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So long, and thanks for all the foolishness [23 Oct 2007|09:51am]
Since this journal has reached the term of its natural life, so to speak, I'll be deleting it as soon as I've had time to save the content.

It's been a wild ride at times, folks... And, since there's no such thing as an ending, I'll leave it there.
6 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Querelle (1982) [21 May 2007|09:19pm]
Fassbinder's Querelle is a film I'd been meaning to watch for a long time. It left me, however, vaguely disappointed. It's a gorgeous film, resplendent in dark smouldering colours, shot entirely on evocative sets with heavy-handedly metaphorical scenery. The music is also well done, with classical themes both accompanying and contrasting the stylised, dark and violent action; as well as Madame Lysiane's (an excellent Jeanne Moreau) Piaf-esque musical version of Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol, a haunting refrain which accompanies us throughout the film.

However, one is left asking what this book adds to Genet's masterful, erotic and bewildering Querelle de Brest (it is specifically noted that this is a film about Genet's novel, but for all intents and purposes it is an adaptation). Brad David is certainly attractive as Querelle; but to my mind he loses Querelle's vulnerability, and this could be a metaphor for the work overall. The strong presence of the abject in Genet's novel, of shit and stench and dirt, is transmuted into a Pierre et Giles vision in which dirt is only present when it highlights perfection. Genet's stylised dialogue sits oddly in (this) film, as do the highly stylised ritual fight scenes which stray into absurdity. Genet's heady fusion of the emotional, the erotic, the intellectual, the abject, of the slums and the ivory towers, becomes awkward; while any rendering of his unreliable and ever-shifting authorial voice, always a hallmark of his work, is not attempted. The decision to insert slabs of text between scenes (not, it should be added in fairness, in any way intended to further the plot) seems already an admission of failure to fully translate the work into its new medium.

Overall, then, I would class this work a failure, in that it transmutes Genet's complex work into little more than a piece of homoerotic kitsch; nonetheless, an interesting failure, when considered as a piece of more than usually complex, and visually arresting camp kitsch.


x-posted to cult_movie
2 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

Stephen O'Shea - The Perfect Heresy: The Life and Death of the Cathars (2000) [07 May 2007|09:00pm]
As someone whose field of study deals with the worst elements of human behaviour en masse, I often think that, much as I wouldn't want to be, I've become inured, at least to some degree, to the acts which people will perpetrate upon each other in the name not only of power, but of abstract ideology. This book was a reminder of how capable of being shocked and filled with incomprehension I remain.

TPH is perhaps one of the best-written works of popular history I've come across - by no means a doorstop, it reads easily and compulsively without losing its usefulness as a detailed historical account with useful academic references.

The narrative deals with the Cathars, a heretical Medieval Christian group, their ascendancy in Languedoc in what is now southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Crusades organised by the Pope to destroy them and, in the process, the region, and the aftermath of their destruction. This episode (now incorporated in works such as Eco's The Name of the Rose, and, lamentably, the mythology of works like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code) is fascinating for its exploration of Catharism, something like a mix between Protestantism and Eastern religions. This was a more-or-less dualist belief holding that life on Earth was in fact Hell, and that the material world was a creation of a dark force, identified with the false God of the Old Testament; and that, therefore, the Catholic Church itself, in its materialism and power hungriness, was an extreme manifestation of evil. Reincarnation eventually allowed the person who lived a good life to escape this Hell-as-earth. Cathar 'perfects' could be female as well as male, and renounced the material, including monetary wealth, meat, and sexual relationships; while 'credentes', or believers, were free from the restrictions placed upon individuals by the Church (sex only within marriage, the paying of tithes, the threat of excommunication, and so forth).

Understandably, Catharism (similar believers included the Bogomils in Eastern Europe, from whom the term 'bugger' eventually derives due to Church descriptions of their proclivities) gained a growing following, strongest in the Languedoc area. And this is where the subject begins to shape the present. Successive Popes, (the first, ironically, Innocent III, followed by Gregory IX) organised Crusades from Northern Europe to crush the Cathars and their regional strongholds. This included hideous mass mutilations, burnings, and the mass murder of entire towns. The Cathar wars shaped the states of Europe as we know them today, defining Languedoc as a part of France as it fell under Northern control, rather than, as could otherwise have been, an area incorporating Languedoc and Aragon in Northern Spain. The aftermath of the ultimate victory of the Catholic Church played out in the establishment of the Inquisition, and of both the Franciscan and Dominican orders; and, argue some, instituted the same 'persecuting society' in which we live today.

The senselessness of the wanton destruction and murder, the crushing of a relatively benign and culturally flowering feudal troubadour culture as well as a decentralised system of governance, and the chillingly relentless persecution of a sect which seems, to modern eyes light years ahead of other belief systems at the time, brings one to ask how anyone could believe that this would be what the biblical Jesus wanted, and to meditate on the fact that the content of systems of belief is not particularly important; the nature of human society ensures that they will be used for the same ends, that is the violent establishment of domination. Nonetheless, despite not being much of a Francophile, this book incited in me the desire to visit the landscapes over which the narrative roams; and so, as a reading experience, horror is tempered with romance and fascination. Recommended for anyone interested in the medieval period, in organised religion and dissent, in French or Western European history... or simply for a work which is at the same time edifying, horrifying, and fascinating.


x-posted to talkbooks
2 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

Essays On Dolls - Heinrich von Kleist, Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke (1994) [01 May 2007|09:27pm]
This slim volume, in Penguin's Syrens series, collects three essays: von Kleist's On the Marionette Theatre (1810), Baudelaire's The Philosophy of Toys (1853), and Rilke's Dolls: On the wax dolls of Lotte Pritzel (1913/14). It's a remarkable collection, demonstrating the casual yet weighty essay style which in our age has become the realm of the polemicist alone.

von Kleist's conversational, but dense, essay, concerns a master dancer's discussion of marionettes, dolls which are attached to those who manipulate them only by one string placed at the centre of gravity. The joy of these dolls, says the dancer, is that they are unselfconscious, free from affectation, and weightless. Grace (and here we see a confluence of divine grace, and gracefulness), argues Kleist, exists in opposition to thought. In the human form, it can only be reconciled in the inanimate (the soulless), or the divine (the infinite soul).

Baudelaire takes us from a childhood experience in a rich woman's fantasyland of toys, to a discussion of the way in which playing with toys is the first expression of abstraction and imagination (though Baudelaire excludes from this those children who 'merely' recreate adult situations - and here there is a certain misogyny in evidence in his scorn for female children playing at childish women - and also excludes 'men-children' who collect, rather than play with, their toys - a problematic argument, to my mind, since this might be read as a symptom either of anxiety or of possessiveness, but not, certainly, as a lack of creativity). But the ultimate desire of a child is to see the soul of a toy, and for this reason, at some time or another, the child breaks the toy. Just as playing marks the beginning of abstraction and imagination, so the failure to find the soul gives the first sensation of stupor and melancholy. And so, we might conclude, imagination and creativity are inextricably linked with disappointment and melancholy...

Rilke takes us to darker places yet. He begins with an examination of the dolls, made for artistic exhibition to adults, of Lotte Pritzel - these, according to Idris Parry, the editor and translator, were elongated, emaciated figures dressed in weird gauzy costumes suggestive of dance, decadence, and a Beardsley-esque atmosphere of eroticism and melancholy.



This is Rilke's introduction to his argument on the way in which dolls, in contrast to other everyday objects which gain by their integration into human life, are 'gruesome foreign bodies' on which our affection is entirely squandered, dense repositories of forgetfulness, so devoid of imagination that, at an age in which it was impossible to truly interact with other humans but only to lose ourselves in them, they can be used to establish distance between the self and the external world, as they become repositories for split or opposing parts of that self as it expands. But we rage at these creatures, because they do not need us, and we have wasted our affection on them (and the doll's lack of response gives us the lovely thought that silence confers considerable importance in a world where both destiny and God 'have become famous mainly by not speaking to us'). The doll helps the child become used to things; but it also inspires the first bitterness of wasted tenderness. Of all toys, the doll is soulless, or rather the self is uncertain whether the doll's soul resides in the self or in the doll; dolls have a quality of not being present. They are thus kept in existence only by a monumental mental effort combining anxiety and magnanimity, but we can never entirely detach ourselves from this experience of the uncertainty of the other, our desire to create them, our rage at the fact that they will never return what we gave in the spirit of expectations with which we gave it. And these adult dolls of Pritzel's? They are are dolls who have 'entered into all the unrealities of their own lives', have become an unnerving symbol only of the permanent sensuality of the doll, 'into which nothing flows and from which nothing escapes'.

These reflections on creation in our own image essentially concern the constructed nature of the self and the sensual, the physical, the material and its relation to the soul or the spirit. They inform our understanding not only of their subject but of works from Coppelia to Hans Bellmer's Doll, and the perennial fear of dolls and mannequins expressed in films from House of Wax to Child's Play. It's no coincidence that that most of the earliest examples of works of creativity are human forms, or that man made god make man in his own image...


x-posted to againstnature, strange_tears, talkbooks
5 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

Read (to) me... [29 Apr 2007|01:30pm]
Having determined to see a film in the German Film Festival, I went to see Grave Decisions (Wer Früher Stirbt, Ist Länger Tot), a cute and sometimes fantastic story about death and immortality, which follows Sebastian, a mischievous eleven year old boy whose discovery that he 'caused' his mother's death in childbirth kicks off a quest for immortality, with various misadventures along the way... while it was a fluffy comedy, it was beautifully made, well acted, funny, and, in the way that European comedies can be, lighthearted without being irritating or cliched (the tone, though not the subject matter, reminded me of The Closet and similar films).

And, since the pile of books I've read without having had the chance or the time to review is growing out of control, I thought I'd just do a quick roundup here.

John Lanchester - Mr. Phillips (2000)
I loved Lanchester's The Debt To Pleasure, so I approached MP apprehensively - but while it doesn't have the same refined nastiness which is one of my favourite things in a novel, it's still worthwhile. The story follows the eponymous accountant, who, rather than going to work, spends a day wandering around London, thinking about sex, and quantifying everything, while stumbling into various more and less dramatic situations. Lanchester has a gift for knifesharp observation of the minutiae of everyday reality which is apparent here - and the very English tone of the work, its workmanlike but Larkinesque language, the exploration of the bleak and sordid without being depressing, and of London as an environment - made it both an easy and an interesting read.

Maurice Gee - The Halfmen of O (1982)
Not, as you may think, a children's version of The Story of O - I seemed to remember this book from my childhood - but, sadly, it doesn't live up to the work of the New Zealand children's fantasy author who I most think of when I think of childhood reading, Margaret Mahy. It's not a bad work, but not entirely gripping - and the premise is problematic: that, in an alternate world, an act of power hungriness has divided human beings into those who are purely good and those who are purely evil. Not terrible, but disappointing.

Hilary Mantel - Vacant Possession (1986)
I love Bernice Rubens and Alice Thomas Ellis, so to complete the square of politely dark and nasty Thatcher-era English comedies of manners I needed Beryl Bainbridge, and Hilary Mantel. Vacant Possession is the story of Muriel Axon, unhinged and just released into society as part of the era of de-institutionalisation - with dangerous consequences for those with whom her former life had become entangled: Colin Sidney and Isabel Field. This novel is very much concerned with class, and no class avoids a satirical serve from Mantel's poison pen; its other concern is the nature of intimate relationships. I enjoyed the novel, though not as much as I do either Ellis or Rubens - and it gained momentum as the story unfolded and events folded together - my main criticism was the ending - I wasn't sure if it was intentionally ambiguous, or if my intellect wasn't up to understanding what had happened. Still, very much my kind of thing, and recommended to those who share my literary proclivities.

Catharine Arnold - Necropolis: London and its Dead (2006)
This work takes us through burial practice in London, from the earliest records to the present day. For the most part, however, we find ourselves in the pre-Victorian and Victorian eras, exploring a growing cultural obsession with death and burial and changes in discourse around these issues - and the gruesome consequences of the burgeoning field of medicine, and of the massive disparities in wealth which meant that the rich had a black couch and eight while the poor were thrown into huge, open mass graves to decay. Arnold's writing isn't perfect, which sometimes bogs down the narrative. However, her subject matter is easily interesting enough to hold the work, and to hold the reader's interest. A fascinating work of cultural history which not only explores the enthralling intricacies and historical trivia of death and dying, physically and culturally, but which also has a great deal to tell us about the more general nature of societies through its exploration of its subject.

Hubert Selby Jr. - Last Exit To Brooklyn (1964)
I hadn't read Selby, as I'd classed him, along with Bukowski and the Beats, as one of those substance-addled, masculinist chroniclers of alternative life who have little to offer anyone except the adolescent, or mentally adolescent, male. How wrong I was! While I often like my darkness with lashings of the fantastic, rather than grimy reality, that's been changing over the last few years with my growing interest in figures like Jean Genet, Lydia Lunch, and now Selby. The book is a series of connected stories, sometimes vignettes, treating the seamy sexual, narcotic, criminal underside of life in Brooklyn in the forties and fifties through a series of characters. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, spare but poetic, as is the dialogue and observation - and I must say, if it wasn't for this, the depressing and awful nature of the lives depicted would have had me closing the book long before. This is a work which in one sense is entirely located historically, but in another is still entirely relevant to and reflective of the dark underbelly of civil society - in particular, how its outcasts inflict their pain upon each other. It still reads like a paean, an indictment, and a slap in the face. I'll be reading more Selby - when I'm emotionally recovered.
2 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

John Kennedy Toole - The Neon Bible (wr. 1953; pub. 1989) [21 Apr 2007|11:18pm]
Before being given this book, I hadn't realised that John Kennedy Toole, who killed himself at the age of thirty-two, had produced anything other than the wonderful, rollicking black satire A Confederacy of Dunces; and the story behind the publication of that work (due entirely to the persistent efforts of Toole's mother, Thelma, after his death) seemed astonishing enough. In some ways, the publication of The Neon Bible was even more unlikely. Written when the author was only sixteen and located after the wildly succesful publication of Confederacy, due to a complicated but somehow appropriate set of legal circumstances stemming from the oddities of Lousianan inheritance law, Thelma Toole attempted, succesfully during her lifetime, to stop the publication of the work. We have reason, however, to be grateful that she was ultimately unsuccesful.

This is an entirely different work to Confederacy, and one which will not appeal to everyone who enjoyed that novel. It is in a certain sense a classic example of the American outsider bildungsroman, following the development of its protagonist, David, in a small Louisiana town in the period preceding, during and after the Second World War.

In the first place, it's astonishing to consider that this is the work of a sixteen year old. While at times this is clearer than others (for example, in the hasty, out-of-character, and temporally overconvenient events leading to the end of the book and David's departure from the town), overall it displays an emotional maturity and a use of language which bely the author's youth. To me, the work didn't have the narrative pull of Confederacy; but it's more of an exploration than a story, a work in which the town itself is a character in the same way that New Orleans is in Confederacy, and in the classic American tradition of the centrality of geographical location in fiction. This may also be understood as one reason for the novel's sombre tone; as in Confederacy, we are concerned with outsiders, the way in which they deal with their status as such through complex and shifting alliances and acts of acceptance and rebellion - and to be an outsider in a small town is a very different question from being an outsider in a big city. The depiction of the torments and vicissitudes of this life are moving without becoming a litany of cruelties in the manner of more recent 'loser literature'.

In its exploration of small town hypocrisy and the stifling of the individual and the outsider, particularly as regards Christianity, and in its quasi-gothic sense of place and spare, stilted, yet still eloquent language, TNB reminded me of works from Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood to Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw The Angel. The other great strength of the work, to my mind, is the character of Aunt Mae who, like the central characters in Confederacy, is a creation who lives and breathes in the imagination of the reader beyond the confines of the novel itself.

Overall, while it is evident that this is the work of a writer in the process of formation, it is a better book than many written by succesful adult authors; and one which can be given interesting multiple readings, both in light of Toole's life and Confederacy, and in the tradition of the obsessions of the American novel.


x-posted to talkbooks
1 stripe| thank you sir, may I have another?

Because... [16 Apr 2007|02:44pm]
When people ask me what I do, I expect their faces to fall and a brief awkward silence when I tell them I study genocide.

I'll ignore, for a moment, the possible nature of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the problematics of Elie Wiesel (as enumerated by Norman Finkelstein), and those of gendered language, to quote the following passage, which, selfish as it in some ways may seem (though I do believe that genuine care of the self, which is not the same as selfishness, is the best and only way to care for others), is to me the best summary of why I do what I do given the personal toll it extracts, and given my pessimism about the possibility of change:

One of the Just Men came to Sodom, determined to save its inhabitants from sin and punishment. Night and day he walked the streets and markets preaching against greed and theft, falsehood an indifference. In the beginning, people listened and smiled ironically. Then they stopped listening: he no longer even amused them. The killers went on killing, the wise kept silent, as if there were no Just Man in their midst.

One day a child, moved by compassion for the unfortunate preacher, approached him with these words: 'Poor stranger. You shout, you expend yourself body and soul; don't you see that it is hopeless?'
'Yes, I see,' answered the Just Man.
'Then why do you go on?'
'I'll tell you why. In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.'

-
Elie Wiesel, One Generation After.
2 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

Live through this... (Pet Shop Boys, Jarvis Cocker, The Pixies, V Festival) [07 Apr 2007|06:36pm]
It's been a gruelling two weeks of gigs, to which I have subjected myself in the name of edification and the pursuit of musical knowledge.

The unquestionable highlight was the Pet Shop Boys last night at the Hordern. I haven't been to the Hordern since my teens, but it's still more or less as I remember it - and since I was there with an absolute fanatic, I turned up at seven to get a place centre front, just behind the barrier. Now this, gentle reader, is something I don't usually do at gigs, because if there's one thing that makes me unable to concentrate on watching a band it's fear for my physical safety - but Pet Shop Boys didn't seem like it'd be that kind of environment, and it wasn't (now if only I could do something about all the people with cameras - whatever happened to good old fashioned memory?). They certainly know how to put on a show, complete with dancers, backup singers featuring the formidable diva Sylvia Mason-James, and even a giant dancing top hat to, ahem, top it all off. The thing the Pet Shop Boys do so well, and which few other bands manage, is the transition between the sublime and the ridiculous, between deep, heartfelt emotion, detached irony, self-reflexive as well as non-overtly-political satire, and silly hats.

Chris maintains his detached stance (despite a rather gorgeous yellow fluorescent hoodie - and I never though I'd call something fluorescent yellow gorgeous) behind the keyboards, while Neil, who gives off just the nicest vibe - you'd love to have high tea with him - is a still, anchoring presence, with a raised eyebrow and a half-smile, in the midst of the performance. The visuals also add a great deal to the work - I'm With Stupid, for example, which is not a favourite of mine, gains a new dimension with British and US flags splashed across a giant screen. And I got Flamboyant, my current favourite PSB track, which I'd been hoping for. But the absolute highlight was an understated, moving version of Rent.

The other solo shows I've been to, Jarvis Cocker and the Pixies, were both more mixed. Jarvis's new work is to my mind rather banal and forgettable - and seeing him live didn't do much to change my opinion on that score. On the other hand, it's Jarvis - you almost wish that he'd just abandon the music and do standup. His stylised dance moves have suffered not the slightest with age - and neither has his banter. Perhaps the most amusing moment was his interrogation as to the nature of Ipswich in Australia - which in one of his songs is used as an exemplar of a place you really, really wouldn't want to go (I don't think he quite realised the aptness of that in the Australian context...) Or, on the other hand, it could've been his interrogation of the pair of undies that was thrown on stage. And, dash it all, he's just so incredibly cute. Despite the musical blandness, I didn't for a moment regret going to the show (I would've liked some Pulp material, and could've done without the Springsteen cover - but I understand why he wouldn't want to play that, and cover-wise you can't win 'em all...)

If Jarvis was a larger-than-life personality but muscially bland, the Pixies were the obverse. Though the sound at the Big Top left a great deal to be desired, it was great to hear them - I was particularly excited that they opened with In Heaven, a cover of a song on the Eraserhead soundtrack, and I got the song I'd been hanging out for, Nimrod's Son, along with the majority of their other well-known work (although they've apparently disowned Bam Thwok, which I think is a shame, as I've decided that is actually a good song). But there just didn't seem to be much else happening - except for the dowdy Kim, who was a chain-smoking sweetheart, they simply stood on stage and played, which is something I don't like in a performance - and at times seemed fairly unrehearsed, as in the chaotic La La Love You. So, again, I wasn't sorry I'd gone - it's the Pixies, after all - but it did leave something to be desired.

And, finally, the V Festival, at which I saw all of the above and, well, the only other band I payed any attention to were Nouvelle Vague (even though they'd mistreated me by doing only a secret sideshow - but I hear they're coming back soon). Despite the utter inappropriateness of the venue for their loungey bossa nova covers of seventies and eighties alternative classics, they were a joy to watch, with their oh-so-French charm and a singer who was rather cute in that classically European, au naturelle way. The only thing I would've wished for is that they would've done some of the lesser known songs, which are my favourites of theirs - Sorry For Laughing, say, or Making Plans For Nigel - rather than a run through of the best-known songs they cover (Too Drunk To Fuck, Love Will Tear Us Apart, etc).

I haven't been to a festival for years, and though V had somewhat of an amateur-hour feel (you could tell that it's the first time it's been put on), it had a fairly laid back atmosphere - at least if, like me, you weren't drinking (the bar queues stretched halfway across the festival). But it reminded me why I dislike festivals - drunken yobbos in particular - and also of the way in which, for all my faults, I was raised with a communitarian consciousness. Doesn't the girl sitting on her boyfriend's shoulders ever think for a second that her pleasure is thirty other people's displeasure?

That aside, though, it was a fun and relaxed afternoon. Pet Shop Boys were spectacular, though I was glad I was going to the solo gig, as their set was essentially a best of; the Pixies (I only caught the end of their set) seemed to have it a lot more together, and with a lot better sound quality (which is saying something, given that it was outdoors); and Jarvis was, if anything, cuter than in his solo show, noting for example that Australian 'gobstoppers' wouldn't stop anything, except maybe a dog's arse - if it was cold enough...

So I now have, oh, two hours or so to breathe before I head out tonight to continue my unwonted live musical odyssey - not to mention what might be the last time I do the closing set at Ascension for some time... I was thinking of doing a 'greatest hits' of my closing sets, running through deathrock, oldschool industrial, and, of course, my signature eighties... but since I won't be drinking, don't expect Mickey or Belinda Carlisle. You've been warned that you don't need to be warned...
3 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

It's always a pleasure to have one's prejudices confirmed... [04 Apr 2007|02:09pm]
I wouldn't usually be so vulgar, but circumstances are sometimes demanding - and so, today's post is brought to you by the phrase 'no shit, Sherlock':

When God sanctions violence, believers act more aggressively

The use of Powerpoint presentations has been a disaster

Anyone care to join me in a chorus of 'told you so'?
5 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

All About My Mother ('Todo sobre mi madre', dir. Pedro Almodovar, 1999) [13 Mar 2007|11:29pm]
Ever since I've watched the wonderful Hable con ella ('Talk To Her'), the film which followed this one, I've been meaning to watch its predecessor, and I finally got around to it. While I didn't enjoy AAMM as much as TTH, I nonetheless enjoyed it a great deal.

The plot follows Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a single mother in Madrid. When her teenage son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) dies in a car accident, she heads to Barcelona to find his trans father (with whom she has had nothing to do in the intervening time), 'Lola' (Toni Canto). But in Barcelona, she becomes entangled with Agrado (Antonia San Juan), another trans and an old hooker friend; the actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Peredes), whose autograph Esteban was pursuing when he was killed; and Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a nun who works with prostitutes and the homeless.

Every major character in this film is either a woman, or is attempting to be one. Almodovar's take on women (in his later, more 'serious' films) is fascinating. His characters are rich and complex, light years from typical stereotypes of the female by the male; but at the same time, the cinematic gaze seems to objectify these bizarre and all-too-human creatures in an uncomfortable way. While there were moral ambiguities (as there should be), however, AAMM doesn't have the same level of sexual problematics as TTH (in which we sympathise with the rapist of a woman in a coma). But Almodovar forces the viewer, or at least this viewer, to forgive him his trespasses through the nuanced picture he represents, the compelling characters, and the sheer visual gorgeousness of his films.

The narrative of the film itself is bound up with two meta-narratives; All About Eve (which Manuela and Esteban watch together in the opening moments) and A Streetcar Named Desire (in which Huma Rojo performs on the fateful night of Esteban's death). And these reveal to us the theme of the story - that is, the nature of identity, as expressed in: the roles we play to hide the masks beneath and to recreate them in our own idealised image, and the role of narrative in doing so; the contorted nature of sexual/ity and gender identification; the inestimable and sometimes unexpected effects and affects of loss, whether past or anticipated; and the in/escapable ties of biology; honesty and trust, betrayal and bitterness, and the weird mixture they all form which we call a relationship (not necessarily of a sexual nature).

I had a few, relatively minor issues - particularly, I was almost disappointed to finally meet the mysterious, treacherous, gorgeous, insufferable Lola. And I didn't find the emotional impact hit me as deeply as it did in TTH (the only other of Almodovar's later work that I've seen); there was just a skerrick of the irreverent 'surface-ness', cartoonish or kitsch emotional tone, which suffuses his earlier films. But overall, the film was a joy (and a sorrow), a richly rewarding examination of the knowable-ness and the creation and destruction of identity, our own and that of the Other/s, and the relationship between the two.
2 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

The Notorious Bettie Page (dir. Mary Harron, 2006) [12 Mar 2007|08:34pm]
If you ever peruse my journal, gentle reader, you'll most likely be aware that I have little patience with the new cabaret and burlesque explosion - to my mind, the vast majority of the work (though not all) reeks of sexual objectification, gender segregation and slavering voyeurism under a new, trendy guise. So I wasn't actually planning to see this film - I only went because we'd decided to go to the cinema, and it was the film I least didn't want to see. But, although I usually think that knowledge of something will only spoil a firmly-held opinion about it, in this case I was glad I went.

The film, based mostly on Richard Foster's book The Real Bettie Page (which I haven't read), follows Bettie's life from her high-school years in the late 30s to her re-embrace of Christianity and the end of her modelling career. While it took a little while for this viewer to engage with the meaning of the character in the context of the film, Gretchen Mol does an excellent job as Page; while Lili Taylor almost steals the show in her supporting role as Paula Klaw (the famous Irving's sister) and there's a great turn from Cara Seymour (who was also fantastic in Hotel Rwanda) as Maxie, a fellow model.

Having seen it, I'm very surprised at the lacklustre critical reception the film has received. Watching it made me reflect on the way in which so many other film/maker/s are so determined, overtly or covertly, to influence the viewer's opinion on the subject matter in question, and in this sense are political (not that this is necessarily a bad thing). In contrast, Harron doesn't shy away from the misogyny of erotic modelling and fetish photography (though I did question the decision to cut away from the darkest moments of Bettie's life); but she also presents the fun which is to be had in the expression of sexuality (particularly if that's what you happen to do well, as Bettie notes at one point) and the hypocrisy of a prudish society. In this way, the film avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of contemporary left-liberal opinion on pornography, the way in which it often becomes a fruitless contest between two sterile positions emerging from the 60s and 70s: an anti-sensual, censorial approach which focusses on the (very real and important) misogyny and objectification of erotic and pornographic presentations of women, and an anything-goes (free-market) liberalism which sees any expression of sexuality as valid and empowering, no matter what the context. In this and other areas which the film explores (for example, the question of the impact on Bettie of personal, moving witness testimony claiming that her pictures led to individual suicides), the viewer is credited with the intelligence to make up their own mind - which is incredibly refreshing.

In a sense, Page functions as a kind of everyman or Candida (given the lack of explicit shots, no pun intended). Her travails expose the evil that men do (and they are men), but her optimism never fails; as in her wished-for acting career, she's a bright blank slate on which others write. However, this is by no means a simple tale of innocence corrupted. The contrast between the way in which Bettie is treated by pornographers, as opposed to the way she's treated by men in society at large, poses interesting and unexpected questions about the nature of exploitation. Bettie is perhaps not the brightest spark in the box, but she's a thoughtful person, and moreover, one whose innocence gives her, and thus the viewer, a very different perspective on the pleasures of erotica, pornography and fetish.

Nor is the depiction of Page motivation driven. I've been thinking about this issue recently - in realist film (or film with an element of realism), at least, I tend to feel dissatisfied if I don't feel that I understand the characters' motivations. But perhaps in a certain sense this is, or can be, a furphy - after all, in reality itself, people sometimes behave in ways which neither they nor others can account for on a psychological level; whereas fiction introduces a satisfying element of coherence - that, as Wilde pointed out (with a somewhat different nuance), is its meaning. In this way, the character 'Bettie Page' has an important role beyond realism, in a way which is self-reflexive in terms of film, and biography, as forms or media.

Visually, TNBP is a treat, featuring some interesting non-realist choices, including the contrast between a noir, black and white New York and an overcoloured, picture-postcard Miami Beach. And personally, I'd be satisfied just by the costumes and forties/fifties architecture and graphic design, which are all gorgeous.

Even in its final moments, the film maintains ambiguity. I was actually moved by Bettie's return to the arms of the Church (and, given my opinions, that's a tribute of the first order to the film); but at the same time, in her submission to God and His representatives, we see a parallel to the submission she's been forced to undergo at various male hands throughout her life. In many ways this is a tragic story - Bettie missed out on a scholarship to Vanderbilt University after skipping one class to attend a school play rehearsal, and we see her yearning for that particular road not taken. Her life, as depicted, contains catastrophe and evil enough, sometimes only hinted at in the film - while the spectre of the still-living, real-life Bettie, her bitterness, her battle to recover what was owed to her, her periods in mental institutions, hangs over the work and shadows it; but it doesn't feel like a tragic film.

Overall, I found this a work which was deeply thought-provoking on a number of different issues, and at different levels of discourse. The fact that Page is still alive and extremely resentful of the book on which the film is based (which she called 'a pack of lies') adds another dimension to the uncomfortable but complex and fascinating drama of morality and voyeurism which Harron presents, and raises further questions about the art of biography (to which I've been giving a great deal of thought since reading my way through Janet Malcolm's ouevre). I walked out of TNBP thinking it was a good and interesting film, but not a great one; but, on reflection, it deserves higher estimation. Recommended for anyone interested in morality, fetish, biography, pornography, feminism, voyeurism, religion, American society in the inter- and immediately postwar years... in other words, history, truth, art and the human condition.
3 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

R.I.P Jean Baudrillard [08 Mar 2007|11:16pm]
Baudrillard himself can now, ironically, become a hyperreal symbol based on no physical actuality (in a sense his recent process of withdrawal from his own work has come to its conclusion)... I wish him luck.

9 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

power in darkness [06 Mar 2007|10:36pm]
Our landlady has very particular ideas of what a garden should look like. Ours, which is made up mostly of paving with beds round the edges, should consist of single plants standing proudly alone, with about a metre of barren space between each one, and if it doesn't, she starts talking about 'the youth of today', which is more than any of us can bear (I'm not going to go into my theory about what our actions toward plants say about the human psyche, group or individual). So I spent the better part of yesterday out in the jungle which had grown up over the past six months or so, paying the price of scratches and splinters, but the reward of spending some Durrell-esque time with praying manti and other assorted fascinating minibeasts.

So she shows up today for fifteen minutes, glances over the place (though the garden did get an approving patronising 'good' - and then leaves a letter to say that she's putting the rent up by twice the amount of which she originally informed us. I can't help but feel I'm being punished for evoking my right to 60 days' notice and to a rent in keeping with prices in the area...

Which brings us to today's subject - need - through the roundabout path of unequal relationships.

Need motivates and inspires pity; but to what end? When there is a distance (and any kind of distance is good enough) between ourselves and that need the expression of need makes that need seem inevitable and just (as Susan Sontag points out in Regarding the Pain of Others, it's this that's the modern problem - not 'compassion fatigue').
But need is also disgusting, because it breaks down and destroys social niceties, which, despite what some may claim, exist for a very good reason. As Mary Douglas points out, the breaking down of boundaries is essentially a contaminating act; and so we're contaminated by being the object of the need of others. This is something we take into consideration in the expression of our own needs to others.

Some people find it pessimistic or depressing to conceive of social interaction as a constant flow of self-interested power negotiation, but I don't see why this should be the case if we think of self-interest as a universal precondition and power as a medium or a solution through which we act.

In any case, my latest read, Dennis Cooper's Frisk (oh, should I have started with Closer?), deals obsessively with insatiable need and very uneqal power relationships. People who know my tastes've been urging me to read Cooper for some time, finally resorting succesfully to lending me a few novels.

The plot, if the term's appropriate to a fluid semi-surreal narrative like Cooper's, follows 'Dennis' on his journey to gay serial-killer-hood, sparked off by a series of faked snuff photos he saw in his youth and becomes obsessed with. I liked the novel, and read it quickly, though it felt somehow a little thin, lacking in substance. Personally I'm a little over the serial killer thing (though we should recall that in 1991 it hadn't been so done to death, as it were), and I felt that, unlike other writers of the transgressive like Genet (who provides the epigraph) or Bataille, the abject bodily grue here was somehow meaningless in an unsatisfactory way - but perhaps that's the point, Easton Ellis-style. In any case, it failed to quite click for this reader. The closest reference point for me was the film work of Richard Kern with Lydia Lunch - the work shoves disgust and complete humiliation in the face of the audience and stares them down. There's also the nice, pomo author/narrator edginess as evidenced in the 'Dennis' character, a technique which doesn't let up in the final scenes. Overall, while I enjoyed Frisk, I found it a little lightweight in comparison to other notable works in a similar ouevre (Genet, Bataille, Burroughs, Selby Jr, et al). Closer's next on my list, though, so we'll see how the cumulative effect effects...


x-posted to talkbooks
6 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

Violence found not to beget more violence... [26 Feb 2007|06:28pm]
... in a shock twist, Violence sues Karamchand Gandhi for paternity rights.

I've long been convinced that the relationship between the depiction of violent acts in art, and the commission of violent acts, had a relationship which was much more complicated than a simple 'monkey see monkey do' which people whose intelligence I otherwise admire (Robert Manne, say) continue to use in their argument that pornography should be censored (in any meaningful sense, the argument of such people generally boils down to, 'I don't want to see it or know that other people do, so I have the right not to' - and in saying this I acknowledge the climate of hierarchical, forceful dominance which such depictions help to create - but, I'd argue, as symptoms, not as causes). In any case, while I've long argued that violence in art can have a cathartic effect, I didn't imagine that statistical research would actually demonstrate that violent films prevent violence. Don't believe me?


OLE IVAR LOVAAS, a doyen of child psychology, sat 10 preschoolers in a room and exposed them to five minutes of a cartoon wrestling match.

He then gave them baby dolls and watched (sure enough) agitated children tearing limbs off their little plastic friends. It was 1961 and public television was barely 10 years old, and yet Americans were already concerned about the behavioural effects of watching screen violence.

Since then 50 years of laboratory experiments and surveys have shown links between exposure to violent imagery and actual aggressive behaviour. A whole lobbying industry has grown to protect children from the psychopathic consequences of watching violence on TV.

But almost all the psychological experiments were in laboratory conditions, focusing on aggressive behaviour immediately after violent visual stimuli. The surveys reveal people who watch violence tend to be violent but do not prove that violence on the screen begets violence on the street.

Despite five decades of trying, researchers have not shown that watching violent films, television or video games causes aggressive or antisocial behaviour in the real world.

That is where two well-regarded American econometricians, Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna, saw an opportunity to observe a "natural experiment".

They pored over seven years of box office data to determine how many people had watched violent films on any particular day....Collapse )
2 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

Hopes: Double-Entry Tally As At 23.02.2007 [23 Feb 2007|07:52pm]
Raised by: Britney Spears beginning her transformation into the Marianne Faithfull of our generation.

Dashed by: my friend Alecia telling me that one of the events at fair day was hosted by gay cowboy Dave of Big Brother fame (yes, that was a shiver of disgust you felt, gentle reader) and 'some blonde girl' who turned out not only to be straight, but to have a husband/boyfriend in Iraq - and she then asked the audience to cheer for 'the boys in Iraq', which they did - and when Dave spotted Alecia and co. booing, he said, 'I know we all have our differences, but they're our boys out there and we have to support them'. This reminds me of last year's London Pride, which was absolutely wall-to-wall pink British flags (Australian flags were apparently rife at Fair Day too...) How anyone could think that this chauvinistic, place-at-the-table model could actually achieve anything for queers, I'm not sure...

Thus far: one all. Ennui time...
1 stripe| thank you sir, may I have another?

[21 Feb 2007|03:33am]
Everything looks good as an architectural scale model.
6 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

Notes On A Scandal (dir. Richard Eyre, 2006) [20 Feb 2007|10:57pm]
(warning: spoilers)


For the most part, I try not to see films based on books I haven't read. Once the mental image is lodged, it can't be unlodged... For NOAS, though, I made an exception, and I'm glad I did.

The film follows the relationship of Bathsheba (Cate Blanchett), a 'bohemian bourgeoisie' who inherited wealth and who has just entered her first year as an art teacher at a rough school, and Barbara (Iris Murdoch), a stern but lonely older woman, teacher at the same school. The two become friends; but Barbara accidentally stumbles upon a secret of Sheba's... how, to what end, and with what consequences she uses that information constitutes the subject of the film.

I very much enjoyed this film - I was never bored, it was politely nasty in the Jackson/Rubens/Ishiguro style which is perhaps my favourite tone, and there were some wonderfully funny lines. The dark, twisting plot and the acting carry the film - Murdoch outdoes herself and Bill Nighy is excellent as Sheba's much older husband, though I'm not entirely sure about Blanchett herself - her character feels a little underdeveloped, and I sometimes wonder whether the fact that she's so beautiful in such an atypical fashion for Hollywood means that one (at least this one) is distracted from the actual quality of her acting -and, face to face with Murdoch's heavily developed and (in many ways) quite unusual character, hers feels slight. But these three key performances carry the work.

That's not to say, however, that I didn't have quibbles. The film is based on Zoe Heller's novel of the same title, and that becomes very clear, inasmuch as the work is narrated by Barbara, in passages from her diary. This, to my mind, breaks the first rule of turning a novel into a film - it's lazy, making the narrative task much easier, but treating the audience patronisingly - in creative writing, perhaps the primary injunction is 'show, don't tell', and a narration is ultimately the latter, allowing sloppy characterisation at the cost of allowing the audience to develop, over time, their own guided understanding of the plans and motivations of the characters. The at-times thin characterisation, (of Blanchett's as opposed to Dench's character), also means that her actions and motivations don't quite ring true.

I also felt that the novel-film transition showed in the way in which we were not given to understand from whence the motivations and obsessions of the characters sprang, but rather expected to accept them as appearing, as it were, fully fledged, which was in turn problematic in the bigger issue of people's redeemability and inherent or chosen 'badness', or evil. In turn, this brings us to the distinction between the major characters - while they both commit ongoing, reprehensible acts against innocent, or at least naive, others, the (young, beautiful, straight) Sheba is redeemable, and, as the film progresses, it's played increasingly to her corner, unlike the (old, decrepit, lesbian) Barbara (and this is spelt out in the cliched horror-thriller ultimate scene).

Neither will this film disabuse anyone of their stereotypes about homosexuals - Barbara's character is depicted as lonely, lecherous and predatory (to say the least). The issue of representation is always problematic, for of course in life there are homosexuals exactly like this - so should this aspect of art-reflecting-reality be disallowed in the name of the destruction of stereotypes?

Finally, I felt that there were a few logical holes in the plot which were clearly necessary for plot development. Would people really commonly confide their secrets to a cold, forbidding person who gives little of herself? Would a secret diarist leave an intact page of a diary lying around in a bin, when the person who was the subject of that entry was living in the same house? Would a person familiar with the details of a scandalous story making its way through the tabloids fail to recognise one of the major players?

Overall, though, while the film would have been better had these weighty and not-so issues been resolved, the film in its success and failure certainly provided food for thought and for reflection, which is in itself positive (after all, there's no point discussing why an absolute stinker was bad - it goes without saying). And some issues about interpersonal relationships are very well explored here: the way in which you can love, dislike, resent and hate someone at the same time, without necessarily being aware of the contradiction or even the fact that a contradiction exists; the finer points of class mores and class envy, the pleasures of patronising and being patronised, and hypocrisy (at one point Sheba casually tosses off an invitation to Barbara to visit her and her family in the Dordogne over summer; when Barbara later refers to this, quoting her exact words back at her, Sheba tells her that 'of course she didn't really mean it' - and how many of these hypocrisies do we all commit in a relationship on an unequal footing, as all relationships ultimately are?); and the nature of loneliness in all its manifestations, and the individual's response to it.

While it's not a masterpiece, I'd definitely recommend this one as an interesting and entertaining, though flawed, piece of work. I'm looking forward to reading the book to see how much of the film was carried on the original plot and dialogue, and what has been added, altered or lost in order to recreate the work in the medium.
1 stripe| thank you sir, may I have another?

Quote for the Day 19.02.07 [19 Feb 2007|07:21pm]
'However unpalatable the fact, the real reason we have wars is that men like fighting.'

-Martin van Creveld, Transformations of War (1991).
thank you sir, may I have another?

Janet Malcolm - The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995) [17 Feb 2007|02:32pm]
Trevor Thomas was one of the last people to see Sylvia Plath alive – living in the same building, she came to his door in a crazed state a short time before her suicide. Malcolm closes with an interview at his house, which reveals him to be a compulsive hoarder, so filled with small objects that there is no free surface space whatsoever. Malcolm posits this house as: ‘a kind of monstrous allegory of truth … unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas’s house, the orderly houses most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless – as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life’. It is the task of putting such a house in order that she faces in her metabiography The Silent Woman.

I'm not sure exactly what made me pick up TSW. I'd read some of Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer in a non-fiction writing class, and I found the book interesting and nicely written, but studying it at the same time as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which I'm not at all a fan of, turned me off. Again, I used to love Plath in my mid-teens, but her melodrama and monumental self-obsession made me turn away - though I've recently rediscovered just how good the best works are. But I've never read a biography, or particularly wanted to; the 'cult of Plath' always seemed a little sad to me.

Still, TSW isn't a biography as such (although the material that’s presented does allow the reader to form her/his own view of Plath and Hughes as individuals), but rather a ‘metabiography,’ a study of the art and artifice of biography, using the ever-controversial Plath as an example. The slim work (I read it in two days) revolves around Plath herself; Ted Hughes; Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister and for many years fierce guardian of Plath’s estate; Anne Stevenson, dissatisfied author of the Plath-estate-authorised bio Bitter Fame; and Al Alvarez, a writer, journalist and estranged friend of Plath and Hughes. Malcolm’s main concerns in the book are the use made by Olwyn of her in-all-but-name ownership of the Plath-Hughes archives; as well as her manipulations of every biographer who comes to her to use the archive in order that they not show Ted in an unflattering light; and the choice by Ted of what material to censor in the published versions of The Journals and Letters Home. Malcolm is concerned with the effect all this had on the publication of Plath biographies, the rise of the ‘cult of Plath’ (Olwyn calls her enemies, who’d depict a tragic, heroic Plath and villainous Hughes, the ‘cultists’) and the public perception of Plath, her life and work.

There is a mass of work on Plath, published and unpublished, fiction, poetry, journals, letters, and recordings, residing in various different hands, which have often been reluctant to allow access. Despite this, there being money in publishing books and articles on Plath and Hughes, there are a great many biographies. Malcolm looks at Stevenson’s ‘authorised’ Bitter Fame (which Stevenson considered not attaching her name to, after Olwyn’s persistent interference and Stevenson’s final backdown to many of her demands); the universally despised, working-class Edward Butscher’s anthology of personal recollections of Plath; Paul Alexander and Ronald Hayman’s ‘meanspirited’ works, Rough Magic and The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (respectively); Jacqueline Rose’s postmodern/poststructuralist interpretation of Plath through her work in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, which outraged Hughes by its frank discussion of Sylvia’s putative androgynous or homoerotic sexuality (with her usual sharp perspicacity, Malcolm points out the contradiction between Rose’s claim to ethical right to free use and interpretation of information as far as her own Plath work is concerned, with her refusal to give Malcolm permission to publish a publicly-censored passage from one of Ted’s letters – which he later gave her permission to use).

Malcolm dissects the different biographies of Plath, and interviews biographers, Olwyn, and other connected figures. Her style is absolutely beautiful: highly critical; sensitive to the minutiae of meaning in language, and to small, seemingly irrelevant details which can be read symbolically or metaphorically; understated; impartial in her consciousness of her own partiality (I couldn’t help thinking that Janet Malcolm is what Helen Garner might aspire to if she didn’t let her monumental ego get in the way); concise yet literarily beautiful; sympathetic and completely honest but at the same time always slipping the knife in gently before twisting. Stylistically I’m reminded of politely nasty writers like Shirley Jackson, Bernice Rubens, Alice Thomas Ellis, or a less contorted Kazuo Ishiguro. The questions which concern Malcolm, however, are those of ‘truth’ mediated through biography. Who owns the past? Who should (Hughes writes of the inconvenience posed to biographers by the fact that he’s still alive, as are Plath’s children, when she is forever frozen in stone at 30)? What’s more interesting to a reader, or more valuable as a record, a biography by a biographer which attempts impartiality, or an impassioned memoir full of flattery or grievance from a personal acquaintance? Who owns someone’s words once they’ve been spoken, and does that ownership change depending on whether they’ve been recorded and in what medium, and whether that recording was made with the subject’s knowledge? Does an individual have a right to censor her/his own past, even if s/he is not the owner of the recorded material in question?

In the time since the publication of TSW the Plath industry has had some huge revelations: Hughes’ Birthday Letters, the first breaking of his silence on Plath in the written form; a biographical film starring Gwyneth Paltrow (!) (I couldn’t bear to watch it); the publication of a poem, Mother, by Frieda Plath, who accused the filmmakers of profiteering from her mother’s death (to my mind the poem was cringeworthily derivative of her mother’s work); the publication of the ‘fictional biography’ Sylvia and Ted, by Emma Tennant, once Hughes’ lover; and the first biography of Assia Wevill, for whom Hughes left Plath and who would also kill herself, along with her daughter, in 1969. I’d love to know what Malcolm would make of this material.

In TSW Malcolm has produced a profound and fascinating meditation upon the nature of truth, memory, and history; upon the art of writing and of biography, with particularly refreshing examination of the authorial presence itself. And it is also, of course, a fascinating story about the suicide of a poet and her circumstances (the nature of her romantic life, relationships between England and the United States, and so on), and the way her person has reverberated through discourse, both that of those who knew her and those who would know about her, ever since. It also provides food for thought about the way one conducts one’s own life; certainly I’ve been more cagey about anything I express, particularly in any recorded form, than I was before I started reading this work.

In the end, Malcolm cannot resolve her own dilemmas in this work; as a metabiographer, she too is caught in the snares of her own subject position (as she wrote in TJ&TM, ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.’) But she makes it her job to carefully unpick and lay bare each strand of the web in which she as the authorial voice is just as entangled as those she interviews were in their own works; and it is this which differentiates Malcolm’s approach to (meta)biography and makes TSW such a deeply disturbing yet beautifully crafted and fascinating work.


x-posted to talkbooks
3 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

You might think so, gentle reader... I couldn't possibly comment. [10 Feb 2007|09:38pm]
Ian Richardson has died, unexpectedly, but gently, in his sleep, at the age of 72. For me, Richardson will always be Francis Urquhart in the BBC's wonderfully sinister House of Cards series.



Vale.
5 stripes| thank you sir, may I have another?

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