06 July, 2009

Finding Nepo(tism)

I have been a negligent blogger lately (isn't that just the worst kind?). Here is something I really did mean to mention a few months ago:

In a veritable orgy of people I know and admire, Records on Ribs put out a release by All The Empires Of The World. Ned only beat me to the scoop by several months. In fact, I left it long enough that the band in question have disbanded. Next you'll tell me that they only needed one more positive review, and they would have pulled through. I don't enjoy describing music ("good/bad/post-rock" are all you need) but the EP is titled Last Rites, the opener is called Prophecy at the Ruins and the band name is 6 words long but seems to last a lifetime. The prejudiced observer should need no help from me. The EP is available as a FREE DOWNLOAD, so you should do as it says.

I will say, however, that in this world where we are trained to make the most fleeting of cyber-connections with other glimpsed human beings, where we are continually trying to replace intuition and common sense with a scientific justification, where doom used to mean doom-y but now it's just mood backwards, and where ambience is a fancy french word somewhere between decor and feng shui for people with more wallpaper expertise than ribcage, All The Empires Of The World were not a re-hash.

An example: they played a gig I was at once, sandwiched between a snazzy continental-café electro-jazz laptop/sax act and a bunch of semi-likable, semi-significant vox-guitar-bass-drums-zzzzzzzzzz nothings and the word "massacre" was not mentioned even once (any after-show incidents were unfortunate). I even caught one unsuspecting female spectator smiling, but ATEOTW do give out a lot of bass when they play live, so she may just have had a mild tetany of the face. They say it takes just 13 muscles to smile and 33 to frown; I couldn't find any data on how many are required to strip one's self of all vestment and form a writhing coil around your favourite band member. It's irrelevant anyway, All The Empires Of The World's stated aim being to destroy as many of their listener's bodily functions as possible, one by fragile one. By the midpoint of a set the only thing preventing their victims' bodies from degrading into a formless gelatinous ooze is their clothing (which Oxfam will no longer accept).

I often read about ATEOTW being cavernous or sounding like the end of the world, thunder and lightning, rains of fire, power and menace wielded on a cosmological, theological or metereological level; This is true, although I prefer to think of the processes as internalised, dramatised processes of self, which in any case better fits with the primal vibe my ears detect. There's an opaque mysticism in play that seems to fit in with images of a raw and nascent earth. Having listened through many times now, I hear a sort of anti-spiritualism deeply rooted in human actors, an arcane architecture of ceremonies ill-understood from the outside. It's like medieval Europe as interpreted by Cormac McCarthy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening bars of Simon Helen Elizabeth (The Gate) which bring to mind valleys, light mist and coronation - not unlike The Lion King, but no doubt with more robes. Later, this track becomes more triumphant still, hitting an emphatic wall of rhythm, guitar and subverted vocals that's eerily reminiscent of The Angelic Process.

Also moving through several phases, opener Prophecy At The Ruins covers a lot of ground, sounding initially distant and working its way to the foreground. Although their reputation for overbearing volume may go before them, Last Rites has phases that mark it out as a pleasingly melodic EP. There is a somewhat distant feel to much of the 25-minute span, feeling more like a sighting of the godhead on the horizon, and less like Ragnarok erupting in one's cochlea. ...Will Be Laid To Waste is certainly very grand, and forms a towering end to proceedings. This record sounds like the music Jesu should be making right now. Yeah, you should get this.

Now, on to the important bit. The record is released on Records On Ribs, a web-label run by some Nottingham people. All their releases are available as free downloads, and you should peruse the site. But here is the link for this one: All The Empires Of The World - Last Rites EP.

If you like this, you should already have been listening to older ATEOTW stuff like the more acoustic Coral EP or the rather long Magnetic Resonance, and I would happily vouch for both. We are to anticipate one final release from the band, which will be worth waiting for, no doubt. Maybe one can take solace from the fact that this opens up the possibility of liberated members joining your new ambient post-ska/metal ragga project.

You should go further. The releases by Strap The Button, El Heath and Sweet Potato are excellent, so be sure to check them out. But more than anything, get Les √Čtoiles' incredibly evocative Never To Alight, which was one of the best albums released anywhere last year.

05 July, 2009

Departure

Watching films with others is... OK. The actual act itself is somewhere between acceptable and infuriating. The payoff is the walk home, where everything you thought in the past 90-180 minutes must be spewed back out again, in any order while still maintaining the pretence of dialogue. And sometimes listening - but film fans are snobbish, so this is entirely situational. There was a time when I went to see A Very Long Engagement, without having seen Amelie*, and in the company of afficionados - damn right I was listening. You never know what you might have to blag at some later date.

Silence is golden; well, it has little value in or of itself, but it does create more jabbering later on. Anything you thought about the flashing lights on the screen must echo and amplify inside your head, until you are convinced of its meaningfulness to nearly spiritual proportions. It has been odd lately, one of my major cinema-companions actually lived about 3 doors down from our local cinema, and there has been an element of surrogacy as we take the walk home to the living room (It helps that these are often blockbusters - there is little to discuss and we are not skilled at subtext).

A brief outline of the sequence of things: i) I first saw The Departed in the Savoy cinema, when it had been out in the UK for about a month, so about November 2006 (interestingly, this being my first year in Nottingham, it was maybe the first such visit with my filmgoing companions of that time, both heavy and naive with expectancy - these walks home can be the most intoxicating and tremulous, can be the most sour and quarrelsome). ii) January 2007 - I rented Infernal Affairs from "The Hollywood Movie Store" in Beeston, which had a good selection of foreign (and especially asian) film. iii) Early 2008 - a friend bought the Infernal Affairs DVD from a website somewhere and a group of us watch it. On completion, howls of appreciation and enthusiasm sound out around the room. iv) I watch The Departed for a second time with my father**, the date is the 3rd of July, 2009. Bang! we are in the present.

The Departed is a 2006 film by Martin Scorsese (who vowed it would be his last gangster flick) about a policeman (Leonardo DiCaprio) infiltrating a Boston gang leader's inner circle (Jack Nicholson) while a gangland mole (Matt Damon) ascends to the police unit investigating his boss. Intrigue, violence and multiple usages of the C word follow. The cast is strong and Nicholson appears to be having a lot of fun, as ever. On first viewing I was entertained and satisfied, but not impressed - so, similar to Gangs of New York, then. But I was shocked when it won both the Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards***, it had seemed to be little more than a proficient thriller. And all this was before realising that The Departed had been copying someone else's notes.

I'm not sure what I knew, but I certainly did not fully realise that The Departed was a re-make until I followed the hype and rented Infernal Affairs, jointly directed by Alan Mak and Andy Lau, who also takes one of the starring roles alongside Tony Leung****, who has long been a favourite of mine. The story is essentially the same, taking place in Hong Kong. Infernal Affairs is a great film, a near-perfect exposition of the crime/intrigue motif and a totally exhilarating thriller. Excuse me while I gush. There is a genuine feeling of schizophrenia running through it, creating what is almost a split-screen effect in the mind of the viewer. Frame by frame, the compositions of shape and colour are stunning.

Contrast with The Departed, which I felt was good looking because it couldn't help it. Made by a major studio with great director and cinematographers, with the best equipment. The colour balance on screen was fine, totally professional. But sit the one down side-by-side with its predecessor, and it's clear. Infernal Affairs is flooded with vibrancy*****, kinetic energy, a vigour that is apparent throughout. Its Hollywood re-make is strong, but past its peak and ambling towards the retirement home. The law of diminishing returns holds firm, and this is even apparent if you see the mimic first.

Before I watched Scorsese's re-make a second time, I derided it as a scene-for-scene plagiarism, but that's not true. Scorsese does attempt to make the story his own. Mark Wahlberg's character is added, an unnecessarily foul-mouthed sergeant that yields the most watchable performance in the film, is also totally out of place. Wahlberg's appearance on screen signals something like an ad-break, ruining the flow of the story. Is this really where the film stands out from the original? 'Your mom' jokes? Anthony Wong's superintendent character gets split in half, supplying the amiable buffoon Alec Baldwin and pensively paternal Martin Sheen. The female character, who becomes unwittingly sandwiched between the two leads, is much more subtly involved in matters in Hong Kong, but in Boston her nuance is lost and a love triangle appears. And Scorsese's thematic centrepiece, the confusion and metamorphosis that the two moles' dissimulation causes, is actually much more apparent in the original, which doesn't make a big deal of it.

Finally, Scorsese's alterations to the plot facilitate a nice, neat wrapping-up of events, just as you'd expect from a

Ultimately, The Departed attempts to fine-tune its predecessor in some regards and break with it in others. On paper, the effect of the changes should be to make a more palatable movie for a western audience, but it ends up marooned; too much of a re-hash, it sags with the weight of nostalgia for its source, but no more than when it strays from the path. Scorsese simply couldn't win.

I used to charge these remakes with a cultural imperialism that I now think is a bit silly - this is a moneygrabbing maneuver first and foremost (although a scene involving some Chinese triads does offer an opportunity for Nicholson to spew a few epithets). I think this says less about the film-makers themselves than their audience, or possibly more about their level of respect for their audience. Maybe I just naively think first-is-best, which is a common enough delusion after all, not just in film. It may be that originality forms an overriding meta-aesthetic (metaesthetic? measthetic?) by which I judge film. This is, of course, the personal, situational approach to film that generates limitless perspective and confounds our attempt to evaluate absolutely. A superior remake would make for a more interesting study on this subject.

And so, the walk home, wrenching up from the sofa, creaking up the stairs, switching off lights. The end was neat, meaningless, perfectly OK. There is nothing to say about The Departed.

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*Being English means never having to pronounce correctly or add foreign punctuation.
** Film-watching is an important shared activity for us, but he is overly fond of Steven Segal and does not care for subtitles, so consequently I leap at anything respectable. Furthermore, our loose alliance is the only thing banishing terrible US teen-rom-coms from the living room. It is a battle for resources.
***With hindsight, this was the point at which I should have stopped caring about the Oscars - much though Scorsese deserves a lifetime achievement award, much though The Departed did a credible impression of a top-notch film, it's astonishing really. Little Miss Sunshine was more enjoyable, Letters From Iwo Jima more consistent, Babel more 'worthy,' and United 93 undoubtedly more interesting to watch (and clearly better directed, provided you can put up with Greengrass' shaky-cam)
**** Or, Mak Siu-Fai, Lau Wai-Keung and Leung Chiu-Wai. I think I got those half-right. Yes, it is funny that someone would choose such vanilla names to make themselves more glamorous/saleable.
***** It is of course, obligatory for Western reviewers to use this word at least once when discussing foreign cinema. Indeed, for British people to use this to describe anything foreign (unless one wishes to demonstrate xenophobia; here the appropriate word is 'smelly').

02 July, 2009

You're Not Punk And I'm Tellin' Everyone

Before the beginning of Hated: GG Allin and The Murder Junkies, their "one week only" video feature, Pitchfork have put up a fairly stark warning:
KIDS LEAVE THE ROOM

The following film contains obscene violence, explicit sexual content, and ridiculous music. If you're not into watching guys push things into their anuses, people pissing on each other and smearing themselves in shit, or dudes dancing around with corpses, please consider reading some of our highly professional music reviews instead.

Thanks,
The Management.
Well, there certainly are bodily fluids. If there's one consistent thread that can be traced through this film, it's the presence of nudity, aggression, excretion and anal manipulation. I think we are meant to be offended, and I sometimes wonder if Allin and his fans are leering at the 'norms' viewing. I wasn't particularly offended, but I wouldn't say I enjoy watching these things*. "Kids leave the room" seems somewhat ironic though: as an attempt to shock these tactics may be extreme but they are also juvenile.

The film explores the world of GG Allin, then with his band The Murder Junkies, and incorporates footage from the late 80s through to a tour in the early 90s. Tours would typically end in the police station or the hospital; Allin, usually performing fully naked, would not hesitate to lash out at members of his audience, who were expecting it. Gigs ended in scrums or were broken up by the police, and Allin delighted at all times in pushing the proverbial envelope of punk rock to it's furthest extreme.

Fascinatingly, this 1994 documentary is directed by the same Todd Phillips whose more recent work has included Road Trip, Old School, the Starsky and Hutch remake and the current box office hit The Hangover. It's another small reminder that the 'mainstream' is not necessarily as far away as I like to think. It shouldn't really be a shock that a successful filmmaker started small, with a rock-doc about a punk act with an obscene stage show and little musical finesse to back it up.

Although Hated is full of footage from live shows, the one thing that is conspicuously absent in the film is any real mention of music. These performances are really just an opportunity to view GG in situ. Closer to performance art than music (as the spoken word performances hint), punk rock was simply the best stage for his abrasive, aggressive style. Arguably, he doesn't display any other talents beside his showmanship (which is remarkable). In one segment he plays a guitar and sings. It's a short song rendition and pleasant enough, with a rough, croaky aesthetic. Today, he'd add some distortion and call it lo-fi, and we might well love it, but beyond this, music is sidelined**. The Murder Junkies are not a particularly inspiring musical force.

His bandmates are adorable. Brother Merle Allin plays bass and boasts a spectacular moustache. A totally addled "Dino the naked drummer" runs through some of the technical details of playing naked, and sprays out some narcotic remarks about spirituality. An ex-bandmate delights in dissing his former buddy, whining impotently about how GG is nothing special. But Allin had a number of devoted fans who evidently thought he was. One clearly knew him quite well, and revels in telling the story of the time GG told him to get a woman, any woman, to urinate on his face. The occasion was Allin's birthday.

The film itself starts by placing a quote onscreen:
"GG Allin is an entertainer with a message to a sick society. He makes us look at it for what we really are. The human is just another animal who is able to speak freely, to express himself clearly. Make no mistake about it, behind what he does is a brain"
This is attributed a few seconds later, once we've had a chance to take it in: John Wayne Gacy, Death Row, Menard, IL. There are a few mentions of Gacy in the middle of the film, highlighting the acquaintance of Gacy and Allin, who visited him in prison, as did several of Allin's fans.

I can't agree with Gacy's statement. The presence of "freaks" is not a comment on society. Rather, it is that these "freakshows" find an audience who wish to view real destruction as entertainment. Maybe this does involve a sick society, but the grisly obsession with serial killers as people who have gone beyond regular boundaries again seems juvenile to me. I agree that a human being is "just another animal," but the reaction most would have to GG Allin must if anything emphasise our differentiation. I am not aware that Allin did express himself clearly - if anything, his actions are an undeveloped response to his existence, environment and his own makeup. They certainly give us a lot to think about, and he was certainly possessed of incredible charisma, but the assertions of his intelligence are, I think, excuses to enjoy this voyeurism for a while longer.

In the latter parts of the film Allin and others discuss his assertion that he will commit suicide on Halloween 1992, possibly on stage, possibly with zealous fans also killing themselves alongside him. It seems a logical progression in the manifesto of "no limits," and in one spoken word performance, Allin lashes out at a spectator who tells him to do it sooner. But Allin does not say he is unhappy - he makes overtures about wanting to have "a strong spirit," but I wonder how much this action would be his own choice, how much it would be the product of bravado, hype and his own mischosen words. GG Allin actually died accidentally of a heroin overdose in June 1993.

Is there something about GG Allin and his fandom that runs deeper than bodily functions and senseless violence? Something in the extreme personal libertarianism, the undoubted anger and reticence to relate to others, suggests this really was a case of a distressed man, possibly unwell, attracting an unpleasant freakshow of fellow sufferers and disenfranchised youth. It must have been quite a spectacle. Maybe my efforts to medicalise are precisely the mainstream sentiments that he and his fans would have derided. Maybe he was healthy, I'm sure he had some fun.

Would I recommend Hated? Because I'm not sure whether I was watching it as a voyeur myself. It's a decent documentary that some people might find hard to stomach. GG Allin was a fascinating character who was undoubtedly very talented at what he did, who could have formed his fans into a cult, if that had been what he wanted. As a subject matter, he was repulsive, honest, intimidating, purile, and often tiresome. But never dull.

At any rate, be quick, the film will be up on pitchfork for maybe a couple more days. Youtube would have your back, but there's a bit too much nudity and faeces in this one.
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*"Nothing offends me" is basically a challenge, and besides, it's not true. There are things that offend me, in fact deeply and on a daily basis, but it helps not to get too wound up about them and proceed in a catatonic glazed-over fashion. On the other hand, things like disgusting photographs, clips of surgery, these don't offend me. Sometimes, what offends me is the apparent intention of the person who is putting these images in front of me. Offence is difficult to monitor and while I'm probably not "easily offended," a large element in the perception of this is the amount of things I simply have to let slide.

** In modern indie culture this should not really be surprising. Music is not necessarily the natural environment for the concepts we load it with, it is merely the next best place to store our desired aesthetic - it can be deregulated and decentralised, it needn't be expensive, it can form a fully interactive culture, it lends itself to film, writing, fashion, nights out, visual art, and it has a physical output, which can be produced cheaply, circulated wildly, and associated with as many additional concepts and ideal-images as we wish to give it. The Murder Junkies are not even a particularly great example.