December 23, 2008

In the grip of decay: Jon Savage and Joy Division

“I never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialisation had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see.” -- WG Sebald, "Max Ferber", from The Emigrants.

“'To talk of life today is like talking of rope in the house of a hanged man.' Where will it end?”
-- Jon Savage reviews Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, Melody Maker, July 1979.

Yes, Jon Savage really did open his 1979 review of Unknown Pleasures with those words, a full 10 months before the suicide of Ian Curtis. You find that review in his book Time Travel, which collects 20 years of music writing, and you find it glanced at as an archived clipping, consulted on microfiche, in Grant Gee's documentary Joy Division, to which Savage contributes as a writer. No comment is made about the strange prescience of those words but in the extras on the DVD, Jon Wozencroft says that of all the arts, music has the greatest claim to also acting as prophecy. Music of the seers, maybe -- this is the kind of thing more commonly said about Curtis's Mancunian contemporary, The Fall's resident psychic Mark E Smith.

In the unofficial trilogy of Joy Division films, you find Joy Division sitting closer to Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People than Anton Corbijn's Control. It's about Joy Division's role in the understanding, interpretation and ultimate revival of Manchester, the world's first modern city, the first industrial city, that had fallen on hard times and apparently stood, by the late 1970s, as a glaring symbol of the unravelling of the post-war liberal consensus, rather than the more old-fashioned romanticism of Control, which largely concerned Joy Division as a vehicle for Curtis's personal expression -- his turbulent life became their harrowing lyrics. In Joy Division, we're reminded of the fact that the band existed before Curtis -- again on the extras, there is a hilarious account of a pre-Curtis audition, in which a hippie squatted on cushions and sang his poetry accompanied by balalaika -- and went on after, which is not to diminish Curtis's role but to suggest a complementary view. In the Guardian, Savage said, "rather than reduplicate Anton Corbijn's focus on Ian Curtis, we decided to root Joy Division in their time and place”.

What we're talking about is a particular attention to the emotional qualities of a place, the ghostly traces of history in a city. Gee photographs the old clubs, old houses, old bridges. "All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends." This Situationist International quote appears in a paper by Liz Naylor that you can find
here, and besides the surviving Joy Division members Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris, Savage and Gee load their film with intellectuals who can apply those psychogeographic ideas to the sound and legacy of Joy Division. Savage, who doesn't appear on camera but certainly shaped the film's worldview, moved to Manchester in 1979 and the city was interpreted for him by the first Joy Division album -- its sense of hollow and deep space, its dark and dangerous nights, its sense of something new and shiny breaking through the sooty surface of the city. Someone else calls it a science-fiction interpretation of Manchester. And there are so many people to take credit for that beside the band -- producer Martin Hannett especially, plus writer Paul Morley, manager Tony Wilson, sleeve designer Peter Saville. Naylor is an early interpreter too -- she made a short film called No City Fun in 1979, designed to be screened with side one of Unknown Pleasures as a soundtrack. Gee gives us a rare glimpse of Naylor's text: "The city is terrifying." So perhaps the best anecdote to catch the flavour of the times -- Britain in the late '70s as a crisis point -- is the one in the extras about the band being hauled in as Yorkshire Ripper suspects.

Manchester in the '60s was the playground of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Manchester in the '60s and '70s was about the destruction of the old working-class communities -- which continue to have an afterlife in such fictional versions as Coronation Street (those back-to-back terrace houses don't exist anymore) -- and their replacement by vast, brutalist apartment buildings and planned new towns. There were still WWII bombsites, old industrial canals; it was a city of damp, empty spaces (Manchester historian CP Lee, who appears only in the documentary's extras, called his book Shake, Rattle and Rain), “a soot-blackened city that was drifting steadily towards ruin” as Sebald saw it in the '60s. Two months before Unknown Pleasures was released, Thatcher's Conservatives came to power and that slightly terrifying and shiny modern future breaking through the ruins in Unknown Pleasures is probably an anticipation of what Naylor calls "the regional devastation wrought by Thatcherism". And in a peculiar way, the post-modern entrepreneuralism of Tony Wilson, so celebrated in 24 Hour Party People, is a corollary of that. We had the same thing in New Zealand -- the new age of economic liberalism brought new kinds of escapist entertainment and new, individualist successes.

It's became a well-worn line about Joy Division that there seem to be so many dead people involved: Curtis, Hannett, manager Rob Gretton, and Wilson since filming the documentary. Thanks to Control, we now have accurate doppelgangers to fill in the gaps. We hear Curtis speaking just twice in this film, once in an interview and once under hypnosis, within past-life regression -- a dead person speaking through a dead person. Ghosts of places and ghosts of people: taken like this, Joy Division feels like it's come together as a collision of Naylor's paper and the long Joy Division feature that Jon Savage wrote for Mojo in 1994 and published in Time Travel. This feature was Savage's reassessment of the band as well as the city that he had long since left and the suicide he still hadn't come to terms with; it included some reminiscences from the band that hadn't appeared before and appear almost verbatim in the documentary.

So, that was then? Manchester is now, thanks to Wilson and apparently thanks to Joy Division and New Order, a creative capital. But psychogeography should also tell you that such ideas are cosmetic. On the DVD, Naylor suggests that you only have to go a kilometre or so from the city centre, even today, to find unbelievable poverty -- the kind of poverty that shocked Europeans such as Sebald and, in 1979, Anton Corbijn (everything looked black and white, he has said; no one ate enough or dressed warmly enough; no one had a phone or a car). And this is Sebald in The Emigrants, going back there in 1989 or 1990:

“I had no difficulty in finding my way as everything in Manchester had essentially remained the same as it had been almost a quarter of a century before. The buildings that had been put up to stave off the general decline were now themselves in the grip of decay, and even the so-called development zones, created in recent years on the fringes of the city centre and along the Ship Canal, to revive the entrepreneurial spirit that so much was being made of, already looked semi-abandoned."

December 16, 2008

We are the bomb squad and we're coming to town: Bill Ayers, 40 years on

"We tried to build a clandestine organisation that could survive what we thought was an impending American fascism and escalating repression and to make the war painful for the warmakers. And so we targetted symbols, and we targetted war targets. We did not target people. We never kidnapped, assassinated or brought mass destruction on anyone. And therefore it wasn't terrorism ... It doesn't induce fear at 2.00 in the morning if you knock out a computer in the Pentagon that's waging an air war against the Vietnamese. You could say it was stupid and I'm not defending it now. You could call it a lot of things but calling it 'terror' is what I'm arguing against. And if you want, and I believe we want to in this country, have a truth and reconciliation process about the Vietnam war, then what we would have to do is line up people like myself and my partner [Bernardine Dohrn] and we'd also have to line up John Kerry and Bob Kerrey and John McCain and Henry Kissinger and George Bush and Dick Cheney and ask everyone, 'What did you do while the United States murdered 2000 people a month? What was your responsibility?' And in that company I'm happy to say exactly what I did and take full responsibility for it. But without that kind of process it seems that a small organisation that came out of the student movement, the anti-war movement, is asked to stand for everything backward and violent while Henry Kissinger goes to state dinners and advises the State Department. That makes no sense whatsoever."
These days, former Weather Underground man Bill Ayers is so far out of hiding that he's happily chatting with Kathryn Ryan on National Radio. Even with Ryan's scepticism running at full strength, this managed to be fairly moving -- so imagine what a sympathetic interviewer could have made of it. Ayers managed to plug his memoir Fugitive Days a couple of times, so consider this entry a plug for the movie that followed -- the excellent documentary The Weather Underground by Sam Green and Bill Siegel that, I've just realised, made my ten-best list back in 2003:
This fascinating festival documentary tracks the secret history of a notorious anti-war protest group that operated beneath US law enforcement radar in the early 1970s, bombing government buildings to bring the Vietnam war home – America is described as “the most violent society that has ever existed”. Although comparisons between then and now are inescapable, the wider context is really the general shift from 60s radicalism to the new conservatism of the 80s – a shift adroitly summarised in contrasting images of Jane Fonda, from the “Hanoi Jane” who supported the Vietnamese communists to the Fonda who hawked aerobics videos.  
Speaking of adroit summaries, the Ryan/Ayers interview also included this exchange:
Ryan: You've come out of the period of living underground, yourself and your wife. You both ended up essentially as members of the establishment. A law professor, an education professor.
Ayers: Is that bad or good?
Ryan: I have no judgement on it.
Ayers: I'm shocked. You should have.

December 10, 2008

Short list

1. It's that time of the year, isn't it? The time of the lists. Usually by about now I need to have worked out a top ten -- for the Listener or, last year, the Lumiere Reader. This year, I've opted not to -- there's been too much pass by that I haven't seen, due largely to the fact that so much of what plays in the mid-year festival in the North Island doesn't make it south. This year, that included The Man From London, Silent Light, Lorna's Silence, Diary of the Dead and My Winnipeg. But I'll happily stretch to a top three: 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; There Will Be Blood. The first two came within a very strong World Cinema Showcase line-up in April. And best NZ film seen: Rain of the Children.

2. I was pretty surprised to see, within
this list of NZ music videos, that Ronnie Van Hout directed a clip for The Clean's "Getting Older" in 1982. Presumably he was still at art school in Christchurch when he did this. I think it's Bob Scott (Clean/Bats) in the clip, playing the kind of harried role that RVH would himself play in his short art films a decade or more later, which often ape horror movie language to make points and off-hand jokes about identity, our strangeness to ourselves. In fact, RVH talked about all this during a curiously difficult National Radio interview this week. Why horror, Kathryn Ryan asked.
"The fear of existence, the lack of existence. A lot of horror is about the interior and things that are hidden from us.
"The movie The Thing, they can't tell which is the monster and which is the human being. The monster exactly replicates the human being. For all intents and purposes, it's the same person."
3. Nicole Kidman as box office poison. We were discussing this very thing on Public Address last week. I'm with David Thomson on Birth: it's a film of Kubrickian chill and mystery. Thomson doesn't say it but you have to go back to 2001's horror film The Others to find the last genuine Kidman hit. According to Box Office Mojo, it took $96.5m in the US and $113.4m everywhere else against a budget of just $17m. And like Von Trier's Dogville, it used her cold, prim quality -- possibly something that's stopping audiences from liking her -- to its advantage.

November 7, 2008

Things to do in Belgium when you’re not quite dead

"I do know a Belgium joke. What's Belgium famous for? Chocolates and child abuse, and they only invented the chocolates to get to the kids."
Belgium takes a hammering in Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's first film In Bruges, but it might also steer the tourists towards the canals, churches and squares of medieval picturebook town Bruges, a so-called Venice of the north. The set-up sounds a little like the eloquent-hitman scenarios that came thick and fast in the 90s, in the wake of Tarantino -- Irish shooters Ken (older, wiser and played by Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (younger, simpler and played by Colin Farrell) are sent to Bruges in winter to hide out after a couple of killings in London. Incongruity, right? There's a touch of Beckett in McDonagh’s writing of this odd couple’s minutely-examined boredom, killing two slow weeks in a tourist town. Their boss, Harry (an enjoyably nasty Ralph Fiennes, initially just a voice on the phone), picked Bruges because of his "fairytale" memories of a magical childhood holiday. The canals, the swans, and so on. So they're aren't just eloquent hitmen, they're sentimental hitmen. And also, we learn, moral.
Bruges is a real place, but then again, it isn't. Ken and Ray's hideaway is doubling as a film location. Ray tells the joke above to impress a girl -- he meets her on the set of a Euro arthouse movie that’s being shot in the town, some of which involves a dwarf in a dream sequence, which is a homage, she says, to the Venice-set Don't Look Now (but which reminded me more of a comedy bit in Living in Oblivion when the dwarf complains about being in a dream sequence -- "The only place I've seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this"), and some of which involves a Bosch-inspired costume party. And by this point, both Ken and Ray have already imbibed an exhibition of gory medieval art -- including Bosch's Last Judgement – which McDonagh also treats us to in close-up, as well as a replay of a killing of a priest that still haunts Ray. So it’s not just a film about guilt and morality, it’s really a film about Catholic guilt, Catholic morality, but told with an enviably light touch.

October 31, 2008

Black wings

Terrestrial life is a drama directed from above. Or it is in the medieval world of Murnau's Faust. His Nosferatu was set in the open air, in the depopulated backwoods of Europe; his Faust unfolds in large and detailed but clearly artificial sets. There is expressionist distortion and supernatural realism: the winding steps in the German village are impossibly steep, the flowers, fields and girls impossibly pretty. This teeming human life is someone's dream -- that of Faust himself, caught in the sickness of his temptations, hypnotised by beauty, dreaming himself as perpetually young.

I caught a screening of Faust on a recent trip to the Melbourne Arts Festival; it came with a new live score by Phillip Johnston. Someone detected a hint of Robert Johnson blues guitar during the crossroads scene; the new libretto kept coming back to a theme about enjoying life while you can, because the plague is imminent. As they say, it's a film shot in darkness and light, not black and white, made with astonishing perfectionism and a painterly eye. And can you detect Murnau's own alleged solitude and aloofness in the doomed Faust, struggling to make meaningful human contact, or in Mephisto himself, keeping up his end of the bargain only to have the bland and beautiful angel over-rule him in the end with the universe's ruling word, "love"? (Yes, the house wins.)

The great critic Robin Wood has said that sexuality is the source of evil in Murnau. And it is here, through Mephisto's smirking seduction of Gretchen's aunt Marthe as little more than a time-killing prank, and through the pursuit of Gretchen by Faust that will take two lives and ruin a third (Faust's). But evil, also, is about the manipulation of events. Thomas Elsaesser in Weimar Cinema and After, on Nosferatu: "Not unlike Nosferatu himself, mastermind but also enmeshed in the events, the majority of the characters are at once 'inside' the fiction and also standing apart from it." Similarly, Mephisto sets up an earthly drama, and then steps into it.

And so the most famous shot might still be the early one (above) of the giant Mephisto looming over the medieval village, his black wings casting a long shadow over the streets and houses. It's also an image of the plague, of death sweeping in from the east. And it was imitated more than ten years later at the beginning of the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in Disney's Fantasia -- a sequence that gave us a lively Halloween night of Satanic revellers vanquished by the sound of church bells and the peaceful light of day. "A picture of the struggle between the profane and the sacred," as Fantasia's narrator says, and it's still impressive, as most of that strange, ambitious Disney project continues to be. But Walt's devil has no human qualities, no charm, no cunning -- he's all monster, a horned, greedy Moloch. And he retreats without much complaint when the morning arrives and we see and hear a religious pilgrimage set to "Ave Maria". It's about a co-dependency between light and dark, not an opposition. In Murnau's film, the devil puts up more of a fight.

October 15, 2008

The drained world

Science, knowledge, learning … all that stuff is useless in the face of the slow, passive threat, the art-directed apocalypse, in M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. This is a strangely gentle, inert and suspense-less horror film – a horror film without any genuine menace, all effect and no cause. Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and others run from nothing in particular, just a plague of unattributed deaths, a suicide contagion, in a drained and introverted world. What is Shyamalan getting at? Maybe this. In its open-endedness – among the possible causes invoked are planetary payback, terrorists and “the government” – this thing might be meta-comment about the impossibility of making a straight-forward disaster movie in a world of so many real threats (war, terror, climate, nukes in Asia, now the economy) where even traditional movie monsters are routinely read as modern-anxiety metaphors. Zombies are really consumers and War of the Worlds is really about al-Qaeda. So Shyamalan gives us just the metaphor without the monster (or the sizzle without the steak). Which is in keeping with how he's been working all along, presenting horror's structures as symbolic maps for stories that are really about troubled relationships. In Signs, the Shyamalan film that this most resembles, the aliens became a hypothetical threat to direct Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) towards a mystic-religious message about the power of love. So it is here, only with the threat even further backgrounded, as the passing disaster acts as couples therapy for Elliot and Alma.

You might see that as colossally narcissistic as well as deeply conservative. But as an auteur, he's been doggedly persistent, and not just in his cool perfectionism. I’ve written before about Shyamalan’s obsession with big-city crime. It gets yet another airing here: as Elliot flees Philadelphia, there’s a quick shot of a newspaper headline about soaring murder rates – “Killadelphia”. So, regardless of any world-destroying toxic threat, you’re already better off in the country, in small groups, away from the bulk of humanity. Which is where Elliot and Alma end up -- “We’re in a small town, nothing can happen to us here,” he says. Eventually we reach a remote country house that could be a scene from 100 years ago or more, where a “Mrs Jones” gives the small girl who travels with the pair a lesson in decent, old-fashioned manners. The past is safer.

And knowledge is useless? This marks Shyamalan out once again as a man with a mystical bent. Elliot’s maths teacher friend believes in percentages and winds up dead; a girl who is getting confused repeats “calculus … calculus” like a malfunctioning robot. Why rely on numbers and logic? Trust the man who talks to the wind, the trees, the spirits. The only person with any valuable learning here is the guy who communicates with plants – a fellow mystic. This lets Shyamalan make vengeful, all-powerful nature a new version of God’s mysteriousness – as an expert “explains” late in the film, “It’s an act of nature and we’ll never fully understand it”.

October 3, 2008

Invisible war

"It's a film about the Love Generation, but seen in depth -- like the Fourth Dimension . . . There's an invisible war going on. It's of Miltonic proportions and it's a war between the forces of life and death, love and hate. The film Lucifer Rising is a prophecy."
-- Kenneth Anger, 1967
Lucifer Rising is about human and divine scales, human and divine time. The private pageant is a ritual that wakes old gods, bringing simultaneous reactions across different levels of reality. It’s Anger’s masterpiece, a tranquil and triumphant religious film that ends with a new age image as daring and simple and original as any ever conceived: those pink flying saucers hovering over the Egyptian pyramids. That’s an image of hope – just like the proposed ending of an earlier version, in which a crowd of hippies kneeled at the San Andreas Fault, praying for "a liberating earthquake" (shades of Zabriskie Point) – and altruistic generosity.

September 10, 2008

The old man smiled

Going backwards through this Batman thing, I finally caught Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. It’s a duller film than The Dark Knight – strangely boring, impersonal, serious without being deep. The difference between the two films might be the difference between Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who play the same girl. But the film accidentally does something interesting with its Ra’s Al Ghul, the requisite villain. Anyone who ever read a lot of William Burroughs would have picked up that this Ra’s is really a version of Hassan I Sabbah, the legendary “old man of the mountains”, who kept an army of assassins and operated according to the motto – so fondly and regularly quoted by Burroughs – “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. Ra’s cooks up a hallucinatory gas from flowers found on the slopes of his mountain much as the reality-distorting Hassan fed his killers hashish – indeed, the word “assassin” translates as “hash-eater”. Of course, an Arabic-speaking millennial cult that aims to purify the world through terror and fire isn’t the kind of story that Hollywood really wanted to tell this decade, which is why we got the not very Arabic-looking Liam Neeson as Ra’s, whose homeland now looks more east Asian, perhaps Tibet or Southern China (is there still a difference?). Which neatly connects Ra’s seemingly eternal “League of Shadows” group to another, even stranger story: the one about the secretly world-ruling Tibetan elders with magical powers, a myth that once lured everyone from the Theosophists to the Nazis.

September 3, 2008

What dreams: The Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume One

Kenneth Anger has said that his films are like spells. They’re also like dreams. Hence the image next to the disk-tray in this ravishing, long-awaited, meticulously restored DVD release: a teenage Anger, supine on a bed, eyes closed, dreaming hard. It’s a still from the earliest of these films, 1947’s Fireworks – a black-and-white, night-set, precocious fantasy about sailors, bars and bashings. The other four films here are even less realist, more fantastic: the ghostly glamour of old Hollywood in Puce Moment (1949) feeds into the decadent, narcotised, occult pageantry of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). The longest film here at 38 dazzling minutes, Inauguration was psychedelic before there was psychedelia. Partly records of bohemian history, these films are also outside of time, but their influence goes deep: Martin Scorsese, who learnt from Anger’s Scorpio Rising – due to appear in Volume Two – writes a fanboy introduction to the 48-page booklet; films like Scorpio and Rabbit’s Moon (1950), with their use of pop songs as dream commentary, must have also caught the eye of David Lynch. Anger offers sparse but illuminating explanations of technical issues and decodes symbolism. (Originally in the NZ Listener, October 6, 2007.)

August 28, 2008

Ghostface killer

We can't ask Heath Ledger about it now, of course, but surely no Australian can have missed the strange overlap between the Joker's white face and scars and the face painting and scarification traditions of the Aboriginals? Ledger must have been aware of it, and the otherworldly possibilities it lent his no-name, no-background character. This, from an Aboriginal Art website:
The art of body decoration includes scarring, face and body painting for ritual, wearing of ornaments, and the transformation of the body using added texture and headdresses to form living images of ancestral beings. Scars were made on the body for many reasons, but mainly during ceremonies to mark age, initiation or to raise a person's status. Techniques varied from place to place, but scarification (or cicatrisation)usually involved cutting the skin with a sharp shell or rock, then rubbing irritating substances like ash into the cuts so that prominent keloid scars resulted. This process created raised, pigmented patterns on the chest, back, arms or legs of the initiate. Scarification is now rarely practised.
And then ...
Body painting continues as a strong and live part of contemporary Aboriginal culture, not only in traditional ceremonies but also as part of art and practices by urban people. Stephen Page, the artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, has commented about body painting that "There are no time constraints, no boundaries; there’s an apparent timelessness about the ritual." Djakapurra Munyarryun, a leading dancer with the company, says: "We never dance without ochre on ... because that’s what we have been doing for a long time, like a thousand years. Body paint for us is really important for our culture, for sharing with other people too. Some people don’t recognise me when I do painting, when I am performing. They can see when I am dancing, it’s like they thought I am an old old man. Because when I am there, it’s like my soul is very strong and I watch the audience. The paint makes me more older, older looking."

August 26, 2008

We haven't had that spirit here since 1969

“Onstage, they are all awkward, all except Brian. His face is almost feminine, pale and wide-lipped, but his hands are large, blocklike, and they handle the guitar like a shovel. He attacks the strings with wide up-and-down sweeps of the wrist, forms the chords with wide-stretched fingers, making his playing look more difficult than it is. He does this while standing still, not looking at the crowd, his face unaccountably stern.”
That quote comes from one of the best parts of Zachary Lazar’s Sway, a novel that maps that ever-popular topic, the death of 60s innocence. The decade was still innocent at that point, which was perhaps 1963, when Brian Jones was still the leader of the Rolling Stones, not yet cold-shouldered by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and when the 60s themselves had not really even started. Across the Atlantic, in New York, Kenneth Anger was also helping to invent the 60s by attaching his Crowleyite vision of a new Aquarian age to the outlaw imagery of a biker gang, transforming them into a story about the death drive, or “Thanatomania” (the film, of course, was Scorpio Rising). Six years later, the Hell’s Angels would act as security for the Stones at Hyde Park, London – a free concert that followed the death-by-drowning of Brian Jones – and then at Altamont Speedway in California, where the Angels, loaded on speed, LSD and beer, would kill an audience member, just after the Stones finished playing the song that Anger inspired them to write: “Sympathy for the Devil”. Only a few months before, there was a series of killings in LA – a pregnant movie star, her hairdresser, some others – and one of the killers was Bobby Beausoleil, a young man under the influence of Charles Manson. That same Beausoleil, a beautiful loser someone nicknamed Cupid, had once been cast in the title role in Anger’s next projected film, Lucifer Rising. By 1969, Anger was trying to talk Jagger into playing the part. When Jagger kept stalling, Anger turned what he had – some Beausoleil fragments, Stones footage, Vietnam war and hippie-occult imagery – into his most devastating film, Invocation of My Demon Brother (pictured above), an aggressive and hallucinatory collage that seems to get everything that's both attractive and repellent about those unendingly fascinating times into 11 startling minutes. And this novel Sway is either a close examination of the several threads of that film or an imaginative rewriting of this long paragraph.

Some of Sway reads like notes jotted down during viewings of Gimme Shelter or Godard’s One plus One – two of the key Stones films – or Anger’s eventual Lucifer Rising, but at other times, as in the Brian Jones excerpt above or a horrific description of the killing of Gary Hinman by Manson followers, Lazar displays a strong visual sense. Indeed, it’s less a narrative than a collage and at its best has a near-hynoptic feeling – just like the films of you-know-who. He’s also good on the shifting dynamics and personal politics of the Rolling Stones. By 1969, they were finally Mick and Keith’s band. Richards still has some heart -- he takes Jones' phone calls and listens to him -- but who is this vampire they call Jagger? In the end, with his dilettantish cynicism – think, too, of the last shot of Gimme Shelter, that bored indifference as he watches footage from Altamont – and his money obsession, Jagger seems the closest to any meaningful definition of evil (what did Rolling Stone say about Altamont? It was the product of "diabolical egotism"). Yes, he’s a man of wealth and taste, or just someone who knew how to read the times and what they demanded of their entertainers, without having any real belief in any of it -- “The sly,sophisticated con man who ... was just a bewildering reflection of all the people who were looking at him," as Lazar says.

I soon realised that Lazar's adoption of a you-are-there journalistic style -- really, 60s New Journalism -- was reminding me of something else. Of course: it's Stanley Booth's classic The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, which documented the 1969 US tour and described the horror of Altamont so brilliantly, and also flashed back to the origin of the band, making pilgrimages to their "quiet towns and near suburbs" as Lazar calls them. So, compare and contrast. First, from Booth:
"'This is our first contact with the cats whose music we've been playing,' Keith said. 'Watching Little Richard and Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers every night was the way we were drawn into the whole pop thing ... That was when Mick really started coming into his own.'"
And then, Lazar:
"They're suddenly matched up with American stars -- Bo Diddley, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers -- people they have idolized. It happens so quickly that the band doesn't have time to parse the implications of this mistake ... Already, Mick can see what's happening. He can see that no matter what he does he's about to become the focal point of the band."
In my view, Kenneth Anger is the most problematic character in Sway. This time the source is likely to have been Bill Landis’ gossipy biography Anger – a book dismissed by both Anger and his more recent biographer, Alice Hutchison. As drawn by Lazar, Anger becomes a sad, needy, slightly ridiculous figure, the same pop culture bit player we read about in Ed Sander’s famously unreliable Manson story The Family or Stephen Davis’s Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods or Marianne Faithfull's autobiography -- a lurid footnote about rock'n'roll's decadent phase. Maybe, as an outsider with an unusual belief system, he’s a tougher person for any author to get to grips with than Jones or Jagger (and Lazar wisely doesn’t try to get into Manson’s head), but surely Anger and his body of work are deserving of more respect than lines like this:
"He believed that his films were lasting works of art, but perhaps this idea was evasive. Perhaps it was a way to justify being thirty-five and living in a metal shed on someone else's roof."
One more complaint: the dialogue can be unusually clunky. The only line I really bought was the suddenly freaked Jagger at Altamont (“Everybody just cool out”) and only because we all watched him say it in Gimme Shelter. Lazar works better when he puts sketches against other sketches, building an impressionistic whole. An almost mythic quality comes out of this loosely-assembled history, a quality accentuated by the lack of tangible landmarks. No Stones songs are named other than their Chuck Berry cover “Carol”, and no lyrics are quoted, although the content of some – “Sympathy for the Devil” obviously, but also "Paint it Black" and "Under My Thumb" – is alluded to. Aleister Crowley also goes unnamed, and instead Lazar fabricates a Crowley-like occult book that passes into Anger’s hands and also gets the attention of Anita Pallenberg, the woman who left Jones for Richards during one of the book’s best long sequences, a stoned holiday in Marrakech, 1967. Lazar's Crowley pastiches are fine but his THY WILL BE DONE could never be a subsitute for Crowley’s motto DO WHAT THOU WILT, just as Lazar's Altamont passages could never compare to Booth's. Other scenes in Sway will only mean something to those who have done the same reading as Lazar (and he does name his sources, including the Booth and Landis books) – he has Anger and Beausoleil looking at San Francisco’s Powerhouse but he doesn’t tell his readers that Beausoleil then named his band the Magic Powerhouse of Oz. In the case of the unnamed Stones songs and the Crowley text, it’s possible that there are legal or copyright reasons, but the Anger films are all named and described. Perhaps Anger can’t call up an army of lawyers as easily.

Also, as it's about music, Lazar has a book-related playlist here. There’s a lot of Stones, plus Neil Young’s Manson-inspired “Revolution Blues” and Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69”, the last coming from that strange moment of post-punk identification with the Manson Family. So there are other songs you could add: Psychic TV’s touching Brian Jones tribute “Godstar”, Current 93’s “Beausoleil” and Coil’s “Solar Lodge”, and maybe even something like “Cease to Exist” from that Manson album that used to circulate as Lie. Why were we all so fascinated by it? I guess that’s the question that Lazar’s been trying to answer.

One last thing: the Rolling Stones stopped playing “Sympathy for the Devil” after Altamont. The ban lasted for about five years. But when I saw them at Western Springs, Auckland, in 1995, they played it and I think Jagger even wore a top hat, the look he took from Beausoleil via Kenneth Anger, just like he did in 1969. Nothing sinister happened, no one died. It's all part of the act now, just simulation – the Stones impersonating their history, just as the grinning and drunk Keith Richards impersonates himself every night. In 1969 they became the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world and Brian Jones was only one of the casualties. As Booth says, at the end of his book, "I spent time with the Stones on later tours, and they were always good, but there never seemed to be so much at stake."

August 18, 2008

Makes you stranger

I’m not sure which superhero movie finally killed off any lingering interest in the genre for me – the first Hulk, the third Spider-man, who can keep count? So I resisted The Dark Knight for a while, figuring it’s a movie better to read about than see. But I gave in. And while it goes on too long and it’s confusingly plotted in parts, I'd agree that it’s the high-water mark of a superhero genre that goes back 30 years to Richard Donner’s Superman. And it’s largely because of the way that Christopher Nolan, his brother Jonathan, who co-wrote it, and co-star Heath Ledger perceive the Joker. One of the persistent problems of these movies has been the need to cram in origin stories as a corny form of motivation: how that accident made this villain. None of that with the Joker. He’s simply an agent of chaos, with no real name, no back story, no fingerprint or DNA matches, no particular beef with society, no wish for revenge; he mocks motivation or back story every time he invents a new "how I got my scars" story. He is the mask, or the surface; he’s paper-thin and there’s no interior to him – and that’s why he’s a match for Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. Since his homicidal mannequin Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Bale has specialised in these men who are only their faces, only what they show the world, who have no discernible inner life. When trauma happens to a Bale character – as in The Machinist and Rescue Dawn – it happens to his body, not to anything inside him. And despite there being crazies on the loose all over, his Batman is easily the craziest thing in this film – he’s an apparition, a phantom, constantly materialising and dematerialising at the edge of your vision. “That which does not kill you makes you stranger,” says the Joker early on, a mangled quote that could easily double as Batman’s personal slogan, and also Patrick Bateman's. So the real reason this is the best superhero movie in 30 years? It's both the most serious and the least in thrall to its hero. In other words, there are times when you suspect that the Nolan brothers are ashamed of who or what their story is officially about.

Dreams of freedom

Dreams of freedom: it comes about 35 minutes in as Mark (Mark Frechette) soars over Los Angeles in his stolen plane. Antonioni has emphasised the city as all babble, or Babel – constant noise, radio talk, the drone of commerce, tightly-framed faces, the choking grid of motorways, all these words on billboards, literally a media landscape. Where Mark is heading is the complete opposite: the empty desert, the wordless state. Everyone comes with identifying words: the name of the radio station on the reporter's car, the American states on the tourist's van. When Mark flies the plane back to LA, it’s painted in psychedelic colours, with this great phrase on one side: “No words”. The failure of language to do anything but entrap us is why the dialogue can seem banal and unmemorable in this film. “I just wanted to get off the ground,” Mark says, a ponderous pun that strikes him as clever. Or: “I always knew that it would be like this. The desert.”

So one of the best things you can say about this visionary film – both sad and marvellous, optimistic and nihilistic -- is that its language is inadequate. Antonioni wanted to end it with an airplane writing a slogan in the sky -- “Fuck you, America” – but he was funded by MGM. Even without that, America hated it. Who is this foreigner to mock us? Just like the attack on Lars Von Trier’s Dogville more than 30 years later. In 1973, Frechette was arrested in a bank robbery, of which he said, "It would be like a direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death”. Two years later he died in prison. And when I think about the tense and dangerous Los Angeles in this film, I also think about the last days of the ill-fated Symbionese Liberation Army, who headed south from San Francisco looking for somewhere safe, only to end up in a shoot-out. They were the last gasp of the armed student radicals Antonioni went looking for in the US, the late comers.

August 6, 2008

I'm a stranger here myself: Vincent Ward, part two

One hopes that when the great dissertation on Vincent Ward is written, attention is paid to the films he wrote or conceived but didn't direct. Alien 3 seems easy to place -- its original vision of a monastery in space connects to the Andrei Rubylev-influenced medievalism of The Navigator and Vigil (or, "Tarkovsky in Taranaki"-- mud and cowls, remote valleys and moody weather). But The Last Samurai, which he also devised, is germane to any discussion of In Spring One Plants Alone. The 21-year-old arts student who made In Spring wasn't a cynical, fly-in, fly-out doco producer. Co-producer Tainui Stephens is quoted as follows in the Rain of the Children press kit:
“One of the things I felt in the course of making the film was that Vince’s relationship with the people was very much a long-term one. I came across people quite often who were down that way in those years, who remember Vince and would say ‘Oh I remember when this skinny Pakeha fella was here’, and so he was very much a part of the scene. He was very sensitive to the fact that he had an ongoing relationship and he felt the depth of it because one of his children is named after someone from there.
“The people of the valley and the elders all wanted to take part because of Puhi and what they remembered of her and also the fact that Vince and the crew were very upfront and sincere about what we wanted to do. Also, there was no time pressures because it was done in a very modular way and it was very much a co-venture with the tribe.”
And among those who remembered Ward making In Spring were schoolteachers Helen and Toka Te Wara, who told researcher Lynette Read that “Vincent was a lovely chap. We believed he did a good job, a professional job, he was a real genuine guy.” He was “a real strange bod” who lived it rough in a little shack and blended in with the locals. He used the shower at the school and washed his big old overcoat in the copper. “He was different because he was prepared to live rough.”

The researcher Lynette Read is the author of an excellent doctoral thesis on Ward, available here. It's worth reading; this excerpt is particularly relevant:
"He is quoted in Alternative Cinema as saying: 'I think there are a lot of good things in resurgence in the Maori culture. I wanted to learn about it. I’d grown up in the Wairarapa but never heard Maori spoken. I was interested in seeing another part of the country where the traditions were much stronger. The film grew out of my desire to learn about something else.' He also admits that he was drawn to the world of the Tuhoe because it was 'a world of mysteries', which his Catholic upbringing made him receptive to and that in seeking to understand that world, he was also seeking to learn more about himself."
We're not so far from The Last Samurai's Nathan Algren, who adopts the ways of a disappearing Japanese culture in the late 19th century, but by the time this project passed to star Tom Cruise and director Edward Zwick, it had crossed over into soft new-age fantasies about pre-modern life, all Shire-like waterwheels and flute music, cherry blossoms and noble warriors. The film-maker as ethnographer or anthropologist definitely walks a fine line. From my Last Samurai review:
"The film is a celebration of a pre-modern, religiously driven warrior mindset. In the press notes, Cruise and the other film-makers pontificate about the romantic Samurai values of honour and sacrifice, which is easy to do when the subject is as historically remote and neutral as ancient Japan. They aren’t values that Americans such as Cruise and Zwick tend to admire in more contemporary settings, though – in their religious hang-ups, their fanatical warrior drive, their cult of suicide, their 'honour and sacrifice', their loathing of America, even their terrorism, these Samurai resemble nothing so much as al-Qaeda, if not the Taliban, with Nathan Algren as the 19th century’s equivalent of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban convert. If you can imagine that Cruise and Zwick intended to make such a subversive parallel, then you should probably applaud their audacity and see this film, but it’s highly doubtful."

August 5, 2008

No miracles, only curses

Vincent Ward’s marvellous and involving Rain of the Children is an essay film in which Ward is in conversation with the work of his younger self – the precocious, talented, long-haired and too-serious fine arts student who, three decades ago, spent 18 months living in a remote Maori settlement in the Ureweras with an 80-year-old woman and her schizophrenic adult son. They became the subjects of his documentary In Spring One Plants Alone (pictured), his last film before the international critical breakthrough that was Vigil. The woman’s name was Puhi and her son was Niki; both are dead now, but Ward wants to know who they were. The premise of this film is that he missed something – indeed, it seems he wasn’t really aware of the troubled history of her tribe, Tuhoe, but that’s understandable. In the late 1970s, few in the Pakeha world had much knowledge of individual iwi; that came later, with the Treaty settlements of the 80s and 90s. In this sense, then, Ward’s timing for his In Spring Redux is impeccable – not only did last year’s terror raids strike many as an uncanny replay of one of the darker chapters in Tuhoe history, one which naturally gets illustrated here, but the iwi is in the middle of its own settlement, as are the equally marginalised Moriori (Tuhoe and Moriori were the only tribes not to sign the Treaty of Waitangi – but for very different reasons).

But Tuhoe history isn’t what Ward says he missed in 1978, or not directly. He’s been wondering about his old footage of Puhi, wondering why she prayed to herself constantly, as a steady muttering under her breath. He learns that she believed that she suffered under a curse, and to find out why we have to rewind back to the start of the 20th century when Tuhoe were at their most threatened, initially by European diseases such as tuberculosis. A messianic movement came out of this cultural turmoil, led by the prophet Rua Kenana, who styled himself along Old Testament lines – and this use of Christian apocalyptic imagery by an endangered indigenous people had remarkable similarities to the Ghost Dance movement among Native Americans, which was another desperate act to keep the culture alive. Tuhoe were believers in signs, wonders, omens, portents, curses, miracles – they made Zion the name of their spiritual base and understood that Rua was communicating with the Christian angel St Michael. But when Rua ruled that Tuhoe could no longer sell land to the New Zealand government, that was too much: the police devised a pretext to raid the Tuhoe community.Where does Puhi fit into this? She was married – and pregnant – at 14 to a son of the prophet. That child was the first of many and we soon learn that there’s a vast, tragic backstory to the hunched old woman of In Spring One Plants Alone; a story that Ward weaves with great care and sensitivity, seamlessly blending live action recreations (including Rena Owen as an adult Puhi), archival photos, interviews with Tuhoe historians, pieces-to-camera and clips from the original documentary without ever, as in his last film, River Queen, overburdening it.

To look at In Spring now – and Vigil – is to see a sparse, elemental poetry to Ward’s film-making that disappeared around the time of Map of the Human Heart; he hasn’t quite gone back to that earlier simplicity, but there’s a humility and emotional directness about this film that seems touching and genuine. When I reviewed River Queen, I worried that its worst excesses confirmed Ward as a “diehard sentimentalist” and that “the famously kitsch scenes in the last two films – sex atop a hot-air balloon in Map of the Human Heart, the drippy new-age afterlife of What Dreams May Come – are not the anomalies we hoped they were at the time, but the norm; Vigil and The Navigator now look like the anomalies." On the basis of this film, I can step back from that. Here there’s only a couple of quick shots that seem like kitsch heart-tuggers – a child’s doll sinking in the mud when the Pakeha police raid the Tuhoe village, a boy's face splattered with blood when a horse is killed – but mostly Ward has control over what seemed like his worst impulses.

At one point, Rua Kenana is played by Temuera Morrison, which connects the new film back to River Queen – was his doomed, omen-seeing prophet Te Kai Po in that film modelled on this historical original? And where does Ward stand on the supernatural material in this story anyway? I think he’s more ambivalent than he once might have been. “The Ward worldview is a romantic and superstitious model: signs and omens, icons and loaded dreams.” I wrote that about The Navigator, a story which only works if you take its apocalyptic-supernatural logic at face value (also, I’m still pretty sure it’s Ward’s best film), but Ward doesn’t swallow the Tuhoe view about curses – to accept it would be to believe that an incidence of mental illness in one generation follows the sins of an earlier one. But he can accept that the Tuhoe have felt cursed, and forsaken, that they struggled to understand why so many of their tribe died so quickly after European contact, and he can see that the barrier between the material world and the ghost world seems to be that much thinner in the Ureweras than elsewhere, which means that some later scenes with Niki make very poignant use of that eerie Tuhoe mythology about patupaiarehe, the laughing, fairy-like people who live deep in the forests and still seem to scare any Tuhoe who think for too long about them. The Tuhoe were always a people apart – it’s to Ward’s credit that this very moving film now brings them that much closer.

August 2, 2008

He's not there

“People don’t deserve to know,” says Kurt Cobain not long after the start of About a Son, before he goes on to tell the people everything. That's only one of many contradictions about this Kurt, caught between sincerity and sarcasm and wise to his own contrarian nature (he wanted to be part of a scene, then hated the scene, time and time again). The disembodied Kurt of this film is shaped from some 25 hours of audio interviews by journalist Michael Azerrad, from about a year before the suicide.

There’s no Nirvana music or footage or video interviews, and no Kurt Cobain images at all until a series of powerful black-and-white stills in the closing seconds. Director AJ Schnack is charged with finding environmental images to match the audio – a lot of slow pans, a lot of time-lapse, summing up the three places that shaped him: the working-class logging town of Aberdeen, the bohemian colony of Olympia and the big city that he originally feared and resented, Seattle. High school alienation scenes in Aberdeen evoke the Gus Van Sant of Elephant – and in a curious way, this is also a neat fit with Van Sant’s Last Days. In that film, we got a Kurt who was seen and not heard; here, the reverse.

You might be right to have felt sceptical. The idea of shaping a rock bio-doco around old interview tapes is the kind of barrel-scraping exercise you expect from, say, the Jim Morrison estate. But this works marvellously: it's a private tour of his musical and environmental influences, a touching and intimate portrait. Julian Temple did a similar thing in his Joe Strummer film, The Future is Unwritten, but he also crammed in fresh interviews, archival footage and so on and on; that was a dense, hyper-active collage where this is more meditative. It suits the subject. And so much for his legendary truculence: this Kurt Cobain is honest, revealing, earnest, self-aware, even responsible. It helps that, in early 1993, Azerrad found him in a good mood – he was toying with canning Nirvana, and his life had come down to a gang of three: him, Courtney and the baby, which is about as big a scene as he ever wanted to stick with. Only one thing really stirs him: the impact of fame, fame, fatal fame. A persecution-by-media speech rivals the paranoia of I’m Not There’s hunted Dylan or lines from "The Ballad of John and Yoko". He says, “We’re not going to survive this. Everyone wants to see us die.”

Well, hindsight's easy. Azerrad, also a producer on the film, is alert to a greater theme: Cobain as the fan who crossed over to the other side. I never read Azerrad's Come as You Are, the Nirvana book that followed these interviews, but I did read Our Band Could Be Your Life, his excellent study of the cultish dedication that surrounded 80s American post-punk and hardcore bands. Cobain was a student of that era and he would have been happy with that level of success, to have been a Butthole Surfers or a Scratch Acid. But he also rejected the style limitations of Olympia's insular indie scene and even Sub Pop. He wanted to be the Beatles and Black Sabbath, pop and noise and everything in between. And at the same time, he didn't.

August 1, 2008

In My Father's Den

Two things sent me back to this In My Father's Den review (originally in the NZ Listener, October 9, 2004). First the news that Maurice Gee's much-loved kids' fantasy book Under the Mountain is getting the remake treatment, courtesy of Black Sheep auteur Jonathan King -- and presumably effects-by-Weta is again a selling point as NZ tries to position itself as the film world's boutique fantasy exporter -- but, more important, a fresh re-reading of Gee's classic 1978 novel Plumb. That book is widely taken as Gee's finest hour -- indeed, Bill Manhire regularly describes it as the best NZ novel ever written -- but what was particularly interesting this time around, apart from Gee's metaphorical language of Plumb as straightness and recurring, Biblical images of fruit and barren-ness, was Gee's ambivalent relationship with Protestant religiosity. We admire the stands that George Plumb takes -- WWI-era pacifism, radical free-thinking -- but we can see how his near-messianic self-belief damages the lives of his wife and children, and we can see the contradictions that the man himself cannot see, particularly when he scoffs at the guru his son has chosen to follow -- really just another man with unconventional religious views. For Gee, strong religious belief usually comes with an equally strong sense of intolerance -- which is something that matters in In My Father's Den.

Brad McGann’s brilliant, involving and ultimately devastating version of In My Father’s Den was that rare type of adaptation: one that doesn’t just successfully translate a great book (although that’s rare enough), but just as successfully updates it and refreshes it, finding new ways into its difficult emotions, amplifying and renewing its themes. The key to Gee’s novel – and this film – is that great New Zealand urge: the need to get away, to get out, to make something of yourself somewhere else. The corollary of that is another typical New Zealand feeling: the fear or disappointment faced when coming back, an abiding sense of personal failure.

The familiar publicity image from the film is of teenage Celia (Emily Barclay) lying meditatively on train tracks, which is less about suicidal tendencies – she has none of those – or the anticipation of a coffin, than a fairly immediate metaphor for really, really wanting to leave. “I’d rather be a no one somewhere than a someone nowhere,” she says. Her dream destination is Spain. You can also go away without leaving, which is escapism or imagination. In the novel, Paul Prior, who as a teacher becomes a sort of father figure to the intellectual outcast Celia, escaped into books as a teenager: Gee uses Paul’s reading of Dostoevsky to signal his wilful opposition to dreary New Zealand conformism and the religious fundamentalism of his mother, a tragic figure in both book and film. McGann’s innovation is to replace Dostoevsky with Patti Smith, whose best music has all the romantic defiance and yearning of teenagers who want to be anywhere but here – and, heard again as an adult, the same songs are suggestive of dreams that weren’t fulfilled, promises that weren’t kept (the songs are “Free Money” and “Land” from Horses). Paul’s teenage girlfriend, Celia’s mother, even scrawled the important message on the back of the Patti Smith LP: “In case we ever forget who we are.”

She stayed, and forgot, and became a butcher in the small Otago town that replaces Gee’s West Auckland (the feeling is that West Auckland is too suburbanised now, lacking that vital sense of rural dread, which puts this film squarely in the "Cinema of Unease" tradition, as Duncan Petrie has noted). Paul left New Zealand, becoming a photojournalist who specialises in war atrocities, which suggests that he is already wearing a bulletproof suit of emotional reserve long before he returns to Otago, to bury his father and face his past. In the subtle, exceptionally capable British actor Matthew Macfadyen, McGann found a soulful and charismatic Paul to set against a stiff and dangerously repressed Andrew (Colin Moy), Paul’s brother, who has inherited their mother’s world-hating religious temperament (in the novel, she burns a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to demonstrate her opposition to all things sensual) and married her replica, played by Australian actress Miranda Otto as a kind of mute, depressed captive. But Paul has more of his father in him, and the den of the title was another way to escape without leaving: Paul’s father stocked a small, secret room with books and music. In the film, a generation on, Celia finds the den and makes it her own, which identifies her as having the same outsider strain.

Both novel and film are flashback-heavy, but neither feels complicated. McGann lays it out painstakingly, and the film is slow to start with, before it shifts gears into a disappearance story – Celia goes missing, after visiting Paul one Sunday – that has a gripping and unnerving tension. There are secret rooms and then there are secrets within secrets and it’s unlikely that any viewer – even, or maybe especially, those briefed by a quick re-read of the novel – will be prepared for what follows and the way that the story eventually untangles. In outdoor shots, Otago looks like being on the cusp between winter and spring, but McGann and his cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano), favour dark colours and damp textures. At times, the film can feel like a slow nightmare played out underwater, as McGann even adapts Patti Smith’s horses-and-sea imagery from “Land” to give the film a whole other interpretational level (this review’s original title, The Sea's the Possibility, came from that song). Grafting Smith’s Horses onto Gee’s novel was hugely inspired – a creative risk that really paid off – and I’d love to know how McGann came up with the idea. His film was one seriously impressive achievement.

The sad postscript to that achievement is that Brad McGann died in May 2007, after a battle with cancer. He was 43. He never got to make a second feature.

July 7, 2008

Death had undone so many

M Night Shyamalan is the one they love to hate at the moment, as though his surname were some painful combination of the words shaman, charlatan and shyster. Due to the general bad buzz, Signs was the last Shyamalan film I caught on theatrical release, back in 2002, and I only just got around to The Village last week. What took me so long? On the basis of this, I might even dip my toe in Lady in the Water and The Happening.

I’m with Michael KoreskyThe Village is seriously under-rated. Taken with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, The Village concludes a four-part study of grief at its most oppressive and mind-bending. The regular comparison is with Spielberg, but there’s no convincing sense of closure or uplift or resolution in these four stories, even if the nominal threat (aliens in Signs, ghosts in Sense, werewolves in The Village) disappears, because these films aren’t about the nominal threat. The sci-fi and horror scenarios are simply windowdressing – the films are about what grief does and how it can never be fully shaken off. These movies – especially the first, second and fourth -- are sustained downers, a paranoid and depressive worldview polished up into metaphysical mood pieces. And the two moods that come easiest to him are sadness and dread.

The twist in The Village is that a 19th century rural community – an isolated puritan sect of barn-raisers and folk-dancers – is living within a wilderness reserve in the early 21st century. The community’s “elders” left the crime-ridden New York City of, presumably, the 1970s behind to restart life within their own fantasy of pre-modern America. All have experienced some traumatic personal grief that drove them to this decision. It’s a deeply conservative view, building on the law-and-order bogey of middle-class suburbia, but it's not new territory for Shyamalan. In Sense, Bruce Willis’s Dr Malcolm Crowe is shot by a former patient. In Unbreakable, urban crime is everywhere, but visible only to the morose superhero David Dunn (Willis again). In Signs, a driver who fell asleep at the wheel kills the wife of Mel Gibson’s Graham Hess. There are gun killings in the back story of The Village. These are quick, cruel modern deaths -- and, in The Village at least, they are not presented as the inexplicable movements of fate; they are presented as the very real consequences of living in a contemporary American city. The newspapers we see in this film are packed with crime stories. The modern city is a kind of hell, populated by the shuffling dead.

As Koresky says, The Village is effective partly because of the way that the horror-movie unknown is revealed as “farce”, in the words of its lead character (William Hurt). This is Shyamalan’s critique of his own strategy, reasserting that point that the horror business doesn’t really matter. We see all the ropey stage mechanics of the supernatural film, the costumes and props – when Ivy Walker (a superb Bryce Dallas Howard) walks through the woods, over the wall and onto the road, she is effectively walking off the set of the movie. It’s the hoary joke you see in films like Blazing Saddles – the actors stepping out of the film – so it’s a neat trick to have Shyamalan himself there at the end of the story, as the God-like, or maybe Oz-like, architect of it all.

June 30, 2008

Ian Curtis, part two

The problem of the quotidian Ian Curtis for those who devised some mythologised version from all that was available to us (ie the records) -- I was trying to get at this in my review of Control, below. Zadie Smith hits on the same thing this week in a New York Review of Books piece on Kafka. It's this, really:

"But this last Kafka is as difficult to keep in mind as the Pynchon who grocery-shops and attends baseball games, the Salinger who grew old and raised a family in Cornish, New Hampshire. Readers are incurable fabulists. Kafka's case, though, extends beyond literary mystique. He is more than a man of mystery—he's metaphysical. Readers who are particularly attached to this supra-Kafka find the introduction of a quotidian Kafka hard to swallow."

June 25, 2008

What’s missed is mystery: Ian Curtis and Control

The Ian Curtis biopic Control begins in the bedroom and ends in the kitchen. It’s a rock film that locates its drama in dull domestic spaces, or sometimes dull communal spaces (the dole office, the pub, the hospital). In something like Velvet Goldmine – which also featured an outsider teen who worshipped at the altar of Bowie, as so many did in Britain in the early ‘70s – the bedroom was the place to escape from, and you don’t look back. You want to get to airports, stadiums, arenas of the gods – all those rock-glory sites in such predictable representations as Almost Famous and Rock Star. There are no airports or stadiums in Control. This isn’t to say that the Joy Division story didn’t have its moments of conventional success, even during Curtis’ lifetime – they made magazine covers, drew bigger and bigger crowds, toured the continent – it’s more that this isn’t the story that photographer and promo-clip-maker turned director, Anton Corbijn, is giving us. This is the quotidian rock movie, shot in the style of a ‘50s kitchen sink drama – deliberate low-expectations realism.
For realism mimicked as carefully as this is an aesthetic choice. On the director’s commentary on the recently-released Control DVD, Corbijn says that he remembers Joy Division in black and white. They were shot that way of course – and Corbijn was among those who shot them – but also, for him, coming from Holland to England at the end of the '70s, the starving, miserable country itself was black and white. But the Manchester of this film doesn’t feel like the Manchester described as a dark, industrial, ruined environment by the likes of Jon Savage – and it’s widely assumed that the environment shaped their sound, seeped into it, rattled around in it. Even Natalie Curtis, the daughter of the dead singer, agrees that Corbijn has failed to get the real Manchester – the one, for instance, that WG Sebald described in The Emigrants: soot-coloured urban valleys, derelict buildings and blasted quarters, silent and empty streets, dark in the afternoon.
The reason for this is pretty simple: he shot a lot of it in Nottingham as Manchester has changed so much. But the weather is all wrong too – it’s sunny throughout. Where’s Manchester’s infamous dampness? The British summer of 2006, when this was shot, was apparently one of the hottest and brightest on record. Bad luck – they got good weather. And as for the quotidian quality, Corbijn has a manifesto, again related on the DVD commentary: “People’s lives are not a collection of highlights. I focus on the normal things.”
But the smartest moments of Control are when he chooses not to. In the opening scene, Sam Riley as Curtis (he’s good, but too pretty: cast him in the Pete Doherty story) recites some “Heart and Soul” lyrics. “Existence, well, what does it matter?” is the line we’re supposed to ponder, but the one that really matters comes a few seconds later: “The past is now part of my future.” This might be a reference to the Ian Curtis mythology that was to start growing within days of this scene, as soon as the suicide became news: his future is to always be this Ian Curtis, the man who exists only inside the sound of those amazing records, endlessly replaying his steps towards his own death. This doesn't mean that Curtis planned his entire career, including his death, as a kind of romantic, sub-Jim Morrison rock stunt – but there are often strange ways in which the details and impressions of what happened are caught by him in advance. There is a supernatural edge to the Joy Division records; there is very little that’s normal about them.
At other times, Corbijn departs from the historical record to show the myth gaining life. A rehearsal of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is set up as though the band were shooting the video (in other words, to give us their normal life, he mimics their most famous performance). At the end, as the inevitable “Atmosphere” plays over a long shot of a crematorium, black smoke pours from the chimney as though this were a Papal election – his death is that momentous.
So what is normal life? He marries his girlfriend when they’re both teens. Corbijn might not know it, but there was nothing unusual about that in a working-class city in the 1970s. They have a baby, he has a job, but he also harbours ambitions to be in a band. The band does well. He develops epilepsy. He meets another woman. Depressed by the epilepsy drugs, his situation, the demands on him, he hangs himself.
Nothing in that sypnosis tells you why you want to see this movie. Why did I want to see it? Because I’ve been listening to Joy Division on and off for more than 20 years. Because I thought that a biopic of Ian Curtis was a good idea. Because it seemed interesting that something so private – Joy Division was never party music, you didn’t listen to it in groups – was about to become so public. When I first saw it, last July at the Auckland International Film Festival, only weeks after it had played Cannes, I thoroughly enjoyed it, largely for the band scenes, as the group play “Leaders of Men”, “Transmission”, “Dead Souls” and so on. It seemed like a serious, sombre, quiet, artful response to 24 Hour Party People, which contained a truncated version of the same story, but done with more rowdiness and sarcasm.
In the band scenes, Riley seems to get the switch that Curtis made if you watch those old live TV clips of “Shadowplay”, “Transmission” and “She’s Lost Control” – that moment when the look in his eye changed, when something gripped him or possessed him, that look of … what is it? Desperation, fear, awe, terror, rapture? A look into some kind of beyond. There’s a lovely moment when Debbie Curtis (well played by Samantha Morton) is watching the band on TV and she has a look of obvious concern on her face, as though she is seeing what is happening and going to happen. It’s her concern about the sudden and frightening transformations that grip him and drain him.
The story of Control is based on Debbie Curtis’ book, Touching from a Distance. That memoir was part of the posthumous Joy Division industry – it was the first official publication of the lyrics and it coincided with a new compilation – but the story that she creates is about exclusion. As usual, the girls were barred from the rock club. So in Control, the excluded wife gets the last word and gets to dictate the terms of his memory, but both she and Annik (the singer’s girlfriend) still get a raw deal. Annik is presented as some kind of mega-groupie, although Corbijn says on the commentary track that she and Curtis never actually slept together (and if that’s true, why wasn’t it in the script?).
That use of “Heart and Soul” above might have been a smart move but at other times, there is a thudding obviousness to the way that the songs are presented – they’re journal entries set to music, descriptions of the trials and tribulations of Ian Curtis. Actually, in a curious way, there was something dehumanised, impersonal, incorporeal about Joy Division – partly because there were no pictures of people on the covers and so little information available, but mostly because Curtis had, for the majority of us, always been dead. I started listening to Joy Division in about 1986 – six years after his death, but it could have been 96 years for all the difference it made to how you approached him. Watching Control the second time, it struck me: in more than 20 years, I had never once thought about the suicide of Ian Curtis. It had never seemed like an event that had happened in historical time to a real person. So who was that on the record? Whose voice was that? The voice sounded ancient. “Yeah, we wasted our time, didn’t really have time/But I remember when we were young.” When we were young? He was 21 when he wrote that, but he sounded like a dead man already, reflecting on the life he has left. “I never realised the lengths I had to go …” – all these events in past tense. Deborah Curtis used to say that he sounded old; Barney Hoskyns wrote, in 1985, that the voice was “so old and grave and shadowy”.
I’m not getting that sense from Control, that strange sense that Joy Division gave me – not a chronicle of a death foretold, but a description of death, the anticipation of it and the mythology that grew around it, all simultaneously. And, again and again, that sense of someone talking to you from beyond: “If you could just see the beauty/These things I could never describe.” Where is he when he says that? And, again and again, the sense that he was cursed with some greater vision: “Someone take these dreams away.” So it’s reductive to think that the songs reflect everyday life, are written in response to it, as comments on it. Yes, the “you” in a line like “I tried to get to you, you treat me like this…” might well have been Debbie, as Corbijn implies, but it cannot be the same “you” in “People like you find it easy”. In fact, I’ve long felt that the last one, from the brilliant and stately “Atmosphere”, was the dead man pleading with us, his listeners (“Don’t walk away”), which makes it a perfectly bittersweet closing song, as we get up from our seats and turn our backs on the screen.