Friday, December 21, 2012

The Past in the Present: The Great Gatsby in 1974 and 2012.

This is a short piece I wrote awhile back when the first Luhrmann Gatsby trailer surfaced.

                While the release of the Luhrmann Gatsby trailer last week elicited a fairly mixed response overall, the overwhelming majority appeared to be dismayed, often to the point of disgust, with the provocative, if not entirely unexpected, aesthetic choices that the trailer highlighted.  Underlying much of the rancour was a sense of broken decorum – a strongly engrained feeling that adapting a classic and a period piece is a highly formal exercise not unlike meeting the queen.  You approach the queen with an air of self-conscious frigidity, and then proceed with the elaborate ritual of courtesies, because that’s how it’s done.  Some of the Gatsby reactions suggested the kind of horror that might accompany somebody tongue-kissing, or even goosing, the queen in lieu of the usual formalities.  While it’s far too early to say, obviously, what kind of picture Luhrmann has fashioned out of Fitzgerald’s hallowed literary classic, it’s worth teasing out some of the attitudes that underlie this sense of decorum regarding literary adaptations and period pieces.

                It’s often felt that the chief criteria by which we judge literary adaptations is in terms of their fidelity and faithfulness to the source material.  This is an attitude shared, oddly enough, by literary purists and comic book nerds – though at wholly opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, both share a kind of fundamentalist fervour for the Holy Writ of the source material.  It’s an attitude not without some merit – nobody really wants Gatsby with a sci-fi or zombie twist – but at the same time, it fails to acknowledge that movies and novels are fundamentally different mediums.  All novels worth their salt defy any kind of direct translation to the screen, because they are so rooted in language, and in the specific properties and effects that can only be achieved in the novelistic medium.  Those novels, on the other hand, that do facilitate direct translation are the pulpy page-turners that were never more than fleshed-out film scripts to begin with – Jaws, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Jurassic Park, and so on – all vastly superior movies than they ever were novels.  The point is that novels and their movie adaptations are not joined at the hip – they are separate entities that deserve to be judged on their own terms and relative merits.  If a perfectly faithful translation of a novel was possible, it would render the source novel itself obsolete – as has essentially happened with The Godfather and the other page-turners.

               The Great Gatsby is an unfilmable novel because its essential character lies not in the surface plot, but rather in Fitzgerald’s treatment of it.  In the hands of a lesser author, it could easily have been so much forgettable melodrama, but Fitzgerald – by means of the evocative, suggestive quality of his prose, and unerring sense of what to leave unsaid and un-shown – turns the story into a highly compressed, almost ineffable narrative poetry.  Any attempt to replicate this effect on screen is doomed to failure – even to flesh out any of what Gatsby stirs in the mind’s eye of the reader is to threaten the delicate, tenuous magic by which Fitzgerald maintains the perfection of his small novel.  For this reason, the filmmaker has the freedom to strike out on his own with source material like Gatsby – to create something congruent with, but not slavishly faithful to the original – something that is allowed to breathe in its own cinematic context and its own moment.
                This leads to the question of anachronism in Luhrmann’s trailer.  All period movies are anachronistic to a greater or lesser degree.  The idea of a correct way to approach period on film is as illusionary as the perfectly faithful literary adaptation.  How we think period should be approached on film has little or nothing to do with historical accuracy, or the nature of the period itself – rather, our ideas about period decorum are simply the set of anachronisms that have become conventionalised as to how period should be shown on film.  Since the past is only the past relatively speaking, and was the present to those who actually lived it, the most accurate period ambience would feel exactly like the present moment – this is the paradoxical realization that made Public Enemies such a formally bold and contentious film.

              The real irony here, however, is that although Luhrmann has eschewed the frigid and fussy approach to period, he seems to have done so in a way that is conspicuously old-fashioned.  The stylized, almost psychedelic artificiality of the imagery in the trailer seems to me to be much closer in spirit to the lush, painterly artificiality of the Technicolor Era – to the Old Hollywood worlds of Minnelli, Busby Berkley, and Sirk – than to the romanticized realism of the 1974 Jack Clayton version.  The 3D orientation and CGI appear heavily anachronistic to us – only because of our more recent conventionalized appetite for surface realism and verisimilitude in a period or drama movie.  Hollywood in the 40s and 50s made ample use of sound-stages, matte painted backdrops, crazily phony-looking back projection for driving sequences, and so on; artificiality and stylization in a movie like Gatsby wouldn’t have bothered them the way it does us.

                Anyway, all this is to say that Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby strikes me as more promising than horrifying.  A restoration of Techicolor lushness and Old Hollywood artificiality – shot through with a brash, energetic modern sensibility – may well be a context in which 3D is actually aesthetically justified and rewarding.  I’m curious to see how DiCaprio acquaints himself with the titular role.  All movie stars who make it really big have a touch of Gatsby about them - a touch of the mystery of having everything and yet remaining unfulfilled – and it will be interesting to see if a star of our generation finally manages to nail Fitzgerald’s elusive shadow at the heart of the American Dream.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Clams Casino and Perdues dans New York.

The found footage is from Perdues dans New York, Jean Rollin's famously odd 1989 made for television film:

Here is the sequence in it's original context from Vimeo:

Ballardian Mash-up: Jack Webb and The Normal.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bo Diddley - Mona/Roadrunner (Live)

The grooviest thing I saw today was this footage of Teddy Boys and rockers getting down to a funky Bo Diddley performance in London in 1973.  Okay, in fairness I didn't see too many groovy things today, but this would still be pretty high-up on a red letter day:

More outrageous Brylcream and proto-breakdancing action from the Teddy Boys here:

W.I.T.C.H. The Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell.

Formed in 1969 from the ashes of the NYRW (New York Radical Women), the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H.) was a decentralized association of covens dedicated to feminism, socialist activism, and surrealist guerrilla street theater.  As such, they neatly embodied many of the most significant tendencies of the emergent counterculture: the often precarious mixture of political radicalism and dadaist spectacle patented by the Yippies, as well a brand that echoed the burgeoning revival of witchcraft and occultism.  According to an early manifesto:
                 WITCH is an all-women Everything.  It's theater, revolution, magic, terror, joy, garlic flowers, spells.  It's an awareness that witches and gypsies were the original guerrillas and resistance fighters against oppression - particularly the oppression of women - down through the ages.  Witches have always been women who dared to be: groovy, courageous, aggressive, intelligent, nonconformist, explorative, curious, independent, sexually liberated, revolutionary.  Witches were the first Friendly Heads and Dealers, the first birth control practitioners and abortionists, the first alchemists (turn dross into gold and you devalue the whole idea of money!)  They bowed to no man, being the living remnants of the oldest culture of all - one in which men and women were equal sharers in a truly cooperative society, before the death-dealing sexual, economic, and spiritual repression of the Imperialist Phallic Society took over and began to destroy nature and human society.

Their first act was to place a hex on the Black Iron Prison of Wall Street.  According to an article on Jo "Because WITCH actions could be done with a small group and were both fun and political, they quickly spread around the country. Boston women hexed bars. DC women hexed the Presidential inauguration. Chicago women zapped everything. On January 16, 1969, eight undergraduate women at the University of Chicago hexed the chairman of the Sociology Department, which had recently fired a popular woman professor. Dressed in black with their faces painted white, they told him to "beware of the curse, the witch's curse."  The WITCH acronym was used to mean a variety of different things on different occasions: Women Inspired to Tell their Collective Histories, Women Interested in Toppling Consumer Holidays, and, most comically, Women Incensed at Telephone Company Harassment during a demonstration against Bell Telephone.  Here is a wonderful picture of the witches dancing on front of the Chicago Federal building on October 31, 1969:

Pictures from custom buttons and occult chicago            

Jean-Claude Vannier/Yves St Laurent.

The great Jean-Claude Vannier scores a Yves St Laurent fashion show with a track from his masterwork L'Enfant Assassin des Mouches:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Postcards from Elsewhere.

These wonderful conceptual space colony illustrations, produced by NASA's Ames Research Center in the 70s, have been doing the rounds on the internet for awhile now (I used to use one of them as a banner for this blog.)  I come across them again recently on the Daily Mail (via the Daily Grail), so here's a selection:

Gaze Into the Eyes of LAM.

I dare you.

Jeunesse D'Ivoire - Silent Imagery.

Can't really find out too much about this group online.  They are also responsible for one of my favorite ever coldwave tunes, A Gift of Tears.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Happening that Blazed Headlines Across the Nation: Riot on Sunset Strip.

Continuing the acid mania theme of a couple of posts back......In the thirties and forties, Hollywood's Sunset Strip was the glittering playground of movie stars, moguls, and mobsters.  By the mid-sixties, it had become the locus of the new music of the counterculture, with clubs and bars like the Whiskey a Go Go, Pandora's Box, and the London Fog providing a venue for the giddy ascent of The Doors, Arthur Lee's Love, and the Mothers of Invention.  Square local residents and business owners attempted to curb this growing saturnalia, and in 1966 a strict 10:00pm curfew and amped-up loitering laws precipitated a famous riot, in which hippies clashed with police, and Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson were cuffed and arrested.  Within six months, American International Pictures released an exploitation flick based on the incident called Riot on Sunset Strip.  It starred Aldo Ray and the delectable Mimsy Farmer; the title track was a great stomper performed by the Standells (listen here.)  I doubt it's any great shakes, even by bad movie standards, but the trailer is enough of a gas to justify its existence:

With the community welfare foremost in mind, the trailer asks "Do you know what acid can do to an inexperienced young girl?"  This, apparently.  Mimsy Farmer went on to cultivate a more androgynous look, and moved to Italy where she starred in Dario Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Barbet Shroeder's far more clued-in counterculture movie More.  The curfew riots on Sunset Strip also inspired this song, which I hadn't heard for donkey's years:

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Witchcraft '70.

Been looking for this one for awhile: Luigi Scattini's irresistible Mondo-style exploitation/documentary feature exploring witchcraft and occultism in the Space Age:

Postcards From Elsewhere.

A few samples from the excellent Pinterest page of Sci-Fi-O-Rama (via feuilleton)

Friday, December 7, 2012

"We even have some ex-disco people..." Steven Halpern on CBS 48 Hours

Steven Halpern was a musician on the New York jazz scene in the 60s - but he didn't much care for the bustle.  He moved to California instead to develop what he called "non-frantic alternative" music - what the world would later know as New Age.  Even truck drivers and burnt-out disco debauchees gravitated towards towards this healing new sound:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Avant-Garde Fashion Advertising: Asia Argento and Kenneth Anger.

Here are a couple of psychedelic fashion promos that caught my eye recently.  The first is directed by Asia Argento for Lodovica Amati's 2013 Spring/Summer collection.  Some people have evinced considerable displeasure at the idea of an ayahuasca ceremony as a scenario for a fashion shot.  I dunno.  I'm a sucker for all things Argento, Asia is as hot as hell, and this looks pretty stunning and hypnotic to me:

 In 2010, Missoni enlisted the talents of legendary Dark Magus and old favorite of this blog Kenneth Anger to promo their Fall campaign.  I don't know why I'm only seeing this now, but here it is:

Via Dangerous Minds and Arthur magazine.

Dragnet: Marijuana is the FLAME, Heroin is the FUSE, LSD is the BOMB!

A couple of SENSATIONAL clips I came across today on the Secret Sun facebook page:

And the moral of the story:

Monday, December 3, 2012

"It's a place that is trying to destroy the individual, by every means possible..." Patrick McGowan on The Prisoner.

The incomparable Patrick McGowan talks about his most famous creation on Canadian Television in 1977:

Cronenberg - High Rise

Continuing the early Cronenberg theme, I discovered this horror disco track by an artist or group called Cronenberg.  I think it's quite good stuff, although I'm probably a bit of a sucker for a track called High Rise by an artist called Cronenberg:

The album Things Inside has a blogspot page here, where you can listen to the rest of the tracks.  I've been impressed with the music so far, and it's a cool design sensibility.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Library Music Used In David Croneberg's Rabid (1977)

Summer's Coming by Keith Mansfield is beautiful library piece that first appeared on the KPM album Love's Theme:

It's the last of five library tracks used in Rabid that somebody has uploaded here:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Nolan Porter - Keep On Keepin' On.

"It's a kind that don't belong no place at all..."

One of my favorite ever Brando monologues comes from Sidney Lumet's 1959 Tennessee Williams adaptation The Fugitive Kind, in which Brando played drifter Valentine "Snakeskin" Xavier (the source of Nicholas Cage's snakeskin jacket in Wild At Heart.)  It's a hypnotic example of Brando's narcissistic lyricism:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Spectre is Haunting the World: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis.

                Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find.  In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly free psychopathology.
                JG Ballard, High-Rise (1975.)

                2012 was the year of the existential stretch limo film, or so say Cashier du Cinema, having voted Leos Carax’s Holy Motors and David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis their top two films of the year.  There are certain intriguing, if superficial, similarities between the two movies.  Both are set during the course of a single day, and both their protagonists experience episodic adventures while being ferried around in stretch limos.  The limousine has lost much of its mystique as a symbol of wealth, power, and conspicuous consumption in recent years; in Holly Motors and Cosmopolis it becomes symbolic of how technology tends to insulate and isolate modern individuals from the world, operating as a womb, a shell, and a prison.  Both films remind me vaguely of the John Cheever short story and subsequent Burt Lancaster movie The Swimmer, in that they are long day’s journeys into night, or stories of men who are gradually exhausted and disillusioned by the close of their compressed odysseys.   A more comprehensive comparison between the two films might make for an interesting essay, but since I’ve only seen Holy Motors once, and wasn’t overawed by it, I’m going to concentrate on Cosmopolis, which strikes me as the first real Cronenberg film since 1999’s eXistenz, and the first really good Cronenberg since his adaptation of Ballard’s feverish prose poem Crash in ’96.  In fact, Cosmopolis feels like a mature companion piece to Crash, and a long awaited return to the weird and coldly fascinating shared universe in which the director’s best work takes place. 

The quintessential theme of early Cronenberg was the transformation of the body through its marriage with technology.  In Videodrome, James Woods’ flesh was subject to a literal transformation; in Crash, with the exception of copious flesh woods, the body preserved its integrity, but the mind underneath was transformed.  James Ballard and his wife Catherine (played by James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger) have a cold, oddly affectless quality; they appear to have moved past emotion as it is conventionally expressed, and regard their bodies and sexual compulsions with the rapt but clinical interest of physiologists examining a cadaver.  It could be argued that Cronenberg was always primarily concerned with the mental rather than physical transformations engendered by technology, and in this sense both he and Ballard were pioneering theorists of an idea which only acquired a name much later on: the idea of the posthuman, or the radically transformed new species that emerges from our increasing symbiosis with technology.  Ballard’s fictions constantly present aspects of the topography of modern life as potential incubators for new types of human behaviour and new species of human being: automobiles, motorways, high-rise apartment towers, and luxury gated communities become the behavioural laboratories of emergent social orders and pathologies:
“A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like and advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere.”  (Ballard, High-Rise.)
Cosmopolis finds Cronenberg exploring a similar kind of detached, posthuman ennui to that which characterised the fusion of his vision with Ballard’s in Crash.  In Crash, however, the technologies which transform the psychologies of its characters are primarily those of the first Machine Age – the mass produced automobiles and crowded motorways which also formed the centrepiece of Godard’s 1967 consumerist apocalypse Weekend.

 In the 21 century Information Age vision of Cosmopolis, both people and technologies have become subservient to the transfer of information which they facilitate – the idea of clock-time which facilitated the physical, labour-based capitalism of the Industrial Revolution has given way to a permanently encroaching present or future-present of instantaneous information, and a wholly abstract economic system where “money talks to itself”:
“You don’t believe in doubt.  You’ve told me this.  Computer power eliminates doubt.  All doubt arises from past experience.   We used to know the past but not the future.  This is changing,” she said.  “We need a new theory of time.”  (DeLillo, Cosmopolis.)
With Burroughs and Ballard in his earlier movies, Cronenberg proved adept at finding literary sensibilities which could be merged with his own thematic and stylistic concerns to the point where it was difficult to pinpoint exactly where one begins and the other ends (influence as a perfect viral infection or parasite.)  In Don DeLillo’s source novel he has found that perfect symbiosis again, and the result is one the year’s most exciting and original films.

Just as the Greeks saw fire, atoms or water as the ultimate constituents of matter, so we now see information flowing through all things.
Brian Appleyard, The Brain is Wider than the Sky.

Published in 2003 and ostensibly covering the period of the dot com collapse in 2000, Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis feels remarkably prescient in 2012.  It tells the story of Eric Packer, a 28 year-old billionaire asset manager who decides on a whim to get his hair cut in a barber shop across midtown New York.  In order to do so, his limousine must travel through an urban landscape which has become as complex and fraught with variables and vectors as the financial system itself: a presidential visit is in progress, a Sufi-influenced rap star is publically being laid to rest, and an anarchist/anti-capitalist protest, operating under the symbolic banner of the rat, has exploded into a riot of graffiti and self-immolations.  While the limousine is attacked by protesters, Packer’s “theoretical” advisor insists that the riot is “a protest against the future”, or against the reformulation of temporality into the perpetually unstable now of cyber-capitalism.   (In 2010, protestors attacked the Royal Roll Royce; the expression on the faces of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall was less of everyday fear and more of a kind of shock that the symbolic order of the world had been breached and shattered.)

Packer is himself making an unconscious protest against the future, however.  His desire for a haircut in a traditional barber shop, and in an establishment which he used to visit as child with his father, represents a nostalgia both for his own childhood, and for the vanishing world of traditional, tangible commerce.  He seems, in various inchoate ways, to be trying to remember what it means to be an authentic human being:
He felt these things.  He felt the pain.  It travelled the pathways.  It informed the ganglion and spinal cord.  He was here in his body, the structure he wanted to dismiss in theory even when he was shaping it under the measured effect of barbells and weights.  He wanted to judge it redundant and transferable.  It was convertible to wave arrays of information.  It was the thing he watched on the oval screen when he wasn’t watching Jane.  (Cosmopolis.)
He encounters his new wife, a young heiress and would-be poet, and attempts throughout the day to have sex with her, an act which he believes will be cleansing and cathartic.  Failing this, he has intercourse with a female bodyguard in a hotel room, and tries to persuade her to stun him with her Taser gun.  All the while, however, his world is crumbling around him.  He is haunted by the fact that he has an asymmetrical prostate.  Somebody is trying to kill him.  Most catastrophically, he has gambled hundreds of millions against the rise of the yen (the yuan in Cronenberg’s adaptation) and his fortune is ebbing away.  In his book The Quants: How Math Whizzes Helped Sink the Economy, Scott Patterson describes how Wall Street quantitive analysts dreamed of finding hidden patterns amid the chaos and complexity of the global financial system which would make it possible to gamble the markets with the predictive accuracy of a hard science:
Regardless of which signature trade each man favored, they had something far more powerful in common: an epic quest for an elusive, ethereal quality the quants sometimes referred to in hushed, reverent tones as the Truth.  The Truth was a universal secret about the way the market worked that could only be discovered through mathematics. Revealed through the study of obscure patterns in the market, the Truth was the key to unlocking billions in profits. The quants built giant machines— turbocharged computers linked to financial markets around the globe—to search for the Truth, and to deploy it in their quest to make untold fortunes.  The quants created a name for the Truth, a name that smacked of cabalistic studies of magical formulas: alpha.
According to Brian Appleyard in The Brian is Wider than the Sky, “the quants’ superstition that infected the financial markets is the most vivid example of a superstition that infected the entire world in the post-war period – the fantasy that maths could be applied to the human realm and, with the ever-increasing power of computers, arrive at truths that were as hard and testable as those of physics.”  In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer embodies this mixture of venal hubris and Platonic mysticism:
He knew there was something no one had detected, a pattern latent in nature itself, a leap of pictorial language that went beyond the standard models of technical analysis and out-predicted even the arcane charting of his own followers in the field.  There had to be a way to explain the yen.
The absolute fallacy of these notions is revealed to Packer in the course of Cosmopolis, as it was revealed to the world in the aftermath of the crash of 2008: the application of computerized mathematical models to the global financial markets didn’t make them more stable and predictable, it did the opposite.  It created a volatile, perilously interconnected abstract monster that nobody could predict because nobody could really understand it.  Cosmopolis was not warmly received when it was released in 2003, but it strikes me as a very prescient and original thing: a strange lovechild of David Mamet, Harold Pinter, Bret Easton Elis, and JG Ballard.  It is a bone-dry black comedy and an intricately constructed prose poem where every recurring image and theme is very carefully interwoven. 
Cronenberg’s adaptation has been similarly underappreciated on its first critical airing.  It’s the type of film that makes you wonder what exactly you’re watching at first; it feels a little like movies do when you watch them in a sleepy, hypnogogic state of mind, and everything feels a little weird and austere and lifeless and hypnotic because your mind can’t quite follow what’s happening.  The interior of Packer’s limousine is a striking creation, like a HR Giger sculpture without the explicit references to human biology.  Cronenberg stresses its artificially, using green-screens that echo the unconvincing back-projection of film antiquity; when Packer eventually steps out into the world it startles us, because we hadn’t believed there was any world outside its artifice up to that point.  The director and his cast – including the Vampire Valentino of the Young Set – do a remarkable job of performing the novel’s ultra-mannered, Mamet-like dialogue.  Cronenberg himself responds to the challenge of the novel’s dialogue-heavy theatricality by producing a master-class in careful, arresting composition.  “I feel located absolutely nowhere” one of the characters says, and Cronenberg’s compositions constantly wrap space around the protagonists, shrinking the world while it expands the constrictive bubble of the limousine.  Most of all, it’s a joy to see the director firmly back in the very particular world he made his own in the 80s and 90s – a chilly, Ballardian world where oddly lifeless characters are absorbed and coolly obsessed by dreams of putting on a new flesh in a world of high technology.  Ballard and Cronenberg and DeLillo’s posthuman fantasies may seem exotic and affected to many audiences, but as a recent New York Times article How to live without Irony suggests, we are a culture moving to some extent towards a kind of detached and distanced relationship with the world.  What Brian Appleyard calls the superstition of the post-war world still presides over our lives today, despite the crash of ’08.  The internet was once envisioned as the ultimate interaction with a vast environment whose positive virtues were its randomness and unpredictability; increasingly, however, it is being designed to reflect ourselves back at us – but not ourselves precisely,  rather a version of ourselves and our interests which has been reverse engineered from our footprints by algorithms.  Travelling, again, in a bubble.  Cosmopolis articulates a pervasive underlying anxiety of our time: that in our intimate relationships with technology, we are willingly and even enthusiastically participating in our own obsolescence.
“He was thinking about automated teller machines.  The term was aged and burdened by its own historical memory.  It worked at cross-purposes, unable to escape the inference of muddled human personnel and jerky moving parts.  The term was part of the process the device was meant to replace.  It was anti-futuristic, so cumbrous and mechanical that even the acronym seemed dated."