini's chameleonic capacity to imitate a Parisian Café combo, a sophisticated swing ensemble, a Japanese film noir orchestra or a kitsch retro showband (fronted by a fabulous femme fatale) is at least as disorientating as it's impressive.
Pink Martini are either the coolest band in the world, or they're the Tower of Babel Alumni Reunion Band: God Himself may have, inconsiderately, interrupted their last building project, but "Babel Reunited" are, seemingly, hell-bent on erecting another heaven-bound edifice. When Pink Martini performed at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh last Thursday (27th Oct) you needed a calculator to count the languages traversed by beguiling chanteuse China Forbes (& suave male singer Timothy Nishimoto) and a Babel Fish to interpret them. Cosmopolitan kleptomaniacs, Pink Martini, cherry-pick lyrical produce from the orchards of the globe (I counted up to 8, mercifully retaining the use of a thumb and forefinger to clasp my cocktail: Croatian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Japanese and English) to deconstruct and debunk the myth of the insular American.
Bewitching China Forbes' polyglot predilections seemingly extend from the polylingual to the polyamorous: a plethora of pre-song dedications to past, present or prospective paramours (invariably encountered at parties) conjured up images of an orderly procession of linguistically-limited, but hedonistic, suitors eager to reduce China's pyrotechnically promiscuous/polymorphously perverse verbal gifts to a, comparatively, prosaic lingua franca: the language of lust. I was particularly enchanted by Hey, Eugene, a sublimely acerbic tale of unrequited desire, and a long-time live favourite, unaccountably omitted from Pink Martini's debut and sophomore albums (Symathique and Hang On Little Tomato).
Torch songs such as this, fired, and inspired, by flames old and new, are potent proof of Pink Martini's potential, and their conspiratorial chanteuse's intoxicating intimacies drifted like silken strands across the starcloth backing of a band skilled enough to play soft. Pink Martini's pianist, and artistic/musical director, Thomas Lauderdale is a virtuoso talent: his elegant and elaborate arrangements showcase his (and the band's) classical chops, but leaven the gravitas with a light, effortlessly accessible, pop sensibility.
If Forbes' intros focused on lovers, fellow Harvard graduate Lauderdale, confusingly, conflated the triumphant return of Italian designer Emilio Pucci to his alma mater, the University of Oregon, and an esoteric advertisement for Hunt's Ketchup (in a 1964 edition of Life magazine) as he introduced us to Hang On Little Tomato. If Signor Pucci smuggled a scintilla of vicarious style into Portland, Pink Martini's exquisite exports have redressed the balance of trade with interest: their intrinsic elegance prevents Pink Martini from sounding, and looking, like just another bunch of squares trying to play hip.
There are few sights and sounds so excruciatingly dissonant as those, characteristically, produced by highbrows "slumming it" in the neighbourhood of Low Culture. Despite some clumsy salsa steps towards the end of the Edinburgh show, from a pair of unprepossessing percussionists, Pink Martini segue from Portland to Paris, Classical to Cuban, Ravel's Bolero to Bossa Nova, Japan to Saint-Germain with ease, style and grace.
Oregon's cross-cultural commuters have patented Polyglot Pop. For future fashionistas, it's a forbidding act to follow.
Friday, October 28, 2005
Casa del ionesco's new contributor is an old friend:
Graeme Jamieson is a rhymer of rhythm. It may seem to some that he's no idea what he's trying to say, but there's a story there, if you're willing to play. Published all over the world, he's just been 'made' by New York's leading Lounge & Cocktail Culture website, Tommy White Tie , and this for a bona fide flâneur who still lives in Edinburgh. He's a world class wordsmith who clearly gets it, while his freest form is different and intelligent... kinda like the fella who's off in the corner inhaling nitrous and spouting off all sorts of incredibly coherent nonsense that leaves the rest of the room saying 'you're wacked', but safe in the knowledge that he's brilliant.
This in itself may seem unremarkable, for I know what's good and what's good I know - while topping the UK Charts no longer demands sales by the million-load. But the interesting shift is, up to that night and in their intervening upward flight, they've gone about scaling such heights kind of differently.
Not for them any heavyweight moneymen backing, or the soul-selling packaging of pap-by-numbers. This is a set of 19-year old smarts whose angular influence and lyrical sense will act as admonishment for the music industry's fatbellied pigs peddling crap from their infernal ivory basements. So don't expect bling and Bentleys and a bevvy of broads in their backpacks - or even a staged-collapse, model girlfriend and Class A relapse.
Theirs is a rare reputation built on enthusiastic word of mouth, and the admiration hasn't been hyped up in some buzzroom down South. For ages, they were an underground sound - and I mean, from the playground - in the old steel city of England. If you hadn't gone to hear them, the only way to get near them was by downloading demos from the internet. Literally, they've marketed themselves to the tech-savvy set.
Why? Call it cockiness or kookiness or simply sure-footedness. What we have here, and what they obviously know, dear, is a lark back to some of the finest zeitgeist songwriting Great Britain has ever produced. Think of the observational quick-step of the The Kinks and the bon-mot thoughts of the Small Faces, the say-it-like-it-is street-cred of The Jam and the cross-pollinating swagger of The Specials, the raw lyrical-witticism of The Streets and the formative story-poetry of the Clash-schooled Libertines. Now think means.
The Arctic Monkeys are going to ring-fence a time and a place, and that time and place could become the face of a generation. On the basis of their already meteoric demonstration, we're going to want to leap to this rhyme and learn to keep pace.
Their debut single "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" is released in the US on Friday. If you like your pop fresh, sharp, droll, and wry, make haste to your local independent record store, and don't leave until you buy.
If you'd rather wait, my guess is they'll follow up with "Fake Tales of San Francisco", but by then everyone everywhere will be catching on, and it might be like heading to Hamburg in 1962 - you'll be mopped up-top, but somehow somewhat late - with the fab four already gone.
Monday, October 24, 2005
The catastrophic events of September 11 2001 were, obviously enough, an epic moment in world history. And in cultural history too. Here, with Dantesque finality, was a brutal confrontation between annihilating fundamentalism and capitalist pluralism. Art is political, and the implications for art arising out of this attack have complex resonances. Artistic periods never end with punctuation marks of such cataclysmic force, and doubtless, in years to come, there will still be people bringing their lack of seriousness onto us in the name of some tail-end of the expected modernist nirvana. September 11 should have brought us to a political and artistic reckoning. Subsequently, Australian artists have every reason to similarly confront the tradition within which they work and create, after the outrages in Bali on October 12 2002. What have modernism and postmodernism given us, and what might be the limitations of their aesthetic cultural agendas. And where will we go from this point on.
more here and (part 2) here
The word derives from the Latin insulatus--made into an island--and it has a nasty sense to it, or so goes conventional thinking. Among its associations: disease, betrayal, failure, separation. It is the fate of the disgraced ruler (Napoleon's sentence, true to the word's root), the madman (isolated even from his own limbs by the fastening of straps) and the infected (the soon-to-be-dead, obscured by thick sheets of plastic and extensive breathing apparatus). It is what mothers fear for their children (who must be socially integrated, who must play well with others in order to get along and ahead in the world) and what children fear for their doddering parents (who must be reminded that they still belong to this world). It is a word without much positive association, at least in the minds of most people. We are taught to value plurality, consensus and feedback, and to regard the defiantly singular as suspect.
Such a shame, these negative connotations, especially considering that the word itself is quite properly defined and sourced. But we do understand its associations well--disgrace, insanity, imminent death--and we New Yorkers embrace them. We are (colorfully, proudly) isolation's wealthy priests, a brotherhood of rejected, contagious madmen--and don't you shake your head, Cowboy, in your disingenuous shame....I know pride when I see it!--clambering together on several rocks at the edge of the Atlantic. Of course, difference has always been a source of pride, a desirable feature in moderation, something to distinguish (but not to separate). You don't need a Metro Card to appreciate what's unique. But it helps. And in fact New York was built for isolation--exquisite machine, and complex, designed to exacerbate difference by density.
Isolation is subjective. There is no observable measurement that guides our estimation of it (its trite signals--social ineptitude, substance abuse, pallor--are too broad, suggesting a host of primary mental and physical disorders to which isolation has been unjustly attached as symptom or result), and yet it is experienced always and only in relation to others. Perhaps that's why New York is its perfect vehicle. You cannot be isolated from others if there are no others to be isolated from, and fortunately, in this city, there are many, many others (all of them occupying, it seems on some nights, the apartment directly above yours). This is New York's genius: to pack and load until all around are the bodies and voices of other people, most of whom you will never meet, whose thoughts may or may not coincide with your own, and whose gestures and posture and vocal tone may remind you in some insignificant way of someone you once knew, enough at least to confuse for a moment, to part your lips with the beginning of recognition. The multitude is New York's special power. Here you will walk the streets and see the face of your best friend, how it was contorted with laughter, and the hands of the man who taught you piano, whose knuckles were enormous; you'll hear your uncle's voice, the way it thins its vowels down to string. These recognitions keep you dizzy in the beginning. Then they make you wary and wise. This is how you earn your eyes in New York, the ones that look right past beggars and roll in the wide-open faces of tourists. Things are not as they appear.
Concrete, too, plays a role. The hard surface, a broad palette, does not lend itself to the formation of meaningful human connections. With appropriate irony, we live and work on top of this manmade carapace, choosing to expose rather than protect ourselves, favoring the benefit of an impenetrable surface on which to construct our ambition. It's better that way--reliable, safe, efficient--and if we imitate its principal characteristic, if we are a touch impervious, then such is the sacrifice we make. We are not here to join hands in fellow feeling.
And there is the anonymity of sophistication, because who would champion fraternité in the thick of such wit and fancy poise? New York City, weary from its better knowledge, is no place to clasp hands and sing songs. Isolation is inherently sophisticated, an exclusive state, and highly transmissible, so it flourishes here, without the annoyance of a lot of mutual identity. When New Yorkers run into each other outside the city, there is acknowledgement, yes, and respect, and even some sense of pleasure at the recognition, but we do not then go out to dinner together. We don't become friends, no more than we would were we to bump into each other on Seventh Avenue. Such things are for people from Wisconsin. No, sophistication demands restraint, and the city trains us well in that discipline.
It is almost ridiculous to add that the city's architectural realities reinforce our sense of isolation, so obvious does it seem. The five boroughs offer a wide selection of slots in which we may exist calmly, in compact stacks of residential habitats. We transform warehouses and churches and single-family brownstones into hives of homes, with drywall and wainscoting and original details, and we sit in our rooms and listen to our neighbors, who themselves are listening to their neighbors, who just returned from Elizabeth, New Jersey, with new throw rugs for the kids' room and a drop-leaf dining table. We covet these small comforts, the better to insulate our tiny segment of space, the better to fashion attractive surroundings, to distract from the stranger who sleeps just inches away, just through that wall, whose obstructed breathing you can hear in the middle of the night. The fabulous terror of isolation is felt best when pressed up against the bodies of millions.
Whatever its ingredients and the means of its formation, New York's modus operandi and principal issue fuels ambition--professional, creative, romantic. In every moment of individual desperation lies the seed of an artistic triumph, an industrial revolution, an unholy feat of seduction. It is New York's most appealing paradox--that the greatest of cities maintains its power not by bringing its people together, but by inspiring their isolation.
originally published on 3 Quarks Daily:
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Friday, October 21, 2005
According to a well-known anecdote, anthropologists studying “primitives” who supposedly held certain superstitious beliefs (that they descend from a fish or from a bird, for example) asked them directly whether they “really” believed such things. They answered: “Of course not—we ‘re not stupid! But I was told that some of our ancestors actually did believe that.” In short, they transferred their belief onto another.
We do the same thing with our children by going through the ritual of Santa Claus. Since our children (are supposed to) believe in him and we do not want to disappoint them, they pretend to believe so as not to disappoint us by puncturing our belief in their naivety (and to get the presents, of course). Isn’t this also the usual excuse of the mythical crooked politician who turns honest? “I cannot disappoint the ordinary people who believe in me.” Furthermore, this need to find another who “really believes” is also what propels us to stigmatize the Other as a (religious or ethnic) “fundamentalist.” In an uncanny way, some beliefs always seem to function “at a distance.” In order for the belief to function, there has to be some ultimate guarantor of it, and yet this guarantor is always deferred, displaced, never present in persona. The point, of course, is that this other subject who directly believes does not need to actually exist for the belief to be operative: It is enough precisely to presuppose his existence, i.e. to believe in it, either in the guise of the primitive Other or in the guise of the impersonal “one” (“one believes…”).
The events in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck the city provide a new addition to this series of “subjects supposed to…”—the subject supposed to loot and rape. We all remember the reports on the disintegration of public order, the explosion of black violence, rape and looting. However, later inquiries demonstrated that, in the large majority of cases, these alleged orgies of violence did not occur: Non-verified rumors were simply reported as facts by the media. For example, on September 3, the Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department told the New York Times about conditions at the Convention Center: “The tourists are walking around there, and as soon as these individuals see them, they ‘re being preyed upon. They are beating, they are raping them in the streets.” In an interview just weeks later, he conceded that some of his most shocking statements turned out to be untrue: “We have no official reports to document any murder. Not one official report of rape or sexual assault.”
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Monday, October 17, 2005
Torture is not a soft drug, and it should not be accorded an equivalent jurisprudential status. Pragmatic policies (such as: legalisation is desirable in order to undermine the "rogue" intelligence agencies/ "renegade" military men and criminal fringe who deal in it) do not apply. Our antipathy towards torture is predicated upon an irreducible, indigestible hard core of principle. "Torture warrants" (prospective or ex post facto), issued by bureaucrats, the military, politicians or judges, do not absolve the perpetrators (or those who confer legitimacy upon their acts) of moral responsibility for their actions.
The legitimation of torture would, inevitably, lead to an exponential increase in its use. We live in an ever-escalating Age of Barbarism: the metastasising culture of rabid irrationalism expands as the veneer of civilisation continues to crumble. Torture is anathema to civilisation. If the executive, or the judiciary, legitimates torture it undermines its own legitimacy, and hastens the death of democracy. Duplicitous goons masquerading as democrats continue to misdirect hypnotised electorates as they institutionalise barbarism by increments.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
I require three things in a man: he must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid ~ Dorothy Parker
Gentlemen, include me out ~ Samuel Goldwyn
I must decline your invitation owing to a subsequent engagement ~ Oscar Wilde
The only time my wife and I had a simultaneous orgasm was when the judge signed the divorce papers ~ Woody Allen
Talking about music is like dancing about architecture ~ Steve Martin
Room Service? Send up a larger room ~ Groucho Marx
Monday, October 10, 2005
Politics has become a contest between different brands of doom-mongering.
Fear is fast becoming a caricature of itself. It is no longer simply an emotion or a response to the perception of threat. It has become a cultural idiom through which we signal a sense of unease about our place in the world.
Popular culture encourages an expansive, alarmist imagination through providing the public with a steady diet of fearful programmes about impending calamities - man-made and natural. Now even so-called high culture cannot resist the temptation of promoting fear: a new exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York has the theme of 'The perils of modern living'. Fear is also the theme that dominates the Eighth Contemporary Art Biennial of Lyon. Natasha Edwards writes about the 'art of fear' that haunts this important exhibition of contemporary European art.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
After being attacked for a number of years by a new generation of literary critics – indeed, phantom-punched, sucker-punched, body-slammed – “contemporary” (or “postmodern”) prose has hit back: in this month’s Harper’s, one Ben Marcus has donned his fighting gloves – which seem a little big for his hands, his pasty, bony frame – climbed into the ring, earnestly, knocky-kneed, sweating from the hot floodlights, the flashes, the hoarse roar of the audience, the sense of anticipation, broken noses, blood...
Sunday, October 09, 2005
Thursday, October 06, 2005
Barry Adamson ~ Something Wicked This Way Comes ~ this dark, funky, jazz-noir reworking of the old Dusty Springfield hit "Spooky" provides the soundtrack to the party scene in David Lynch's Lost Highway
Public Enemy ~ Fight the Power ~ the propulsive, incendiary, articulate hip-hop track which underpinned Spike Lee's excellent movie Do The Right Thing
The Mighty Blue Kings ~ Meet Me in Uptown ~ gritty blues/soul/swing/R&B crossover from the Windy City
I take issue with the claim that Tarantino is a great scriptwriter, and the invitation to "indulge in the Tarantino zone of exceptional intelligence" is superfluous: I've already seen all his movies, mostly more than once. I've been searching for this mysterious realm of exceptional intelligence (which certainly exists in the cases of David Lynch and David Cronenberg) but I just can't find much intellectual sustenance in Tarantino's cinematic junk food.
I don't "hate" Tarantino, but I'm starting to dislike his pernicious influence on popular culture. I wouldn't deny that he's intelligent, or that he has exceptional talent, but his defining contribution to cinema, thus far, seems to have been to synthesise and refine (he didn't originate it) an amoral, and contagiously influential, "violence is cool" aesthetic.
Although I'm no reactionary moralistic prude (I'd much rather share a bed with Jenna Jameson and Nikki Tyler than Tipper Gore and Pat Buchanan) I concede, at least, some coherence to the view that this endemic "carnage is cool" aesthetic has contributed to, or at the least isn't helping to alleviate, the progressive coarsening of popular culture, which in turn influences the prevailing climate of dissociative, irresponsible, anti-social behaviour and the degradation of our empathic and affectionate faculties (what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature.")
I don't see too many of the "better angels of our nature" in Tarantino's work. This is one of the problems: there is no dynamic; there is no light and shade. Tarantino deals in dark and darker. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction both had moments of humour, which sugar-coated the sadism, but Kill Bill was resolutely grim and Sin City (not Tarantino's film, but it might as well have been) refined the amoral aesthetic to an absurd and unpalatable level.
I can't claim that there weren't moments in Tarantino's earlier work, which I enjoyed. The scene between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper in True Romance (directed by Tony Scott but written by Tarantino) was a classic. Walken made that scene his own but the dialogue was razor-sharp: "You tell the angels in heaven that you never saw evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you." But even here the lingering suspicion was that the banter between them was little more than a glorified, though admittedly very well written, form of playground bravado.
Immaturity always seems to weaken Tarantino's voice. Tarantino contributed the notorious Star Trek and Silver Surfer lines to Scott's Crimson Tide, which diminished the film's credibility. Clearly the studio decided they wanted "hotshot" Tarantino to rewrite the script to appeal to the younger demographic but it backfired badly. Actors of the gravitas of Denzil Washington and Gene Hackman (ostensibly in charge of a nuclear submarine engaged in an underwater version of the Cuban Missile Crisis) just looked ridiculous and undignified arguing over the banal minutiae of popular culture as if they were school kids.
Tarantino just can't let go of this predilection for making his characters talk like geeks. In Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction his characters talk smart and act dumb. He plasters his intelligence all over the screen, but it diminishes his movies' credibility. Tarantino is the vainest director since Woody Allen: he's always up there on the screen, either in person (he acts about as well as John Travolta sings) or by proxy (Christian Slater was a romanticised Tarantino doppelganger in True Romance ~ the cool outlaw he always wished he was).
Now, thus far, I stuck with Tarantino because, even if I didn't always buy into his aesthetic or appreciate his modus operandi, he generally entertained me. We parted company after Kill Bill and this is why:
I went to see that movie with high expectations, and in a good mood....then the movie started. I apologise in advance for including this excerpt from Tarantino's script, as it's possibly the most offensive and shamelessly manipulative piece of writing ever to have polluted a mainstream movie.
The backstory is that Uma Thurman (the Bride) is lying, seemingly comatose, in a hospital bed after a vicious assault (on her wedding day). An orderly is attempting to pimp her unconscious body to two truckers. The concept is sickening enough but the script pumps up the amorality quotient to "de Sade on steroids" dimensions:
THE ORDERLY Now is that the cutest little blonde pussy you ever saw, or is that the cutest little blonde pussy, YOU-EVEA-SAW?
Trucker #2 (Gerald) would tend to agree,
Trucker #1 (Warren) fronts.
WARREN I seen better
CUE The BRIDE EYES WIDE OPEN PLAYING POSSUM. She can't believe she's being exhibited in this manner. A look of chagrin crosses her trying-to-be expressionless face, "I've seen a fuck load better than you, fatass."
THE ORDERLY Yeah, in a movie - maybe. But I know damn well this is the best pussy you ever saw you had touchin rights to. The price is seventy five dollars a fuck gentlemen, you gittin your freak on or what?
The Truckers pay the bill of fare. As The Orderly counts The Truckers' money, he lays out the rules;
THE ORDERLY Here's the rules; Rule number one; no punchin 'er. Nurse comes in tomorrow an she got 'er a shiner - or less some teeth, jig's up. So no knuckle sandwiches under no circumstances. And by the way, this little cunt's a spitter - it's a motor reflex thing but spit or no, no punchin. Now are we absolutely positively clear about rule number one?
TWO TRUCKERS Yeah.
Now, for all I know, there could be a small constituency of perverts who like to fuck comatose, hospitalised women, but I do know that I'd rather not know. Assuming they do exist (and they certainly exist in Tarantino's imagination; I just wish he hadn't felt obliged to introduce them to mine), I didn't feel it was necessary to embellish this, already sufficiently, sordid scenario by having the orderly stress that "No punching" was "Rule number one." There is very little hope in Tarantino's milieu, but when you're clinging to the flickering embers of optimism that there just might be an underlying code of "honour" amongst rapists of the comatose (that beating up their victims isn't, strictly speaking, necessary) then you know you're in the wrong cinema in the wrong part of town. The amoral glee with which Tarantino emphasises that no such minimal level of courtesy can be expected from this perverted sub-culture aspires to eloquence only as a consummate expression of artistic immaturity.
This scene serves no purpose (beyond a heavy-handed, Deliverance-style, parody of those stereotyped cinematic bêtes noire: southern-fried freaks) and is merely a gratuitously offensive pretext for Uma to eliminate the orderly and the truckers. It's another of those crude Tarantino moments (improbable dialogue, the director's cack-handed cameo appearances), which conspire to undermine his movies: you know you're being crudely manipulated into empathising with the elimination of these perverts ~ it's like watching a second-rate magician at work: his amateurish attempts to misidirect our gaze, as he artlessly smuggles his assistant out of the back of the box, are laughable. The crowd in the cinema practically cheered as they were slaughtered, but the gasps of shocked amusement and laughter accompanying the preliminary discussion between the orderly and the truckers were equally disconcerting.
I really wish I could turn back the clock and leave that Kill Bill cinema queue. After that scene, Uma's stylish slicing 'n' dicing of the rest of the cast held little interest: spring-cleaning my synapses and disinfecting my cerebral cortex seemed like the only conceivable response to the script's litany of atrocities.
Sin City took Kill Bill as a template and upped "the atrocity ante." It is little more than a witless procession of perverts, cannibals, paedophiles, rapists, sadists and serial killers, and we, the audience, are crudely manipulated into applauding the atrocious acts of vigilantism and revenge. If Kill Bill put a dampener on my weekend, Sin City spoiled my entire week. Child abuse is an extremely emotive issue but Sin City exploited it for shock value only: just another manipulative substitute for authentic emotional resonance. Shooting cheap, degraded junk such as this straight into the audience's central nervous system is calculated to induce that signature "Tarantinoesque" narcotic buzz of violent transgression. David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was an infinitely more sophisticated, and empathic, treatment of the subject: Lynch is a serious artist and, in TPFWWM, he addressed the psychological consequences of abuse from the victim's perspective, but Tarantino and co. don't dwell on the messy detritus of the psyche, or bother with deconstructions or critiques of violence; these gleeful ambulance-chasers are far too busy speeding off to the next scene of, consequence-free, carnage.
The Cinema of Barbarism has reached it's sell-by date. After Sin City it has nowhere left to go. It has been rendered redundant by the real atrocities that we witness, almost daily, on CNN. The Cinema of Barbarism cannot hope to compete with the Age of Barbarism.
It's time Tarantino developed a more sophisticated sensibility than his signature "Pump Up The Violence" shtick. Pulp Fiction's pyrotechnic postmodernism proclaimed the arrival of a exciting auteur, but formulaic fare such as Jackie Brown, the Kill Bills and Sin City do not attest to a maturing talent. My beef with Tarantino is that he confines himself to the genre-specific ghetto when he's clearly capable of transcending such moribund milieux. And I'm weary of wading through the directorial detritus deposited at my local multiplex by imitative hacks such as Ritchie and Rodriguez.
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
On May 29, 1983, Steve Howe, a 25 year-old relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, checked himself into a drug rehabilitation center to treat an addiction to cocaine. Howe was a promising young star, 1980's rookie of the year, and endowed with the hyperactive, pugnacious demeanor of a natural-born "closer," the pitcher charged with saving tight games in treacherous late-inning situations. He completed his rehab in late June, but was sent away again in September after missing a team flight and refusing to submit to urinalysis. He tested positive for cocaine three times that November, and was suspended from baseball for the 1984 season, one of several players caught up in the decade's snorty zeitgeist. Howe returned to the mound in '85 and over the next 6 years pitched sporadically for the Dodgers, the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers, as well as a Mexican League team and a couple of independent minor-league level clubs in the States. But June of '92 found Howe busted again, and Fay Vincent, then the commissioner of baseball, banned him for life. An arbitrator later vacated Vincent's decision, reinstating Howe, and the New York Yankees signed him to pitch in the Bronx. After Yankee relievers suffered a mid-season collapse in 1994, Howe stepped into the breach and, notwithstanding his caged pacing and myriad facial tics, recorded 15 clutch saves and a 1.80 earned run average, winning the enduring affection and respect of Yankee fans, who have a proud history of adopting the troubled and eccentric, just so long as they win.
Welcome to New York, perhaps the most prolifically redemptive island in human history. Granted, islands are built for redemption. Their isolation and exclusivity require new beginnings from their inhabitants, and they tend in general (and New York's islands tend in particular) to transact life on terms different from other places. In the City, where the hybrid system runs on aggression, aplomb and sex appeal, fatuous Wall Street wizards and Upper-East Side tastemakers serve prison sentences and emerge hotter than ever, redeemed not by God or humanism but by the very fact of their fall from grace. It's exotica, a matter of salacious interest and a perfect bluff for the social scene, where a big rep is all it takes, and the smart ones ride theirs all the way to a clubby write-up in Talk of the Town. Sure, a prison term is a nuisance, but it's also useful (if bush-league) preparation for the more exigent realities of life in Manhattan. So it's no surprise that we should admire the same things in our more middle-class heroes--our athletes and actors, and our politicians too. We want contrition, of course, and we must remember the children, but a little imperfection makes for a compelling character, and we won't have that sacrificed.
The New York Yankees opened their 2005 season 11-19. It was the worst start anyone could remember, and it came on the heels of the greatest collapse (or comeback, depending on your regional perspective) in baseball history, when, in the second round of the 2004 playoffs, the Yankees were eliminated by the Red Sox despite winning the first three games of a best-of-seven series. In every one of the last nine years, they had made it to the playoffs, and in every one of the last seven, they had won the American League's Eastern Division title, but 2005 seemed different. They were paying 15, ten and seven million dollars to three starting pitchers of dubious value--Brown, Wright and Pavano--and they had purchased the super-rich contract of Randy Johnson, once inarguably the finest pitcher in the major leagues, but now, at 41, a cranky and unreliable prima donna, whose 6'7 frame and acne-scarred face looked pained and out of place in Yankee pinstripes. Their beloved veteran center fielder Bernie Williams couldn't throw anymore, and their traditionally solid bullpen hemorrhaged runs nightly. It was a difficult reality for fans who had been treated to a decade of near-constant success, but it was manna for the millions of Yankee haters, whose unfailing passion evinces the team's historical greatness and cultural significance. In the wake of their ignominious 2004 defeat at the hands of the Red Sox, and finding themselves in last place in the American League East, the Yankees and their fans despaired. It was over.
Enter Jason Gilbert Giambi and Aaron James Small, high school classmates from California and unlikely Yankee teammates, whose personal redemptions spurred the 2005 Yankees to their eighth consecutive division title on Saturday. Giambi, a longtime star slugger, is one of the few known quantities in the recent steroid controversy (and Capitol Hill comedy, where the workout regimens of professional athletes have curiously attained massive political profile), whose leaked congressional testimony marks him as a confirmed (though not explicitly stated) user. Giambi spent most of 2004 on the Yankees' disabled list, recovering from mysterious fatigue and a suspicious tumor, both of which, it seemed likely to pretty much everyone who gave it any thought, might just be the rightful wages of sticking a hypodermic needle in your ass and suffering nascent breast development, in exchange for increased strength and the ability to heal faster (a superhero's tradeoff). But if nothing else came clear in 2005, at least Jason Giambi wasn't on the juice. Never did a hitter look more helpless at the plate than poor Jason. He flailed and whiffed, and the earnest cheerfulness that once endeared him to fans and teammates curdled into delusive optimism. He was done.
But he wasn't. Through the first two months of the season, Giambi claimed to be on the right track. He still had his good eye, he pointed out, referring to all the walks he earned, and it was just a matter of timing and bat speed after that. Fans and the media were indulgent but skeptical. The Yankees are a known rest-home for aging, overpriced talent, and Giambi's story, though more dramatic than the trajectory of your average baseball player's decline, did fit the profile. But, much to everyone's surprise, he started hitting again, and what he started hitting were home runs--tall flies that took ages to land, and missiles that slammed into the bleachers moments after cracking off his bat. Giambi began driving in runs at a faster pace than anyone else on a team full of standout run-producers, and he continued reaching base on the walks that served as his crutch in those first miserable months, all of which amounted to league-leading slugging and on-base percentages. Jason was redeemed, and his legend is assured now as the star who wanted more, who lost everything to greed and arrogance, and who recovered his glory, which is now vastly more appealing for the fact that it's tarnished. It's a real New York kind of story.
As for Aaron Small, his is a story of redemption too, but one more suitable for middle America, which might not take so kindly to the resurrected likes of Steve Howe and Jason Giambi. Like Giambi, Small is a 34 year-old baseball veteran, but a veteran of the minor-leagues, whose only pro success has been the several "cups of coffee" (as baseball cant has it) he's enjoyed in the majors in 16 years of playing--short stints in the bigs, followed by interminable bus rides back to the minors. This year, Small was called up to plug the holes left by the Yankees' multimillion-dollar washouts, Brown, Wright and Pavano. Small, it should be noted, is the type of guy who thanks God for minor successes, a tendency not uncommon in local basketball and football players, but one that seems exceedingly peculiar in a glamorous Bronx Bomber. Nevertheless, he has been embraced by New York fans, and their acceptance has everything to do with the ten victories he compiled (against no defeats) in his partial 2005 season. This modest, Southern country boy outpitched every high-priced arm the Yankee millions could buy, and after every game he shucksed his way through interviews, praising his patient wife, praising his remarkably attentive savior, and just generally expressing his shock and pleasure at finding himself in the heat of a big-league pennant race after more than a decade-and-a-half of slogging his way from minor-league town to minor-league town. Small's story is relevant here because his time is short. His 16-year patience, his redemption, will not remain in the minds of New Yorkers very long, not unless he does something colossally self-destructive--and he better do it quick. We like a little dirt on our heroes, a little vulgarity, because otherwise it's all hearts and flowers and straight-laced (and -faced) fortitude, and what could be more dull? New York takes pride in its corruptions, and a hero isn't a New York hero until he's been dragged down and beaten (preferably by his own hand).
And this is why the 2005 Yankees have a shot at being the most memorable team to come out of the City in years. They've seized every opportunity to make things hard this season. Every potential run-scoring at bat, every pitching change and every difficult fielding chance has come with the sour taste of unavoidable failure, the sense that we're almost out of gas now after a decade at the top. Our trusty veterans have lost their vigor and our big-name stars are compromised--by their egos, their paychecks and their tendency to choke. The obstreperous owner is lapsing into dementia, and even Yankee Stadium itself has entered its dotage. Indeed, what we're confronted with is the last, limping formation of a great baseball team, occasionally disgraced by its swollen personalities and bottomless, ignorant pockets, trying to fashion for itself a true New York-kind of glory--one that climbs out of the depths, battered and ugly. This is our redemption.
words adapted from "Sarah" by Thin Lizzy:
When you came in my life you changed my world,
Everything seemed so right, my baby girl,
You are all I want to know,
You hold my heart so don't let go,
You are all I need to live,
My love to you I'll give,
When you begin to smile you change my style,
When I look in your eyes I see my prize,
You are all I want to know,
You hold my heart so don't let go
You are all I need to live,
My love to you I'll give,
You are all I want to know,
Oh, my Missy,
Don't let go oh no,
You are all I want to know,
You hold my heart so don't let go,
You are all I need to live,
My love to you I'll always give,
You are all I want to know,
You hold my heart so don't let go,
You are all I want to know,
Oh, my Missy,
Yes you changed my style with your baby smile,
Childlike charms keep me warm, hold you in my arms,
Change my world, my baby girl,
All I want to know don't let go,
No, no, no, no, no, no,
Monday, October 03, 2005
After the vacuous designer-violence of Kill Bill (vols 1 & 2) and Sin City, it's both surprising and invigorating to discover a movie that takes violence seriously.
David Cronenberg has always been possessed of a singular artistic vision; Tarantino, by comparison, is merely a myopic medium channelling the superficial spirit of the zeitgeist. Tarantino's ultra-stylised sadism is as meaningful as MTV, and only marginally hipper. QT's cinematic output rarely amounts to more than the sum of the formulaic parts: killer soundtrack, fetishistic ultra-violence and a liberal sprinkling of pop-culture references. Tarantino sabotages his work with irony and, thus, divests it of meaning and distances himself from the realms of dreary consequentialism and artistic responsibility. Tarantino gives the public what he thinks they want: the pop-culture placebo. Cronenberg, by contrast, deals in uncut, unmediated expression.
For Tarantino, violence is the juice which powers his entire gas-guzzling, conspicuously-consuming, amoral oeuvre. Tarantino's ultra-violence is undermined by its ubiquity. In A History of Violence, Cronenberg uses violence economically and its potency resides not in the abstract aesthetic of its expression, but in the messy, morning-after, detritus of its after-effects and in its contagious capacity to corrupt and transform. Tarantino's violence is sexy, superficial and ubiquitous whereas Cronenberg's is nasty, brutish and short. Cronenberg dives into the deep end with Nietzsche, McLuhan, Kafka and Hobbes, but Quentin is content to cavort in the shallows with Bruce Lee, Giorgio Armani, Russ Meyer and Uma. Tarantino is dazzled by the glitterati but Cronenberg is more interested in the literati.
Cronenberg, the man who translated both Burroughs' and Ballard's "unfilmable" magna opera (Naked Lunch and Crash) into the cinematic medium, is undaunted by the challenge of integrating philosophy and cinema, high art and low culture. Like Burroughs, he uses pulp fiction as a vehicle to smuggle challenging, and often subversive, content into popular consciousness. If AHOV's subtext (that violence is a virus which infects, disfigures and diminishes us all) were any more Burroughsian it would be performing William Tell routines at parties.
A History of Violence opens with a daemonic, disturbing prologue: two dysfunctional drifters check out of a motel "with extreme prejudice." Cronenberg artfully misdirects our gaze from a mid-western My Lai-in-miniature. As the director distracts us with devilishly extraneous details, the murderers' disaffected, disconnected demeanours instantly contextualize their casual barbarity as the acts of desensitised veterans of violence.
In the following scene, a handsome father, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), reassures his young daughter that monsters don't really exist. Of course, having just "witnessed" the motel massacre, we're already incapable of buying into this innocent worldview. As the film progresses, Daddy's reassuring fiction is, incrementally and terrifyingly, exposed as an elaborate deceit.
Tom Stall seems to be a soft-spoken, good-natured, pillar of Millbrook, Indiana's community. He lives in an idyllic farmhouse, runs the local diner, is married to a seriously sexy, successful, lawyer Edie (Maria Bello) and they have a couple of great kids (teenage son Jack and six-year-old Sarah). When Edie initiates hot sex by dressing up as the teenage cheerleader Tom wishes he'd met at high school, Cronenberg is telling us that life really couldn't be any better for Tom Stall, but he's already hinting that it may only be a pretence. The Apollonian abstraction of the movie's first sex scene is, later, contrasted with the Dionysian dynamic of a second, very different, encounter in which the "same" participants have been stripped of the dignifying, but deceitful, layers of assumed identity.
Cronenberg doesn't have to crank up the schmaltz quite so shamelessly as a Capra, or even a Lynch, for us to suspect that this idealised portrait of small-town, mid-western life is about to turn into Bad Day at Millbrook.
So when the evil drifters arrive at Stall's Diner, we're already prepared for a classic Western showdown between "good" and "evil", even if, as we suspect, Cronenberg is incapable of delineating such a simplistic dichotomy without smuggling a scintilla of post-modern mischief into the mix. When it comes, as we know it will, the violence is intense but ephemeral. Stall throws scalding coffee over one of his assailants, grabs his gun and kills them both. A lingering close-up of one of the corpses' bullet-ravaged craniums immediately sucks the air from the "small-town-hero" balloon, which is, invariably, inflated in such circumstances.
Stall's economical execution of the bad guys not only ensures that the subsequent question ("How come he's so good at killing people?") is entirely appropriate, but you wonder why it took
a) quite so long for anyone to get around to asking it
b) another out- of-town lowlife to finally state the obvious.
Seems like the entire community of Milbrook bought into Daddy's reassuringly innocent fiction.
The media's sycophantic treatment of Stall's, seemingly, heroic and proportionate response to aggression parallels its handling of the Bush administration's response to 9/11, but the ruthless efficiency underpinning Stall's self-defence attests to a history of violence lurking beneath the patina of heroism. Violence is encoded within Stall's (and America's) DNA.
Stall eschews the media's attentions with "man of few words" modesty. Canadian Cronenberg cunningly deconstructs Hollywood's heroic "all-American hero" archetype: Stall's laconic loner routine suggests he has something to hide.
Tom and Edie want to return to the good old days but violence has, irrevocably, infected this family. The gift that just keeps on giving decants Philly mobster, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and his two henchmen, out of a jet black Cadillac onto the Diner's doorstep. Fogarty orders coffee and, taking off his shades to reveal a badly scarred left eye, greets Tom as he would a long-lost acquaintance. Fogarty entertains no doubt that Tom Stall is really the guy who blinded him with barbed wire during a former incarnation as a ruthless Irish gangster, "Crazy" Joey Cusack -- "You're trying so hard to be this other guy, it's painful to watch." Tom's performance is so convincing at this point that we assume we've ventured into Hitchcockian "wrong man" territory, but our (and his own family's) doubts intensify as his façade of quiet confidence and amiable approachability soon shatters into a schizophrenic countenance betraying paranoia, fear and ruthlessness.
The residue from the initial "isolated" act of violence continues to metastasise and, before long, secondary acts are erupting and escalating, seemingly, exponentially: Tom's son Jack fights back against, and hospitalises, a high school bully; Tom chastises Jack for resorting to violence and, absurdly, punctuates his lecture with a blow; Tom and Edie act out a second, more aggressive, sex scene which contrasts sharply with the playfulness of the first; Jack graduates to murder (albeit in defence of his father) and "Crazy Joey" concludes the movie by committing carnage in Philadelphia (this last sequence, the penultimate scene of the film, features an over-the-top performance by William Hurt and improbable acts of carnage, which combine to unbalance the movie, but AHOV's absurd denouement is practically compelled by it's own, ever-escalating, arithmetic of violence).
After father and son eliminate Fogarty and his crew, "Tom" confesses to Edie, from his hospital bed, that, many years ago, he'd taken Joey out to the desert and "disposed" of him. From that day on he'd been Tom Stall. Edie throws up. The man she married was an impostor; her marriage a sham. Tom had effectively maintained this mild-mannered identity for nigh-on twenty years, but only "Crazy" Joey seems truly capable of protecting "his" family from the predations of Fogarty and his kind. Edie is both repelled by and attracted to the impostor and it is Joey who forces himself upon Edie in a brutal coupling on the stairs of the farmhouse. At first she fights back, but then appears to submit enthusiastically. It's debatable whether she's "really" responding to the remnants of romantic Tom or to the dominant and ruthless stranger, Joey.
The friendly local chief of police enquires, at one point, if, perhaps, Tom was in a witness protection programme. The film's recurring themes of reconstruction and reconfiguration of identity seem to imply that we're all part of a vast witness protection programme, that we're attempting to erase barely-sublimated memories of participation, or complicity, in primal violence and that our civilised lives are nothing more than fictional constructs which insulate and protect us from our own brutal, cruel, predatory natures.
The film closes upon Joey/Tom's return from Philadelphia. It's clear, as he takes his place at the head of the dinner table, that the "Stall" family aren't quite sure who has returned, or indeed who they are themselves any more, but it's equally clear that they'll make the necessary adjustments and that life will go on, if not quite as before, then at least, in something approximating to a passable facsimile of normality.