"Okay, Martin, so a priest, a rabbi
and a minister walk into a bar..."
#0079 - EYES ON THE PRIZE - Barbershop is late summer 2002's unexpected hit film, making almost US$21 million in its first week, and the vultures have already descended, in the form of Rev. Jesse Jackson who, as the appointed spokesman for Coretta Scott King, her son Martin Luther King III, and the family of Rosa Parks, has demanded - and gotten - an apology from the producers for irreverent remarks made by a character in the film about Parks, King, and Jackson himself. "An apology is a step in the right direction," he told the Associated Press, adding that he will "keep appealing" to the filmmakers to do the right thing. The "right thing", in this case, is to delete all of the jokes in question from from future video, DVD and broadcast versions of the film.
What a pompous ass. The film's worst sin, in Jackson's estimation, was that it tried "to turn tragedy into comedy". Precisely the point, writes Craig Seymour in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "...what these criticisms fail to grasp is the way the film is using humor to address the ambivalence that some people feel about these larger-than-life figures," Seymour writes, adding that "Humor provides a vehicle for dealing with this discomfort. It helps us grapple with the messy realities of history - and of life."
King's infidelities, while hardly diminishing his achievements or making his murder any less tragic, have humanized him in a way that someone like Jackson, who's own fame and continued career rely on his association with King, probably finds threatening. If King is a saint, then his wife and family and Jackson are living relics, according to this questionable secular theology. No one should want to live with this kind of sanctity, unless they see some profit in it, and Jackson has never shied away from profit, monetary and otherwise. Jackson is hardly a saint himself, so he needs all the sanctity he can get. And besides, as any Catholic will tell you, there are no such things as living saints.
There's a generation gap in place, and Barbershop is a hit with young blacks who look up to more radical black figures like Malcolm X. That gap became apparent when Parks sued Atlanta rap group Outkast for their song "Rosa Parks" which, whatever it might be about (and I certainly couldn't tell you what it's about), casts no apparent aspersions on Parks.
The deeper irony is that the irreverent rants delivered by Cedric the Entertainer's character Eddie are the highlight of the film, and that censoring them would be an effective disembowelment, not only of the story, but of the film's principle message. "Nothing is off limits at the barbershop," states Eddie, who insists that it's one of the few places where a black man can say what he thinks without editing himself. (I wonder if Jackson's even seen the film.) Stebbins Jefferson, in the Palm Beach Post, writes that "a sense of humor is a protective shield capable of blunting the most intense pain." His advice to Jackson is "harsh and blunt":
"Get a grip. Don't look for sinister motives in this comedy. It simply tells how people cope in an environment that, but for a sense of humor, would destroy them.
"About two-thirds of the audiences for Barbershop has been African-American. I fear that concern about what that other third might think may cancel some black critics' ability to laugh at ridiculous exaggerations. When we no longer can indulge our sense of humor, we will lose a precious part of who we are."
Final irony: Jackson is apparently, whether he knows it or not, painfully conscious of white reaction to the film's humor, and that says a lot about the state of race politics today. That he should give a damn about what any white person might think - especially in how it might affect his own legitimacy - says too many sad things about the tragic state of black political leadership since the death of King. The best response is the opposite of the one made by Barbershop's producers: ignore Jackson, and trust your audience, black and white, to understand the context of a joke. More to the point: fuck 'em if they can't take one.
(posted 11:00pm EST | 09.24.02)
#0078 - A DISTANT COLONY OF LOS ANGELES - Dean Allen is a book designer who recently left Vancouver, BC for Pompignan, a small town in the south of France. One of the great joys - and there seem to be many - of leaving Canada's West Coast metropolis for provincial France was escaping the onslaught of movie production that overtakes Vancouver most of the year. His short memoir/rant of living at the mercy of "runaway" productions is pretty funny, and damn sympathetic, especially if you live in Toronto, the other principle Canadian destination of US productions looking for a bargain:
"Turn around a corner on a walk, and boom, there would be the trucks and trailers, the catering table, the fat cables on the ground, and some mousy PA in a crew bomber, one hand holding a walkie-talkie, the other held up, exhorting you to stop breathing until magic was made. You'd go out to eat and find the restaurant completely overtaken by a wrap party, cocaine jittery youth in ill-fitting affordable glam, looking like they just showed up for the party after a month in the bush and a quick stop at Eaton's. After a while it seemed that all phone conversations began with some variation on 'Hi, this is [name], yeah, I'm working on [crap TV movie]'."
I know it too, too well, and I try to restrain my enmity, since too many of my friends rely on these cut-rate productions for a living, but even they have a hard time maintaining their enthusiasm, for reasons Allen sums up very nicely:
"The dominant 'tude, of course, was that a connection to the Industry implied Hollywood once removed, so get the fuck out of my way. Tenuous cred, that, and indeed many of us outside the business couldn't help but notice that the movies and shows we liked - vehicles for ideas and voices - just weren't being made in Vancouver. While the Industry was purportedly injecting a billion US into the British Columbia economy every year, what it made there was crap: TV movies, straight-to-video disasters, HBO 'auteur' garbage, eye-glazing network series; so many products cynically tailored to licensing agreements and syndication, and, yes, that terrible, horrible, witless, conniving abortion known as The X-Files."
Life being a bad joke, Allen was recently taking his frighteningly photogenic dog Oliver for a stroll through the village, and came upon a stranger in the dreaded "crew bomber and walkie-talkie" ensemble. The village, it seems, is a location, and "half the population has a part". You can't escape. You'll never escape.
(posted 08:58pm EST | 09.24.02)
#0077 - CHRIST: THE MOVIE - Mel Gibson is planning to make a film of Christ's passion and death - called, appropriately, The Passion - in two "dead languages", Latin and Aramaic, and without subtitles. "They think I'm crazy and maybe I am," he told the press in Italy, "But maybe I'm a genius." Someone should remind Gibson of the virtue of humility. "If I fail, I'll put subtitles on it, though I don't want to" Gibson said. I applaud Gibson for his defiant artistic stance, but I think it's a pretty safe bet that the film, when it comes out, will likely be in English, since even Gibson's star status still hasn't attracted a distributor.
Early reports had Christ played by the 46-year old Gibson himself, though it now appears that Christ will be played by up-and-coming actor Jim Caviezel, who is, like the star, a Catholic, though I haven't heard if the actor shares Gibson's rigorously conservative faith. Gibson apparently has a private chapel in his Malibu home where Latin mass is celebrated every Sunday, and insists that he's overjoyed that his only daughter has decided to become a nun. "My love for religion was transmitted to me by my father," he told Il Giornale, "but I do not believe in the Church as an institution."
It's a strange comment that, so far, I've been unable to find elaborated on anywhere. Gibson's revanchist faith - an apparent rejection of Vatican II liberal reforms, which are often derided by conservative Catholics as "rocks and trees" or "felt banner, feel good" religion - isn't that unusual in the church; the Pope himself says his private mass in Latin, and there's a growing minority of congregations, including the one in which I was married, that have reclaimed the Latin or "Tridentine" mass. Rejecting the church "as an institution", though, sounds like something a liberal Catholic, at odds with Vatican and archdiocesan authority, would say, though Gibson might be trying to articulate a personal distance from the mainstream American church, which is more distinctly liberal. But I digress.
Gibson plans to film The Passion this autumn in Sassi, the same rocky region of Southern Italy where Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed his Gospel According to St. Matthew almost forty years ago. Pasolini's film, rare among the contentious director's work (the director was a gay Marxist whose other films include a widely-banned adaptation of the Marquis de Sade) for its Vatican seal of approval, has long been considered a critical benchmark for biblical films, a radical departure from often unwittingly campy Hollywood epics like The Robe, Ben Hur and The Greatest Story Ever Told for its grimy realism and unglamourous take on the Holy Land. Gibson has apparently spent the summer in Rome, consulting with scholars and theologians on the film. Since the last Hollywood version of Christ's life was Martin Scorsese's essentially heretical Last Temptation of Christ, I imagine that Rome is cautiously thrilled with Gibson's consultations, though they should remind themselves that this is still a star's vanity project, and funny things can happen.
"My Jesus will be shaken by his human suffering," Gibson stated. "Real blood will flow from the wound in his side, and the screams of his crucifixion will be real as well." Some readers might find something familiar about Gibson's take on the crucifixion, as the actor's last directorial effort was the hit epic Braveheart, in which Gibson starred as William Wallace, the Scottish chieftain and rebel who was hung, drawn and quartered by the English, a long, explicit scene that bore a distinct if overwrought resemblance to the crucifixion, down to Gibson-as-Wallace's final, dying shout of "Freedom!" Braveheart was an enormous hit, but it made an utter mess of the actual history of Wallace and the Scottish rebellion. It's to be presumed that Gibson will be a bit more faithful to the source material this time around.
(posted 10:46am EST | 09.24.02)
#0076 - FRANCHISE TO KILL - The long run-up to the release of the next Bond film has begun, and the Guardian has a nice section on the Bond films, starting with an overview of the films by Shawn Levy, which kicks off with the idea that MGM/UA is being kept alive by Bond: "In late August, Wall Street analysts upgraded their rating of the company's stock on the mere basis of seeing some footage of the next Bond film, Die Another Day, which isn't due in the theatres till late November."
I didn't know about the hour-long 1954 CBS teleplay of Casino Royale, "starring Barry Nelson as an American card shark named Jimmy Bond and Peter Lorre, God love him, as the villainous gambler and Soviet agent Le Chiffre." The whole story happened on two sets, with "no fast cars or bathing-suit-clad women", but it was "apparently a faithful adaptation of Fleming's textures and his vision of the character." Perhaps someone might see fit to include it in a deluxe reissue set of Bond films. It has to be better than the bizarre, "non-canonical" 1967 version of Casino Royale with David Niven and - yes, Virginia - Woody Allen.
The entire budget for Dr. No, the first proper Bond film, was apparently barely a million dollars, and Ken Adams, designer of almost every one of the early Bond films, recalls how one particular set in the film - the "Tarantula Room" - was built for only £450. Five years later, Cubby Broccoli gave Adams a million dollars just to build the volcano lair of the villain in You Only Live Twice. There was no chance of getting away with models, as 200 stuntmen on ropes would be sliding down ropes for the climactic assault, and Adams and Broccoli knew that their audience, after four films in as many years, expected Bond films to be anything but cheap affairs. Adams has no time for today's shortcut - the CGI effect: "...however incredible computer-generated images can be, audiences know it ain't real." Tell that to George Lucas, please.
Adams, who hasn't designed a Bond film since Moonraker, also makes a nice observation about the decline in Bond villains since the end of the Cold War and the exhaustion of original Fleming material: "I think the villain is just as important as Bond. But someone who simply wants to destroy an oil pipeline to me is just not sufficiently important as a villain."
Novelist Jeanette Winterson contributes a piece on the Bond girl, and comes to the provocative conclusion that Bond himself was actually the ultimate Bond girl. Winterson works herself into a positive froth of provocation, tossing off audience-prodding asides like a star lecturer paid handsomely for their "bad" reputation: "There's nothing wrong with liking clothes, but it's a girl thing ... Am I just a sucker for a lesbian sub-plot? Aren't we all? ... there is no substitute for a Bond penis ... the gruff, bluff M discovered his feminine side and reincarnated as Judi Dench." It's a hilarious piece if you're in the mood for that sort of thing, but Winterson can come off like someone who's attended a summer-long session at the Camille Paglia school of elocution.
Winterson sees suspicious girliness all over Bond, from his manicured nails and his driving style ("Every time he reverses he crushes someone's bonnet.") to his suspiciously excessive competence in bed to - gasp! - even his choice of drinks: "Girls drink champagne and martini..." Like most "latter-day", "third-generation", "sex-positive" "post-feminist" feminists I've known, Winterson is a bit of a border guard of gender, a cynical inquisitor of sexual correctness more quick to insinuation and accusation than most people would consider healthy.
Two pieces on Bond film music explore what's probably my favorite part of the franchise. Alexis Petridis' piece on Bond themes is a nice overview, but I think he misses the boat a bit when he states that John Barry and Don Black's songs became a liability by the turn of the 70s, "devoid of the irony that underscored the films ... lyricist Don Black's relentless double entendres were beginning to sound dated and self-parodic. 'Hold one up and then caress it, touch it, stroke it and undress it.' from Diamonds Are Forever seemed more suited to a Carry On film." A couple of paragraphs later, however, he writes of the theme from Goldfinger, probably one of the series' highlights, that "...stripped of its filmic associations, "Goldfinger" is, as Barry once admitted, 'a fairly ridiculous song.'" I'd argue that, on the contrary, while Barry and Black's songs were always brimming with irony and self-parody, the culture of the early 70s was distinctly barren of both.
Finally, Stephen Moss' interview with Monty Norman, who wrote the incredible guitar theme that debuted with Dr. No and became an essential part of every Bond film afterward, gives us the details of a life that, no matter how accomplished, is lived in the shadow of those 32 twanging bars. Despite the fact that John Barry made his name with the Bond films - and that it took a court case to establish Norman's claim to the Bond theme - Norman has done well for himself, and his dozen or so seconds of music "has brought him millions, a mansion flat in London's Maida Vale and a house in Somerset." It was news to me that the theme was actually recycled from a failed Peter Brook musical version of V.S. Naipaul's novel, A House for Mr. Biswas. "Good Sign, Bad Sign" was originally meant to be played on the sitar, and has been recorded over 500 times. "You write something that takes two years and nobody wants to see it. Then you write something that runs for roughly 32 bars and everyone wants it."
(posted 11:03pm EST | 09.23.02)
#0075 - HOLLYWOOD ON THE BIGHT OF BENIN - Nigeria is apparently the new Bollywood, according to this incredible little piece in the NY Times by Norimitsu Onishi. The moguls of Bombay, never mind L.A., have nothing to worry about yet, as the whole Nigerian film industry nets an estimate of only US$45 million a year, less than the budget of some U.S. "indie" productions. Films are made on a single digital camera, for budgets of around US$15,000, but in the decade or so since Lagos' film industry took off, up to 400 movies a year have been made, and earlier this year, 54 titles were released in a single week.
The business is dominated by members of the Ibo ethnic group, according to Onishi, but made in English, which makes them marketable all across English-speaking Africa. The writer visits the office of Emeka Ani, an actor whose two-room office is also the home of the Actors Guild of Nigeria, and a shop for buying tapes of movies. He picks up a copy of 1998's I Hate My Village, which shows Mr. Ani on the cover, making a meal out of human flesh. "This is one of the most controversial movies ever made," he tells the writer. While a small number of African films are made every year for festival audiences, Nollywood films are for the domestic market only, and have the kind of plots familiar to fans of exploitation cinema.
Membership in the AGN has increased from 500 to 5,000 in six years, and the stigma attached to acting is being eroded by the fame and money suddenly on offer. "Before, you would kill your daughter if she told you she wanted to become an actress," according to Charles Awarum, a popular actor. "Actresses were regarded as no better than prostitutes, kissing on the screen." Nowadays, the streets of the Surelere district of Lagos are full of young hopefuls like Nonso Diobi, a 21-year old who's just snatched a lead role in a film called Blackmailed. He already has the right attitude: "I'm not a big star yet. But when I am, I will fix a big price." Casting is done in bars and cafes, and one production manager managed to fill 28 spots in a film called Love of My Life between 7 am and lunch, finally offering the remaining speaking part, that of a white man, to the Times reporter.
The director of Blind Justice, Paul Obazele, holds a Guinness-fueled casting session that sounds like a throwback to the 70s heyday of directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino:
"I want attitude! Attitude!" he yelled at an actor. "That's why I brought you back. You have depth! I want you to release it!"
More candidates came in. More waited outside. An hour passed. The director lost none of his effusiveness.
"Fine, fine-looking boys in this place," he said, looking at one actor. "The girls here are not as beautiful as the boys."
"I've found some good candidates," he said later. "I like the dwarf very much. I'll place him in the governor's office. He'll just stand there, without speaking. People will wonder who is this mysterious figure."
(posted 12:32pm EST | 09.19.02)
#0074 - A VERY GOOD YEAR? - The NY Times has an interesting piece by Stephen Farber suggesting that 1962 should be considered among the highlight years in the history of movies. He hangs the whole piece on the peg of the 40th anniversary re-relase of Lawrence of Arabia, much as those who nominate 1939 as movie's golden year hang it on Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It's worth a read, especially if, like me, you'd have never considered any single year from 1960 to 1970 as a particular highlight in movie history.
In my own lifetime, I'd have no problem with enshrining 1972 as an apex year, whose list of releases includes The Godfather, Cabaret, Play it Again, Sam, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It would have tough competition, though, from 1971 (The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, Klute, The Conformist and Claire's Knee). Before my time, 1948 was a pretty terrific year (Olivier's Hamlet, The Red Shoes, The Fallen Idol, The Naked City, The Bicycle Thief), as was 1950 (Orphee, Rashomon, Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve) and 1954 (Diabolique, La Strada, On The Waterfront, Rear Window and The Seven Samurai).
The Fifties, on the whole, are seriously overlooked as a golden age, while the Boomer-hyped idea of the Sixties as a wholesale cultural renaissance has always struck me as a bit of a crock, so I can't help but be skeptical of Farber's idea. He begins by pointing out the wealth of foreign-film releases that year: Satyajit Ray's Devi, Yojimbo, Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, and Bunuel's Viridiana. Antonioni released two films as well - Eclipse and La Notte, and Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad was also released, but I've never had much patience for these icons of abstruse, narcoleptic cinema, so he begins losing me here.
John Frankenheimer, who died just this summer, released an astonishing three films in 1962: All Fall Down, The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate. I've never seen the first, lost interest barely halfway through the second (though my wife likes it), and regard the third as a geniune masterpiece of paranoid cinema, which doesn't mean to say that I think it's a good film, but better-paid minds than mine consider it a work of genius, so I'll let it go.
Serious drama, much of it originating on the stage, was still being made into films in 1962: The Miracle Worker, Sweet Bird of Youth, A View From the Bridge and Long Day's Journey into Night were all released and, if nothing else, it makes one nostalgic for a time when Broadway wasn't just a family theme park full of treacly musicals featuring great special effects and gruesome, second-rate pop songs. It was a good year for elegaic westerns - Ride the High Country and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were released, one by a director made famous by his westerns (John Ford), the other by a director credited with modernizing the whole genre (Sam Pekinpah). Kubrick released Lolita, which I've never considered one of his best films, and Howard Hawks released Hatari, one of his last films, which Farber tepidly calls an "entertaining African adventure".
Besides Lawrence, the other obviously great Hollywood release of 1962 - at least to me - was Cape Fear, one of those sickeningly anxious, assaultive films that, like Night of the Hunter and most of Douglas Sirk's work, should have signalled to someone that something awful was brewing under the surface of the famously "complacent" pre-Beatles era. For this reason alone, I consider the Fifties a much more interesting decade, for movies and practically everything else, than the Sixties; the sense of unrelenting unease, the way that melodrama boiled with urgency, and release was almost always catastrophic before it was cathartic. And besides, the clothes were nicer.
Hardly a watershed, 1962 seems like the next to last year in the "long Fifties", to paraphrase Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, the end of an extended decade that probably began in 1947. The next year would see the release of Dr. Strangelove, Tom Jones and Visconti's The Leopard, hinting at the turmoil to come, but 1964 would see Lord of the Flies, A Hard Day's Night, Goldfinger, The Passenger and Zorba the Greek hit the theatres. The Sixties had begun in earnest and, coincidentally, I was born, cursed to live in "interesting times".
The best point Farber makes is how economical the blockbusters of 1962 - Lawrence, The Longest Day, The Music Man, Billy Budd - seem in comparison to today's summer season monster releases. Star salaries were still reasonable, as were executive wages and shareholder demands, so an epic like Lawrence could be made for the equivalent of US$88 million in today's money, hardly an extortionate budget, and every penny of it was on the screen. "In addition," notes Farber, "teenagers didn't have a stranglehold on the marketplace. The adult audience ruled, and producers and studio executives craved prestige almost a much as they wished for a huge payday."
Farber's piece is obviously a bit of an exercise in nostalgia, prompted by a four-decade anniversary, and probably sold to his editors with just as neat a pitch. To me, though, 1962 seems an arbitrary choice, but I'll admit that I can't think of a year in recent memory as interesting overall, so he's made his point, despite all of that.
(posted 11:50am EST | 09.19.02)
Katrin Cartlidge, 1961-2002.
#0073 - KATRIN CARTLIDGE - The deaths of famous, accomplished people are usually talked about as tragedies; I remember that "tragedy" was the exact word Woody Allen used to describe the death of Fellini. Most of the time, as with Fellini, it's an overstatement, especially when someone has died at an advanced age, at the end of a long, fruitful career. Sad, yes; a spur to somber thoughts, certainly; but tragic, no.
The death over a week ago of British actress Katrin Cartlidge was a tragedy. At only 41, there was every reason to believe that she still hadn't done her best work. Certainly, the quality of the work produced up till now was impressive, role for role more interesting than almost any actor her age. As director Mike Leigh, who worked with her on two of the films that gave filmgoers notice of her extraordinary talent, said in his eulogy: "Had she continued, she would most certainly have become, over the next 40 years or so, one of the true greats." For me, she was already there.
I took the portraits above six years ago, at a twenty-minute film festival interview-and-photo session, and despite the briefness it was probably the highlight of my work that year. Career Girls was still a year in the future, but I'd seen Cartlidge in Leigh's Naked and Milcho Manshevsky's Before the Rain, and was already a fan. She was funny and down to earth and mused at one point that, not being "pretty", she was happily never offered the kind of froth that traps most other actresses. Ingrid, the paper's writer, and I loudly disagreed, and insisted that we thought she was terribly attractive. It was a very strange conversation, the kind you can only have with someone, like Catrlidge, who has made it their business to harshly appraise themselves, in a business where surfaces can mean so much.
From an obituary published in the Hoosier Times:
"At a recent film premiere, (Boogie Nights and Magnolia director) Paul Thomas Anderson fell on his knees in front of (Cartlidge), mock-pleading to be able to direct her - to the consternation of several better-known actresses in attendance."
Anderson, who relies on actors more than most directors working in Hollywood today, obviously knew talent when he saw it. Mike Leigh's Career Girls wasn't a huge success, but it's one of my favorite films, by both Leigh and Cartlidge. Her Hannah, shown as a prickly, irritating young woman at twenty, and a confident but defensive woman at thirty, remains one of the most sympathetic performances I've ever seen, a truly inhabited character. It's hard to imagine someone like Anderson watching Hannah and not putting Cartlidge at the top of a wish list. I would have liked to have seen the film they'd have made together.
"She often talked to me about her eventual move into directing," Leigh said in his eulogy. "I am in no doubt that we have lost not only one of our greatest actors but also one of the most interesting new directors of the future." Like I said, a tragedy.
Simon McBurney's Guardian obituary called Cartlidge "one of the most fearless and passionately commmitted performers on screen and stage to have emerged from Britain in years." I often read over this kind of hyperbole without considering it's basis in truth, but in this case, I can't see that he's wrong. "She was unafraid of saying what she believed in, of making herself heard in an art form that too often - and she believed to its detrement - was cued by money and celebrity." If this was also true - and I'd like to think that anyone who's reading this will agree - then we've lost someone essential to the ongoing fight for better movies, for a better culture overall. A tragedy.
I'll leave the last word to Mike Leigh who, more than anyone else in the film industry, is made bereft by the loss of someone like Katrin Cartlidge:
"I still find it impossible to believe that she is gone, that I will never again meet her for lunch and have that special free-flowing Katrin conversation, at once profound and hilarious. But the hardest thing of all is to face the unbearable truth that Katrin Cartlidge will never again make her magical contribution to my films. This devastating fact leaves me very sad indeed. It is a terrible loss."
(posted 02:50pm EST | 09.17.02)
#0072 - LOVE WILL TEAR US APART - One sign of approaching the critical mass of middle age is the appearance of books, movies, CD compilations, DVD reissues, car and baby product commercials that exploits some significant cultural artifact from my own lifetime. I think they call it "generational niche marketing". I was given notice of having reached this demographic plateau when the Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get?" was used in a Toyota commercial. I'm not complaining. I'm not a member of the Naomi Klein "No Logo" dittohead posse. I don't regard my pop cultural past as sacrosanct, and after all, it would be a bit rich to start whining now, after all the snickering I did watching the Boomers howl with outrage when Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles, and other sacred cows from their musical pantheon were pressed into service to sell them everything from computers to banking services.
But I'm still wary of the latest book, movie, etc., that sets out to depict some cultural moment that, while I might not have been actually there for, was germinal at some point in my almost four decades of experience. I'm still bitter at the hash Spike Lee made of the summer of '77 in Summer of Sam (and mad that I expected anything better from Lee, a woefully overrated director), but grateful to Ang Lee for approximating some of the dreary, oversexed but overcast mood of the early 70s in The Ice Storm. I can make educated guesses about what's accurate in a World War Two movie, but I have tangible, vivid memories beginning sometime around when the Beatles broke up, and they elicit strong reactions when I know that something just isn't right.
When you're young, you look for validation from culture, some depiction of life you can relate to, squinting to blur the clothes and haircuts, but managing to make some kind of connection nevertheless. I was never a Southern Californian teen squeezing the dregs of my summer dry with drag racing or chasing unattainable girls around town, or a working-class mod that looked for too much in the momentary, overstyled rebellion of his peers, but I definitely once loved American Graffiti and Quadrophenia almost as much as if I'd been there.
But I wasn't, and the distance I feel from those films now probably has to do with finally being able to look at them as a fantasy of someone else's cultural moment. The temporal spotlight moves decidedly closer to me with films like Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, which is either a biopic of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, TV presenter turned musical impressario, or a recreation of the Manchester musical scene over a decade and a half from punk to rave. I suppose it would mean a whole lot more to someone who was actually in Manchester from 1976 to 1992, in the crowd at the Lesser Free Trade Hall for the Sex Pistols, or at the Joy Division gig which was invaded by seig-heiling skinheads, or tripping madly to 808 State and Orbital at the Hacienda.
I wasn't there, but I did the next best thing: I grew up in Toronto, in a notoriously anglophilic music scene that imported the detritus of the British scene - records, magazines, music papers, posters, clothes, and touring bands - as quickly as it could be shipped by air. I had friends who could recite the exact, sequential "Fac" catalogue number of everything Factory produced; I even knew people who arranged, at great cost, to buy bricks or cocktail napkins or flyers from the Hacienda, just to fill in the gap in their collection that "Fac 51" - the Hacienda project - symbolized.
In the Observer review of the film, Philip French recalls the rise of the "rock film" from exploitation-quality drive-in fare to the popular social history of a film like Almost Famous:
"This kind of rock nostalgia probably stems from a couple of generations growing up in a Western world without the experience of two world wars, the Depression, austerity, major social upheavals, but with a decent disposable income. Changing musical fashions have been the fabric of their lives, their central foreground event rather than the audible wallpaper of their time."
Michael Winterbottom is a uniquely style-free director. Which isn't to say that 24 Hour Party People lacks style - it has style in crateloads - but that he's an anti-auteur kind of filmmaker, who's short but prolific career reveals no two identical bits of work. His latest film might be some kind of new benchmark in the use of digital video, or even more rare, a unique match of subject to medium where Winterbottom and cinematographer Robby Muller have used the crummy image quality and queasy vitality of handheld cameras to produce, in the words of Elvis Mitchell's NY Times review, "a looser, cooler look that approximates Mr. Wilson's short-attention-span chatter. Mr. Muller produces a trippy and instinctive document; he doesn't try to make the tape stock look like film. He chooses to underlight the sets ... and you feel as if you're walking under the oatmeal skies of of Manchester, England..."
Just as impressive is Steve Coogan's portrayal of Wilson, which may or may not be totally accurate to the real man but, in the spirit of the film, creates something even more compelling through sheer nerve alone. Coogan's Wilson is a hyperarticulate snob, a "Mercedes Marxist", a Cambridge graduate whose appreciation of pop culture couldn't be more questing and refined if he obsessed on Palladian architecture or Dutch Old Master painters instead of the succession of yobby, often thuglike working class bands he championed, and the dourly romantic, even Dionysian northern urban street culture that Factory aestheticized. Mitchell describes Coogan-as-Wilson as the sort of "late 20th-century United Kingdom man who wants to be a pop star but vibrates with the deap-seated British fear of public humiliation."
(Wilson is also - like Joy Division/New Order manager Rob Gretton and producer Martin Hannett, two of his closest supporters/antagonists in the story - a Catholic school boy, and that gives me one more reason for empathy, one more subtle but undeniable common point of reference. Back then, I wouldn't have acknowledged it. Today, it's germinal.)
I'm not an unbiased audience member. Any film that tries to depict - with a reasonable obligation to accuracy - the grubby, shoddy, basically doomed genesis of punk rock, is tapping into the great pop cultural moment of my life. I was a miserable, melodramatic, underachieving teenager, the perfect target for punk, and it remains the salient movement in my cultural history, even if I can't imagine listening to it much, or wanting to inhabit the skin of the angry, overbearingly passionate youth I once was. I knew I was watching something good during the scene after the Pistols gig, where Wilson, his wife and best friend, are smoking a joint in their apartment, celebrating and unwinding at the same time, tearing down the Pink Floyd and Bowie posters on the wall. In the background, playing on the stereo, is a John Martyn record - Solid Air, I think. It's the perfect choice - exactly the kind of moody jazz-folk that an older, post-hippie sophisticate like Wilson would play, to accompany a joint, late at night - and bodes well for a film that would rise or sink on the strength of its soundtrack alone.
As the NY Times review puts it, "...whatever its factual flaws, the movie is spirtually accurate." It gets a major point right - that there was a virtually seamless continuity from punk to rave culture, and a great artery of that continuity ran through Manchester, through Factory Records and, necessarily, through and over Tony Wilson. I've tried to imagine myself as a young man right now, somehwere between high school and college; the same young man as I was in 1982, in a different cultural context. What would I be listening to?
Certainly not toothless punk parodies Sum 41 or any other packaged, major-label music. Techno - no doubt about it. Really obscure, hard-to-find, near-abstract DJ-only remix stuff. It's been a decade since I'd even entertain the idea of clubbing, but I knew even then that this was the right stuff, the only logical descendant of the Gang of Four and the Pistols, Television and Joy Division. And so I groove at home, when I groove at all, nodding supportively at the kids in the front lines, with their Red Bull and their glow sticks and their overengineered sneakers. With one reservation in my mind: I'm glad I was there for both, for the original moment and its echoes, because I don't believe for a moment that there's anything in pop music today with half the energy or meaning of what inspired me twenty-five years ago. By this statement alone, I'm acknowledging the cultural calcification peculiar to age, the complete evacuation of youth from a body and a mind. Forgive me.
Wilson himself was already a bit long in the tooth for punk, and positively geriatric in relation to the protean ravers who coalesced around the Hacienda, but that didn't stop him from enjoying - indeed, helping to engineer - the moment, to fan its embers and prolong its life. In his novelization of the movie script - which is really much better than these things should be, and acts more like liner notes than an afterthought accessory to the film - Wilson answers the charge that punk mentors like Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren and himself were "a bunch of still-born hippies": "Dead right, honey. We were a little bit stardust and a little bit fucking golden and some of us refused to believe that the Garden didn't exist. Once you've had a taste you want more, don't you? Always. Yearningly."
Coogan-as-Wilson is constantly spouting references to Situationism and Post-modernism, Bakunin and T.S. Eliot. He honestly regards Shaun Ryder, the drug-addled lead singer of the Happy Mondays, as on par with W.B. Yeats, and devotes much of a chapter in his novelization to a textural analysis of "Kinky Afro". The idea, of course, is ridiculous, and like Jeff Stark in Salon, I'm at a loss to how Wilson could regard the Mondays as on par with Joy Division, the band that launches Factory and inspires the first half of his story:
"I once saw the Happy Mondays live and used to listen to their records all the time, but for the life of me I can't remember why. At best they're a third-tier band in the annals of rock history, notable only for druggy excess, three singles and including in the band a guy whose only job was to gobble Ecstasy and groove to sloppy, fake-soul funk."
There are more than enough hints that, despite his (possibly fear-inspired) reverence for the Mondays, Wilson knew they were a bit of a joke, but that doesn't disqualify his love for them, or the moment they inhabited in his life. Ryder was a hilarious mess and a wannabe thug, but the band's friends were a truly dangerous gang of drug dealers, and they ushered in guns and a crime wave in on the coat-tails of "Madchester" and the nascent rave scene. Behind his Guy Debord-inspired talk of transgression, art, Dionysian moments and the orgiastic possibilities of rebellion, Wilson is also a classic moral relativist, unwilling to make judgements on anything that smacks of "right-on" social origins, and so he tolerates the guns and the drugs and ignores the fact that, despite admonitions that "you really should read more", the culture he's promoting is less and less likely to encourage anyone to appreciate the literary and artistic references he so keenly worships.
Perhaps unwittingly, 24 Hour Party People follows the classic formula of history repeating itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. When Ian Curtis of Joy Division hangs himself, it's clearly a tragedy, and probably the pivotal moment in Wilson's life up to that point. He, and everyone else around him, are haunted and puzzled by Curtis' suicide for years afterwards, and Coogan-as-Wilson launches into a diatribe against the myth of Curtis' as a proto-Goth doomed youth, a melancholy figure reeking of sadness and inevitable tragedy. He was fun, Wilson insists, and hardly atypical; he was a lager-drinking, epileptic young northerner shot through with guilt about his marital problems and the affair that was destroying it, momentarily unequipped for hope or persistence, as young men so often are. It was a dark time, and Curtis did a dark thing. God help his soul.
I could relate; then and now. I was fascinated, even obsessed, by Curtis and Joy Division, even more so after his death which, perversely, proved somehow that he "meant it", like he had to die for the integrity of his art. Like too many miserable young men, I let my overdeveloped sense of self-pity vent itself with frequent thoughts of suicide. Unlike a (thankfully) tiny majority of miserable young men, I never acted on it, but allowed myself the luxury of the usual banal period of self-destructive behaviour, got bored of that, and got on with my life. Well, maybe it wasn't that simple, but I'm still here today.
Shaun Ryder, the Happy Mondays, and the whole sloppy, dazed culture around the early rave scene was even more self-destructive than Curtis, and if it has anything to morally recommend it, it would be a steadfast avoidance of suicidal self-pity. It was the clownish inversion of punk's wounded intensity, and Wilson's insistence on finding a still-burning ember of punk in the eyes of the E-d out crowds at the Hacienda is touching but a bit desperate:
"Bushy tailed and bright as fuck. A simple excitement burned in two hundred pupils. A simple excitement that Wilson had seen before...The same simple excitement and sense of brilliant self-containment.
"'What have we here', he said, in the manner of someone finding what only now he realizes he has been searching for all his life. Wilson gazed at the gazes in happy shock."
It's with a kind of relief that the Madchester moment ends, with the closing of the Hacienda, which never stood a chance of doing anything but draining Factory's bank accounts. Desperate for cash, Wilson had invited a major label to become partners in Factory, which backfired when London Records offered to buy the whole company. The only problem was that Factory didn't own anything; inspired by his own communitarian hippie ideals, Wilson had written - in his own blood - a contract stating that the label owned nothing, that the bands could "fuck off" any time they pleased. And so they did, leaving Wilson and his partners with a dance club on the verge of being repo'ed.
The last scene of the film, on the roof of the Hacienda after closing night, is, in the words of Jeff Stark in Salon, "an ending that is much more rewardingly finite than the end a music scene ever was." The guns, the drugs, the thugs bleeding everyone dry and threatening the lives of every clubgoer - it all had to end, if only to save the only thing that Wilson ever professed to really care about: his city, Manchester. Along with other businessmen and enterpreneurs, Wilson had engineered a miraculous renewal of a grim, post-industrial city that had been given up for dead. "If I have one downfall," Coogan-as-Wilson states directly to the camera, "it is an excess of civic pride, a relish for the history and future of this town, its resourcefulness, its great merchant buildings, its cheap, abundant drugs." Ironist to the end, Wilson needs to weight down what might be his noblest sentiment with a sharp little piss-take, a reflexive kind of impulse that I can also respect, having finally begun the process of putting my youthful enthusiasms in context, finding them ridiculous yet still vital and, even at this distance, compelling. I find myself wanting to assume Wilson-as-Coogan's metered, only slightly pretentious TV presenter's tone to sum up my feelings for the upheavals of youth and youth culture:
"And so it ends, as we always knew it would. Unlike Boethius' great wheel, there is no round trip, no further circuits up and down the cycle of fortune, for youth is finite, and the energies necessary to sustain youth as unrenewable as last night's drink ticket. Would I live through it all again? You bet I would, in a minute. Would I wish its excesses and humiliations, its unparalleled moments of joy and discovery, the landmark mountain peaks from which one navigates further into life, on my own children? Not a fucking chance, mate. Safety and comfort, free of guns and drugs and suicide; how could any parent wish for anything less? But then again, it's not like I have much of a choice, do I?"
(posted 12:20pm EST | 09.13.02)